A Travellerspoint blog

New Zealand: Franz Josef; Homeward Bound

Coming Home

rain 10 °C
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John:.....The Indian tourism ministry has, as its current slogan 'Incredible India'. 'Indelible India' would serve just as well. We have been back in New Zealand for three weeks now and are still full of the sights, sounds, smells and tastes of the sub-continent. Hopefully over the next few weeks India will take a step back and allow some of the other amazing places that we visited come forwards to join it.

By the end of the 12 months of our trip it was time to come home. We knew it, felt it and the bank balance showed it. We climbed aboard the QANTAS flight to Singapore and left hot, wet, overcast, monsoony Mumbai on the first leg of our journey home. This first plane had lots of Indian people on board but on our second and final flights the proportions changed. It felt like a 3 stage transition from the foreigness of India to the familiarity of Australasia. A short stop in Singapore gave us a chance to stroll about the vastness of Changi Airport, affording us glimpses of things and names we hadn't seen (but not necessarily missed) for some time: Burger King, The New York Times, The Tie Shop, Mojo...and as we waited at the departure gate for the next flight, to Sydney, we realised that we were part of a majority group again rather than a minority...a strange feeling.

The flights were unremarkable with 'straight-down-the-middle' QANTAS service and one great movie 'Invictus' telling the story of Nelson Mandela and Francois Pienaar (Springbok skipper) in the lead up to the South Africa Rugby World Cup. I must confess to a prickling of the eyes watching the film (and am I alone in thinking that the South African national anthem is one of the most stirring national anthems around?).

At Sydney Airport I took a few minutes out to put on my All Blacks shirt, carried for a whole year just to wear for this last leg of the trip. Before long we were on the Sydney to Christchurch flight with just one small Indian family remaining from the large cohort that left Mumbai with us. We departed from an overcast, cold Sydney and dozed through the mundanity of the trip across the Tasman Sea. Waking just before siting land, we saw the clouds clear and the sky turn the colour of lapis lazuli. The West Coast of New Zealand's South Island stretched out below us. We were able to see right down the coastline as far as Okarito and in front of us the glistening white peaks of the Southern Alps. On the port side, the Waimakariri River silver snaked its braided way through the mountains towards the polite, ordered, geometric farmland of the Canterbury plains. We had seen many magnificent things and places on our travels and this was up there with the best of them. We came home as we had left, in awe of the beauty of the place where we live and deeply moved by the 'welcome home' from our mountains, rivers and plains. Reliving the moment as I am writing causes the hairs on my arms to stand up (but that might just be the cold).

Anticipating a lengthy discussion about our souvenirs with the Ministry of Agriculture people, we were surprised by our speedy exit into the arrivals hall, ears full of the 'welcome home' comments from the immigration and customs staff. We spilled through the door and met Gemma, our next generous host, before driving around the city to the Cashmere Hills; a long way from the Kashmir Hills that we had been so near to just a few weeks previously.

Our first impressions on arriving home centred on the space and cleanliness of the city. We had not been in such uncrowded surroundings for a long time and where was the litter, the cows in the street, the car horns, the homeless people, roadside food stalls,...the clammer and congestion?

We busied ourselves with the inevitable tasks....buying a car, fridge, washing machine, redirecting post and arranging for all our belongings to be moved back to Franz Josef. Going through our treasures that we had been posting back throughout our travels. Reconnecting with our friends from Christchurch and catching up on news from Matt and Gemma (their help with receiving post, managing bills, checking our stored items, receiving and storing parcels from overseas was invaluable, thank you) and so on.

Packing up our belongings to move back to 'the coast' was a sizeable task. Southways Removals' maestro 'Milky' turned up as we hauled our now buckling cardboard boxes from the storage unit out to him whilst he created a magificent mosaic, a real work of art, along the front bulkhead of his truck. He looked remarkably fresh at the end of the exercise while we felt the need for a good lay down. It's not often you come across an artist of Milky's abilities. He is, I understand, a legend amongst the furniture removal packers of the West Coast and it was a privilege to labour for him!

Our drive to Franz Josef was less fraught than the reverse journey 12 months ago; no snow on the road and all our adventures behind us. We paused briefly at The Sheffield Pie Shop for some excellent steak pies to take home. Another indication of being home was the pair of young lads from a local farm, each the size of a junior prop forward, one dressed in his red and black Swanni, calling in for two steak and cheese pies each 'to eat now'. No doubt fuel for the afternoon's footie match.

We had a great drive through a very cold but snow-free Arthur's Pass and enjoyed the opportunity to revel in the alpine scenery of the South Island on a clear crisp day. The first glimpse of the Tasman Sea after coming through Kumara Junction and turning left along the coast, pausing at Hokitika for some shopping and then down the coastline, through bush and rain forest; snowy mountains to the left and all our personal belongings somewhere in front of us in a truck driven by a man called Graham.

Graham was already unloading on the driveway (Milky might have waited until we got there) when we arrived at our house. Franz Josef having been uncharacteristically rain free for 2 weeks this wasn't a problem. The house was warm and we were welcomed with flower arrangements on the table and a big banner saying 'WELCOME HOME JACKIE AND JOHN, WE MISSED YOU'. What a great community to come home to.

And now we have been back at work for a couple of weeks. It can still take the best part of an hour or so to buy a bottle of milk as we catch up with friends from Franz Josef. Nobody looks bored with our stories yet but we are conscious not to overdo it!

We are indebted to many people and realise that without them our adventures would have been all the poorer or even not happened at all. Family and friends, professional colleagues and the kindness of strangers have all played a huge part. Thank you.

The blog has come to the end of this part of its life. It has been an unexpected pleasure to write it and, at 21 600 visits to this site I hope it has been useful and interesting to read. My remaining job is to correct the typos, spelling mistakes and grammer before the final print off.

If you have been on our journey with us through reading this blog, thank you for your company. I hope you enjoyed the trip.

Posted by JohnandJac 16:44 Archived in New Zealand Tagged round_the_world Comments (0)

India: Mumbai and Aurangabad

The final countdown

semi-overcast 35 °C

John:....and so, our departure from New Delhi and goodbye to Matt and Amanda, our amazingly generous hosts and New Delhi guides. Without their accomodation, good company, air conditioning units and advice, our stay in India would have felt very different. Thank you.

We left New Delhi via the Indira Gandhi International Airport. We were driven there by our excellent driver in New Delhi, Buphwindar Singh, aka 'Happy'. Like so many young men in Delhi he was working here whilst his young wife, a school teacher, was working far away. His wife was working at their home town near Amritsar, a 9 hour drive away. A lovely gentle guy, he was easily the best driver we have had in India. No excessive use of the horn, no aggressive driving but an unfailing ability to find his way through the chaotic New Delhi traffic. A proud Sikh, beturbaned in blue and with a steely glint in his eye (he could easily seek out eye contact with the driver 5 cars away that he already knew was going to try and cut him up) when driving, he was one of those people who instill confidence in you, an important quality on the roads of India. He had recently taken delivery of his own long awaited Maruti-Suzuki air conditioned taxi that was, within 2 weeks of arriving, hit in the side by another car. We rang for a lift and Happy had to send his friend to collect us....'Lucky' was his chosen name. Fortunately Happy managed to get his old car back for our last trip to the airport...he protested that on this occassion we should pay no fare...

'If it isn't late it isn't Indian' is a slogan I propose to offer to the Indian tourist ministry. The plane was late arriving from monsoon hit Mumbai and so we were just over an hour late leaving New Delhi flying up through very turbulant air; Delhi disappearing from view as the colours went through a rapid sepia change. Viewed through the pollution and developing dust storm it looked like a place in an old photograph before it disappeared from view altogether. The only entertainment was watching the Indian passengers enjoying the opportunity to take it in turns to press the 'help' button to get the cabin staff spinning around carrying out inconsequential tasks. An otherwise uneventful if very bumpy flight saw us arrive safely in Mumbai and get delivered to our hotel in the Dadar East district.

It poured down throughout our journey from the airport and the puddles in the roads turned to small toxic lakes. It was clear that Mumbai had a very different feel about it from New Delhi. Not just the difference between being drought stricken and being monsooned upon, but the difference between an administrative capital (New Delhi) and the commercial centre (Mumbai). In truth we weren't in Mumbai that long but there is a Maharastran 'regionalism' that doesn't have an equivalent in New Delhi. All that aside we really enjoyed our time in Mumbai but before exploring the city we left for three days.

We took the 6 hour train journey to the city of Aurangabad, north-east of Mumbai. Named for, and once home of, Aurangzeb, son and imprisoner of the builder of the Taj Mahal, his town is a rather dull and dour place. His father's legacy is one of the world's architectural wonders whilst present day Aurangabads's architectural highlight is the electricity sub-station on the outskirts of town. Our reason for the long trip was not to explore the (well) hidden delights of Aurangabad but to visit the UNESCO World Heritage Site listed temples, monasteries and schools at Ellora and Ajanta.

On separate days we visited the 'cave' temples and monasteries at Ellora and Ajanta. I had developed a case of 'colonic quickening' and consequently a restless night. A great time to develop 'Delhi Belly', just after arriving in Mumbai. The difficulty in tracing this back to any one source was clear to me; so many possibilities but only one (well rather a few as it happens) 'outcome'.

We had never heard of either of these sites before arriving in India. These magnificent places are a mixture of Buddhist, Hindu and Jain temples carved into the sheer rockface of a river valley. The use of some of the temples overlapped, showing that for about one hundred years, showing a considerable degree of religious tolerance in the region. Unfortunately Aurangzeb set about changing things as the Moghul Empire began to flex its muscles.... the acts of vandalism by the new Moghul administrators were huge in scale; many of the heads and limbs chopped off the carvings and sculptures as the religious tolerance that had permitted the practice Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism simultaneously was diminished and Islam became dominant in the northern part of India.

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Fortunately for us, all that which remained was truly beautiful. We have only once (Valparaiso) been disappointed by the excellence of the many UNESCO World Heritage Sites we have visited. Ellora and Ajanta were magnificent. The scale of the work, the detail of the carvings and the vision of undertaking such projects that, in some cases took hundreds of years to complete all truly awe inspiring.

As with a number of places that we have visited, the magnificence of these places hasn't translated well onto our photographs, some of which will be appearing in the gallery over the next few days. Flash photography is, quite properly, forbidden inside the temples and the entrances, in the main, aren't too dramatic. To be in these places is very special however. We visited them over consecutive days on a weekend and felt rather like film stars as people came up to us asking us to pose for photographs with their families and friends. Nothing to do with being famous, just that we were 'white' and different. Goodness knows what they do with the photos afterwards!

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A great description of the caves, together with photographs can be found through the link

http://www.pilgrimage-india.com/west-india-pilgrimage/ajanta-ellora-caves.html

...with even more in Wikipedia if you search 'Ellora' and/or 'Ajanta'

Each photo encounter with Indians is followed with a conversation that invariably starts with the question "Where are you from?" on answering "New Zealand" we get a really positive response followed by a full listing of the New Zealand cricket team. When I ribbed some of them by saying that we have just signed Sachin Tendulkar to play for us there is usually a look of horror. The man is reveared here, above any other single person, not just for his unearthly cricketing ability but also for his humility and the way he uses his influence to do good things. A great role model for young Indian men, especially when so many other malignant influences are circulating around them.

Our guide around the temples at Ellora was Sandeep, maybe 65 years old but seeming much older after years of heavy smoking. His guiding style was that of a man who had been engaged in this work for 28 years or more. He was so confident in his discreet body of knowledge that he was comfortable taking questions out of sequence or basing his answers to our feeble questions about Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism or some other theme, on our visits to other monuments and places in India and South East Asia. Sadly, for him, he was unable to climb steps to some of the higher temples so he would load us up with information about what we would see and what it meant before sending us off or up to take photographs. On turning back we would see a small cloud of cigarette smoke rising above his henna'd head. A great guide; the sort you feel you could spend a lot more time with. Unfortunately his guiding days are numbered as more and more of India's official historic sites provide excellent, but inflexible, audio-guides and the money previously directed into the local community by paying for the human guide goes north to Delhi through the fees for the audio-guides.

The peculiar sights of India continued here as we drove through the villages and townships, soaking up our last glimpses of Gandhi's India. This rural heartland is the India of old, punctuated with a few modern confections like small motorbikes or Coca Cole signs over the tiny shop but even to these modern eyes it is the modernity that looks out of place here. It is the oxen and carts, shoeless people, sarees, terracotta pots and facial jewellery that look as if they belong here. Even the horse with its mane dyed with henna, and the bulls with blue and red or Indian tricolour painted horns looked more at home than the man with Nike trainers on his feet.

We left for Mumbai on the 06:00 train which, uncharacteristically, departed and arrived on time. The short ride to our hotel was in a taxi, badly treated by rust and low impact encounters, driven by two young Sikhs looking for somebody who could change a 1000 rupee note so they could get some beer from the beer shop that 'didn't have any change'. We said that we would love to be able to help but sadly etc etc.... Not put off, they discussed the merits of spin bowling and listed all the players in the current New Zealand cricket team.

We had one full day in Mumbai site-seeing. Where to start?! We had a list of places we wanted to see and a good driver, Mr Shaikh. We had to adapt our plans a little as several of the galleries we had planned to visit were closed. So we began by going to the Gateway of India, built as the grand entrance to the city for royalty and celebrities of empire arriving by sea. Across the road from here the majestic Taj Mahal Palace Hotel where we had promised ourselves coffee and croissants. Before that we wondered around the Gateway looking out at the queues of ships lining up to load up or unload at Mumbai's busy docks.

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Immediately around us people were busy inviting us to see temples, palaces or else give them money or food. We declined the former straight away as we had completed our temple and palace quota. When we tried to help with the latter we found ourselves being led to a small dark alleyway. Already alert to this possibility we detached ourselves from the young woman with small baby, noticing the very large man down the road talking to another young woman with regulation issue baby. Clearly an organised activity and we easily avoided becoming victims in it but one to watch for if you are visiting The Gateway.

My Dad had visited Mumbai, or Bombay as it was, back in the late 1940s so I was keen to visit some of the landmarks he had been to. Unfortunately the ballroom next to the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel was closed some years ago (turned into a club/disco called 'Insomnia' and complaints about the noise caused its demise) but the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel...

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...was a gem. The young front-of-house manager Viren, on hearing about Dad, went out of his way to show us places to take photos of features that wouldn't have changed since the 40s as well as supplying us with postcards and a DVD telling us of the hotel's history (in the post Dad). Considering that we were just rather scruffy travellers stopping only for a coffee and sticky bun this young man showed his class by sparing no effort to show us around this impressive establishment. Unlike some of the rather anonymous 5 star establishments around the place this hotel was full of character and history. The Sea Lounge looked out over the busy shipping lanes just off the sea front (the second liquor license awarded in India bwas to The Sea Lounge). Recently fully restored after the shocking events of the terrorist attacks on 26/11 where a number of hotel staff died trying to protect hotel patrons, the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel is, appropriately at the heart of this part of Mumbai.

We visited The National (Mumbai) Gallery of Modern Art (fine exhibits, indifferent staff), the excellent cafe above 'Fabindia' but by now we were thinking about the next day, our journey home to New Zealand. We finished our trip around Mumbai with a cold beer/tonic in Leopold's Cafe, star of the Shantaram book and linked to the Taj Palace Hotel by being attacked in the 26/11 terrorist raids. Its rather anonymous looking frontage belying its place in Mumbai's history..

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... The waiter patiently and smilingly talked about the book Shantaram, the cafe's part in the book and its history....another great but humble place to finish our travels. We drove back to our hotel, past the naval dockyard and the Lion and Cheetah gates where I wondered if my Dad had strode through them on his way for some shore leave, past the enormous naval mural painted on the dockyard wall and on through the congestion of Mumbai's traffic slowly grinding its way past the wonderfully eclectic architecture of the Victoria Station, the bicycles, rickshaws, trucks; past the young families living under freeways, the shopfronts with tailors....

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..... running up suits on sturdy little Singer sewing machines, through the litter, past the street cows and a breast feeding woman in a shop doorway...through the impromptu market near our hotel as the security man in his sharp uniform snapped out a razor sharp salute to welcome us back to an hour or so of packing our bags.

Our last meal in India was at the fittingly named 'The Great Punjab' where we feasted on Dahl Makhani and Tandoori Chicken, hot rotis and crystal cold Kingfisher beer. Great Indian food with great Indian service.

We left for the airport first thing in the morning. Too early for breakfast at the hotel and, as it turned out, too early for breakfast at the airport. I could buy my body weight in single malt whisky, cigarettes and after shave but not, it turned out, a piece of toast and a cup of tea. Jackie filled in a section of the 'customer satisfaction survey' that looked like the structure for somebody's PhD submission and was clearly meant to intimidate whilst I began to fill in the three forms required to change my few remaining rupees into dollars...in the end it was easier to give them to charity. Incredible India.

The next posting will be the last one for this blog. We are now back in Franz Josef Glacier, back at work and enjoying our small but perfectly formed community in this small piece of paradise. This has been a fabulous trip and the next posting will tell of our arrival home in New Zealand, first to Christchurch and then across Arthur's Pass to South Westland. Until then lots of love and best wishes to family and friends (and happy birthday Mum).

Posted by JohnandJac 20:57 Archived in India Tagged round_the_world Comments (0)

India: Rajasthan

The Epic

sunny 38 °C
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John:.... The Rajasthan posting was always going to be in two parts. Unfortunately the information super-highway in the Great Thar Desert is more of an information camel track, a little fragile and disappearing under sand at times, so instead this posting will be Rajasthan: The Epic. Order a chicken tikka or butter chicken (or a paneer kebab for the vegetarians) take away with a plain roti or two, put on the sun lamp, turn the oven onto full and leave the door open, scatter some sand on your carpet and I will do my best to describe this extraordinary two week trip through north west India.

Leathery skin, white cotton shirts and trousers, men in traditional clothes as well as the women, camels, scrubby little trees and red: really deep red, turbans, red chillies, cinnamon, red and saffron coloured saris. Big snow white bushy moustaches and eyebrows on dark brown faces, and dry 'boney' desert. Not the swirling romantic desert of North Africa with towering sand dune seas but the scrubby, gritty, cruel, hard desert of North West India. We have been in Rajasthan, land of Maharajas and their Maharanis, princes, palaces, huge wealth, massive sandstone forts, camels, temples, battlegrounds, loyalties and alliegences, treachery and hard, bloody history.

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We left on our penultimate excursion from Delhi by car. We were collected by a slightly over eager Arif, our driver in Agra, (see earlier blog and photo below) who had phoned at 06:00 for directions to the apartment. We soon left the capital city behind, heading south-west to the ancient city of Jaipur. From there our route over the next 14 days took us north west to Mandawa (a rather sullen, grimey, crumbling, overnight stay kind of town) and then west to Bikaner before the long drive to Jaisalmer, the last place of any significance before the (currently closed) border with Pakistan. From Jaisalmer we drove south to Jodhpur and finally across to Udaipur before flying back to New Delhi on the early morning flight.

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With a delicious irony, the first rain we have experienced in the 8 weeks since we left Luang Prabang in Laos fell as we entered the edge of the Great Thar Desert. Several 'failed' monsoons over the past few years have made for a fairly miserable experience, especially for farmers scratching out a living on the edge of the desert. This pre-monsoon rain was both unexpected and gratefully received. Hints of rain had been around for a couple of days but the rain that finally broke through was BIG rain. Having had only a few years, since the last serious rain, to ensure that the drains were clear, flooding quickly ensued right across our route. Roads were blocked or washed away, roofs poured water through them and lakes developed in towns and villages. The ever resourceful Arif found alternative routes and we completed our itinerary as planned. For us the good news was the accompanying fall in temperature, down nearly 10 degrees to the the mid 30s at first.

Leaving New Delhi on the multi-lane freeway was to experience, at first hand, the Indian drivers' response to the tight regulation of a motorway/autobahn type road. As with any other road in India there are many rules and regulations. As with any other road in India these are widely disregarded. Policemen with big sticks stand by, idle, as major infringements go on right in front of them. Trucks are grossly overloaded, driven by young men either artificially pumped up or half asleep through tiredness. The drivers' poor wages are supplemented by picking up passengers along the way for a few rupees where they sit on the grain, wood, gravel or whatever else the load is.

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The thirty-seater public transport buses (Blue Line Buses) with fifty people inside and another ten either on the roof, rear bumper or footplate, look badly beaten. Like some post apocalyptic iron transport beast, the buses have bits of panels either hanging off, disrupted or badly welded back on looking like the scars from some particularly savage street fight. Their front grills are propped open with sticks to let a little more superheated desert air pass over the radiator to try and cool the badly overworked engine. These overcrowded buses and trucks are often implicated in road accidents with predictably high casualty numbers. Tyres are worn almost treadless and the brakes have broken long ago.

Passing the trucks and buses on the freeway was an art and Arif seemed instinctively to know if passing on the inside or outside (or indeed leaving the road completely) was the most sensible thing to do. On a couple of occasions we had to change to plan B after the route through was closed down by a truck drifting across lanes. We passed a few places where trucks and buses were being repaired or given the last rites. Blown tyres replaced, bonnets open to let some volcanic liquid out...some had literally toppled over due to the excess load they carried.

After a while the road thinned down to two lanes then one lane each way. Eventually a single lane of tarmac and rough dirt road along side had Arif set the horn to 'sustain' and made for some 'interesting' maneuvres with oncoming trucks and buses. Camel power became increasingly evident. Dromedary camels here, pulling big carts with lorry axles and tyres sashay along the road chewing something sour judging by their facial expressions, while their drivers sit on the cart contemplating the nature of existence.

Each of our destinations, except for Mandawar, has the classic Rajasthan combination of temple, palace, fort. I hope that doesn't sound too flipant; each place has been spectacular and Udaipur, our last stop was a victim of the magnificence of Jodhpur. Under other circumstances Udaipur would have been a remarkable place to visit and we still saw many fine things....but I am leaping ahead of myself.

We arrived on the outskirts of our first stop, Jaipur, at a town called Amber, and above us the first of the Rajasthani forts and palaces. Three forts in fact and dramatic fortified walls with castellations and bastions climbing up the steep hillsides from the road. Arif stopped to restock the drinking water supply and purchase some ice from the market before we drove into town, past the Water Palace, to our hotel. Apart from the heat, there were advantages to travelling here at this time of year. Very few tourists in the region meant that it was uncrowded and possible to negotiate very good deals for accomodation.

In the early 20th century the Maharaja had the town painted pink (hence Jaipur is known as The Pink City), the Hindu colour of welcome, to mark the visit of his good friend King Edward VII. The custom has continued and the old city is painted pink to this day. That which isn't painted pink is naturally pink from the local sandstone.

Our first drive into the streets of Jaipur showed the city as a bustling, overcrowded place with cracked and crumbling infrastructure. The old and the new sit side by side and as with other places in India it is sometimes hard to tell them apart. We began by visiting the observatory, started in the early 18th century which consisted of over 20 structures and large instruments for measuring and charting astronomical phenomena and a reminder of India's impressive history as a place of science as well as arts and philosophy.

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The City Palace was truly splendid, full of the artifacts of the royal family and, like the observatory (and most of the subsequent palaces and forts, still owned and run as a charitable trust by the current Maharaja).

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Jaipur provided us with our first experience of the Rajasthan bazaars. As old as the town itself and still the noisy, chaotic seeming world of barter, deals, chatter and pleading ("it's free to look sir, ma'am", "where you from....aah, kiwi?") we quietly strolled along, staying out of the midday sun as much as possible. Bangles, silverware, fabrics and camel skin goods jostled for space with each other and on the roadside displays of aubergines and cucumbers, mangoes, tomatoes and beans added to the chaotic colour scheme all around us. A stroll back down the narrow lanes just one block back from the main road was a walk back in time. The signs in English disappeared and Sanskrit became the written language of choice. The cows grazed on the rubbish piles and goats and pigs seemed at home as well.

Our lunch was 'enhanced' by a man in a turban playing an ektaara, a single string instrument played like a violin. Unfortunately he thought we were French, causing him to play Frere Jacques at us repeatedly...we didn't have dessert.

Our visit to each of the major towns in Rajasthan took on similar characteristics. Each had a fort, temple and palace and our concerns that we would be sick of them by the end were not realised. The temples were varied enough for each to be interesting. The Jain temple in Bikaner was rather like a beautifully painted jewellery box ion the middle of the grimey overcast town; from floor to ceiling, every inch of wall and pillar completely covered in painted tales from Jain mythology and scenes from their sacred books....no painting at all in the Jain temple at Ranakpur; all carved figures and motifs in white marble and sandstone. The young priests who showed us around each temple justifiably proud of their place of worship.

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Jaisalmer fort was still, centuries after being built, a vibrant but decaying centre of the town. Many families and businesses are based inside the fortified town. This makes for a fascinating place to wander around but sadly has accelerated the decay of the fortifications and old buildings through over crowding. Like the fort at Jodhpur it rose out of the desert and surrounding town and the views from across the town were very striking.

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As far as the forts were concerned, the towering red sandstone walls of Jodhpur were, for me, the most impressive. Beneath the fortress walls the city seemed very humble. Traditionally painted blue (insect repelling and cooling colour), the city houses lapped gently against the foot of the fortress. As with Jaipur and the two interim towns of Bikaner and Mandawar, the wealth that was in this region was clearly apparant. Wealth from wars and the trading caravans built all this might. It also funded the patronage of painters, musicians, stone masons and sculptures, poets and priests. The 'muscle' of the fort at Jodhpur was balanced by the delicacy of the miniature paintings and the lattice stonework screens.

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We enjoyed several local musicians playing in the grounds of the fort, their music perfectly suited to the heat of the day and the surroundings. I bought some Rajasthani music but I'm not sure if it will sound the same in the rain forest of NZ's West Coast.

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Away from the royal families of Rajasthan we enjoyed the Havelis of the wealthy merchants from earlier times. Paticularly in Nawalgar and Mandawar, these large houses are painted all over with scenes from local history, pictures of religious significance and portraits of family members and dignitaries. Several have pictures of inventions (steamships, telephones and trains) that would contribute to the decline of the mercantile importance of the area. The caravans used for trading silk, gold, silver, opium, glassware and more were interupted by the annexation of Pakistan and the growing importance of the port of Bombay. Sadly many of these great houses are crumbling although we did visit one that has been fully restored by a French artist (Nadine De Prince) and beautiful it was.

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Our stay in Bikaner was off to a tricky start as our hotel took advantage of the off season lull to reconfigure itself into a building site. We moved to another place, Shri Ram Heritage Hotel, to find that the proprietor was an elderly chap, retired Brigadier J S Rathore. He saw a lot of active service on the western front during the 1971 war with Pakistan and was a delightful conversationalist about all things Indian and beyond. As with other people we have met here the conversation was wide ranging...through Hinduism, Gandhi, Pakistan, the challenges facing modern India, and India's relations with its neighbours Pakistan and China. A real fortuitous gain from our poor first hotel.

The local traditional food is distinctive. I was warned off, by attentive waiters, several items on the menu with the word 'jungli' in the title...essentially meat cooked in nothing else but red hot chillies. Too hot even for many locals it would have led to spontaneous combustion in this tourist I'm sure. The tandoor in each kitchen is kept busy with fresh hot roti bread cooked to order and tandoori chicken, chicken tikka and numerous variations on that theme. Slow cooked mutton and tandoor cooked chicken are the two main meats used. I was interested that goat meat and camel meat didn't feature at all although it might feature in the local diet. Sauces are rich and this is the home of butter chicken, rogan josh and other such waist band extending dishes. The breads taste so good straight from the oven that it is possible to tuck quite a few away before realising what you have done.

We visited a spice trader in Jaipur who took us on an olfactory journey through his streetside shop, whisking us away from the less pleasant street smells of Jaipur to a world of cinnamon, cardamon, masalas and marinades.

Udaipur was our last stop in Rajasthan. Out of the desert and near the border between Gujarat and Rajasthan we enjoyed an evening of folk dancing involving the most extraordinary feats including a woman dancing with 10 terracotta pots balanced on her head whilst dancing on broken glass...we were left to wonder who had come up with this one and why. If the fort wasn't as awe inspiring as Jodhpur or the palace as exquisitely decorated and carved as Jaipur the dancing and music were dramatic enough. The arts at Udaipur were in full display with demonstrations of miniature painting, stone carving, fabric block printing and embroidery.

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I visited the vintage car collection of the Maharana of Udaipur. In amongst the Rolls Royces, Mercedes and Cadillacs was an old but dearly loved cream coloured Morris Traveller complete with renovated woodwork and in lovely condition. The guide told me that the Maharaja found it an ideal car for the narrow streets of Udaipur...I replied that if a Morris Traveller was good enough for my Dad then it was certainly good enough for the Maharaja of Udaipur.

Just another blog, perhaps two, left in this trip; our last port of call is Mumbai with trips out to the cave temples at Ellora and Ajanta. We leave New Delhi for Mumbai on Thursday morning. In the meantime lots of love and best wishes to family and friends.....

Posted by JohnandJac 02:08 Archived in India Tagged round_the_world Comments (1)

India: Agra and back to Delhi

From the Taj Mahal to the slums of South Delhi

semi-overcast 40 °C
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John.......Our new driver, Arif, is a conscientious and considerate young man of 28. Much of his conversation is centred on his forthcoming wedding in October to a woman who, I think, he has only ever spoken to on the phone. He is excited about the whole thing and has already extended an invitation to us which, sadly, we must decline. By Indian standards he is an excellent driver. He drove us for the time we were in Agra and now that we are travelling through Rajasthan he is driving us again but more of Rajasthan in the next blog.....

We went straight to our hotel in Agra from the railway station. The Grand Imperial was, indeed, grand and imperial although the empire it referred to was less the British Empire and more the earlier Moghul Empire. The Moghul Empire was responsible for leaving behind it not just one but at least 3 buildings of such beauty that to see each one is a thing of long lasting joy.

In particular The Taj Mahal is one of a number of human creations that have transcended their country of origin and almost become the property of the whole world. Described variously as 'the embodiment of all things pure' (Kipling) and 'a tear drop on the cheek of eternity' (Tagore) and as most of us less eloquent souls that see it as 'gosh', the Taj Mahal has more hype to live up to than most other places on the planet. Its picture is everywhere, millions of people have visited it but it is only when you see it 'in the flesh' that its true magnificence and perfection hits you.

We set off early from the hotel. Arif collected us promptly at 0530 and we travelled quickly through the still quiet streets of Agra. We left the car, and Arif, at the entrance to The Shakjahan Park and walked slowly past a few half hearted rickshaw men, past the melon sellers and the monkeys, some with very small babies hanging on desperately, interested in establishing a one way relationship with the melon sellers (show me a piece of melon and I'll run off with it).

At this early hour the park was full of families enjoying the cool of the early morning, playing cricket, badminton, volleyball or just chatting away. Tiny striped squirrels scampered about the place and it was an altogether pleasant place to be. We reached the West Gate, paid the 750 rupees entrance fee, declined the guide, through the security gate (women to the left, men to the right) and walked the last few metres to the place where the Taj Mahal comes into dramatic view.

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My first impressions were....it was much bigger than I had imagined....it was very white, a pearlescent, glowing white....and....it is perfect, flawless. The perfect symmetry challenges you to search out some error and, finding none, try even harder. The hairs stood up on my arms and the only thing that could distract me from this avid admiration was the dodgy looking fellow tugging at my arm saying ..... "quick sir, follow me". He took us on a commando style raid of all the key photo spots as the sun was coming up. He knew them by heart and found the short cuts from one to the next, each point designed to make the most of the rising sun on the towers and domes. We eventually paid off our rather urgent guide with somewhere between his Chief Executive Salary request and our more modest response and went back to the start to take our time.

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I am sure there must be a special kind of hell and damnation reserved for people like Deepak, CPM, Mahindra, Karl and yes, Tracey and the hundreds of people of like mind who have felt, in their inadequacy, the need to etch their names on to The Taj Mahal and some of the other monuments we visited in Agra and elsewhere. The little storm cloud of anger passed over and we walked slowly around the lower level platform, looking out over the Yamuna River to the goatherd driving the goats along the river bank. I wondered, idly, what the Taj Mahal meant to him/her and the same for the village kids splashing about in the river. Elsewhere in India many of the local people seem indifferent to local monuments, almost as if their monumental presence is of a different world and nothing to do with them. Coupled with the grinding day by day existence The Taj Mahal is, perhaps, of and for other people.

A few monkeys had dodged the guards and sat on the lattice work boundary between the temple and the river and, in what the Hindus would point to as a balance, below us and to the right of the Taj Mahal was a humble little blue concrete Hindu temple. We walked past the Mosque (good to know that the Taj Mahal is closed to all visitors on Fridays except those coming to pray at the mosque) and the accommodation for pilgrims, before surrendering our shoes for a mere 20 rupees and climbing the white marble steps to the raised platform. At this hour remarkably uncrowded, we were able to amble around slowly, admiring the koranic texts around the entrance way, written by inlaying onyx into the white marble. Before the heat of the day struck hard and the crowds overwhelmed us we sauntered back through the park, past the, by now much more active touts, sellers of dubiously made things, monkeys, melon sellers and back to the hotel for breakfast....all that and it is only time for breakfast! We took many, many photographs. Beware family and friends!

In any other city our next destination in Agra would be famous in its own right. The Baby Taj, or more properly Itmad-Ud-Daulah is a predecesor of the Taj Mahal. Smaller than its grander and more famous counterpart, this mausoleum is noteworthy for the delicate inlaid stone work, white marble and red sandstone inlaid, from top to bottom, with semi precious stones denoting flowers, birds, wine flasks, ornate geometric patterns and the finest of marble lattice work.

In the evening we travelled across the river to watch the sunset over the Taj Mahal...it just served to show that in every light and every angle she is perfect.

The following morning saw us at the dramatic, enormous Red Fort in Agra. We should have taken a guide (if you are planning to visit then a government approved guide is well worth the 300 rupees or so it might cost you). From the high walls of the fort attention seemed to return to the outline of the Taj Mahal, mystical in the haze of a rapidly warming morning. The Red Fort, on its own would have been enough of a marvel for one day but in the afternoon we visited the ancient city of Fatehpur Sikri, 40 kms from Agra and once the Royal City. Beautifully constructed from red sandstone, its major flaw was the lack of an adequate water supply...a fairly major oversight in a city of over 10,000 people plus elephants, camels, horses etc. That aside, the craftsmanship inside the old royal city was superb. The white marble lattice work in the Hindu temple was the most striking part for me...

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...but for each delicate structure like these windows was an equally grand statement like the Victory Gate...

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....towering over the town that has developed at its feet. The Royal quarters provide examples of precision masonery, requiring little mortar and making clever use of the palace structures to maximise coolness and breeze. Shady passageways and pools of water give the impression of freshness although on the day we were there it was blisteringly hot....

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We had a chance to watch some local craftsment making inlaid marble stone ornaments, work tops, tables and the like as well as some hand made carpets, both produced by 'fair wage' local cooperatives. The craftsmen we saw at the marble inlay coop work at the Taj Mahal on Fridays doing restoration work. Many of them Muslim, their skills have been handed down generation to generation from some of the original craftsmen that came to India to work on the Taj Mahal when it was being built.

Time for us to leave Agra so Arif took us to the station where the train was an almost predictable 90 minutes late getting in (what became of the belief that whatever else is happening in India the trains still run on time?). We watched as groups of children begged on the station platform, some disabled, some with no apparant home....two boys of around 14 or 15 were sniffing the contents of a Tippex bottle to get a few minutes of solvent based oblivion from their miserable, feral existance. Fiercely terretorial and socially disinhibited, we seemed, apart from our monetary potential, almost as invisible as the Taj Mahal had to the goatherd. A shunting train had a small boy of 9 or 10 jumping on and off the footplate as the engine went about its work. After the grandueur and pomp of Agra's main attractions, this seemed like a re-orientation experience for the next part of our journey.

We were aware of a charity working in the slums of Delhi called ASHA. ASHA is supported by the New Zealand High Commission and we were interested to see their work and to see if we could contribute some time. To this end we met Paul at the ASHA base who introduced us to their work. The numbers are mind blowing. Over 4 000 000 people in Delhi (total population around 14 000 000) live in slums (that doesn't include the thousands living under freeway overpasses and other such places). ASHA provides help and support to over 400 000 of these people. We visited one slum in South Delhi and were really impressed by their achievements in the 22 years since they started. A clinic, schoolroom, Community Health Workers recruited from the local population and trained up, mains water, electricity. We were welcomed into people's houses...one room for a family of 8 with two teenage girls now attending college each day through sponsorship provided by visitors. We are hoping to go back for a couple of days later this month so more on this in a blog or two's time.

In the meantime lots of love and best wishes to family and friends. The next blog will be from Rajasthan. We are currently in Jaipur, the state capital, soon to head north and west through Mandawa, Bikaner and Jaisalmer, near the Pakistan border. I'll leave you with this skillful gent in the narrow streets of Varanasi using a sewing machine that my Grandma would have used.....

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Posted by JohnandJac 03:51 Archived in India Tagged round_the_world Comments (0)

India: Bandhavgarh, Kajuraho and Orchha

Tigers, Temples and Temperature

semi-overcast 44 °C
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John:.... Our trip from Varanasi on the overnight train to Katni was straight forward enough. The train pulled into a packed, sultry, baked toilet smelling Varanasi station the regulation 2 hours late. The electronic signs weren't working and the repetitious platform anouncements were either clearly articulated in Hindi or delivered in impenetrable machine gun English. We met a nice couple Jim and Mary also heading to the same place so we stayed together in that strange kind of comfort that can be gained from knowing that if we miss the train so will they.

On to the train and, at 23:30 now, straight onto our bunk beds; luggage secured with the piece of chain bought in Varanasi (thereby dispensing with the need to 'sleep' on the luggage for security). We were woken, in standard Indian fashion, to the sound of a man shouting (amicably enough) into his cell-phone..."ello....ello....ello". I dived into my book and headphones, enjoying the top bunk hiding place whilst Jackie grappled with bottom bunk conversation. I eventually joined in a very interesting discussion already underway about modern India, Hinduism, violence in India and the dreams of a young scientist who was making his way from Calcutta to Mumbai (Bombay), a scheduled train journey of 30 hours. He was part of a large family group and before long, after talking about our respective families, 15 year old twin girls dressed in vermillion and gold sarees were pulled out of the ladies' compartment by their father to practice their English and excellent manners with us.

We disembarked at Katni station and took a car for the remaing 5 hours of the journey. The scenes by now were very familiar as dry, dusty, rural, ageless India passed us by on each side. Our new driver, Arvi, would be with us for the next 5 days and he proved to be an excellent driver. We enjoyed the comfort and coolness of the car inside whilst the world baked outside....48 - 49 degrees (115 farenheit) and deadly stuff. Even local people said that this was very hot for them. Not just the countryside was tinder hot and highly combustable. Our experience in Varanasi had shown how tense life can be here, especially in the time leading up to the monsoon.

We arrived safe and sound at the slightly down at heel but perfectly adequate lodge next to the national park and tiger reserve. Our sole purpose in being here was to see tigers and to this end we had two half day safaaris booked. Our luck was in from the start. On the first safaari we entered the park in our open backed jeep with a driver and a guide. Even without tigers this was a special place, full of deer (tiger lunch), monkeys (tiger dessert), peacocks/peahens, a host of other brightly coloured birds and a varied landscape of giant sandstone cliffs, jungle, dry river beds, caves and so on.

We were about a third of the way into our safaari when an air of general excitement spread through the various guides. Our jeep joined the others and, before long, a very large female tiger together with nearly fully grown cub imperiously parted the tall yellow grass and stepped out, paused and slowly moved off across the open ground. The whole episode from start to finish lasted no more than five minutes but during that time every detail, every movement, every look was imprinted on the memory. So captivating was it that many people, including us, didn't even think to use our cameras.

I have long thought that the lion's claim to be King of the Jungle was based too much on a questionable haircut and good press. A worthy second certainly. For me the tiger is the king....ask 100 domestic cats if they would like to be reincarnated as a lion or a tiger and I can guarantee that tiger will be the unanimous answer.

The following day we had an even closer siting as our young, testosterone pumped jeep driver managed to hit two other cars in his haste to establish his credentials amongst the older drivers and get a good position (I had to be stern with him). Twenty metres from us the tigeress we had seen the day before leapt onto a low bridge, looked straight at us as she straightened up and slinked her way across the bridge and off out of sight again. Fleeting glimpses each one but what glimpses; powerful, large, beautiful, majestic, in charge and deadly....and not behind bars. Sadly poachers are still plying their trade, supplying tiger skins and body parts for the lucrative Chinese medicine market. India has lost one third of its tiger population in the last 8 years so even more lucky for us to have been granted an audience....twice. Without the tigers the National Park would just have been magnificent. The tigers took it to a different level.

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From Bandhavgar we drove to the town of Kajuraho, some 5 hours across country. The attraction at Kajuraho is the UNESCO World Heritege listed temples. Perhaps best known for their erotic carvings ('The Karma Sutra carvings'), these remarkable feats of architecture, art and engineering hold so much more. Certainly there is a lot of eroticism in the carvings and portrayals of the nobility of the time reaching 'a higher plane' in a number of anatomically challenging positions. Some of those portrayed were thoughtful enough to involve their pets (although there is no record of anybody playing fast and loose with a tiger). In addition to the erotic carvings there are hundreds and hundreds of carvings denoting the gods and heavens. The figures are beautifully carved with keen insights into human nature, portrayed with humour and great skill, and the temples themselves constructed of masonary so carefully shaped that no mortar was needed to keep them together; just several perfectly placed keystones.

Temples at Kajuraho

Temples at Kajuraho

img=http://photos.travellerspoint.com/214739/90_DSCF7631.jpg caption=Stone carvings at Kajuraho]Stone carvings at Kajuraho 2

Stone carvings at Kajuraho 2

We enjoyed the temples greatly but viewing anything or anywhere much after 10:00 and before 16:00 was an act of lunacy as the temperature peaked at 49 degrees. I found a copy of The God of Small Things by Arundati Roy which I thoroughly enjoyed, especially having been here for a few weeks and recognising some of the references and details in the book. Another acclaimed book, The White Tiger, a sharply observed and darkly humorous critique on modern India was also voraciously consumed during the middle period of the day.

Our next destination was Orchha, another 4 hours west. As with Kajuraho we were here for just 2 nights but we could have stayed for longer. The town is littered with two enormous palaces and their associated buildings, still standing but no longer in use and all the furnishings long gone. The temples are a fusion of Moghal and Hindu architecture and built at a time of considerable religious tolerance. We were guided around the palace grounds by a lovely old man who has done his post-graduate studies on Orchha and its historic buildings. His book has been published but sadly for us only in Hindi. He now shows people around the sites for a mere 250 rupees, about $NZ8 for 2 hours of his knowledge. I wish I could remember his name but it is in the shaky memory section alongside many of the names and dates he so carefully supplied us with.

Ruins were dotted all over the town; giant Chatriss playing home to eagles and monkeys and disused temples now providing shelter for goats, pigs, dogs and the occasional person. The market place, in front of the large temple provides pilgrims with the opportunity to buy, amongst other things, brightly coloured powders to apply as 'bindi' (the distinctive red spot in the middle of the forehead) or other facial decoration.

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The ruins, apart from the fact that they attract money spending toursits, seem to hold no interest at all for the people scratching a living here. Local people look slightly bemused that visitors should be so interested in these places. Buildings are used for as long as they have a use and after that their value seems limited other than to provide building materials for the next house or temple. Nobody is building any more palaces here.

We left Orchha for the railway station at Jhansi, taking the train to Agra. Arriving late, in regulation style, the train dropped us at Agra station where we met our next driver, Arif.

We discovered that travelling at this time of the year has its benefits. Because of the extreme heat tourist numbers are very low. Our hotel would normally have been way, way beyond our budget. The Grand Imperial was magnificent (and so was our travel agent who secured us a suite for such a low price). More on Agra in the next posting. Suffice to say, for now, The Taj Mahal is even more beautiful than we expected. Seeing the sunrise lighting the central dome is one of the images that will stay with us for a long long time to come. Our experience with so many of the famous places and things we have seen on this trip; Machu Piccu, Angkor Wat, tigers, elephants and now the Taj Mahal has been that they have surpassed the many representations of them...more on the Taj Mahal and Agra on the next posting. In the meantime I have put some of Jackie's great photos in the gallery. Enjoy

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Lots of love and best wishes to family and friends.

Posted by JohnandJac 10:07 Archived in India Tagged round_the_world Comments (0)

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