A Travellerspoint blog

India: Jaipur

sunny
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Another pre-sunset start for us on our second day; we got up at 6am to catch a local bus to Jaipur, the third destination in the Indian Golden Triangle and our first venture into the state of Rajasthan. To gear me up for the journey I got a trusted masala chai for 5p from a street vendor who told me I was rich of heart.

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Traversing the 250km from Agra to Jaipur took around 6 hours and the coach was pretty comfortable. The seats reclined to a decent angle, there was plenty of leg room and as far as we could tell, no insect infestations, rabid dogs or faeces; which left us questioning our preconceptions. The only annoyance was the broken power socket just beside my knee; essentially a hole to the outside, that smacked my legs with cold, polluted air for the duration of our journey.

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As we approached Jaipur centre, a group of young men took a liking to Lauren and I and felt the need to wave and wink at us through the window. One particular floppy-haired Indian fellow eagerly chased the bus and continued to wave and wink at me. I briefly considered the opportunity for an Indian sperm donor but luckily I came to my senses and realised he was a bit too short for me. I want tall, foreboding offspring to fight off any killer-robots that may be manufactured in the future.

We arrived at Jaipur Inn and we all gasped with glee; a home-stay with a very relaxed, homely, boho feel. Our eyes were treated to brightly coloured Indian glass, tiles and textiles and a warm, open atmosphere. Another treat was the weather; the temperature increase from Agra was palpable - up by 6 degrees. We couldn't quite discard our long sleeved tops and trousers just yet though as modesty (in both clothing and actions) was still expected, particularly around holy and spiritual sites. So as before, knees, shoulders, cleavages and (with difficulty) potty-mouths were to be concealed. We enjoyed a light lunch at the Inn's café and made our way out into the colourful streets. With Raj leading the way, we negotiated the diverse markets, avoiding the aforementioned menagerie, the deep and irregular gutters, the unknown smelly puddles and the begging children. The vibrancy I’d always associated with India but hadn't yet seen in Delhi and Agra was now pervasive; the spices, the kites, the machinery, the buildings, even the horses were vibrantly decorated.

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After posing for a few photos with some locals (our pseudo celebrity status is quickly becoming apparent), Raj took us to a rooftop where we watched the sun set over the hustle and bustle of Jaipur's traffic. We spotted an elephant join the busy carriageway and then make its way onto the wrong side of the road. The drivers did an amazing job at avoiding it, mind you I think if I was driving a tuk tuk and an elephant appeared in front of me, I'd give it a wide berth too.

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After a quick stop at a lassi shop, four of us head to the local cinema Raj Mandir to see the epic period blockbuster Bajirao Mastani. Of course the film was entirely in Hindi but the musical score, energetic dancing and classical acting (along with Raj's occasional translation for the complicated bits) made for a comprehensible plot, and oh did we bloody love it. The film was over 3 hours long (why scrimp on the good stuff) and had an interval for us to visit the urine-scented wash-room and get ripped off for some refreshments (almost).

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Feeling energised by our first Bollywood experience we briefly forgot the sore throats, aching heads and tickly coughs we'd been fending off. We met back up with the group for a late dinner in a local restaurant that only serves thali. Thali is a round platter with a selection of small different foods. An Indian tapas or mezze if you will. The food was, as always, delicious and probably the spiciest meal we'd had to contend with thus far, which actually helped our sinuses. That evening we both had little to no sleep which I am blaming entirely on Lauren's angry, relentless cough.

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We woke up on our second day in Jaipur feeling like shit; both nursing full-on head colds. But, the tour awaited and we certainly weren't going to waste our day moping about (as much as we might have wanted to). Raj introduced us to our tour guide for the day who's name sounded like (but definitely wasn't) Delipsingh, so we naturally monikered him Lip-Sync. On our way to the Amber Fort, we had a quick photo-stop at the Hawa Mahal; basically intended as a massive tinted window, built in front of the palace so the royals could watch what was happening on the street without anyone seeing in on them. Bunch of peeping Toms.

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The Amber Fort itself was another impressive defensive structure and UNESCO World Heritage Site that started being built in 967 BC and then was continually built-on and renovated right up until the 18th century. In and around the fort were plenty of cute puppies, goats, elephants and a Trafalgar Square-esque volume of pigeons. The fort had some amazing sights to behold, my personal favourite being the ancient wheelchair that the wives would use if they were too tired to walk around (to be fair their opulent outfits alone weighed over 2 stone). On the walk in and out of the fort we were mildly harassed by touts selling what we called 'crapestries', wooden stamps, puppets, weird hats and fans. They shouted things like '10', 'two for '20' 'only 10' but Raj told us that they meant dollars and not rupees.

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Next we stopped to look at the Jal Mahal aka the water palace which unfortunately you can't go and visit, but you can peer and wonder at it from the mainland. We also got to see some funky coastal birds that Lip-Sync named for us (obviously I've forgotten them all).

Well and truly Mahal-ed out, we next visited a cut and finish workshop downtown where precious gems such as amethysts, rose quartz, emeralds etc. are graded and filed using manual processes and machines. After watching some of the artisans hard at work, we had a snoop around the jewellery shop to see some of the finished work. Although tempted, Lauren and I and our not so glamorous state of beings didn't buy any shiny things, but Mona purchased an amazing multi-stone ring that Elizabeth Taylor would be proud of.

We were then taken to see anther famous Indian craft; block printing. This is where handmade wooden stamps with vegetable based paints are used to print patterns both simple and elaborate onto a whole range of materials. We watched the craft in action and then some of us got our clothes adorned. Lauren was wearing my yellow shirt (now infamous in our group) and had one of the breast pockets printed with an elephant. Once again we were escorted into the shop to see a whole range of block-printed clothes, sheets, table clothes, pillow cases, throws etc. The gentleman who I'm presuming ran the whole show gave a very impressive sales pitch and we made all the right noises at the goods exhibited. I even ended up loosening my purse strings and buying some silk pyjamas.

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It was at this point that I really felt like someone had smacked me over the head with clay pot so our tour-mate Jack very kindly passed me some pseudo-ephedrine to perk me up. Which did just that and gave me a real spring in my step for a few hours. Ahhh drugs. After a buffet lunch (hot toddy for me thank you - mixing alcohol with strong medication is a great idea), we had a siesta and were rudely awakened by a wedding procession outside in the street. A very loud mini orchestra of drums, tubas, trumpets and god knows what else led an army of brightly dressed Indians through the roads of Jaipur. And by the looks of things the wedding party had taken some pseudo-ephedrine too as they were all dancing like maniacs; both the youngsters and the old folk were really giving it some welly. Not one boring great-aunt Beryl in sight.

Now fully awake we walked up to the hotel rooftop where some of the group were finishing their Bollywood dance class. We were both a little annoyed that we didn't do the class but we thought the group wouldn't appreciate being sprayed with snot at every gyration. A little while later after working up an appetite we went to a posh-ish restaurant called Sheeshas where I had a delicious spicy dahl meal. We ended the jam-packed day by climbing up to the top of the building and watching some fireworks over Jaipur's cityscape where we ended up arguing over whether the disc-shaped skyscraper opposite was in fact a rotating restaurant or not. Jaipur; you've been legendary.

Posted by advensha 00:01 Archived in India Tagged india jaipur amber_fort g_adventures jaipur_inn block_printing indian_crafts indian_gems amer_fort jal_mahal water_palace rajastahn Comments (0)

India: Agra


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Our alarms woke us up on day 1 of our India tour at 4:30am. We had a train to catch to Agra at 6am and we had to get ready, pack, check out and navigate the temperamental traffic of Delhi. It was a cold and foggy morning and this coupled with our sleepiness made for a dazed few hours. After a very sweet and delicious masala chai tea at the station, we boarded our train and settled in for the 'supposed' 2 hour journey. Lauren and I were sat separately which was mildly disappointing at first but in the end proved the perfect way to get to know our tour-mates. The train carriage we were on was classed as 'luxury' but it was just like your average 20 year old Merseyrail train; basic seats in a 2 and 3 configuration, with overhead storage, fold down tables (many of which were broken) and limited leg room. One of our tour-mates Mona has brought a HUGE heavy suitcase instead of a backpack (that we’ve affectionately named 'Big Blue') that didn’t fit in the overhead compartment and so had to be stood up in the aisle. This meant that people had to squeeze past it. Everyone was very understanding; one particular Indian man even proclaimed that he was 'too fat' to get past and chuckled as he scraped his protruding belly along it. The only real 'luxury' part of the journey was getting fed. Men wandered up and down the aisles and handed out cutlery followed by a peel-lid carton of lemonade, a pack of digestive buscuits, a cup of tea (Tetley) and then breakfast; which consisted of two vegetable fingers, 3 chips and a few peas along with two pieces of toast, butter, jam and some curious spicy liquidy ketchup. Lauren and I enthusiastically chowed down on it all - always excited to receive free food from strangers.

The fog was immense; for the whole journey all we could see through the windows was white nothingness. At one point mid-nap my brain told me that the train had transformed into a plane and that we were cruising at 30,000 feet amongst the clouds. Perhaps our veggie fingers contained special mushrooms... Because of the fog, the 2 hour journey became 4 and a half hours but amazingly we both somehow managed to not need the toilet, therefore postponing our inevitable Indian rail lavatory experience for another day.

When we arrived at Agra train station, overtired and under-prepared, we were met with a wall of 50 men touting for tuk tuk business. They were shouting and gesticulating with great enthusiasm (edging on aggression) and as soon as our fat Caucasian heads broke into daylight all hell broke loose. Squabbles erupted, with guys pushing and fighting over who had dibs on us and our fat wallets. The commotion got us a little disorientated and at one point Jack, Helen and Lauren were following a random man they thought was our tour-guide Raj. Luckily, Raj quickly re-claimed us and we got on our way to Hotel Amar Yatri Niwas.

On arrival to the hotel we were instantly bemused by the presence of a Costa Coffee, KFC and Pizza Hut. Unfortunately you just can’t escape certain capitalist megaliths even in the less ‘developed’ corners of the world. After freshening up we got on a minibus to Agra Fort, an awe-inspiring palatial UNESCO world heritage site, built by the Mughals and dating back to the 11th century. Our tour guide was called Nadeem but we dubbed him Armani due to his choice of designer garb. After wandering, oooing and ahhing for a few hours Raj took us to a nearby restaurant called Dasaprakash which specialises in dosa; a south Indian filled pancake. For some reason, the paper dosa I ordered was significantly longer than everyone else’s (see pic); I just have to be different... Lauren had the sudden urge for a cream soda but after a few slurps she’d had enough, so obviously being a dutiful girlfriend I helped her out.

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After a few minutes of digestion we made our move to the legendary Taj Mahal (Crown Palace). Naturally it’s respectful for women to dress modestly so we brought our sarongs and wrapped them around our heads and shoulders just to draw attention to our tourist-status even more. I won’t go into the history and background of the Taj as you all know how to Google, but I will say that it came into existence as a result of a loving promise between a husband and his dying wife. You might call it the most expensive and impressive romantic gesture ever given. After a short orientation we approached the palace and I can honestly say it took my breath away. Lauren was impressed but also a little underwhelmed (typical). We walked around the grounds trying to imagine whether either of us could be bothered to build a palace for one another if we were dying. We came to the conclusion that even if we had the money and resources we would probably just say we’d build one and then just not bother when the other one finally died. Ahhh love.

Weirdly, the majority of our time at the big T was spent posing for photographs with other visitors. Lauren was eager to replicate the infamous 'Princess Diana sitting on a bench in front of the Taj' scene, but because of the crowds and our new celebrity status, it took 20 minutes just to get the photo set up. After many snaps with random people and their whole family we made our way out and back to our meeting point (the Indian equivalent of Starfucks; Café Coffee Day). We sat out the front and were treated to an impromptu zoological parade; first a large bull came by, followed by a camel and then an old lady with her pet goat. Of course there were a few monkeys and dogs roaming around for good measure too. The bull actually tried to get through the turnstiles into the Taj but was turned away. He must have had a laser-pen on him or something.

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That evening Raj took us to a restaurant called Maya where we were seated on a rooftop under some beautiful trees. We were also serenaded by a musical duo playing the sitar and tabla drum, who I jumped on after my meal and forced them to let me have a go on their instruments. It turns out I’m a natural on the sitar. But maybe the guy was just being polite. Lauren’s hand and wrist technique were pretty damn decent on the tabla too. We’re considering starting up a band when we return; the Grones collective.

Posted by advensha 22:22 Archived in India Tagged india backpacking travelling taj_mahal agra agra_fort dosa sitar g_adventures tabla_drum Comments (1)

India: New Delhi


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So far, India has far exceeded our expectations. I'm not entirely sure what our expectations were, but they've definitely been surpassed. We arrived in Delhi at 8:30am and after a bit of a faff with money exchanging (we were given only 1000 rupee notes which are too high to buy a 30 rupee bottle of water), we were on our way to our hotel; C Park Inn in the Karol Bagh district.

We were met at the airport by a lovely young man (unfortunately neither of us can remember his name) who is 21 years old but looks more like 17. He took our bags, bought us water and organised our transfer to the hotel. He is from an area of North India called Haryana. His mother is 34, a fact that made Lauren feel very old. He told us his favourite food is green mustard (a dish from his village) which we obviously are now keen to try. He is studying Hindi, English and Economics in university in order to improve both his and his family's lives. Of course he was incredibly polite, helpful and inquisitive but what struck me the most was his purity. He had a childlike innocence that was infectious. But then again he may have laced our water...

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The first thing that hit us about India was the temperature; it was around 10 degrees but felt more like 5. The local people were all wrapped up in big coats, hats and gloves and there we were in our vest tops and light cotton hoodies. More fool us for presuming it was going to be hot. Luckily we brought enough trousers and socks to cope for a while.

The hotel was pretty basic but perfectly adequate. I was actually pleasantly surprised that the en suite had a 'Western' toilet. After a much needed nap, we decided to venture outside to sample some street food. As we made our way to the lobby, the hotel staff seemed a little reluctant to let us outside. They asked us what we needed and whether we wanted them to book us a ride. Of course the ever defiant me declined and proceeded to step over the threshold into deepest, foggiest Delhi.

It was everything you would expect from the capital of a country with a population of 1.3 billion (and growing). The word stifling describes the experience quite well; the polluted air, the traffic noise, the pungent smells of burning diesel, sewerage, hot oil and the sheer quantity of humans (and animals).

We held onto each other tightly and threw ourselves into the chaos. There were a few (easily-allayed) stares but our main concern was not getting mowed down by the relentless traffic. We walked only a few hundred yards from our hotel and found a stall selling samosas which Lauren was more than happy to test for contamination. Said samosa was deep fried there and then on a makeshift stove and tasted amazing; yours for 10 rupees (approx. 10p).

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Hunger removed, we decided that for both safety and navigation we shouldn't venture any further so we went back to the hotel to chill for an hour before meeting with our group.

We sat down with our tour group that evening and met Raj (the tour 'CEO') and the other 6 travellers. In the group there are two other Brits (a couple), one Norweigan, two Aussies (a couple) and one American. We were pleasantly surprised by the mix of ages (youngest 22, eldest 32 and the rest in between) and they all seem to be on a similar wave-length to us. Raj is an excellent guide and a meticulous planner; in fact we've been spoiled by him and are a little concerned that we'll be useless when left to our own devices!

After our introduction, Raj took us to a restaurant a 20 minute walk away. As before, navigating the streets of Delhi was an experience, especially at night time, but we got to grips with it pretty quickly. In order to get across the heavily congested carriageways, junctions and roundabouts, pedestrians have to just walk out into the traffic, raise their hands making a 'stop' gesture and for the most part, have a blind faith that drivers will stop for you. It certainly gets your adrenaline pumping and your sphincter twitching. And it's not only cars you have to contend with, there are tuk tuks, mopeds, motorbikes, bicycles, buses, trucks, horse-and-carts, cows, dogs and occasionally a camel or elephant. Here's some accompanying video footage;

The restaurant was good; we stuck with vaguely familiar dishes such as paneer and lentils all washed down with massive Kingfisher beers. The thing I was most impressed with (and this says it all about me) is how the bills were organised. Each individual's order was itemised and processed on a bill and given to the customer. So each of us had our own bill with only what we ordered on it. This practice is India-wide and makes bill paying 10 times easier and fairer without all of the awkward 'splitting the bill' scenarios we get at home.

At the end of the meal a small tray of what looked like white gravel was passed around. Raj explained that these were sweet fennel crystals that are traditionally chewed after a meal as a digestif and to freshen breath. Although neither of us are big fennel fans we were immediate converts and now look forward to the 'fennel gravel' when we go for food.

After a busy and somewhat overwhelming day we retired to bed, filled with excitement, apprehension and curry, ready for the first day of the tour tomorrow.

Posted by advensha 23:14 Archived in India Tagged traffic india travelling backpackers new_delhi g_adventures Comments (0)

The night before

Sore throat and mental numbness

So we're sat in Irlam at Lauren's Mum and Dad's home, watching Celebrity Big Brother, melting into the sofa and counting down the hours to our imminent advensha.

Tomorrow morning we'll be on our way to Manchester airport, over-packed bags in tow and realisation setting-in (hopefully).

Lauren has been struck down with a steadily-worsening sore throat today; which I strongly suspect is anxiety manifested.

I am currently ailment free but feeling oddly numb about everything that's happened and is about to happen.

In the past 6 months, I've abetted all of these "big" changes in my life; a drastic haircut, premeditated unemployment and technical homelessness and of course a half "gap year" around the world's largest continent.

Anyone would expect a level of apprehension, fear, nervousness, excitement, regret, anxiety, enthusiasm or, at the very least, disbelief and denial.

The only overriding feeling I have at the moment lack of feeling. I couldn't even accurately describe it as apathy. I just feel numb.

I've gone back and forth on whether this is a positive or negative thing and for the time being, I'm just accepting it. There's no point having emotional expectations or putting additional undue pressure on myself. I am just hoping I don't have some sort of meltdown after we've arrived!

We've done our last bit of re-packing, we've organised our money, our travelling outfits, our hand luggage, our paperwork and our minds as best as we can.

The day has been filled with goodbyes, in person, on the phone and on this internet thing. So our duties are, as far as we can tell, fulfilled.

It all starts tomorrow. Wish us luck.

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NB: Excuse the bad quality photo - it was taken on my laptop's inbuilt webcam in relative darkness.

Posted by advensha 14:07 Archived in United Kingdom Comments (0)

Facing fears... goodbye hair

17 inches lighter.

I've never been all that good at 'doing' things. I'm better at talking about the thing, planning the thing and just generally procrastinating around the thing. This infuriates me no-end, but I know I'm not alone in this trait. But, if 2015 stands for anything, it's doing things. Facing fears. Stepping out of comfort zones. Just generally taking responsibility for my own life and not being complacent in my own misery/boredom/dissatisfaction.

So after over a year of talking about it, I finally did it. I got my hair cut off. For those of you that aren't aware, my hair was very long; I could almost sit on it. I had had the same very long, curly hair style since I was 13. That's 14 years of pretty much the same hair. In keeping with my low-maintenance grooming philosophy, I would get it trimmed once every 12-18 months, by the cheapest hairdresser I could find. So to cut a long story short (excuse the pun), getting the majority of my hair cut off was quite a big deal (relatively speaking).

Now those of you that do know me will know that I've never been afraid of being 'different' or going against the grain. In fact, throughout my life I've actively flouted unwritten social rules with my attitude, actions and dress. But for some reason, my hair had always, at least on the surface, conformed to the feminine ideal; impractically long, sumptuous and flowery-smelling - the binary opposite of the ideal masculine mane.

But enough of the waffle and analysis, I actually did it. Well I didn't actually do anything; a lovely hairdresser called Steve partitioned my hair into four ponytails and just chopped them off. Something that seemed so big to me was over in 10 seconds. 17 inches of 14 year-old dead skin cells lay on the hairdressers' mantel.

And that was it. Easy as pie. And I fucking loved it immediately. Which was nice.

And therein lay one of the first mighty jumps from my comfy but humdrum life-sofa onto a slightly wobbly but perfectly safe podium of newness.

And there are plenty more to come.

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Posted by advensha 11:12 Archived in United Kingdom Tagged hair_cut hairdressers long_to_short drastic_change reuben_wood_manchester Comments (0)

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