On Wednesday we travelled from Jaipur to Udaipur, a journey of 440 km which took approximately 7 hours. Although the majority of the journey was on a national Highway, a toll road which is mostly used by trucks and motorbikes, there are also frequently cows, tractors, dogs or people on this road, so one has to drive with care in order to avoid collisions with animals. Occasionally we passed through small villages or past basic roadside tea shops which are small shelters constructed out of wooden branches and tarpaulin where one can buy crisps or fruit or tea. Usually there were dogs, cows, goats and sometimes pigs around, roaming freely around these areas, searching for food in the piles of rubbish that is left around human settlements or on the sides of roads.
Sadly we also came past the site of an accident where a bus had run into a cow. The cow was dead and the bus was badly damaged. The passengers, were standing by the side of the road, by the look of their faces they were in shock at what had happened.
When we arrived in Udaipur, our driver had to negotiate his way through streets packed with auto-rickshaws, motorbikes, cars, cows, and the occasional elephant transporting his owner on his back. To get to our hotel near Lake Picchola in the old part of Udaipur was a little tricky, as the streets are very narrow around here, and clearly not constructed for cars. However we got here at last and checked into our hotel (which is owned by a German who also owns the German bakery across the road). From the rooftop restaurant of the hotel we had amazing views over the Lake and the Lake Palace, a hotel in the middle of the lake which served as a setting for the James Bond film Octopussy!
We have seen these little charms created out of one lemon, seven green chillies and a piece of charcoal on a string all over India. They are usually in the entrances of houses or shops or they are attached to cars or auto-rickshaws. When I enquired what they are, I learned that they keep the home or business safe from evil spirits. They are usually renewed every Saturday. A “Nimbu-Mirchi Totka” as it is called, traditionally has “seven mirchis” (chillies) and “one nimbu” (lemon) to protect the home from all bad and evil energies.
Yesterday we spent another day in Jaipur. After an 11 o’clock start (late for us) we headed to Jaigarh Fort which is an old army fort on one of the hills overlooking Jaipur where there were lots of monkeys which we fed, with bread. Some of the females had babies clinging on to them. After going inside the fort where the biggest cannon in the world is, a monkey ran past, thought mama was a handhold or a tree, jumped on her and ran on which came as a shock to all of us. Luckily she was fine. Next we headed off to the Nahargarh fort where we got some views of the old city of Jaipur, took photos and had some drinks before heading to the old town, called the pink city, to do some shopping. After that we went to eat (it was already 5ish and we hadn’t had lunch) at a great restaurant where we had the best paneer dish (Indian cottage cheese) I’ve had since we’ve been in India and, trust me, we’ve had a lot of paneer!
The next day we went sightseeing in Jaipur. Our driver had booked a guide to show us around the city while he drove us to the sights. The first sight was the Amber Fort. To get up the hill, Me,Mama, and Milan rode on an elephant, (my favourite animal) while Papa and the Guide walked. The elephant had a sort of platform on its back with bars surrounding it so we couldn’t fall off. The ride was great but the riders had small clubs for guiding them, with a spike on the end and they were poking the elephants with them which I thought was really cruel. Once we got off and went into a Hindu temple where people were praying in. then we walked into a garden and we then saw a building with mirrors on it, called the Jai Mandir (hall of victory). Also known as the winter palace. the guide explained to us how with big velvet curtains and oil lamps, it was kept warm inside. The most memorable part was where the king played hide and seek with his wives. The rules were slightly different at the time, 1 hides i.e. the king and 12 seek i.e. his wives! After lunch we headed back into the old town also known as the Pink City, (originally painted pink to welcome the Prince of Wales in 1876) the main sights we saw were the city palace and the early 18th century observatory called Jantar Mantar. The small sun dials have a 20 second time accuracy, but Jai Singh II the founder of the city and great warrior & astronomer wanted it to be more accurate so a larger one was constructed with a 2 second time accuracy. After we got back to the hotel we watched a puppet show before dinner and ended the day filled with many facts, figures and dates!
We had a great overnight stay in what was described in the LP as a homestay but highly recommended. It certainly delivered and the care & attention by the owner Mr Burman made our stay enjoyable and memorable.
Difficult as it is to move on from the Taj Mahal from an architectural beauty viewpoint and all it signifies, our 240km journey to Jaipur, the final point of India’s “Golden Triangle” included a couple of interesting interludes.
First was to take a further step back to visit the abode of Shah Jahan’s grandfather Emperor Akbar in Fatehput Sikri which served as the capital of the Mughal Empire from 1571 to 1585. The complex was planned on Persian principles and consists of a number of pavilions arranged in a formal geometry and also reflects the genius of Akbar in assimilating diverse regional architectural influences, including the palaces built for each of his 3 wives of different religions (Muslim, Hindu & Christian).
The other break in the journey was a visit to the Keoladeo National Park Bird Sanctuary in Bharatpur which has sighted over 370 species of birds. We were only able to make a dent in the 29 sq km park in our 2 hours on cycle rickshaw but were certainly rewarded with some great sightings. Highlights were the White Breasted Eagle, Painted Storks and Kingfisher.
Our day ended with an evening arrival in Jaipur where our “light & sound show” of the day was finding the Hotel trying to navigate our way through the busy streets of the city with no sat nav and minimal street signage…
On Friday morning we went on a tour in Old Delhi with a focus on street children in Delhi and the the work of the Salaam Baalak Trust, a Charity which aims to improve street children’s lives in India. Our guide, a young man called Tariq who used to be a street child in this part of Delhi himself, guided us through the streets and bazaars of Old Delhi and showed us two of the centres that the Salaam Baalak Trust runs. The first was a contact centre near the Railway Station. It is a centre where the trust invites street children to come and spend the day, have counselling and medical attention if needed. They also offer activities, celebrate festivals, offer some learning programs. On Fridays, like the day we visited, they allow the children to watch television. Our guide explained, that as many of the children are crazy about Bollywood movies, they love the opportunity to watch TV and have a break from their life in the streets. If children then show an interest in staying more permanently with the Salaam Baalak Trust and to receive a more formal education, then they can move into one of the trust’s shelter homes. We visited such a shelter home and got to spend some time with the young children in this home. Tariq explained that many of the children are run-aways, who have left their families because of abuse or poverty or parents who for various reasons had been unable to provide a happy home environment for them. These children often believe that if they come to Delhi, they will be better off on their own, or they dream of a life as Bollywood Stars and they believe they will find this in Delhi. In the reality of life in the streets, they find, that life on their own is much tougher than they expected and they are abused, exploited, and suffer many forms hardship. The Salaam Baalak trust encourages children and parents to be reunited if the children wish to do so. If not, it offers them protection, car, and an education. The Trust also works closely with Childline, a helpline for children in trouble.
Tariq, now 20 years old, told us his story as well. He had run away from home in the far north of India at the age of 9, because his father had beaten him. He believed that he could make a life in Delhi and travelled there by train, a journey which took 18 hours. He had stolen some money from his fathers wallet the night he ran away and thought he could maybe start a business in Delhi selling watches. He used all the money to buy watches and then tried to sell them in the streets. However as he had nowhere to go at night, he had to sleep outside and one morning, soon after, he woke up to find that all his watches had been stolen. He began to cry which attracted the attention of a policeman. When he told the police man what had happened, he was beaten by him, because the police man did not believe him. So he learned to distrust the police. He then found unpaid employment as a dishwasher in a small restaurant. The owner of the restaurant gave him food and a mat to sleep on, but refused to pay him. When he asked for payment, the owner threatened him that he would go to the police and report him. He then found that many of the other street children earn a little bit of money by sorting through rubbish and taking recyclable materials to recycle shops. They can earn about 100 to 200 rupees a day (1 to 2 Euro) by doing this. They often use the money to buy alcohol or drugs, which they take to stop feeling their pain. He was in this situation when he found out about the Salaam Baalak Trust’s contact centre. He loved to go there to watch television. He also received counselling and and eventually he declared that he really wanted to receive a proper education and so he was moved into a shelter home. He finished his Highschool and is currently studying for a tourism and business management degree via distance leaning. He and 2 of his peers at the Trust have applied for a scholarship offered by the Trust to spend one year studying in the US and his greatest hope is, that they will all be granted this. He is also getting on well with his parents and siblings now and hopes to be able to support his family in the future.
I found Tariq’s story very inspiring and how the work of the Salaam Baalak Trust has made a big difference in his life.
After our small breakfast at the hotel, we embarked on the four hour drive to our hotel or ‘Homestay’ in Agra. Once arriving, picking up our guide for Agra and settling down on a cup of Masala Chai we headed to the Taj Mahal car park where we took what looked like a large electric buggy the last 1km to the Taj Mahal as fuel powered cars are not allowed within a certain area for pollution purposes. On arrival, the guide told us we were entering through the east entrance which led to a rather impressive entrance called the great gate or a the guide put in a part of the Taj Mahal’s beauty. This entrance was built to serve a interesting purpose, to hide the Taj Mahal from view until through it apart from through the gateway through which you could only see the Taj Mahal’s entrance. Like, as the guide put it, when a Muslim lady covers her whole face apart from her eyes with a burqa as after all it was built for the wife of the fifth mogul emperor who was Muslim. Consequently a mosque was built on the left side or the west side of the Taj Mahal and for symmetry reasons a guesthouse on the east side. After entering Nilay, Mama and I had our first ever glimpse of the Taj Mahal, one of the 7 wonders of the world and a truly breathtaking sight. We then left Papa just inside the entrance, as he wasn’t feeling very well (we think he had ‘Delhi Belly’), and started heading around to the Taj Mahal itself through the gardens. After skipping a few queues, our guide being let through by the staff us with him, the guide gave us a lecture on the gemstones inlayed in the marble. He told us that it used to be with precious gems as well but they were replaced due to risk of theft. Finally we went inside were we saw the tombs of the fifth mogul emperor and his second wife and were harassed by the police officers and staff as they wanted us to get out so they could let the next wave of people in. After exiting and seeing the full extent of the queues we’d skipped we headed to Lady Diana’s bench were we had our photos taken before reuniting with papa and getting our pictures taken there with him. Our wonderful Taj Mahal visit was brought to an end with a electric buggy ride back to our drivers car. From there our guide persuaded us to go to a factory where they make things with marble and inlayed gems which was fascinating although the person who took us through just gave us the same lectures and tried to sell us something with the upsides in learning that the people working had ancestors who helped doing the art in the Taj Mahal. After this interesting day of experiences we settled down to a lovely Thali meal while mama ‘socialised’ with the others in the ‘home stay’ including the owner Mr. Burman.
[Thursday 21st Nov] After flying from Cochin to Delhi yesterday and seeing the Lotus Temple during sunset, today was a day of mass-sightseeing. We had arranged a driver to take us to several sights around Delhi today, tomorrow and then to Agra, the next stop the following day. First we drove to Jama Masjid, the largest and best known mosque in India. Inside the dress code was: no shoes, women cover legs, body and arms and Rs.300 for a camera. Papa and Milan went up one of the towers for the view above while and Mama & I stayed down and watched the busy streets and wildlife. After, we drove to The Red Fort and spent two hours with an audio guide inside. We entered through the gate and learned that the Red Fort is made of red sandstone. The Red fort was a palace constructed by the Mughal emperor, Shah Jahan for himself and his court. The Red Fort also had many riches including the priceless peacock throne, which was looted of its jewels by the persians when they decided to settle in Delhi. After the Red Fort, we drove to Raj Ghat a park dedicated to Mahatma Gandhi, a man who fought the rights of people and led India to independence, but in a non-violent way, with various protests, marches and such. After we drove to our final stop for the day, the Akshardham Temple the biggest Hindu temple in the world. We walked in and had a look in the huge gardens, where there was memorials of people who had done good things in their lives for the country. Then we took our shoes off, and went into the main temple which has golden statues of Hindu gods which you can receive blessings from. After we went out and looked at the Elephant Plinth at the base of the temple which are elephants carved into the stone and made into stories about them which were very interesting. After the elephants, we walked more around the temple and through the lotus garden which is a big garden shaped as a lotus flower. It was after dark by then so we decided to go back to the hotel, tired after our day of mass-sightseeing.
For some photos click here:
Our delayed visit to Fort Cochin is probably best described as a “masala” of sights and experiences our learning in India has been that each day contains a varied mix of sights, sounds, & smells and that the most memorable experiences are usually ones which we have not planned. We decided that at first to get over to the peninsula we would go for the “local” ferry experience, which meant separate lines for “ladies” & “gents” for buying tickets albeit very cheap. Of course we didn’t really know if we had arrived at the right dock at first, as there was no obvious sign but the locals were helpful and after passing through another docked ferry as there was not enough space for 2 at the dock, we set off to explore. Our first stop was a cafe for breakfast and the “Solar Cafe” across the road from the ferry jetty was a great find. A nice setting with great food including some familiar favourites. Not knowing exactly where the sights were we decided that we would allow ourselves to be convinced that a whistle stop rickshaw tour of the key sights would be the right approach. This included many landmarks arising from the various foreign occupiers of this key trading port including St Francis Church (believed to be India’s oldest European built church), The Dutch Cemetery, Indo-Portugese Museum (where Maria provided an impromptu German lesson to Josef at the ticket counter), Spice Market, and the Chinese Fishing nets* where the earnings of the fisherman from our ‘donation’ for being able to take photos and go on one of the large structures will surely have been his best “catch’ of the day! The highlight of the day will of course have to be the open air laundry where Maria seized the opportunity to get in a bit of ironing with the “cordless” heavy coal iron. On the Lonely Planet’s recommendation, we decided to have a look at the Kashi Art Cafe which had some contemporary Indian artwork in a contemporary setting (we could have easily been in an art gallery cafe in a large European city). For dinner, we took the recommendation of a local shop owner and went to Ocaneos Seafood Restaurant. The food was excellent and whilst the seafood dishes were great, a diplomatic consensus landed on Dhal Kerela Curry (Kerela style dhal with turmeric & crushed chilli simmered in coconut milk) as dish of the day. Our last bit of excitement for the day was an eruption of a bit of road rage during the rickshaw ride back to the ferry jetty initiated from a mini bus blocking the road. Whilst our perhaps often naive view is a lack of any compliance to road rules, this showed us that there is a clear code of conduct on the roads!
* Enormous cantilevered spider-like contraptions a legacy of traders from the 1400s seen as as the unofficial emblems of the Kerala Backwaters.
On Sunday afternoon we travelled 2hrs by car from our hotel near Alleppey to Kochi. After settling into our new accommodation, we decided to take a walk along Marine Drive, a walking area along the waterfront busy with tourists and tradespeople who are trying to sell all kinds goods from boat rides, to fruit, ice creams, and toys.
Once we returned to the hotel we were informed that our plan to do a day trip to the very picturesque village of Fort Kochi the following day would not be possible, as there was a general strike planned for Monday and there would be no transport at all. As Milan was also beginning to feel unwell with flu symptoms, we decided that maybe we should have a rest-day on Monday.
The strike on Monday actually meant that all shops and restaurants were closed and taxis, boats, auto-rickshaws – absolutely nothing was running. Jayesh and Nilay went for a little walk around the strangely deserted streets and saw a protest march of strikers. I was curious to find out what a strike of this size was about and this is the information I found:
The opposition party in Kerala had called for a state-wide strike protesting against the central government’s move to implement the report on the Western Ghats. The report states that about 123 villages in Kerala have been branded as ecologically sensitive. According to the report, sand mining, quarry works, functioning of industries that come under the red category and buildings and development of any township or construction over the size of 20,000 sqm in the ecologically sensitive area should be banned.
An interesting conflict, as the report is an attempt to protect the very beautiful, but sensitive environment in Kerala – a feature that we, as visitors very much appreciated. However to the local people the implementation of this report might affect their livelihoods, and so they organised this huge strike, which completely stopped us and any others from being able to travel, eat out and even buying food was not possible. Consequently our lunch on Monday consisted of some cereal bars that we had brought with us from England. Fortunately the strike had finished by 6pm and we were able to have a meal in a local restaurant.