Spices of India

Since the last post we’ve had a manic few days full of stress, confusion, adrenaline, fatigue and a splash of anger. We’ve dealt with some very kind people and some very incompetent and shameless liars.

We took a ‘private’ bus from Jodhpur to Jhansi, basically a coach like national express but with a corrupt and totally feckless driver. The journey was supposed to take 6 hours but took 8. Every 10 to 20 minutes he would stop to pick up casual passengers for cash or to have a cup of Chai (The sickly sweet milky tea) at one point he stopped in the middle of the main road to have a chat and some more Chai with a driver coming the other way. After 4 hours we stopped for 20 mins so the driver could have a sit down meal. At least it was nice to watch the scenery change from desert scrub to lush green forested hills with lots of monkeys. At one point we passed a Vodafone sign the size of the Hollywood sign stuck on the side of a hill.

When we reached Udaipur we grabbed a quick meal of indistinguishable and suspect content, maybe cardboard, maybe shrimp, either way it tasted like sick, on the positive side it only cost 15p each. A tuk tuk took us to our very nice hotel, on the edge of a magical looking lake with island palaces bathed in floodlights casting shimmering reflections. Unfortunatly our room had no windows, broken air con and a bathroom door that wouldn’t close, we were told that we would change rooms the following day…. After taking some cool photos from the roof top restaurant we went to explore the old town. The hotel was at least well positioned, surrounding the lake is very touristy with lots of cafes, bakerys, clothes shops, spice shops and lots of places offering art and cooking classes. After looking around a nice temple and watching the Hindus pray, we decided to book a cooking class for the following afternoon. We were told to bring a pen, notebook and empty stomachs.
The following morning was spent exploring the Ghats and eating ice cream. At 3pm we met our cooking teacher and 3 of us squashed onto his motorbike and drove to his house. We had 4 hours of cooking and made 10 dishes: Veg Pakoras, Masala Chai (Indian tea), Malai Koffta (Potato croquettes in a creamy sauce), Palak Paneer (Spinach and Indian cheese), 3 types of Indian bread, Channa Masala (Chickpea curry) and finally a sweet called Gulab Jamun made with solid milk and tastes like a doughnut. The class was brilliant and we learnt a lot about the Indian spice box, mostly we were astounded by the quantity of oil and salt they use, they seem shocked when we tell them that salt is bad for you.

On returning to the hotel we were told that we couldn’t swap rooms because the occupant was ill, so we asked again about the broken air con, they told us that we probably had it on the wrong settings and sent a guy up to check that we’re not idiots like they so rudely presumed, the guy agreed that it was broken but said that they couldn’t fix it until the morning. Another sleepless night in the 30°C heat.

The next day was mainly spent in an art class with a teacher who seemed surprised that we wanted to do the painting ourselves. It turns out that  tracing paper plays a big part in Indian art, creativity less so.

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At 10:30pm we borded the train and settled down for a 21 hour journey. At 1pm the next day the train stopped and we were told that the train would not go to our destination. We panicked a bit and found the tourist office and rang the unhelpful travel agents in Delhi who offered no constructive or positive advice at all. We caught another train to get further down the line to Jhansi where we were told we could catch a bus to Khajuraho. On arrival in Jhansi we found that there were no more busses that day and all the trains to Khajuraho had been cancelled. Luckily we found some other travelers and had to get a Rs 3600 taxi for 3 and a half hours. The ride was not fun crammed into the small car with all our bags. The nocturnal driving habits of the locals were interesting though. Initially I was suprised they used their lights at all, I was less suprised to see them using them the wrong way. Headlights are not dipped for oncoming traffic to make sure that they see you (at the cost of then being able to see where to drive) indicators were used to show either; which side the oncoming traffic should pass or to show the width of the vehicle (I couldn’t work it out), whichever it is its the opposite of indicator use in the West. We eventually arrived at 9:20pm 23hours after setting off.

The hotel was a bit creepy, 3km from town, loads of rooms, looked really posh but no guests other than ourselves. We hadnt had any dinner and only a samosa for lunch but the food in the hotel was extortionate, they wanted £2 for toast! so we decided to skip dinner and try to sleep ourselves skinny.

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The next day we were eager to see these famed temples. The hotel wanted to call a rickshaw for us for Rs100 so we just started walking and soon got picked up by a man going there anyway. We opted to see the western group of temples first and paid for an audio guide which was very informative and funny. The temples were amazing – extremely detailed carving and amazingly well preserved. The temples’ sculptors had clearly not held anything back in their artwork. Here is one example:

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Unfortunately Rachel was feeling ill by the end of the group so we headed back to the hotel.

The next day we were to travel to Jhansi by train (5h) then catch a sleeper train to Varanasi in the evening. After an amusing cyclerickshaw ride to the trainstation (we had to get out and walk whenever it was flat or uphill) we successfully boarded a train to Jhansi. It was all going well, lots of space on the train, a nice breeze, until we reached the second stop (of 18), Mahoba, and were told we had to get off the train, it was not going to Jhansi. After a few minutes of confusion we decided to feed our brains with a tasty samosa. We asked the ticket master  when the next train would be. He said half an hour but after an hour we asked again and again he said half an hour. He then asked to have a look at our ticket to Varanasi and told us it goes right through Mahoba! He tried to change our place of boarding to Mahoba but then said he couldn’t add the travel agent had changed the ticket once already! Annoying! The train to Jhansi finally arrived but as soon as we saw it, it was clear that if it wasn’t even possible to get on, we would probably be crushed to death. Classic India with people on the roof and sardined into the carriages. Apparently several people had died on the same train the day before. With low spirits we headed into the city to look for a taxi stand but no one knew what a taxi stand was, they just kept shouting ‘bus!’ or ‘train!’ or ‘Jhansi!’. Highly frustrated I lost my temper, apparently the crowd of locals took a step back. Dismayed we made our way back to the station and spoke to the ticket master again who made another  attempt to change our ticket and gave us chai. Eventually, success! In the meantime he gave us 100Rs to have a retirement room for 12 hours where we could rest in beds until the train at 1.30am. He then extended his kindness by taking me out for dinner in the city (rach felt too ill) with his nephews.

His nephew’s car was very nice and I decided that they must be quite rich for Indians. This made me worried about how much I would have to pay for this meal. In the car they asked if I drank whiskey, not wanting to be drunk on the train (or at the mercy of these strangers) I said no but they insisted and bought some anyway. they settled my earlier worries by saying they would pay. I was pleasantly surprised when we pulled up outside a Dhaba. The alcohol was snuck to the table inside the  nephew’s pants. Lots of orders were shouted and the whiskey was poured into plastic cups before being hidden inside the metal tumblers, they said this was Indian custom but how can it be custom if its not allowed? The salad arrived as did the plate of different salts. I tried my best to not gag at the salt drowned tomato and onion that they watched me eat. The whiskey was topped up with water which took away the nice burn and left the sickly taste. When the thali (One plate with rice, chapati and 4 small bowls of different curries – refillable as all you can eat) arrived I was given the one with the special Tandoori chapati which tasted no different but cost more. It was very tasty and they were quick to refill my plate and whiskey as soon as it looked low. With British politeness I ate and drank until I felt sick. It was on the ride back that the weirdness began. First the nephew showed me a film on his phone which was a love making scene from a Hindi film, luckily the phone rang as the awkwardness grew. After the phone call the nephew started watching another video, this time it was hard core porn! I wondered what he was expecting to happen when we got back to the station’s retiring rooms! At the station I grabbed the food we had for Rachel, said thank you and walked off quickly. I hadn’t managed to tell Rachel the story when there was a knock on the door and the ticket master and his nephews walked in. I kept an eye on that nephew, I reckon I could take him out if needs be and the uncle was too fat to pose any real threat. Luckily it didn’t come to that, only an awkward half an hour of watching Rachel try to eat the mountain of food and some creepy but common ‘hug the white kid’ photos.

After an exchange of numbers and the photos we grabbed a few hours sleep then waited groggily on the platform for the train which was an hour and a half late. With doubts and uncertainty of the trains arrival and the validity of our altered ticket it wasn’t until we were on board that we knew we were okay, and could snuggle down in our bunks.

Despite the annoyance and stress caused by the recent travel problems it was nice to have some excitement injected into the tedium of this package. I was expecting to encounter more issues like this while in India so it was, at times, quite enjoyable.

We woke at 6am to the grinding sound of an American accent, the following few hours of wigging were fairly amusing though we would have rather slept. Some highlights were: ‘OMG I have so many mosquito bites, do mosquitoes transfer HIV?’ and ‘These shoes normally last two trips but I’m going to have to burn these after using that toilet, like where do you sit?’ as well as the usual my family is better than your family discussion, and the sharing of health food tips such as the snack of almonds and chocolate.

We then got a rickshaw to the hotel which claimed to have no room for us, despite the booking. We were transferred to another hotel which was located as far as possible from any of the interesting part of town, excellent. Rachel’s illness persists so the next day we went to a doctor, she seemed nice but didn’t listen, writing down symptoms that didn’t exist and ignoring the ones Rachel said she had. She sent off a man who returned with a large bag of drugs. One for each symptom but with no explanation of the cause of the illness. Doc said it was viral but prescribed antibiotics as well as a heavily restricted painkiller (NHS says it messes up the liver) also include were glucose powder and vitamin and mineral tablets! We decide chocolate was as good a cure as any and bought our first bar in 4 weeks! nom nom nom.

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Hopefully tomorrow we can go and see the Ganges.

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