Saturday, December 11, 2010

A collection of life & lentil anecdotes from the past six months

Camel Safari in the Thar desert
Some months ago... I am thinking early September just as the monsoon was easing and the heat of summer was finally beginning to wane, my family and I along with some Australian relos hopped on a train to Jodhpur to see the sights and enjoy experiencing the desert from a camels perspective.
The overnight train ride to Jodhpur was uneventful... which is certainly a good thing if not slightly unusual.
I had booked a hotel that came highly recommended on tripadvisor called Devi Bahwan... which Hunter made up a jingle for, that will forever be imprinted on our brains.
The hotel itself had great ambiance and one of the best kept Indian hotel pools I have come across, but it had terrible food and the rooms were soso (please excuse the babble as I get down some memories for future reference).
We spent the rest of the day exploring Jodhpur which like all Rajasthani cities had a fairly impressive fort that overlooked a blue city. Apparently the wealthy people decided to paint their houses blue and then it just caught on no mater what your position in society... good thing too... very aesthetically pleasing.
For some reason we decided not to do the 2.5km zip line around the fort... don't know what I was thinking... now I will have to go back.
There is not a huge amount else to see in Jodhpur apart from a clock tower, a fairly impressive palace and a strip of antique stores. I have never seen so many piles of random stuff in all my life... could also be worth visiting again when I am on my own and have time to fossick.

The next day we all crammed into a jeep and headed out into the desert. It was decided that we should leave later in the day as the summer heat had not really waned that much. After a long lunch of weird and wonderful vegetarian foods from the region we headed out to meet our camels... I like camels... Great creation, such amazing eyes and beautiful faces. There were 7 of us on safari but we were far outnumbered by staff and camels... a seriously good outfit... would highly recommend.
So we set off like Lawrence of Arabia into the desert... though this desert was not exactly the Sahara with only sand dunes as far as the eye can see, rather it is a working desert with clay huts housing the local farmers who live surrounded by their crops of primarily millet and a surprisingly large number of watermelons.... they grow in the desert... who knew.
For a while there we had a game of mini watermelon catch... the first camel rider would toss the watermelon over their head and hopefully the camel rider behind would be in the perfect position to catch... we did have some success, but it was not a long lived game.
You know what... it is hot in the desert... and there is very little shade.... and sitting on a camel for hours on end gets a little tedious and dull. Nevertheless it was a great experience and I would recommend, though not necessarily do again.
Late in the afternoon when the sun was about to set we found a high dune on which we made camp for the night. Our fearless leader whose name escapes me now rustled up a great meal of dahl and rice accompanied with millet bread. While we ate our meal some musicians came and played... I did not want to tip them but rather pay them to make them stop. Thankfully neither was required... all part of the experience. On that first night the guys slept under the stars... oh so many stars... while the three girls went for the tent.
The next morning we had an early breakfast so we could make a move before the intense heat of the day. The view was much the same, lots of farms, sand and plenty of wildlife including some very showy peacocks.
We stopped under a tree for a delicious lunch and a siesta. When there was no breeze the heat was stifling even in the shade. As we ate and rested some kids who were walking home from school came to sit by us and stare. I am sure they were very disappointed by our lethargic performance of playing cards or reading.
After lunch we had our final 2-3 hour leg on camelback to our guides home where we would stay and see what desert life was like. The first thing I did when I got there was have a nice cold bucket shower to wash off a dense layer of desert grit. That night we stayed with our guides family and ate with him and his family in his home. The food was fabulous. I especially enjoyed a local buttermilk concoction over rice.
After the delicious dinner we set up our beds in a row under the stars... great night. great experience.

Taj Mahal... take 3
So the upside of having people come and visit is seeing and experiencing new parts of India. The down side is having to visit the Taj Mahal over-and-over again. I spared Ray and the kids this time and booked the train to Agra for the day and then onto Jaipur where we would all meet up. So it was much the same. Saw the fort, saw the taj, saw local craftsmen, had lunch and got back on the train. Exhausting? Yes. Have I learned to love Agra? No. The people are nice though.

Jaipur... take 2
So this time I booked a different hotel called the Umaid Mahal. It is a little out of the way, which is ok if you have your own car, but the building itself and the murals on the walls... lovely.
Once again we visited the Amber fort, however this time we were lucky to make the trip up to the elevated fort via elephant... though not without hoohaa and being totally ripped off. Ahh well, it's all part of the experience.
While we were in Jaipur we happened to see the Commonwealth Games Queens Baton Relay go by. Actually some of us saw it go by... Sam, Ben and Hunter discovered a fireworks shop and went on a bit of a spending spree.
The drive home from Jaipur was hell on earth. We were crowded into a car with no air-conditioning forced to have the windows open in some of the most hideous traffic of all time. What should have been a 3-4 hour trip took closer to 8-9 hours. At one point the road was blocked by some kind of traffic incident. Which soon became an angry mob scene with people charging down the street with metal bars and other weapons. Never a dull moment. Thankfully the police quickly arrived and the crowd dispersed.

Taj Mahal... take 4
So I am a sucker for punishment. Three weeks after visit 3 I hoped on the Taj Express for visit 4. This time I made the error of choosing to go on a Saturday. The crowds were hideous. We did manage to pick up a guide that was a well seasoned queue jumper though. He managed to somehow jump the line from about 200 metres to 20.
So once again we did the usual round... The Agra fort, the various craftsmen and lunch followed by the train home. It really was a nice day.

Amritsar- BIG fan
This time I made the error of suggesting we drive to Amritsar rather than taking the train... note to self... avoid all future driving trips in India. Take the train, much faster and more relaxing way to travel. What I expected to take 5-6 hours took 9-10.
So after many a car game we arrive in Amritsar and find our hotel... Good choice, thanks again tripadvisor. As soon as we had checked in we hired a car and made our way to the Indian/Pakistan border at Wagah for the border closing ceremony. From the carpark we walked a kilometer and joined the 500 metre security queue. The women's line was quite civilized. The mens... not so much. There was some sought of incident which resulted in Bobby (one of our guests) feigning a limp and then receiving special treatment... good move.
We had been given a good tip by a friend to head through to the VIP gate. Another good move. All we needed to show was a passport, however we had left our passports at the hotel. Thankfully an Australian drivers license was good enough as the security was impressed that I even had a drivers license.
On both the Indian and Pakistani sides of the border grandstands have been erected to watch the daily border closing ceremony. The very noticeable difference between the two grandstands is that the Indian side is jam packed and the Pakistani side virtually empty. In the lead up to the ceremony on the Indian side loud music is played and the atmosphere is party like. Jeni, Hunter and I even joined in with some of the locals dancing on the street. Good times.
If you ever visit it India, the Wagah border and Amritsar should be top of your list of things to see and do.
The border ceremony itself, though it didn't make much sense, was thoroughly entertaining. It seems that unusually tall and handsome Indian men are recruited to the army especially for this highly entertaining ceremony. I have never seen anyone lift their leg so high that their shin touches their face and then stamp their foot on the ground so hard... repeatedly too. The ceremony also involves much opening and slamming of the two sets of border gates several times before the lowering of the flags. Great performance. Wouldn't mind seeing it from the Pakistani side.
After the ceremony we headed back to Amritsar for dinner and asked for a restaurant recommendation from our hotel. They gave us a name, address and a driver and off we went. When we got to the address there was two restaurants side-by side with the same name both with signs saying they were the famous 'crystal' restaurant as mentioned in the Lonely Planet. The doormen for each hotel made such a ruckus trying to persuade us into their restaurant. In the end I am pretty sure we picked the right one. Fab food, great service and great company.
We got back to our hotel around 10pm and decided to go and have a wander around the Golden Temple which was conveniently situated right across the street. Great decision. We checked our shoes in at the 'shoe counter' donned a head-covering before wading through the foot cleansing pool. The temple complex is really quite spectacular and is certainly worth a late night visit. All though not crowded their were still hundreds of people about including many people sleeping the night on the hard marble by the pool surrounding the Golden Temple. As we approached the Golden Temple we could hear singing and once inside we could see the daily cleaning ritual in progress. Every single centimetre of that temple was being dusted and polished. They must go through gallons of Brasso. In the main temple room their is an enormous chandelier. Which is taken apart every night an each of the several thousand crystals is polished. The thing that most impressed us about the Golden Temple and the Sikhs was how welcoming they were. They were always happy to explain what was happening and encouraging us to see every room and every part of the temple, even when it felt like we were being disrespectful of those praying or reading from their holy book. We were told that after midnight once every surface had been polished that they would then wash the whole place down with cows milk. This would explain the unusual (though not bad) smell of the place and the strange slightly soft feeling the marble has under foot.
If ever you visit Amritsar, make sure you visit the temple late at night.
The next morning we decided to get up early to see the temple at sunrise. Not all that special due to the thick morning haze. Hunter was less than impressed when we got stranded on the walkway to the temple during a prayer time not knowing how long we would end up stuck there. Unfortunately I have not managed to cultivate in Hunter a love of sightseeing. I think if I take her to one more fort or monument she will poke her eyes out in protest. I have however managed to cultivate in her a great love of shopping... oops.
Next on the agenda was the Golden Temple Dinning Hall. Somehow we timed our arrival perfectly. Within minutes of us finding the entrance the doors swung open for the day and the mad scramble for plates, spoons and a place to sit began. The huge dining hall has several long mats running the length of the room. You sit on the edge of the mat and a servers will come by and serve water, rice, dahl and chapati (which must be received with 2 hands). Ray and the kids decided to skip the food. Hunter was still unimpressed by the whole expedience and Sam acted as photographer. After eating you then take your plates to a collection area where they are then scrapped and dumped into massive tubs. When these are full the plates are tipped into a long washing up trough. After eating it is then polite to serve by doing some washing up. This is not your usual washing dishes scenario. It takes a huge production line to wash the thousands of dirty dishes that pile up throughout the day. Ray who is quite fastidious when it comes to the cleanliness of cups and dishes was well impressed with the process. Each plate, bowl and spoon is washed by hand 5 times. Three times in soapy water and twice in clean water. So after surveying the scene for a few minutes we rolled up our sleeves and dove in. To be honest I did not do much of the washing but took on the job of moving the clean plates from one trough and dumped them in the sink of the next trough for further washing. Finally Hunter came alive. This she enjoyed... actually we all had a great time, who knew you could have so much fun washing dishes. We must have washed dishes for over 2 hours. When we took breaks we were served hot chai and bread and even with the language barrier people took the time to come over, say hi and make us feel welcome.
Sam took some amazing photos while we were there. The most amazing ones showing the size of the cooking pots the food was cooked in. No exaggeration you could fit a dismembered elephant into one of those pots.
So that's Amritsar. I hate to heighten peoples expectations of a place, but our guests put it ahead of the Taj Mahal as the premier must see attraction of India


Calum said...

Wagah and the Amritsar Temple dining hall - two of my most favourite Indian experiences! Love to read about your adventure there, and yes Amritsar might just be the most magical place in India!

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