Monthly Archives: December 2011

The Fantastic Four, (or six including Dorothy and Daniel)

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all wielding our monkey sticks!

From Udaipur we headed slightly north to the small and very holy town of Pushkar. Hindus believe that Brahma dropped a lotus, and where the petals fell, the holy lake of Pushkar was formed. Every Hindu should make a pilgrimage to the town once in their lives. Unfortunately, many ‘holy men’ are in the business of hanging out by the lake and approaching trusting tourists, whom they encourage to part with a few (hundred) rupees in exchange for a karmic cleanse and have a puja done for their loved-ones at the side of the disgustingly fetid water.

We’d arrived into Pushkar around noon, a short morning’s ride of 50km, after having made a midway stop in Beowar, where we decided the night-riding had got slightly too chilly.

As we pulled into town, I told Joel he could choose a guest house, to avoid my insisting on seeing a few and choosing the best one, which frustrates him no end. So, he was rightfully delighted when a guy approached us and offers a room for 200Rs, in a quiet part of town. He insisted that we follow him there to “just look”. This hassle-free method of finding a room thrilled Joel, who’d been expecting an hour of umming and ahhing over balcony versus hot water. The family-run hotel was in a quiet place away from the hubbub of the bazaar, and even boasted a ‘swimming pool’; a rectangular tiled pond in the central courtyard, with a lonesome rubber ring floating enticingly, but going unnoticed, as the kids chose to play cricket out front instead. The room was immaculate and one of the cheapest we’d found, but I couldn’t get excited about it, and found it difficult to conceal my disappointment. Even charming Rudy couldn’t crack a smile from me. I think I must have issues with control, I seriously hate being told what to do, and this telling people what to do is something that high-caste Indians spend their entire days doing. “Come here”, “Sit down”, “Visit this temple”, “Talk to this man”, “Eat this”- I have to admit that, as with most things Indian, when this happens and I’m feeling low-energy, it can drive me up the wall. At all other times I find it endearing, often to the point of giggles, undoubtedly one of the finer details which add to the charm of the subcontinent, that has led me back here three times! But it demands energy, something I simply lack before lunch.

After admitting my weakness to Joel behind closed doors, I was ready to come downstairs and meet the friendly looking travellers at the table, who I might well have previously ignored. A couple Mattieu and Rita, from France and Portugal respectively, and a Brit, Jon, from… Bristol! It wasn’t til the next day when Jon and I were out shopping (finally a shopping partner! Joel’s useless at it!) that we discovered the extent of this coincidence; we’d even been to the same secondary school! Love it!

Jon had only been in India for a week, and from the lightness of his skin, this was evident! He had just boarded this Indian rollercoaster, and was loving every second. Nice to have someone like him around to make us remember the magic; gleamingly ever-present in every moment, but all too often hidden by our frustrations at the little things, like being ripped off; or the compassion, which encourages us to share with those without; seen by hardened hearts (and limited pockets) as guilt-trips designed to trick you out of a few rupes. It’s beautiful to witness one yet to build up stereotypical ideas of what people want from us, just in case we’re caught off-guard in not acting from the heart – a stony truth, but something that befalls (almost) every Indian, and all too many Westerners in this poverty-stricken country of 1 billion inhabitants.

 

Jon’s plan originally had been to do a, possibly guided, tour of the Golden Triangle; Delhi, Jaipur and Agra. He was then going to fly to Nepal for a few weeks, before flying back into India in time for his friends’ coming at Christmas. The travel agent he’d booked with hadn’t told him the rule about being outside India for a minimum of two months, a little alarmingly. We explained it to him.

He’d bumped into Mattieu and Rita and Delhi, and they’d talked him into a visit to Pushkar. His plans were quickly going out the same window ours had!

It didn’t take him many of our tales to inspire him.

“Maybe I’ll buy a motorbike,” he semi-joked.

“Do it, come with us!” I chipped in.

“Could I?” a little more seriously now.

“Yes, of course!” we both chimed.

So the three of us piled on Dolly, and did a whistle-stop tour of Pushkar’s mechanics. Knowing Pushkar to be the home of many long-stayer travellers, I expected there to be a few options kicking about. It didn’t take long to find Ashok, who was selling a rather lovely 1984 Bullet 350, later to be christened Daniel (This is a good idea of Jon’s humour, which I can’t believe I had yet to mention!). No matter that Jon had never ridden a bike before. This was the perfect place to learn! In at the deep end! No matter that the bike was just a couple of inches too high for Jon’s lil’ legs. The grin he produced when riding back down the alleyway towards us, after a crash course from the Californian Robert, a old hand at riding around India (When learning how to kick start: “You gotta feeeeel the piston, come awhhn -you’re in the East now, maan.”), was the carbon copy of the grin Joely gave when he arrived back from a test-run with Dekel back in Goa. It’s the “Yes, please, I could get used to this” grin.

 

So, we were now three. Jon had a few little test drives around town, and Joel was obviously happy to have a bike buddy. I was happy ’cause I could use the newly acquired time (waiting for Jon to be ready to leave) to practice some yoga on the roof. The light over Rajasthan at dawn and dusk is like none I’ve seen before. The colours are so beautiful. Dusty pinks and yellows on the jagged hills, temples poking through the mist in the valleys. The perfect way to find some peace.

 

A case of Delhi belly for Jon, and a problem with Daniel’s front suspension, saw us miss three agreed departure mornings, one of which we even arrived in the neighbouring Ajmer where we only made it to a mechanic, before turning back to Pushkar to confront Ashok, and possibly even demand Jon’s money back if he didn’t fix it. (We’d been told that the bike was in perfect condition, and it wasn’t.) Luckily Ashok agreed. We’d had the thumbs up from Robert, who’d been coming to Ashok for ten odd years; otherwise we might not have been so trusting, as mechanics in India can go either way.

 

FINALLY we left Pushkar, a good four days later than we’d originally planned, and headed North to Jaipur, where Lucy; a friend of mine from home; would be arriving the next morning. Or the following one if she happened to miss the train, which she did…

On the way to Jaipur we stopped to marvel at the novelty of an Indian McDonald’s. Joel ordered himself a Chicken Maharaja burger, and laughed at the sign by the counter that announced no beef or pork was on the premises. A funny contrast to McDonald’s back home, here it appeared to be an (all English-speaking) upper class type of a joint.

It was here that we ran into Fabio, a German chap with an Aussie accent, who’d bought an Enfield in Delhi and was riding down to Mumbai to pick up his girlfriend, who was flying out for Christmas. We were the first tourists on Enfields he’d seen, to his disappointment; as he’d been expecting to find more. We told him Pushkar and then Goa would be great places to make some bike buds, and then grinned as we watched him chug off into the sinking sun.

 

Jon did well on the bike, riding out on the open road is less obstacle-rich than the inner cities. We arrived into Jaipur just as it was getting dark, so opted to stop in the periphery at the first hotel we could find, to end the day on a high. We found the Vinayak Heritage Hotel, a family-run establishment. We ended up staying for a whopping five nights, Lucy arriving on the second day.

To celebrate Lucy’s arrival, we went out to a 3* hotel recommended in the Lonely Planet book, for it’s Rajasthani thalis. A feast fit for a king! We all stuffed ourselves silly and chatted the evening away. Lucy told us tales of her adventures in the mountains; she’s spent the last six months in the northern-most part of India, visiting Tibetan-buddhist communities and making plenty of new friends!

Jon reckoned it would be safe to put Lucy on the back of Daniel with him to visit the Amber fort, just outside of town. However, a swerve to get past a cycle rickshaw ended in tears, as Lucy’s little toe got in between the spokes. She put on a brave face, for what looked like a painful and bloody injury, ’til we found a little doctor’s surgery over the road and got her bandaged up.

She managed to explore the fort hobbling along without complaining once; very admirable! We hired a guide as Jon fancied it, but I’m starting to realise that palaces and forts in India are much of a muchness, and aside from a few interesting little facts; of which none were memorable enough to recount, the guide merely seemed to be holding us back, demanding our constant attention and energy for listening. He was perhaps aware of our tendencies to forget to listen, and impressed me with a few on the spot CCQs – as they’re known in the trade: concentration checking questions. I would really much rather learn about how the ordinary every-day people lived, than the kings and their queens, who must have been extremely bored confined to the inner sanctums of the palace. AND had to share their king with a good ten other queens, who all had separate quarters/share of the gardens; to minimise bickering presumably. How lonely! The king of course had constant access to any. Oh one thing the guide told us that stuck: how the women were so adorned, that they couldn’t walk and instead had to use wheelchairs to get around. That’s why there were slopes instead of steps. Just great.

One thing about the visit was wonderful, and that was the views from the hilltops. Oh yes and the company. 🙂

 

Jon, Lucy and I had a night out at the cinema, a fine building that resembled a pink cream cake, and saw a showing of Desi [local] Boys; an hilarious comedy (we think) about two NRIs (My new word; non-resident Indians) who lose their jobs in the British recession and become strippers. Being Bollywood nothing too exciting happens, but there’s no shortage of hip-thrusting. The crowd went wild, whistling as each actor came onto the screen. We didn’t understand the Hindi, but the amount of English thrown in, and the Indian lack of subtlety, made it easy to follow! As per norm, after the show, everyone’s heads turned our way, for a secondary and not nearly exciting performance, in which three goras stood up and made their way to the door.

 

The last day in Jaipur, Joel and I decided, well really just I decided, to replace our camera, as the photos it was producing were really not up to scratch, and India’s a pretty photogenic country. Jon had a nifty little Olympus, which made the same shots look far more intensely colourful. This was the icing on the cake, and securing a deal with Abishek, the hotel owner, to buy the old one, we popped out to have a look. The guys in the shop really were useless sales assistants; they didn’t have a clue about the cameras; we were trying to decide between a Canon and it’s Nikon counterpart, and all they could do was read us the info on the boxes. I asked which camera one of the assistants used, and he told me he didn’t have one. So we gave up asking, instead loading up a web review comparison on the Kindle. God I love that Kindle, it has been so incredibly useful. Thank Amazon for the free 3g! (They’ve done away with that feature on the latest model I note! Obviously too expensive with people like us relying on it for web access all over the world. Someone’s gotta foot the bill!) After reading the comparison, we found the Nikon to outdo the Canon in most respects, and substantially cheaper. Job done! Whilst testing it, Joel used some feature that had the staff a-gawp, he spotted them attempting it themselves when we were paying. Funny boys; all tawk and no trahzers.

 

Just outside the camera shop, we spotted a cycle-tourist! Joel ran out, and he was busy admiring the bikes when I arrived. They were a couple from Holland, and had ridden much the same route as us, through Iran. They’d arrived by train from Delhi, and were now contemplating the next leg; they were thinking about riding to Jaisalmer; way out in the Thar Desert! Fair play to them; I don’t think this is something I’d fancy. Actually, much as I miss old Arthur, I have been rather glad not to have been cycling. The landscape, apart from a small part of southern Rajasthan, has been flat and seemingly unending. People are quick enough as it is to surround us on the Enfield, cycling into small villages simply doesn’t bear thinking about. Unless you had bags of energy, when you might be excited by the very warm welcome, and offers of home visits. But that is rarely the case when you’ve been riding all day long. I shall be interested to see how they get on! Thomas was pretty impressed by the Enfield, and had been trying to persuade his girlfriend (sorry, forgotten name) that was what they should do. She was fairly unenthusiastic, so i’ll be intrigued to see if the experience of cycling in India changes her mind!

 

After Lucyloo’s little incident on the back on Daniel, she was loathe to get back on him for the ride to Bundi, so she caught a bus, and met us there. As Lucy and Jon were both heading south for Christmas, we conceded to head a little further south before continuing north to Nepal. Bundi has been on my mind for a few years, and I’d had a good recommendation of a all-female run guest house there. It’s a small town that retains much of the old-time charm of Rajasthan, before all the modern invasions, like motorbikes. A fort towers over the town in a spooky dracula-esque way, and all the monkeys gallop up there when the sun sets. The majority of the old town in painted blue, the traditional colour for a Brahmin (highest caste) household. In this way it’s like a little brother to Jodhpur. The RN Haveli guest house, was as expected, a lovely welcoming place to spend a few days. Mama, as she’s known to all, is a cuddly 70(odd) year old, who embraces all travellers as her children. Just what you need if you’re feeling a little homesick! She showed me articles from global newspapers and magazines, written about her and her daughters, and how they’d defied the traditional ways, turning their house into a guest house after her husband passed away. They received plenty of stick from the locals, especially her daughters, as a result of befriending foreign men. When we arrived, the daughters were all gone, married off or studying in Jaipur, as was the case with one. Mama seemed a little sad to have lost them.

The boys who were employed were wonderful, and we really felt part of a family. Raju, 23, gave us a very authoritarian cooking lesson, telling us not to speak unless spoken to. Radishan, 19, the all-round helper boy, was wonderfully sweet, and gave me a hand with my Hindi in exchange for English pointers.

Ruggero from near Vienna was also in residence, and had travelled overland from Italy. He’d opted for the Pakistani route, and told me so many stories of warm hospitality that I regretted our decision not to go. He hired a moped, and with another girl, Manu from Germany, we all rode out 30kms to an enormous waterfall. After shoo-ing away a ‘holy man’ supposedly from the Shiva temple by the falls, just sitting down on the neighbouring rocks for a spliff, where we wanted to swim, we stripped off and took the plunge. It was bloody freezing! I felt like my muscles were freezing up, and Ruggero climbed jerkily out screaming “I’m Italiaaaan!”, while the other Brits among us swam about as if in a heated pool! Ruggero went blue and was shivering ferociously, unfortunately we’d missed the heat of the day, and the sun wasn’t far off setting. Jon, Lucy and Joel were having a fine old time swimming right under the waterfall. It was a huge cliff-face sheer drop, and there was enough space to stand behind the water and shiver, as Jon demonstrated. I almost had a panic attack as it was so cold, and Lucy swam with me back to the rocks. The pool was seriously deep, and my arms felt like they were stopping working. What a relief to get out of there!

We all dried off, and the climb back up to the top of the cliff got some blood pumping again. The ride home was fun, Ruggero’s little scooter running at top speed, sounding like a hairdryer next to the two Enfields. We made it back just after dark, when Jon had a near miss with an overtaking car, which Lucy wasn’t too happy about, him having persuaded her to get back on with him. He dropped the bike as he was stopping and they both fell off; an unfortunate end to an otherwise uneventful ride! But all taken in good humour.

 

Lucy booked a train out of Kota, to Goa. Jon decided to go with her and booked the bike onto the train. They made it on to the train fine, and the bike will follow a couple of days later.

It was sad to say goodbye to the pair of them, we’d had a really wonderful time together, but nice that they’d continue together, even if we couldn’t make it to Goa for Christmas because of our visa. Everyone we meet is heading south, and they seem alarmed that we’d want to go to Nepal at this time of year. Well we don’t, but we don’t have much choice. It’ll be different to Christmas and new year on a beach with a bunch of mates, but i’m sure we’ll have a beautiful time. We’re hoping that we might find a way around the 2 month out of India rule, and make it back into India to spend some time with Loren, who’s flying out in January. We’ll have to wait ‘n’ see!

 

So we left Bundi, Jon and Lucy on Saturday, and I write this from the small historic town of Orchha, in Madhyur Pradesh. It’s full of crumbling old palaces in the jungle, with vultures nesting on the roofs. Very atmospheric. Tomorrow we’ll head to Lucknow, the scene of one of the first uprisings to oust the British in 1800, and from there to the Nepalese border.

 

Our aim is to be in Himalayan hot-springs for Christmas: What will you be doing?! 🙂

 

(only just found internet, so few days delay in posting this! Merry Christmas to you all. We’re in Pokhara after a dramatic 13hr mission, culminating in a snapped accelerator cable in mid-mountain road, but fixed in the field by our Joely. Who’s a clever boy!?)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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