|The plan||We have 4 weeks in India, starting in Bombay. We'll make our way to Cochin, Aurangabad, Jodhpur, Jaisalmer, Jaipur, Delhi, Agra, Varanasi, Khajuraho, and finish in Delhi.|
September 27... Bombay, Maharashtra - Hi everyone from India. We arrived late at night in Bombay, and were greeted with 30 degree heat and smoggy humid air. Through the window of our taxi we passed miles of slums which was a depressing first glimpse of India. The atmosphere wasn't all dim though, with strings of colourful lights lining many streets, and a rainbow of saris. Almost every woman is wearing a sari or salwar kameez, and the men dress conservatively in shirts and trousers (no shorts here). After checking into our hotel (The Sea Lord) we wandered down the street to look for some food. We passed countless adults and children sleeping on the side of the road or in poorly constructed makeshift shelters, as well as two large rats that ran right under our feet. Needless to say, we decided to avoid the food-stalls and restaurants on the street and settled instead for the ever-reliable packet of biscuits... This morning we ventured into the city centre. In the daylight the absolute poverty all around us was even more confronting. We had to tip-toe through piles of rubbish and faeces on the roadside. Men were washing themselves with buckets of water, children were running around tugging at Graham's wallet, stray dogs limped out of our way and women carried containers of water on their heads. Black and yellow taxis honked their way down wide streets to the backdrop of old and grand colonial architecture. In many ways, Bombay reminds us a lot of Cairo... We stopped at Thomas Cook to see if we could book some plane flights because we decided we were sick of slow bus and train travel, both of which sound particularly tiresome in India. Being our last destination we've decided to go all out and splurge on a Discover India Air Pass offering unlimited domestic flights for 21 days. Of course there are all sorts of rules and regulations, and so getting to the places we wanted to go required compromise and hard work by our very patient travel agent. After several hours, we got our itinerary sorted and we fly out tomorrow to Kerala. The only place that we're really disappointed we can't go to is the Himalayas, but hey, you can't see everything... We had also planned to vote at the Australian consulate, but decided we'd spend the rest of the day seeing Bombay instead. By a stroke of good luck, it turns out today was the last and most important day of the huge festival, Ganesh Chaturthi. The previous night we had seen numerous posters and statues of the elephant-headed God called Ganesh (Graham had remembered the name purely from a Simpsons episode). Ganesh is a Hindu God who is especially popular in Bombay. The son of the god Shiva and his wife Parvati, he is the god of good fortune and patron of scribes and there are all sorts of interesting myths about how he got his elephant head and how the festival originated. But what a festival it is today! There must have been millions of people crowded onto Chowpatty beach, where the festival culminates, and we got stuck right in the thick of things. Large and small images and statues of Ganesh that had been elaborately decorated with marigolds and lights were being driven on trucks down crowded streets to the beach. Every truck had dozens of people crammed into it, and in front of the trucks, men were chanting and dancing almost like they were in a mosh pit. Pink powder was everywhere covering people's faces, clothes, and the ground. Even we got splattered in pink at the end of the night. It's hard to describe just what it was like - we've never been in such crowds, and never has a crowd been so colourful. At the beach, the images and statues of Ganesh were being taken out to sea, where they will be fully immersed at dawn - but we won't be there then, we'll be tucked away in bed. The atmosphere was very friendly and lively, with hoardes of devotees on truck rooftops beckoning us to take their photographs and throwing lollies. However, between a thunder-storm with fork lightening, dangerously close amateur roadside fireworks and explosions, and the large number of people who look drunk or drugged (including taxi drivers - none of whom we trusted to give us a lift back to the hotel) we are glad we're out of the crowds now. But what an incredible start to India... Love Graham and Nicole.
September 30... Cochin, Kerala - Flying south to the state of Kerala, we could see we were coming into a very different environment than what we'd seen in Bombay - from the air, the land was very green. We've been staying in Ernakalum, a busy region of Cochin, a coastal city of 2 million people. The narrow roads are crowded with autorickshaws, motorbikes, and people, and the footpaths (where they exist) have huge people-sized holes in them so if we go missing in India, you know where to look for us... Just inland, there's a large network of lakes and rivers known as the Backwaters. We took a cruise on them yesterday. The small canals and wide lakes, with many waterlilies and surrounding palm-tree covered islands were beautiful. Men in boats were digging up sand from the river bed to sell for construction work, whilst women washed their clothes in the water. It was really tranquil and peaceful - instant relaxation guaranteed. Stopping at a small village, we watched a man climb a very tall coconut tree in seconds and throw down one coconut for each guest - while it looked romantic, drinking this particular coconut juice was not a pleasant experience - very salty and completely unlike the coconut flavour we're used to. Taking a tour of a local garden was like walking through a living spice cupboard - there were cloves, tumeric, tamarind, vanilla, cocoa, ginger, coffee, arrowroot, basil and nutmeg all growing in the garden. We had quite a tasty lunch afterwards, but unfortunately it has left us feeling nauseous and aching all over today. We bumped into another girl who was with us yesterday, and she told us she spent this morning vomiting (or womiting as Indians around here would say). We love analysing the Indian form of English - Nicole's favourite Indian word is wegetable. They're certainly very fluent in their form of English - pity we're not. The words come out so quickly, but in an accent so thick we can barely understand them sometimes... Today, apart from feeling unwell, we've taken a walk through the historic region of Fort Cochin. This was a trading post set up by the Portuguese in the 16th century, although later it fell into Dutch and then British hands. Walking through the narrow winding streets was really interesting, with children playing, goats scrounging around for anything to eat (we saw some eating sand!), cows wandering in the way of the autorickshaws and plenty of colourful spice and herb shops. Along the beach, large fishing nets hanging from bamboo frames were being lowered into the water using a pulley system, a style introduced by Chinese merchants 700 years ago. Gathering from the seafood on sale, it appears they still work very well. We also visited a few churches. We've been fascinated by the origins of Christianity in India, in particular, in Kerala, where legend has it that the apostle Thomas came to spread the Gospel in the 1st century AD. When the Portugese arrived, they found an established Christian church, which had links with the Syrian Oriental church. Today, there are a multitude of different denominations in Kerala, including the Syrian Orthodox Church, Catholic Church, and a variety of protestant churches. There are even a few unusual hindu-christian blends that have developed here.
October 1... Sitting in Bombay airport waiting for our connecting flight to Aurangabad - If the last entry looks a little unfinished there's a good reason for that - but everything seems to be alright now - God has really looked after us. While we were at the internet cafe typing up yesterday's entry, Nicole suddenly stood up feeling light-headed and nauseous and rushed outside thinking she was going to vomit. I followed her outside, and pointed her in the direction of the gutter, telling her not to go out onto the road and that I'd be back in 5 seconds (I just wanted to go back in the internet cafe and grab the cameras because the last one getting stolen was still fresh in my mind). When I returned 5 seconds later Nicole was lying face down on the concrete by the gutter, unconscious. It was really scary. She wasn't breathing and her mouth was full of vomit. I was totally incapable of doing anything other than screaming "help" a dozen times. The guys from the internet cafe rushed right out though, and within 30 seconds Nicole started coughing and breathing and as we helped her up, she rapidly became alert. Unbelievably there was a hospital right next to the internet cafe. Fortunately Nicole had begun to recover from the episode quite quickly and only had a few cuts and bruises to show from landing on the ground - perhaps the doctor was pretty unconcerned about everything because she was alert, oriented and looking okay by the time he saw her. But still the level of medical care was really very poor. There was literally half a sentence of history taken, 15 seconds of physical examination performed and then two questions directed to me - "Do you want any blood tests?" (Yes!) and "Do you want her admitted?" (No, if all you are going to do is give her a bed to sleep on - we can do that at the hotel). The emergency doctor neglected a host of very basic medical checks that would have been mandatory at home, and came up with what we think is a questionable diagnosis (labyrinthitis) and even more questionable treatment. So anyway, when we got back to the hotel, we decided it was probably a fainting episode associated with the nausea and vomiting due to a gastrointestinal infection - probably from that meal we were describing in the entry last night and Nicole has been dosed up on our own supply of antibiotics and fluids just in case. But anyway, she's beginning to feel a lot better (although still not perfect) and I'm beginning to relax. Thanks to our parents who got woken up at 3 am by Graham for their reassurance and medical advice. We've said a few prayers of thanks too... Love Graham and Nicole.
October 4... Delhi, Haryana - Nicole has recovered and Graham has relaxed and we're back on track for happy travelling. We spent the last couple of days in Aurangabad, a small city with a lot to see around it. The town itself was much like the other towns we've seen in India, with loads of colourful people, autorickshaws, terrible traffic, cows and goats roaming free (and obvlivious to the mortal danger they are in when wandering in front of cars), and regular blackouts. We got a really good deal on a fancy hotel (called Classic Hotel) with a driver bundled into the package to take us where we wanted to go for two days. About 100 km north of the city are the Ajanta caves - 30 man-made Buddhist caves carved into a cliff-face between 200 BC and 650 AD, after which they were forgotten about until a British hunting party stumbled upon them in 1819. The caves really looked quite remarkable with detailed carvings of Buddha inside and colourfully painted ceilings. Most of the caves were temples or shrines, while a few were originally monasteries - these were much more plain and had individual cubicles carved out with stone beds and stone pillows (must have been comfortable)! There were hundreds of teenage school children on a school excursion around the place, and at one stage we were mobbed by them. By the way they jostled to have their photo taken as they shook Graham's hand, we wondered if they thought he had something to do with the Australian cricket team. The coming Australia versus India test series dominates the newspapers here - there are 5 or 6 pages dedicated to it every day. We are now experts on the Australian cricket team, each player of whom is analysed in painful detail in the sport sections... Whilst making the trip out to Ajanta we had a good look at rural India. We passed small and large road-side shrines dedicated to Hindu gods. We even stopped at one which had a statue of a goddess with about 20 arms, and the priest who lived by the shrine came out to greet us and let us take his photo. He had long unkempt hair and was dressed in an orange blanket. We also saw plenty of cows grazing and pulling carts. Most of the cows had painted horns - blue, red, orange or even stripes. Our driver told us that farmers paint the horns so they can identify their herds. He also told us a little about himself - he was married with 3 children, had worked as a driver for 24 years and on average earns 1,600 rupees a month - that's about $50. We were the first Australians he had met... On the second day we drove to Daulatabad fort, huge ruins that were fantastic to explore. The fort had been built in the 12th century AD and sat high on a hilltop surrounded by tall walls and a moat. Walking through giant wooden doors, past old cannons, across bridges and up stairways we made it into a dark passageway leading to the lookout. There was a chirping or screeching sound and a distinctive smell, and on turning on our torch we saw hundreds of little bats hanging from the roof. It was fantastic to just watch them flying around and see them up close. Other fort residents included a large group of monkeys and some tiny squirrels. Our last stop was the Ellora caves, which are three clusters of caves carved into a hillside, some Buddhist, some Hindu and some Jain. The most spectacular "cave" was the Kailasa Temple, built in 760 AD. This massive and intricate Hindu temple was created by chiselling away 200,000 tonnes of rock from the cliff face. We walked along the ridge above the temple, and looking down were astonished at its detail and size. While we were looking around, we bumped into some more school kids and of course another photo session ensued. We can't help but notice the way all the young girls like to say "hello" to Graham and as soon as we walk past, start giggling, and how all the young men like to say "Hello Ma'am" to Nicole. Last night we caught a plane to Delhi from Aurangabad. We're now getting quite used to the ridiculous level of security checks at Indian airports - two personal searches and frisks, one lot of x-raying hand luggage, and two lots of opening hand-luggage and checking all the contents carefully! On the plane we read the complimentary newspaper (which is much better than the disgusting complimentary lime-water that is flavoured with sugar AND salt). Reading the local newspaper always reveals something interesting. This one had an eight page "Matrimonials" section, with headings of "Grooms wanted" and "Brides wanted." Here are some sample personal ads: "Alliance invited for beautiful slim fair (22/157) convent educated professionally qualified homely girl belongs to a respectable business family having bungalow and commercial properties in South Delhi. Wanted well educated boy (non-Manglik) having good income from business family preferably of South Delhi" and "Medico/professional bride wanted for handsome Punjabi Brahmin Doctor boy, 27/182, well settled in USA, affluent family of doctors and professionals. Visiting India next month. Caste no bar." We also read an article on the growing number of would-be brides, grooms or parents-in-laws who hire private detectives to check out "potential matches" with regards to things like actual income, fidelity and whether or not he really is a vegetarian! What a funny world this is... Love Graham and Nicole.
October 6... Jodhpur, Rajasthan - We thought traffic was bad elsewhere in India, but Jodhpur wins. This city lying on the edge of the Thar desert is simply overrun with autorickshaws, motorcycles, bikes, crazy pedestrians and of course, the obligatory roaming cows. Here in the far west state of Rajasthan, camels too wander the streets, pulling carts laden with goods. Overlooking the city on a high hill, is Merangarh, an enormous fort dating from the 16th century AD, that until the 1970s, was home to Rajasthan's line of Maharajahs. Making our way up the hill, we passed busy markets and many young people wanting to chat about the cricket. The fort itself is magnificent with towering walls, and beautifully decorated courtyards and rooms. As we explored the rooms we learnt a lot of interesting facts from our audio guide. On one wall there were fifteen sets of handprints; these prints were left by the widows of one Maharajah, before they committed sati. This now illegal custom was once widely practised throughout India - a widow would join her husband's body in the fire during the cremation ceremony and so be burnt alive. A museum at the fort displayed some interesting items from the Maharajah's collection, including box-like seats that were fastened onto elephants' backs to carry royalty (called howdahs), carriages (called palanquins) carried on men's shoulders for ladies of nobility complete with curtains to keep ladies safe from "the lustful eyes of men," and a gruesome collection of weapons. The living quarters and entertaining rooms were amazingly opulent, with gold ceilings, hanging glass baubles, stained-glass windows and patterned walls. At the very top of the fort, from ramparts lined with cannons, we looked out over the "Blue City." Most of Jodhpur's houses are painted bright blue (traditionally the colour of Brahmins, the highest caste) and it makes for a magical sight. Off in the distance we could see a huge white domed palace, which is where the Maharajah and his family now live. We walked back down the hill through narrow streets with blue houses all around us, passing Hindu shrines, shops full of bright sparkling Rajasthani cloth, as well as men urinating in the street (all too common in India). There appears to be no shame in just whipping down one's pants and quickly relieving oneself, no matter how busy the street is (only the men do this of course!)... Today we went for a drive in the countryside, stopping at several villages. One village, called Khejarli, had a very interesting memorial. The villagers here all belong to the Bishnoi caste, who are Hindus that adhere to twenty-nine principles, including: praying to their gods at 5 am every morning; wearing specific clothing and jewellery; eating a "pure vegetarian" diet (no meat or eggs); and protecting trees. The memorial commemorated an event in the 18th century, in which 363 villagers were beheaded because they refused to allow the Maharajah's army to cut down their trees for timber. As Nicole noted, this must have been one of the earliest environmental protests... In the surrounding grassland we saw Indian gazelles, cows, buffalos, camels, Siberian cranes and plenty of stunning peacocks (India's national bird). We were welcomed into the homes of a few village families, and met a 20 year old married woman who had two children. She was busy making chappati (a flat bread), using an open fire. There was no electricity in the simple house, but there was running water. Unlike her brother, she had not attended school as a child; her husband was out working on a farm for 100 rupees a day ($3). She offered us some tea, bread and opium - all part of standard Rajasthani hospitality! We also stopped in a few other villages and saw local craftsmen at work, dyeing materials, weaving rugs and making pottery. Bishnoi women dress very distinctively in bright red tops, skirts and scarves (they usually keep their faces covered), and married women wear dozens of thick bangles and a large gold nose-ring. The men also look striking, in their matching white top, loose pants and turban, and all sport a thick curly moustache... Tomorrow we fly to Jaipur. Love Graham and Nicole.
October 10... Delhi, Haryana - It's a wet and miserable day in Delhi, so its nice to be out of the rain in an internet cafe. We've read that the Coalition won the election, and have been catching tiny snippets of coverage on BBC and CNN. Before arriving in Delhi, we spent two days in Jaipur, the capital of Rajasthan. Like Jodhpur, this city has a large fort on a nearby hill, which we climbed for an excellent view of its urban sprawl. Jaipur is called the 'Pink City' - many of its buildings are painted pink, the colour of hospitality, a practice begun in 1876 to welcome the visiting Prince of Wales. While there was a slight orangy tinge to the place, Jaipur was certainly not as pink as Jodhpur was blue. More interesting than the buildings though, was observing the everyday activities going on in the streets below. We saw women carrying baskets of dung patties on their head (for fuel we presume), young men doing weights in their backyards, and some very enthusiastic rooftop cricket matches. At the fort itself, we were amazed to see over fourty monkeys perched on the old walls. As it got dark, we noticed what we thought were small birds circling in the air - but looking carefully, they were clearly bats, and they were flying increasingly closer to us. Paranoid they might be vampire bats hungry for our blood, we ran down the hill to the safety of the crowded city (well, you never know!) Jaipur struck us as being particularly busy and dirty. Piles of rubbish line the roads - it's virtually impossible to find a rubbish bin. Each rubbish 'dump' has its collection of pigs, cows and goats rummaging around, and the occasional destitute soul looking for something of worth. At night, the footpaths are dotted with homeless people curled up in blankets... The next day, we walked through the old city, passing workshops with craftsmen sculpting statues of Hindu gods, spice stores galore and stalls selling chains of marigolds and roses. We visited the City Palace complex, where the Maharaja once lived, which gave us another good chance to see some beautiful Indian and Persian architecture, as well as some gorgeous baby monkeys... Two nights ago we arrived in Delhi late at night. On the way in, the traffic was terrible, and our taxi driver drove into a pedestrian who jumped in his way unexpectedly (luckily everyone was fine). He stopped to ask every man and his cow for directions as he had no idea where our chosen hotel was (Hotel Relax), but eventually through narrow crowded streets, we arrived - glad to be off the roads. Delhi has two main sections - Old Delhi and New Delhi. We explored Old Delhi yesterday - and boy was it exhausting! The crowded markets and lack of space make it an agrophobic's nightmare. Just about anything was on sale, including lots of street food especially of the deep-fried variety. One street we took had on it a mosque, a Sikh temple, a Hindu temple, a Jain temple and a Baptist church all in the space of a few metres. Finally escaping the crowds of old Delhi (and the wandering hands of dirty old men grabbing Nicole's bottom) we found ourselves overlooking a sea of slum dwellings. We are just so lucky to have a nice place to come home to... Today we went to a service at the 'Free Church,' a large Methodist congregation. Although supposedly in English, Graham gave up trying to understand the thick accent of the Minister after a few sentences; Nicole thinks she caught about one in four of his words. Afterwards, we caught an autorickshaw to Delhi's main Bahai temple, a beautiful work of architecture that looks remarkably similar to the Sydney Opera House. The large building is made of white marble and takes the shape of a lotus flower. The Bahai religion originated from Iran in 1844 and is based on the teachings of Baha'ullah. There are 4 million members worldwide - of these, 1.5 million are in India. After looking around the temple and its nice gardens, we went to the Nehru Memorial Museum. Housed in the former residence of Jawaharlal Nehru, India's first Prime Minister, this gave an account of India's struggle for independence. India gained independence from the British in 1947, but was partitioned into India and Pakistan/Bangladesh. Reading about Mahatma Gandhi's role in the process was especially inspiring because of his vision for a peaceful independence. His vision was never met, however, with hundreds of thousands of Indians dying during the violence that came with partition... Tonight we think we'll obey our hotel's name and relax in front of a cable TV movie, and tomorrow we plan to visit Agra. Love Graham and Nicole
October 11... Agra, Uttar Pradesh - Last night we were up til midnight watching Die Hard with a Vengeance, so getting up at 4:00 am for the express train to Agra wasn't easy. But, here we are. Within a few seconds of stepping off the train, we were surrounded by rickshaw and taxi drivers eager for our business. One man stuck to us like glue until we'd hopped in someone else's rickshaw - we were surprised he didn't follow us down the road too! As we've learnt in the past two weeks, you can't have India without the hassle - constant pestering by rickshaw drivers, salesmen, and various miscellaneous others. It doesn't seem to matter if you don't want the services or goods being offered, which have included such things as used sleeping bags and travel "advice". The word that we keep hearing is "hello" - which in India often means either "move out of the way of my vehicle" or "look at me, I want your business." Fortunately, some of the hello's are from people simply being friendly and wanting a chat, which we've enjoyed very much... Agra is home to the Taj Mahal, India's most famous attraction. This huge mausoleum was built in the seventeenth century by the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan for his wife Mumtaz Mahal, who died giving birth to their fourteenth child. From the setting alone, you know you are in a place of great beauty and attention to detail. The tall decorated gates and walls that surround the Taj Mahal were impressive in their own right, but seeing the Taj Mahal itself was simply breath-taking. On first viewing it, we just stood there awestruck for a few minutes - the real life Taj Mahal defintely exceeded our expectations and imagination. Every part of this enormous marble building is decorated in exquisite detail with Arabic calligraphy and floral patterns made of semi-precious stones. It is the overall design and perfect symmetry though that makes it so immediately special. A beautiful white central dome surrounded by smaller domes and tall minarets makes this seem like something out of the Arabian Nights. Words can't do this magical place justice. The Taj Mahal is defintely one of the most amazing things we've seen all year! Love Graham and Nicole
October 15... Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh...
October 22... Home - the final entryClick here to see our India photos