Desert Girl and Camen Man India: 2 – 3.09.2013

Stiff all over from too many hours (for a novice) spent sitting [bouncing] on a camel’s back, exhausted from a sleepless night, covered in sand, sweat, sunscreen and insect repellant, smelling like a camel and suffering from terrifying flashbacks of having to squat behind a bush to relieve myself earlier that day, we had arrived back from 35 hours spent in Rajasthan’s Thar Desert… It was brilliant.

Driving out of Jaisalmer, 40-odd kilometers into the Thar Desert in an open jeep, at 8am it was already starting to get hot. Eventually, when the city ended and the landscape became a blur of various desert plants, herds of cows and goats, the occasional camel, a lot of red dirt and countless wind turbines, our  jeep parked and we met our “Desert Family”  for the next two days – Mr. Kahn, our camel man guide, and our three camels. Jake quickly forgot the name of his camel, but he was big and white and docile, just like Jake, so I like to now refer to the camel as JJ (Jacob Junior). My camel – Kalu – was the smallest of the lot, a little more tanned than JJ and a lot more stubborn. He had a rebellious streak and didn’t like to do what he was told; he preferred to do things in his own time and enjoyed winging every time he had to stand up or sit down; funny – sounds similar to me. Kalu, being the feisty rebel that he was, flicked me into the air every time he stood up, which was so fast I had to hold on each time with all my strength. Kalu was a handsome boy; he had cute ears and loved a good head pat every now and then, and especially loved when his saddle was removed and he could splay his back legs and stand in a hilarious position.
Mr. Kahn’s favourite camel was Victoria, so of course we made sure he rode him. Victoria was a big dark brown coloured boy who was obedient, calm and plodded along quite happily; much like Mr. Kahn himself.

Comfortable in our saddles (as comfortable as a camel’s back can get), together the three of us and our camels began our trek into the Thar desert – yep; we were finally here, bouncing about in our saddles in the heat of the harsh sun, living the Desert Girl and Camel Man dream…

IMG_0077

Desert Girl in the desert

The scenery was surprisingly green and plants, bushes and shrubs dotted most of the ground. Monsoon had been mighty this year, and as a result plants were flourishing – good for feeding the thousands of cows, goats and camels that trot about the Thar, herded by children and frail elderly alike. Amongst the shrubbery, thousands – literally – of wind turbines protruded high into the air, turning gracefully in the wind.

The heat bore down on us, but it was more than bearable; it was thoroughly enjoyable. We stopped at a “local desert village” which was more like a house in the middle of no where, where a grandmother and several men and naked babies were sitting in the sand. They gave us chai, yoghurt and a melon.

We stopped for lunch and “small siesta” under the shade of a large tree, where the camels were set free of their heavy saddles, in order to eat and mingle as they pleased. Mr. Kahn prepared us a lunch that was surprisingly varied, very authentic and full of flavor! We enjoyed some sort of Indian deep-fried snack made with lentil flour, onion, chilli and spices, and then had a large curry, fresh made chapatti and rice – all cooked over an open flame. Our meal was washed down with litre after litre of water, which we diligently sterilized with our Steri-Penyep, it finally came in handy. (Much unlike the Camel Man we saw who drank with his hands from the same filthy lake that the camels were drinking from. I think he may have possibly died from that mistake. If not, he needs a Steri-pen).
After lunch, dishes were hygienically scrubbed and washed with simply the desert sand (much to my horror) before we took shelter from the heat of the day and snoozed on a blanket.
Meanwhile the camels had escaped somewhere into the desert to feast on every possible bit of greenery, and finally around 3pm, Mr. Kahn made the trek to retrieve them whilst Jake and I packed up “camp.”

Camel Man, JJ, Desert Girl, Handsome Kalu and a very chilled Victoria

Camel Man, JJ, Desert Girl, Handsome Kalu and a very chilled Victoria

JJ and Victoria were happy enough sitting down to be re-saddled, chewing and smiling as Mr. Kahn loaded them back up with blankets, cooking utensils and 40 litres of water. My handsome Kalu, on the other hand, winged and complained before finally giving in, jerking me onto his back so quickly as if to say “take that!”… Camels are funny animals.

More camel riding, more wind turbines, more goats, sheep and cows being herded by children no older than ten or so…, a few more villages and the promise of desert sand dunes; we found ourselves heading further and further into the desert. Mr. Kahn entertained us by explaining important “Camel College Desert Knowledge” information, such as “No chapatti, No Chai, No Woman, No Cry,” “Full Power, 24 Hour, No Toilet, No Shower” and “No worry, have some Curry.” We are learning… slowly…
Our backs, legs and bottoms had had enough by around 5pm when we finally reached the incredible dunes. It was like a dream. Desert Girl (me) and Camel Man (Jake) were out of our saddles instantly (much to my handsome Kalu’s delight!) and running, sliding, jumping, crawling and surfing the endless dunes. Meanwhile, the camels once again got to trot off into the desert shrubbery to eat and frolic.

Desert Frolicking

Desert Frolicking

Sandy

Sandy

Desert Girl

Desert Girl

The wind blew the sand across the dunes in a magical flowing motion, and stepping into the dunes was like nothing I can describe. The music from Aladdin’s Arabian Nights was filling my head and we totally saw an Indian guy out in the dunes who looked like Jaffar… “Arabiannnn niiiiiiii-iiights…..”
We spent a good hour or so jumping in the dunes, watching the sun set, and comparing our fat camels with another safari group’s thin and injured ones (according to one of the guys on the tour who had to ride a camel with a painful looking hump).

"Arabiannnn Niiiights..."

“Arabiannnn Niiiights…”

As the sun went down, chai was served, along with curry and chapatti, Steri-Penned water and a decent amount of sand, which whipped across the desert in the wind. Then, with dinner eaten and the sun setting, Mr. Kanh decided he couldn’t be bothered with us two whities any more and went off to eat dinner with the other camel man down at his camp. Fantastic.

With no light and wind whipping up sand from every direction, everywhere, we were forced to get into bed: two thin mattresses and heavy blankets that, within only a few minutes of being set out, were now covered in more than an inch of sand. This is when things started to get a bit shit.
An attempt to block blowing sand using the camel saddles was feeble; and the big black desert beetles had come out – along with eighty thousand other insects and creepy crawlies – which all seemed to congregate around and on me! Using our scarves to cover our entire faces was almost useless; sand came from every direction and made its way through the material weavings.

Whilst I spent a happy couple of hours swatting insects, burying black beetles so they would no longer harass me, rubbing sand from my eyes and shaking inches of the stuff out of my hair, Jake was on animal watch. Since we’d spotted a group of wild dogs circling our camp and a happy camel who’d trotted over to watch us sleeping, and the fact that Mr. Khan had pissed off never to return, as it seemed, we were stuck in the dunes coming to the realization that actually, the desert is nice but this Desert Girl is probably more of a Civilisation Girl.

Finally, Mr. Kahn had to return – he’d spent a good few hours wandering the desert to retrieve our naughty camels, who had walked for kilometers away from our camp in order to get some good shrubs.  He didn’t seem worried about possible wild dog attacks, and instantly went to sleep. Oh. So no sitting around a fire listening to him sing and entertain us, like we were promised? Okay.

On account of the fact that I had earlier seen two wild dogs strutting near by, that my body was now covered in more than an inch of sand – which was growing by the minute! – and the fact that it was actually surprisingly cold in the desert, I didn’t sleep much that night… Desert Girl was more of a “Wishing it was Sun Rise Girl.”

Sun rise came and Mr. Kahn was busy making chai. I woke to what felt like an entire desert wedged under my eye lids and in my mouth. Desert Girl was a bit over the desert.

What I believe was once our beds for the evening, but is now covered in sand

What I believe was once our beds for the evening, but is now covered in sand

Mr. Kahn went and fetched the camels back from the desert shrubs where they had spent the early morning socializing and eating half of the bushes. JJ and Victoria sat happily as they were saddled, whilst my dear Kalu winged and complained – much like me about my sand filled eyes, mouth, hair, clothes, bum crack, shoes, backpack, camera…

On the saddles, our thighs and bottoms were already aching after only a few minutes. Oh, how I bloody love the desert.
We spent a good few hours walking and trotting – yes, trotting at a decent speed! – through the desert, which made our bums go from being quite painful to being in full blown agony.

"Look! No hands!"

“Look! No hands!”

We made a stop at a “Desert Gypsy Village” where we made the foolish mistake of getting off our camels. We were greeted by children who began begging before we could even stretch our legs, asking for everything; from the standard money, school pens and chocolates to tubes of henna, cigarettes, bottles for the malnourished naked baby, the clothing off my back, and for us to take photographs of them in return for money. They instantly, without him even noticing, opened Jake’s backpack and removed his carabina, and as a result, had to deal with Desert Girl’s growls of “DON’T TOUCH THAT!” They responded by snatching Jake’s good drink bottle from his hands.

Gypsy aka Beggar Village

Gypsy aka Beggar Village (Desert Girl is hiding behind the camels next to Mr. Kahn)

This “village” – which was essentially two mud huts and a family of impoverished beggars who spent the entire time harassing us – made me feel really saddened, and I was glad to be back on the saddle where Mr. Kahn simply stated “It’s best for you safe, you stay on camel.”… Aaaahh….Thanks for telling us that now… this information may have been more useful before we were bought here…

More trotting, more cows and goats, a few desert people who were obviously much better at being desert people than I was, countless wind turbines and relentless heat; we made it to our lunch stop where a group of desert people joined Mr. Kahn for a chit chat.
Mr. Kahn cooked us another delicious lunch (we made the chapatti) and gave us some more “Desert Knowledge at Camel College” – yep, we’re totally Desert people now!

Goaties! I call the black one "Lucy."

Goaties! I call the black ones “Lucy.”

We played uno and tried to let our aching legs and bums recover for a few hours in the shade, whilst Mr. Kahn talked with our fellow desert people and our camels strayed again from the camp to feast.

Can you find Camel Man in this photo?

Can you find Camel Man in this photo?

Eventually, as usual, Mr. Kahn went to retrieve the camels, who had trotted far off into the desert once again. When he returned almost an hour later, we asked him how he finds them. “I look the foot prints”. Far out!… we are definitely not Desert people…
As usual, JJ and Victoria were good sports about the re-saddling, whilst Kalu was whiney and quick to throw me about when he stood back up.

A couple more hours in the desert, and we were bought to the final stop. Thank goodness – my bum could not handle one more trot!
We waited for our Jeep to arrive whilst Mr. Kahn sang us his version of Aqua’s “Barbie Girl”, which goes something like “I am Camel Man, in the bloody sand, life is fantastic, bottom like plastic…” (he made it up himself apparently).

Finally, our Jeep arrived and we said goodbye to our Desert College teacher, Mr. Kahn. Walking over to the jeep with legs so sore I looked like a heavily pregnant woman walking, my bottom rejoiced as we hauled ourselves into the jeep…
40 minutes or so later we reached Jaisalmer, and as we passed a group of men sitting around a campfire in the dirt alongside twenty-odd cows, a few goats, a pig and amongst traffic that could kill, our driver said “welcome back to civilization!”…

Comfortably back in our hotel room, Desert Girl and Camel Man had had enough of the desert for now (possibly for a life time) but, I’d be lying if I said we didn’t love every minute of that experience… Okay, okay. I am lying. I hated the wild dogs.

And the insects.

But that’s all.

…Now, to wash the sand from my skin and sleep for a week.

Desert India: 01.09.2013

We arrived early morning and before we could even step off the train, the man in the bunk underneath me woke up and said “you want rickshaw?”Yep – still on the stationary train at 6am, I was barely awake – hair sticking out like a cactus from my head – and we were already being touted…
We stepped off the train onto a platform that was more like an ocean of rickshaw touters and taxi drivers. They just didn’t seem to understand “no.” Luckily, we are couch surfing here in Jaisalmer, and a young boy holding a sign with our names on it was our saving grace.

Sitting in the back of an open jeep in the cool morning air, outside was still too dark for us to see much. Our host here owns a beautiful hotel with an amazing rooftop view of the Jaisalmer Fort, which looks more like an enormous sandcastle. Spectactular.
We sat on the rooftop sipping chai as the sun came up and the fort and streets below us came into view.
The streets are dusty here and cows and goats wander casually, people are busy already in the early hours of the morning – pulling chai, boiling oil for samosas and other deep fried street snacks, driving rickshaws, pulling carts, opening stores and setting up for a new day. I love this time of the day in India – I’ve decided I’m not awake often enough at this time of the day to enjoy it (sleep becomes the priority most of the time) – early train arrivals usually are the reason for me not being asleep, and it’s usually so worth it.
India is always so alive and buzzing, it’s rarely quiet – often even late into the nights – so the quieter times of early mornings are peaceful and beautiful.

We spent our day exploring the town; Jaisalmer has the only still inhabited fort in Rajisthan, so I’ve read, and walking through the winding lane way up into the main area was full of people selling and buying, touting and driving about on motorbikes and in rickshaws. Textiles and patchworks, camel leather, tourist pants and ‘fake’ (photocopied) books seem to be the items of choice for sale, and many touristy restaurants, but there are also houses and people living our their daily lives and some less intrusive businesses. The buildings, architecture and structures  inside the fort are magnificent, and we spent our time marvelling at them whilst managing to avoid the many offers from  touters, which went something like this…
“Hello madame, you want to come my shop? Looking only free.”  – No thanks.
“Are you sure I can not help to you to spend your money?”  –
Very sure.
“Please, give to me just one chance to rip you off.”  –
Goodbye.
…and strolling about drinking bottle after bottle of water in what was a feeble attempt to stay even slightly hydrated in the heat.

We ended up booking ourselves a Camel Safari, starting the following day at 8am, with an overnight stay in the Thar Desert and arrival back the following evening around 6pm. Yep, that’s about 12 hours on a camel’s back in total. Excellent. With a safari booked, we headed to a little tourist shop where a man had earlier made a lengthy attempt to lure us in for free looking. He was so persistent, we decided he deserved our hundred rupees. The scarf was quite nice.

Our evening was spent with our generous host and two other couch surfers, where together we shared good food, good conversation, Indian beer and good company. We had a delicious home cooked mutton curry with chapatti, prepared on the ground and cooked on an open fire in the back yard. Amazing, and a lot of fun… a great way to end our first evening in Jaisalmer.

Tomorrow it’s off to the Thar Desert – Desert Girl and Camel Man are ready… or are we?

Recovery India: 28 – 31.08.2013

We were woken abruptly at around 7:30am on our first morning in Jodhpur by a group of men in the guest house talking/yelling/arguing in a loud and aggressive tone. This lasted for two whole hours, and as soon as I felt it was “safe” to leave, we checked-out and headed for Baba Haveli – the guest house we’d planned to stay in whilst here (but had unfortunately forgotten the name of last night when we arrived late the previous night).

In the heat of the morning, packs strapped to our backs, we walked through the streets and narrow lanes of Jodhpur – Rajisthan’s blue city – past old buildings with peeling paint, hues of blues and whites, decorated with beautiful architecture and shrines to various gods.
We passed cows and rickshaws, stopping for chai before finally entering the Sadar Market area and the stunning clock tower; the centre point of the old city. We passed market bazaars and people selling fruits and bangles, men polishing shoes and women in colourful saris. It was busy, but there were very few tourists and little touting compared to Pushkar, and we felt instantly more relaxed, even with our packs on our backs drawing attention.

Arriving at Baba Haveli, we were greeted by a young guy, Imran, and taken to the roof top, which over looked the blue city towards the mighty Mehrangarh Fort. It was so incredibly beautiful and impressive; we were captivated immediately by Jodhpur.

We were just as captivated by the food served; we ordered vegetarian dishes with paneer and watched as the chef, Tek, cooked up beautiful, fresh food with the softest paneer.
Food here at Baba Haveli is incredible, and we were welcome to watch it being prepared. Once we had ordered, the ingredients for our meals were then bought from the market – fresh – to be prepared with fine attention to detail. Watching as Tek made naan in a pot covering an open flame was amazing.

Baba Haveli very soon became “our Jodhpur home” – we were exhausted by Pushkar and hadn’t really taken a “break” to do not much all day since we’d arrived in India. Even though I feel guilty wasting a precious day of travel by not “traveling,” we really needed the break to recover and eat something not oily.

We spent our first day in Jodhpur in the guest house relaxing, chatting with Imran, playing the ukulele and sitting on the roof top in the shade of Jodhpur’s heat.
We were invited Imran’s family to watch them making Indian sweets, in which the whole family was involved. We got to try them and were instantly welcomed to the home as if we were old friends or family; it was wonderful.

We ventured out briefly to the clock tower area, taking in the sights and sounds of the Sadar Market area, but mostly just hung about enjoying ourselves and being full from all this good, fresh, not-so-oily food. This pretty much set the pace for our four days here, and we loved ever minute of it.

We slept late and chatted with the locals and tourists, Jake got a cut-throat shave at the local barbers, Imran’s sister painted my hands and feet with beautiful henna designs, we ate good food, ventured out and about around the clock tower area and main bazaar area, drank incredibly sweet-but-delicious lassi from a famous ‘hotel’ here, visited the famous ‘Omelette Man’ for very unique omelets, bought a couple of scarves and some new clothes (for Jake) and a traditional Jodhpur textile piece.

We wandered about the town area and enjoyed just being in and feeling the place, rather than sight seeing. Evenings were spent watching the sun set over the beautiful fort, listening to prayers pulsating through the city and enjoying the kite flying activities which every local seemed to be taking part in on their roof tops; all the while devouring incredible food and pots of chai. I spent one evening doing yoga with Imran’s brother on the roof top with a couple of other guests, and swapped travel stories over naan and curry.

One afternoon, along with two other travelers, Jake and I went with Imran and his cousin to see a Bollywood movie being released that day.

Jake spent an afternoon with Tek drinking beer and buying himself a new, non-Macpac brand travel wardrobe at a local handicraft fixed-price joint where the salesmen continued to tell him nothing would fit. Lots fitted, apparently, because he now prides himself on his “local look.”

We finally, after days of lazing about, make a visit to the fort, but didn’t even go right in! We simply ran out of time, and the entrance fee was too high to pay for just a few minutes inside. That, and there was a lot of “photo photo” going on, and lots of men staring. We promised we’d go back with more time on our final day here, satisfied by the magnificent view from our roof top.

Our last day in Jodhpur was wonderful; we found an art shop “Umaid Heritage Art School”, where I took a painting class – for free!In India!? – for hours on end with a wonderful, very chatty artist, Vijay. Jake Vijay shared supposedly “Rajisthan’s best samosa”  and we drank chai whilst I covered my paper in silver paint. I love Rajisthani paintings; no amount of decoration is “too much” – especially when shiny paint colours like gold and silver are involved. I got so caught up in painting, and Jake was so happy to just wander about and chit chat with locals, that by the time we left it was almost 5pm and the fort was closed.

Back “home” for our final evening, we sat on the roof top looking out at the lit up fort, chatting with travelers and wishing we had more time here to simply be. Unfortunately, we had to leave – our midnight train for Jaisalmer was waiting for us. We left, eventually, feeling relaxed and rejuvenated, well-fed, with new friends an invitation to Imran’s wedding.

Jodhpur is a place we’ll come back to, for sure…

Arriving at the train station, after fighting a tuk tuk driver to drop his ridiculous price to something semi-reasonable, I was shocked: sleeping bodies lined every bit of spare ground space in the car park, both outside and inside the train station, as well as on the stairs, along the walk ways and on the platforms. Those that were awake stared unnervingly at us, and those sleeping looked like thin, gaunt dead bodies piled head to foot with each other.
India seems to be always such a contrasting and confronting country.

Our next destination is Jaisalmer – the desert city – where we plan to get our bottoms onto a camel’s back and trot out into the desert for a while.
I seriously can not wait – just call me Desert Girl...

Disappointing India: 26 – 27.08.13

Early to rise at around 4:15am, I was ready to curl back into bed and sleep all day and ignore the 6am train to Ajmer… but we didn’t, and instead, we packed our packs onto our backs, walked down the 70 stairs of our guest house and walked out into the cool darkness of a still quiet, sleeping Udaipur.

We got a tuk tuk to the station, bought a ticket from the counter (after being pushed in front of by countless people – yep; still trying to work out how queues in India actually work) and then took one look at the general 2nd class carriages, already brimming with people. How were we and our packs meant to even get on, let alone sit for five or so hours, was beyond me.
Thankfully, some reserved 2nd class seats were empty and we paid a few rupee extra for a seat of our own each. Anything is possible in India, as we keep finding out.

We spent an uncomfortable 5 hours being stared at by hundreds of pairs of unrelenting eyes, packed in to our seats along with 4 other boys who spent a decent portion of their time staring at my chest, pretending to look elsewhere when I caught them and gave them the eye.

We arrived in Ajmer and sunk a couple of chai whilst people photographed us, pretending to take photos of the train station – subtlety isn’t so well performed here, it seems. The stares kept coming, as well as a few smiles and laughs every now and again, as we made our way out of the station and were immediately pounced on by drivers. We decided to go straight to Pushkar, not too far from Ajmer.

Arriving into Pushkar, our driver was stopped by authorities and we were made to pay a “tourist toll” before we could enter the town. Fantastic, being extorted already. hmmm….what’s that sudden bitter taste in my mouth?

We found a cool guest house packed with travelers and bartered a room down from 600 to 400. Nice.
We soon discovered the travelers were a large group of Israelis who were intent on talking to only each other and no one else. Not so nice.
Regardless, we were here, and – albeit exhausted – we were ready to explore a new place.
Pushkar is a holy city, the central lake it’s beating heart. One of the few Brama temples in the world is located in Pushkar, and pilgrims come here from all over India and the world to bathe in the holy lake and visit the temple. Whilst heavily steeped in ancient tradition, rich in culture and religion, this place is also a buzzing tourist destination. We’d read, and been warned, about the touters in Pushkar, and we were well prepared… or were we?

Walking into town, we dodged cows and piglets (and Jake stepped in a massive cow shit) as we passed beautiful architecture with peeling paint and fine detailing. This beauty was set against touristic shops and touters begging for us to “yes come look here now come, you buy, what you want, come look, I have, good price, come look, what you want?” At one point a man shoved his hand into our face with some wilted tiny flowers and tried, aggressively, to get us to come to the lake to receive a blessing (which refused; we were well aware that would then be followed with a forced 1000 rupee “donation”). Women selling jewellery crowded me and cut me off, grabbing my arms from all angles and demanding me to buy. The main bazaar road was packed to the brim with pilgrims who stared at us hard, almost causing accidents when they continued to stare at us when they should’ve been concentrating on what was ahead of them, not behind. Children with babies on their hips asked us for money and put their fingers to their mouths, motioning for food. People dressed in orange cloaks and turbans demanded ten rupees from us, promising to not ask again if we gave them money. As we walked past, almost every shop keeper would attempt to lure us in; some simply demanded “you come here now.”
Aaah, no thanks.
Amongst all this craziness was an ocean of pilgrims and cows who filled the road, walking slowly towards the lake ghats and the temple.
Pushkar at a first glance seems beautiful, but it was exhausting within a few minutes.

For lunch, we’d heard great things about a health food place that served wholesome organix meals, and we ordered amazing sounding vegetable and tofu dishes that, when they came out more than an hour later, and more than half an hour apart, were very unappetizing. Disappointing.

The sun is hot here, and as we took our shoes off to walk down to the lake, the soles of our feet were burning within seconds. Hobbling towards the lake and ghats where people were bathing, the scene was spectacular but short lived; our feet were burned.

Exhausted and not at all in the mood to be stared at any longer, we’ve retreated to our guest house, away from the sellers and the shops and tourist tricksters. We ventured out later this evening to see if things are a bit calmer, which they were not.
We ate “falafels” with strange ingredients that were oddly delicious and watched pilgrims dressed in gold and glitter walk bare footed along the streets. We drank lots of chai and averted eye contact with the hundreds of people staring at us.

At the end of our first evening I was a little put off but keen to give Pushkar more of a chance; I was hoping my first impression of Pushkar won’t be my last..

Day two in Pushkar and I’ve gone from the whole “I love India and all it’s hecticness” to “I hate India; can someone direct me to the nearest International Airport – Departure lounge please.” That may be a slight over exaggeration, but it didn’t feel too drastic today when I was almost in tears.

We were keen to give Pushkar a second chance; it’s been said this place is a fantastic town to get some relaxation hours and some “shanti shanti” as they call it, but  it ended up that I felt nothing but stressed and uncomfortable in this town.

Planning to stay another night here, we ventured out and made a chai stop, where a greasy top-balding man with curly hair past his buttocks and a very tight tank top was pulling chai. Two chai thanks.
Sitting down, a lovely local began spontaneously performing a musical concert for us, whilst Jake sat smiling and I sat wondering how many rupees he was going to demand once he was finished playing.
He finished, demanded money, and I was forced to leave my chai and pay to escape – Jake still sitting there smiling and me hissing for him to move away before we get robbed. I wasn’t so much pissed off at the fact he’d demanded money as I was that someone had come between me and my chai!

Good morning Pushkar…

We headed to a roof top restaurant, the Laughing Buddha, where we met a fellow traveler and were harassed by a staff member who sure as shit did not seem like a laughing Buddha. He demanded we decide what we wanted to eat as soon as we sat down and hovered over us until we ordered, bot not before scowling at us to remove our shoes. He then served us horrible food and then charged us 100 rupees extra with no real reason and exclaimed he’d explained the extra cost at the start of our meal – which he had not. Furious, we were forced to pay and left – not laughing. Someone’s getting a very bad Trip Advisor review, that’s for sure.

Back in the street, dodging cow shit, beggars dressed as monkeys and people rattling cans in our faces and demanding money, Jake and I watched through our sun glasses lenses as every man stopped to stare at me in a very uncomfortable way. Suddenly, I felt very unsafe and insecure in this town, and the crowds who turned their heads to pierce me with their glare made me want to escape.

It was around the same time that the hundredth person demanded cash from us and shook metal canisters in our faces, and when Jake watched men openly staring at my breasts, that we decided it was time to leave Pushkar. We’d had enough of this place.

We booked through a travel agent and paid for a deluxe air conditioned bus – leaving at 5pm this evening from Ajmer – and had a quick meal at a falafel street eatery that ended up being the best meal we had in this town. We also booked a taxi to take us there, so we would be spared the hassle of trying to negotiate another bus with no luggage space and 300 people crammed in. That was the last thing we wanted to do… Oh, if only we’d known what was about to come…

Back at our guest house, they charged us the full room rate for tonight because we checked-out a couple of hours late, and we were sent off to Ajmer with not even a goodbye. They were lovely when we arrived, but very rude when we decided to leave earlier. Nice.

As we left Pushkar, with piglets playing in mounds of cow shit and the wafting smell of urine filling our nostrils, I realised this is a place I am never going to visit ever again… and I was completely fine with it. I felt sad that our experience here had not been positive, but I guess that goes with traveling.

At Ajmer bus station, we were more than an hour early for our 5pm bus. We checked with enquirys about which platform we needed to go to, and spent a happy hour and a half trying to avoid hundreds of beggars who constantly asked us for money, and the thousands of men staring at me; two things that have started to become a daily struggle. We sat in the filthy station at platform one while cows trotted about freely and eight million flies swarmed a half-dead stray dog who was sprawled below my feet; all the while feeling guilty about the poor beggars and saddened by our bad experience in Pushkar.

Our bus pulled up, the driver and then the conductor checked our tickets, we were waved onto the bus, our luggage was shoved into the luggage compartment, and then 10 rupees was demanded for a luggage fee that oddly, no local seemed to be handing over. So I stood there like a spoiled tourist, demanding to know why we deserve to be treated differently and shouting that this is extortion!

On the bus, our seats 12 and 13 were taken by locals who had tickets to prove it, and we were forced to sit at the front of the bus with a rising suspicion that something bad was about to happen.
The conductor checked our tickets again, and then again, and then again, and then again. He then spent a good hour discussing something about us in Hindi with the driver, before checking our tickets again, then again, and then acquiring the help of a local who spoke English and soon became our translator whilst I yelled and the local passengers stared.

English translator man ended up calling our travel agent, who gave him a bull shit story that he didn’t know who we were and that he lived in Jaipur. Lying travel agent man later called back and tried to accuse us of lying and taking a deluxe bus when we should’ve taken a government bus – even though we had a ticket saying we’d booked the deluxe.
Turns out our travel agent had cheated to us, given us a fake ticket, charged us a ridiculous price, and sent us on our way to deal with the fall out of getting on a deluxe air conditioned bus without actually having a valid ticket. Translator man spent his time translating my anger and yelling, which was mainly because the driver and conductor had both checked our tickets prior to boarding and told us to board, and were now trying to kick us off on a main stretch of highway somewhere in India at dusk. When I said it’s not our fault we got on and that we were told to by the conductor this was our bus, the response was “they are only human and they make mistake.”

Translator man laughed; I’m not sure what was so funny but I was on the brink of tears. I was mentally viewing a map of Asia and planning where we were going to escape to instead of staying in this country. Translator man told us we’d have to get off at the next station, and would have a 99% chance of getting another bus the rest of the way to Jodhpur. Awesome. Thoughts of having to sleep head to dirty foot with locals in an isolated bus station were starting to scare me, and I was not keen to get off.
This then lead to me yelling that how dare they think its okay to kick two foreigners off a bus in a country where we don’t speak the language, know no one, have no phone, and furthermore have no idea where we are.
I don’t think they actually gave a shit, as we were kicked off at some random station and shoved onto a Government bus; translator man gave us his business card and wished us well. Thanks…I guess?

The government bus was something out of my night mare, I was begging the translator man to let us pay to get back on the deluxe air conditioned bus. Surely this was a joke, right? Whilst trying not to get trampled by a cow or hit by one of the thirty buses that were reversing, we were grabbed and pulled onto a bus that was already moving and full to the brim and overflowing with people. People were yelling at us to sit, and I was yelling back “Where!?” Every possible seat was taken – some two seat sections had three people sitting – and the isles were so full of people every part of me was touching someone else. And this, I did not like. My backpack was smashing people in the face, and my front pack rubbing against others. Jake was weighed down with both big packs, so 40-odd kgs was resting on his shoulders and no doubt smashing a few more people about as we were pushed, shoved, pulled, squeezed and forced into two seats that were cleared for us two whities. Oh, the stares we got.

Finally in our seats, we were forced to spend the next four hours watching the clock, our packs, and the terrifying traffic whilst we sat, numb-bummed and cramped with 20kgs of bags across our laps and a man sleeping soundly on my shoulder. Oh, the stares we continued to get.

Hours passed and slowly the bus thinned out a little – enough to remove Jake’s pack and store it at the front of the bus. We passed strange sights and music blaring, the occasional urine smell, countless road-dwelling cows, sleeping bodies sprawled over news paper and thousands of people walking along the roadside wearing white and carrying massive flags.

Arriving into Jodhpur – still alive – was a feat on its own, and as we clambered off the bus in the dark with our packs heavy on our backs, we were in no mood for bull shit and scams. Especially me.
Foolish would be anyone who thought they could trick me right now.

But foolish was the tuk tuk driver who thought he could get 80 rupees out of me for a 35 rupee trip, by telling me it was “local India price.” He seemed a little shocked when the white girl calmly told him straight to stop lying – I’m not stupid and I’m not paying any more than 40 rupees, and if you even try to charge more you’ll lose your sale completely. Done. Yesssss. India may have been well in the lead, but I was now on the score board with a whopping one point. Things were looking up already in Jodhpur.

Alhough I asked for us to be taken to the clock tower in the central area of Jodhpur, foolish tuk tuk man made a phone call to someone which involved the words “Australian” and “Clock tower.” I immediately demanded, over and over, for him to stop driving right now, to which he responded “you married?”  over and over. Eventually, my screams for him to STOP THE TUK TUK RIGHT NOW! were taken into consideration, but not before he spat out of his tuk tuk and it landed on my arm, for which he then received another telling off from me.
We were taken to his brothers guest house (everyone with a guest house or a tuk tuk seems to be someone’s brother, or cousin, or uncle, or brother’s uncle, or brother’s uncle’s cousin here).
Shockingly, the room was nice and we were able to get a good price.
Of course, we had to argue with the driver to then give us change, and then, finally, before I could stop arguing with every Indian in my sight, I had to demand – at 11pm at night – for someone to please clean our toilet that was wee sodden and lined with a very large poo.

Oh India…

As I lay back on the rock that was our bed, I smiled to myself. The loathing India feelings were fleeting and I was starting to feel happy again.
Goodnight Jodhpur, here’s hoping tomorrow is going to be better.

Chit Chat India: Udaipur: 21 – 25.08.2013

Our first day in Udaipur was fantastic; relaxing and thoroughly enjoyable, and already we’re in love with this place.

We woke late and spent the morning on the roof top balcony overlooking the city and lake, sipping lassi and doing nothing much else.

We put away our guide book and maps for the day and instead, wandered into town without plans or restrictions to simply get lost amongst the tiny lane ways and streets.

We wandered through art galleries and little shops, chatting for a while with each artist and shop owner. We browsed through book stores and purchased some Hindi language and books about Indian culture, and ended up at an awesome little street side juice bar, where the owner proudly presented me with his best juice. We stopped for frequent cups of chai and chatted with the vendors as they pulled our tea, dodged sleepy cows wandering the streets, and met camera-happy children who were desperate to be photographed so they could see themselves on the digital screen.
We passed over the Pichola Lake by bridge, and wandered through little laneways and past very friendly faces and more lazy cows.
Our day was filled up by simply looking and chatting with the locals – everywhere we went we found ourselves being told to “sit, sit,” while we were asked the standards “From you where?”, “She your wife?,” “Children?”, “What you age?”, “What job you?”…

Udaipur Old Town is SO touristic, filled with shop after shop selling camel leather bags and journals, hippie pants and pashmina scarves, perfumes in strange bottles, books, handicrafts, and miniature paintings. A chorus of “yes come look my shop”, “Come yes please sir, only looking is free” and “hello where from?” rings out from the touters that line the street, and it never ceases to amaze me the odd words and phrases that spill out of their mouths when we refuse to go into their shops. One man asked me in an odd ‘Australian accent’, after I refused his offer for “free looking” – “Okay…you going get some tuk-kah!?” (“tucker”: Australian slang for food – where he picked up that phrase, I have no idea… seriously, who even uses the word tucker!?…) I blame Crocodile Dundee for atrocities such as this.

The traffic here is heavy and the streets are narrow – foot paths are hard to find – it gets difficult to stick together and usually we end up walking single file. At one point, Jake walked ahead and I got stuck between a tuk tuk, a motorbike, a car and a group of school students, which must’ve seemed like the perfect opportunity for an Indian boy to strike up a conversation, grab my hand and propose to me. Yep. First marriage proposal of the trip. The conversation continued – very briefly – whilst I tried to escape between the wheels of various moving vehicles, hobbling street dogs and a group of school boys fighting with each other.
Miss, what name you?” Shiiiiiiit…. Jake! Jake!
“Miss, you so very beautiful, can I kiss you?” Absolutely not.
“Miss, leave that man, he too old for you, I nineteen, right age for you.” Please leave me alone.
“Miss, you leave him and I show you all of Udaipur.” Tempting, but no.
“Miss, you perfect for me, leave him.” Goodbye.
“Miss!… Miss!… Leave him, come with me!” Jaaaaaakkkkkkkeeeeeee!!!

Safely away from the nineteen year old Indian Fabio, we had lunch at an organic vegan restaurant, sitting bare footed on cushions overlooking the surrounding buildings that were covered in peeling paint and complete with beautifully carved windows.

We found a musical instrument shop where I finally bought myself a ukulele, and strummed away in the shop with the talkative owner, whilst Jake took it upon himself to destroy one (accidentally, of course).

Our afternoon involved more chit-chatting to locals, avoiding stray dogs with serious health concerns, more chai, a lake side walk and exploring the lane ways. We were invited to dinner at the local chai vendors home for the following evening, Jake was offered free Hindi lessons by the vendor’s son, and I booked myself into an art class with a local artist.

The evening was spent strumming my ukulele on the roof top balcony whilst Jake jotted down new Hindi phrases from his book.

Oh India, how we absolutely adore you….

Udaipur quickly became one of these places we feel very at home in; as though we’d been here for ages.
We spent more time here than we intended, not doing all too much other than simply wandering, observing and chatting with people. The days spent here have become a bit of a blur – we’ve been wandering about, eating healthily, drinking lassis and chai, exploring, meeting new people, learning bits and pieces of Hindi, getting a feel for the place, and I’ve been painting. Yes, painting.

We spend our days waving hello to locals as though they’re old friends and stopping for frequent chai at our usual chai guy’s stall. He and his sons invited us to dinne and treated us as though the king and queen had just walked into their humble home. They served us dinner and we enjoyed their company and generosity; it was a real joy.

The local musician who sold me my shiny new ukulele checked each day to see how we were doing, and told us about a fantastic evening concert featuring famous Goan musicians playing the tabla, drum and sitar, complete with incredible singing and traditional dancing, down by the lake. We spent a happy evening listening to beautiful Indian music and watching colourful, glittered women dance with incredible precision and grace.

We ate at our local breakfast joint – Pap’s Juices – every morning for delicious freshly made muesli, yoghurt, fruits and honey; one of the healthiest thing we’ve probably eaten since arriving in India. He teaches us one new phrase in Hindi each morning.

Lunch was spent at the Indian vegetarian and vegan health restaurant, where we filled our stomachs with millets, fresh vegetables and delicious healthy oil-free foods.

A couple of local artists invited us into their shops each day for a chai and a chit chat, and we’ve been learning Hindi – especially Jacob – from every local, at every possible opportunity. I joined a painting class, and each day for three days attended ‘art class’ for four or five hours with a talented local artist named Rakesh, who was especially excited by the word “cool” and had an entire head worth of hair sprouting from each of his ears.
I thoroughly enjoyed spending my afternoons and evenings sitting out side the front of Rakesh’s little shop front, painting in the sun watching the hectic traffic and many cows negotiate the tiny road. I did not enjoy, however, being sprayed with shit when a passing cow let loose, flicking his tail – and poo – all over me. Yes, that was me that you could hear screaming.

 No matter where we went, people were keen to talk and were very friendly, and the feel of the town was really lovely. Evenings were cool and the town became quiet, and from our roof top balcony we looked over the city to see an ocean of colourful lights dancing on the lake. One evening, several travelers congregated on the rooftop and together we spent hours laughing and singing and chatting.
The guest house we stayed in – Kesar Palace Hotel – was fantastic, and probably contributed to our decision for a “lengthy” stay.

We decided not to visit the main attraction of Udaipur – the Grand Palace – instead, we enjoyed its exterior beauty from afar, and just spent our time getting a feel for the place. On our last day we spent a few hours in the New Town area – looking through the markets and stalls and getting drenched during a downpour of rain. The muddy ground and muck and waste everywhere made walking around a little more challenging (and disgusting) but we enjoyed chai, thali and the pure joy of something new; away from hippie pants, camel leather bags and fancy coffee shops.

Although the main streets often got clogged with traffic , cows and an orchestra of horns and petrol fumes, and the touters were always keen to sell us something we didn’t want, we found Udaipur relaxing and rejuvenating. We absolutely loved this place, and didn’t really want to leave. Reluctantly, we packed our backpacks and spent our last evening on the rooftop overlooking the lights.

We know this is a place we’ll come back to some day; for now we head to Pushkar at the lovely hour of 6am.

From Mumbai to Udaipur: 20 -21.08.13

It’s funny how India has a way of making you love her one minute, and then curse her the next, only to forgive her moments later, and then suddenly be reminded of why you were cursing her earlier!

We woke early and spent some time this morning with our couch surfing host before we said goodbye and left her home. Saying goodbye felt as though we were saying goodbye to an old friend, and driving away in our tuk tuk was bittersweet. Amazing.

Stopped in heavy traffic, a young girl who couldn’t have been more than eight leaned into our open tuk tuk, waving a distressed and malnourished looking baby in our face, demanding money and food. The traffic did not move, and the young girl continued to poke and scratch hard at my leg while the baby wailed. It was awful, and I just felt so helpless. A few rupees was not going to change anything, and we spent the rest of the trip in silence feeling helpless and saddened.

We arrived at Andheri station, and with our bulging packs on back and front, we wondered how the hell we were meant to get into one of the carriages without being crushed by the crowds. The train station was brimming with people of all sorts, and every train ride was an experience in itself. Every time, we met people who were kind and willing to help, and others who enjoyed spending the journey staring at us with avid curiosity.

Two trains arrived, thousands of people went mad throwing themselves either into or out of the packed carriages, and we were still standing on the platform considering the option of a taxi. As a third train pulled in and I saw the ladies kicking and scratching their way on and off the carriage, and I walked over to Jake and said “not happening.” Instead, we climbed onto the normal carriage and stood pack to pack, surrounded by a hundred plus men and their staring eyes.

We took a taxi from Churchgate to Victoria Station, after struggling to find a driver who would turn on his meter. We’ve gotten good at this now.
Our plan was to drop our packs at VT Station and spend the day exploring before our train late tonight. Our train tickets from Mumbai to Udaipur still hadn’t been delivered by the tourist company that we’d paid a substantial sum to, and we were getting anxious.

As we walked towards the cloak room, I had the thought that “how fantastic, things seem to be actually running smoothly today! India is working in our favour today… something surely must be about to go wrong…” and then things turned to shit.
At VT we were not allowed to store our packs without a ticket in hand. Trudging around the area trying to find an internet café, we were almost crushed by a group of market stall holders who all of a sudden stopped what they were doing, madly rushed to pack everything they were selling into tarps, tied their goods together, grabbed their cart handles and got moving! “Police” said one local when we saw us obviously wondering what going on.
We stopped for seconds too long and touters tried to get us to go to their hotels – I guess our packs made us look like we’d just arrived, and our disheveled looks made us seem like easy targets.

Well after 1pm, checking our email at a cyber café, the tickets we were meant to have received on Sunday, and then on Monday, and now by 12pm today were still not sitting in our inbox. A quick call to the tourist company infuriated me. This morning they’d said the tickets would be emailed by 12pm, but on the phone they said we needed to come into the shop to collect them. When I asked why they’d said this only now, they ummed and aah, and then made up all these ridiculous contradicting excuses. When I asked why they had not been sent yesterday when they were meant to be, more contradicting excuses. I was furious, knowing now we would have to spend more time and more money to get the tickets. The response was uncaring and my anger was ignored.

We then spent forever trying to find a taxi driver who would not only take us to Colaba to get the tickets, but would also use the meter. Dropped off in Colaba centre, it took us ages to find the place again; no taxi driver knew where to go, so we’d had to walk – getting lost along the way.

Looking over our tickets that were finally in our hands, we saw we weren’t even booked from VT station! We were leaving from Bandra Terminus, at 11:25pm. We had a lot of time to kill.

We found a taxi who took us to Chowpatty beach along Marine Drive, where we stood eating delicious kulfi (Indian-style, frozen-hard ice cream that melts in your mouth) from a stand-up outside eatery that was ‘famous’ amongst locals. Bulging packs on back and front, we used our front packs as our table whilst the locals stared and laughed, and we came to the realization that these packs will be sitting on our shoulders for the next 8 hours or so. There was no cloak room to leave them and we were too far from Bandra, with little time left to see the things we wanted; it was going to be a long day.

We walked, buzzing from the kulfi, to the once home of Ghandi, to learn more about this incredible man who was and is SO important to India and its people. The museum/home was wonderful and we gained a great deal of understanding and insight. Yep; we’ve been to Ghandi’s house.

Walking out of the station, our packs were feeling heavier and heavier. A man on the street greeted us and as per usual, an offer to help immediately arose suspicion in us. We hate that we feel this way but so frequently we are offered “help” in return for a fee, or a lot of inconvenience. He was, however, very helpful and explained to us the best way to get to the dhobi ghats – the 140 year old open laundry which is a famous sight in Mumbai. Hailing a taxi for us he told us the driver would use the meter, but when he walked away the driver tried to make us pay a ridiculous luggage fee – bull shit! We’d taken enough taxis in the last few hours alone to know he was just trying to get some more money, and we walked away. The helpful man returned and told us not to pay anything more than what the meter read, and said something in Hindi to the driver which included “Ghandi House” – I can only assume what he said, but the driver immediately dropped the luggage fee completely and was very kind to us from there on in. Awesome.

Dhobi Ghat was not what we expected, but was fascinating none the less. A sight that, in this world, is one of a kind. Over a 1000 open troughs are used daily to wash tons of dirty Mumbai laundry, and it takes some serious strength to wash, scrub, beat and rinse by hand.

We had grand plans to visit Mahalaxmi temple and the Haji Ali Mosque in the sea, but the weight bearing down on our backs, shoulders, knees and ankles from a day of wearing our pack almost non-stop was too much. We trudged back along the path whilst a man followed us only inches away, continually asking us to please pay him 50 rupees so he could take us to some place. He kept saying “50 rupee I take you there”. We ended up stopping in the hope he would go away, seeing as our harmony of “no, no, no thanks, no, no, we don’t want to go there, no, no, we are just walking, no, please go away, no, stop following us, no, we don’t need a tuk tuk, no, no, no, what do you actually want!?” had not previously worked. He hung around asking for money and to take us with him, but eventually got tired when we started asking passers by to get him to leave us alone.
We ended up taking a train from Mahalaxmi back to Churchgate.
The train ride was an experience in itself, in particular when a hijra with a 5 o’clock shadow, dressed in a sari, boarded the train and demanded money from every passenger on board. Hijras are transgendered individuals who are apparently considered to be of low class in Indian society, and supposedly carry a magic power; they often make their money from begging or demanding money from people on trains and public spaces in return for a blessing of fertility, and curse those who refuse to cough up. As a hijra boarded, we watched as every passenger immediately fetched some rupees and immediately paid for a ‘blessing.’ We refused to pay, and had to put up with a lot of mumbling, poking, prodding, stares and finally, a hand clap – which we believe to be our curse – before the hijra moved away. The look from the locals was one of absolute shock and disbelief. Mums, if you’re reading – sorry, you can no longer expect  grandchildren from us in the future: we’ve been cursed by a man in a sari and are apparently now infertile.

Freshly cursed, we thought we deserved to treat ourselves to dinner at a place we’d been wanting to visit – Samrat – where we were told we could find the most amazing Gujurati Thali.
350 rupee thali was a real splurge for our backpacker budget, but we treated ourselves and we were not disappointed; the meal was incredible and the constant filling of each little silver dish was a thrill for our senses. We literally rolled out of the restaurant, our pack belts tight, making it hard for us to breathe.

The train from Churchgate to Bandra Station was jam packed and with our bulging packs, I think we may have knocked a few people out as we shoved our way to the doorway as we reached our destination.
Jumping off a moving train: tick.
We didn’t jump off so much as get pushed off by the surge of commuters. I had barely enough time to grab my packs, let alone put them onto my back, and a young boy showed concern that my day pack was behind me and not in front. I love Indian trains, and the people – those who aren’t trying to scam you – are incredibly helpful.

I got the feeling that getting to Bandra station would not be the end of our journey – it seemed too easy. And of course, it was not so simple, we had to struggle with our packs past begging and prodding hands to then fight with way too many tuk tuk drivers who refused to use the meter, and wanted to charge us 80 rupees or more for a 1km distance, which we are fully aware costs 15 rupee.

Eventually, a helpful stranger found us one and as we drove past the other rip-off drivers staring blankly at us, we felt super pleased with ourselves that we had not succumbed to their tricks. Yessss.
At Bandra Terminus, the driver handed back 5 rupees change from the 20 rupee note we’d given him! I felt like leaning over and giving the driver a hug when he gave us the correct change and didn’t try to cheat us purely because we’re foreigners. Strangely, it begins to feel like such a success when people don’t try and cheat us out of money simply because they feel they can and because they want to.

Bottles of water purchased and out stomachs full to bursting point, we brushed our teeth and spat onto the rail tracks amongst locals who were taking a shit, hurling rubbish, spitting pan and using the tracks as a urinal.
Our Bandra – Udaipur Express rolled into the station around 11pm, and checking our names against paper charts taped to the carriages, we finally found our berths and walked into our home for the next 16 hours…

Our 8 sleeper berth consisted of two big families with lots of children and one crying baby.
Ear plugs in, I took the top bunk and Jake took the bottom. Backpacks as pillows and day packs chained to the walls, we lay back and fell asleep, waking to the occasional jolt and baby crying.

I woke to Jake offering me a cup of chai, which we continued to order regularly for the rest of the train trip. We spent our day reading, sipping chai and staring out the window into the rolling scenery. The greenery stuck out as the cool air and drizzling rain pricked against our skin. We watched as we passed farmers herding their cattle, men in brightly coloured turbans and women in their saris contrasting against the greenery, and the occasional squatter taking a dump on the railway lines.

We passed areas that were completely covered in rubbish and waste; rats, pigs and dead animals dotted amongst the putrid smelling rubbish. The occasional waft of urine broke through the air that otherwise smelled fresh and cool. Sometimes, it was hard to grasp what we were actually looking at.

A hijra boarded the train this afternoon train and again we were asked for money which we refused to pay; although no clapping this time – maybe he could tell we had already been cursed. I find it astounding that people are so willing to hand money over to a well dressed, bejewelled man in a sari who apparently has magic powers, whilst there are people are suffering and starving on the streets. It’s yet another mystery of India that we will probably never understand.

The family in our berth spent their day eating, hocking and spitting, and throwing rubbish out of my open window. At one point, a man from our berth who was chatting to us saw us finish our chai and encouraged Jake to throw the empty cups out the window. Every time another piece of waste was thrown, my heart skipped a beat and I fought to hide my angst; the litter and pollution here is a hard pill for us to swallow. At the end of our 16 hour journey, we had several little paper cups stuffed in our bags, in the hope that somewhere, somehow, there would be an actual rubbish bin that wasn’t just part of the land scape.

Late afternoon I woke suddenly, and wiping the drool from my mouth, realised the train was empty and still. We were finally in Udaipur, the North of India. The next part of our journey was about to begin; a new place, a new state, a new experience waiting to unfold.

During our train travels we had changed our plans and our travel route, rendering our pre-booked train tickets no longer useful. We decided at Udaipur station, since we were already there, that we should spend some time planning the dates and booking our tickets (and cancelling the one’s we’d already booked). With our route decided we locked in some dates, and it then took us more than two hours to book our tickets.

First we had to find the reservation office which was hidden away, where I joined a queue “for tourists, women alone, people with TB, cancer or disabilities.” Problem was, although the sign said open until 8pm, the staff had somehow disappeared. Instead, the head honcho man told me to go back to the station, “inquire first”, then come back to him. I wasn’t sure what we had to inquire about, but I spent a good half hour trying to fight for the attention of one female staff member whose job it was to deal with a hundred interrupting people at once, who obviously did not understand the concept of a queue or the idea of “wait your turn”. Or, maybe I don’t understand the concept of booking train tickets in India. Actually, the latter is completely true, but then again, so is my first point.
Trying to get her to look at the eight different forms I’d filled out was hard enough, trying to talk to her through the glass and over the voices of several other boys who shoved in front of me was harder, and trying not to get trampled to death was almost impossible. Personal space doesn’t often seem to exist here in India; neither do manners, patience or queues. Indian’s seem to take it to the extreme; it feels like it’s everyone for themselves, and slowly I am learning that if I want to get something done, I need to forget my manners and shove and push my way to the front.

So with my forms filled out and a heap of dates approved, it was back to the reservation office where the head honcho told me to just “go to the front of the queue.” I looked over to the two lines of people (all men) formed in front of two reservation counters, where about 15 or so people were waiting in each line. I couldn’t bring myself to simply shove my way to the front, so I waited and waited whilst the man behind me shoved his motorbike helmet into my back, trying to make the line move quicker.

At the front of the queue finally, I guiltily pushed my seven booking forms and three tickets under the glass towards the ticket man who had one very well styled mustache framing one very obvious scowl. He let out a deep sigh and threw my tickets to the bench, typing what seemed to be the length of a thesis into his computer before speaking.
Eventually he hurled my pre-booked tickets back at me and told me to “write cancel” on them.
So I did.
“Write cancel” he told me again.
“I have.”
“No. Write cancel! Here!” he exclaimed, pointing to where I’d written “cancelled.”

Eventually he pointed me over to the head honcho’s office and out of the queue, where I was forced to beg for assistance.

Eventually I gathered that I needed to fill out a specific cancellation form, which then took another 20 minutes or so because there was no obvious explanation or procedure available.
Walking up to the front of the queue of men, the head honcho was nice enough to get me seen to right away (almost), much to the protests of the men waiting in line. Angry mustache ticket guy snatched my cancellation forms, sighed again, and proceeded to commence writing his thesis again…

3000 odd rupees later and seven tickets in our hands, we were officially booked up until mid-September, and are headed in the direction of Udaipur – Ajmer – Pushkar – Jodhpur – Jaisalmer – Bikaner – Jaipur – Agra – Lucknow… from there, we’ll head to Delhi but we’ll do a bit more planning before we book.

Finally, around 7pm, we departed the station and were quickly greeted by a well spoken tuk tuk driver. He assured us his hotel was the best (as is always the case) and offered to take us for 50 rupees. When I tried to ask for a meter, he explained “You’re in a new world now; forget Mumbai, we don’t use the meter here.” Yes, we are in a new world now.

I bartered with him and got the tuk tuk ride for free, and arriving at his hotel, we immediately decided to stay. 400 rupees has bought us an incredible, spacious and clean room, wifi, kind hosts and the best view I have ever seen.

We spent our evening on the rooftop restaurant eating curry and sipping Kingfisher beer whilst overlooking the old town and the lake of Udaipur under a sea of fairy lights.
It’s moments like these that help to erase any frustrations we’ve had, and remind us how absolutely incredible and beautiful this country is.

Udaipur marks a new ‘chapter’ in our trip, and we are so excited for what is to come.

Big Smoke India: 17 – 19.08.13

We arrived into Mumbai – the big smoke – stuck in a traffic jam, and after stepping off the bus after 10am, rather than the estimated 7:30am arrival time. The bus dropped us on a random street where cars raced past, buildings soared, dogs roamed and taxi drivers circled us.
We had no idea where we were, we had no idea where we were going, we had no idea where we were staying, and we had no idea who to trust. Excellent.

A driver in a camo-cloured doo-rag style hat hearded us into his taxi and drove us across the city to Colaba – the tourist and sight-seeing hub of Mumbai. He hid his meter with a dirty towel “because he has to” (for a reason he did not explain) and continually told me “do not worry about money, you always worrying about money, do not ask me about money, don’t worry, I don’t want any money, I not asking for any money”, which made me worry almost to bursting point. Of course, he wanted money, of course he charged us some ridiculous “luggage fee”, and of course, he took us to the most ridiculously priced, shit-box of a hotel/cell, where we were greeted by possibly the rudest Indian man in the world.
Whilst Jake stayed in the taxi, I went to check the room.The manager grunted at me that the room was 1200, and when I almost died of shock, he told me it was actually now 1500. Mumbai was a lot more expensive than we’d expected.
Back in the taxi, I weighed up our options with Jake, and the driver agreed I could barter the manager down.
Back up in the hotel again, I was now told the price was 1700. I’m still wondering why I didn’t walk away then and there, but instead I bartered to 1300 which was flatly refused, so my very generous driver offered 1400 – was he personally putting in that extra 100 for this cockroach infested cell? I doubted it, but the offer got accepted.
The driver left us with our bags and we trudged up the stairs, feeling as though we were about to enter into a contract we didn’t want to but were somehow unable to get away from.
Of course, without the driver by my side, the manager was even ruder and told us no air conditioning would be included in that price. I argued, and we walked away – and should’ve kept walking – but eventually Mr. Rude manager man had a change of heart and very generously let us stay for 1400… with air conditioning.

It was only after we had paid that we discovered stained sheets, cockroaches, and one single dirty, cigarette smelling towel. When I asked if we could please have a clean towel, and furthermore if we could have two, the manager almost screamed at me telling me it was clean. When I refused his answer, he angrily bought us a “clean” (still stained) towel, and grunted “one room, one towel.” Hmmm.

Out in Mumbai at last, we walked through Colaba and towards the gateway to India monument, past the famous Taj Mahal Palace Hotel. The architecture is incredibly beautiful here, absolutely stunning – our heads were in a constant craning state as we looked at the architecture towering above us, mouths open in awe.

We walked towards Leopold’s Café – one of the hard-hit locations in the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks, and also the once local hang-out of the author of Shantaram  – I was keen to see if this establishment lived up to my imagination… On the way, we dropped into Reality Tours office, to book a tour of the Daravhi Slums. A few minutes later, we were walking briskly towards Churchgate Station to meet for our tour of the biggest slum in Asia, to see what “the real Mumbai is like” – apparently.

I still can’t quite work out how I feel bout visiting a slum as a tourist, but the tour company we went with pours a huge portion of it’s money back into the NGO it runs within the slum, which we were able to see in action. We went as a group of 6 along with a guide who met us at the station and took us on the local Mumbai train towards the slums. He explained to us “three stops before we need to prepare to get off the train. Lots of eople will be getting on and off very quickly and the train will only halt for 15, maybe 20 seconds.” … Oh, shit.

Surviving our first local Mumbai train, we walked over the bridge and down into what looked like a very normal, very action packed street going about daily business. Chai and food stalls and vendors, shops, businesses, buyers and sellers, traffic and people about everywhere… We were in the business district, and it is here that several huge export and import, as well as nation-wide products are made, cooked, sewn, created and recycled, turning over a profit of around $650 million USD annually.

We walked through the business district, and the recycling area first, where plastic comes from all over India – and the world! – to be recycled. The absolute sprawl and mounds of plastic that could be seen from the ground and from the roof top stretched so far and covered every surface, and I was in absolute shock at the…mess, maybe? I can’t even decribe what we saw. These incredible people work tirelessly, in very difficult conditions, and their business is non-stop.
We passed tailors and men dying materials to make saris and clothing – for men in one section, and for women in another.
We passed welders and people building machinery, working with metals and welders, barefooted and shirtless – without any sort of safety precautions or protection.
We passed bakers rolling tons of pastry dough, and women drying poppadoms on the slum floors that, eventually, will be exported world wide.
We passed leather workers who dry, treat and cure the leathers they receive and turn them into bags, wallets and everything else that will then eventually be stamped with Gucci and Prada stamps, exported, and sold for thousands in fancy shops.
We passed through the pottery area where thousands of clay pots were being turned and sitting to dry in the sun.
We walked through tiny, tiny alleyways with holes in the ground and electrical wires dangling dangerously low. The stench was sometimes overwhelming.
We worked our way through to the residential area, where children were keen to follow us – and put their hands in our pockets! The slums are alive with people; the tiny area of around 1.75square km is home to more than a million people! There is a Muslim section, and a Hindu section, and somehow, people manage to live together in such compact space like one big community.
The residential area made me both happy and sad – I think – I haven’t quite worked it out yet. People live in absolute mess – the smells are overwhelming in some parts, and we walked out into an open area where children were playing and walking bare footed amongst an absolute rubbish tip. The toilet block was making it hard for me to breathe, and the smell stung my eyes.
We spent the entire time we were there staring at our feet, watching each and every step – ensuring we did not stand in the muck and mess, the holes and putrid contents that continually covered the ground.
The tiny slum hut, one of which we were able to see empty, was smaller than my bedroom; a bathroom, a kitchen, a TV area, a living area, a bedroom, storage space… and five, six, seven people might occupy that area! No privacy, no space. Astounding.
But the people seem happy, and busy, and hard-working. Most of all, it feels like a community, even from an outsider perspective – you can simply see and observe it. I’m still trying to work out how I feel about it all, and what my thoughts are, but I’m happy we were able to take the opportunity to learn a bit more about a part of this world and the people in it.

The six of us on the tour took the train back to Churchgate Station together and spent the evening at Leopold’s. The bullet holes still fresh in the walls was a stark reminder of what happened here just a few years ago, and my head full of the words of Shantaram bought me right back to the dodgy wheelings and dealings that would’ve once happened, right there.

Having used our air conditioner to the maximum and after surviving the hoards of cockroaches, we checked out early and, like sleepy turtles, carried our backpack shells heavy on our backs. We wern’t allowed to leave them with Mr. Rude Guest House Manager.

Today, India and I clashed. It’s true. It was a build up, I think, of three weeks of (amongst a million other positive things) being frequently cheated, lied to, tricked, scammed, harassed, begged, and  ripped off.

Our morning was spent being lied to by various street touters and people offering “free tourist information.” After hours or messing around, being told one thing and then another, and then something else entirely, we ended up handing over a wad of cash for two train tickets to Udaipur which were then never given to us – instead, we’d receive them via e-mail apparently on Monday, the day before our train.

I was so upset at the fact that nothing seemed to be working here for us today; we’d been ripped off and harassed and furthermore, lied to continually, and booking tickets for trains seemed impossible. We left with no ticket, no receipt, a lighter wallet and the words of the tourist information guy saying “anything is possible in India if you put money under the table” ringing in our heads.  On the street, continually we were harassed by people wanting money, wanting to show us their hotel rooms, offers for weed, offers for taxis, offers to “help” us find a “nice something to wear”, shoe shining, ear cleaning, and more people claiming their office was the real tourist information centre. I was ready to scream. I was suddenly overwhelmed by the ‘process’ that we go through every day here in India, fighting off touts and tricksters, and sifting through lies to find the truth. I was tired of the fact that we have to be suspicious of everyone, and when a stranger happens to help us, we find it hard to believe they’re being genuine.
I was overwhelmed that to book a train took hours after hours, too many mixed messages and stories, and that people were happy to go above and beyond to hide important information and trick us. After three weeks of it almost continually, I was sick of this maddening bull shit.

Eventually, we ended up at VT station – apparently the biggest train station in Asia – the incredible station that we should’ve gone to first thing this morning. First floor, counter 52, a few forms and I was able to book our train tickets. Just. Like. That. No bull shit, no lies, no stories of why they will have to change the price, no poor treatment, rude comments or jumbled facts. The man just booked the dates and trains that I had written down and printed out the tickets for us. So this is the way to do it, hey?… Lesson finally learned.

From VT station, we booked a pre-paid taxi out to Andheri, where we were staying for the next 3 nights with a Couch Surfing Host. Our poor taxi driver then spent the next two or more hours dodging, weaving, or sitting motionless amongst a chaos of horns and impatient drivers. At one point I tried to count the number of ‘lanes’ of traffic: pointless – the traffic sprawled so far around our car that I had to give up, it was utter madness and it was a real thrill. Hello to the Mumbai I had imagined.

Eventually, we arrived at our Couch Surfing host’s home, where she welcomed us warmly and gave us a delicious home cooked Indian dinner. We took a tuk tuk later to a local shopping mall and she introduced us to Kulfi, a delicious Indian dessert.

Our second day in Mumbai was spent in fits of exhaustion and frustration, feeling as though we couldn’t handle – didn’t want to handle – India’s complexities any longer – but then it ended on a high. We knew that tomorrow could only be better.

Our third day in Mumbai was spent exploring Colaba a little bit further. Being Sunday, the trains were “not so busy” – meaning I was able to breathe slightly more easily, didn’t have to share the roof handle with another hand and didn’t have to fight with people in order to exit the train. The Mumbai trains are madness, but oddly enough we love them.

Arriving into Churchgate Station, we stepped out into the street to be immediately greeted by the bare bottom of a woman who’d just taken a decent sized poo in the middle of a busy main road. As if proud of her achievement, she stood – bare bummed – next to the pile of waste for way too long whilst I struggled to re-gain my composure.
We watched, sipping chai, as a Bollywood scene was being filmed in the street, and ignored the hassling touts – one of whom invited us to his cousin’s best friend’s sisters’ niece’s wedding somewhere in Rajisthan some time next month.
We admired art in a gallery, and even more outside where local artists were selling their paintings and were proud to show us their work. I adore moments like these.
We explored various shops and walked through the city area, visiting the local Colaba Market and avoiding another tout who was sure we’d love the clothing at his best friend’s wholesale shop.We had a fancy lunch at Delhi Dohbar, where I broke my vegetarian diet and ate some mutton.
Our afternoon was spent walking along Marine Drive, looking out over the Mumbai city scape and sky line. Chai vendors offered us chai and a woman with a monkey on a leash tried to get us to pay her for a dancing monkey show – which we very flatly refused.

Late evening we took another local Mumbai train back to Andheri, where we visited the local shopping mall. Tuk tuk drivers outside tried to charge us 150 rupees for the 20 rupee ride back to our host’s home, and refused to turn on the meter even though they have to normally. It was infuriating to be treated so unfairly, and I felt that frustrated feeling from the previous day returning. Eventually though, we found a driver who was happy to turn on his meter and took us safely home to our wonderful host and her handsome cat.

Our third day in Mumbai was a nice, easy going day; we didn’t really rush this morning, and spent our day in the outer suburbs away from the tourists. We’re so used to being the only whities these days; it’s starting to not phase us so much. Outside of the tourist area of Colaba, the people who spoke with us were friendlier and more interested in simply talking to us, rather than trying to take our money however possible.

We took a tuk tuk to the Andheri train station, where peak hour meant we were caught up amongst thousands of frantic commuters. The first train we attempted to board was so packed (to the point where people were hanging out the doors and along the side of the train!) we were not able to board. A young woman told me to get in the ladies carriage, and never attempt to take the men’s carriage… that meant Jake and I would be separated, and that worried me when we were about to attempt to get on – and would consequently have to eventually get off – the local Mumbai train.

As the train we needed pulled into the station, it was a sight to be seen – one I have difficulty describing. It was, simply put, a manic mess of chaos and crowds. Before the train can even completely stop, people are jumping off and attempting to jump on. As the train slows and finally stops, masses of people at every door have already started shoving, pushing, kicking and pulling; fighting their way into and out of the carriage. No order, no rules, every man for himself. It was madness, and the facial expressions and the way people behaved was shocking, to say the least. I was pushed, shoved and hearded into the ladies carriage by the kind young woman who then checked to make sure Jake was safely in the men’s compartment. So kind. Within the confines of the female carriage, I observed as every woman assessed the other – including many stares directed at me – often staring each other down in a manner that, more than once, made me feel self conscious.
When the train finally pulled into my destination, I was quick to learn I’d need to fight my way off. Along with every other woman pushing and kicking and shoving to get on – and off – I elbowed and shoved and escaped, free at last.

More help from locals saved us the hassle of trying to negotiate with trick tuk tuk drivers, and eventually we found one who was happy to use the meter to take us to the ferry landing, so we could head across the ‘creek’ (more like a massive lake!) to the Global Pagoda – a golden beautiful structure that was really impressive to see. People come here for 10 day meditation work shops which are apparently really highly regarded.
Arriving, I think we were just as impressed by the structure as we were by the fact that it was free to enter.
The area was beautiful and really impressive, and it was well worth the visit out there.
After slipping in the mud and falling hard on my bum, checking to see if anyone saw, then laughing about it for way too long, we took an empty ferry back over the creek and a tuk tuk back to the station, before catching a train back to Andheri.

This evening we were meeting our host at the local plaza to see a Bollywood movie, but arriving early, we decided we’d and spend some time in what turned out to the the worst (and most hilarious) excuse for an arcade.
We wanted to have a game of 10 pin bowling but only one of the 6 lanes was working. The other lanes were “maintenance,” according to the staff. We put 100 odd rupees onto an arcade game card and went to swipe a game for some good old fashioned fun… but quickly realised the game we had selected was “undergoing maintenance.” This was the same for the next game, and the next, and the next, and the next, and this went on throughout the entire arcade for all except one game – the basketball hoopy game. So, whilst laughing like lunaticks, we spent a happy few minutes playing the same one game; shooting flat basket balls into a hoop, cackling the entire time. At the end, we had acquired a whole 6 tickets, and seeing as there were only three different ‘prizes’ behind the massive glass counter for 50, 200 and 5000 tickets, we fortunately didn’t get any sort of tacky plastic souvenir.
Oh India, you make us smile.

We met our host and went up to the level our cinema was on, only to find it had been moved to another cinema. So, down two levels, we bought popcorn and prepared for our movie to start, only to find out it had been re-scheduled for an hour later… So instead, we sat, talked and ate way too much popcorn. It was brilliant.

The movie was excellent but quite difficult for us to follow – lucky we had our host there to explain a little of the plot. After a late finish, she took us to a fantastic Punjabi restaurant where we enjoyed an absolutely amazing meal together. Tandoori chicken with lime and yoghurt, beautifully steamed rice, a bean dahl and a specialty of fried garlic cloves, along with an incredible traditional Indian sweet and a betel nut drink to freshen our mouths once we were done. Dinner at midnight, and this place was still packed. The food was one of the best meals we’ve had in Mumbai, and our beautiful host was so generous to take us out.

It honestly was such a wonderful way to celebrate our short time spent with her, and we are so grateful to have found such a wonderful person here in Mumbai. Tomorrow was to be our final day in Mumbai before heading off on a train journey away from the West and into the North to Rajisthan: first stop, Udaipur.