India 1999

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Sunday 21st November, 1999    Sydney to Singapore to Delhi

The alarm is set for 4am and we wake Angie and Lauren to say goodbye. We all have breakfast together and then give the girls big hugs and leave at 4.45am in our hired car for Sydney.  We arrive at Sydney International Airport at 6.30am and check in our backpacks. We’re early but still too late to get window seats. At the bookstore we buy a travel novel and magazines then eat at McDonalds. Getting stressed about not seeing Lauren and her friends who are leaving for Bali an hour after our flight. Just about to go through immigration when they finally arrive. After giving Lauren cuddles we say goodbye then pass through immigration and buy cigarettes, Bacardi rum and Jim Beam duty free.

We board the plane and take off at 9.10am on Singapore Airlines – never lose the excitement of taking off. Love the roar of the engines as we face the runway and start the take-off and get faster and faster till we lift off. The eight-hour flight is good; watch a movie called ‘Sixth Sense’ and bits of other movies and video games on Kris World – exclusive to Singapore Airlines. Also manage to have a few naps. We have a spare seat next to us which is great as we can stretch out and even lay down. Arrive at Singapore’s Changi Airport at 2pm their time and 8 hours after leaving Sydney.

The airport is huge and modern with lots of plants and flowers. We arrange for a free city tour after a bit of confusion. The bus takes us into the city past lots of high-rise housing. Singapore is very tropical but, unlike most other Asian cities, it’s very clean and pristine and just doesn’t have the same feel or appeal for us. A river runs through the city and we take a boat cruise to see the sights. Here old British and Muslim housing and shops are intermingled with modern skyscrapers. The bus takes us back to the airport and we buy expensive food and beer. We change $50AUS into Rupee and ring Mum and Dad.  Lauren has arrived safely in Bali and Angie has been out to see them and is happy – can finally relax after weeks of unbearable stress. Can’t find Stene and Phoebe as we had arranged through Lara and finally have to go to the boarding area. They arrive just as we go through but the officials let us go back out to see them and we talk for about twenty minutes. So great to see them as we really hit it off together. Think they’re as happy to be going home as we are to be leaving it.  Finally say goodbye and we board the plane and take off a bit late at 7.15pm Singapore time.

The five-hour flight to Delhi seems to take days as we’re both very, very tired. Mark is too uncomfortable to sleep but I can’t keep awake. I sit next to a young Indian man who’s been studying in the States and is coming home after a year away. As we approach Delhi Airport he’s as excited as we are. It takes ages to get through immigration because of the bureaucratic confusion that we’ve been warned about. The airport is grubby to say the least. Going through customs, a man approaches us and asks if we’re ‘Virginia’ then takes us out to meet our driver. So glad we’ve arranged transfers to the hotel as it’s total confusion outside the airport. Literally hundreds of men waiting to pick up travelers as two other planes have arrived just after us.

It’s now about 11pm and the air is warm and hazy, we think with pollution. Our driver finally arrives and we’re excited to see that it’s an old white Ambassador car that they still make in India.  Notice lots of people sitting around open fires near the airport and our driver tells us that for entertainment they come out to the airport to watch planes taking off and landing – pretty humbling really. No seatbelts, of course, and it’s a death defying ride into Delhi. The road is busy with huge trucks which fly past at top speed as they’re not allowed to use the road during the day. The trip is an experience in itself with crazy drivers, choking pollution and no seatbelts but we finally reach the Karol Bargh area and the Arpit Palace. This is a narrow five-story hotel situated in a side-street and all lit up like a Christmas tree. The only resemblance to a palace is a grubby, crooked chandelier on a stand in the foyer – just love it. Our room is grubby and in totally bad taste but has everything we need – bathroom, western toilet, television, fridge and phone. The bed is clean and after a shower we both sleep well.

Monday, 22nd November, 1999  Delhi

I wake at five o’clock although it’s still dark outside. Mark is still sleeping but I can’t, either from excitement or jetlag. As it becomes lighter, I stand at the window which has pink glass for some reason. Our hotel overlooks a sort of roundabout with a small park in the centre and surrounded by dirty buildings all in need of paint. The sky is blue above but a thick band of smog hangs over the city. I watch a truck delivering some boxes to a shed down below. Men line up outside and buy bags of white powder and pay the man inside the door – looks like some sort of drug deal but could be anything.

Mark is still asleep so I walk downstairs to the foyer to write in the diary and read the English newspapers. Some of the staff who showed us to our rooms last night are trying to sleep sitting up with towels over their shoulders to keep warm. Traffic noise penetrates from outside – horns blowing, of course. The air is filled with incense smoke and Mr Baboo and Mr Seboo are behind the desk. Two uniformed staff members are ringing all the guests at 6am to ask if they want room-service breakfast. They insist that I have some Indian tea so I say ‘yes’ but it doesn’t appear so I go back up to the room. Unfortunately, it arrives a few minutes later but it’s so sweet that I can’t drink it despite promising myself to try new things this trip.

Mark is up by now and we dress to go out and find somewhere for breakfast. We walk down some dirty lanes and into a wider street that is just as bad and even has open toilets. Rickshaw drivers constantly hassle us for transport and a little girl follows us begging for money. It takes forever to find somewhere to eat. We’ve picked out some cafes in the Lonely Planet and some on the map that Intrepid have given us, but we can’t find any of them. Finally have to eat pizza for breakfast. We walk around for a while but feel very disillusioned. This is not what I’d expected. I thought it would be more like Bali or Khao San Road in Bangkok that cater for tourists. No tourists here so no travellers’ cafes. Back at the hotel, we pick up our daypack and set off at 9.30 for our first day in Delhi.

Outside we look for an auto-rickshaw which is a two-stroke three-wheeler like the tuktuks in Thailand. We walk down a few streets till we come to a busy wide road. Finally we manage to hail down an auto-rickshaw to take us to Thomas Cook to change $200 US. This is a strange place with a guy wearing a uniform and standing at attention at the top of the stairs. He’s also carrying a rifle. On the landing below is a family squatting on the floor cooking a meal. So many contradictions here.

We ask our driver to take us to the Chandi Chowk markets in Old Delhi but he tells us they’re closed but he can take us to some other markets that are open now. Of course, there are no markets but a wholesale shop that probably belongs to his cousin or else where he will get a commission. We don’t buy anything and tell him to please take us to Old Delhi but he takes us down some side streets full of cows to arrive at yet another wholesale shop. We tell him again to take us to Old Delhi so he kicks us out! We have no idea where we are and no other drivers want to go into Old Delhi either.

A sweet little man is finally convinced to take us and off we go. The traffic is busy but not too bad at first. So much to see, so much noise mainly from everyone blowing their horns and so much pollution. The traffic becomes so congested that we have to inch our way through buses, rickshaws, cars and carts. The traffic fumes are unbelievable and make our eyes sting and I have to cover my mouth with tissues to be able to breathe without coughing. So much to take in all at once – pollution, noise, smells and everything we see a violation of our senses, a violation of what we’re accustomed to seeing – strange transport, camels, cows, incredible poverty and unrelenting noise. Definitely an overload of our senses! Chaos and poverty is everywhere with people actually living on the footpaths and washing is hanging out to dry on every conceivable position – trees, fences, monuments and even on the fences dividing the road lanes.

After half an hour of this chaos our driver, for some unknown reason, takes us to the railway station. We finally make him understand that we want to go to Chandi Chowk so we turn around and go back into the dreaded traffic. We can’t tell where we are as Old Delhi looks the same as New Delhi but the Red Fort is close by so we know we’re in the right area. Soon we’re stopped by two policemen who tell us that we can’t go any further. There’s some parade happening so we have to get out and walk, except in which direction we have no idea. Thousands of people fill the streets and brass bands are making untold noise.

We walk for ages looking for Chandi Chowk but finally give up only to find out the next day that we were actually here all the time. Although we’re hungry, there’s only street food here and some grotty cafes so we decide to wait. Our video camera brings lots of attention and we seem to be the only westerners here. The people are so friendly. Someone puts a garland of fresh orange flowers around my neck and we take photos of a group of uniformed brass band members – everyone wants their photo taken. It seems strange that there aren’t other tourists around despite this being some sort of festival. I suppose the cultural diversity of India means that there’s always a festival happening somewhere close by. India doesn’t need to set up cultural centres for tourists as other countries have had to do because it’s there already out on the streets. India is real and too busy existing to put on fronts for tourists. This is great as far as assimilating into their culture but it makes it so hard to get around and to find somewhere to eat.

Eventually we can’t take any more of the noise and so we jump into another auto-rickshaw to take us back to the hotel in Karol Bagh. Another hour or more of traffic jams, pollution and noise, more streets blocked off and more excuses of why we have to pay more. Everywhere looks the same – crowded, dirty and noisy but we’re getting used to it by now. We’ve been told that no matter how many books we read or how prepared we think we are for the shock of India we’ll still be blown away. Our travels in Asia have been easy compared to this. India is mind-blowing! Mark is handling it better than I am. I’m tired, irritable and have a filthy headache. This place is draining our emotions – one minute we love it and the next we hate it.

Finally our driver drops us off somewhere in Karol Bagh but unfortunately not near our hotel. Off again on foot but we have no idea where to go and we ask some people directions which they give but are naturally wrong. The guide books warn that Indian people will give you directions even if they have no idea because they’d lose face if they said they didn’t know. We show another auto-rickshaw driver our map and he finally finds our hotel. Never thought we’d be so glad to see the Arpit.

This is not at all the day I’d planned for so long. It’s taken us all day to get to Old Delhi and back which was supposed to only take  half a day but we’ve seen so much just getting around that we don’t feel we’ve missed out on anything – very, very tired though!

It’s almost 3 o’clock and we’re starving so we head straight for the market area and find a cool, quiet restaurant. We have vegetarian South Indian food – Rasa Vadai and Uttappam. The stuff here is so horrible that we don’t buy anything. Everything is for the Indian market with the clothes so out of date that it looks like a giant second-hand store. We change some travelers’ cheques and then walk back to the hotel for a sleep. We decide not to use the elevator as there’d been three power cuts this morning before we even left.

We sleep till 6 pm when Alex rings to tell us to meet him and the others on the roof. We’re surprised to find that the nights are a bit cool as we’d always imagined India to be stinking hot all the time. It’s still so nice up here in the dark, though, and we all order Kaliani beers and introduce ourselves. All Australians – Margaret and her daughter Margo, Ashley and his sister Brooke and Brooke’s friend Suzy all from Melbourne. Also Jim, Nula and a lovely girl called Liz from Cairns. Alex will be a really nice leader – really well traveled and so friendly.

He leads us down the road to a South Indian restaurant where we all order ‘maharajah thali’. This consists of a variety of little silver bowls with rice, curries, dahl and breads all served on a big silver platter. You empty everything onto the platter and eat with your fingers. I love the food to my huge surprise considering I’m the most unadventurous eater. Mark, of course, loves everything. We also share masala dosa, puris and pappadams. The drinks are freshly squeezed lemon and lime juice in soda water which become our favourite drinks in India and we’re to have them with every meal.

We all get on so well for our first night together and we can tell it’s going to be a great trip. We’re feeling really jet-lagged by now so we’re in bed by 9pm. There’s loud noises outside all night – sound like gunshots, but they must be fireworks. We’re told later that there’s a ‘Moon Festival’ being celebrated and the fireworks continue all night till eight o’clock in the morning.  At 5am we hear a brass band playing somewhere in the street below – what a place! I’d already woken at 3am, had a shower, watched our video and written in the diary. Hope to get back into normal sleep routines soon. Mark has finally gone back to sleep wearing earplugs and an eye-shade – very attractive!

Tuesday 23rd November, 1999            Delhi

The fireworks are still happening but I manage another hour sleep.  I take a video of the ‘drug deal’ going on again this morning down in the street below. We have breakfast on the roof with Jim then meet the rest of the group in the foyer. There’s two new girls (Chinese-Australians) called Patty and Min. Both are doctors although they only look about twelve years old.

Alex, Mark and I share an auto-rickshaw and off we go to Old Delhi at nine o’clock. The streets are busy but nothing like yesterday  – some sort of public holiday today. It only takes us about twenty minutes to get to the Red Fort where its red sandstone walls extend for two kilometres. It was built by Shah Jahan in 1638 at the peak of the Mughal power and was to be the site of his new capital. It never happened as he was imprisoned by his son before he could move the capital from Agra. There’s so much happening in the square outside the main Lahore Gate – hawkers, rickshaws, snake charmers.  Alex finds a local guide who takes us through the massive fort which is so peaceful away from the chaos outside. We see white marble pavilions stripped of their jewels centuries ago but still so spectacular and surrounded by gardens, pools and fountains. Our guide is nice but hard to understand and definitely too much information. We leave through the dark vaulted arcade called the Chatta Chowk or Covered Bazaar, which once sold silk, gold and jewels to the royal household but now sells crappy souvenirs to tourists. Despite this, there’s a great atmosphere still. Back in the huge square outside we do touristy things like buying fake beards (look so real), watch the snake-charmers again and Mark has a python wrapped around his neck.

To escape the hawkers we all jump into cycle-rickshaws and enter the tiny overcrowded streets of Old Delhi. An incredible amount of trade is going on here with the streets and alleyways lined with tiny shops and the streets full of people and carts and rickshaws. This is exactly what we’d imagined India to be but wondered if it still really existed. Our rickshaws pull up in front of the Jama Masjid which is the biggest mosque in India. Huge wide stairs lead up to the entrance where we take off our shoes and have them watched for a price – people here have to earn their living somehow. Inside the thick walls is a massive courtyard capable of holding twenty-five thousand (men only) for prayer. Mark and I decide to climb the southern minaret or tower for a better view of the city. The narrow winding staircase is pitch dark and I’m too scared to keep going especially as Lonely Planet warns that many women have been molested on the staircase. I couldn’t believe it, when suddenly a man in robes (definitely not Mark) grabs my boobs! I push him away and tell Mark when we get to the lower roof outside. He (Mark, my hero) wants to go after him (the boob squeezer) but maybe that’s not a good idea here. I’m definitely not emotionally scarred and it’s a good laugh really. We hang around the mosque a while longer as it’s so peaceful here watching the bedlam in the streets below.

We have to get back into it, though, and we all walk through the tiny back alleyways of Old Delhi. So many things to take in and the atmosphere is what travel to these wonderful exotic places is all about. We see strange foodstuffs being cooked and sold from filthy carts and tiny staircases that lead to tiny carved doorways and unknown dark places. It’s so ancient here it feels almost unreal.

We finally come back out on to Chandi Chowk and enter the Sikh Temple. As respect, we take off our shoes and wear bright orange cloths to cover our hair. A sweet bearded man givens us a talk about Sikhism – sounds good to us. We follow him back out into the street and up the crowded steps to the temple itself. Inside it’s beautiful with people praying in their brightly coloured clothes, incense burning, candles, coloured lights and three men in purple and white robes chanting and playing instruments. A smiling Sikh man shows us the kitchen where they cook in huge metal pots and woks and serve free meals to the poor people of Delhi three times a day. In another room, women are sitting on the floor rolling out dough and cooking bread and chappatis.

Next, we’re taken to a huge room where hundreds of local people are sitting on the floor waiting to go into the eating hall. We’re ushered in first because we’re white or tourists, I don’t know – a contradiction of their faith that we’re all equal, we think. Or perhaps it’s because they know we’ll leave monetary donations which is how they provide the food in the first place. In the food area hundreds of people are sitting in rows on the floor and we sit down with them. We’re all given metal plates that are filled with food ladled from metal buckets. We eat with our fingers and scoop up the rest with chappatis. It’s a fantastic experience as we talk with some of the Sikh people on the way out. Outside it feels cooler and the air is filled with music and chanting from loud speakers. We follow others through shallow pools of water in our bare feet to go back into the temple. Many people are walking down a narrow staircase and filing past a body covered in flowers and tinsel. This doesn’t seem like a sad occasion, though.

Afterwards we all walk the short distance to the spice markets. Here narrow streets are jammed with people and cycle-rickshaws and are lined with shops and stalls that display coloured spices in cone-shaped piles. Narrow covered alleyways, dimly lit and full of barrows with huge bundles of spices and so fragrant it literally takes our breath away. We have lots of fun here talking with some local kids and some men who are totally amazed at seeing themselves in the screen of our video camera. So many photographs to take here so we buy another film. Mark leaves the box the film came in with the shop owner, as there’s no garbage bins out in the street. No problem, the guy just walks out the shop and chucks it on the ground. No wonder Indian streets look like rubbish dumps. There doesn’t seem to be any westerners here at all and we have three little boys and a pretty girl follow us everywhere. We ask them to say ‘Namaste, Angie and Lauren’ as a message for our girls on the video camera. They wait for us when we meet the others in a café for a drink – really hot here today – and even chase us down the street as we leave in auto rickshaws.

From Old Delhi we’re driven to Pahar Ganj, the backpacker area, to buy warm clothes for the camel safari.  We love it here and it reminds us of Khao San Road in Bangkok but grottier and trendier. It’s packed with markets, rickshaws, cows, cafes and the very coolest of travelers – definitely not us although we do try to make a sad attempt to look the part. Mark and I buy a woolen shawl each for 120R ($6AUS) and Mark buys a hippie shirt. To appease my obsession with cushion covers, we buy ten.

By now we’re hot again so we jump in another auto-rickshaw to take us back to the hotel. We head straight for the roof where we have club sandwiches and lime-juice with Alex. The rest of the afternoon we spend in the room and make a silly video with Mark wearing a towel as a turban and the fake beard we’d bought at the Red Fort – we think it’s hilarious, anyway! After a rest, Mark, Alex and I walk down to the local Karol Bargh markets to get something to eat. Alex shows us a little café he knows with great food and vanilla shakes. We really like this place and have a good time with Alex making us laugh. At 9.30pm we’re all tired so it’s back to the hotel. We crash out after packing for an early start in the morning.

Wednesday 24th November, 1999      Delhi to Agra

 The alarm wakes us at 4.30am and we meet the crew in the foyer half an hour later. We’re excited to be setting off on our travels today. Mark, Alex and I share a taxi (an old white Ambassador car) to the busy Delhi Railway Station. It’s still dark but outside is busy with cars, auto-rickshaws and people. Inside the station and on the platform, people are laying all over the ground waiting for trains. We find our carriage and set off in the Shatibah Express for Agra. This is supposedly the luxury train of our trip so it’ll be interesting to see the others. The windows are so filthy we can’t see through them and there’s no paper in the toilets. At seven o’clock we’re given an inedible Indian breakfast and arrive in Agra about 8am.

The station here is an old colonial building but just as busy as Delhi and we’re instantly surrounded by touts. We all pile into auto-rickshaws and drive through the streets at top speed to our hotel. Funny when you come to a roundabout in India – no going around if you want to turn right, you just go to the right and nobody gives a shit – ‘no problem’, as they say! The dirt and poverty are just the same in Agra as Delhi but it’s much less crowded. We can’t believe that our hotel, called Sheila Hotel, is about fifty metres from the gates to the Taj Mahal! We didn’t expect the village to be so close and we love it.

Since it’s already 8.30am by now, we dump our bags and head straight for the Taj. The entry fee is only fifteen rupees which is unbelievably cheap to see one of the wonders of the world. We pass through the massive main gates and enter gardens surrounded by columned pavilions and then pass through another set of massive gates and suddenly there it is before us – the Taj Mahal. Fantastic to see it this way and more beautiful than we’d imagined. Always expect really famous tourist attractions to be over-rated but definitely not this. It looks almost unreal, like a painting framed by a blue sky with a slight mist rising from the river behind it. It seems to be suspended in the air as it sits on its raised marble platform with white minarets in each corner and red sandstone mosques on either side. Mark and I walk down the pathways beside long narrow ponds and take off our shoes to walk up to the main central structure. Inside we see the tomb of Mumtaz, the beloved wife of Shah Jahan, who built the Taj in memory of his love for her. The workmanship of semi-precious stones set into all the walls inside and out is amazing, but we really fall in love with the view from the back which overlooks a bend on the Yamuna River. Only fields and some palm trees on the other side and everything bathed in a thin mist making the whole scene surreal.

By 9.30am hundreds of Indian tourists have poured in so we decide to walk back to the hotel to unpack. Our room is basic but clean and the bathroom is basic and probably not clean. Each bathroom backs on to another with only a grid across the top of the adjoining wall so that all bathroom noises are shared loud and clear. Out in the garden it’s so  peaceful and pretty with lush flowering vines and colourful cycle-rickshaws parked along the driveway. We all meet here in the sun for hot chocolate and make plans with Alex for the rest of the day. This is one of those times when I feel totally happy – with Mark and on the holiday of my dreams. To make this even better, the owners of the hotel put garlands of fragrant roses and marigolds around our necks and red paste on our foreheads as a sign of welcome.

As if we haven’t seen enough to blow us away at the Taj Mahal, our next stop is the Red Fort which was also built by that busy guy, Shah Jahan. Mark and I share a cycle-rickshaw and we all set off through the narrow streets, past the Taj Mahal and the markets and about ten minutes ride to the Red Fort. This place is huge and definitely red. So many people here again and we have to push our way in to get to the ticket window. Here there’s the usual Indian ticket-buying mess with one tiny window set into one of the walls of the huge ancient archway of the entrance and hundreds of people squashing their way in. Finally Ash buys all the tickets and we set off up the paved walkway across the moat and try to avoid the Indian guides who all want to take us around the fort. We’ve decided to forgo a guide and do it alone. That is until we see Mr. Singh. He is seventy-three years old and so sweet and looks exactly like Mahatma Ghandi! Brooke, Suzy and Ash can’t resist him either and we all tag along after him. He’s such a sweet man and has been a guide here for forty-eight years. The fort is so huge and only one third is open to the public and yet he shows us sixteen palaces, gardens, pools, elephant enclosures, pits where the lions fought for sport and the tower where Shah Jahan was kept imprisoned for seven years by his son. It’s easy to imagine how it once looked as he explains it all so well. From the high sandstone walls on the river side we can see the Taj Mahal on the banks of the river bend only about a kilometre away. Our walking boots are a nuisance as we have to take them off so many times when we’re told we’re entering a religious building. It’s hard to know what’s religious and what isn’t. We’re so impressed by this place that we could have spent a whole day here if we had the time. As we leave we all give Mr. Singh fifty Rupees each ($2 AUS) and he can’t believe it. We feel so bad that he’s so grateful and says ‘all for me?’.

Outside the fort we all walk up the hill and meet our cycle-rickshaw drivers. Our driver is a tiny man called Papoo and he lets Mark ride for a while although huge orange tinsel-covered trucks are flying past us. We leave the main road and Papoo cycles us through a village where women are making cow dung patties amid bullocks, cows, pigs, donkeys and camels. We love it here. Alex meets us all at the Priya restaurant where we sit in a cool, dark room for an Indian meal of butter chicken, rice and nan bread. We’re all starting to get to know each other now and we really like everyone. It seems that the two Asian girls, Patty and Min, will keep to themselves but they’re friendly when they’re with us and it’s their choice. We talk mainly with Margo who’s thirty-seven, a doctor, extremely intelligent, voluptuous in size and personality and is very posh. She is travelling with her mother, Margaret, who is seventy-three but seems much younger. She’s such a lady, intelligent and sweet with a great attitude and also very posh. We love Brooke and Suzy – both about twenty-two – they’re always happy and giggle so much they were in trouble with Alex at the hotel this morning for making too much noise. Ashe is about thirty, sweet and really smart – a lawyer. Jim is quiet and shy but right now seems to be missing a girl he met on his Intrepid China trip, which he’s just left. Liz is about thirty five, looks like Princess Diana, is originally from England but now lives in Cairns. She’s easy going and I think she and Margo will be good friends. We feel that Alex is the best leader we could have – firm but friendly and like one of the group himself. If he tells us to meet at a certain time and we’re not there he goes without us – fair enough. Patty and Min were late in Delhi and we went to the railway station without them. Luckily they arrived in time to catch the train. Mark and I can tell that we’re going to have a ball with this group.

After lunch we all get cycle-rickshaws again to a village where carpets are made. The village is primitive with wide, tree-lined streets, cows and camels, donkeys carrying loads of dirt and kids playing some game with sticks under the trees.  We’re shown how the carpets are hand-woven in the local villages and then brought here to be cut and washed. It’s such a long process and all done by hand. The owner takes us all inside for Indian tea and to show us the finished products. There must be something in the tea as we unexpectedly buy two beautiful rugs. They’re both deep red and black – one a prayer mat and a smaller one of a peacock which is the Indian national bird. We pay only $500 AUS for both and to have them mailed home.

Nearby we watch marble inlay craftsmen at work. This may be interesting but it’s hideous and expensive so we leave in a hurry. Back in Papoo’s cycle-rickshaw, Mark and I decide to go back to the hotel. So lucky as we pass a Hindi wedding procession on the way. They’re such a happy crowd with women all dressed in red or orange saris and carrying terracotta pots on their heads while the groom, who doesn’t look happy, is dressed in white and rides in a cycle-rickshaw. They’re all waving and laughing as we take photos of them from our own rickshaw.

At dusk we all walk through the village to a hill inside the Taj View Hotel to watch the Taj Mahal at sunset. We’re the only ones here and it’s very peaceful. The beers are hot and taste awful but everything else is just right especially as the sky turns pink at sunset. Later Mark and I have some of our duty-free Bacardi and Jim Beam outside our room. More cycle-rickshaws then take us through the village to have dinner at a local restaurant. Villages at night are wonderful with food being cooked in the streets and people sitting outside their homes. At dinner we listen to three Indian musicians playing traditional music and Mark and Margo have fun with some frozen desserts. Not touristy here as the rest of the diners are all Indian. Back through the dark streets it takes about twenty minutes to get to the hotel. What a fantastic day – how can this ever be beaten?

Thursday 25th, November, 1999                   Agra to Bharatpur

 We wake about 5.30am and decide to walk over to the Taj again, this time for sunrise. The village outside is coming alive and already hundreds of people are inside the grounds. More photos but mainly we just sit and look at the Taj. It’s a bit cold this morning but another perfect day ahead according to the clear sky. Back at the hotel, Mark and I sit out in the garden for a breakfast of hot chocolate, toast and an omelet before we all set off in auto-rickshaws for the Agra bus station. It takes about twenty minutes and we pass groups of school children looking immaculate in their blue and white uniforms. The bus is an old rust-bucket and crowded already so Mark, Alex, Jim and I climb onto the roof. Riding on top of a bus in India has to be one of the thrills of life.

The drive through Agra is exciting with bird’s eye views of the street life. We inch our way through traffic jams and pass a sea of people down every side street. This must be the centre of town and not at all as appealing as our little village near the Taj Mahal. As we leave Agra and pick up speed it’s so cold that we can’t keep warm even with our blankets wrapped around us as the wind just blows up under them. The drive is amazing despite this. We see camels, horse-drawn carts, buffalo and even big black dancing bears. Apparently poor farmers sit with these bears along the roadside and hope passing travellers will throw them money. We pass through small villages and see women in beautiful coloured saris sitting on the edge of a lake and bashing wet clothes on the rocks. Other women by another riverbank carry large brass water pots on their heads. In this part of India anyway, all women wear saris even if they’re working in the fields.

Finally we rattle our way into the village of Fatehpur Sikri which is incredibly dirty and alive with people and animals. There are camels here again pulling cartloads of cauliflowers and other vegetables to what must be a market place for the area. So much food here being sold and cooked in the open. Climbing down off the roof, it’s good to get warm again. We put our bags in storage at a grubby little café and order hot tea which is surprisingly good. We follow a guide up the dirt track to the massive walled deserted city of Fatehpur Sikri. Here, small white rendered houses are built on the side of the hill and we pass donkeys laden with bags of dirt – so primitive. Outside the walls are markets and hawkers selling silver jewellery. It’s quite hot here now and even hotter as we climb the wide staircase to the arched gateway. We speak to some friendly Indian tourists who want to have photos and videos taken with them.

Inside, our guide tells us how Emperor Akbar built the city in 1585 but had to abandon it fourteen years later due to the poor water supply. We see well-preserved pavilions all intricately carved and the palaces of the Emperor’s three wives. Through holes in a latticed marble wall, we tie ribbons for luck and watch Muslim school children sitting in rows along one of the verandahs learning the Koran. A different guide takes us to the deserted city but he’s so bossy everyone ignores him and we walk back down the hill to the café. It has a tiny rooftop with tables and chairs and overlooks the village. After lunch we take our packs from the storeroom and walk back to the bus terminal.

The bus is full of locals already. Mark and Alex climb back onto the roof but I try to squash inside with the girls. I have to stand in the aisle with barely room for my feet because the floor is stacked with our packs and sacks of food. More and more people are cramming in and climbing over seats and just when it seems full to bursting, another three squeeze in. The driver is going crazy and shoves his way past everyone screaming for Jim and me to get to the back but we can’t move an inch. He screams at some Indian men to get out of their seats and climb out of the window so we can sit down – strange but funny, too. The trip is squashed but good – lots to see outside and nice and cool with the windows open – feel very calm for some reason. When we arrive at Bharatpur, Mark is nearly left on the roof as he’s still throwing backpacks down when the driver takes off. We have to bang on the sides of the bus so he’ll stop – God only knows where my baby would have ended up.  Met by the usual throng of rickshaw drivers but we decide to walk to the hotel.

Bharatpur is a typical dusty Rajasthan town with camels and cows and streets lined with rubbish and old women sweeping their little patch of dirt with straw brooms. It only takes us about ten minutes to get to the hotel which is a nice surprise – a pink two-storey cement building with a flat roof – typical of most Indian buildings. It’s surrounded by a tall cement fence with men in uniform guarding the entrance. Inside the foyer is cool and dark and we lounge around while Alex arranges our rooms. He’s so good to us and Mark and I have a really nice room on the second floor with a television and a balcony overlooking the garden and the road beyond. I ring Angie and she sounds well and looking after Benny and Layla. Lauren is in Bali and I can’t contact her till she gets home.

Afterwards we spend a pleasant hour out on the terrace drinking beer with some of the gang. Then, with two to a cycle-rickshaw, we set off for the Keoladeo Bird Sanctuary. I’m with Margaret and Mark rides with Min. It’s fun at first but it is so far to get there and then it is so slow going through the park and, most of all, it is so boring. Margaret and I have a sweet little driver who is an expert on bird-life. He’s so proud of the sanctuary and keeps stopping the rickshaw to excitedly point out a brown speckled Indian something or other. I swear this is two hours out of our lives. It’s so bad that it’s funny. We all have a good afternoon in the end and make jokes about bird sanctuaries for the rest of the trip – like ‘I hear there’s a really good bird sanctuary nearby’.

It’s the biggest relief to get back to the hotel about 5.30pm as it’s starting to get cool. I have a hot shower and accidentally use all the hot water but my darling isn’t angry – so spoilt. At 7pm we all meet downstairs for a beer and an Indian dinner. It’s buffet style and everyone has seconds but I’m so tired I can’t eat much. They only serve the horrible Kingfisher beer which is always flat, warm and cloudy, smells funny and tastes like shit. One of the biggest problems is getting cold beer and we think that the Indian definition of cold is to run it under a tap. We drag ourselves off to bed after dinner and sleep well. We do wake at 4.30am, however, and both of us have sore throats from riding on top of the bus, I suppose. No problem, that’s one thing we’ll never regret or forget.

Friday 26th November, 1999      Bharatpur to Jaipur

 It’s now 3 o’clock in the afternoon and we’ve just arrived in Jaipur after a long bus ride. After breakfast we all piled into auto-rickshaws for the drive to the bus station. The bus wasn’t too crowded but it was old, rusty and dirty inside with windows so filthy we couldn’t see out. So pleasant otherwise as we passed through endless villages and open countryside dotted with planted fields and working camels. We prefer these old rattlers to air-conditioned buses, anyway, as it’s better to be able to watch the world go by through an open window. It’s also great when the bus stops to be able to get a good look at the local market which is usually at the bus stop and be able to buy food through the window instead of having to risk losing our seats.  One of the best memories of India is the hot roasted peanuts sold on carts to bus travellers and accounts for why the floors of all the buses are ankle deep in peanut shells.

At the Jaipur bus station, Mark, Alex and I squashed into an auto-rickshaw to get to the hotel. Jaipur is big but dirty and crowded as usual. It didn’t take us long to reach our street – a market at the entrance with lots of cows scavenging the rotting vegetables and pigs scavenging the cow shit and anything else the cows don’t eat – a very efficient recycling system actually. We’re staying just outside the gates of the Old City which as usual looks exactly like the ‘new’ city. It is called the Hotel Bisseu Palace which was the Summer Palace of one of the maharajas of Rajasthan and is, as Alex describes it, ‘the best hotel in India in the filthiest street’. It was such a great surprise when we walked up the winding driveway to the entrance. It felt like stepping back to the time of the Raj with its cane furniture, overhead fans, real tiger heads mounted on the walls, old lounges, a library, armour and antiques. It’s a place I’d only dreamt of staying in India and here we are with good old Intrepid Tours.

Mark and I walked around the grounds; peaceful with lots of trees, flowers, an old tennis court and a swimming pool. Then, while Alex sorted out our rooms, we all sat inside the old lounge area and ordered drinks. Mark and I have a lovely room on the top floor (only two floors high) with a big balcony overlooking the gardens. This is where I’m lucky enough to be now catching up on my diary writing. Our bathroom is big and clean and we even have a bathtub. The overhead fans are on and it’s so lovely and cool in here – it’s become very hot today. We have lunch with Margo and Margaret on the cane lounges next to the fountain in the foyer. The food is good and we both have vegetable curries and lemon sodas.

After lunch we walk down through the market and through the huge gates into the walled Old City. The walls surrounding the old area and all the buildings inside are painted a soft pink which gives Jaipur the name ‘The Pink City’. Inside are lots of different bazaars and, naturally, absolute chaos. The streets are lined with all sorts of food markets and camels, cows and people. We try to find the Post Office, which is on the map, but have no luck. We walk aimlessly for ages and I bargain on the pavement for ten Rajasthan glass bangles. An old man squatting next to a pair of old-fashioned scales is fascinated by our video camera. We ask a young Indian guy called Krishna to take us to the Post Office. Unbelievably, we follow him up a filthy set of cement stairs that look like they haven’t been used for centuries, onto the awnings of the shops beneath and then bend down to get through a tiny door in the wall with no sign on it! Again it feels like we’ve stepped back in time in this dingy little room with men sitting on high stools at tall wooden desks. We manage to buy stamps and leave two postcards to be sent home – who knows what will happen to them.

Krishna then shows us where we can get some films developed and then we’re obliged to look at his shop which he promises is ‘just on the next corner’. This ‘next corner’ happens to be three corners down, along an alleyway and two more corners. His shop is a tiny space that only sells a few postcards so we buy a few packets for 80R each even though they’re so blurred and ragged we can’t use them.

We catch a cycle-rickshaw back to the hotel and try, for a while, to escape the chaos that is India. After a shower, I write in the diary while Mark washes our clothes. We prefer not to use the laundry service as once in Thailand all our clothes came back covered in brown streaks. The trouble is, not only do we have no hot water, we don’t have any water – only a dribble comes out of the tap. So much for being excited about having a bathtub – can’t have everything I guess.

About 6 o’clock, we meet Alex, his girlfriend Deanne, and some of the group in the courtyard and all pile into auto-rickshaws for the cinema. It’s supposed to be a special experience to see a Hindi movie and there’s already hundreds lined up outside – one line for women and one for men. We queue up for half an hour but don’t move at all. So many people here and the Indian women are pressing right up against me so I’m sandwiched between two fat bodies. I suppose personal space isn’t a luxury in India. We speak to some young men who tell us they’ve traveled a hundred kilometres to see this movie – must be a ‘Bollywood’ blockbuster.

We give up and walk to a café around the corner for an Indian meal. It’s clean here and we have an interesting meal, especially Mark’s bread, which for some reason consists of two pieces the size of footballs. Next door we all have ice creams in a real ice-cream parlour then decide to try to get into the nine o’clock session of the movie. Now there’s even more people and things are really hotting up outside. Unbelievably, policemen with sticks are hitting people who try to break through the barriers – must be some fantastic movie or maybe this is just normal! We make our way across the traffic jammed street and get into an auto-rickshaw. I nearly die with fright when a poor, ragged Indian women shoves her baby in my face while I’m sitting in the rickshaw.

Mark and I jump out at the gates of the Old City so we can pick up photos. Another cycle-rickshaw and a nice ride back to the Bisseu Palace in the cool of the night. Too early for bed, so we decide to have a drink with Alex in the old lounge. Such a lovely old-world atmosphere in here and best of all it’s the real thing. We take our drinks into the library and sit on tapestry lounges surrounded by antiques – this place is like a museum! Always entertained by Alex but getting tired and go to bed about 9.30pm.

Saturday 27th November, 1999 Jaipur to Amber to Jaipur

 At 4.30 am we’re woken by the local Moslems praying to Mecca. Mark puts earplugs in so he can go back to sleep but I don’t have as much trouble and we wake again at seven o’clock. Breakfast is in the old dining room downstairs – lovely omelets and cornflakes and toast. All of us except Patty and Min (who insist that Alex takes them on a local bus) squash into a jeep and drive through the Old City to the famous Hawa Mahal or The Palace of the Winds. This is a pink, five-storey building built in 1799 and dotted with honeycombed sandstone windows. Outside snake charmers are doing their thing but are pissed off when we take photos of them and then don’t give them any money – can’t pay for everything we photograph. Back in the jeep again we stop beside a lake to see the Jal Mahal or the Water Palace. So peaceful here in the early morning and completely calm so the lake is like glass and the palace looks as if it’s floating on the water. Snake charmers are here as well and are still great to watch even though they’re becoming a common sight to us by now.

The drive to Amber is fun as we’re really getting to know each other well and everyone is really relaxed. Brooke and Suzy are always laughing and bagging each other and Ash. We’re well out of town by now and in a very green area. We pass under old stone archways and drive around the sides of hills till we finally see Amber Fort looming above us. It’s so huge and magnificent and perched on a cliff above the town itself with the river running along the bottom of the hill. A wide stone path winds its way from the town to the fort and we can see elephants making their way up and down. This is really it – why we’ve come to India. I can’t believe we’re actually seeing all this.

We park the jeep and walk down to the town and wait for our turn to get on an elephant. Mark, Ash, Jim and I climb on and I swap cameras with Margo so we can take photos of each other having this once-in-a-lifetime experience. To my horror Margaret and Margo’s elephant takes off up the hill before I can get any photos. I know it’s not my fault they have the fastest elephant in India, but I feel so bad and so stressed about it all that Mark is almost ready to throw me over the side by the time we get to the top. Despite the photo stuff-up the elephant ride is fantastic – not comfortable but fantastic. It’s a still, warm day with a cloudless sky just as it’s been every day since we got here. The views as we ride up the hill are spectacular with steep hills surrounding the town and an ancient stone wall etching its way over the hills. Monkeys fill the trees overhanging the path and play on the walls beside it and we pass under wide sandstone archways along the way. We have fun, too, with some Indian guy who’d taken our photo and now wants us to buy it. He won’t leave us alone so we ‘promise’ to buy it when we meet him later in ‘the big white bus’ in the square below.

At the top we enter the massive courtyard enclosed by sandstone walls topped with dome-shaped towers. As usual, it takes ages to buy tickets to get into the fort. There’s only one tiny window for hundreds of people and behind the window are four men all very importantly writing on each ticket, stamping it, transferring information and folding it. There is also no attempt to do this with any sort of haste but we’re finally presented with our ticket.  This is almost foolscap size and covered with tiny holes so that bits are ripped off as we enter different areas. This is despite the fact that the only way to get in is either through this entrance or by parachute – giving people jobs we suppose. Mark and I only spend about half an hour inside and prefer to sit in the courtyard to look at the views and watch the monkeys. They’re pinching the marigold offerings and running away to eat them. We’re thirsty so we walk back down the hill. So hot by now and we stop at a little sandstone shop along the way for a drink and end up getting hassled to buy anything and everything. Still don’t like anything we see – where is all the classic Indian gear we see in Australia?

We eventually arrive back in the square where the elephants are returning to pick up other tourists. Crowds of people here but it’s still nice with straw piled up against the walls and a sign that reads ‘Complaints about Elephants Here’. The village is interesting and small but no chance of buying a cold drink as the power is off all over town. The main part of the village seems to be situated around a central square lined with beautiful but dilapidated old buildings. We look for things to buy but too expensive as a lot of rich tourists come here by the air-conditioned coachload from Jaipur and Delhi. It’s been touristier here than anywhere else we’ve been but the geography and the historical value of Amber make up for it.

Jeeping it back to Jaipur, we’re all dropped off at a restaurant in the Old City to have lunch. Mark and I aren’t fussed on the atmosphere so we walk back through the markets to have lunch at the Bisseu Palace. After fifteen minutes walking, we come to a huge roundabout with rickshaws parked in one corner. We agree on a price and cycle through town to our dirty little street. Mark has seen some street barbers here earlier and decides to have a shave now while we have the time. This is one of the things Mark wanted to do in India

This becomes much more of an experience that he’d expected. The tiny barber’s shop is almost cupboard size with a piece of material hanging down one open side to keep the sun out. There’s three chairs, two barbers and a few guys just sitting around watching. I stand outside in the street as there’s nowhere to sit. It’s hot and millions of flies are crawling all over some green muck in the gutter under my feet which also stinks so much I have to breathe through my mouth. Nearby, what appears to be the local rubbish tip is keeping a lot of pigs happy. Besides the pigs there are cows and bicycles and trucks covered in tinsel and all the women are dressed in brightly coloured saris – this is definitely a country of opposites. It sounds so awful but really it’s wonderful and keeps me amused while Mark has the longest shave in history. This involves a lather and a shave followed by another lather and a shave then on with the aftershave, an unexpected water spray, tiger balm which nearly takes his skin off, another water spray, a rub with a rock called alum, another type of cream and a massage! All this a bargain at 20 rupees (about 80 cents).

We’re both starving by now, which is not good for Mark because of his diabetes, so we head straight for our hotel. Chairs are set up under trees on the front lawn so we order food from here and play with the cute little chipmunk creatures we’ve seen everywhere – glaries they’re apparently called. I spend the rest of the afternoon diary and postcard writing under the fan in our room and on the verandah. Mark goes off with some Indian guy on a motorbike to pick up photos and to find some tailor shops but no luck. Dinner and drinks are at six o’clock with Suzie, Brooke and Ash in the open foyer. Liz shows us a silver ‘ohm’ she’s just bought so we go to the same little shop in the hotel grounds and buy one each – we love them already. I also buy some silver filigree earrings and some handmade paper books. So tired after another great day so we’re all in bed by 9.30pm.

Sunday 28th November, 1999    Jaipur to Jhunjhunu

 At 6am we pack then meet the others in the dining room for breakfast as we have an early bus ride to Jhunjhunu. It takes so long to order and then everything comes out late and wrong anyway. Still shoving food in our mouths as we pile into two waiting jeeps. Alex gives precise instructions to the two drivers on how to get to the bus station. They both move their heads from side to side as is the Indian way of saying ‘yes’ or ‘OK’. The problem is that they obviously didn’t understand a word he said and Alex watches in disbelief as one jeep takes off on the road to the railway station. We pass him again a few minutes later going in the opposite direction. I don’t know how, but we eventually all manage to get to the bus station on time to catch the 7.45 bus which actually leaves at 7.45. So far we haven’t had any bus or train delays like we expected.

The trip to Jhunjhunu takes only four and a half hours and the bus isn’t too crowded. We are, however, three to a seat for part of the way but we aren’t too squashed. The buses have bench seats which we prefer. They seem roomier and less claustrophobic, too, as the seats in front aren’t the high-backed bucket seat types. While we don’t have many creature comforts, we do have music. There seems to be an unwritten law that all buses must belt out loud Indian music. There’s another unwritten law that says all Indian bus drivers must blast their horns at least once every twenty seconds. All this adds up to a very exciting trip as we tear through the desert in our disco rust bucket from hell.

The country becomes drier and drier as we travel further into the Shekhawati area. Pulling into Jhunjhunu we’re disappointed with its dry dusty streets but we’re too tired to really care. We find jeeps at the bus station to take us to the Hotel Shiv Shekhawati which is on the eastern side of town in a less populated area. The hotel is basic but very Indian looking and the rooms are big and clean. We have a TV and a covered-in balcony overlooking the noisy street – lots of traffic and loud Indian music coming from the stalls across the road. We wander over for a look but they only sell  a few sweets and basic toiletries. After settling in, we all walk the kilometre to the so-called Jamuna Resort where we’re told we can have a swim. We can’t wait as it’s so hot especially after a long walk along a dusty road. Naturally there’s only about an inch of water in the bottom but they promise they’ll fill it while we’re having lunch – oh sure!  We’re greeted at the gate by some Rajasthan musicians playing traditional Indian music while a tiny girl in traditional dress dances for us. We eat in an interesting octagonal outdoor room with cushions and benches all around the inside walls, a tent ceiling and the walls decorated with tiny mirrored pieces – getting a bit of a Rajasthan overload happening here. The same musicians and little dancer entertain us yet again while we eat our disgusting lunch. Things get even worse when a group of American tourists arrive. After spying a rat in the rafters, Mark and I decide to forget the pool and walk back to our hotel.

Again it’s a long, dusty walk in the hot sun. We’re both feeling so tired and both have head colds – not a good day really. After cold showers it’s great to get into our clean bed. The movie ‘Seven’ is on television which we are really enjoying until right at the most crucial moment in the movie, the power goes out. So typical of India and so funny really. We sleep for an hour then look for some of the crew. No arrangements made for tonight so we can do what we want. A few are sick so we decide to give the resort another chance and have dinner there.

We set off with Margo, Margaret, Liz, Ash and Jim. It’s more pleasant now that it’s dark and cooler although there’s still a lot of dust in the air from passing traffic. At a Hindu temple we can hear music and singing but can’t find our way in. The resort is so different tonight without the dreaded tourists. We sit at long tables set out in the candle-lit garden and listen to a group of local people playing traditional music. So lovely sitting here in the still night air. Even the beer is good – Kingfisher again but the premium variety so it’s heaps better. The food also makes up for the horrible lunch. We have curried chicken, mixed vegetables and stuffed paratha which is a soft Indian bread with potato inside. We talk about television shows that we all love and it seems we’re all fans of ‘The Bill’ – just love these people! After dinner we walk together back to the hotel and have an early night at 8.30pm.

Monday 29th November, 1999   Jhunjhunu to Mandawa to Jhunjhunu

 The beds are comfortable and we have a good sleep. Downstairs at 7.30am to ring home. Angie sounds good and she’s spoken to Lauren, too. Only cost $10AUS for three and a half minutes. Mark and I meet the others in the dining room for a fixed breakfast of 75Rp which is good value – cornflakes, juice, tea, coffee, toast, eggs and an omelet. Other travellers are sitting at the big communal table with us and we meet the most interesting man called Salvan. He and his travel companion are French-Canadian. Her name is Marie-Helen and she is about fifty, short and stocky and probably bossy. Salvan is an amazing looking gay man – tall and gawky with a long angular face and speaks with a wonderful French accent and waving hands. We swap travel stories and find that we’re heading for some of the same towns. Today, though, they’re hiring a car and setting off for Bikaner while we’re heading for Mandawa.

We’re missing a couple of the crew as they’ve been sick in the night. I still have a head cold but Mark is much better today. We all meet outside in the sun and then drive in white Ambassador cars through the desert to Mandawa about half an hour away. We see lots of working camels again today obviously as they’re so suited to this dry environment. We love travelling in these old cars – so comfortable and roomy but a bit dusty as the land here is so dry and sandy. Mandawa itself is interesting and famous for its painted havelis. These are ancient multi-storied mansions designed around a central courtyard so that women in purdah could live and do their daily chores without being seen by the outside world. The havelis here are colourfully painted all over with drawings of camels and elephants and even people bonking. We spend some time with a guide in one that’s occupied by an old lady who we watch cooking a meal on a tiny gas burner. We visit two others and each time we’re shown where the old women sleep and eat. Outside we all bargain for beautiful material and Mark and I buy two Rajasthan dolls at only 50Rp for Angie and Lauren.

Back in the old cars we drive through the market area and then back into the desert to Jhunjhunu. In town we walk up to a deserted palace called the Khetri Mahal which is situated on the only hill for miles – so flat out here. Mark needs to eat so we leave the others and walk back down to the market and find an auto-rickshaw to take us back to the hotel. Of course, we have a crowd hanging off the back but this is India. We grab our swimmers and head off to the resort in another auto-rickshaw – too hot and hungry to walk. Today there’s water and after a swim and a sunbake we sit at the tables on the lawn and order food. The others arrive and we all eat lunch under the trees. Mark and I are tired so we decide to go back to the hotel for a sleep. We set off walking down the road but are picked up by some men in an ancient tractor with a huge bale of something on the back. This is so kind and such fun for us – they even refuse payment when they drop us off near our hotel.

We sleep for a few hours and then walk back to Jamuna Resort for dinner at 7pm – unbelievably nowhere else in town to eat. The walk is a bit scary as it’s so dark and the road so busy. The rest of the group is already here and we all eat by candlelight again – quite warm tonight. After dinner we pile into a van with the owner of the resort who drives us to the Rani Sati Temple. Margo found it this afternoon and wants the rest of us to see it.  The huge temple is dedicated to the local women who had committed sati which is to burn themselves alive on their dead husbands funeral pyre. This was once compulsory for Indian women but is now banned. However, one young wife still did this voluntarily in this area in the 1980’s. Tiny shrines all lit with candles are set into the walls within one of the courtyards. Inside our friend from the hotel takes us to where people are walking in a clockwise direction up to 500 times around a huge bell. Apparently it’s a meditation that clears the mind and brings you into the present. We’re told that it’s also good for the body as it opens the veins to let the blood flow. This place has so much atmosphere. Outside, we have fun with some men in robes who want to be in our video. We’re so tired by now that we all head straight back to bed.

Tuesday 30th November, 1999  Jhunjhunu to Bikaner

 We wake at 7am and quickly pack then meet a few of the group in the breakfast room. Good breakfast again and we try to eat as much as we can as we have a long bus trip ahead of us today. The morning is beautiful again – blue skies and a bit cool but will inevitably become hot. The bus seems quite good but I think we’re just getting accustomed to the dirt. The five hour trip to Bikaner passes quickly but we’re squashed for four hours as we have three to a seat – us and a fat-bummed Indian lady and another fat bum just about sitting on my pack which is on my lap – no problem.  With a metal bar running along the glass at eye level, it’s hard to see out of the window. It’s an interesting drive, though, as a constant stream of desert women get on and off the bus all wearing predominantly red and yellow saris and lots of silver jewelry – toe rings on their bare feet, chains around their foreheads, arm bracelets and huge earrings and nose-rings joined by chains. They’re so beautiful with their olive skin and long black hair – makes us Westerners look a colourless lot. We’re in the Thar Desert now – lots of sand and a few sad looking trees and shrubs. We can see people eking out an existence in the dry ground. It’s amazing to see the women working in the fields wearing their beautiful coloured saris making such a contrast to the brown landscape. We pass through a few small dusty towns and are able to get out and stretch our legs when we stop for a train in the middle of nowhere. We wait about fifteen minutes before the train even comes. We could have been miles away – India!! For the last hour the bus is packed and it’s so stuffy and hard to breathe with so many people crammed in together. I’m feeling very claustrophobic and have to squat in my seat to get myself up as high as I can.

At last we pull into Bikaner which is smaller than Jaipur and probably the size of Agra. We walk from the drop-off point to our hotel called Hotel Harasar Haveli. It’s quite new and owned by Bubbles, a young friendly and very good-looking Indian man with good English. We dump our backpacks in the foyer and sit in a shaded courtyard for welcome drinks of limka while Alex organises our accommodation. Our room is impressive and on the second floor with a big bedroom, bathroom and balcony. The furniture is new and, as the huge sign outside says, ‘beautiful and lavish bathrooms containing bathtub’ and ‘splindid views from the roof’.

After unpacking, Mark and I have lunch in the courtyard where we meet an auto-rickshaw driver called Prakesh. He tells he can show us the sights of Bikaner so we set off for the massive Junagen Fort. We walk around the outer buildings and the handicrafts shop but can’t be bothered going into the fort itself – 50 Rup each to get in, extra for camera, extra for video and compulsory extra for guide. We’ve seen so many forts in the last few days and we really want to see the town and the markets. Prakesh drives us into the fantastic old city packed with narrow alleyways full of carved havelis and markets. I talk to a couple of tiny school children who are so sweet. We stop to wander around the spice markets crowded around a small square and where most of the buildings are painted bright pink. So colourful here with all the spices and fruit and vegetables. We drive through the Muslim section and stop in another small square where a group of men are playing a game under a tree. They immediately invite Mark over. We sit on hessian mats and I watch while Mark and the men play a game like pool on a big board. Apparently it’s called cannonball and you use your fingers instead of pool sticks. It’s great fun and they all cheer Mark. What a great experience to meet the local people in a real situation – when no-one wants anything but friendship.

Our next stop is the Jain Temple where a rosy-cheeked man proudly shows us around. Jainism is a mix of Hinduism and Buddhism and the Jain temples are notoriously elaborately painted and carved. Our jolly guide takes us up to the roof where we have ‘splindid views’ of Bikaner. The area is completely flat with flat roofed cement buildings all painted in pastel colours. From this viewpoint the town looks surreal especially in the golden light of the late afternoon.  Back out into the streets and back into the reality of dirt and rubbish again. We’re running late as we have to get back to the hotel for a special night that Alex has planned. The traffic is awful and we don’t have enough time for a shower and are just in time to jump into the back of a jeep with the others.

We drive for about forty minutes out into the desert. It’s dark by now and we pull over to the side of the road and climb onto three camel carts. Our camel is crazy and is scaring Margo and the other girls on the cart in front. The camels take us up a narrow dusty track while a group of kids walk beside us. We finally stop at a house in the middle of nowhere with a grassy area surrounded by gardens at the side. People are sitting on the grass playing Indian music on traditional instruments while some Indian ladies are doing some kind of wild dance. It’s like a little oasis in the middle of the desert. We all sit around under the stars and are served beer and even spirits! Mark and I talk to a young Danish couple called Dennis and Stina who’ve spent a lot of time here. They’re friends of the family of the house and who are also the parents of Bubbles, our hotel owner.  The father is so sweet and friendly and thinks it’s hilarious when we called him Big Bubbles. Mark and Dennis drink heaps of tequila and dance most of the night. We all try to copy the Indian dancers but it’s a pretty poor effort. A tiny Indian girl is also dancing until she drops her panties and then does a ‘number two’ in the middle of the grass. Her parents are among the poor musicians and they’re horrified as apparently it will make them lose face. Poor little thing – I hope she’s not in trouble. They pile some sand on top and make a fire. This is good as it gets cold at night out here in the desert.

We’re having dinner soon but Mark has to eat, like now, so Big Bubbles arranges for him to eat early. He’s so kind and when he sees that I’m tired, he insists that I have a sleep on a bed inside! I don’t want to go to sleep and I feel so left out lying in here while everyone else, including Mark, is outside having a good time. I don’t want to offend him so I stay for a while and then sneak back out.

It’s late when we all cram into two jeeps to take us back to Bikaner. Of course, we have extra people hanging off the sides and the back which now seems quite normal. It’s a hairy ride back into town with the driver not only driving like a maniac but continuously flashing our headlights at all the oncoming traffic – so annoying and so glad to get out of there. Finally get to bed about 11.30pm but Mark is sick from all the alcohol – coming out of both ends, poor baby.

Wednesday 1st December, 1999                  Bikaner

Mark is still sick when we wake at 7am but we dress and head downstairs for breakfast. Two jeeps are waiting to take us to the Karni Mata Temple thirty kilometres away. This is also called the Rat Temple as it’s inhabited by thousands of so-called holy rats that are supposed to be the reincarnated souls of future bards of the area. The road there is flat and straight but we still have to stop for Mark to be sick on the side of the road. We’re squashed in the back and it’s very cramped. We also can’t see much as all the usual freeloaders are hanging off the back. They finally put Mark up the front so he can see the road – good move.

As soon as we stop at the temple, he heads straight for the toilets – so sick but definitely self-inflicted. He only gets to the door of the temple as the smell even from here make him feel violently ill and he spends the rest of the time lying in the jeep. No shoes can be worn inside the temple but we all keep our socks on. It’s incredible with hundreds of huge rats running everywhere. There are small holes all around the bottom of the walls where rats are coming and going – like your worst nightmare really. They’re drinking from big metal bowls of milk and eating offerings left by the local   people. There’s a small shrine inside a tiny compartment in the centre of one room which must be the main place to pray as most worshippers are waiting to go in there. Our group doesn’t manage to stay long inside as the smell is so bad and the whole thing disgusting if not totally amazing. Outside in the sunshine there’s lots of activity including the inevitable cows and a small market.

It’s another hair-raising forty minutes drive back to our hotel in Bikaner where Mark heads straight for bed. Outside I find Prakesh who drives me in his auto-rickshaw to an emporium called Krishna House not far away. The shop is up a side street and very dark inside. I’m the only customer with three men serving so I’m glad to have Prakesh come in with me. I’m asked to sit down and given the very sweet Indian tea. Everything is done at a relaxed pace here. I buy silk pillowcases (50Rp each), two embroidered pillowcases (80Rp each) and two welcome signs (200Rp each). I pick out other things to buy but don’t have enough money so I promise to come back later. Prakesh then drives me to a silver shop but I’m not sure if I’m getting a good deal and don’t have any money anyway. Back at the hotel Mark is still tired and sick so I go downstairs to the courtyard to write postcards while I eat lunch. I haven’t had a shower or bath for two days because the water is always off or cold – so much for having ‘splindid bathrooms’. I try to have a bath but only manage to get about an inch of water in the bottom. It’s enough to get clean anyway. We hang around the room for a while and Mark is finally able to get enough bath water for a good wash.

At 4 o’clock we all find auto-rickshaws to take us to the camel breeding farm just out of town. We love these noisy little machines which are great for tearing around the towns but are very slow for a longer trip. It takes us half an hour to go the eight kilometres to the farm but it’s an interesting trip past the fort and out into the desert. Mark and I are with our friend, Prakesh, again and we stop on the way at an auto-rickshaw petrol station – so funny to see them all lined up. The camel farm is a breeding station for camels for the Indian army. Camels are still used as so much of India is inaccessible to motorised transport. No cameras are allowed as it’s all very top secret – like, who cares! We have a half-hour tour, watch the females being milked and try camel milk straight from the udder – very warm and sweet.

Back in the auto-rickshaw, Prakesh drives us back towards town. We stop on the way to watch women making mounds of cow dung which is used for fuel and building houses. He takes us back to Krishna House where we buy two beautiful Rajasthan wall hangings (2,200 Rp each).  We stop at a small roadside shop on the way back to the hotel so that Mark can pick up some tissues. I wait with Prakesh who asks me how old I am (47) and how old Mark is (32). When I tell him he replies quite innocently “yes, I can see that you are old” – wonderful for the ego, I must say. In town we see a wedding going past which is loud and colourful as Hindi weddings are.

Meet Alex at the hotel as arranged and then straight back into Prakesh’s auto-rickshaw to go to a wedding of our own. We have been invited by Big Bubbles who is there to meet us and looking very handsome in his bright yellow turban. It’s dark by now and the reception is held in a series of huge coloured marquis decorated with flashing lights. At first we’re taken to a small room crammed with Indian women wearing gorgeous saris all colours of the rainbow and shimmering with silver thread and sequins. In another smaller room are more women sitting on the floor and the bride and groom are kneeling before a shrine performing some sort of religious rituals. Indian brides are always dressed in red and the grooms in white. They pass then into the first room we’ve already seen and sit on cushions beneath a yellow and white-fringed canopy. We watch as they perform more rituals with small brass bowls and flowers. We just can’t believe we’re allowed to be there.

It’s become so hot and stuffy with so many people jammed in together so Mark and I go outside to talk to Big Bubbles. He makes us feel so welcome, smiling all the while with his front teeth missing. He takes us into another huge marquis which is full of men and tells us to eat what we want from the long buffet tables. This is real Indian food and we try a tiny bit of everything. It’s incredibly spicy so we can’t eat much. We’re tired by now and decide to go back to the hotel. It takes us a while to find an auto-rickshaw driver and eventually only find one down the end of a dark road – feeling a bit vulnerable out here on our own. Glad to get back to the hotel and we go straight to the rooftop café to order food with Brooke and Suzy. After an hour and a half I go in search of our meal. No-one knows anything about it so we re-order and wait in our room. Mark is feeling sick again so more pills and bed. An early start again tomorrow.

Thursday 2nd December, 1999   Bikaner to Jaisalmer

The alarm wakes us at 4.45am and we pack quickly. Amazingly, the breakfast we’d ordered last night actually appears. Ashe and some of the others aren’t as lucky and they’re still eating as we set off on foot for the bus stop at 5.30am. It’s still very dark and deserted which is an unusual feeling. Alex has changed our tickets for the deluxe bus as it’s a long drive to Jaisalmer. The seats are comfortable and we can even see out of the windows which is an unexpected luxury. It’s dark till 7am when the sun comes up across the desert landscape. We watch as the landscape becomes drier and drier as we head further into the desert towards the Pakistan border. No towns out here, only the occasional truck stop. After a few hours we stop at one of these for a toilet break. The loo is actually a couple of scraggy bushes behind the shop which is actually a few pieces of tin thrown together. There are a lot of interesting men hanging around; some cooking in huge woks in the open air, some lying around on makeshift cots (also in the open air) and some just interested in our video camera. Plenty of tinsel decorated trucks pull up here, too, and we really enjoy this place in the middle of nowhere.

Back on the bus it’s very hot and so crowded we’re getting that awful claustrophobia again. We finally reach Jaisalmer about 12.30pm – such a spectacle – a giant sandcastle – a vision straight out of The Arabian Nights. It’s a huge sandstone fortress rising out of the flat desert and exactly like all the pictures we’ve seen of it – magic! I never thought places like this still existed.

We pack our gear into a couple of jeeps and are driven to the gates of the fort. No traffic is allowed inside so we carry our gear up the steep pathway passing women in beautiful saris leading donkeys and stalls selling all those wonderful things we were hoping to find in India. Here at last is all the mirrorwork, silverware and embroidery we’ve been looking for. Rajasthan women in glorious saris and dripping in silver jewelry try to sell us rings and necklaces but we’re too tired and just want to get to the hotel. Here is another surprise – the Hotel Paradise is situated in a narrow alleyway closed in by yellow sandstone walls. It’s made of sandstone itself and built around a cool green garden. The rooms all face the garden and some, like ours, actually sit on the wall of the fort itself. Our room is wonderful. The inside walls and floor are sandstone and it’s big, sunny and airy with an overhead fan and a tiny balcony jutting out from the outside wall. We have spectacular views of the lower part of the town and then nothing but miles and miles of flat desert. We can see the fort walls wind themselves around on both sides and Margo and I blow kisses to each other from our little balconies.

We can’t believe we’re here at this most magical place and set off to explore the fort on our own. We run into Liz and together we barter for silver necklaces and bracelets for Lauren and Angie. We buy lots of mirrored keyrings for presents in the laneway outside our hotel. The fort is so huge and a maze of narrow alleyways, palaces and Jain temples and all made of the same beautiful golden sandstone.

The only dark spot in this great day is when I realise I’ve left behind a book by Margaret Drabble that Margaret had lent me in Bikaner. It’s a library book which makes it even worse. I’m devastated and just can’t tell her. Mark goes to heaps of trouble to ring Bubbles at the hotel in Bikaner. Bubbles says some other travellers are leaving for Jaisalmer tomorrow and will bring the book to our hotel – I’m so relieved.

At sunset Mark and I have drinks on the roof of our hotel with Alex and listen to a group of three Rajasthan musicians. They’re impressive in their turbans and make us laugh. We dance to their music and I give them cigarettes and, of course, a tip – always have to tip everyone in India. Afterwards we meet all the others at the 8th of July Café for dinner. We have the best aspect – sitting on the verandah overlooking a square surrounded by stalls, people cooking and naturally cows wandering around. We all have pizza for dinner – a free day from Indian food. We have an early night after a very tiring day.

Friday      3rd December, 1999             Jaisalmer then camel safari

 Except for barking dogs in the village below, we sleep well and pack early for the camel safari. Breakfast is on the roof of our hotel – the food is disgusting but the view is worth it. We meet the others and walk down through the fort into the town. It’s not as atmospheric here (not quite true – everywhere in India is atmospheric) as it is in the fort but much nicer than anywhere else we’ve visited in India so far. Much cleaner and no rubbish in the streets and we watch women washing pathways and doorways with pails of water. We visit two magnificent havelis, which aren’t painted like those in Mandawa but even more spectacular in their carvings. Here there are stone masons at work and Indian students sketching the havelis. We walk through more alleyways to a silver shop where we all climb some very steep and narrow stairs and squash into a tiny room. We sit on the floor and given cha (Indian tea). Then the floor is piled high with silver jewelry and trinkets just like Aladdin’s cave. There’s so many beautiful things but Mark knows the guy is ripping us off as he wants 20 Rupee to the gram but we know we can get as low as 12 Rupee to the gram. We leave.

Walking back up to the fort I hear Salvan screaming out my name from a flying auto-rickshaw. We try to find him and Marie-Helen where they told us they’d be staying but we run out of time. We just have enough time to buy clothes for the camel safari. I buy a pair of green cotton pants and a dark brown Indian shirt and Mark buys a cream Indian shirt. We change in a storage room at the Paradise Hotel then decide to go back to the 8th of July Café for lunch. Patty, Min, Brooke, Suzie and Ashe are already here and we watch a wedding going past in the square below. The bride and groom are on foot and they’re followed by family, musicians and people carrying a sort of generator for the loud speakers and flashing lights – very tasteful! Pizza again for lunch and even some ice-cream.

After gathering at the hotel we jump into two jeeps to take us out of town and into the desert. We stop about five kilometres north of Jaisalmer to visit the Bada Bagh Cenotaphs. These are beautiful domed structures sitting in the middle of the desert. We climb all over them and take a few group photos then drive on further to a Jain temple at Amar Sagar. Back in the jeeps again, we set off for the camels. It seems to take ages to get there but maybe only an hour.

We meet our camel wallahs then climb aboard the smelly beasts (the camels, that is). Boarding is not what we’d expected as the camel stands up on its back legs first and you feel as if you’ll end up arse-over-tit, as they say. We set off and fall into line with no-one leading my camel (I’d requested a camel wallah) and Mark having his camel led by a camel wallah (he’d requested not to have one) – India!!

 

It’s pure agony  – my legs are spread so far apart I’m sure I’ll be ripped in two – don’t know if my saddle is packed with too much gear or this is just how it is. We stop at a well for the camels to drink and everyone is limping and rubbing their arses. But it’s so interesting here and we watch the men pull water up in buckets from the well and pour them into troughs so the camels can drink. Nearby is another well where village women have come to collect water for their homes. This is the most incredible sight as they fill polished brass pots and then carry them on their heads as they walk gracefully back along the track to their village. They’re all wearing beautiful saris with matching coloured veils. This is a sacred event and we’re not supposed to take photos but I take some video anyway. Karma will get me no doubt.

 

Now we’re back on the camels for another agonising hour to reach our campsite just on dusk. We all sit together on the sand dunes to watch the sun go down over the desert. We even have beers and see the dreaded dung beetles – not scary at all as Alex has said.

After sunset we head back to the campsite but it takes us a while to find it – do not want to get lost out here! Finally discover our desert friends cooking around open campfires. We sit on rugs in a circle while they cook us dinner. Everything is done from scratch – even the chappatis. We have dahl and a vegetable curry, some tube-like breads and a super sweet dessert.

These guys are the real thing. They spend all their time in the desert mainly taking tourists like us on camel safaris. They’re so friendly and don’t seem to have a care in the world. Mark asks one man to show him how to tie the turban he’d bought in Jaisalmer. He’s so fast and then Mark has a go and it looks great for which he gets a big applause. Another man of a different religion shows him how they tie it a different way – so much to learn.

The men then build a separate campfire for us and we sit around it and play clapping games that Alex has taught us – great fun and Patty wins. Matthew, an Australian guy we’ve sort of adopted on our travels, reads a funny story from an Indian folklore book he found somewhere. It’s so good and we decide to try to find one. Then one of the camel wallahs sings us some Indian love songs – he’s so cool and very spunky. All the other men sing Waltzing Matilda which makes us laugh. At about 9.30pm we all climb into our campbeds which have been made up for us. Four blankets each are so heavy that we can hardly move but they keep us warm. It’s become freezing by now  but we’re so cosy in our beds. Lovely to lie here in the absolute quiet and look at the millions of stars above us. A perfect night’s sleep!

Saturday 4th December, 1999. Camel safari  

I wake about 6am but Mark is still sleeping. I walk as far as I can to go to the loo without being seen. Everyone is still asleep when I get back to camp after an uneventful toilet visit so I sit up on a sand dune to watch the sun rise. The camel drivers have started a fire and begun to cook breakfast. Everyone else is stirring by now and Mark comes up to sit with me. It’s a wonderful sight looking at the campsite with all the camels laying around the outside. Crows are sitting on the camels and dogs and puppies are running around. The dogs are wild and we watch two tiny puppies almost fighting to the death.

We’re brought breakfast on the sand dunes – rice porridge, a hard-boiled egg, chappatis and some sad looking oranges. We’re not hungry and we feed most to the crows. The camel drivers are getting the camels saddled up for the day’s ride and we go down to watch them. It’s beautiful here in the quiet and in the soft golden light of early morning. We take some video footage but then it just stops and that’s it for the rest of the trip – knew I shouldn’t have photographed the women at the well yesterday – karma got us after all!

 

The second day’s ride begins much better and at first I’m not as sore as yesterday. We pass by a village which is not at all picturesque but typical of most Indian villages – square cement boxes with flat roofs. Herds of black goats wander around and children come out to wave to us. Later we pass a huge marquis erected for the making of a Hindi movie to be set here in the desert. Heading back out into the desert I’m starting to hurt again. My camel is called Botty and he’s definitely giving me a sore one. Camels aren’t the romantic animals I’d imagined. They’re disgusting arrogant-looking creatures that do nothing but wee and fart. They walk with a rolling gait so it’s a rocky ride – I’m sure I’m doing it all wrong though. After a while we stop for a break and Mark and I swap camels – glad to be finally rid of Botty! Not long after, some loud smart-arsed Americans come tearing past on their camels so my camel decides it’ll take off too. I swear I nearly fill my pants. I’m sure I’ll fall and then my bag launches itself off the saddle and crashes to the ground with the video camera inside. I’m so pissed off and totally over camel riding – I know that later I’ll be glad I’ve done it but not today. We’re now in some scrubby area where the camel drivers stop to collect dry twigs for firewood. It’s so hot and all I want is to get off this horrid creature. Most of the others are far ahead and to catch up we have to trot. My poor arse is in total agony by now and I hate my new camel even more than my old one. I try sitting sidesaddle like Brooke but it doesn’t help. I ask one of the camel wallahs if I can walk for a while (meaning like ten minutes) but my camel is led off up to the others miles ahead and I never see it again! It’s so hot and I feel sick and dizzy. Mark is up with the others and doesn’t give a rat’s arse about me – horrible, horrible day!

We finally arrive at a campsite where we have lunch and where Margo and Margaret are waiting for us. They’d opted out of today’s ride and have had a lovely time in some village – smart girls! Lunch is cooked over an open fire, then the metal dishes are ‘washed’ by rubbing them with sand – totally practical. Jeeps arrive to take us back to Jaisalmer- did not say goodbye to Botty!

It’s so great to get back to our beautiful room at Hotel Paradise and after cold showers and a rest we meet Alex on the rooftop at five o’clock for sunset. Our favourite Rajasthan band is there again – great fun! Mark and I meet an American backpacker called Nora and we ask her to come out with us for dinner. The three of us walk out of the fort to go to the Trio Restaurant in the village. Still so many people out in the streets and the usual wonderful nighttime smells and sights of cooking and eating in the streets.

The Trio is a rooftop café up a steep set of cement stairs and partly covered by a coloured, striped canvas canopy. The food is great and we share our meals. I have mutton for the first time while Mark and Nora order a spicy dish each. The best part of Trio, though, is the million-dollar view. We’re under the fort which is lit up from the bottom of its massive walls – almost too spectacular to describe (no exaggeration)! India is packed with breathtaking sights and we’ve been blown away almost every day so far.

Must get back to bed for an early night but so excited to be staying here in Jaisalmer for another whole day. The itinerary had us all going on an eleven-hour bus trip tomorrow to see a Jain temple in Mount Abu and then a seven-hour bus trip to Jodphur. This doesn’t sound at all appealing so Mark and I have decided to go straight to Jodphur from here and meet the others in two days time. Alex thinks it’s a great idea too so he puts it to the others who all have to agree to it. If anyone wants to go to Mount Abu he can’t change the itinerary. Glad to say that everyone loves the idea and we’ve decided to have one extra day here and another extra day in Udaipur.

Sunday  5th December, 1999                         Jaisalmer

We have the luxury of sleeping in till seven o’clock when we wake to another beautiful warm day with the sun streaming into our room. We dress quickly then walk down into the village to ring home. We find a place to make international calls in a tiny cobbled laneway and it’s so weird to talk to Angie from this different world. Lauren isn’t there but Angie seemed OK. It’s so good to hear her voice as I miss them so much – so disappointed that we’ve missed Lauren and hope to speak to her from Jodphur.

For breakfast we climb steep stone stairs to another rooftop café. Margo and Margaret are here before us and we all have the best breakfast yet – eggs, cheese and baked beans on toast. Mark and I decide to go shopping and we spend ages with some young sleazy Indian who’s trying to sell us bedspreads. He hassles us every time we walk out the gate of our hotel so we finally decide to look at his shop. It’s close by and he gives us the usual complimentary cha, this time with ginger in it. His shop is full of wonderful bedspreads but he’s so pushy and we say we’ll come back later – not!

My back and bum are so sore from the camel safari so I book in for a massage this afternoon at a tiny place down the laneway from the hotel – ‘women only’ so Mark has to miss out. We decide to go into the village and we walk down from the fort into cobbled alleyways with the usual wandering cows. It’s so interesting here especially the fruit and vegetable market. We find our way to a ‘posh’ hotel that Margo has found but it’s too quiet at this time of day. Instead, we walk back to the main village square and find an interesting café for a drink stop – lemon and lime sodas are the best drinks in the world! Here we can see all the activity in the square below us and directly behind us is the fort. It’s nice but we decide to go back to Trio for lunch to get that really spectacular view. The food is good again and especially the banana lassis – the thick yoghurt drinks sold everywhere in India.

Out into the streets again we stop to price bedspreads and promise to come back at three o’clock after I’ve had my massage. We climb up into the fort again. I want to buy something to wear over my singlet top as bare shoulders are considered rude in India. I find a piece of soft mauve material which a tailor in a tiny shop makes into a shawl. We climb a narrow ladder to get to his little hidey-hole of a shop which is open to the street. From here it’s only a short walk to the ‘Women’s Beauty Parlour’ where we’re met by two lovely sisters who do the massages. They’re both elegantly tall and so slim – one in a red sari and the other in yellow – so spectacular, I feel such a frump! I’m shown into a big cement-walled room painted bright blue and lay on a bed covered with a pink spread. The massage is just back and legs and I wish it could go on forever. It’s only 100 Rup ($4) for half an hour and much nicer than the gymnastic-style Thai massages.

Back down in the village we go again to the bedspread shop as we’d promised. The young salesman tells us that he has a better selection at his home on the other side of the village. Here we have fun and jokes with his family and buy three beautiful embroidered bedspreads covered in mirrorwork, six black embroidered pillowcases and six cushions for $280 AUS. Mark barters hard and the guy laughs when Mark brings out his gold visa card. Our pillowcases have to be made up and they promise to deliver them to our hotel tonight.

On the way back to the fort, I spend a heavenly hour in a jewellery shop and buy two unusual silver bracelets for $12 AUS each. It’s late afternoon by now so we catch an auto rickshaw back to the square near the hotel. We ask at the desk if any books have been dropped off. So excited when they say someone has left one for us only to be devastated a second later when they hand us a novel written in German! Where is poor Margaret Drabble? Lost somewhere in India and never to be seen again! I just can’t tell Margaret and keep changing the subject. She asks me how the book is going and I lie and say ‘great’ – what a coward! It’s pretty funny really but I’ll have to tell her eventually – maybe Mark will do it – good idea!

To drown my sorrows we have our usual sunset drinks on the roof and then we all follow Alex through a different part of the fort to yet another rooftop restaurant. The stone stairs are unusual – no handrail or lower supports – just seems to be stuck onto the side of the building. The restaurant has a very ‘Indian’ atmosphere and we all sit on cushions on rugs on the floor and eat from low tables. Mark and I don’t stay long as we have lots of packing to do. We’ve bought so much here but Mark is the best packer and he easily squeezes it all into our two backpacks.

Monday  6th December, 1999              Jaisalmer to Jodhpur

I’m writing this diary now on Tuesday as yesterday was a bit of a loss what with travelling and being ill. On Monday morning we left Jaisalmer at 7.45am in jeeps for the bus station. It was a beautiful morning and we were up early enough to watch a spectacular red sunrise over the desert. At the bus station we watched goat herders and talked to some young boys who brought over some baby black goats for us to pat.

The bus left at 8.30am and the first couple of hours passed quickly. There was a lot of army presence around as we were still close to the Pakistan border. We saw tanks in the distance firing their guns – not at us. We had an interesting stop at a ramshackle shop on the side of the road but besides that the rest of the trip was horrid. The bus was packed and the driver let people sit on the roof to get extra fares inside but then kept stopping to pull them off when we came up to police checkpoints and then stopping to put them back on afterwards. After six and a half-hours we were glad to be getting into the outskirts of Jodhpur and my stomach was telling me that it needed a toilet real soon. Then the driver stopped at a petrol station and I was starting to panic. He was also telling the people he’d pulled off the roof that they had to pay a fine. When we stopped he and Alex had an argument while auto-rickshaw drivers were harassing the rest of us and I was getting frantic for a toilet. The driver was waving around a piece of paper that he said was a fine from the police so Alex got one of the auto-rickshaw drivers to translate it and apparently it had nothing to do with police or fines at all. Alex said ‘piss off’ and at last we took off for the hotel.

I just made it to a toilet in the foyer and spent the rest of the afternoon between the bed and the bathroom. Mark went out with the gang for dinner at the Fort View Café and got back about 8.30pm. I was having stomach cramps by then which lasted all night. Now Mark was starting to feel sick as well.

Tuesday  7th December, 1999             Jodhpur

Back to diary writing again today. The stomach cramps have gone this morning but I’m still sick. Mark’s toilet visits aren’t what you’d call normal but he doesn’t feel sick. I’m not going to miss out on today if I can help it so we head down to breakfast in the garden. It’s so nice down here in the shade of some huge trees. We love the hotel and it’s different, again, to any we’ve stayed in before. It has two floors and made of sandstone and is attached to a school. We can hear little voices singing and reciting. The hotel is owned by a man called Fatty Singh – not sure if that’s his name or if it refers to his waistline.

We pile into jeeps at nine o’clock and drive through town. It’s horribly crowded and seems extra dirty and polluted especially after being in Jaisalmer. The best thing about Jodhpur is the huge Meherangarh Fort that looms over it and this is where we’re headed. The jeeps take us up the long winding road to the gates of the fort. From here the city is far below us and is all painted pale blue giving Jodhpur the name ‘The Blue City’. Inside the fort we walk up a very steep wide path to the palace where a guide shows us around. It’s interesting here but I feel so sick I can’t get into it. I stop for a while with Margaret and we have pineapple lassis while Mark and the others climb to the top to see the canons and other buildings. I need to go to the bathroom and have to pay as usual. The little toilet attendant is so helpful and runs up to me with a toilet roll and asks if I want some. I’ve brought paper from the hotel but it’s scarce in India so I say yes. With a huge smile he proudly rips off two sheets and hands them to me.

Feeling a bit better now, so Mark, Ashe and I decide to walk back down the steep narrow path into town as we all need to go to the bank. We walk through a maze of winding, smelly, filthy alleyways using the clocktower as our point of destination. Children continually call out ‘hello’ and ‘what country” but we’re not in the mood today. At last we arrive at the market square which is full of stalls selling everything from fruit and vegetables to household goods. From here the long wide street ahead is a depressing sight – a sea of heads as far as we can see. Everyone has to walk on the road as the footpaths are clogged with motorbikes – no logic. I’m feeling horrible again and it takes us ages to find the Arun Hotel where, according to Lonely Planet, the Bank of Baroda has a branch on the bottom floor. Since Jodhpur is a city of two million people it seems reasonable to expect something quite big or even something that at least looks like a bank. As it happens, the Bank of Baroda is situated behind a half pulled down roller door in a grotty side street with dirt, rubble and motorbikes almost barring the entrance. Inside it’s even more bizarre. In a hot, stuffy room, men are sitting behind old-fashioned cages – a definite time-warp thing happening here. We’re directed upstairs where Mark and I have to wait while Ashe sits down at a desk with a man for ten minutes. Our turn next, but we have to wait for telephone interruptions and people interruptions – it happens all the time here. The people serving just ignore you when someone else pushes in – maybe it’s a survival thing, I don’t know. Finally we’re down to business. We fill in carbon copied forms and then this information is transferred onto another set of forms and then into some little books. Then we’re given a small brass token with a carbon-copied form and ushered downstairs to the cashier. Again we have to wait ages till our number is called when we finally get our money.

Outside, Mark shoves me into an auto-rickshaw to go back to the hotel as I’ve got the ‘Indias’ again – our revised version of ‘Bali Belly’. It feels strange to be flying through the streets on my own. I throw up in the bathroom and feel better after a sleep. Poor Mark is somewhere trying to find airline offices to confirm flights to Varanasi and Nepal. He finally finds Air India but not Jet Airways. He has to eat as soon as he gets back to the hotel then has a memorable toilet experience of his own. He has an uncontrollable urge to ‘go’ but, as I can’t possibly get off the loo in our room, he has to use the one in the courtyard. Unfortunately, Alex and Jim are sitting outside having a beer and Alex later gives a great imitation of Mark’s explosive experience. Since then, he always calls us Mr and Mrs Fartypants.

When we’ve both recovered we set off in auto-rickshaws with Alex, Brooke, Suzie and Jim to the Fort View Café for dinner. The fort is actually nowhere to be seen but hidden by a cloud of pollution. This really is not our favourite city! Margo and Margaret are off dining at a palace somewhere and I wish we could go with them but too sick to be bothered finding them. Matt turns up a bit late with Liz a few minutes behind him so we make jokes about them ‘shagging’ (as Alex says). We watch the sun go down behind the pollution and then have a nice Indian meal. Mark and Jim and I share an auto-rickshaw back to the hotel. This town looks much better at night and it’s exhilarating driving through the streets now lined with lantern-lit food carts and people cooking on the sidewalks. We’re relieved to get back to our loo as Mark is feeling worse and he spends a sleepless night getting up and down to the toilet.

Wednesday  8th December, 1999                 Jodhpur to Udaipur

The alarm wakes us at 6.30am so we pack and are down in the courtyard for breakfast at seven o’clock. We’d ordered it last night for it to be ready at seven o’clock but it doesn’t come till 7.30 while the people who’d ordered their breakfast for 7.15 are served before us – Indian service! Today is the second time we change the itinerary. We’re supposed to catch an eight hour bus to Udaipur but with both of us needing frequent toilet stops, Mark tells Alex that we’re going to hire a car and driver instead. Alex loves the idea and tells the others who also love the idea so we end up with three cars between us for the same price as our bus tickets. Brooke is sick today as well and Ashe is on the way so it’s a good move.

We leave Jodhpur at 8.15am in three old white Ambassador cars.  Mark and I share with Margo and Margaret. Mark sits in front with the driver while I sit next to Margo. She’s so entertaining and the first two hours fly. She tells us about the plans for her upcoming wedding. Her wedding dress is deep crimson satin with a revealing front – so Margo and so perfect! She’s lived in London and travelled all over the world and so I make her tell us about some of her adventures. I really could listen to Margo all day – she truly is one of my most favourite people. Margaret is so different to Margo but she’s just as wonderful in her own very special way – she is also one of my most favourite people. She does, however, ask me about Margaret Drabble and I mumble something incoherently and change the subject.

At first we drive through green crop-planted plains along roads lined with big shady trees – glad to leave the desert behind at last. The villages are more appealing as well and the streets seem to be clear of rubbish. We stop in one village for drinks and chocolates and to stretch our legs. Walking along with Alex, he casually announces ‘something just came out of my bum’ – just love these people!!!!

Back in the cars we drive through more villages and pass flocks of cute black-faced cream goats being herded on the sides of the road. We stop later at a restaurant attached to a house that belongs to Fatty Singh’s brother – surprise, surprise! It’s some way off the road and surrounded by trees. The setting is pleasant and remote but what on earth are we doing here? Margaret and Patty decide to stay here and rest in the shade while the rest of us pile back into the cars and head back out onto the road to visit the Ranakpur Temple only a few kilometres down the road. This is a magnificent Jain temple complex set amongst gardens, bougainvillea and trees. It’s free to go in but we have to pay 30Rup for the camera, take shoes off, no cigarettes, no leather, no menstruating women, no photos to be taken of holy men, etc etc. So many rules but we’re finally deemed suitable visitors only to get find ourselves in trouble inside for taking pictures of ourselves! Also find later that one of our photos has a holy man in the background – will surely go to hell now!

The temple is worth it, though. All made of white marble and held up by hundreds of carved columns each one totally different. Outside under the trees we watch a group of big monkeys playing while battered old buses pull up delivering Indian pilgrims for overnight stays. The cars then take us back to ‘Fatty Singh’s brother’s restaurant’ but Mark isn’t feeling well again so he doesn’t eat much. The food is awful anyway. We don’t hang around here long and soon take off for Udaipur.

Now I’m sitting in the front while Mark is sandwiched between Margo and Margaret. Margo will surely take Mark’s mind off being sick. He has a great time and there’s lots of laughing. Meanwhile, I try to talk to the driver and offer him lollies but he doesn’t seem to want to be friendly and is only interested in blowing the horn – obsessed is the word! So far the roads have been on flat ground but now we’re climbing up and over hills and around continual bends. At every corner he blows the horn full blast – not only deafening but usually unnecessary and definitely annoying. As well as the noise there are no guardrails and I’m not too sure how good the brakes are on this old car so I keep a close eye on the road. But besides the horn and the scary road it’s a beautiful drive. The scenery varies from the vibrant green of irrigated crops to the brown of arid earth around the next bend. The villages are small and a change from the bigger towns we’ve seen so far on the bus routes. The traffic is so light along this entire stretch so maybe it’s a kind of short-cut. Incredible to us, we see bullocks turning wooden water wheels as well as camel carts, people ‘eking out an existence’ and fields of flowering yellow mutton growing for miles.

We continue through this lovely valley surrounded by steep dry hills for hours then finally enter the outskirts of Udaipur. We like it immediately – lots of stalls, cafes and backpackers. After eight hours with our horn-happy driver we can’t wait to get out of the car. Our hotel is the Rattan Palace – most hotels and guesthouses in India are ‘palaces’ or ‘castles’ even if they’re dumps. The Rattan Palace is definitely not a ‘palace’ but excellent anyway. Despite the entrance being in a narrow dirt laneway full of cows and cow shit it does overlook beautiful Lake Pichola and the even more beautiful Lake Palace with the even more beautiful City Palace looming behind us. So many ‘beautifuls’ but this place really is.

Our room is down an outer staircase and we have a courtyard with some garden furniture and a few sad looking plants. We can’t be bothered unpacking so we dump our gear and have drinks on the roof to watch the sunset. This place is even lovelier at night with the lights coming from the Lake Palace and the palace on Jagmandir Island on the water and the lights from the City Palace up on the hill. At six o’clock Alex takes us to a nearby hotel where we climb six flights of stairs to another rooftop café. The views are even better from here and we sit against the railing overlooking the lake. It’s very dark and we eat by candlelight. The food is great here too – chicken and corn soup, hokkein noodles and chicken sizzler. We talk for ages and laugh at more ‘Alex’ stories – could listen to him all day.

Mark and I are back to having lots of toilet visits during the night but then we know that Jim and Ashe in the next room are having similar problems. The layout of the hotel is rather unfortunate. All bathrooms have an open vent above the loo that backs on to a central shaft which unbelievably opens out on the rooftop café. This means that all toilet noises are shared equally not only with the people eating on the roof, but with all the surrounding rooms as well. So there are no secrets between us, Jim and Ashe behind us and Liz and Alex in the two rooms above us. Now our main topic of conversation is our latest toilet experiences. There seems nothing strange in this – all suffering together I suppose.

Thursday  9th December, 1999            Udaipur

We sleep well considering the ‘runs’ – pooing water now!! It’s another perfect day and we meet some of the group for breakfast on the roof. Alex arranges for us to meet again at 9.30am and we all follow him up the hill and into the City Palace grounds and then down the other side to the water. Onboard a flat-bottomed boat with a colourful canvas roof, we set off for a tour of the lake. It’s so calm out on the water with a slight mist coming off the surface in the distance and the sun shining above us. We pass by the dhobi ghats where women wash clothes on the edge of the lake by bashing them against rocks. The boat passes the magnificent Lake Palace and pulls up at Jamandin Island. We’re the only people here on this tiny island and we spend ages exploring the lovely temple and gardens. We take stupid pictures of each other hanging out of windows and Margo and I trying to look mysterious in our veils. Back on the boat we pass close by the City Palace which looks like a postcard from here.

We all walk together back to town and then split up to do our own thing. Mark and I walk down the hill to where the silver shops are congregated in one little dusty street. We spend ages buying silver bracelets and a wide silver bangle as well as six pairs of earrings. For lunch we find a café recommended by Lonely Planet called Mayur Café. It’s dark inside so we sit out in a tiny, sunny courtyard surrounded by high walls covered in vines – a quiet oasis in the middle of the town. The food the best and we have lime sodas and a dish called Rajasthan pizza. This is more like a pastie filled with meat and vegetables and probably the best thing I’ve ever tasted. Afterwards we climb the stairs to the Jain temple and give money to old women begging on the stairs and to Sadhus sitting near the entrance.

More shopping now and Mark buys a pair of maharaja shoes with the toes curled up and haggles with some guy over some black pants that cost about $3. That’s until Mark says he’ll probably only wear them once and the guy realises that we’re going to the Lake Palace for dinner. ‘You bargain for one dollar and you can afford to go to Lake Palace’ – we feel so bad and just buy them – so easy to get things out of perspective. The heat finally gets to us so we race back to the Rattan Palace for a beer on the roof before getting ready for our date at the palace.

Just as we arrive back in our room, there’s a knock at the door and there stands Margaret. She wants her library book back and she’s looking mean. I tell her the dreaded news that Margaret Drabble is gone forever and beg her forgiveness. She just laughs and the whole thing is a total anti-climax. I hand over a Rajasthan travel book I’d bought her as a peace offering but I have a definite suspicion that she and Margo aren’t likely to let me off lightly.

Thank God that’s over, so now we dress in our poshest travel clothes and set off for the Lake Palace. We walk through the City Palace again and down to the very glamorous boarding dock to catch the palace’s private ferry. The Palace is built on a tiny island in the middle of Lake Picchola. It’s built right to the edge of the island so that the palace appears as if it’s floating on the water. The entire building is painted white so it gleams day and night. It was also a setting for an old James Bond movie called Octapussy so it’s obviously spectacular.

Arriving in minutes at the palace, we climb out of the boat and into another world. We enter through vast and beautifully decorated lounges and find our way to the bar. Men in immaculate white tunics with loose pants and coloured turbans serve us cocktails while Indian musicians and fire dancers entertain us. Margo and Margaret meet us in the bar and we order more cocktails and sit around for an hour pretending we’re rich and famous. Getting hungry now, so we move to the outdoor lilypond courtyard surrounded by columns, vines and flowers and lit by blue fairy lights. It’s a magical setting with the tables set amongst the shrubs and ponds. The buffet is setup through a vine-clad archway and we all pile our plates with Indian dishes and overly-sweet desserts. A band is playing Western music and Mark secretly requests  that they sing ‘I Will Always Love You’ – my God, it’s so romantic and I nearly cry! And Margo and Margaret nearly cry! The best end to a lovely night. The Lake Palace is somewhere I’ve read about but never imagined we’d be lucky enough to go there. It’s too expensive to stay overnight, though, and we all board our little ferry to take us back to our own palace.

Friday  10th December, 1999                         Udaipur

On the roof this morning for another great breakfast with some of the others, then Mark and I decide to go walk. We wander around the surrounding alleyways and then down to the river to watch the women washing clothes at the dhobi ghats. We have lunch again at Mayur Café – Rajasthan pizza, green salad, corn and chicken soup and fresh lime sodas. Dessert is at another rooftop café of the Hotel Natural – pancakes and ice cream. Lots of travellers here and so it’s good to leave.

We meet Alex outside the hotel and he takes us to a cheap silver shop which is owned by the brother of the guy who owns the shop we’d bought all our stuff from. This shop charges the same eleven Rupees per gram so we know we hadn’t been ripped off yesterday. We buy more earrings and then on the way back to the hotel we buy some Indian bags covered in mirrors to use for our pillows – finally have to chuck our old faithful. We meet the others at the hotel at 3pm as arranged and walk up to the City Palace for afternoon tea.

The Palace is just as incredibly beautiful inside as it is outside. Huge chandeliers, portraits of maharajas and antique English furnishings decorate the massive hall next to the enclosed verandah where afternoon tea is served. We overlook the Lake Pichola and there’s the Lake Place gleaming on the water before us. We sit on embroidered chairs next to the open windows and tea is served on beautiful fine china and silverware on white linen tablecloths –  extremely posh but so cheap. We all have tuna sandwiches, cakes and scones with cream and jam all served by men in traditional Indian costumes.

We all enjoy our afternoon tea so much then split up again to do our own thing. A short walk down the hill brings us back amongst the temples and markets and cafes. We dodge cows and cow dung, pass an elephant coming out of an archway and see donkeys being led past with loads of dirt on their backs. There’s colour everywhere and smells and music. God, what an incredible place is India. At a tiny old shop we bargain for three saris and pants for Mark, then race back to the hotel to get ready for our very special Indian fancy-dress night. We’ve all decided to make our last night special as we’ve had such a great time together. It’s extra special as this is Alex’s last trip with Intrepid after eight years as a leader and it’s Margo’s doe show as well. So typical for Margo to have her doe show in India unlike us ordinary people – am determined to be like her.

Margo and Liz had gone in the afternoon to pick up some clothes they’d made by a tailor near the hotel. Margo thinks it’s hilarious when he tells Liz that she can have buttons up the front of her top but that Margo will need a zipper because ‘you are fat’. Don’t know whether it’s worse to be told you’re ‘old’ or ‘fat’.

For the dinner Margaret, Margo and I wear the saris I bought this afternoon. We all look gorgeous – would love to wear them all the time – they’re so feminine. Margo’s sari is deep purple and maroon, Margaret’s is deep green and maroon and mine is bright yellow and pink. Mark looks fantastic in black loose pants, a white Indian shirt, curly-toed maharaja shoes and turban. Alex and Ashe wear turbans too and the girls all wear Indian clothes they’ve just bought. We’re so excited walking through the streets dressed like this. Up the stairs to our favourite rooftop café, we have lots of photos taken and a fabulous meal. We’ve all chipped in for a present for Alex as he’s been so great. We give him lots of money and Mark gives him a bottle of Jim Beam which he’d bought duty free. Bourbon is so expensive and hard to get in India so Alex is stoked and says he’ll save it for New Years Eve.

Back then to our room for the inevitable endless toilet visits which are now a major part of everyone’s day.

Saturday 11th December, 1999           Udaipur

We actually sleep in then up to the roof for breakfast about 9.30am. Everyone seems to be lazy today and we all sit around talking till 10.30 then Mark and I go down to pack. We’re leaving this afternoon so we store our packs in the day room then back to the roof to hang out for a while. Mark is feeling sick this morning and we both still have gastric in a major way so we can’t stray far from the hotel.

We walk around to the One Stop Shop to ring home and are so happy to finally get Lauren. She sounds good and tells us that everyone is fine – so hard to know if that’s true. We buy our usual junk food for the train then back to the hotel for lime sodas on the roof. I go out for a walk while Mark rests on a couch on the roof. I wander around the tiny alleyways and watch some men tie-dying in their little shop.

At 3 o’clock we all walk back up to the City Palace for another afternoon tea. So glad we came back again today. We eat too much, though, and feel a bit sick afterwards. Back at the hotel it’s time to go and we say our good-byes to Brooke, Suzie, Ashe and Jim. Can’t believe we’ve only known them for three weeks. We’ve had such a great time with these people and it’s sad to split up. Alex is staying, too, but he comes with us to the station.

In auto-rickshaws again, we drive through this lovely town to the railway station. Alex finds our carriage and talks some Indian people next to us into swapping so we can have two adjoining cubicles. Good idea but a bad move in the end as we’re to find out later. We’re all so annoyed with Patty and Min, who haven’t wanted a bar of us for the whole trip and now won’t get out of our carriage because they’re afraid to be alone. Margo finally gets rid of them by telling them exactly that.

Now we’re just Margo, Margaret, Liz, Mark and me – wonderful! We get ourselves settled in and pull out of the station at 6pm. On Indian trains the sleeper compartments are very, very basic. They have no door and not even a wall between our seats and the aisle running down one side of the train. But we do have a window and long bench seats facing each other. The seats are surprisingly roomy and we’re really comfortable. Mark goes to talk to Patty and Min for a while because he’s nice and then he chats to a couple of Indian businessmen on their way to Jaipur. They’re very interested in our marriage (we lied) and very impressed that Mark has taken in a poor woman (me) and her two daughters! It appears that I should be most grateful.

Margo and I give each other foot massages using a scented Indian kind of vaseline – so nice! We all order dinner from a ragged little man and aren’t surprised when we each receive three aluminium-covered packages; two containing mush and one with cardboard chappatis. The dahl is slopping all over the floor and the rice is inedible, so we do the unthinkable and throw them all out the window one by one. We can’t leave them in the carriage – who knows what vermine they’ll attract in the night. We all roar laughing each time one of us throws one out and we all have a turn just to see what it feels like. Margaret can’t bring herself to do it but she finally decides she should have the experience and we all cheer her as the last chappati disappears out the window.

After we dispose of our meal all we have to eat is the junk food we’ve brought with us. We share chocolates and potato chips – it’s like a kids’ slumber party. We tell stories about ourselves and find out some interesting ‘secrets’ from Liz. The people who’d originally had the compartment next door now want it back and are arguing with Patty and Min. Then Margo starts to feel sick and has to lie down, then Mark feels sick and climbs onto the top bunk and then I feel sick and lie on the bottom bunk. It’s freezing during the night and Indian trains don’t provide pillows or blankets like the overnight trains in Thailand. Mark and I are lucky to have our pillows that we carry everywhere and the blankets we’d bought in Pahar Ganj in Delhi. Do manage to get some sleep but keep waking with the cold and to keep an eye on our bags even though we’ve chained them to the seats. Even feel sorry for Patty and Min. All night we can hear them throwing people out of their cubicle. Indian people without sleepers come from the other carriages and try to sneak onto empty beds. Fair enough but it’s impossible to know if it’s just someone wanting to sleep or someone trying to pinch our stuff. I wake once to find a man getting into our bottom bunk – scares the shit out of me. The train stops at endless stations during the night and we constantly wake to the cries of tea sellers on the platforms yelling ‘cha, cha’. An eventful night.

Sunday    12th December,1999.                       Delhi

It’s finally light about seven o’clock but still freezing. We dismantle the bunks and spend the next few hours eating chips, chocolate and looking at the fabulous scenery. It warms up and I spend hours standing at the open doorway to get a better view. Lots of cultivation and villages along the way. This train journey has turned out to be such a great experience and not the long dreaded trip we’d expected. Twenty hours on a train sounded like forever but we’re loving it. We start to get out when the train pulls up at a station as we usually have about ten minutes to buy a drink or food or just people and cow watch. The last couple of hours become more hectic as more and more passengers get on and even  beggars who stand next to us holding out their hand. We pass through kilometres of shantytowns along the tracks as we come into Delhi. So hard to believe that people live like this. Some families are just living on the side of the tracks with no shelter at all.

We finally arrive at New Delhi station which is packed with people and cows as is usual. We find auto-rickshaws to take us to the Arpit Hotel – newly named the ‘Armpit’ by our group. Of course, the drivers have no idea where it is but finally we arrive. And what luxury! Our grubby little room looks like a palace to us now. Mark and I go up to the roof and order club sandwiches, corn and chicken soup and beers. The food is great and we have fun talking to the waiters.

There’s still so much of Delhi to see so we decide to go exploring for a few hours and hail down an auto-rickshaw outside. The driver is a Moslem and looks very impressive in his white turban. He speaks English and takes us on a tour of Connaught Place. We get out and walk through the park in the centre. As it’s Sunday there’s lots of local people laying around and groups of men playing cards on the grass. We drive then along tree-lined avenues with large buildings on both sides till we come to the wide open avenue of Rajpath or Kingsway with India Gate at one end. This looks like a mini Arc de Triomphe but is actually a memorial to Indian soldiers who died for their country. There’s so many Indian tourists here so we leave and drive to the opposite end of Rajpath to Rashtrapati or the President’s palace. Large stone buildings are set back off the road behind wrought iron fences and the whole area is very impressive. The open expanse of Rajpath is so different to any part of Delhi we’ve seen before. We like it here but it’s cooling down now so we head back to the Armpit for hot showers.

We meet Margo, Liz and Margaret down in the foyer at 6.45pm and walk to the South Indian restaurant around the corner. We each order thali but our food comes all together in lots of tiny chrome bowls and no-one knows who owns what or what they are – what a mess. No problem, it’s all good and we have a great time. The best is the banana split dessert. Back at the hotel we give goodbye hugs and kisses to Margo and Margaret as they’re on a late flight home to Melbourne tonight. We kiss Liz goodbye, too, as she’ll be leaving during the night to fly to England. I can’t say how much meeting these people has made our trip so much better than we ever imagined.

We feel a bit lonely when they leave but now we’re on to the second part of our trip. It feels like a totally new adventure and, although we’ll miss our mates, it’s exciting to be setting off on our own. Up to our room, we pack for our early start tomorrow and sleep well in our so comfortable bed.

Monday     13th December, 1999.         Delhi to Varanasi (Benares)

The alarm wakes us at 6.30am and we eat the breakfast we’d ordered last night. At eight o’clock we throw our gear into a taxi and head off for Indira Ghandi Airport. It’s a quick drive and we take our last look of Delhi. Try to take in as much as I can as I always wonder when we leave a place if we’ll ever see it again. Delhi has been so much more than we’d expected and there’s so much we didn’t see.

The domestic airport is smaller and more attractive than the international airport. After checking in our bags we wander around then sit in a dining area and order hot chocolate. Mark reads the paper and I read ‘The Beach’ by Alex Garland – a trendy travellers book all the trendiest travellers are reading. I hated it at first but now I can’t put it down now. I finish it here at last and I’m looking forward to reading the Dalai Lama’s ‘Freedom In Exile’ that I’ve just bought in the bookshop downstairs – seems so appropriate now that we’re heading to Sarnath in India and to Nepal where Buddhism all began.

It’s strange going through immigration as we’re both body searched – me by a female. We read our books in the very impressive boarding lounge and people-watch. Love watching other passengers and wondering where they come from. A voice over the speaker asks passengers to identify their luggage before it’s put on the plane – another new airport experience. Mark has to go outside and see if our bags are on the trolley – so amazing. We board our Jet Airways plane on the tarmac. The plane is immaculate with stunning airhostesses. This is not at all the horror experience we’ve been led to believe about Indian planes. We’re served a meal and given lime juice but it’s salted and sweetened as the Indian people like it. We take off at ten o’clock for a one-hour flight to Varanasi. After a short time, the captain announces ‘ladies and gentleman, if you look to the left you will see the beautiful Himalayan Mountains rising up out of the clouds’. My God, there they are; snow-capped mountains gleaming in the sun! This really is an amazing country – we see something incredible every day. We follow the mountains most of the way and arrive in Varanasi about eleven o’clock. The flight has been great but the last ten minutes of circling the airport is scaring me to death – like, why the hell are we doing this? Won’t the wheels come down? So glad to land safely and good to see how green it is below.

The airport is tiny and a long way from the city. It’s so pretty around here and we see so much village life from the airport bus that we catch into town. People are working in fields and dehusking grain by throwing it into the air from big, shallow baskets. It’s rotten luck that our video camera has died – there’s so much to try to remember and it’s impossible to take photos of everything. The colours in India are what I think we’ll remember the most. It’s so green here and such a change to the desert we’ve become accustomed to. The bus stops after half an hour but we still have a long way to go to get to the river. The bus stop is chaotic as usual with touts crowding the door which makes it almost impossible to get out. They’re all shouting at us to try to get us into their auto-rickshaws. It’s hard to barter with them and we definitely get ripped off. The next half hour is headache material as we enter the city. More chaos and traffic fumes and jammed with people.

Finally we arrive at our hotel, impressively named Hotel Temple on Ganges. It’s situated down a side street and adjacent to Asi Ghat. This is the last ghat of about a hundred along the Ganges in Varanasi. Ghats are wide cement steps that run down to the river and where people wash clothes (dhobi ghats), wash themselves, come to pray or to cremate bodies. Varanasi is an incredibly special place for Hindus because it’s situated on the holy Ganges which means it’s a sacred place to die and then to be cremated on the banks and have your ashes spread on the river.

Our room at the Hotel Temple on Ganges is big and clean and we have a view overlooking the river looking up towards the main ghats. We have lunch on the roof and watch the village life below. We can see people cooking outside, praying, and tending bullocks down near the river. Our room also overlooks a small family home and we watch a holy man performing some sort of Hindu ritual with them outside their door. Can’t believe we’re here staying next to the Ganges and we’ve decided to try and stay on as many famous rivers as we can.

At Asi Ghat we watch women selling flowers and boatmen and outdoor barbers. We walk alongside the river to look at the next few ghats but decide to backtrack and take a boat-ride to the old city. A gentle old man says he’ll take us for 80 Rup and he leads us down to the river to his boat. It’s almost not a boat and is definitely the oldest and smallest that we can see. It looks more like a piece of old wood floating in the water. There’s water in the bottom of it but we love it. It’s beautiful along the river – very calm with lots to see along its banks. Varanasi sits on a bend of the Ganges but only on one side. The opposite bank is flat, barren sand as far as we see. Mark rows for half the way and we stop once to pick up the boatman’s son. We pass the burning ghat and see three bodies being burnt on the river’s edge – are we really seeing this?

It takes us half an hour to reach Dasaswamedh Ghat which is one of the main ghats. There’s lots of people here praying or selling souvenirs and lots of backpackers. A young girl sells us small dishes filled with flowers and a lighted candle that we send off into the river for luck. We walk up the wide steps and into the packed old city. It’s the same as all the old city areas of the major cities – packed with people, cows and markets and very smelly. Women are sitting on the ground selling vegetables and weighing them out on ancient scales. Cycle-rickshaws wind their way through tiny dark alleyways already crammed with people.

Getting overwhelmed again so we decide to look for some guesthouses we’ve read about in the Lonely Planet. We do find a couple along the Ganges but they look dirty and damp so we decide to stay another night at the Temple – not as trendy but definitely cleaner and quieter. At the Shanty Guesthouse we have a drink on the roof. The guesthouse is set high above the river at the top of a set of very steep steps. We keep walking along the riverbank and stop again at another café – so hot walking. It’s almost dark by now and lovely along the ghats with Indian music playing in the distance.

There’s so many incredible things that we see on this walk. At Harishchandra Ghat (the burning ghat) we stop and watch two cremations down near the river. The bodies are laid out on stretchers and covered in gold cloth, then carried through the streets down to the river – the holy Ganges. Here they’re dunked in the sacred waters and then covered with wood and burned on the shore. The amount of wood that’s placed on the body is as much as the family can afford. It seems not real at all until the cover partly slips off one of the stretchers and we can see that it’s a young girl. So sad and makes me think how lucky I am to have my two beautiful, healthy girls at home.

Farther along the bank we hear music and chanting coming from a doorway high up the steep bank. We climb up and enter another world. It’s a temple of some kind and I’m not sure if we’re supposed to be here. Inside the air is thick with incense and burning oils. On raised cement platforms at each side of an aisle, men are sitting cross-legged around open fires, and ahead is a shrine. Hundreds of chanting people are walking clockwise around it and others are ringing huge brass bells. I walk around with the others and then race outside as my eyes are stinging so much.

We keep walking towards Asi Ghat and towards the music we can hear ahead in the distance. We pass monkeys and their babies playing on the steps of the next ghat. We come to Asi Ghat but walk further, now along dirt tracks. Inside a small courtyard we find a tiny temple where men are sitting on the verandah surrounding it. They’re playing instruments and loudly chanting the same words over and over in the same tune. They’re saying something like ‘dasi amor’ and take turns singing it. We stand and watch and then can’t believe it when we’re invited to take off our shoes and sit with them. Inside the temple a holy man with long grey hair and a beard is giving small plates to people from the doorway. One of the musicians points to us and we’re also given two dishes made of leaves with some sort of seeds and two balls of doughy-looking stuff inside. We think we’re supposed to eat them but the holy man doesn’t look like he’s had a bath for a few centuries, so after thanking them, we unceremoniously ditch them on the walk home.

Dinner is at a very trendy café on the river. Lots of ‘cool’ backpackers here – pains in the arse most of them but some the real thing. We have a nice pizza and lemon sodas – can’t seem to get beers here in Varanasi. Back to the ‘Temple’, then, and into bed early after another mind-blowing day in India.

Tuesday  14th December, 1999.   Varanasi to Sarnath to Varanasi

We’d booked a boat yesterday to take us up the Ganges for sunrise and to watch all the early morning activity along the river. We’re to be met downstairs at 5.45am. It’s dark inside the foyer but we see that there’s someone sleeping on the table and then we realise it’s Philip, the owner of the hotel.

A man arrives soon and we’re taken down to the river to meet our boatman who is surprisingly the same little man we had yesterday. It’s just getting light and very misty and still on the river. We pass the burning ghat again where yet another body is being cremated – goes on all day and all night. We pass Dasaswamedh Ghat and on to Manikarnika Ghat, the main burning ghat. No photos allowed here as it’s a sacred place. It’s so huge and almost majestic but incredibly depressing with massive piles of wood stacked everywhere waiting for the bodies to come – horrible.

We row back to Dasaswamedh Ghat where there’s so much activity as people wash themselves and pray in the water. Further down people are washing clothes and laying them to dry on the steps and some on bare dirt. We see sadhus with their long beards praying cross-legged on the steps and half-naked men standing in the river pouring water from metal urns and praying at the same time. Sunrise comes at last with the sun a brilliant red, spreading its beams along the water towards us. The whole experience is mystical and magical as we look through the fine mist at the dramatic ghats in the distance. Varanasi is a place that seems lost in time – like things have been the same here for centuries and will remain so. It’s spirituality seeps into your psyche so that you couldn’t forget it even if you wanted.

The poor little boatman has to row so hard now against the current. We could get out and walk back but he has to go there himself anyway. He must do this every day of his life – we’re so spoilt. Finally at Asi Ghat, we give him more than he asks then go straight to the roof for breakfast. Next we have a forty-five minute acupressure session each. We lay on a sort of cot on the roof and the massage man presses points in our feet to treat problems in other parts of the body. He’s actually spot on as he says that I have problems in my forehead (sinus) and gut (gastric) and Mark also has gut problems (gastric again) – maybe no prizes for guessing that every foreigner in India will have gut problems. The acupressure is very relaxing despite some pain and the incessant chanting still happening down below. The chanting continues till ten o’clock.

Next we decide to explore the area, so firstly we walk around some of the streets near our hotel. Every step of the way is amazing as usual and there’s big trees for shade. As we wander further from the river, the streets become busier and we decide to take a cycle-rickshaw and look for a café we’ve read about in Lonely Planet.  It’s not far and we have lovely soups, fried rice and Indian style pizza. Another cycle-rickshaw takes us back to the hotel to book a car to take us to Sarnath.

Sarnath is a centre for buddhism and so it’s a bit of a novelty in predominantly Hindu India. It’s a sacred pilgrimage destination as  it was here that Buddha gave his first sermon. At two o’clock the car arrives with the driver and a friend, of course. The traffic chokes the roads all the way out of the city and we arrive at Sarnath about forty minutes after leaving Varanasi. The streets are lined with trees and banners are strung high across the road welcoming the Dalai Lama who’ll be visiting soon. Monks in maroon robes and shaved heads wander the streets – incredibly calming. Our driver drops us off at the Mulgandhu Kiti Vihar which is a buddhist temple with a golden statue of Buddha at one end and decorated with painted frescoes of his life. We hire a guide who shows us around. He’s such a nice man and so passionate about his religion. He shows us a bo tree that’s an offspring of the original bo tree that Buddha sat under to find enlightenment. We follow him then to the deer park where he tells us the lovely story behind it. Next we visit the most impressive monument in Sarnath. This is the huge stupa which marks the spot of Buddha’s first sermon to his disciples.

After our tour, we buy some buddha images and stoneware from a sweet old man. There’s shady trees nearby and we drink cokes while we wait for our driver. He picks us up at four o’clock and we leave Sarnath to head back to Varanasi. The next hour is through almost the worst traffic chaos we’ve been in yet. It’s incredible that the traffic keeps flowing even though the roads are choked with people, bikes, rickshaws, cars, trucks and animals. There’s too much to see and take in – it’s mind numbing and I’ve got a headache again.

As we walk back into the gateway of the hotel, an old man follows us with his hand out saying that his wife is sick. We’ve become so accustomed to not giving money to everyone and there seems to be so many beggars especially here in Varanasi. I just keep walking, but as we climb the stairs to our room, I keep hearing his words. Maybe his wife really is sick and what does it matter if he just said that. I feel the lowest person on earth and I look for him from our balcony but he’s gone. My God, what a bad person I am to ignore a poor old man who’s so desperate that he has to ask me for money. What if my dad had to do that for mum? I’ll never forget how I feel today and I don’t want to forget. India has been so magnificent but we’ve taken from it what we could for ourselves – great experiences, great photos and great memories. We can try to make excuses and say that we almost have to accept the poverty if we’re to come here at all. But that just can’t be right. We’ve seen so much poverty and felt sad many times, but this one little man has touched my heart and my conscious like nothing else. It’s unforgiveable what I’ve done and I feel spoilt and selfish and humble.

In our room, we rest and read till we head out again after dark. It’s so nice walking around at night. Most of the sidewalk stalls are only lit by kerosene lamps and people are sitting around fires down near the river. We bargain for fabric lampshades covered in tiny mirrors and fringed at the bottom. Dinner is at the same café we ate at last night. We’re served by a gentle man and the food is good – we even have apple pie. No beers, though. The café is next to the river and as we eat another funeral goes past. Strange that we’re getting used to this already. The body is covered with a golden cloth and carried on a stretcher on the shoulders of four men. A small procession follows which appears to be only men. The body is taken down to the Ganges and put on a boat. We suppose they’re headed for one of the burning ghats – unbelievable.

After dinner we walk along the street running away from the river and look at the food stalls. An ancient lady sells us some fresh roasted peanuts and we eat them on the verandah outside our room overlooking the Ganges – how lucky we are. This is another time when we almost have to pinch ourselves to believe we’re actually here.

Wednesday  15th December, 1999.                Varanasi to Nepal

Our last day in India. We’d set the alarm for 6.15am but we’re already awake mainly due to the chanting Muslims who start about 4am. Yesterday we’d arranged to start today with yoga on the roof with the massage man – very versatile. Although Mark is more flexible than me, we’re both pathetic but it’s fun. After a short meditation, we race back to bed to read and eat chocolates and potato chips – very spiritual.

At eight o’clock we walk down to our favourite café as we were told last night that they open for breakfast at seven. It’s now eight o’clock and the cook hasn’t arrived so we go back to the room to pack. Back to the café again at nine o’clock. The cook is here which is unfortunate as we’re given cardboard cornflakes and a stale brown bun. The hot chocolate is good, though, and so is the sun and the scenery around us. We watch all the local activity – women threading marigolds for Hindu offerings, peanut sellers, boys selling boat rides, street barbers and street stalls selling cigarettes and sweets.

After breakfast, we change some money, buy a black silk shawl for Mum and pay our hotel bill. Philip is there to wave us off and to give me a red flower. He’s a gentle, sweet man. We set off on the last leg of our India journey. At the airport we undergo more body searching and Mark has to load the bags twice from one trolley to another. There always seems to be some sort of senseless protocol but this is India and it wouldn’t be the same otherwise. We’re flying Indian Airways and again we’re pleasantly surprised. That’s just it about India – always something to surprise you or just blow you away.

We take our last look as we fly towards Nepal. We’ve had the most amazing time in a most amazing country. We’ve visited fabulous forts and palaces, ridden on camels and elephants and experienced an incredible people who, despite desperate poverty and hardship, are more dignified and spiritually advanced than we can ever hope to be. We’ve loved it and we’ve hated it, but that’s what life is. India is all life. It’s changed us forever – it can’t not.

Goodbye Varanasi. Goodbye Mother Ganges. Goodbye India.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

         

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About virginiascott

I'm an interior decorator, travel writer and blogger
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