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Thursday, September 20, 2012

Intriguing India…part one

Intense, filthy, crowded, colourful, vibrant and exhilarating.   
India is definitely the most intriguing, frustrating and completely absorbing country we’ve ever visited. Our wonderful month long trip was in February last year…..and having just spent a winter in NZ, we’ve finally found time to update the blog!
While fascinating, it’s also the dirtiest, most polluted, poorest and over populated but it’s all those things that make it uniquely India.
It’s a place I had always wanted to visit and finally managed to convince David it would be a great place for a land based trip.  Given  he ended up with severe Delhi belly which landed him in hospital in Italy some months later……I’m not sure he thanks me!
We flew from London via Dubai to Mumbai.  I will never forget our arrival.  We caught a taxi to the centre and were immediately assailed by a cacophony of noise (mostly horns, tuk tuks and dogs barking) the sweet pungent smell that is part and parcel of India and crowded and colourful street scenes that left us speechless. 
We walked our feet off exploring the bustling backstreets of Mumbai, eating at dodgy looking restaurants and cafes (we couldn’t survive on bananas forever) and soaking up the amazing atmosphere.
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A visit to the Crawford Markets came by chance – we smelt it from some distance away!  And it put us off eating meat/fish/chicken for some time.  Let’s just say the hygiene standards were non-existent.
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The Victoria Station, where scenes from Slumdog Millionaire were shot (in fact that film provided inspiration to visit Mumbai) was jam packed with commuters and we spent ages just people watching.
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We flew from Mumbai to Udaipur, where the James Bond movie Octopussy was filmed mostly at the stunning Lake Palace. 
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While we were tempted to stay there…..the $500 a night pricetag pulled us up…this was a backpacking trip after all.  So we took a tuktuk and our 7kg backpacks (can you believe it….a month with only 7kg??) to a hotel we’d booked on the internet…cheap, clean and cheerful.  What we did discover is that the flash hotels often take you away from the real heart of India and you end up seeing a sanitised version.  We certainly didn’t get that – we got the uncensored, up close, raw and sometimes very heartbreaking version.
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Our hotels varied from relative luxury to reasonably grotty but overall we did ok.  And traipsing the streets looking for a reasonable hotel gave us insights into an India we wouldn’t have otherwise had.
From Udaipur we headed up to Pushkar and this was our first experience of both Indian buses and Indian scams.  The scam came when the travel agent assured us we were travelling first class on a “luxury, express bus”, selling us the ticket with a big smile. 
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After arriving at the bus stop we sat for some time watching dozens of ancient crowded buses go past.  We simply couldn’t see any buses that fitted the “luxury” category.  We were right.   When it pulled up it was no different to all those we’d seen going by with people hanging out the windows and crowded onto the roof.  So much for luxury!
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As for express….that simply referred to the speed it went – flat out…..generally on the wrong side of the road.  Our initiation into the Indian transport system was fast, fraught with danger but we survived to tell the tale.  Bus travel is not for the meek in India. 
Pushkar was interesting.  Having not visited Goa, the hippy hangout on the west coast, we now feel no need to as we saw enough in Pushkar to convince us Pushkar is the haunt of today’s hippies….enough said. 
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It had a nice feel to it but was a bit too crowded.  The sacred lake was (like every other lake in India) filthy.  It was difficult to get our heads around this, especially when you see Indians openly littering. 
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Next stop was Jodphur.  Still a little shaky after our bus ride we opted to take a private car and driver.  The day long ride, through some amazingly picturesque countryside, cost no more than a 30 minute London train ride.  Despite our protestations, the driving was hair raising….Indians seem to have an inbuilt mechanism that kicks in as soon as there is a vehicle on the road ahead of them – they HAVE to pass it, at speed…..regardless of oncoming traffic! 
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After several hours of this we were both desperate for a respite (and a pee) so asked for a lunch stop.  Our driver pulled up in front of one of the most touristy outfits we’ve ever seen.  We explained that we wanted to eat with the locals at one of the many roadside shacks we’d seen.  So off we went again and stopped further down the road and had one of our best meals in India – dahl, curry and roti while sitting cross legged on strange seats that obviously double as beds.
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Jodphur is where yes, jodphurs come from.  They were made for one polo-playing Maharajah and the idea was adopted by the British and became a staple item for equestrians.  And no..I didn’t buy a pair – we were too busy sightseeing to go jodphur shopping. The city of Jodphur is known as the blue city because so many buildings are that colour.
Most commonly accepted reason for this is that blue tends to deter mosquitoes…it certainly gives the city an amazing hue on sunset.  
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We loved exploring this wonderful city and the walk to the amazing fort/palace on top of the hill was spectacular.  It’s the first time in our travels we’ve taken the Lonely Planet’s advice and used the audio guide – and it was brilliant.  It made the place come to life.
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Next day it was back to buses……and a pretty gruesome eight hour ride to the desert city of Jaisalmar where, to our delight, we discovered the hotel we’d booked online for about $20 a night, was simply superb.  The only downside was the open sewer on the street outside, but you get used to things like that in India.
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Jaisalmar was one of our favourite spots…..the desert, the amazing fort, the camel rides, the laid back atmosphere… was just lovely. But what struck us most were the amazing colours.  Rajastani women (and men) wear the brightest colours possible – pinks, oranges, purples, yellows, greens and blues.  Saris and turbans are stunning.  DSC_0517                 DSC_0498         DSC_0485                 DSC_0434
Similar colours are found in the wonderful handmade spreads, rugs and throws and of course we simply had to buy one.  After hours of negotiation we ended up with a striking blue throw for the bed.
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Our camel ride in the desert was a highlight.  I’d been reluctant to ride these smelly and grumpy animals and while my attitude to them hasn’t changed (they do stink!)…the scenery was breathtaking.
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What we noticed most out here was the incredibly basic lifestyle so many live.  Women carried water from the well to their primitive huts while the men worked as camel guides for a pittance…..$10 a month. 
At one spot we were surrounded by intrigued local children who, unlike their city counterparts, didn’t ask for money, they just stared at these strangers.  All I could find to give was a few pens and some paper.  They were delighted.  It was a very humbling experience.
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