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We arrive at Varanasi station cloaked in darkness. Despite not the slightest hint of light to the east the station is already heaving with people. Many of them lie discarded on the platforms having spent a chilly night under thin blankets. Others less fortunate huddle together with shirts wrapped around their heads to keep warm.

Varanasi Train Station

Waiting for the train at Varanasi station

As yet there is no expected time of arrival for our train to Gorakhpur. The swelling crowd seem ambivalent and more interested in obtaining chai. I go in search of the station master’s office. During our travels through India I have always found them extremely helpful and eager to guide a hapless foreign traveller. This morning is no exception. A loud man with a thick moustache and a straining belt directs us to the train’s conductor. He informs us that the train is delayed but is expected to arrive within the hour. There is nothing to do but find space on the crowded platform and join the others in search of chai.
Two hours later the train finally arrives. The conductor waves to us and nods. I think they feel sorry for us, almost knowing we are not used to pushing through crowds and fighting our way onto trains. We have been spared significant dramas in the last few weeks, but as if knowing this is our last train ride in India we are dished up one last epic battle. As the train slows the normally passive Indians panic and surge toward the open doors like frightened livestock. Standing back and waiting is tempting but also risky as you may not get on before the train departs. We pick up our bags and enter the fray one last time.
It’s a strange experience for us westerners. We would normally associate pushing and pulling as acts of aggression but here it’s just required survival and nothing personal. The idea is to smile remain calm and fight harder than the person next to you. For us it’s not always easy but with practice you start to get the hang of it. I glance at my opposition most of whom are several inches shorter and many kilos lighter than I. A few well timed pushes and arm blocks and we are on the train. Having built up the required skills it feels almost a shame to be leaving now.

Varanasi Train

Crowds rush to the train

We head north through farm fields and flocks of yellow flowers. I take one last opportunity to stand in the open door. It will be several months before we are on a train again and possibly none will allow you to open doors and sit on the stairs. We arrive into Gorakhpur station 6 hours later. By now it’s well after lunch and we still have a 3-4 hour bus ride to Sonauli at the Nepalese border. Motorised and manpowered rickshaws descend upon us as we exit the station. Apparently its several kilometres to the bus stand and too far to walk. A helpful policeman directs us to a corner about 100 meters directly in front of the stations main clock tower. A statue of a once important man astride a horse sits in the centre of the intersection. There waiting among goats and cows are several busses. One driver immediately spots us knowing almost every westerner in Gorakhpur is heading to the Nepalese border. He shouts out Sonauli, Sonauli and ushers us onto the bus with false promises of a quick departure. The bus is about half full so his claims appear at first possible.
An hour passes with only a trickle of passengers joining. To pass the time I go in search of oranges and decide I shall leave India having secured the best price for them on the sub-continent. I just want to try and get the better of a vendor once before I leave. I succeed in passing time but remain marginally ripped off. The bus remains idle, its engine cold and unwilling to start. It’s now almost 90 minutes and even the locals are growing impatient and angry. One passenger is shouting at the driver and then appeals to me in English that this is scandalous and criminal. He is well dressed and I notice he is carrying a leather briefcase. I am guessing he is a businessman of sorts. He continues to berate the driver and conductor in loud bursts while speaking to me in a calm but condemning voice. He even apologises for what he claims is a national disgrace. I like the Indians and I love the way they use our language to great and sometimes colourful exaggerations.

The Bus at Ghorakhpur

The Bus at Ghorakhpur

When the driver starts the engine and blows the horn we receive an immediate surge of interest from people on the street. The empty seats fill up quickly. Why he did not do this almost two hours ago is completely beyond me. With practiced tolerance and a pretence of cultural understanding I assume there is a good reason but the businessman’s shaking head has me returning to the belief that it’s just simple stupidity. With great difficulty he performs a U turn and heads back up the broken road a 100 meters before stopping. He then makes in the narrow street a 7 point turn that takes almost 5 minutes to complete before coming to stop and killing the engine. It’s all too much for the businessman and he immediately erupts into a volley of abuse and fist shaking. I like having him here. There is no need to get angry, I have a proxy who is doing a splendid job. Several other passengers join in and the surge of condemnation is finally too much for the driver to bare. He starts the engine up, spits out the window and pumps his musical horn before setting off.
Four hours later our bus sighs, hisses and stops among the littered streets of Sonauli. We wait to make sure we have reached the last stop. The driver waves his hand and shouts Nepal border. We retrieve our bags from the back storage area of the bus, a blessed rarity in India. A few bicycle rickshaw men offer to take us to the border. As usual we are told it’s too far to walk, in reality it’s only a couple of hundred meters away. I feel a nostalgic urge to dwell and accept their services as I know we are now spending our final moments in this wonderful country.

India Nepal border

Walking to the India Nepal boreder

The flow of human and motorised traffic is unabated at the border. Indians and Nepalese are free to cross without passport and formality. As such the immigration office is rather non-descript and unassuming. The immigration officer almost looks relieved and keen to be of use. He stamps us out and bids us goodbye. We pause in no-man’s land to take a photo. Ahead is a white arch with a Buddhist chorten and a sign that says “Welcome to Nepal” A small group of foreigners are gathered inside the Nepal Immigration building. We fill in a form and hand over $100.00 USD each for a 90 day visa. Within ten minutes our passports are returned and we are free to enter what was once a forbidden Kingdom.

India Sonali Immigration

India Sonali Immigration

The streets on the Nepalese side of the border seem less littered although it’s a bit hard to tell in the fading light. The sun has set as we go in search of a hotel. It’s always best to leave a border as quickly as possible but Kathmandu is still another 10 hours away. The first few inspections are a little depressing but we eventually find a satisfactory room for 1500 NPR. Conveniently the Nepalese Rupee is currently trading at 99 to the USD dollar so adjustment to the new currency is made easy.
Downstairs the restaurant is overstaffed and empty as our stomachs. We order a vegetable fried rice and an aloo or potato curry with two cans of coke for just under 500 NPR. I survey my surroundings with a combination of satisfaction and relief. It’s always comforting to have crossed a border. A feeling of progress and achievement on our journey. This time tomorrow night we will be in Kathmandu. Our travels towards Singapore will for a few months cease as we spend time trekking in the Himalayas.

India Nepal Border crossing

Crossing into Nepal

The next morning Sonauli is blanketed in thick fog. I open the curtains. Below me a lady is burning juniper branches and a chant is being played on a loud speaker. Despite the excitement and prospect of reaching Kathmandu I feel tired and lethargic. Yesterday’s early start and the long delays in reaching the border have caught up with me. I test the shower optimistically for hot water or tatto pani but none is forthcoming. Outside I can hear bus engines starting up and a chorus of horns. By the time we pack up and walk down to the street they have all but left. One pitiful example remains rusting and empty. The taxi drivers circle around me like some weak member of the herd that has become separated from the others. I feel willing to succumb to them as I just don’t have the energy to wait for another bus and face a 10 hour journey. An immediate departure and a promise of 6-7 hours is too much and we cough up 8800 NPR. The starting price was 9000 and I pitifully manage to negotiate a $2.00 discount! The car at least looks clean and I run through several justifications for taking the taxi instead of the bus which would have been 600-800 NPR each depending on service offered. It’s a rare moment of laziness but I still feel a bit guilty.

Sonali Taxi

Jelly Bean head

Our driver has a head shaped like a jelly bean and I find it difficult not to stare at him. He is friendly enough but not overly talkative. I am still a little annoyed at paying $88.00 USD to get to Kathmandu so I engage him in Nepal’s current economic costs. He explains that the cost of cars is very expensive when compared to India. I have no way of knowing this is true but nod agreeably. Our progress is slowed by the fog. Above the sun is trying to break through. The road is slick and shines like a mirror. So far there is no sign of the mountains for which Nepal is famous. Just flat plains and patches of mist.

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Within an hour the early cloud breaks and we see the lower foothills of the Himalayas ahead. Large forested mountains that rise about a 1000 meters in height. The white giants further to the north are for now hidden. A couple of hours later we connect with the main road that runs between Pokhara and Kathmandu. We stop for some food, but opt for a can of soft drink and packet of chips. This seems to have become our staple diet during the day at small and suspect restaurants. My brevity for testing out local food has somewhat diminished knowing that we will start trekking in a few days’ time.

Lunch

Lunch

The rolling green hills of Nepal are a visual feast. Lined with terraces and dotted with charming houses and livestock. We start the climb up a long and winding pass. The road degrades into terrible condition. Trucks and busses send up large plumes of dust that force us to close the windows. Overtaking becomes difficult on the narrow broken surface. In the five years since we last came up the pass there has been no improvement at all. This is to use the Indian Businessman’s words a real National disgrace.
We snake our way up, overtaking where possible and sometimes where not. The vegetation changes from thick jungle to pine forests. Finally we catch a glimpse of the Himalayas. Among the huge bank of clouds to the north icy tips manage to break through. We crest the pass and Kathmandu comes into view. In the distance I can see a huge Chorten on a hill with a golden peak. True to his word our driver with the jelly bean head has us into Kathmandu within 7 hours of leaving. I feel a little satisfied at least in knowing we passed the busses that left early in the morning a few hours ago.

Nepal Village

Nepal countryside

We enter the tight busy streets of Thamel and get dropped off at the Kathmandu Guest House. Almost every souvenir and trekking shop has the chant Om Mane Padme Om playing and the air is filled with smoky juniper incense. We sit in the courtyard of the hotel too tired to check in and order a sweet lassi, feeling very excited and relived to have at last reached Kathmandu…

Thamel Kathmandu

The tights streets of Thamel in Kathmandu

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A farewell to India

Despite an abundance of time and an endless source of inspiration, we find ourselves hopelessly behind in keeping our travel diary up to date. I feel compelled to try and recall every precious moment from attempted burglary to humbling acts of kindness but with only a few days left before we make our way to the Nepalese border that seems almost impossible… but we shall do our best.
Goa and Hampi…
We leave Mumbai in the dead of night on a train bound for Goa. The attendant hands out sheets, a thick blanket and a disappointingly thin pillow. I ask him for another but he ignores me. Perhaps he didn’t understand my request so I ask again but get the same silent outcome. I wait for him to move into the next carriage and then liberate one from the linen closet which he has left unlocked.

Palolem Beach

Palolem Beach

We arrive in the morning at Madgoan, a small station enveloped by jungle thirty kilometres north of Palolem beach. The rickshaw drivers are as ever keenly waiting. We ask to be taken to the bus station which is 2km away. The driver has other ideas and insists on taking us all the way to the beach for 700 rupees. Apparently there are no direct busses, in fact we are told we shall have to endure the inconvenience of changing twice. He seems perplexed and angered by our apparent lack of faith and verbally scolds us several times in his native tongue. The bus costs 30 rupees each and perhaps somewhat unsurprisingly runs direct all the way to the beach without so much as a single transfer.

Beach Cows

Beach Cow

Palolem Beach is a pleasant cove of Palm trees, brown sand and colourful jelly bean shacks. I feel immediately disconnected with India. I won’t deny that it has its charms but this could be anywhere in the world. A generic beachside backpacker’s playground of deck chairs, pool tables and bars selling cheap beer. There is the occasional wondering cow and one staff member who wears a Ghandi shirt just to remind me of where I am.
Despite a lack of genuine sub-continent culture we are fortunate to meet up with a number of interesting people. Dan and Sophie from Australia, Hillary and Dan from the United States who were on our bus, and Imogen, whom we met 9 months ago while travelling on the crippled train from Zambia to Tanzania. Seeing her is at first a surreal experience. It reminds me of just how far we have come since we last saw her on another continent that lies thousands of miles away across the Indian Ocean. She introduces us to Shaun a dry humoured and quick witted Brit who is attempting to lose weight with a diet of gin and strawberry cigarettes. His philosophies are pleasantly independent and truthfully crushing.

 

Jimmy, Anna, Imogen, Emma and Shaun

Jimmy, Anna, Imogen, Emma and Shaun

Jimmy a friend from the US is currently waging a verbal war against him and accuses Shaun on a daily basis of being a Pirate. From what I gather a Pirate is an aging old man who has become institutionalised by the beach and walks around bare chested trying to pick up ladies of a younger generation. Imogen and Jimmy have even nicknamed his motorbike the Black Pearl and relentlessly mock him with a “piratical” voice. As I said this place has little to do with India but despite some contempt and overpriced beach shacks we have a pleasant week among the palm trees and the soft thud of waves dumping on the sand at night.

Boat ride Goa
Five hours east of Goa on a slow moving train is a small settlement set among the ruins of a much older civilisation. The landscape is dominated by millions of broken and weathered boulders. Some of them appear placed in impossible positions as if discarded by some giant from a bygone era. Among the jumbled rocks are palm tree groves and rice paddy fields filled with white cranes. It’s a soothing scene that begs exploration. We hire some small fixed gear motor bikes for only 150 rupees a day which is just over $2.00 USD and go exploring the back roads with our friends from the bus back in Goa. The roads are in terrible condition but most of the traffic is restricted to slender white cows decorated with flowers and pulling wagons loaded with harvested crops. Most of the drivers are children and they wave excitedly with each passing.

Hampi Ruins

Hampi Ruins

It’s not long before the dishevelled road claims its first victim. Dan from Australia drops the chain while going over a bump. I think back home this would prove a small disaster but here in India help and improvisation are never far away. Within moments expert chai wallahs and mechanics of dubious experience surround us. We take a seat at the request of our hosts on some old plastic chairs provided and sip some masala chai. In between cups the chain links are pounded by youths wielding Stone Age tools. I have complete faith in their methods and perseverance but no so much in their time frame. By sheer coincidence one of the bike rental owners is passing by and stops. He phones back to the shop and within thirty minutes another bike is delivered. Our situation is saved and we are free to continue getting lost in the Hampi landscapes.

Sons of Hampi

Sons of Hampi

Kerala…
I wake each morning to sound the sound of Brahman chants. I get a sense of their general direction but their exact location is difficult to determine. They seem to permeate a forest that is alive with the chatter of birds and bells ringing from afar.
The Gowri Guesthouse is a Mecca for mosquitos. Its meandering paths are pleasant and shaded by an assortment of tropical trees. The tiny vampires seem to thrive in such conditions and make a regular feast upon my ankles and arms. I have tried using Deet but this only dries the skin creating an uncontrollable itch. Outside the entrance on a busy street is a wagon selling fruit. I have developed a liking for his oranges which come cheaply at 6-7 rupees each depending on their size. Every morning and sometimes in the evening he hands me a small bag for 30 rupees. They are easy to peel and very sweet. Since our time in Pakistan I have been gaining weight despite my best efforts not to do so. Perhaps I am hoping a citrus intervention can arrest the problem. Emma on the other hand has suffered no such gains but she regularly insists she is becoming flabby from lack of exercise. She coins the phrase skinny fat for her current condition.

Kerala Backwaters

Kerala Backwaters

I survey my breakfast while slapping my ankles with slight disappointment. I think it is difficult for other nations to prepare food that is foreign to them. I am sure most Australians would fail miserably at making Masala much to the amusement of our current hosts. They on the other hand seem to struggle with toast. It is never toasted long enough and arrives limp and cold. Warm bread with a slight singe is the best way to describe it. The pineapple juice by comparison is a masterpiece. Out on the street men bang throw and twirl doe into paratha with apparent ease but something as simple as toast is a struggle. I probably should be having a local breakfast but I can’t bring myself to eat Indian Takeaway three times a day.

Chinese Fishing nets

Chinese Fishing nets

Kerela waters
Our reason for coming to Kerala is to explore its world famous backwaters. A series of lakes and interlocking canals that stretch for over a 100km along the coast of the Arabian Sea. A vast flotilla of house boats plough the waters. Their appearance range from cheap and gaudy to chic and traditional. We inspect several disappointing vessels that have had plaster boards and aluminium windows installed. It’s not the image we had in mind but then we discover Spice Coast Tours. Their boats have been kept traditional with exposed knots and wooden beams. The floors are covered with sea grass mats and the windows are shaded by bamboo screens. Not an ounce of modern tacky building materials to be found.
Life along the backwaters is a serene experience. We spend the next few days with Dan and Sophie watching Kerala life gently slip by.

Kerala Backwaters

Our Boat

Spice Coast Tours

Kerala Sunset

Cruising backwaters

Dan Emma and Sophie

Tamil Nadu…
The Western Ghats or spine of India is a mountain range that runs all the way down to the southern tip of the sub-continent. We seem drawn to this point of land where India runs out and we are confronted by 10,000km of open water that stretches unbroken all the way to Antarctica. It feels like a significant moment on our Trans global journey, almost like the topping out ceremony of a building.

Cape Comorin

Most southern person in India

Emma places her feet in the sea and for one short moment she is the most southern person in all of mainland India. Not bad when you consider there is over a billion people. To our right and far to the south is the Cape of Good Hope where we started almost a year ago. To our left and across a turbulent sea is Singapore, but our way there is directly behind us. We turn our backs on the Indian Ocean and head away from the sea on a northward journey that will take us back up to the Himalayas and the roof of the world.

Tamil Nadu

Riding the rails in Tamil Nadu

Our skills in acquiring rail tickets are improving but our destinations in Tamil Nadu are proving difficult to pronounce. I stand in a busy line with some degree of stage fright knowing my big moment is fast approaching. The Tamil language is laced with a tongue tying amount of syllables. As a result they have learnt to speak at an incredible speed. I practice my request over and over desperately trying to increase the speed of delivery but how is one expected to say “two tickets from Tiruchirappalli to Tiruvannamalai” in two seconds. Despite my rehearsals nerves get the better of me and I spew forth a rapid fire nonsense of T’s without the slightest comprehension and meaning to the recipient. I resort to passing through a note book with a written request, and lucky for us most of the India rail staff can read English.

Trichy Market
On his journey across Asia centuries ago Marco Polo described Tamil Nadu as the finest Provence in all the world. The British considered it the jewel in their Empire. So fertile are the lands they yielded three harvests per year. The southern cities of India are dominated by vast Hindu temples with towers that are encrusted with thousands of colourful gods, goddesses and demons. They are unique to the south and possibly the most impressive is great temple of Meenakshi in Madurai.
To enter through the gates early in the morning is like stepping into another time. Like ancient Athens where locals stop and pray to the city’s female deity on a daily basis. The grand corridors are lined with vast stone columns that support a decorative and colourful roof. Early morning sun light punches through the smoke from incense and as always musicians beat drums and blow horns.

Madurai

Madurai

The doorway to the inner sanctum is flanked with fresh banana leaves and carved reliefs of gods that are smeared with clarified butter and spices. A Brahman priest chants verses from the Rig-Veda. The air is perfumed with flowers, this is a mysterious place filled with energy and most of all devotion. We watch with fascination as the rituals are performed.
Bursting out of the calamity is an eruption of bells. A fully grown Elephant strides around the corner and walks past us. She is adorned with strings of bells that ring out like machine gun fire as she passes. She comes to a stop and pilgrims stand in front of her to receive a blessing. She curls her trunk takes the money and then taps their head with her trunk before placing the money in a bucket. We wait in line and hand her a coin but her trunk remains still. It seems that foreigners must pay with at least a note. How she can distinguish and determine who can use a coin and who has to use a note is mystifying. I look to see if the owner gives her any signals but he is not even looking. As with all costs in India we relent and hand the racist elephant 10 rupees. Her trunk lifts and gently thuds on our head.

Sri Meenakshmi Temple

Sri Meenakshmi Temple

On a bus somewhere in India…
The Indians seem unaware or incapable of evasive action. There are no potential problems or at least when it comes to road rules. Our bus is hurtling through a corridor of trees, shaving motor bikes, branches and pedestrians. Tanned skin and rusted metal are separated by mere millimetres. Just a few steps back would allow room for error, but none are ever taken. No eye contact is made, no acknowledgments given. They are either uncaring, fatalistically trusting or perhaps they just have superior judgement of distance and speed. Even the dogs seem ambivalent and remain fastened to the road, yawning while five tons of angry metal bare down upon them.
I have noticed that most of the bus horns in the south of India are less musical than their northern cousins. A few days ago one sounded a like a dying duck but today’s version is definitely akin to an enraged goose. We enter a small village at breakneck speed. The buildings and traffic close in. The outraged goose honks loudly in protest. More emotionless eyes and expressionless faces. It’s hard to understand and I remind myself that this is India, this is a just a part of how other people live. A life that is at times very different to my own, yet surely they must value this life, or are we too careful and defensive. Avoiding a speeding bus is probably a poor example but it does get me thinking. One thing is certain when it comes to playing chicken and showing no sign of fear the Indians are the world champions.

Hindu priest

On a train heading north…
The kilometres are ticking by, kilometres closer to Singapore, kilometres I won’t see again. The present quickly becomes the past. We are passing through lands that are foreign to me. Lands that are in no way connected to my home. There is a small boy who can’t be more than 6 years of age wearing a red shirt. He is guiding a buffalo more than twenty times his size with nothing more than a small thin stick. The large grey beast dutifully obeys without protest. The boy seems to enjoy his delicate position of power and gives it a whack just for good measure. Leaving Chennai the fields at first are fertile with crops. Tall stringy palms dot the country side along with electrical towers. The dense forests of Kerala are far behind us now.

All the houses in the south have these beautiful patterns drawn outside the front door

All the houses in the south have these beautiful patterns drawn outside the front door

The green rice paddies dance and swirl in the afternoon breeze. The corn stalks rustle and lean over to one side. We pass shallow pools of water and small flocks of white cranes that scatter in all directions as our train gives a blast of its horn. Unlike the busses it’s a distant cry, a comforting and romantic tune of travel; of making progress on our journey. The world loves trains and Indians are no exception. People hear it coming and rush to their doors to watch it pass. They often wave. I see people of all ages flashing by me. For a few seconds we connect, make eye contact, smile and then they are gone. If only they knew how far I have travelled to see them.

Thanjavur

Thanjavur

The sun starts its daily descent towards the western horizon. A stout man walks past the garbage bin and throw his paper plates smeared with curry and rice out the open door in which I am standing. It catches on the metal handle and he bends down and flicks it into the lake below us. He asks me where I am going without any shame or concern. I tell him we are travelling to Jalgoan. How many days you in India? This is a common question that is asked. I tell him four months. He appears a little shocked which is a common response. His English is not so good but I appreciate his efforts to communicate. The Indians are a friendly and inquisitive people. With every new stranger that makes my acquaintance I can see Hussein smiling at me. I can feel his grip as we shook hands through the window when the train pulled out of Jaipur. We Indians are very accommodating peoples and indeed they are.

robin
Jaisalmer…
Not since leaving Egypt in early July have we seen any lands that resemble desert. I pull the curtain across to see a magnificent sunrise over a golden stretch of dry land. As we pull into Jaisalmer station I can see the castle for which it is famous rising out of the desert like a tired travellers dream. It appears to have been built using gigantic buckets of sand.
We are met by Johnny a tout who works for the Deep Mahal located inside the citadel. We have no real idea of where to stay so taking a look at Johnny’s place seems a good start. The rooms in Jaisalmer are some of the best value in all of India. Sweeping views of the old city and the Jain temples with soft beds and authentic decorations. The Deep Mahal is excellent value with rooms around 500-600 rupees for a double. We continue our search which eventually takes us to the Suraj Haveli. I never discover if Gukal is the owner or simply works there but he takes me to a stunning room with 8 stone pillars that is over 400 years old. The walls are covered with fading art work and the ceiling has original wooden beams. The room opens on to the tight alley below with 3 massive windows that are shielded by wooden doors and drapes that hang from the ceiling. It is an incredible room but I try to look impartial.

Our room in Jaisalmer

Our room in Jaisalmer

I manage to keep my negations tough but friendly and our staying for 5 nights helps to secure a good price of 1500 rupees per night or around $30.00 USD. I think this to be one of the most atmospheric and best value rooms I have ever stayed in.
The same must be said of Jaisalmer itself. We fall instantly in love with the beauty and character of this charming city. Almost every building is constructed with the same honey coloured sandstone and the overall effect is simply exquisite. Waking up every morning in our magnificent room, opening the shutters and looking out over the Jain temples is a daily pleasure.

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The locals in Jaisalmer are as beautiful as the city in which they live. The men wear bright coloured turbans and sport vast moustaches. The women are draped in silver chains and arm bands. Their tough and worn feet are adorned with shiny ankle bracelets and toe rings with semi-precious stones. Their noses are pierced with large rings that are connected to their earrings with chains.

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The fort was once protected by soldiers, but is now guarded by six ladies. They have taken position at the entrance to the fort. No tourist may pass into the citadel without exposure to a robust sales pitch. They seem to have developed and deployed an attack based on guilt and future promises to return later. With each pass I am admonished for breaking a promise I never made. They are charming and good natured and eventually our defences are weakened. We buy a pair of chunky ankle bracelets for 300 rupees. I can’t be sure if this is fair or not but it’s a lot less than the starting price of 700!

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Varanasi…
After many months we return to the banks of the Ganges River. It feels a long time ago that we swam in the Ganges at Rishikesh. The water here in Varanasi may be less inviting to the tourist but not so for the millions of Hindus that live in India.
The streets are chocked and dirty with mud and manure from last night’s rain. I survey the tangled mess, it looks like an aneurism of automobiles mixed with a coronary of cars. Despite these critical symptoms there is no sign of the city suffering a stroke. The resilience and persistence of society is at its most extreme here in India. I am reminded how tenacious life can be. We retreat into the tight alleys where Rickshaws and cars cannot follow, but this doesn’t stop the motorbikes. The horns are deafening. We find a boatman and take refuge out on the water, at last we are in a place of calm. The sun is trying to break through a dense fog. It eventually succeeds and glows golden on the water. It’s our penultimate day in India, where did four months go?

Sadhu in Varanasi

Sadhu in Varanasi

I think about the morning we crossed a white line at the border with Pakistan. Ahead was a sign with one word… India. It was a new country with adventures yet to be discovered.
To me India will always be loud horns, confident cows and stray dogs looking for love. The clatter of rickshaws engines, the shouting of Chai wallahs and chanting of priests and pilgrims. Spicy food, stuffed tomatoes and delicious saffron lassis. Head wobbles and warm smiles. Stupidity and improvising genius but always curiosity and hospitality. No more will I watch a magical world of colourful saris and fields filled with golden flowers flash by from the open door of a train in the morning… and for that I am sad.

The Ganges at Varanasi

The Ganges at Varanasi

I take in the last of this beautiful and extreme country that has been our home for four months. I think about Mr Butt up in Kashmir, Mrugank and Shridhar in Mumbai. Our new friends Sophie and Dan who made travel in southern India so much fun for four weeks. US Dan and Hillary who convinced us all to hire motor bikes. Matt in Madurai who was a bundle of infectious energy and then there are so many people who came into our lives for just a few precious moments. Who took the time to point us in the right direction, or helped carry our bags off a train. The crazy bus drivers, the persistent off road rickshaw men and even the hotel touts. They all helped to keep that long peel going.
So with this in mind we would like to thank you India. It seems fitting that as I write these last words I stand before the burning Ghats in Varanasi. The river is alight with candles and the black night is filled with glowing embers. We shall miss our time with you very much, but it’s time to leave and continue on our journey.

Mehndi

Thank you India for taking us in and showing us an amazing time

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There will come a time when our luck runs out but that time it seems is not tonight. I receive a text telling me that our seats for Mumbai are now RAC or “reservation against confirmation.” I have no idea what this means, so I call Mrugank to find out. My hearing is not the best and listening to his accent over a mobile phone with station announcements in the background is not helping.
We first met Mrugank and his friend Shridhar four years ago while trekking in Nepal. We were playing cards at the high camp on the Annapurna circuit and they asked if they could join us. Say what you will of Facebook, but if anything it is an excellent way to stay in touch with people you meet while travelling. But we never expected to be invited to Shridhar’s wedding in Mumbai as a result.
Mrugank explains that RAC means that one of our sleeping berths have been confirmed. It allows us to board the train and share the berth if necessary. It might also mean that at the last minute the other passengers on RAC will not turn up and then we get a berth each. The intricacies and classifications of India rail continue to confound me. Mrugank laughs over the phone. Yah it’s even difficult for us to understand don’t worry.
I spot a couple of other foreigners sitting in the gloom at the end of the platform. Ryan is suffering from a bad stomach and looks grateful to be hidden in the darkness. He also happens to be my other RAC partner. Emma is paired up with an unseen Indian lady who is 65. We only know this because it’s on the seating chart stuck to the side of the carriage. Amy doesn’t have a berth confirmed at all. She asks what they should do. I tell them with full confidence to just get on the train and the conductor should be able to work something out.
We pull out of Udaipur forty minutes before midnight with four people sharing 2 berths. The 65 year old Indian Lady never shows. It’s not long before the conductor turns up. Emma is in the clear and technically has her own berth, but in reality the situation is that we might have to share and let Amy and Ryan have his berth. Fortunately the conductor has room for Ryan in another berth and manages to get Amy a berth until seven in the morning. After this we shall need to share again. It’s a fair result given the predicament. I think about the station master in Jammu who lectured me in the power of positive thinking. I originally received his teachings with scepticism but I am beginning to think myself a convert now.
I wake early the next morning. Sometime during the night and in between a fitful nights sleep we passed through the tropic of cancer. I could hear the train horn faint and constant in the distance. I flip the catch on the lock and open the door of our speeding train. I buy a masala chai for 7 INR and watch India flash by in the morning light. The first thing I notice is an increase in humidity and an abundance of Palm trees. The dawn fogs that had settled over Rajasthan are now gone.

Bollywood Girl

Bollywood Emma

The sun is directly above us as we pull into Mumbai. We say goodbye to Ryan and Amy and look around for Mrugank. I am not entirely sure I will recognise him. I needn’t worry as a voice calls out my name. He is much taller than I remember and looks very different to his profile photo. This is a result of having to conform to his company’s personal appearance standards. The long hair and neat beard are gone, but he laughs this off. He drives us into an area of Mumbai known as Kemps corner. On the way we pass by an office block that is actually the private residence of the richest man in India. The building is over 30 stories tall and is the most expensive home in the world.

Colaba district in Mumbai

Colaba district in Mumbai

Arriving into Mumbai is like entering another country. It is completely different to the India of the north. There are large billboards with the latest Bollywood babes and gothic style apartment blocks covered in grime. The taxis have meters that work and the drivers use them generally without question. They even manage to some degree to stay within the lanes. The traffic is dense in parts but nowhere near as manic as that in Delhi or Jaipur. Mumbai has an essence of many other cities. It’s like a tropical version of London. The university and its clock tower are like a south Asian account of the Houses of parliament and Big Ben. The wide boulevards are reminiscent of Paris with Palm trees. There are New York nightclubs mixed with the bustle of Bangkok and domes from the Middle East Yet despite all these foreign familiarities Mumbai is very much an Indian city with its own identity. The more time we spend walking the streets the more we both feel draw in by her charms

Gateway to India

The Gateway to India

Possibly the greatest of these 19th century masterpieces is Victoria Rail Terminus. Built by the British in their own image, it was to be a symbol of the Empire for centuries to come. Now it sits among the palm trees and pepper vines like an aging expat overdressed and sweating in the tropics. Its legacy now belongs to the people of India.

Victoria Terminus Mumbai

Victoria Terminus

We meet up with Mrugank and Shridhar at Leopold’s for some reminiscing and beers. We muse over our time in Africa and back to our meeting in Nepal. More importantly we get a briefing on the wedding plans. Our current wardrobe is a little ragged and not really appropriate for weddings, but the guys have solved this problem and organised some traditional clothes for us both to wear… if we are game. The chance to see a real Indian wedding in Bombay wearing local clothes is an exciting prospect. We visit a friend of Mrugank who has some dresses for Emma. Mrugank who is much taller than myself must have dug into some of his childhood wardrobe. Actually Indian clothes are very forgiving. The pants are meant to gather around the shins and the tunic hangs just a few inches lower than is normal.

Leopolds Bar Mumbai

Mrugank and Shridhar at Leopolds in Mumbai

It’s the day before the wedding. I wake early as I do every morning in India. The daily ritual of sweeping, shouting and banging of just about everything echoes in the corridors. I am convinced that the Indians are incapable of quiet. This is of course an asset when it comes to festivals, parades and cultural ceremonies, but not when one is trying to sleep. Every morning at an ungodly hour we are woken by domestic tourists leaving their rooms and staff that shout instructions to each other down stone stairwells. I glance at the clock, its 6.00am. The barrage continues to around 7.30 when for some inexplicable and untimely reason it all becomes calm. In my opinion the worst offenders are young boys, who are making as much noise as possible before maturing into men and middle aged women, who seem to be making up for lost time and a childhood spent in relative silence. Whatever their motivations they are the principals of noise.

Worlds most expensive home

Worlds most expensive home

Ten Kilometres north of Colaba is a small area of Mumbai known as the Dharavi Slum. Perhaps unsurprisingly there is a question mark regarding slum tourism. In fact the word itself is a little distasteful when you think about it. However these slums are an important part of life in Mumbai and other parts of the world. Around 65% of Mumbai’s population live in slums and this certainly does come as a surprise. We are not overly keen on taking a tour. Personally I don’t like the idea of being led around in a group, especially if it makes locals feel awkward. We decide instead to compromise and visit on our own.
We walk to Churchgate station which is a pleasant kilometre stroll from Colaba. It’s midmorning when we arrive, the peak of traffic has passed but Churchgate is buzzing with activity by most cities standards. The ticket to Mahim which is the closest stop to Dharavi only cost 10 rupees. A rather fat train pulls into platforms 1 and 2. This is so people can exit on both sides. The interior of carriages appear partially stripped of seating allowing for wider doors and vital standing room. The metro trains in Mumbai have clearly evolved to cope with high volumes of passengers. Despite the vast interiors people still cling to the outside of the doors as we depart. It takes about 30 minutes to reach Mahim. I examine the rail map and each station carefully to make sure we don’t go too far.
We exit to the left of the station turn right and walk about 500 meters up a non-descript street before climbing some stairs that take us over the tracks. From the bridge we can see the sprawling rusted roofs of Dharavi ahead. We descend the stairs and enter one of the world’s most famous slums. The main street dissecting Dharavi is not unlike most you would see in India. A tangle of rickshaws, cows and overloaded carts. Men shouting over the top of metal workers hammering tin and copper. Fruit and vegetable vendors display their goods on blue tarpaulin. There are even a few fish mongers with an audience of mangy cats gathered around their feet.
The end of the road is bound by a filthy canal. The putrid water sits still and stagnant among rotting rubbish. It is by far the most disgusting body of water I have encountered. The smell forces us to retreat. We turn right and see a narrow dark entrance in between the buildings. A stream of people coming and going like ants into a nest. We follow them in through the narrow crack. The alley floor is covered with metal pipes, and dangling just above our heads are dozens of black electrical cables. It takes our eyes a few seconds to adjust to the darkness. The alley twist and turns, occasionally the walls of the buildings separate a little but mostly they press against each other like peak hour commuters forming a manmade cave.
Despite the entanglement of infrastructure I am surprised to discover the alley is unexpectedly clean. We pass by houses that have trap doors open at the top of short staircases. The small rooms inside have tiled floors with painted walls and are far more liveable than I expected. Small children play on the stairs in clothes that have been washed and pressed. One young girl with yellow ribbons in her hair and a pristine white Shalwar Kameez greets us in perfect English and wave’s good bye as we pass. The locals seem a little surprised at first to see us alone and wandering in the shadowy corridors. Our passing causing only a small commotion of laugher. They seem happy to see us and some even bring their babies out to greet us. Our confidence grows and we delve deeper into the dark passages.
What we are seeing is not a slum or at least not what I was ignorantly expecting a slum to be. This is a community, a well ordered society with family, friends and neighbours. People who work in white collared jobs choose to live here and I am beginning to see why. If anything I am the one who feels dirty and unwashed in back packer clothes.
We emerge back into the light feeling a little hungry, but despite our new assessments we are not quite ready to tackle street samosas just yet. Instead we buy some bananas and oranges and eat them as we walk. I spot a barber shop oozing with old world charms. The timeworn chairs have cracked black upholstery and a squeaking pedal that adjusts the height. A small transistor radio is playing versus from the Koran. I stare at a scruffy reflection and ask for a full shave and a trim. The barber nods and forces my head back with firm hands. He sprays water of an unknown source over my face. I think about the dirty canal and press my lips together tightly. He then squeezes some cream in a stone bowl and begins stirring it into a lather. The foam is applied with a thick brush and dabbed into all my facial recesses. I begin to wonder if he is going to shave the inside of my nostrils. Time seems to be of no concern as the application of foam to face lasts over ten minutes.
He reaches for the razor and proudly unwraps a new blade making sure I am aware of its use. He presses a thumb to my temple and squeezes pulling the cheek tight. The razor descends with a tiny crackle leaving a trail or perfectly smooth skin. It’s a wonderful sensation. He wipes the mixture of cream and whiskers on a towel before proceeding. Such clean strokes, you can hear hundreds of whiskers being severed, the thin blade of metal against your skin, only a few degrees of angle preventing a blood bath. He completes the cheeks and neck leaving only the moustache. He asks again if I would like this left, almost resolute not to remove what is a national symbol in this country. I nod and he pinches my lips together, I can feel his thumb pressing into my mouth as he applies delicate short strokes to my upper lip. Outside a small group of men have gathered at the entrance. They watch with great interest a foreigner being shaved, but I think even more entertaining and unusual is the presence of a woman sitting in barber shop.
The first shave is completed. He unwraps another fresh blade and exchanges it. Holding it in front of me to make sure I can see no expense is being spared to ensure I get a quality service. He repeats the process and then more blast of water are sprayed onto my face. He then picks up a block of ice and rubs it all over my cheeks and neck. Another blast of water, then some cream is dabbed and rubbed into the skin. More squirts of water followed by a dusting of talcum powder. He reaches up to a shelf and pulls down an ancient bottle of after shave. It smells like an original batch of Old Spice. This he splashes into his hands and then slaps me about the face. Finally he starts to rub my scalp in order to solicit a massage. I tell him it’s very nice but I don’t have time. Despite my protests he continues. I decline a few more times and he eventually concedes. The whole treatment with hair cut has cost 120 INR or around $2.00

Wet shave

A close shave

We leave the slum with very different impressions. In the three hours we spend here not one person from the oldest man to the youngest child ever asked us for anything. No money, no pens, no sweets. Just warm smiles and kind greetings. This is a wonderful place, a place that has spirit and I do not mean to say this in a condescending way at all. It’s simply a good place to live. Perhaps other slums are different and three hours by no means makes you an expert, but from what we have seen Dharavi appears in no way a slum, a place without purpose or hope. To think of it this way would be completely wrong.

Mehndi

Sneha’s beautifully decorated hands

The day of the wedding starts early but not so much as it does for the bride and groom. They were both up at 3am receiving special blessings. We enter a hall that has been personally prepared for the service. On a stage is a small gazebo that has been bound with flowers. The bride and groom are wearing elaborate and colourful garments. Their faces are surrounded by strings of pearls. A few seats are occupied by only the eldest members of the congregation, everyone else is standing around and mingling. The order of ceremony seems very different to that we experience in the west. It appears that here the couple arrive first and wait for their guests. Just to add to the confusion it seems despite the activity on stage people do not take their seats but just stand around like we do once the ceremony is over, talking and taking pictures. Mrugank explains that they are going through some blessings by a Brahman priest before the main ceremony begins.

Indian Wedding

Sneha and the Shridhar the happy Bride and Groom

I am escorted to a seat where men are tying the heads of male guests in a turban. I bite on one end of the cloth while he pulls tight and embalms my head in layers of vibrant cotton. The transition from blessings to ceremony is not totally clear to me. No one ever really takes their seats. Then the wedding vows start. I can only assume that they must be of a steamy nature. The audience are in raptures with each line spoken. A series of unknown foreign promises met with excited gasps, applause and laughter. Then finally a part that is familiar, the throwing of rice but even this is done with extreme enthusiasm. They are both pelted over and over occasionally having to take cover.

With Mrugank

With Mrugank

Like most things I experience in India the ceremony feels chaotic and beautiful. Far more open and less stiff than our western ceremonies. The partying begins from the moment you enter the room. There are no clasped hands and hushed whispers. People are free to move around and come and go as they please.
We have had a wonderful time in Mumbai or Bombay as the locals still call it. We both feel very grateful to have been shown around by Mrugank and been able to attend the wedding of Sneha and Shridhar. When we started our trip we had no way of knowing 10 months later we would be at an Indian wedding. It’s these unexpected experiences that make travelling this way so exciting. Our time in Mumbai is now over and we must continue south to the beaches of Goa and onto Kerala and Tamil Nadu.

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I am certain that some bus drivers in India seek the position in order to exercise an uncontrollable urge to make as much noise as possible while menacing fellow motorists. It only takes a few kilometres to establish that our driver today counts among those with a most severe and chronic condition.
The road to Ajmer is straight and runs alongside dry fields filled with flowers. Our driver is locked in a battle of gear changes, blasts from the musical horn and self-mutterings. He swats a fly while shifting to third in one impatient movement. Even when the road is clear he still insists on warning phantom cars of his presence. In any other country this condition would arouse concern but our fellow passengers seem completely unaware that the driver is now talking to himself and sounding the horn on an empty road.
Ajmer itself is not a place for tourists to linger but rather serves as a connection to Pushkar which is only 20km away. The depot is heaving with people today. I had been expecting an easy transition but apparently there is a local election which explains the high volume of people that are coming and going. It takes us a little time to locate where the busses for Pushkar depart. Indians are not very exact when giving directions or rather we are very poor at interpreting their instructions. As time goes by I am inclined to believe the former. Pointing is simply not in their repertoire of gestures. They are willing to help but not able to be precise. They simply flick their writs in a vague movement. Left, right and straight ahead all blend into one non-descript motion. I find myself questioning the gesture and offering up a more accurate option, but this is always responded to with a warm smile, and the same puzzling action.

Ajmer to Pushkar bus

Travelling from Ajmer to Pushkar with Jack

Waiting at the stand is a young man wearing dark glasses whom I at first take to be Indian. He seems a little impatient with the locals so I switch my assessment to possibly being a Brit with Indian heritage. He looks tired and distressed but is still polite enough to smile and say hello. As it turns out he is French and has no Indian heritage at all. He is also suffering with stomach problems and a headache. He introduces himself as Jack and we shake hands. A taxi driver on the prowl offers to take us all to Pushkar for 800 rupees which is about $15.00 USD…we decline the offer for now.
One of the ticket sellers flicks his wrist at a bus that has just arrived. It is already packed and a small army of people are trying desperately to get on. We make no attempt and the taxi man circles around for another pass. Fifteen minutes later a second bus arrives but this time we are better prepared with packs already mounted on our back. There is a small scuffle at the door but nothing as bad as we experienced getting on the train in Delhi. We even manage to get a seat and the cost is only 10 rupees each.

Pushkar in Rajasthan

Pushkar in Rajasthan

Pushkar is small enough to see in a day but charming enough to remain for longer. An enjoyable blend of authentic Rajasthan culture and touristic comforts. The small town consists of pastel painted buildings and temples wrapped around a lake devoted to the creator god Brahma. We pick our way past white cows and hungry dogs to the unsuitably named Everest Hotel. Despite having a wonderful roof top terrace there is absolutely no chance of spotting the world’s highest mountain, which I guess to be more than 3000km away to the north east. It does however afford wonderful views of the town and the surrounding desert and mountains. In the sky and clinging to the breeze is a swarm of colourful kites attached by string to children who play on the surrounding roofs.

Brahma temples in Pushkar

Brahma temples in Pushkar

The rooms at the Everest are spacious and clean and great value at 500 INR for a double. The foyer is guarded by Lion, a playful Labrador which I am beginning to believe is India’s preferred choice of pet. I find it odd that they would spend so much money on a pure breed dog when outside are any number of loveable rogues searching for a home. I suppose we are no better and just keep our unwanted dogs behind wire fences facing death row. At least here they are entitled to a life of some sort.

Pushkar Dogs

Pushkar Dogs

Each morning we stroll through a narrow alley where men boil and scrape curd; dip dough into vast black pans filled with boiling oil. Gathered around their feet is a small pack of dogs who are patiently waiting to be fed. They torment their targets with carefully coordinated and unyielding stares. I am pleased to see their patience is rewarded and eventually a tasty morsel is thrown their way.

Begging for scraps

Begging for scraps

Jack’s time in India is drawing to a close but before leaving he is keen to try out one of the infamous bhang lassis. I am a little confused as to what bhang actually is. I had assumed it was cannabis (which is illegal) but here in Pushkar it’s openly sold in most restaurants. The locals insist it is not cannabis but I think it’s just been renamed in Rajasthan to avoid illegalities. We meet up at the Out of the Blue restaurant with Jack and Myrthe a Dutch girl who plays rugby and is now wearing a neck brace courtesy of an unfortunate night’s sleep on India railways.
Given her injuries and the possible side effects Myrthe opts out. I have no such excuse and am simply not interested but Emma is feeling adventurous and offers to go halves with Jack. Our waiter enquires as to what strength should be prepared. Jack requests a strong one based on the rational they are sharing. The waiter smirks a little which I ominously note. He returns five minutes later with a tall glass that looks to be filled with yoghurt and grass cuttings. The appearance of the brew is not terribly appealing but this doesn’t prevent Emma and Jack from downing half the contents each without any visible concern. Twenty minutes later and I rather randomly enquire as to whether there are any effects? Jack has nothing to report but Emma is not so convinced.

Out of the blue Pushkar

Out of the blue Pushkar

She delivers a slightly hesitant evaluation, as though standing on the edge of a precipice much larger and vast than expected. Ten minutes later and Jack erupts into laughter. Clearly things have changed. Emma is also now in hysterics and so an interesting evening begins. Over the next hour laughter subsides and a state of paralysis takes over. First effecting the legs and eventually working its way up the body until finally reaching the mouth. Emma and Jack are now deep in the clutches of the Bang Lassi. We decide or rather suggest it may be time to adjourn to the guesthouse but both bang recipients require a practice walk on the terrace before setting off. Coming down the stairs is a major expedition with much coaching and reassurances given.

Out of the Blue Pushkar

On the roof at Out of the Blue

Out on the street the sights and sounds of Pushkar are amplified and contorted. Wandering cows, temple bells, and the fragrance of incense are apparently dazzling the senses. Jack seems concerned with Emma’s choice of quietness and insists on breaking radio silence with a series of ground control announcements. Emma only responds with laughter and goes back to concentrating on placing one foot in front of the other. Eventually we reach the Everest Guest House where Emma submits and retires to bed. Jack continues his battle against the lassi in good humour for another hour or so before eventually calling it a night.
The next morning their condition is much improved. They both vow never to consume a bhang lassi ever again… well at least not a strong one anyway. Armed with experience and better sense Jack bids us goodbye. He has been a good companion these past few days. An energetic and friendly guy whom we shall miss. In a few days’ time he will be back in France but for us our journey south down the length of the Indian sub-continent continues.

Ajmer Railway Station

Ajmer Railway Station

The train station at Ajmer is delightfully bare when we arrive. Winter is coming to the north of India and this morning an early morning fog persists. The platform is empty when the train to Udaipur arrives. It would seem we did not heed Hussein’s warning regarding general class, but today our gamble has paid off. The carriages are mostly vacant.
Most cities in Rajasthan seem to be associated with a colour but Udaipur is simply devoted to love. The city is bound by Lake Pichola and a chain of picturesque mountains to the west. Adjacent to the city palace and stretching along the eastern edge of the lake is an area known as Lal Ghat where most of the tourist hotels are located. Every inch of space is carefully accounted for. The streets are narrow and cogged with tourists and frustrated rickshaw drivers who regularly take revenge by sounding their ear splitting horns. I spot the hotel we stayed in four years ago. The Jagat Niwas like so many in Lal Ghat promises unrivalled views, and nightly rooftop screenings of Octopussy. It feels so strange to be back after so many years. I walk up the stairs past a picture of Ganesh. No one is in attendance at reception so I continue up another flight. Waiting at the top is a young man whom I instantly recognise. He looks a little heavier and is now sporting a moustache but his smile and eyes have not changed.

Sunset from Lal Ghat in Udaipur

Sunset from Lal Ghat in Udaipur

So many times I have felt that I will never see some of the people we meet on our travels ever again but now four years later here in Udaipur that at least is wrong. I give Gopal a firm handshake, he seems a little surprised by my warm greeting so I explain that I remembered him from a previous visit. His head wobbles a few times and his smile widens. I point to the room where I stayed before but it’s already occupied. The room next door where Karen stayed is free but it’s a bit small for two people. After a longer than normal search we book into the Poonam Haveli for 1260 INR a night. It’s more than we are used to paying but very good value.

The Lake Palace in Udaipur

The Lake Palace in Udaipur

The next morning over breakfast I see Gopal on the roof across the road. He waves excitedly and points to the room I enquired about yesterday indicating that it’s now free. I shake my hand and smile but I feel a little ashamed and guilty. The room is much cheaper at 600 INR and we really should be trying to save money. I can’t explain why I don’t want to go back but I feel like I have betrayed Gopal a little and lower my head.
In the middle of the lake and not too far from Lal Ghat is the aptly named Lake Palace. It is possibly one of the most eye catching scenes in the world. Completely surrounded by water it has now been converted like so many other palaces in India into a luxury hotel. Only guests are permitted to visit the beguiling island. Like a floating antithesis to Alcatraz the exclusivity is driving me crazy. I keep justifying the expense in my mind with comforting clichés such as you only live once and when will you get the chance again. My spoilt and greedy inner voice is eventually victorious and we make a reservation for the following day.

Jetty Taj Lake Palace

Jetty Taj Lake Palace

We arrive at the wrought iron jetty of this extraordinary hotel in a very ordinary rickshaw. The driver insists on a hundred rupees which I surrender without a fight. I am already feeling a little self-conscious about our mode of transport and don’t want to cause a scene in front of the staff. After checking our reservation we are directed down the jetty to a small boat and taken across to the Lake Palace Hotel. Our arrival is heralded with a shower of rose petals and a salute from a man with a very large moustache. I wonder if I am supposed to salute back.
Inside is a lovely courtyard and a lily pond modelled on a Moghul garden. The swimming pool is surrounded by white lotus arches and has wonderful views of the city palace. The front terrace faces to the west. We claim a table before sunset and watch the sun slowly sink over the lake and behind the mountains aided with some very expensive cocktails. I think about all the austere times on our journey. We discuss the night we crossed northern Kenya in that crowded 4WD. All the dirty hotels with hard beds, thread bare sheets and the toilets that smelled of stale urine. I wouldn’t change any of it but it’s certainly nice to recall such precious memories in an opulent hotel with a masala martini in hand.

Pichola Lake Udaipur

Pichola Lake

Tomorrow night we are supposed to be leaving for Bombay on the train but our reservation is still not cleared. It could be the sunset or the cocktails but we are both relaxed and nonchalant. I think it’s because this is India and anything is possible. As Hussein said in Jaipur… we Indians are very accommodating peoples. We take that thought to bed confidant that all will be fine.

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Jaipur commonly known as The Pink City is the capital of Rajasthan. Though a bustling metropolis, the old world charms of a different time are evident. We take a rickshaw from the train station to the Pearl Palace; a budget hotel that is clean and traditional. Waiting outside in the hot sun is a murder of Rickshaw men. I think this an appropriate collective noun for such a gathering.
I like to believe that under most circumstances I remain a passive person but when it comes to Rickshaw drivers I find that grace deserts me. Maybe it is the way they always try to convince you they are your best friend and only have your happiness and wellbeing at heart. Or it may be the false smiles and rehearsed lines… okay good price for you 300 rupees… when you know it should be 40 Rupees. Needless to say this can become tiring and even the locals will tell you…if you want to get a fair price you have to bargain, it’s just the way it is, but after some time we have begun to embrace a different strategy.
Firstly we establish the local cost of the trip. Usually we ask a few different sources; hotels and shops to ensure we are getting the right price. We have established that in a major city a rickshaw should be around 10-15 Rupees per kilometre, certainly never more than 20. No respectable Indian would ever pay more than this. On a few occasions when we have been fortunate to encounter an honest driver this has proven pretty accurate. For example the cost of a ride from our hotel to the old town should be 30-40 rupees, we are therefore happy to pay 50 but the drivers want 200-300rps.

Pink City

Ajmeri Gate

I have heard many tourists say what does it matter, we have more money than they do…don’t be so tight. Well it does matter, it matters a great deal. We create a black hole in the economy where everything is geared towards a foreigner and disadvantages locals who can’t afford the inflated prices. It also teaches people that it’s okay to rip foreigners off and creates a negative image. Others tourists who are not prepared or can’t afford to pay the inflated price have to argue over the rate before eventually conceding fifteen minutes later. It is a great source of frustration and simply not practical if you want to enjoy your time in India. The cartel that runs this street are bullies and own the area. They never allow other rickshaw men to wait for a ride or undermine their prices. Intruders are not tolerated and chased away.

Out on the street it’s not much better. Tourists with deep pockets and no resolve have seen to that.
The “murder” are quick to react whenever potential prey leave the hotel. Hello Madam where are you from…Oh Australia… Ozzie Ozzie Ozzie oi oi oi. I want to kill the idiot who enlightened you with that brilliant little gem of Australian culture. Kangaroo…great country very nice people, very generous peoples. Mmmm… is that right!
There is no point negotiating with them and the alternative is far more practical, economical and less frustrating. We just get in the rickshaw, state where we want to go and never discuss the price.
I can tell that our driver this morning is pleased. No negotiating at all, he is really going to rip us off. When we reach our destination I get out and start walking. Greg hands over 50 rupees thanks the driver profusely and in one quick movement turns and walks. No looking back! No checking is that okay. It’s done… the rickshaw driver knows he’s been given a fair price and in that moment of hesitation it’s over. What can they do, call the police and complain they got an extra 10-20 rupees on top of what the price should be. Explain to the officer that their meter is not working or they refused to put it on. What they can do is complain loudly and refuse to accept the money offered, but its best to just keep walking and treat the performance as simply that. Occasionally some drivers will chase you and feign disgust in what you have offered them. One such man engaged other drivers and a security officer at a shopping mall. The security man told us that we had to pay him 150 INR. Greg enquired as to whether he was a rickshaw driver or police officer. Being neither he was told to arbitrate in matters with which he was proficient. You simply need to stand your ground but I have to say most drivers will accept the amount given graciously as they know it’s correct.

Hawa Mahal

Hawa Mahal or Palace of the winds

Now of course the “Murder” at the Pearl Palace begin to converse with each other and word gets around that we won’t pay the inflated prices… we become the enemy and a power struggle develops. They ask us where we want to go but we politely decline their services. It’s important to stress that this method of payment must be carried out with a smile and good grace. It really confuses them and helps to defuse the situation. Greg even gave one persistent man a hug and a pat on the back before saying thank you we will never forget you.
I begin to notice one of the men who smiles every time he sees our exchange and it becomes apparent that he is amused by the fact that we are not budging. He comes to me when the others aren’t looking. These men are very greedy. You see this. I am not greedy. I am not like the others. I will give you the correct price. But you come to me always…The cloak and dagger deal is struck, loyalty given and both parties are happy.

Amber Fort

Amber Fort

We set out for a half day trip to the beautiful Amber Fort which is about 12km out of town. It is one of the most breathtaking forts in Rajasthan. Originally the capital before Jaipur, the fort itself was built in 1592 by Raja Jai Singh from which Jaipur takes its name. Though very old, it is still an imposing piece of architecture. Perched atop a huge hill, the entrance winds up a long battle rampant. Should you wish, you can be carried up by beautifully decorated elephants. We decide not to as I am always unsure if they are treated properly, although as I let them pass me at arm’s length they do appear well cared for. A long line of pachyderms proudly trudging up the hill, a turbaned mahout (driver) sits astride their heads.
As they make their way past me I see how diverse each elephant looks physically. They are dressed in their finery with beautiful colours painted on their tough bristly skin. If it weren’t for the tourists sat atop you could almost imagine what it might have been like when it was a working fort. Inside the palace opens up to show beautiful rooms with elaborate mirrors. Columns of marble and latticed windows embrace the cool breeze that drifts from Lake Maota which is brimming after the monsoon. I decide to treat myself to the audio tour which is a fantastic way to shut out the noise and immerse myself in the entertaining commentary.

Decretive Indian Elephant

Decretive Indian Elephant

The old city of Jaipur is uniformly pink but divided into areas specialising in particular goods and services. We pass an alley where stone carvers work on marble blocks. Their hair and beards are caked in white dust from the stone they are cutting. Further along we are surrounded by jewels and bangles. The shop owners are very proactive, giving answers to questions that have not been asked. Our selection is very large and you can decide for yourself. What can I decide for myself?
I have to say this is the India I love. Wondering through a bazaar and listening to each shops sales pitch. They are highly creative and skilled in getting noticed. We have the finest silks here madam. Well, no one is going to say we have the 4th best silk shawls in Jaipur are they. The locals receive if anything a more robust version with hands and wrists often grasped. I try to imagine how such an approach would work back home. Oddly enough when one does make an enquiry, the answer is deferred until stools are sat upon and tea is provided. Something as ugly as price can never be discussed until friendships are forged.
By mid-afternoon we pass the beautiful Palace of the wind. The Indians really know how to add romance to their architecture. Despite being winter the temperature has soared and I am desperately hoping we soon come across the area that sells water. Up ahead we spot a cart selling oranges. The owner consistent with the multitudes pre-empts a sale and offers a few pieces which are sweet and very juicy. Our thirst is such that we purchase six and consume them all in quick succession.

Safron Ladies at the Hawa Mahal

Saffron Ladies at the Hawa Mahal

We pass by an old Haveli that has a roof terrace and restaurant. To gain entrance we walk through a twisting dark corridor that is guarded by a mangy dog and up some old wooden stairs that creak with each step. A man at the stop of the staircase informs us that the restaurant is closed. A lady who is sat in corner surrounded by several people stands up and walks towards us. She has tears in her eyes and in broken English makes her best attempts to apologise for the closure. It is clear she is distraught and points to a picture on the wall. Her husband has passed away very suddenly. Her face is desperate I can feel my heart breaking for her. Although in the company of friends and deeply grief stricken she continues to apologise and assures us the restaurant will be open in a couple of days’ time. She has taken my hand and does not let go and nor do I want her too. Her face is searching mine. Searching for some reason why this happened Searching for help. I am suddenly reminded by the millions of unknown stories and lives we pass through every day. Lives we will never know. We leave the restaurant after offering our deep condolences. Back out in the bright sun vendors and shoppers are going about their business and life goes on, but just a short distance away is a personal tragedy that no one knows about. I feel unsettled by the experience but in an odd way I have been touched by a stranger. For ten minutes our lives come together at a time of crisis just because we walked into a restaurant.
We leave the old city via the decorative Ajmeri Gate and walk along MI Road until we reach Lassiwala. Outside a man is stirring curd in a large flat wok that is charred and blackened. It simmers and bubbles. He scrapes the bottom with a large metal ladle to prevent it burning. The cream that rises is skimmed from the surface and allowed to cool. This is then mixed with evaporated milk and infused with fruits and spices of your choice. Rose water and Cardamom, Banana cinnamon and my personal favourite Pistachio, raison and saffron. I am sure there is a fair amount of sugar added as well. The lassi under most circumstances could be considered a meal on its own but we order a couple of vegetable samosas just to be sure. They arrive on newspaper with plum sauce dolloped on yesterday headlines. The entire meal is only 90 INR or around $1.50 for both of us.

The Palace of the winds

The Palace of the winds

After a break at our hotel our new found friend and rickshaw driver takes us to the Rambagh Palace, now a hotel, but in its heyday a working palace occupied by The Maharaja and his ethereal wife Rajmata Gayatri Devi, named the most beautiful woman in the world by Vogue magazine in 1940. We take a seat on the terrace in deep cane chairs and treat ourselves to some delicious cocktails. We are served by a tall man in his late 60’s. His face is still handsome and he moves with effortless style. Every order placed is received and complimented with a slight smile. The hotel manager kindly lets us wonder through the hotel, each room draped in rich fabrics opulent furnishings and exquisite objects owned by the royal family. The palace is magnificent and radiates an unmistakable sense of history that transcends time.
We learn how over the years Rambagh has been host to several illustrious guests, such as Lord Mountbatten, Prince Charles, Jackie Kennedy to name but a few. As we leave this beautiful hotel I take one last look back and try to capture this moment in my mind.

Jaigarh Fort

Jaigarh Fort

Tomorrow we continue our journey south mindful of the wedding we are going to attend in Mumbai on the 11 December. Our next stop will be Pushkar a small city famous for its annual camel festival and temples dedicated to the creator god Brahma. The Murder refuse to take us to the Bus station in a final act of disgust but that’s okay we just walk 100 meters around the corner and take one for 60 rupees.

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The train station at old Delhi was completed in 1862 and judging by the smells emitting from the platforms, this may have been the first and last time it was ever cleaned. Perhaps my time in Rishikesh meditating and breathing in fresh mountain air has weakened my resolve as I am feeling rather overwhelmed this morning by the crowds of people and the stench that hangs on a warm and dusty breeze. Unable to cope, I do something I rarely do for fear of offending the locals. I cover my mouth and nose with my hand. My expression of revolt is clear for all to see. I look down only to find endless piles of cow manure and human excrement on the tracks soaked in urine and covered with litter.
I wait for Greg to return, he’s drawn the short straw and has the delightful task of queuing to purchase our tickets. Greg returns looking ragged and clutching two unreserved general class tickets as the train is completely full. Only in India can you acquire tickets on a train that is sold out.

Queue at Old Delhi Station

Queue at Old Delhi Station

General Class is on a first come first served basis and allows you to get on only a couple of specific carriages that are often crowded and always filthy. There are no seat numbers, no rules and no compassion but it’s not a terribly long journey… only about 6 hours. So with ignorance in our minds and adventure in our hearts we take a chance. We place ourselves beside a family and a friendly man comes forward and introduces himself as Mohammed Hussein, a retired school Principal.
He gently enquires as to where we are travelling, then informs us that first class carriages are at the other end of the platform. No we are in Unreserved General Class I respond. A mixture of fear and disbelief clouds his face. Madam you cannot travel in this class. This is not a good class. They will cut your pockets. I try to ease his concerns and explain that we have been travelling on many trains and that it won’t be a problem. He insists that we come with him to his coach instead which is sleeper class…the next class up. He will share his seats with us as we are travelling during the day and not too far.

Waiting for the Jaipur Express at Old Delhi Station

Waiting for the Jaipur Express at Old Delhi Station

As the train pulls in I start to think maybe we should take him up on his offer. The General Class carriage is packed with so many people they are clinging to the outside of the doors. The grated windows are filled with dark and desperate eyes. Bodies and limbs are contorted and interlocked in what appears to be a macabre game of twister. Voices erupt and a mad push begins well before the train has stopped. One man, who tries to get on, is pushed away by those who are struggling to get off with bags and children under their arms.
Greg and I glance at each other and then look back to our guardian angel for guidance but Hussein has disappeared somewhere into the mob, nowhere to be seen. There is no chance for us to get on the General class carriage so I walk down to S7 or Sleeper carriage number 7 looking for Hussein. The situation outside the sleeper carriages is not much better. As the train squeals and finally comes to rest it’s every man for himself and it’s not a pretty sight. People are literally pulling and tearing their way on. No one is waiting for the other passengers to get off. They in turn push and fight their way off. It’s like watching angry penguins staking a claim on a crowded beach and the sounds being produced are not too dissimilar.
I make it to the first step and grab hold of the bars so I can pull myself up but my pack is caught and I can’t get on. I try to twist my body but then I realise that I am not stuck after all. A large woman behind me is trying to pull me back so that she can get on. I am not really sure why she cannot just wait just a few more moments. I shout at her to let go and get off me, but this has no impact. She’s a robust woman and very strong. My pack is also weighing me down… a 20kg pain in the neck. The train starts to move a little. She becomes more desperate and aggressive. I think she means to pull me from the train and leave me discarded on the platform. In a split second I snap and deliver a smack to her face with an open hand. This seems to do the trick and I am released at once by my hefty tormentor who runs to the next doorway.

This was after things had calmed down a little

This was after things had calmed down a little

On board I look to find Greg who has found the only available space by the toilet in the gap where the two carriages join. I give him a wave. The train picks up speed, we are both on but the battle has only begun. We are now wedged between other people unable to move with heavy bags on our back.
I have come to learn over time that the initial boarding of any mode of transport in India is always full of stress and chaos but it always seems to calm down eventually. This morning, this is yet to happen and I am faced with a plethora of penguins yelling and squawking at each other. Luggage is strewn in every available space, people are literally sat in the rafters and all eyes are upon me now curious as to what I am doing! I manage to get my bag of my back and pass it over a few people to Greg who has some space next to his left leg. I pick my way through the crowd with the usual hello, excuse me, so sorry, can I just squeeze past please. I can see no sign of Hussein. I look desperately to see if I can find any other space away from the toilet bay. As I make my way back a number of passengers ask if I am ok. I thank them for their concern and head back to find Greg standing with one foot on either side of the coupling that connects the two carriages. He offers to go looking for Hussein while I keep watch on the bags.

Hindu Guys

The Hindu lads who helped us with our bags

Standing in the humidity with the overwhelming stench of urine drifting up from the passenger toilet I wonder to myself how many tiny particles of pee are travelling up my nose and down my throat. As I ponder this thought I see Greg’s face coming back towards me, he hasn’t found Hussein yet but the other passengers have noted our back and forth movements and have offered to share a couple of small spaces with them. I head towards a group of young men who are in the Indian RAF. They kindly rearrange the seating configuration and give me prime position next to the window. Greg is sharing a seat with three other men a short distance away but just out of sight. Spending sometime thanking them for their generosity I discover that they are all between the ages of 22 and 24 years and joined when they were only 16. I tell them that I have a brother who is in the armed forces and that he also joined at the same age. We exchange stories and take some rest letting the rhythm of the train take over.

The Young Indian RAF guys who made space for us

The Young Indian RAF guys who made space for us

A short time later Hussein pushes through the crowd and finds Greg. As it turns out he is located in one of Hussein’s seats but he doesn’t ask Greg or any of the other men to get up. He is happy to share with his wife and daughter. These other men can use his seat for the time being. He assures Greg that Indian people are very accommodating and always sharing. That they need to look after one another. Upon seeing me he is delighted that I have acquired a window position and compliments the young RAF boys on their manors and hospitality.

 

Hussein our guardian angel

Hussein our guardian angel

Greg is now engrossed in conversation with two Hindu lads and a Christian man who after some time quietly confides that he likes eating cows. The train rolls on through Rajasthan landscapes that are soft and soothing after such a hectic start. The train slowly rounds a bend and the setting sun comes into view. A disc of blood hanging in a pale purple sky. The desert is pink with yellow flowers and light green vegetation. A day that started in dire and crowded stench has ebbed into wonderful beauty, I would not change any of it. We pull into Jaipur just after sunset. One of the Hindu lads kindly helps Greg off with the bags. Hussein comes to the window, we shake his hand through the bars and thank him for his kindness.
You are most welcome, please enjoy my India and… never travel in this class again. He laughs heartily and places a hand on his heart as the train pulls away. I know I will never see him again but he has become one of many who have helped us across the world. I can’t help but to feel my journey has been enriched by Hussein and today’s experience. That chain of kindness now has another link.

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It’s a stark and cold morning in Srinagar as we load our packs into a poky rickshaw outside Butts Houseboats. Freezing air and two stroke fumes pour into the back. We could have taken a taxi for an extra 200 rupees but we forsake warmth for thrift and stingily opt for a three wheedled ice box instead. We huddle close together under our packs with sleeves pulled down over our hands. There is one last chance to survey Dal Lake before being consumed in the belly of Srinagar’s tight streets.

The central jeep stand is buzzing with activity. Men wrapped in blankets are shouting and chasing cars and rickshaws as they arrive. The street is lined with around 40 long wheelbase jeeps and a few busses all waiting to be filled before departure. One man heavily clad in a woollen blanket is running beside us with one hand clutching our door. He tries to fend off rival touts while introductions and promises of a luxury service are tendered. It’s a scene we have become accustomed to and despite his best attempts several other touts manage to place a hand on our door before coming to a stop. A small scuffle ensues but luxury service prevails for the moment.

Srinagar Jeep stand

Hunting for a car back to Jammu

His account of luxury is certainly subjective. The front seat is torn and there is scant room for two passengers. His highly intuitive competition sense my disapproval. I am led away by another tout who admonishes his rival with viscous personal remarks and doubts regarding his sanity. I often find them amusing and worth indulgence when time is permitting. He appeals to my so called better sense of judgement. The previous tout is apparently a fool, a thief and stupid just for good measure. A man not to be trusted. Apparently none of these men aside from himself are of a credible nature.

Despite the busy scene there are very few vehicles departing. The issue is centred on a desire to sit in the front or middle rows. No one including us wants the nauseating rear jump seats that are positioned sideways. I dismiss several attempts to convince me otherwise. Eventually we find a promising lead with three people already in the middle row. If we take the front seats then we only need two more in the back. The tout must have mental telepathy as he is already carrying our bags across the road. We sit and wait with stubborn steely resolve. Several candidates are led over, but one by one they all walk away unimpressed and take the front seats in yet another empty vehicle. This is like a game of transport poker. Everyone including us expects to be in the front. Across the road luxury car is now full. It’s annoying to watch other cars leaving, so I try to take mathematical comfort in the knowledge that with each departure new arrivals have less options to choose from. It can only be a matter of time. Finally two young Indians with black combat boots and strong stomachs are convinced it is in their best interest to take the remaining back seats. It’s taken the better part of an hour but we are finally able to leave.

Srinangar to Jammu

Waiting to get two more passengers

The road back to Jammu is littered with restaurants, stray dogs and a series of amusing road signs that play off English clichés. Go easy on my curves, Be Mr Late… not the late Mr and if you are married divorce speed. They are prefaced by the word BRO which creates an impression that New Zealanders may have had a hand in their creation. BRO… go SLOW and BRO… the tortoise won the race! It all feels very surreal and the locals (based on their driving) are clearly not convinced. One message they follow dutifully however is the ubiquitous Blow Horn painted on the rear of every truck. I try to fathom why such a request is made. The only explanation I can derive is that the driver has no intention of looking in his mirrors so you better sound your presence or suffer the consequences. Perhaps all this horn blowing is a good idea after all.

Added to this symphony of signage is an unusual but consistent theme of bumper stickers warning men about the dangers of female companionship. No girlfriend… No stress, Beware girls who are too smiley and my personal favourite… Love is a sweet poison! It’s like we have been caught in a convoy of mobile misogynistic messages. Sat by the side of the road is a yellow dog. He scrutinises each passing vehicle with avid attention. I try to understand how he can be so entertained by passing traffic, but then again I am now watching stray dogs and wondering what they are thinking.

Hey where is Fred today? Oh he’s up by the side of the road watching cars again.

A few hours later we conclude that BRO stands for Border Roads Organisation. I much prefer the New Zealand explanation and continue to mentally announce signs and warnings to myself in a thick Auckland accent. Eventually we are enveloped by darkness and high beam lights. It’s getting late by the time we reach Jammu. Sadly room number 41 is not available when we arrive back in Jammu but the owner of the hotel gives us a triple room instead for the same price.

A few days previously we had waitlisted two train berths in an AC2 carriage from Jammu to Rishikesh. AC stands for Air Conditioned but also affords the luxury of linen and a curtain to provide some privacy. 2 means 2nd class or 2 tier. It might be an appropriate time to explain some options and the difficulties involved in booking trains in India.

AC1 is as you may have guessed Air Conditioned 1st Class. They have two and four berth cabins with doors that lock, but are generally rare. The usual top class of travel is AC2 with bays of four followed by AC3 or Air Conditioned 3rd class. Unlike AC2 these are bays of six with three tiers of seats/beds generally more narrow but still with bedding and a curtain. Then there is sleeper class which has the same configuration as AC3 but provides no bedding, no curtains, open windows and a reduced level of cleanliness and security. Following this is Chair Class. This is normally offered on day time trains but some night trains as well. There is EC First Chair or executive chair with AC and seat numbers, followed by CC or chair class, generally four to a row with an overhead luggage rack that most locals use as a bed and finally Unreserved seating with no seat numbers, hard benches and prison yard rules.

Jammu Railway Station

Waiting for our train

To add to this confusion is a non-centralised reservation and quota system. When booking from a third party travel agent or train station only a certain number of seats are sold. If you book from the station of departure you have a better chance but priority is always given to passengers travelling a greater distance regardless of who books first. Then there is an emergency allocation that can be booked 24 hours before your journey but only at the station of departure. This usually involves waiting in a long line with people pushing in, all desperate to snap up a few seats that are sold each morning. Tourists stand little chance but persistent and hardy specimens have been known to prevail. Finally there is the tourist allocation that can only be booked at the station of departure, but you go to a separate counter and as one agent explained… tourists are too lazy to book their own tickets… if you go down there in person you have a fair chance. I can’t be certain what his definition of fair is but I am betting it’s not in accordance with my own.

Currently we are waitlisted 3 and 4 there is only 12 hours to go before departure. We take a trip out to the station for some clarification and positive reinforcement. There is the usual battle in order to be served. Queue jumpers and interrupters are abundant. I use my forearms to block such men from attacking my flanks. The news is not good, we are still 3 and 4 on the waitlist. I ask the all-time stupid question of what will happen if the waitlist does not clear. Ridiculous really but it was more aimed at looking for other options. The ticket seller declines to offer alternative arrangements and instead reprimands me for my lack of faith. You must be more positive. If you are being positive it will be no problem.

I try to arrest all negativity and channel positive thoughts. Theoretically I can go where and when I want simply based on faith and belief. I wonder what part of the quota that falls under. With a few uncertain hours to spare we make our way to the Domino’s Pizza in Jammu. I am happy to discover that it has Wi-Fi, but then completely dumbfounded by the staff response when I ask for the password. We have no Wi-Fi. I show him the network that says Dominos. This is for staff only. I can accept differences in culture and ways of doing things, but surely this falls deep into the pit of the most stupid, irrational and moronic policies I have ever encountered.

But you’re supposed to be working, why would you need to have Wi-Fi access.  I on the other hand am a customer with free time. Don’t you think it would be a better arrangement if your patrons had the access and the staff worked?

He shrugs his shoulders with a gormless grin, unable to even offer a response. Utterly disgusted I walk out. It really doesn’t achieve much as now I have no pizza and no internet and all this negative energy must be seriously threatening my waitlisted tickets.

We return to the station an hour before departure. Our waitlist has been cleared. I would like to think I somehow created a positive aura but cynical doubts and arguments in fast food restaurants suggest otherwise. Our Guru Ticket-Master on the other hand seems pleased with his predictions and scribbles on our tickets 44 and 45. We are just relieved to be confirmed, finding alternative arrangements at 10pm would have required more positive energy than I could muster.

It’s nice to be back on a train after so many months. I have to think for a few moments as to when we last heard that familiar sound of wheels tap dancing on tracks. I trace our journey all the way back to late July in Uzbekistan when we were in a race to reach Pakistan before our visa expired. At the time we were frustrated and concerned but I think of that time fondly now. I lie down pull the curtain across and listen to the railway lullaby.

DSC08002

I am woken early in the morning by a Chai Walla yelling in our carriage. I have no idea what time it is but there is a glow in the eastern sky. I take a small cup of chai for 7 INR or around 15 cents. It’s not very large about six or seven sips but often all you need. The chai is heavily flavoured with masala which is a mixture of cardamom, ginger, pepper and cinnamon.  By the time we reach Rishikesh its gone 10 in the morning. We are surrounded by mountains covered in dense forest and jungle. They are not as high as those we left behind in Kashmir, more rolling foothills that guard the huge Himalayas to the north. The Ganges River is blue. It flows out of the Himalayas through the valley fresh and young over a series of rapids.

Three kilometres beyond the main town of Rishikesh is a sprawl of Ashrams, Yoga studios, cheap hotels and tourist restaurants. The city was made famous in the late 60’s when the Beatles visited and stayed at an Ashram for several weeks. According to history or folklore a large part of The White Album was conceived here during their visit.

Ganges River Rishikesh

Ganges River Rishikesh

The village is still in the shade of the surrounding hills and being whipped by a cool breeze that prevails every morning. Emma finds a decent enough room for 500 INR with a balcony overlooking the Ganges but despite the physical beauty I am feeling a little uneasy about my present surroundings. This is a spiritual place, an epicentre for Guru’s and devoted followers of which I am certainly not. I prefer to take my tuition from railway ticket dispensers.

The main street is lined with shops selling multi coloured stripped cotton clothing and tastefully rundown rustic cafes. The patrons are anaesthetised in a cocktail of smart phones, reggae music and Nutella chocolate pancakes. Shoes have been abandoned and a look of poverty carefully crafted. The locals are happy to accept their money but seem unimpressed by their poor imitations. As one man explained, we do not chose to walk in bare feet, this is because we are poor… but these people are not poor, why then do they walk without shoes.

The old Beatles Ashram

The old Beatles Ashram

Situated below our hotel is a small shop. The owner like most Indians has a persistent nature when it comes to soliciting clients. We decline his services (which range from ear cleaning to palm reading) on a polite and regular basis but this serves as no deterrent. The Indian shop keeper adopts a machine gun approach when doing business. Spray potential patrons with persistence and you’re sure to get a kill. If you have no need for a tattoo they can always remove a corn. No corns on your feet… then let me offer you some oil sir to ensure they don’t develop. Reasoning and objections are futile, they simply use logic and a proliferation of products against you. This approach can at times be bothersome but in this case we anticipate his daily assaults with humorous anticipation.

Our Shopkeeper with the biggest Bindi I have ever seen

Our Shopkeeper with the biggest Bindi I have ever seen

Our situation is rescued a couple of days later when we discover a small hotel 2km upstream. Hidden in natural rainforest by the banks of the holy river it is an idyllic place to linger. We are fortunate to meet Chuck who is taking a short break in between leading bicycle tours in Rajasthan. He has been coming here for several years and prefers tranquillity over tie-dye. Each afternoon Emma and Chuck take a yoga class and then some meditation by the river. It’s a perfect setting for quiet reflection. Away from all the trinket shops and dreadlocks, I feel like we are in India again.

The Yoga Crew

The Yoga Crew

During our time here we receive an invite to a friend’s wedding in Mumbai. It’s an exciting prospect and fits in with our plans to head south. A little sooner than we had expected but the chance to witness a genuine Indian wedding is too good to pass up. We decide to take a route south via Delhi and Rajasthan through Jaipur, Pushkar and Udaipur before linking to Mumbai. The only issue is we have to do it in 12 days. The race against time is back on…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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