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Flying Solo

15th May 2010, Tala, Bandhavgarh
Disaster has struck - my lens has failed and I am left distraught without a functioning camera! Before that happened, I took several thousand pictures during my week's stay in Varanasi (don't worry, they're not all online . . . although a lot are).

I had three more nights in Delhi after Chris had gone, and I spent the time mostly in my room working on my pictures (not pining after Chris . . . well, maybe just a little); in the Internet cafe uploading them to pbase (and chatting to Chris online); and in the Everest Bakery, eating and sipping chai (wishing Chris was there to share a big pot of chai with). I took a few strolls along Paharganj - where a new hazard of mud was added after it had rained. It was on one of these that I decided to bite the bullet and buy a USB modem, so I could have access to the Internet on the move. I spoke to a knowledgeable man who ran an Internet cafe; he said that would be no problem, I just needed to give them photocopies of my passport, a passport photo, my father's name, and a wad of cash. He'd get the modem and activate it for me, then I could return later in the day with my laptop and he'd set it all up. I returned a short time later with my passport etc. - but the man apologised and said as it was Sunday he'd not be able to activate the card until the following day; I should bring my laptop in around three and everything would be fine. I was leaving the following day, but my train wasn't until 1845, so I handed over Rs3,500 - over £50.

The next day, after checking out, I made my way first to Connaught Place, where I eventually found the Jet Airways office. I needed to change the date of my flight home (you can usually only book flights up to a year in advance, and as I'd booked mine in October I had a return flight that was several months earlier than I intend to come home). It took around ninety minutes to do this, but I didn't mind as I was killing time anyway - and the office was air-conditioned. I'd had enough of chewing on brick dust on my journey there, so took the metro back to New Delhi station; it's a much better alternative to trying to cross the busy road. It was a little early, but I headed to the Internet cafe, and handed the guy my computer, going online while I waited for him to set it up. This didn't appear to be as simple as he had suggested, and he had to make a number of heated phone calls to someone, shouting down the phone at them. Each time I asked, he said it was no problem, that it would be ready soon. Time dragged on, and when it got to half past five I decided to get some food, as I was running out of time before my train. Okay, he said, leave your computer with me - I'm having some problems setting it up, and need to take it to the office to get it sorted.

I was rather nervous whilst eating - I was cutting it far too fine for my liking. Fortunately when I returned I found that the man had thought the same - my laptop was with him, and he had sent his boy to the office with the modem to sort things out. The clock was ticking, my departure time approaching, and eventually the boy showed up. He plugged the modem into the computer, and . . . it still didn't work. He said it should be working in just ten or fifteen minutes - I could trust him or take a refund, my choice. I tossed a coin in my head, and decided to risk it, stuffing my computer in my bag, and dashing to pick up my backpack and catch the train. I had my fingers crossed on the way to the New Delhi Station that my train would be leaving from platform one, the nearest - no, platform twelve. Up the stairs I went, battling though the crowds, hoping that my carriage would be right at the bottom of the steps when I descended - no. The train extended as far as the eye could see in either direction, and I tossed another mental coin, fortunately choosing the right way to walk. Ten carriages later I'd found S7, shifted other peoples bags so my pack would fit, and settled, panting, into my seat with just a couple of minutes to spare before we set off.

A short while into the journey a railway policeman came along, sat between the two boys on the side bunk for a few moments, gathering his thoughts, and then handed me a laminated document to read. It was advice on how foreigners can avoid being poisoned on the train - not accepting food from strangers or leaving drinks unattended, stuff like that. It also stated that I should keep all important documents and money on my person, under my clothes, and not let anyone know they were there . . . which was ironic, as five minutes before the TTE had demanded to see my passport, meaning I had to delve into my safely concealed money belt in front of everyone to show it to him. He got me to sign to say I'd read the document, then leaned over and told me to lock my belongings whilst I was sleeping. I nodded and thanked him - wondering why it was that this train required a special warning.

The journey went well. I retired to my top bunk once it turned dark, and slept relatively well - although I did wake up cold during the night, covering myself with my blanket, when the temperature dropped below 30, brrrr. In the morning I sat in the open doorway for a while, watching the world go by. We stopped for a time by a small village, where women were forming cow pats into round discs to be used for fuel, laying them in the sun to dry, then stacking them neatly. There was a little girl in my section of the carriage, maybe three years old, travelling with her mother and grandfather. She had an even bigger chai addiction than me - every time a chai-wallah went past she'd clap her hands and shout "chai, chai", looking hopefully towards her mother. When she was bought some, it was first poured into a metal cup and cooled by her granddad - then she'd sip it, with her pinky sticking out, all ladylike and looking ever so pleased with herself.

I'd phoned ahead to Puja hotel, where I had stayed five years previously, to book a room. Varanasi's rickshaw mafia are notorious, and it is better and cheaper all round to arrange a pick-up from your chosen hotel. After arriving at the station (where I'd witnessed a bomb go off five years before) and milling around outside the tourist information booth (which was exactly where the bomb had exploded) for a while, a man unfolded a piece of paper that read "Serena from England" - hurrah, the system worked! The rickshaw took me as far as rickshaws can go, and parked up, with the driver leading me the rest of the way through the old city to the hotel on foot. The streets were narrow and winding, and busy with pedestrians, cows and the occasional bike. We got there in the end though, and I was shown to a nice room that costs the not so nice price of Rs500 - and that's with a discount because I'm staying seven nights. I wasn't impressed - it only cost Rs300 last time I was here. I did remember enjoying my stay though . . . and the room was large and relatively clean . . . and the monkey-proof balcony does overlook the Ganges . . . and I was tired after my overnight train. I decided to stay. I may well have moved on after a night, found somewhere cheaper and maybe better, if it wasn't for my inherent laziness and the darned great view! I should have done really, as the service had declined as much as the price had increased. I won't be back for a third stay.

Once I'd settled into the room, I eagerly tried my computer to see if the Internet was now working . . . it wasn't. I spent most of the morning trying to sort it out - phone calls back and forth to the guy I'd bought it from; waiting fifteen minutes in a queue for the customer service phone line - only to be told I'd got through to the wrong number, and getting cut off when they tried to transfer me . . . twice! Eventually though, after several hours of frustration, it worked. I know have Internet access on the move - albeit a slow connection which is prone to dropping out. I am officially a high tech traveller.

That sorted, I headed down to the ghats, feeling my excitement growing as I neared the water. I'd intended on taking a walk, but decided instead on a boat trip. Being rowed along the Ganges, watching life on the ghats, is a very peaceful experience. In an incredibly photogenic country, Varanasi really is the cherry on the cake. Everywhere you turn there's the most amazing shot; vibrant colours, interesting faces, mystic rituals, sublime reflections . . . even the graffiti is awesome (I'm being flippant calling it graffiti - it's religious murals and adverts for hotels and restaurants, in fact). I'm addicted to the ghats - either walking along them, or floating alongside in a boat. I know that there's more to see in Varanasi away from the water, but I just can't tear myself away. Maybe I'm just giving myself an excuse to come back again? I spent a week here, but could easily have stayed a month, I think (had my accommodation been more reasonably priced, maybe I would have done). Perhaps in that time I could have beared to look away from the fascinating ghats long enough to explore more. Maybe not though - the draw of the mighty Ganga is strong.

I had an early taste of the monsoon on my third morning in town. I'd intended on an early walk along the ghats, waking before six. The sun had risen, although it was not visible behind a bank of haze. I opened all my windows and door, and then lay back down, muttering "just five more minutes" to myself. Half an hour later I was awoken by loud bangs. I sat up, a tad disorientated, and found that gale force winds were slamming my windows open and shut, whilst rainwater poured down the wall by my bed. Shocked, I looked out of the door and discovered that the Ganga had disappeared behind what seemed to me to be hurricane conditions. I set about closing the windows - which did little to staunch the flow of water. I pulled the bed away from the wall, to stop that getting wet, and looked helplessly at the veritable stream that was entering through the loose fitting window frames, gushing across my room and flooding out through the door to the hallway.

Normally I would have all my worldly goods strewn willy nilly about the floor of my room (Chris will happily confirm this), and had that been the case on this occasion I could potentially have been looking at wrecked electrical equipment - certainly a soaked backpack and clothes. But hurrah, a little tiny mouse saved my possessions! He'd appeared the night before, darting from one corner of the room to the next, and generally being very cute. Whilst I was happy to have the company, I didn't want him gnawing through any wires, or making himself a nest in my backpack (I've enough to carry as it is), so I'd put all my clothes, computer gear etc. on the chairs and table in the room out of harm's way. What a good move that was! I am very grateful to my little whiskered friend, and shared my moong dahl with him - and I love moong dahl as much as I love chai, so the sacrifice was a great one.

For once I was also very relieved to have laid in - otherwise I'd have been caught out in the storm - no big problem for me, huge problem for my camera. The storm lasted half an hour or so, and then began to die down. Once the rain had diminished sufficiently for me to see the Ganges (which is only fifty metres or so away), I could see that the surface of the river, which normally chugs along at a gentle pace, had white horses caused by the wind. My thermometer - which I'd attached to the monkey grille on the balcony before I'd battened down the hatches - had dropped to 22 degrees. The air was fresh and smelt clean, and once the rain had stopped, visibility had greatly improved. I went to the roof for breakfast (wearing a jumper, of course - brrrrr!) and asked one of the staff if this was how things were in the monsoon. "Yes," he said. "The rain cools things down and makes everything like new. Sometimes it is tricky to get around because of the mud in the streets, but we like monsoon very much. I think it is coming early this year."

That afternoon I went out with a simple mission; to find an ATM. I checked in my guidebook and discovered that there should be one opposite the rickshaw stand where I was dropped off. So I headed away from the river, and began to weave my way through the labyrinthine lanes. The streets were busy with pilgrims, many barefooted and carrying shiny pots full of water with flowers floating on top. I could tell when I was approaching the Golden Temple due to the military presence. The metal detectors beeped as queues of Hindus passed through - non-Hindus are not allowed - although the guys from the guesthouse reckon I can go inside if I'm with them, not that I'll be putting that to the test. Indian temples are not really a spectator sport. Whilst Iím sure they are very moving if you are Hindu, I find them a tad dull inside . . . the fact that photography is usually prohibited has a lot to do with my lack of interest, Iím sure - if I canít take pictures of it, I donít want to see it.

I carried on past, going against the flow now, through the very busy streets; at least it was mostly pedestrians. The morningís torrential rain had given the drains (such as they are) a bit of a test, and there were a number of paving slabs up with men standing around looking into the malodorous holes. I did myself a favour by not looking too closely - just paying enough attention so that I didn't end up down one of them. Eventually I found myself out of the old city and on Mandapur Road, which borders it. The traffic came as a bit of a shock, as did the sun - the narrow lanes in the old city are shaded by tall buildings and hardly any sun filters through. I figured I needed to walk right, so set off - walking in the road, as usual, as the pavements are full of shops that have burst at the seams, and spilled out onto the sidewalks. I walked a good way, and found what I needed, waiting my turn at the ATM vestibule - pointing out to a smartly-dressed man who stepped in front of me that it was indeed a queue (the women before me chuckled as he went to the back of the line).

Once I'd got my cash (Rs1000 notes - how am I going to get rid of them? No one ever has change for a 500) I started my journey back. Wanting to avoid the traffic, I turned left into the old city at the first opportunity, noticing how the temperature immediately dropped, along with the noise. I shuffled along amidst the throng, and soon came upon the queues for the Golden Temple. Great, I thought, not far now . . . and it shouldn't have been, but then I got lost. I knew I could find my guesthouse from the Ganges, so decided to head for that - how hard can it be? Very. I found myself wandering this way and that with no idea where the river was. Every time I thought I'd got my head round it, and turned confidently in what I thought was the direction of the water, I'd come upon wider streets with motorised traffic, and realise I was walking in the opposite direction.

I decided to keep heading downhill - whenever I came to a junction I'd go down - surely I'd find the water that way. When I came across an open-fronted shop up a few steps, that boasted all kinds of recharges for all networks, I thought I'd top up my phone. Getting more credit on your mobile phone is usually a very simple procedure that takes under a minute to complete (surprisingly, in this land where simple things are often incredibly complicated); you go into a shop, tell them your number, they tap it into their phone, your phone receives an SMS telling you how much the recharge cost and how much credit you get for it. Here, alas, it was not so easy.

Two men, who looked like brothers, sat behind a computer screen. I think they must have been related to Dave, the dopey son-in-law in the Royale Family. I gave them my phone with the number showing and waited. They looked at the phone for a while, and had a conversation in Hindi. After a couple of minutes, Dopey Dave One picked up my phone and dialled the number of his brother's phone. Dopey Dave Two picked up his phone, and looked at the number. Then they both stared fecklessly at the computer screen for a while.

I watched the world go by outside the shop - pilgrims on their way to perform puja, kids skipping home from school, a huge bull lumbering past. After a while I heard the unmistakable sound of Windows shutting down. Ah, I thought, they've had to restart. I studied the giant ants running this way and that for five minutes, then chanced a look at the screen - scandisk. It'll be a while yet then. Windows started up . . . only to be closed down again five minutes later. I sat, pondering on how India teaches one patience. Next time I looked at the screen, Dopey One was playing tetris. "Problems with Internet," said Dopey Two, picking up his mobile and leaving the shop.

Perhaps he's gone to get my phone recharged at another shop, I thought. No. He came back five minutes later with some betel nut, wrapped in a leaf, and started chewing. I glanced round at the screen again a short while later - still no joy. "Oh well," said I, "thanks for trying." Getting up and gathering my things to leave.

"Just wait, one, maybe two minutes . . . "

Five minutes and another restart later, I gave up. "If you give me the money I can recharge it for you . . . " one said - I could do that myself, so I declined and set off, continuing with my theory of heading downhill. A few turns later, and I thought things were looking familiar . . . I'd walked right around the block and was again approaching the hopeless mobile shop - how did that happen?! I paused, feeling a bit silly to walk past it, heading in the same direction I'd been walking the first time around. They'd think I was a total idiot. As luck would have it, just at that very moment my phone rang, with a number I didn't recognise. I correctly guessed who it was.

"Internet is working now," said one of the brothers. "If you come in . . . a short time . . . " If he was surprised at my alacrity when I appeared at the shop five seconds later, he didn't show it.

"It's working?" I asked, sitting down expectantly. Two more minutes passed and it became obvious that . . . computer says no. Never mind, at least I now had an opportunity to ask directions. "Can you tell me how to get to the Ganga from here please?" They both looked at me blankly. "I'm trying to get to the ghats? To the river . . . the River Ganges - Ganga . . . it's very famous!" I somehow managed to mime river, and the penny dropped.

"You go here and turn left," said Dopey One.

"No," interjected Dopey Two. "You go right. At the temple. Left first. And then right." Amazingly I did manage to leave the twighlight zone and find my hotel - I was only a short distance away. On the way I stopped and recharged my mobile. It was a simple procedure that took under a minute to complete!

The following day I watched the sunrise from my room, and - once I was reasonably sure it wasn't going to start pouring with rain - went of in search of a boat. I found Pappi, a dependable boatman from the Brahmin caste, who was keen to share his strong love of Varanasi and Ganga. He said he could never spend more than two days away from the city; if he went on trips to temples with his friends, he would always return early as he missed his hometown too much. On our first outing, we saw a body floating face down in the water. Pappi explained that there are five types of people who cannot be cremated: children under ten; pregnant women; lepers; saddhus (holy men); and victims of snakebites, because their bodies have been poisoned. These are instead tied to a large stone by a rope, and sunk to the bottom of the river - only sometimes the rope breaks, and the bodies pop up to the surface; I saw five in total during my week there.

I took several trips with Pappi, including a long row over to the Maharajah's Palace, which houses a small and not terribly exciting museum. The highlight of that trip was returning along the banks of the Ganges as dusk fell, watching the giant fruit bats swoop down to the water. Varanasi was in the middle of one of its regular power cuts, so it was mostly dark along the ghats, just a few twinkling candles floating on the water's surface - offerings to Ganga. Most peaceful. That was my last evening in the city, and a great way to end my stay there.

My next destination was Bandvargarh National Park, which has a better than average chance of seeing tigers. The parks in Madhya Pradesh are not as well organised as Ranthambore - which is a breeze for the independent traveller. You can just turn up there and pay to go on safari, the park will allocate you a place on a jeep or canter, and pick you up from your hotel. Here you have to pay for the whole jeep - at a cost of over Rs3000. If there are five of you, then that works out the same price as Ranthambore. If, however, you are travelling alone, you could have a problem. Not only am I travelling alone, but also out of season - most sensible foreigners have headed for cooler, higher ground by now - but I have to be different!

I figured my best bet was to head to the most popular budget establishment, in the hope that a few other nutters would be sweating it out on the plains, and I could join up with them to split costs. My research told me this was Kum Kum Home, so after an eight-hour train ride, an overnight stop in Katni, a two-hour train ride the next morning, followed by a further two-hour bus ride to cover the last 32km (the roads are not good!) I arrived, and secured a basic concrete room which the teenage boy who seemed to be running the place told me cost Rs350 a night. I could have an air cooler if I preferred for Rs400 - I decided that was the best way to go - I had four days here, and the chances were that very little of that time would be spent on safari, so I may as well be as comfortable as the basic facilities allowed. I asked to see the air-cooled room, but he said that was not a problem, they would move the air cooler to the room, so I unpacked. An air cooler, I should explain, is not an air conditioner; instead it is a metal box with a fan inside. The sides of the box are slatted and lined with straw. Water goes in the bottom on the unit, and when it is switched on, that water soaks into the straw, so that the air sucked into the unit is cooled before being blown into the room.

There was a restaurant attached to the hotel, and the boy told me that simple thalis were provided, and that I could buy cold water there too. I asked if I could have lunch, and he said it would take half an hour. An hour later my lunch arrived - rice, chapati, dahl and one vegetable dish. I asked if I could have a soft drink to go with it, and he stared off into the distance vacantly; I took this to mean no. Ok, I said, I'll have a water - again, the vacant look, as if excepting a bottle to materialise before his eyes. It didn't, so I said not to worry, I'd pop along the road and get one myself after I'd eaten. Before I went, I reminded the boy about the air cooler - yes, no problem, it would be ready soon. I popped into the tiny town and picked up supplies, including mosquito coils, as I had now re-entered a malarial zone. I returned, looking forward to my air-cooled room. No air cooler. I asked the boy again - yes, just twenty minutes. I asked again if he needed me to switch rooms - no, that's fine. Half an hour later he knocked on my door and asked me to change rooms.

The first room had been grotty, but the second was worse. The sheets had dubious stains, there was a pooh floating in the toilet, and a load more caked on the side (sorry - were you eating?!). The giant-ant infestation was worse than in the first room, and in order to plug in the air cooler (which sat outside the room) in, they had punched a large hole in the mosquito screen that was big enough for a crow to get through. I was not impressed, but tried to remind myself that I had liked the adventurous, remote feel to the place when I'd arrived. I took a shower to cool my thoughts - and almost gagged at the rusty smell of the water. I was chatting online to my parents when there was a loud bang on the corrugated iron roof - I correctly guessed it was monkeys, and went outside to look. Sure enough, there was a sizeable group of langurs - which are normally pretty docile, gentle giants, but it's coming up to mating season, so there was a lot of flexing muscles and baring of teeth - you know how men are. Still, it was fun to watch them . . . until the boys that worked there started chasing them off, throwing things at them. I was going off Kum Kum fast.

I knew what would cheer me up - a nice pot of chai. I asked a different boy if it was possible to get one; this lad had also perfected the vacant look. Well if I can't get one here, where can I get one? He waved his arm vaguely to the right. Another boy spoke to him, asking what I'd wanted, so I tried again for a pot of chai. Okay, he said, it will be five minutes, maybe ten. I understand that chai takes time, so this was no problem. I settled down to watch the monkeys that hadn't yet been scared off. Half an hour later I got a single small glass of chai - totally insufficient for my needs. I wanted to shake the boy and shout "I asked for a pot, damn you!" I managed to control myself though, and thanked him - but it was the final straw - I was leaving in the morning, staying somewhere else.

I combined my search for new digs with a hunt for foreigners to go on safari with, and came up with pretty slim pickings. There are only a four budget places in town (including Kum Kum) and I was the only budget traveller in town; none of the other three had a single guest. One place did have nice rooms for 800 - more than I'd usually like to pay, but much better value than where I was. Chris had phoned one of the cheaper mid-range establishments the day before, looking for somewhere for me to stay (bless him - he's been a star, doing loads of research for me). He said that Mr Singh the manager sounded really nice, but I'd balked at the 2000 a night price Chris had negotiated - although that had included all meals. Chris thought that maybe I could get a cheaper deal if I went there in person, so I decided to check it out the next day. I returned a little disheartened to Kum Kum, where I found my room full of mosquitoes (well, forty odd), despite the two coils I'd left burning - I head wobbled in annoyance.

Kum Kum's manager - an actual grown up, the only one working there from what I could see - had introduced himself to me before I'd set off. He told me that I could turn up at the gates the following morning at five, and see if I could find someone to jeep share with. Either that or wait for someone to turn up there - but after my trawl around town I wasn't too hopeful of that happening. I got an uncomfortable night's sleep - I'd had to close the metal shutters on the window to ward off further mozzies, so couldn't use the cooler. The room was hot, and I was constantly batting off mosquitoes and giant ants. I was definitely getting out in the morning.

I awoke the nest morning before five, and went to the gates and waited. Most of the jeeps were full to overloaded with Indian families, but just as I was giving up hope I found one with two guys from California who let me jump in with them and split costs. They'd been overcharged by their hotel - 4,500 instead of 3080, so it cost me 1,500. We had been allocated zone two - wish disappointed the driver, as there are no tigers in zone two at the moment, only in zone one, which was fully booked. At this time of year all the zones except zone one are dry which is why all the sightings there. So it was an expensive and futile exercise, really. The most exciting thing we saw - which driver screeched to a halt for - was jungle fowl . . . yup, chickens!

And then the unthinkable happened; my worst case scenario - equipment failure - my lens died!

I just had camera on my lap, and went to take a picture of a bird - but the zoom wouldn't work & there was rattling inside - a screw had come loose during the bumpy drive around the park. The auto-focus wasn't working either. At first I could manually pull the zoom out and focus, but then the screw jammed somewhere and I couldn't even do that. I was devastated. I went through my options in my head - go to Delhi and buy one - they're cheap on the grey import market, but with no comeback, in a land of cheating men, I don't think so. Curtail my trip? Fly to Singa-bloody-pore and buy one? There is no way I'm travelling without being able to take pictures - that's never going to happen! I'd always said to myself, only half joking, that if anything happened to my camera I'd end my trip. If I can't take pictures of it, I don't want to see it. That might not be the right attitude, but it's the only one I've got.

I was pretty disheartened. On top of all that the lunch I'd had at Kum Kum the day before had made me sick - not too bad, but I'd had to dose up on immodium before going out that morning. It was turning into a really bad day, and it was only nine oíclock. I got the safari jeep to drop me at White Tiger Forest Resort - the place Chris had suggested. The manager was nice, and showed me a couple of rooms saying he could discount to Rs2000 from the usual cost of Rs2190 - it's a government run place, so he doesn't have a lot of scope. He said he would try to find me people to safari with too - although without a functioning camera I wasn't planning to do any more. I was umming & erring, as it cost so much - although the air-cooled rooms were nicer than Kum Kumís, I didn't think they were worth Rs2000.

I told him I was having trouble thinking straight & explained about my lens . . . and it all got a bit much for me - I couldn't help but start crying! He was so nice, came and patted my back, and said that he knew a photographer and would try & help me to get the camera fixed. So I said yes - with the proviso I could get a cheeky extra breakfast that morning - other than the meal that made me sick, I'd only had snacks previous day (which is how I was sure it was that meal that was to blame).

He sent a driver round with me to collect my things from Kum Kum. I went in and finished packing and told them I was leaving - but the manager got very angry, and said that because I'd signed in register that I'd stay four nights, this was a big problem for him. I'd said I'd change it and initial it - he said I couldn't do that (which admittedly may be right, Indian bureaucracy and all). I could see where he was going, and said, "if you think I'm going to pay for four nights, you are wrong - the food I had here made me sick, the room is full of bugs - of course I am going to leave, and I'm not paying any more than one night."

He said, "Okay then - but you must pay half, you wrote in the register you'd stay four nights." I told him that this was not happening & gave him just 400 for one night.

I returned to White Tiger Forrest Lodge and registered, then the manager took me with a driver to see a local professional photographer to see if he could maybe fix the lens. We took it off the body, and could see inside where the screw should go, though the screw itself was nowhere to be seen, we could just hear it rattling around. It's frustrating, as it's only really a relatively minor mechanical issue. This professional said that it is always best to buy Nikon lenses rather than Sigma; I had to agree with him. He had a friend with a second hand Sigma 28-300 in good condition, which he wanted to sell, and maybe he'd let me have it for Rs8000. With my options limited, this sounded like the perfect solution. The manager and I returned after five to try the lens out. Unfortunately there was an issue with this lens as well, some play in it that exposed the inside workings. As soon as I pointed it out to the pro he advised me not to buy it - another example of why you shouldn't buy Sigma lenses!

He's going to try to source a lens for me in Bhopal, with some people that he buys equipment from. Until I can buy a replacement, the rest of my plans are on hold. Bhopal is the nearest big city, so even if his contact doesn't come through, I'm probably best of going there next to try and track one down. Iíve emailed a few authorised Nikon dealerships in Jhansi and Lucknow, but if I donít get any joy from them Iíll have to go back to Delhi. I should be able to find one in the capital - from a legitimate source though, I donít want a dodgy import, even if it is much cheaper. My Sigma will be posted home in disgrace - itís only five months old, so will still be under warranty - not that that does me much good here and now.

So if you can all please keep your fingers crossed for me. With a bit of luck I can track down a Nikon 18-200mm lens, at a reasonable price, from an honest source. If this happens soon, and the trains I need to catch have availability, and the Post Office is not too awkward when I go to send my broken lens home, then maybe Iíll be able to resume my trip as planned within a week or so. Hereís hoping.

In the meantime, Iíll be continuing to add photos to my Varanasi gallery Ė quite possibly my largest gallery ever! You may also be interested to read about the first six weeks through Chrisís eyes, for a different perspective on our travels. Both the gallery and Chrisís travellogue are currently in progress and not yet complete, but they should be within the next week or so . . . especially if I canít take any pictures Ė wah!!!!!

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