India: you'll either love it or you'll hate it. I love it! Mostly, at least.
When I wrote last my flight to Delhi was just days away, so you may be forgiven for thinking that I've been here for a month, but in actual fact it's only been about half that time. I'd been having a bit of trouble with my ears, which started with trapped water after swimming. A couple of days before I was due to fly I went to the hospital, as it was obvious something was not right - I was very deaf and in a fair bit of pain. I'd assumed that I must have got an infection from the pool at the hotel, but after having a tiny hoover stuck in my ear, I discovered that it was partly my own doing. My mother always told me that I shouldn't stick cotton buds in my ears, but would I listen to her? In an attempt to give them a bit of a clean I'd left the cottony bit in there which had caused - or at least aggravated - an infection. Despite antibiotics the pain continued to get worse, and the idea of flying and subjecting them to changes in pressure was just unthinkable, so I put my flight back (which fortunately I managed to do for free). Three trips to hospital, a ten day course of antibiotics and a booster jab in the bum, and I was mostly pain free and a lot less deaf.
I landed in Delhi on the fourteenth of November, and had an ambition fulfilled when I was met by a man with my name on a board. He drove me to the hotel which I had booked, parking up a short distance away and carrying my bag the rest of the journey. We weaved through narrow streets busy with scooters, rickshaws and people on foot; before long I had seen my first cows. It was crowded and noisy, colourful and exciting, and also rather cold. I had become rather apprehensive about India when I was in Yangon, as that city seemed impossibly crowded and very dirty, and I figured India had to be more so. I have to say that I still think Yangon was crowded and dirty. I must be the only person to come to India and be surprised at how clean it is. Okay, so clean is an exaggeration, but it's no where near as bad as I'd expected (so far, anyway).
Whilst in the capital I visited the museum, tombs, gardens, took a drive by parliament house, and walked through bustling bazaars. It was all very enjoyable. Assisted by my deafness I developed selective hearing and also vision, filtering out many of the calls from touts and the stares from random men, which helped a lot. As well as ignoring people, I invented a wide range of imaginary friends, and a boyfriend/fiancé/husband. The friends are often waiting for me at the hotel, so I really must dash, or else I am meeting them at my next destination. I sometimes have imaginary conversations with them on my (real) mobile phone. They can come in very handy. I am learning how to shake off people that are following me (patience, is normally the best defence here, plus the odd feint - pretending to walk in one direction then swerving off in another), and can now stare back at people for several minutes.
I don't ignore everyone by any means, in particular the little street kids. I try and answer them, give them a smile if nothing else (I don't usually give money to child beggars, but sometimes fruit). Often I will take their photograph and show it to them - thanks to digital photography - which never fails to delight. The kids sometimes ask for their photo to be taken, and I've been thanked afterwards too. I found that before long my blinkers were slipping, and I was interacting more with people. The downside of this is that the unwanted attention from men becomes more noticeable as well - there are some real slimeballs here. My opinion of men was never all that high, but since arriving in India it has slipped to new depths.
I've not had any physical harassment as yet, so that's something. I've had a lot of people bumping into me, which at first I took to me for some sort of strange sexual kick, but I'm now of the opinion that it's mostly accidental (although on occasions when a man walks out of his way to collide with me, I'm not so convinced). Having observed the behaviour of people moving around, I have deduced that if an Indian wants to get from A to B, they travel in a straight line regardless of obstructions, hence the constant collisions. The same thing happens on the roads. I am used to the hectic traffic of South East Asia, where you take your life in your hands each time you cross the road, but I feel the the drivers there would prefer not to hit anyone. Here I get the impression that they would happily knock someone over if it meant that they could reach their destinations quicker, and by the most direct route.
After almost a week in Delhi I caught a train to Agra, and found myself sitting next to a young Australian girl who had a 48 hour journey ahead of her. She gave me some good tips for travelling by train in India, including requesting the top bunk for a sleeper compartment, which is something I would not have thought of doing. She told me that this way you are less likely to wake up in the night with someone groping you...although she did awake one time to find an armed man lying next to her. It was okay, she explained, he was just a soldier, and they seem to have the right to order anyone out of their seat or berth. She asked him to leave and he did. She also warned me against leaving a bottle of water unattended, as a male friend of hers was drugged this way. Fortunately his pack was securely attached to the bunk, so all they stole was his passport which was on his person. He woke up in a Delhi hospital, having been taken there by railway officials when they found him unconscious after everyone had left the train.
Agra has a reputation for fearsome rickshaw drivers, but I must have been lucky there as all the ones I came into contact with were as nice as pie. It also has - or at least had - a nasty scam going whereby some of the restaurants would poison your food, then the rickshaw driver or hotel manager would take you to a private clinic where you were attached to a drip (feeding you further poison), and a healthy sum extracted from your insurance company for the privilege! It's at times like this when having a guide book comes in extremely handy. Fortunately my nice rickshaw-wallah took me to a clean hotel which served tasty food that didn't make me ill from its rooftop restaurant, where I ate whilst peering through the smog at the Taj.
The Taj Mahal was, of course, my main reason for coming to Agra, but I delayed my visit by a day as I'd come down with a cold whilst in Delhi. By the sound of all the coughing and sniffing going on (though relatively little hawking and spitting, I'm pleased to report), the whole nation had the same cold; I think most of it is pollution induced - the exhaust fumes are shocking here. Entrance to the Taj Mahal costs a hefty £10 and, whilst the ticket is valid all day, it is only good for one entry. I can understand why they do this - there would be a brisk trade in used tickets otherwise - but it is a pain, as you are not allowed to take food in with you (mobile phones and magnets are also forbidden, for some reason). If you want to get to see the Taj at both sunrise and sunset, you have to go the whole day without any grub. I'd decided it was worth the sacrifice, and set of in darkness to the magnificent monument.
There are few places that manage to live up to their hype, but I am pleased to say that the Taj is one of them. It is simply sublime, and easily exceeded my expectations. I found it difficult to believe that it was man made, as something that exquisitely beautiful is normally nature's creation. I walked slowly around it, again and again, taking pictures and gazing upon it, as the colour of the marble walls seemed to change from a chalky white, though a delicate cream, tangerine orange, and then a pale pink as the sun rose, settling on a pure and dazzling white as the morning wore on, and the tourists arrived en masse. I briefly entered the interior, but that was a bit like being in a giant shoe - dark, stuffy and smelly - and you couldn't take pictures in there, so I soon left. Around ten o'clock (I'd entered just after six) I discovered that I would have to leave soon after, as the president of Indonesia (or was it the prime minister - either way, what the Indians call a VVIP) was arriving, and the whole place would be emptied of riff-raff for a few hours. I tried in vain to be allowed back in afterwards, offering backsheesh and pleading, but to no avail. Still, I think I got to see it at the best time, and I'm not sure I could have gone the whole day without eating, little piggy that I am.
After a big lunch I set off to visit Agra Fort, a wonderful building which on any other day would have blown me away. It had some intricate stonework, and more beautiful marble set with precious gems. The next day I hired an auto-rickshaw and visited Itmad-ud-Daulah, and Akbar's Tomb, which were more fine examples of Moghul architecture. The grounds of the latter contained a number of black buck wandering happily around with snooty looks on the faces, and also a troop of long-tailed langur monkeys. These sat on the pavement by the main walkway, occasionally summoning the energy to groom each other, often falling asleep in the process. A couple of men hand fed them peanuts and tried to get backsheesh by encouraging tourists to have their photos taken with the monkeys. As I looked at the apes - mothers with babies, both of which had fallen asleep whilst breast feeding, others that hardly had the energy to lift their heads from their chests - I suspected that they had been drugged. Since then I have become convinced of it, as I've seen the same type of monkey other places exhibiting much more lively - normal - behaviour.
I've seen an amazing amount of wildlife here already, much of it in the cities, from cute little palm squirrels, to colourful parrots and kingfishers, and majestic hawks circling in the sky. On the roads I've seen carts pulled by cows, others by camels, and gaily painted elephants plodding along. I've also had a close encounter with a rat. I'd seen it in my room in the evening, and then during the night I felt - in my sleep - chilly paws on my arm, and a cold nose touch my lip. I realised immediately what is was, and sat up flinging the rodent off of me. I turned the light on and saw it scuttle across the room, up the cupboard, and out of its hole. Fortunately I quite like rats, so it didn't freak me out at all.
From Agra I detoured to nearby Fatehpur Sikri, where I spent an enjoyable afternoon wandering around ruins. The town reminded me of Ethiopia due to its inordinate amount of beggars - or at least people asking for things, mostly money. In the mosque were some genuine beggar children, who followed me around asking first for shampoo, bon-bons, stylo, or sabon - a multitude of French people must have travelled all over Asia doling out soap, pens and sweets, as these are common requests. They were cute, though, and keen to have their photos taken, and for a bit of interaction. I found it stranger that a number of older males - late teens or early twenties - came up to me saying "hello, money". These were, on the whole, lads that were working in or around the ruins. Maybe they'd got so used to tourists giving them things in their childhood that they hoped it would continue now they are adults.
While I was exploring I was approached by a man, as often happens at tourist sites; someone will come to point something out to you, or tell you to stand in a certain place for a good photo, and then ask for backsheesh. The latter particularly annoys me - not the request for money, but telling me what photographs to take; that's almost as bad as telling someone what shot to play at pool as far as I'm concerned. Anyway, this guy was offering to show me paintings on the interior of a building. I gave him my usual spiel (I don't want a guide, I'm not going to buy anything and I'm not giving you any money), whereupon he grasped my forearm and said "I'm not a guide, I am your friend." I turned to look at him as I pulled my arm away and saw that he had a dribble of red drool - presumably from chewing betel nut - trickling down his chin, and one hand on his crotch, cradling his penis through his jeans. I told him in no uncertain terms that he was not my friend, and that I was going nowhere with him. I finished by threatening to kick him in the balls if he came within five metres of me again, and stomped off, leaving him leering after me.
I'd already bought my onward train ticket before making this side trip, so returned to Agra for one night, and got to the station before six the following morning. I bought tea from the chai-wallahs that march up and down the platform, swinging a big pot of milky tea in one hand, and a bucket full of small, earthenware mugs in the other. These unglazed cups are disposable, and more environmentally friendly than polystyrene. I spent almost three hours squatting on the chilly platform before my train arrived. Once it did I found my carriage, evicted the woman who was asleep on my middle bunk, and wedged my bag and myself in her place, dozing most of the way to Jaipur. It was early afternoon when we arrived, and I got a prepaid auto-rickshaw to the accommodation that I had booked. I'm staying at Kantichandra Palace, an old haveli - a fancy Indian mansion; well, it was in its heyday at least. It's a little grubby now but has atmosphere, and at 200 rupees (just under £3) for an en suite room, it's the cheapest place I've stayed.
The following morning I set off reasonably early to explore the Pink City. The tradition of painting the buildings pink is not an ancient one, but dates back to a visit from Prince Albert in 1856, when they spruced the town up in his honour. I chose to walk into the city, enjoying being amongst the colour and bustle of everyday life, and turning down constant offers from rickshaws. I got some cool photos of the people and animals I met along the way - including a group of sadhus who were sat on the pavement passing around a chillum of ganja. Sadhus are men who, after having families, abandon everyday life in favour of wandering around India begging food and meditating...and getting stoned. Some women do it too (they are called Mataji, but I don't know whether they are revered as much as the sadhus, who are afforded a lot of respect), so now I have a new ambition.
I stopped off at the Hawal Mahal, Jaipur's most recognisable monument. This is a five story structure of almost 600 honeycombed windows, which used to allow the women of the court to watch the goings on in the street whilst observing the state of purdah. Purdah is the old (maybe discontinued, I'm not sure) custom whereby women are kept hidden away from the world, and the prying eyes of men. I used to think that this sort of thing was terribly repressive, no better than imprisonment; after a few weeks of being stared at by Indian men, I now see it as a desirable way to live. I'm also considering getting a burkha, and just covering up totally, and I sometimes wear my scarf over my face. I'm developing a theory about the leching; overall I think that it's middle-class/caste men that are worse. When wandering around poorer areas I find the attitude is more one of friendly curiosity than the annoying perving.
I'd enjoyed a visit to the City Palace, and the museums therein, and had a walk through a busy fruit market before making my way to the Central Museum in the Albert Hall. I had a look at the outside of the building, but decided not to bother with the inside, instead to walk to the Museum of Indology, which sounded a bit quirky. It was on the way there that I was bitten by a stray dog. Bitten by a dog in India, a country where rabies is endemic...not good. There was lots of blood, and I got a closer look at an Indian casualty ward than I would have liked. I've had numerous needles stuck in me, and I'm on my third course of antibiotics in three months. I'm having anti-rabies injections - my last one's on Boxing Day - and the icing on the cake is that I can have no intoxicants for two months - no drinking, no smoking, not even a bhang lassi. Happy blooming Christmas! If you want to read more about the incident with the dog, check out my blog, and there's a lovely picture taken just after it happened here - but not while you're eating.
So my stay in Jaipur has become an extended one. I'm two jabs into the course, and I've not started foaming at the mouth yet, so I'm hoping all is well. I've managed to do a bit more sightseeing, but if I do too much walking the bite gets all oozy and messy, so I'm resting up in between. I did manage to get to the museum of Indology, which was as wonderfully lame as I'd expected. Its "map of India on a grain of rice" was no more than a little squiggle. (They obviously have no comprehension of sarcasm either, take a look at this sign, noting the comments by Brits.) I'll move on tomorrow or the next day - not sure whether I'll be able to wear my boots though, might have to stick with the blood-stained sandals and carry the boots. I can't feel too sorry for myself, not when I'm surrounded by the lame and the legless. And I know I've had a bit of a bad run lately, but I'm on my fourth year of travel and this is the worst thing that's happened to me, so I've been lucky really.
As a final note I would just like to mention the food. Before coming to India I had a number of people say to me that the food was awful, very spicy and generally unpleasant. I don't know what they were talking about, it's delicious! I've hardly had the same dish twice, and have loved just about everything. I've been eating at restaurants where a tasty curry, rice, nan and tea comes to a pound or maybe a little more, and have enjoyed everything and not got sick at all. I do realise that I am tempting fate by saying this, so keep your fingers crossed for me. I think it's time for some more yummy nosh now, so I'll say goodbye.
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