Friday, 28 October 2011

The Taj Mahal and Some Fireworks

I would, at the outset of this blog post, like to inform you that I am writing it after having got very little sleep the night before. This is largely due to the fact that I was on a train and the person next to me snored at a decibel level that would shame a Boeing. I will add that (minus the snoring) the train was a fantastic experience and I'm looking forward to my next train trip - which is a long one!

Wednesday was Diwali, by the way, but I'll get to that a little later on. First on the agenda is this:

The Taj Mahal is, simply put, the most beautiful building I have ever seen. It is seemingly perfect in every way. It stands on a raised platform so that it's only backdrop is the sky. The four minarets lean ever so slightly outwards so that one's gaze is drawn to the Taj. The white marble reflects the sun to give the whole building a slight glow. And it is big. It is very, very big yet somehow, I had expected it to be smaller. All the pictures of the Taj make it appear smaller than it is, but as you approach it you can't help but be blown away by the enormity of it. It's as if the Taj is trying to sneak up on you and then jump out at you while shouting, "Surprise!"

There is an interesting optical illusion as you enter the Taj complex. As you walk into the gateway the Taj appears to be magnified, but upon exiting the gate the Taj seems to recede. The effect is that you get overawed by the building twice on you approach to it. See for yourself:

Entering the Taj grounds through the main gate

Inside the Taj grounds, at the reflection pool
I thought this optical illusion was a fantastic piece of architecture and design and I had to share it with you.

Did I mention something about fireworks? Oh, yes - Diwali!

Diwali is something special. It is the craziest, loudest and brightest (and possibly the most dangerous) festival I have ever attended. And by attended I mean observed from a safe distance. Diwali in India is both easy and difficult to describe. It is easy to say that firecrackers and fireworks were set off the whole night, but it is not easy to convey that that means by everyone and everywhere. I sat for hours on a rooftop watching the festivities. There was a constant stream of fireworks being shot into the sky from all around. And firecrackers exploded everywhere, creating a rhythm for the night.

This was only a few metres way from my perch
The thought of venturing on to the streets didn't cross my mind once, though. This is because the streets didn't look like a safe place to be at all. I watched fireworks being placed and lit and then people on motorbikes casually driving past as they shot into the air. I watched as fireworks were shot into the air nearby and exploded merely 10 metres above the rooftop I was sitting on.

Diwali is not safe, but it is a blast! I'm so glad I got to experience the festival of light in the country that loves it the most. It was a whirl of light, noise and sound and a fantastic shock to the senses. It was the perfect way to end a day that included a trip to the Taj Mahal.

I'll write more about my train journey and Varanasi in my next blog. Spoiler alert: I wasn't in Varanasi for more than 10 minutes before I saw a body being carried to the Ganges for burning on a funeral pyre.

Monday, 24 October 2011

Towns in the Desert

Bikaner is a town much like every other town in Rajasthan. It is hot, dry, sandy, and it has a fort. It is also a town much like ever other Indian town - noisy, grubby and occasionally smelly. Unfortunately for Bikaner, it's pretty much bog-standard as towns go. Not even the fort leaps out at you and exclaims its presence. That said, I had a really relaxed couple of days in Bikaner. The heat means that any form of exertion is probably folly, so you're best off finding a nice, shady spot and reading a book. Which is exactly what I did.

I did visit the Junagarh fort on my second day in Bikaner, but that only took 2 hours out of my lazy day of book-reading and snoozing in the shade. The fort was, surprisingly, not built on a hill which means it's the only fort not on a hilltop in Rajasthan. Meandering around the fort, through the opulent rooms with impressive views of Bikaner was a welcome alternative to reading my book, which I had whittled down to the last few pages. Sight-seeing always seems like the thing a tourist must do at all times, but I find that reading a book in an interesting place can be just as rewarding as bumbling around the said interesting place with a guide book in hand and a lost expression on the face.

I left Bikaner with no pages left to read in my book and the hope that Pushkar would be a more interesting place around which to aimlessly wander. Pushkar, as it turns out, is fantastic for the aimless wanderer. But I'm getting a little ahead of myself.

Before I got to Pushkar, Kaushik took me past the Rat Temple in Deshnok. As the name suggests, rats are worshiped at this temple. As the name further suggests, there are thousands of 'holy' rats which live in the temple and are fed in the temple. It's quite a strange experience walking through a temple and watching thousands of rats scurry around between (and sometimes on) the feet of the temple-goers.

Pushkar is a very holy place to most Indians, perhaps the holiest of all places in India. It is believed that at this place Brahma dropped a lotus flower to earth from which the lake in the center of town sprung. Brahma was apparently conducting a ceremony here and his wife, Savitri, hadn't pitched yet. To spite his wife for not pitching Brahma married some other bird right there and then. Savitri thought that was about as good a time as any to rock up and when she arrived she saw Brahma had married some random lady. She was pissed off at Brahma and vowed he would be worshiped at not other place than Pushkar. Brahma was pissed off that she was pissed off about him marrying some other woman and he vowed she would not be worshiped in the town itself and would have to be worshiped outside of the town. So Brahma ended up with a temple in the town center and Savitri got a spot on a hilltop nearby. A priest told me this story, although he used slightly different language to tell it.

 The Brahma temple is one of only a handful in the world and so a visit was definitely on the cards. I did visit the temple, but found that it was somewhat like every other temple I've ever visited. To an atheist all temples seem the same after a while. The walk around Pushkar was a much better experience though. I walked all the way around the lake, along small streets lined with shops selling garments, incense, spices and local treats. Crowds of people drifted to and from the lake, coming or going from their holy baths. Pushkar, as it turns out, is a fantastic place around which to wander aimlessly, and i'm a huge fan of aimless wandering.

I'm staying an extra day in Pushkar because I've been invited to a birthday party. Alcohol is not allowed in Pushkar as it is such a holy place, but I believe we'll be blaspheming tonight as I've been told there'll be whisky for everyone...

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

On Forts, Food and Fitting In

Ancient forts are the hot topic when it comes to touring Rajasthan. If you're not in a town with a fort or a grand palace then you're not doing the whole tourist thing properly. But if you happen to see a fort somewhere in the town and if that fort is on top of a hill, you've hit the big-time.

The three cities I've visited in Rajasthan so far have each sported some kind of massive structure straddling a hilltop. In Udaipur there was the City Palace, in Jodhpur - the 16th century giant fort, Mehrangarh; and in Jaisalmer - the 12th century Jaisalmer Kila.

I've already mentioned Udaipur's City Palace so I'll be moving on to Mehrangarh... Mehrangarh is sold to tourists as Rajasthan's greatest fort and it is definitely deserving of the title. It is a massive structure which dominates Jodhpur's skyline. Its enormity and its position on the hilltop have ensured that in its five hundred years of existence it has not once been breached by an attacking army. And it's easy to see why...


Jaisalmer Fort is somewhat less overbearing than Mehrangarh and still forms part of the town of Jaisalmer. People still live within the walls of the fort and it is a bustling hub of activity with markets and temples at its core. As you've probably guessed, Jaisalmer Fort is on a hilltop overlooking Jaisalmer. Its walls are made up of 99 sandstone bastions which are, apparently, slowly collapsing. The fort was built on fairly weak foundations and the daily activities of its inhabitants are slowly eroding the foundations even further. This is largely due to the large quantities of water that get poured  into the streets from haveli windows and doorsteps.

Not the best picture of Jaisalmer fort, but
you can see a bastion...
So, now that I've mentioned the forts it's time to get on to the next item on the agenda - food. I love food. Especially curry. India is the best place in the world to have a culinary epiphany. I've been here for 6 days now and I've only eaten one meal more than once - chicken masala. Every day, I eat something entirely different to what I ate the day before. I've eaten dhals, paneers, rotis, chapatis, naans, tikkas and masalas. It's fair to say I love spicy food. And spice in general (Masala chai is a great way to start the day).

The options on the menus seem endless and there is such variety to the food that I'm constantly astounded that it's all considered one cuisine.
Nothing beats the experience of having an Indian meal. Ordering a curry and tucking into it with that trusty butter naan as your only eating utensil. There's something remarkably gratifying about eating a curry with only your fingers and half-risen bread. If I ever manage to get fat, it'll be because of these bloody delicious curries.

And finally, fitting in. I chose the words 'fitting in' simply because it made the title of my blog sound much more pleasing to the ear. I have as much chance of fitting in to Indian society as a radish has of becoming Australia's next Masterchef. My plan for managing the system in India is to completely immerse myself in it. It is impossible to fight against the current in this country so the only course of action is to flow with it. As such, I'm learning Hindi from Kaushik and have occasionally caught myself doing the Indian head-wobble. I don't think I'll ever be truly fluent in Hindi, but at the moment I know enough to greet people, ask how they are, answer them if they ask me, and order beer/food at a restaurant. Just enough to get by.



Sunday, 16 October 2011

A Change of Plans

Those of you who knew I as traveling to India probably had a rough idea of where I intended to go. As I told you, I planned on arriving in Mumbai and heading south to Goa, Karnataka and Kerala. I feel it's necessary to update you about my 'slight' change of plans with regards to direction.

When I arrived in Mumbai I set about finding out the best way to get to Goa. In my search for clarity I ended up being informed that now is a terrible time to go to Goa, you silly tourist, you... Monsoon has just ended and the tides are all funky. This basically translates to: "If you're going for the beaches you'll be surprised to find that there aren't any."

After a quick rethink with the help of a friendly guy who asked to be referred to as Ali (after Ali G) I changed my plans and booked tickets to go north. I arranged to meet a driver who would take me on a whirlwind tour of Rajasthan before depositing me in Agra to catch a train to Varanasi, but more on that later.

As you can imagine I was quite nervous about booking this whole trip, but I put my faith in Ali and went ahead with it anyway. Yesterday afternoon I caught a taxi to the bus station, ready to jump on the bus to Udaipur, only to be told the bus had been cancelled. Oh fuck!
Not to worry, Ali rescued the situation. He pointed me towards a bus and said that that bus would be going to Udaipur, but I couldn't stay on it the whole way. He told me ride the bus as far as Boribuli and then get off and wait for another bus which would be going to Udaipur. The darkest hours of my trip followed. I got off the bus at Boribuli and waited... and waited... and waited...

I was stuck in a tiny travel office for nearly 3 hours waiting for a bus to take me to Udaipur. The bus kept getting delayed and I worried that I was going to be stuck in that damn travel office for the rest of my stay in India. For the first time ever, I harboured thoughts of going home - leaving it all behind and giving up. I arrived in India with such arrogance and I have been quickly humbled by this giant of a country. Travel here is not going to be easy.

The bus arrived. My journey to Udaipur began in earnest. After 21 hours on the road, or on the side of it (hour-long breaks seemed to happen every hour or two) I arrived in Udaipur. I was greeted by the head-wobbling Kaushik, my driver for the next couple of weeks.

Ahhh... Curry...
After a long journey with very little food my stomach was not just grumbling, but shouting at me. I beat a track to the nearest curry joint and wolfed down a fantastic chicken masala with butter naan. The food here is fantastic - curries, biryanis, dhals - all exploding with flavour. It's a spice-lovers paradise. Hmmmm... food...

It's a pity you don't see how long it takes to write these blog posts, because I was daydreaming about curries for a solid ten minutes just now.

But I digress, after being picked up by Kaushik I headed to the City Palace; a stately building which was built over a few centuries by many different kings. The result is a strange amalgamation of rooms and nooks and crannies that all differ slightly from the room or nook or cranny adjacent to them. There are random staircases that first wind down then spiral up for no apparent reason. From the highest point, however, is a remarkable view over cramped and crowded Udaipur. Houses seem to lean on each other and jostle for space that isn't there. I'm detecting a trend with Indian cities...

The City Palace - as viewed from a rooftop restaurant 
The palace was an intriguing  structure, but not what I had wanted to see most of all. That honour was reserved for Ahar - a collection of 250 tombs of the old kings of the Rajput laid out on a wide field. I wasn't disappointed. The white tombs with their domed roofs are quite remarkable. Although nothing compared to the likes of Angkor Wat or Bayon they are still striking in their own way. In typical Indian fashion they are surrounded by litter and seemingly forgotten, but this suited me just fine as it gave me freedom to wander around them at a steady pace and just take them in. Hassle free. Just what I needed.

On the way back to my hotel I stopped off at the Princess Garden which is thoroughly overrated, and an art school where local artists practice the fine Rajasthani painting so iconic of this region of India. That, too, was a bit of a letdown as none of the artists where actually painting anything at the time and it was clear that all they wanted me to do was buy as much of their art as I could carry.

I just read through my blog, got stuck at the food part, and now... curry.

Friday, 14 October 2011

A Message from Mumbai

I'm back!

The irony of that statement is that I'm actually not. Back - that is. In fact I'm now much further from any of you than I was in the past 2 months. But I'm back on the internet. Back to writing my blog. And now, you're back to reading it. We're all back. We're reverting to our old ways. Feels good doesn't it.

The title of this blog post should help you ascertain my whereabouts in the world, but it won't help you understand the place. That's what the body of this post should do - hopefully. Let me begin by describing Mumbai (I'm in India - if you hadn't yet worked it out. Also, if you hadn't yet worked it out there's no hope for you...)

Mumbai is a crazy city. The streets are filthy, strange pockets of strange smells waft through the air, cars and taxis buzz around the streets with hooters blaring. The lines between the rich and poor are blurred to the extent that they seem to be missing. Shacks surround high-rise hotels and banks, the railways and the airport. Decaying concrete buildings rise from the corners of streets adorned in drying clothes.
Cramped. That is a good word to use when describing Mumbai. Everything is packed together so closely and tightly that nothing can break away and be separate. Nothing stands out and yet nothing needs to stand out. Mumbai overloads the senses enough without anything jumping out at you.

It is an amazing place to be. A city full of smiling faces and crazy sights. A city with a loud, beating heart. The black-and-yellow taxis and rickshaws that buzz about on the streets are like the life-blood that pumps around the city. Mumbai is a huge organism that rarely sleeps, but it is undoubtedly alive! And with that word I think I have best described Mumbai. Alive. It need not be anything else, but alive.

Now it is time for me to leave you for the time being. There happens to be a very big cricket match about to start and I plan on watching it in a local pub. India vs England - the first ODI of the series. Should be a cracker!


P.S. There will be no dong jokes, the currency isn't that funny here.