For newcomers – links to the blog posts in order of publication

The default setting for blogs is for the most recent post to appear first.  In the case of IndianInterlude II it makes more sense to read from the beginning to the end, so these links are in publication order, and will take you to each post.  From each post you can go to the previous or subsequent post by clicking the link below the post.

You can contact IndianInterlude using the form below the links.

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Chasing paper getting nowhere

Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday – Rishikesh. Tuesday is spent mostly at Laxman Jhula, and mostly near the post office as our final parcels are packed and posted. Wednesday morning has Kerry enjoying a massage at the hotel, whilst Ian revisits the ashram of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, and reduces his karma in the Ganges.

Gaining entrance at the ashram brings a fresh challenge. The front gate is locked, yet there is no gatekeeper. Signs declare the area restricted and promise a 5,000 rupee fine to transgressors. I meet a Russian couple who have been delivered by taxi to the front gate, and we discuss options. The obvious involve barbed wire.

I recall on the previous visit being told of another way in, with no gate, so I set off to find that. Along the way I stop to ask a man where the gatekeeper is, or when he will arrive. I am told simply “no”, and have the restricted entry sign pointed out. I do my best to say that the yoga festival people will visit, and ask when this is; “this afternoon, 11:30, 12:30, 5:30.” I wonder that the yoga week organisers have come to a cosy arrangement with the Forest Department to restrict access for the week.

A walk along the beach of the river, a steep climb up the hillside, sometimes aided by steps, and I find another restricted entry sign, and more barbed wire, however, this I can get around and under. In.

Reader, the last two years have been good for forest growth if the ashram is any indicator. It is much more overgrown than before. Plenty of opportunity to explore and enjoy the views. There are no signs of current human habitation although elephants still seem to be regulars.

Kerry sticks to the hotel for the afternoon, whilst Ian goes over the bridge to Swargashram to complete online check-in for the flights home, and to witness the evening Ganga Aarthi. During this whole time, three separate thunderstorms dump plenty of rain. I spend one in a ‘restaurant’ eating dinner, the second spoils the fire ceremony at the beginning of the aarthi through which I stand under an obliging shopkeeper’s verandah, and the third comes towards the end of the aarthi and I find shelter with plenty of others beneath two small shrines.

Thursday morning is a short and final cash splash as visitors cannot take currency into or out of India.

The marathon trip home commences with a car journey at 1:30pm on Thursday to the airport at Dehradun for our flight to Delhi. A few hours waiting time has us off to Singapore, and then to Adelaide, scheduled touchdown sometime after 6:00pm on Friday evening. And so ends Indian Interlude II.

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Been away so long

Monday, Rishikesh. Kerry has a minor case of the ‘Rishikesh rumbles’ so Ian is left to re-acquaint himself with the area. There are essentially three parts to Rishikesh: the town which is someway downstream, and not too appealing; Ram Jhula, at the first suspension bridge across the Ganges, and nearest to our hotel; and Laxman Jhula, the second suspension bridge, further upstream. The latter is Ian’s destination. It is quite sizeable, all things considered, and built into the steep sides of the river. If one was planning to stay put for three months, I could think of worse places.

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Had their moments

Saturday, Delhi. Another early start for another guided walk. This time we’re exploring one of Delhi’s ancient cities, Tughlaqabad, built in the early 1300s. It is a fabulous set of ruins in a fabulous setting. We have a great guide, who is both interested (so much so he started the company) and interesting. Even more remarkably, he has visited Australia, including Adelaide. It’s a terrific walk.

After the debacle of the previous afternoon, we change our schedule to some upmarket window shopping. The last of these destinations is just inside an Indian Air Force compound (no, we don’t understand it either). This seems to be a destination of choice for Delhi’s “ladies who lunch”.

Our final objective for the day is to find a pack and send business for the final parcel home. We fail spectacularly. Plan B is to buy a cheap bag, and take our goods as checked luggage on the plane.

At Delhi airport on Sunday morning we have an astonishing 24 kilograms of excess baggage. The cashier for this purpose has a sense of humour. As I approach the counter he asks how I am, I say I am overweight. He replies that he can make me lighter, I say I am sure he can. He does, to the tune of 6,000 rupees.

We are headed for Rishikesh, for what we hope will be a relaxed and relaxing end to the trip. Not by design, we are arriving at the beginning of International Yoga Week, and Rishikesh will play host to plenty of foreigners. Two years ago on our previous visit here, we took a propellor driven aeroplane under the Kingfisher banner, to an airport which was almost deserted upon our arrival. Kingfisher is no longer an airline, and our 737-800 is packed to the gunwales, not least with oversized cabin baggage. Maybe we could have saved 6,000 rupees after all.

Regrettably adding audio to these blog posts is, for now at least, beyond Indian Interlude. Please re-read the post with the sound of monks chanting, temple bells and horns playing in your head. It has been the soundtrack to its composition courtesy of the small temple next to our hotel. Truly beautiful.

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You get a tan

Friday, Delhi. We start the day with a guided walk through some of old Delhi. We visit a mosque and a church, walk though the spice market, see a garden, and generally marvel at the host of laneways and alleyways. In the space of fifty metres we see five small temples. Our guide is a terrific young woman, and she joins us for coffee at the end of the walk. We tackle Red Fort on our own, and come away feeling that we have seen better elsewhere.

During our visit to Red Fort it starts to rain, and whilst we shelter under a tree for a while, we know the day and our packed program is getting away from us. We fail to raise our driver on the phone and opt for an auto rickshaw back to the hotel, and phone our Indian contact on the way to explain what we have done.

The rain grows steadily worse, and the roads are in flash flood. The rickshaw offers protection from neither direction. The driver does not know the street our hotel is on, let alone our hotel. Matters don’t seem to improve despite him pulling over to ask for directions on several occasions. I ring the hotel and hand him the phone. Even this fails as he misinterprets the number of the bridge pylon given as a landmark for our street, as the hotel address. The rain does not ease.

After more than an hour we make it back to the hotel. The rickshaw driver demands double my proffered fare. In the lobby is our driver and a manager from his company. The manager asks how I am, I show him a trouser leg saturated from waist band to hem, and say “cold and wet”. He promises not to keep me, we cancel the rest of the day and head upstairs. The hot water (a variable quantity in Indian hotels) is not switched on – and we don’t know we have to ask. We laugh, but this hasn’t been our best day.

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Choking smokers

Jaipur, Wednesday night. A trip to the Raj Mandir – the best cinema house in Jaipur, and possibly all of India. It might not look much from the outside, but the inside is an art deco masterpiece. The auditorium is huge, like a theatre.

Tickets are sold outside the building, and there are separate queues for men and women. Kerry and Ian get in their respective queues, however security get Ian out of the queue soon enough, explaining that Kerry can buy tickets for both, and that the women’s queue is shorter.

Security is maintained in the queue, which by the way is created using fixed barriers. Males standing near, but not in the queue are moved along, with a forceful shove in the back if needs be. Ditto for any man trying to have a chat to any of the women in the queue.

There are different price categories, Ruby, Emerald, Diamond and a Diamond Premium, which is what we opt for. Although the audience is small, they don’t let Indian Interlude down, by whooping, hollering and cheering in all the right places. Of course Indian Interlude is at the disadvantage of no subtitles, but is confident it has the gist.

We leave at intermission in preparation for tomorrow’s early start. We stand on the road outside the cinema watching the fireworks display associated with a wedding which is taking place maybe 200 metres up the road.

We draw a small crowd, of course, one of whom engages us in the usual conversation. Where are we from, how long in India, where are we going, I love Australians, etc. He then says he would like to gift us two Rajasthani puppets which he produces from his bag. We display appropriate gratitude and he asks if perhaps we have a gift for him? Maybe some Australian currency he can show his family? Reader, the name of this blog is now officially Indian Gullible.

We have a 5:30am alarm call to accommodate our Thursday schedule. By the time we check out and overload the car we are 15 minutes late. First stop, Amber Fort. Indian Interlude takes an elephant ride to the top of the hill, and despite being on the back of a moving elephant, hawkers are still keen to sell their wares. Indian Interlude has been sufficiently off the tourist beat lately that we had forgotten how bad the hawkers can be.

We dismount the elephant and embark on a quick-ish tour of the fort. Impressive and imposing from the outside, it is beautiful and gorgeous in parts on the inside. The design of the connection between rooms, palaces and courtyards is extraorinary, as is the rainwater harvesting, use and re-use system.

Our next stop is New Delhi, via Abhaneri to visit the step-well there. This is some two hours drive away. None of the road signs are using Roman letters, so we have no idea where we are, but after an hour we deduce the driver has forgotten about Abhaneri and is intent on getting home to Delhi as quickly as possible.

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A knock comes on the door

Wednesday, still in Jaipur. Despite the cleanliness and the wide streets, we are still in India, and Jaipur still has cycle rickshaws. We have seen camel carts, and working elephants, and horses and donkeys and monkeys. Indian Interlude wouldn’t want readers to have the wrong impression.

We start the day with another walk in the old city, in an area known as Modikhana, named for the trader communities. We see tinkers making kitchen utensils, an area which used to house film distributors but which is now a pharmaceutical wholesale market, the early morning street food, and an almost unique Krishna temple. We take tea with an antique dealer, whose family was invited to the city, and indeed India, generations ago as weapon makers. We see more of the bazaar and its sense of order.

We spend the afternoon touring two of Jaipur’s forts. We start with Nahargarh, the main feature of which is Madhavendra Palace. This is a complete connected maze of rooms, terraces and courtyards, with each of 12 queens having an identical suite.

Then to Jaigargh which is very impressive indeed, and much more a military fort. This fort also produced weapons, with its own iron smelter and cannon foundry. There is a collection of cannons on display, each has a name, and each is accompanied by a description of its war service. This reads like a footballer’s career summary – which battles the cannon fought, against whom, and the outcome are each listed.

We follow with a mid-afternoon lunch at somewhere quite ordinary. A late shopping stop and we call an end to the day. An early-ish start awaits tomorrow, with more Jaipur, and then a road journey to New Delhi.

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If it makes you feel alright

Monday, Jaipur. We arrive roughly on time a little before 5:00am at Jaipur Junction. The station and its immediate precinct is incredibly busy. Thankfully our hotel is quite close to the station so the car journey is brief. After the registration formalities we both opt for sleep, with a plan to make breakfast before the kitchen closes. Regular readers will anticipate that Kerry stays in, whilst Ian goes out. Apart from being surrounded by around a dozen young men, all of whom request a photo shaking my hand, the other curiosity is a large open-air lawyers’ market. We have no better explanation, we are near the district court and it looks like this is where lawyers meet their clients.

Jaipur was established fewer than 300 years ago, as India’s first planned city. Of nine rectangles in the old city, three were reserved for Royal purposes, the other six were each allocated to specific trades. On what we have seen it is less litter prone, and has wider streets than other Indian cities. We take a late afternoon walk, exploring the bazaar and cuisine therein. The market is quite something, and has its own sense of order. We think our guide has a sweet tooth, because most of the cuisine we try belongs at the end of a meal. One dish in particular, made with condensed milk, is unbelievably good.

Lack of planning sees us take dinner in the hotel. The food is average, and well over-priced. There is also entertainment in the form of music from harmonium and mrindigram, and a dancer. This dancer also seeks the cooperation of individual western women to mirror the dance moves and those who have a go are good sports indeed.

Tuesday we head to Sanganeer, previously a separate town, these days simply a suburb of Jaipur. We go to see some handmade paper production (the area is well known for this), although we have already witnessed the process in Pondy.

We’re then anticipating some hand made block printing of fabric, but instead are led to a handicrafts emporium which hosts tourists from the Palace on Wheels train. We may have said this previously, we have seen too many of these shops, and no desire to see another. We exit as quickly as possible, and I think our guide is shocked when I provide a blunt assessment of the experience.

During the afternoon we visit a good bookshop, an average Italian restaurant, a very good clothing store, a very average government-run handicrafts shop, and a very nice indeed jewellery shop. Dinner at a restaurant on the suggestion of our auto-rickshaw driver – close to excellent.

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Me hiding me head

Indian Interlude spends most of Friday driving from Jodhpur to Jaisalmer. We don’t want to labour the point regarding the disrepair of the Indian National Highway network, suffice to say the hour or so from Jodhpur is appalling. Even when the road surface improves, the endless hazards of slow moving vehicles of two, three and multiple wheels; the wandering live stock, the “controlled” livestock; and no shortage of breathtaking driving from both behind and the other side of the road, makes the journey a challenge. We lunch at a kind of Indian roadhouse, except it does not sell petrol.

Jaisalmer, the Golden City. Our mid-afternoon arrival is at a very welcoming hotel. The manager insists on filling in the registration paperwork over a “welcome drink” on the rooftop terrace, and he also has a sense of humour. He takes my passport and says he is going to Pakistan tonight, he will return my passport to me tomorrow. Ian goes exploring, Kerry does postcard duty in the hotel.

On Saturday, a long-ish day with a guide, mostly. We start at Gadi Sagar Lake, where the catfish swarm, and which served as the town’s water supply for many years. It is not compelling, however we see more of it when we return on our own on Sunday. Then to the fort. Originating in the 1100s – we forget to ask to see the foundation stone – the fort is inhabited by a few thousand reseidents, including our guide who is from the Brahmin (high) caste. Impressive in its own way, it has some 99 bastions. It requires restoration, and our guide persuades us that the palace in the fort is not worth the entry fee.

The fort has seven Jain temples, and no Jains live inside the fort. We visit two of the temples which are next to each other. These date to the early 1500s. For all intents and purposes the design is the same as the temple we visited at Ranakpur, although these are much smaller and more intimate. Despite the notices saying “do not give money to the holy men” there are “holy men” seeking tips.

Kerry is keen to purchase some quality jewellery on this trip, and we have a hot tip about a store in Jaisalmer. Our guide knows the store and regards the jeweller as a real artist. Regrettably we have arrived during a mourning period for a deceased relative, and the “artist” is away, and the store closed.

We do make an investment at a cooperative fabrics and textiles business, which our guide assures us really does provide 70% of the sale back to the women artisans responsible for the work. Our guide is also honest enough to say he has been paid by said cooperative to promote the store.

We admire two of the best havelis (houses) in Jaisalmer. One was built for a former Prime Minister of the Princely State of Jaisalmer. It was constructed in two halves, down the middle, by two brothers. The result includes different ceiling decorations in any room, and different carved lattice work on the front of the building, either side of the door. It is still in family hands, one of whom shows visitors around, and they have a range of goods for sale to support the upkeep of the house.

Here Ian buys a brass ornament of the Mewar royal family sun symbol. The negotiations were swift.
II: What is your best price for this?
Vendor: 1200 rupees.
II: I will give you 600.
V: I cannot sell this for 600. 800.
II: 700
V: 750.
II: Done. (and no doubt I was).

We return to the hotel to gather goods for another parcel home! Lunch at a very good rooftop restaurant, where, in honour of their 25th anniversary we are offered a free drink, and have dessert on the house too.

On to the pack and send business who deal with FedEx only. Reader, this becomes a most expensive parcel of books, brass, and fabric. They also take cash only, necessitating something of a goose chase for an operative ATM.

In the late afternoon we venture to a deserted village called Kuldhara. The short version of the story is to say the entire village decamped one night, and no one knows to where. It is regarded by many as haunted, including our guide who would not stay the night for $1,000; and the long-term and old watchman, who won’t stay at night either.

We drive further into the desert to play tourist and have a camel ride, watch sunset from the sand dunes, and enjoy a “traditional Rajasthani dinner”. One half of II thinks the camel ride is great fun. Ian observes to Kerry that her camel is defecating as we make our way uphill. Kerry says this is not the camel. Kerry opts out of the ride early, we watch the sun sink on two feet, Ian returns to the saddle for the return trip, whilst Kerry walks with our cameleer.

The dinner features music, singing, and dancing, held outdoors with the guests seated in a circle which extends from either side of a small stage. One of the dancers looks barely old enough to work on licensed premises, and is still learning how to dance. We are the only foreigners in attendance, save a Frenchwoman who is keeping company with an Indian man. The crowd are quite appreciative of the song choices, although we don’t understand a word. During the performance there is a power failure (common enough in India) however this one is engineered so guests can wonder at a star-filled sky.

The dancers also invite the women in the audience to join in for one dance. Reader, one of the foreign women declines the opportunity.

We are first in line at dinner, largely by our guide’s urging, who has stayed at the far edge of the camp. Dinner is good, notwithstanding our over indulgence on the peanuts and pakoras served during the performance. We eat a few dishes we’ve never heard of, and don’t remember what they were.

Sunday is ours until late afternoon, when we are due at the train station for the overnight trip to Jaipur. We revisit the lake from yesterday, taking the fastest auto rickshaw in Jaisalmer, which also has the loudest sound system. We attempt to visit a garden but the gates are locked, and the ticket office closed. The driver finds a spot where the wall no longer exists, but doesn’t seem keen to let us walk up the hill to the main attraction. We waste time in the fort and the market area, have tea and cake, waste more time, take lunch at another rooftop restaurant, witness a noisy and traditional Indian welcome, we presume for siblings of the hosts, and return to our hotel for our car to the train station. To spare us the walk over the platform bridge, our driver crosses the railway lines just beyond the station, where there is no crossing, parks under a shady tree, and helps us to the platform.

There is more confusion than usual at the station. The seating charts are not yet posted on the outside of the carriage, so no one is sure where they are sitting. An Indian Railways employee carrying the chart print-out is pounced upon and advises we are in cabin “C”. All well and good, but the cabin markings are painted over. Indian Interlude scores the coupe, that is, a cabin for two; at least once our local contact removes the other passenger who had already decided the cabin was his. Leaving Jaisalmer at 5:15, we’re scheduled in Jaipur at 4:50am.

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All the little things

Feeling unwell keeps Kerry at our homestay for the day, whilst Ian heads out to tour Jodhpur with a guide and our driver.

First stop, the Jaswant Thada, a memorial to a late 1800s maharaja, the first whose queen(s) weren’t obliged to join the funeral pyre. The area is the site of royal cremations today, with many small memorials (a Mughal / Musilm notion) marking the spot. It is a very quit and peaceful place, and includes portraits of the Rajput rulers going back to the 13th century, and a presumably more recent practise of writing one’s wishes on a handkerchief and tying them in front of

Then on to Mehrangar Fort which is absolutely spectacular. The battlements start at six metres high, and go to 36. Built using local rock, the fort sometimes seems to merge with its natural foundations. Cannonball dents, spiked gates to deter enemy elephants, and handprints from maharanis on the way to their husband’s funeral pyre, the fort has everything.

Including a royal museum, with some excellent paintings, a collection of princely cradles, panalaquins, weaponry, textiles, and tents. The royals didn’t seem to rough it when on the move, either hunting or on military campaigns.

It is past 2:00pm by this time, we skip lunch and head for Sardar Market, where we climb to the first floor of the clock tower, rousing from slumber the ticket attendant – the armed guard slept peacefully on – and then a wander through some streets of the old city. We finish with a very tasty samosa from a corner stall.

Tomorrow, on the road. Again.

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