Ring of Fire: Castle Bera, Udaipur, Fort Barli, Bundi

Castle Bera:  Next stop on our Rajasthan road trip was Castle Bera.  Alison had suggested that en route we pay a visit to Sardar Samand – a palace/hunting lodge owned by the Maharaja of Jodhpur, but which is used as a luxury hotel when the royal family are not in residence.  Prince Charles and Camilla have stayed at the Palace, as has Madonna.  I was really keen to see what all the fuss was about even though the trip required a bit of a detour.  After bouncing along some pretty horrendous roads and encountering flood waters, we finally arrived at the gates only to be unceremoniously told there was no way we would be getting in because the royal family had decided to have an extended holiday at the palace.  Raju was not impressed and attempted to pull some strings, but we convinced him that we weren’t that keen on gatecrashing a royal holiday anyway.

The rest of the trip was pretty quiet – the roads to Castle Bera were some of the worst we have encountered and it was an intense time for poor old Raju.  We arrived at the Castle about lunchtime, and Raju immediately sloped off for a cup of tea and a lie down.  Aesthetically, I think you’d describe the Castle as shabby chic – probably in need of a lick of paint and some TLC, but certainly not so much that it detracts from what is a wonderful spot with loads of atmosphere.  The Castle is decorated with portraits of various members of the Singh family who built, and continue to live in the Castle and memorabilia from the distinguished polo career of Umaid Singh (our host, Minku’s, grandfather).  Minku joined us in the evening for drinks and all of the guests had dinner together in a big dining room.  Overall, it was very homely and a very different experience to our accommodation so far.

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The main attraction at the Castle is the leopard watching safaris that it offers.  There is a family of leopards (Mum, Dad and 2 cubs) that live in the mountains close to the village.  We had an incredible experience during our first safari in the evening.  After what felt like quite a long time of waiting and staring at the same spot, our local guide spotted the male leopard wandering down a rock face.  We managed to track him for the next couple of hours as he roamed about and then finally saw him sprint right across the road in front of us, scramble up a bank and head for home.  Apparently our experience was very unusual and a lot of people don’t manage to see the leopards, or only get a fleeting glance.  We weren’t so lucky during our morning safari.  We didn’t manage to see the leopards again, but we did spot a few birds and a crocodile at the nearby lake, which made the 4 am wake-up call worth it (Campbell may beg to differ).

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Udaipur:  We were pretty knackered by the time we got back from the safari and started out on the journey to Udaipur.  Raju wanted to make one stop on the way, so that we could visit the Ranakpur Temple.  The Temple is one of 4 in the same complex, which is one of the main Jain pilgrimage sites in India.  The Temple is undeniably lovely, but our hearts just really weren’t in it.  Campbell, in particular, was suffering from a few sleepless nights and was getting very close to losing his shit completely.  With that as the backdrop, we took a very quick spin around, got scammed by the “High Priest” (whose behaviour was far from holy) and then opted to return to the car.  We had another quick “family” photo shoot in the car park and we were back on the road.

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We both passed out in the car for the rest of the journey and woke just as we were reaching Udaipur (The City of Lakes).  Udaipur is set amongst a hill range and a series of 4 interconnected lakes and, in my opinion, has a lot more visual appeal than the other places we have visited so far.  We stayed in the Old City, which is a jumble of hotels, restaurants and shops that stretch back from the edge of Lake Pichola.  There are also a couple of luxury hotels set in the middle of the lake itself, which are pretty special.  Campbell was content to spend the afternoon watching the Black Caps in action (withdrawals were setting in after 5 months without being able to watch live cricket), so I took a wander around our neighbourhood and the local market.  Udaipur is known for art, particularly miniature paintings and handmade paper and journals, and was my favourite shopping destination, and city so far.

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There’s a bit more variety to the tourist attractions in Udaipur, so we took a break from temples and forts and set out on our second day for a boat trip around Lake Pichola.  It was a very cruisy little trip, which let us see all the different buildings that fringe the Lake and dropped us off at the palace of Jag Mandir (now a hotel) in the middle of the Lake.  We wandered through the grounds of the City Palace after the trip, but chose to spend the rest of our free time taking in the atmosphere of the market and the streets, rather than touring the Palace itself.  The streets of Udaipur were a lot quieter than other places and the absence of large numbers of cows was particularly noticeable.  This was a really nice change – there have been so many times already when I’ve turned around to look at something in a shop, or get something from my bag and look up again to find myself staring straight into the abyss of a cow’s arse, or just about to be shit whipped by a poo encrusted tail.

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When we were in Jodhpur I stumbled across a very old copy of The Listener magazine, which had an article about an amazing barbershop in Udaipur.  I have been fascinated by the barbers ever since we got here – they are typically tiny ‘hole in the wall’ operations (or sometimes just a mirror stuck to the side of a house or a wall in the street, and a chair), but seem to be a hotbed of activity and socialising.  They are always busy.  Since Campbell needed a haircut, I suggested we track this particular barber down and give it a whirl.  Campbell just loves it when I come up with these things, which require nothing from me, some mild discomfort, or awkwardness for him, but which I convince him will be a fun/authentic travel experience.  Luckily for both of us, The Listener did not let us down and Campbell’s haircut was the highlight of our day and one of the most memorable parts of our trip so far.

The barbershop was certainly nothing special to look at, but we knew we were at the right place when we saw that the walls were plastered with copies of The Listener.  The owner, Hemant, was absolutely thrilled when we said we were from New Zealand and, after a short wait, Campbell was in the chair and ready to go.  I haven’t witnessed many male haircuts, but the level of care and attention to detail that went into this particular haircut was breathtaking.  Campbell’s hair was cut, recut, clippered, styled and reclippered.  He then got an incredibly full-on head, ear, eye socket and neck massage and, just when we thought he’d had the works, Hemant pulled out a handheld massage device shaped like a dolphin and proceeded to massage Campbell’s back, arms and thighs (the discomfort level was through the roof at this point).  In the meantime I drank chai with Hemant’s crazy (actually out of his mind crazy) relative and was encouraged to read the article from The Listener over and over again.  Hemant had helpfully highlighted the most favourable excerpts, so there was no confusion as to how good the author’s review was.

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We made it out of the shop after an hour and the obligatory photo shoot, having turned down offers of manicures, facials, massage and henna.  I’m not sure Campbell will ever be the same again.

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On our last evening in Udapuir we went along to see a cultural show of Rasjasthani singing, dancing and other arts.  It was absolutely pouring with rain and we had to sit barefoot in a tented area that smelt like toe-jam, but the show itself was incredible.  There was a puppeteer, women dancing with fire pots on their heads, wom4n doing elaborate dances with bells strapped to their limbs etc etc.  Our favourite act was the older lady who ended up dancing around and walking over broken glass with 11 water pots stacked on her head.  She started out with just one pot and just kept adding more and more to the point where I almost couldn’t watch.  She had a neck like a Hulk Hogan and it was no wonder!

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Fort Barli:  We arrived at Fort Barli, a beautiful heritage hotel, on Tuesday afternoon.  On the way, we stopped at Chittorgarh Fort, one of the oldest forts in India and a World Heritage Site.  The Fort complex includes a palace, a temple and some other monuments.  It was absolutely pouring with rain, but armed with brollies and with Raju following behind in the car, we set off.  Chittorgarh is a little more off the beaten track and Raju explained that a lot of tourists do not make the trip.  Fair to say, our celebrity status reached new and dizzying heights.  Everywhere we went we had a trail of curious locals following behind us, before someone would pluck up the courage to ask for a photo.  Once we’d agreed to one photo, the floodgates would open and we’d soon have all manner of cameras and phones shoved into our face for photos.  Just when we thought we’d seen it all, somebody started passing their baby through the crowd, and this happened!

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We were the only guests at Fort Barli for the two days we were there and got treated to a suite of rooms, and the team of staff who literally clambered over one other to make sure that we had everything we wanted and needed. We didn’t have any big plans for our stay, which is just as well since I was struck down with the dreaded Delhi Belly on our first night. While I took in the scenery from the bathroom, Campbell explored the Fort climbing up ladders and over the roof terrorising the monkeys and the parrots. He also spent a fair amount of time trying to convince our host that she hadn’t poisoned me with her food and that we wouldn’t be posting a scathing Tripadvisor review the minute we drove out the gates. While being sick always sucks (or, in this case, blows), the timing was pretty perfect since I had a day to recover in bed, rather than having to strap on an adult diaper for the 4 hour car ride to our next destination. There’s also nothing like a bout of bum wees to start making amends for a month of eating souvlaki.

Bundi:  We left Fort Barli yesterday and set off for Bundi, a small and picturesque city.  The weather here has been incredibly wet and Raju once again had to do battle with the roads and a lot of flooding. At some points on the trip there were puddles so big on the roadside that buffalo were swimming in them – like properly, up to their chin practising their freestyle, swimming. The water does make things a whole lot ickier in general as well and, it would be fair to say, that of all the quirks and curveballs India can throw at you, it’s the rubbish and the filth in the streets that I find the most challenging. We went for a wander before tea last night and the streets were literally running with water, excrement and rubbish, which gets into your nostrils, runs into your sandals, splashes up the bottom of your pants and generally makes you feel disgusting. After a bit of a diva, “I want to go home”, moment, we sought solace at Tom and Jerry’s – a psychedelic, rock’n’role themed rooftop restaurant. For whatever reason there is a trend in Bundi for naming restaurants after cartoon characters, and we could have opted instead to visit the Ben 10 Restaurant, or the Pink Panther Cafe.

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We absolutely made the right choice with Tom and Jerry’s. We’d been seated for about ten minutes when Jerry (one of the owners) put Hotel California on the stereo. We drunk our way through the entire CD and ordered dinner in time for The Doors Greatest Hits to come on.  It was a nice little escape from the street and a change of scenery from our own hotel.   We splashed out on a tuk-tuk ride home, so that we didn’t ruin the mood by having to wade through more poo.  Sanity was restored.

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Our Rajasthan adventure is now winding to an end.  We are looking forward to rounding out the trip with the Taj Mahal and Delhi.  At this stage our plan to Varanasi is up in the air – there is extreme flooding and bodies building up on the Ganges.  Watch this space.

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Mr Sandman: Bikaner, Jaisalmer, Jodhpur

Bikaner:  We left Jaipur on Sunday headed for the Thar Desert and the small city of Bikaner.  It was another long day in the car, so to break up the trip Raju suggested that we stop at the famous Karni Mata Hindu temple.  Raju explained to us that it is very good luck if you see the elusive white mouse that inhabits the temple.  What he didn’t explain was that it is so hard to see the white mouse, because it shares the temple with thousands of rats (he pissed himself laughing when we mentioned this oversight to him after our visit).  The rats are considered holy by the Hindu people so, as much as I wanted to, legging it straight back to the car once we realised it was a rat temple wasn’t really an option.  On special occasions, people will queue for up to 9 hours (having already walked hundreds of kilometres) to visit the temple and give an offering to the rats.

As it turns out, it was well worth the visit.  All of the locals in the temple were incredibly nice and wanted to have a chat about where we were from and what we were doing at the temple.  We even had a few people ask to have their pictures taken with us, which was a very pleasant change from constantly being behind the lens.  We were chatting  about how funny this was on our way out, when the man on the front gate explained it for us  – “to the people in there you are white mice”.  I guess we hadn’t really thought about it like that.  The best bit of the whole trip was that we actually got to see the white mouse, which Raju tells us is pretty special since most of his guests spend a long time tripping over rats without any luck.

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We arrived in Bikaner in the late afternoon and, after settling in, Raju arranged for a friend of his to take us for a rickshaw ride around the old city.  The old city is home to a number of Havelis – red sandstone houses with intricately detailed exteriors and luxurious inner courtyards.  We stopped to see a few of those, and then took a wander through the vegetable, spice and bracelet markets.  The spice market was so intense, with people roasting, bagging and displaying all sorts of exotic bits and pieces.  The only way to replicate the smell would be to take two cinnamon sticks, roll them in some chilli, nutmeg, cardamon and then shove one up each nostril.  We finished up the tour with a quick drive through the steel market, which is where they make those lovely little dishes that your butter chicken gets served in at home.

We found Bikaner to be a welcome change of pace after the mayhem of Jaipur.  The people were very warm and welcoming and more interested in having a chat (always about cricket, which Campbell loves), trying out their English and asking about New Zealand than trying to herd us into shops.  We really love this aspect of India and it was great to be somewhere we could let the guard down a little bit.

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Jaisalmer:  The following day we continued our journey into the desert, this time headed for Jaisalmer (The Golden City).  The traffic was a bit slow going in places, because it was India Independence Day and people were out and about celebrating and dancing in the streets.  We convinced Raju that he should play some of his Indian music to get in the spirit.  He was reluctant at first, but there was no holding him back once he put in one of his CDs – he was singing along and doing all of the Bollywood moves while still managing to swerve around cows, the occasional dead dog and massive pot holes.  Driving here must be incredibly stressful, but Raju is an absolute trooper and takes it all in his stride.

Jaisalmer is a beautiful city, which lies just under 300km from the Pakistan border.  It is referred to as The Golden City, because the majority of the buildings here, including the incredible Jaisalmer Fort, are made of a distinctive yellow sandstone.  It is very small and very peaceful and, our preference for small places being well-established, we immediately loved it.  After a quick spin around the market, Raju picked us up for a sunset trip to the Royal Cenotaph (Bada Bagh).  The Cenotaph is a collection of beautiful and slightly eery buildings that look an amazing golden colour at sunset.  After being dropped home, we spent the rest of the evening perched on the rooftop terrace of our hotel looking straight across to the Fort.

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The next day we were up bright and early for a visit to Jaisalmer Fort.  The Fort is one of the largest forts in the world and is a World Heritage site.  To make things more interesting, it is the only fort in all of Rajasthan that is still inhabited.  The Fort is home to thousands of people, a palace, temples, shops, restaurants, hotels and travel agencies.  It is an unusual little microclimate.  Raju gave us strict instructions for our visit – “make no friends, visit no factories, do not talk to anyone who pretends to be friends with Raju – they are not Raju’s friends!”. Maybe we’re toughening up, or maybe we caught them on an off day, but either way we managed to spend a couple of really enjoyable hours at the Fort with very little hassle.  We had a few helpful reminders that “shopping is good for your health” and invitations to “make your eyes happy by looking in my store”,  and one man half-heartedly attempted to lure us into his shop by yelling after us “please sir, give me one chance to rip you off!”, but that was about it.

We had a lot of chats about cricket, picked up some souvenirs and even got treated to an impromptu shoulder massage by a lovely lady on the street.  This obviously resulted in us taking home a massage ball (there’s no such thing as a free back massage), but we didn’t mind – the woman had great banter and keep us amused for 20 minutes with tales of her life in India.  I also got this photo of Campbell, which was worth the price of the massage ball alone.

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We spent our last afternoon and evening in Jaisalmer in the middle of the Thar Dessert. We signed up for a camel safari and sunset dinner through our hotel and it turned out to be one of those magical travelling experiences – great location, great people, great food and an overall amazing time.  It’s hard not to take stock when you’re sitting in the middle of the desert with no one else around, no noise and a sky full of stars.  We felt really lucky to be able to experience it.

The safari kicked off late in the afternoon when we jumped aboard a jeep and headed into the desert with our guide, Lilu.  We stopped on the way at the abandoned and cursed village of Kuldhara (not so abandoned when you count the all-singing all-dancing locals that kept appearing from out of the rubble).  Lilu explained that the village was abandoned over 200 years ago when the Diwan of Jaisalmer (a Muslim) demanded that he be able to marry the beautiful daughter of the village chief (a Hindu).  Hindus and Muslims do not typically marry one another and the village chief was not having a bar of it.  Rather than lose his daughter or incur the wrath of the Diwan, he directed that the entire village pack up and move on.  The village has been empty ever since.

Lilu also taught us a little rhyme to help us remember the way of the world in India.  Lesson 3 (from Lilu):  “1, 2 ,3, nothing is free, 4, 5, 6, nothing is fixed, 7, 8 , 9, we’ll all be fine.”

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We arrived in Lilu’s village shortly after 5 pm where our camels, Simon and Michael, were saddled up and waiting for us.  We were expecting the camels to have slightly more Indian names, but apparently tourists find these names easier.  The camels were just lovely – no spitting, or misbehaving at all.

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Campbell decided to go all out for the trip and looked very regal loping through the desert in his Kurta Pyjama and white scarf, which actually turned out to be baby pink in the harsh desert sun.  I found the whole thing highly amusing, especially when he absolutely obliterated the crutch of his pants getting onto his camel (built-in air-conditioning according to our guide, Jitu).  Jitu was an absolute character and he and Campbell spent the best part of the safari discussing the IPL, the state of New Zealand and Indian cricket, their favourite players etc etc.  In between chatting, Jitu put us to work spotting wild mushrooms for his dinner back in the village.

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After an hour on the camels (more than enough for our pudgy office-job bums) we arrived at a remote desert camp.   While we goofed about in the sand dunes, Lilu and his friend, Hari were hard at work preparing dinner over a small fire.  The guys made everything from scratch, just like their mothers had taught them and gave us an informal cooking lesson while they were at it.  Lilu was very happy to chat and surprisingly upfront about discussing the challenges of life for him, his thoughts on the likelihood that his parents will arrange his marriage shortly, and his wish to have more control over his life generally. He was at pains to tell us that his life is happy, but that it is also very hard and that, for him, there will be no end to work – he will work until the day he dies.  Conversations like that definitely give us cause to pause and realise how lucky we are to be on a trip like this.  We sat round the fire as the sun went down and ate dinner together, which topped off an amazing evening.

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Jodphur:  We were back on the road on Wednesday to make our way to Jodhpur (The Blue City).  We made one quick stop to see a temple in the lovely town of Osian, and had a fairly hair-raising bathroom stop (where I had to use a toilet in the middle of a construction site surrounded by dozens of men and a toilet door that was half see-through mesh), but other than that we hooned along at a good pace keen to get to our next stop.  We spent a very quiet night at our lovely accommodation ready to take on Raju’s busy schedule for the next day.

Jodhpur is another city on the well-worn tourist path around Rajasthan.  It is named The Blue City for the iconic blue wash applied to some of the houses.  There seems to be a bit of disagreement about why the houses are blue – some people say the houses originally belonged to members of the Brahmin caste, which is associated with the colour blue; others say it is as simple as the blue colour is great for keeping the houses cool in summer.  Either way, it makes for a stunning view when you get high enough to take in the city.

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Today was action-packed, as Raju whisked us around Jodhpur’s main attractions – the Royal Cenotaph, Mehrangarh Fort (definitely the nicest and best-maintained tourist attraction we have visited so far), Mandore Gardens (home to monkeys and the most aggressive pint-sized hustler we have ever come across) and the clock tower and Sardar Market.  According to Raju everything was nice and quiet (it still seemed pretty busy to us!), because it was the day of the Hindu Brother and Sister festival and a lot of people would be at home celebrating.   The festival celebrates the love and duty that exists between male and female siblings. In northern India where we are, the festival is also celebrated by kite flying and we were amazed to drive through the city and see hundreds of children on the rooftops flying their kites.  It was very hard to get a good picture, but there were literally hundreds of kites of different shapes, sizes and colours in the sky.  It was very cool.

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The highlights for today are both food related.  Raju took us to a lovely spice store just around the corner from Sardar Market.  The store is one of several branches in the city, which are run by 7 sisters.  The sisters inherited the stores when their father, the original owner, passed away.  Unfortunately none of the sisters were in the store today (because of the Brother and Sister festival), but this lovely man treated us to a great spice sniffing session.  He also showed us how to tell the difference between authentic saffron and the counterfeit stuff sold elsewhere in the market.  The counterfeit stuff is actually just dyed newsprint shredded incredibly fine to resemble saffron threads.  As a tourist I hate the thought of being scammed, but I can’t help but have a small amount of admiration for the ingenious ways that people come up with to make a buck.  We came away with some great curry mixes and a handful of recipes.  Curry night at our place when we get home – BYO bog roll!

We also had the most amazing lassi from a store that Alison had recommended to us.  Lassis is a yoghurt-based drink, which is super tasty and really refreshing in the heat.  At the bargain price of 60 cents a glass it was well worth the trip!

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Our celebrity status in India continues to grow and we had a few more impromptu photo shoots while we were out and about today.  Here’s us with our ready-made Indian family.  We find that we are stared at most places we go and, while it can be a little bit intense, it is good-natured and we are getting used to it.  People seem genuinely fascinated when they see us wandering about, and are pretty quick to come and say ‘hi’ and ask where we are from.  Apparently at this time of year the tourists are primarily from Europe, so we are a little bit of an oddity.  People love that we come from New Zealand and we get a lot of high fives and cheers of “Brendon McCullum!”.

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We are back on the road tomorrow headed for Castle Bera and our first ever leopard safari.

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The Passenger: Jaipur

We’d done all the reading about India and thought we had a fair idea what to expect – the heat, the poverty, the colours, the dirt, the friendly locals, the spirituality, the hustlers, the food, the Delhi belly, and the chaos.  The reality is that nothing can quite prepare for what it’s like when you actually touch down here.  We arrived in Delhi at 4.30 am wide-eyed and equal parts nervous and excited.  Things got off to a flier when Campbell was told off at the Visa counter for inadvertently photobombing the people in front of him who were having their official entry photo taken.  He was promptly sent to the back of the line and told to work on his listening skills.

We made our way into the arrivals hall hoping/expecting to see a lovely man (our driver, Raju) waiting for us.  As some of you will know, our India trip (including our driver) was planned in large part with the assistance of a wonderful woman that I met on the internet.  I know what you’re thinking (and I had originally thought the same thing myself), but I had every confidence that Alison was a genuine good bugger and not an incredibly sophisticated scammer, and that our plans were going to work out.  Notwithstanding that, I had spent a good deal of the plane ride to Delhi pondering all the different ways that our plans could fall through, the worst of which would be arriving at Delhi airport to find no one waiting for us.

As is always the way, nothing good comes of worrying.  We entered the hustle and bustle of the arrivals hall and walked straight into Raju, who welcomed us with a great big smile and quickly whisked us off to his car.  We hit the road and were on our way to our first stop, Jaipur.  We had originally planned to catch a few zzzzs in the car, but were reluctant to sleep through our first glimpse of India and instead spent most of the journey pressed up against the windows taking it all in.  One of the first things we noticed is that the driving here is flat out crazy.  On a lot of the roads there are no discernible lanes, so the traffic is just one heaving mass of cars, trucks, rickshaws, scooters and cyclists.  Add to that people, elephants, camels, cows, donkeys, goats, pigs, dogs and monkeys and you’ve got yourself a hell of a traffic jam!

Drivers communicate with each other by constantly tooting their horns – a toot can tell someone to hurry up, that you’re coming through, to watch out, that you’re passing etc.  The soundtrack to India would have to include the car horn.  It is inescapable and rings in your ears at the end of each day.  Raju tells us that a good horn is one of the 4 key requirements for driving in India – the other 3 are good eyes, good brakes and, most importantly, good luck.  He appears to have an abundance of all 4 and we are very pleased to have him ferrying us about.

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We arrived in Jaipur  (the Pink City) after 5 hours on the road, and it was clear that Alison had delivered again.  Our accommodation was really gorgeous and our room was ready and waiting for our arrival.  We hit the hay for a few hours, knowing that we would need to have our wits about us to hit the shops in the afternoon and get decked out in some appropriate clothes for the trip.  Raju was insistent that he take us to a clothes factory where the quality was far superior to the things in the market.  It turned out to be the factory where some of the costumes for the Exotic Marigold Hotel movies were made.  We knew at that stage that we would be paying over the odds, but we needed clothes, defences were low and we couldn’t be bothered having an argument over what would work out to be a few NZ dollars.

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As the factory manager’s “very special guests” we were treated to a demonstration of the traditional block printing technique, a tour of the sewing room and delicious chai tea.  After a bit of time trying things on and politely declining offers to have suits and bedspreads shipped home, we picked out a couple of things and were on our way.  All in all, it was a bit of a laugh and I think we scrubbed up pretty well in our new clothes.

 

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There is a lot to see and do in Jaipur, so we were up bright and early the next day to make a start.  We were still a bit all over the place, so Raju took things in hand and arranged a day of sight-seeing for us on the outskirts of Jaipur.  We managed to cover off the following:

  • Amber Fort:  One of the principal tourist attractions in Jaipur.  The Fort is perched atop a huge hill and dates back to the 10th century.  Unfortunately we didn’t get to see a huge amount of the Fort, because we were busy getting our first lesson on being scammed.  We made the mistake of asking a very official looking man for directions and, in return, got taken on a wild goose chase around a section of the Fort and then asked for money.  We escaped with our wallets intact, but the man was not impressed and we decided to call it a day, rather than have to walk past him again to see the other areas of the Fort.  Lesson One: If some says “this way ma’am, here let me show you the way”, it is not the right way.  If you follow them, it will likely cost you.

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  • Narhargarh Fort:  This Fort sits atop another big mountain and has amazing views across Jaipur City.  It was much quieter than the Amber Fort, and really pleasant to wander about.

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  • Jal Mahal: Jal Mahal is a palace that appears to float in the middle of Man Sagar Lake. You cannot go inside (it is currently being turned into a resort), but tourists queue up and down the roadside to get a snapshot.  Raju took us to all of the best vantage points, and would announce our arrival by saying “here you go, now take photography”.

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  • Galtaji – the Monkey Temple:  Next stop was a Hindu monkey temple.  The temple is built into the side of a hill and has a natural spring, which flows into a series of sacred tanks that pilgrims bathe in.  It is also home to over a hundred monkeys, one of whom had an eye for leather sandals.  I took my shoes off for the grand total of 5 minutes to step inside the temple and came out to find a monkey sucking on one of them.  Thankfully a couple of young boys from the village chased the monkey with a bamboo stick and got him to drop the shoe, which he did on a second story roof.  After a bit of acrobatics by the boys, I was reunited with my shoe and then got to watch the drama play out again when a monkey stole another woman’s wallet.  There were no boys onhand for her though and the monkey was ripping out the zip and helping itself to her rupees by the time we left.

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  • Sisodiya Rani Bagh:  A palace with beautiful tiered gardens built for a previous Queen.  Campbell’s jeans were chafing by this point, so it was a quick visit and then onwards for lunch.

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Raju has been a legend at taking us to restaurants where we can get authentic Indian food, but which our delicate tums can handle.  The small amount of food we have sampled so far has been amazing – nowhere near as rich and creamy as the Indian that we get at home.  There is a huge amount of variety (especially for vegetarians and amazing lassi (yoghurt drinks) and syrupy sweet desserts.  I’m trying to take it easy for the first wee bit, but Campbell has thrown himself into it and is getting right amongst the curries.  In terms of how our stomachs are coping – let’s just say, so far so solid.

We wrapped up the afternoon with a trip to Bapu Bazaar, a sprawling street market located in the Old City.  You can buy all sorts of textiles, clothes, jewellery, shoes and pottery at the market, provided you can cope with the crowds and the relentless calls from the stall owners for you to “come inside, take a look, see how pretty? what’s your size?  where you from?”.  I find these situations hard because, while I don’t want to be drawn into a shop, I also don’t want to be rude.  Campbell is much better at dealing with it, and cleared a path for me to walk through and ran diversion if I wanted to stop and look at something in peace.  I am getting the hang of it though, and a good resting bitch face definitely helps.  Lesson 2 (from Raju):  “Do not make any friendships.  Many times people will come up to you “hello ma’am, yes ma’am, let me take you to my Uncle’s factory, best price for you ma’am”.  You tell them “No!”.  They are not your friend.  You do not make any friendships in the market”.

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Today we tackled the sights of Jaipur itself, including the City Palace (home of the Royal family), Hawa Mahal (the Palace of the Winds – a 5 story building with a honeycomb style, designed to allow the women of the royal household to observe the street without being seen), Jantar Mantar (a collection of 13 enormous astronomy instruments) and the Albert Hall Museum.  Raju is quickly getting the measure of us, and the fact that we charge through palaces, forts and museums at a pretty quick clip.  As with our travels through Europe, we’re not going to run ourselves ragged trying to see every fort, palace and monument.  We’ll focus on a few key sights, but leave plenty of time for exploring by ourselves as well.

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After only a couple of days we are slowly starting to hit our stride.  This is certainly a place to keep your wits about you, but there is little enjoyment to be had from thinking everybody is out get you, or scam you.  The vast majority of people we have met so far have been friendly and genuinely interested to chat, and talk immediately turns to cricket once they found out we are from NZ.  We are back in the car tomorrow to head to Bikaner, a smaller city that has only a quarter the population of Jaipur.  We’re both really interested to see the contrast between a big city and a small one, and are looking forward to being able to explore a bit more independently.

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The Pelion Peninsula: Where the streets have no name

We were originally supposed to be moving on to Turkey after our Greek Islands tour, but after our Turkey plans fell through, we decided to stay put in Greece and spend the two and a bit weeks we had up our sleeve on the Pelion Peninsula.  We hadn’t really done a huge amount of research, but had heard good things about beautiful beaches, charming hilltop villages and a lack of Western tourists – all in all, it sounded like our kind of spot.  We never could have imagined just how beautiful the Peninsula was, and how much we would love it.

The Peninsula is dominated by Mount Pelion.  From there, cobbled donkey tracks and hiking routes link dozens of tiny (I mean really tiny) hilltop villages with low-lying seaside communities.  The area is green with olive and fruit trees, which flourish due to the many waterfalls and rivers that run through the mountain.  On the flat, there are dozens of seaside fishing villages – those on the west sit on the Pagasetic Gulf, and those on the east meet the Aegean Sea.  The beaches are entirely different depending on what side of the Peninsula you pick.  We wanted to get a good overview of the Peninsula, so opted for Kala Nera on the west coast, Papa Nero on the east coast and Milina in southern Pelion.

Stop One – Kala Nera:  I would characterise our first 5 days on the Pelion Peninsula with one word – snot.  We both got sick on arrival and spent most of our time at Kala Nera, sniffing, coughing and sleeping.  In reality, Kala Nera was the perfect place to be under the weather.  It’s a very sleepy seaside village with approximately 1000 permanent residents.  It’s so small that the streets don’t actually have names, there’s just a grid of 4 streets down to the beach and 4 streets across.  This made for an interesting time finding our hotel, which even Google couldn’t locate but, after that it was practically impossible to get lost.  The village itself is one large olive grove that wraps around the waterfront, where the water is so calm and clear that you could easily mistake it for a lake.  The main street runs along the length of the beach and is dotted with open-air tavernas, a butcher, a baker, a pharmacy and a handful of tourist shops selling water wings, Ray-Bon and Prado sunglasses and over-priced sunscreen.  At the far end of the beach is a summer camp for military personnel and their families.  And that’s about it.

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All the things we had read and were looking forward to about the Pelion Peninsula were borne out in Kala Nera.  The most noticeable of these was that the people (locals and holiday-makers) were almost all Greek.  We overheard only a handful of people speaking English and it was a lovely change from the tourist overload of the last couple of weeks.  The demographic was primarily families and senior citizens, which made for some really pleasant people-watching.  In these parts the oldies seem to be the first people up swimming in the mornings and the last people to get out of the water in the evening.  They paddle about with swimming caps on, lazing on inflatable rafts and chatting away to one another.  We watched one hilarious exchange where an old-timer was practising his backstroke, only he hadn’t realised that he was only making contact with the water with one arm.  The result was that he ended up doing a great big loop (kind of like when you lose control of your bumper boat at Rainbow’s End) and backed straight into an old gal behind him.  In the process he obviously touched some things he wasn’t supposed to and there was an awkward moment while he tried to turn around and build up enough momentum to swim away.

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In the evenings, the oldies sit outside their homes, or the tavernas in plastic chairs  smoking, nursing a drink and playing Backgammon and Checkers and entertaining the local children.  Older people are treasured here in Greece and each town and village has a cafe that is a dedicated meeting/socialising spot for senior citizens.  It’s usually a very nice spot in the town where they can get together and watch the comings and goings.

When we weren’t recuperating at the hotel, we took walks along the promenade, drove up into the mountain villages of Milies and Vyzita and had a day at the beach of Lefakastro.  The pace of life here is so slow that I’m not sure we would have done much more even if we had been feeling better.

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Stop Two – Papa Nero/Agios Ioannis:  We left Kala Nera on Tuesday after 5 days of recuperating.  Next stop, the resort village of Papa Nero on the eastern side of the Peninsula.  Our rental car for this leg was misleadingly called an “Ibiza”, but I can assure you it was no party.  The main issue is that it is the most pathetic, gutless, snivelling little car ever created, which makes tackling the incredibly hilly and windy roads of Mt Pelion a bit of a disaster.  We had a particularly unfortunate incident trying to make our way to our new accommodation, which saw us stall (in first gear) multiple times on a particularly nasty hairpin turn, causing the traffic to back up behind us, with the final result being us doing a massive burn-out before finally driving off in a cloud of dust much to the locals amusement.

I found the whole experience quite traumatic and managed to pull a muscle in my shoulder from holding onto the overhead handle so tight. Even though I wasn’t driving, it took me straight back to the days of driving lessons with Mum and Dad.  Stalling made me think of trying to do hill starts or 3-point turns where lessons would end with me shouting at Dad “well if it’s so easy, why don’t you do it?!” (or slightly more colourful language) and then Dad swearing never to take me for another lesson because I was such an ungrateful brat; or those lessons with Mum where she was so nervous that she held onto the dash the whole time and made that weird noise where she inhales sharply through closed teeth while trying to pretend that she’s not looking for a seat ejector button.

It was a massive relief then to finally arrive at our accommodation.  We stayed in a fairly basic motel that more than made up for what it lacked in bells and whistles with the most amazing view out over the ocean.  The motel was located on a rocky outcrop, but was only a 5 minute walk down to  the lovely little beach of Papa Nero, and a further 10 minutes to Agios Ioannis, which is one of the more popular resort towns for internal Greek tourists.  Our host had checked multiple times before taking our booking that we were ok with cats, which is just as well given that the welcoming committee consisted of 20+ cats of various colours and sizes here.  None was a patch on our Henry, but there were a couple of pretty cute kittens who got a fairly good squeezing during our 3 night stay.

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The entire Peninsula has been hard hit by the drop off in internal tourism resulting from the debt crisis and everybody we met was so pleased to see us.  We were getting ready to order a meal at one of the tavernas in Agios Ioannis on our first night when I asked the owner what he would recommend from the menu.  Instead of rattling off his favourites, he invited us into the kitchen to take a look for ourselves.  Off we trotted  to the kitchen, where he talked us through pots and vats of various dishes – stuffed aubergine, lamb with lemon sauce, meatballs, stuffed vine leaves etc, all made lovingly by his Mum.  I found the whole experience incredibly exciting, mainly because I could pretend for a couple of minutes that I was hosting my own travel/food show.

As well as the Greek classics, the Peninsula has its own speciality dishes and produce.  It is known for producing olives and olive oil, chestnuts, apples, figs, liquor and beautiful sausages.  There is such an abundance of fruit and vegetables grown that you can buy them practically anywhere – the service station, the information centre, the pub, on the side of the road, or off the back of one of the trucks that drive through the village with a loudspeaker enticing people out of their homes to buy melons (like a very PC version of Mr Whippy).  What can’t be sold fresh is made into jams, marmalades and candied fruits by the local woman who have formed collectives where they get together to make and sell these products.

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The following day we took a walk from our accommodation around to the next bay and the beach of Damouchari.  This beach is very famous within Greece, because it was selected as one of the locations for the movie Mama Mia (the terrible version with Meryl Streep and Pierce Brosnan trying to sing).  The locals are still very proud that their wee village was given top honours by Hollywood and literally haul you in off the street to show you where the custom jetty was built, where Meryl Streep did the dance number for “Dancing Queen” and to give you the scoop on things like how nice Meryl Streep’s hairdresser was.  Our quiet stroll through the village ramped up a bit when we decide to follow one of the old donkey tracks up the neighbouring hill.  It was hard slog, especially in the heat, but we were rewarded with amazing views at the top.

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Stop Three – Milina:  The last stop on our Pelion adventure was the village of Milina in South Pelion.  We were already pretty taken with the Pelion before we arrived, but Milina seriously up the ante.  We loved the little village with the usual selection of tavernas, souvlaki stores, bars and knick knack stores, our accommodation with its own private beach looking right out over the Gulf and the dolphins that whizzed by just as we were settling in for an afternoon drink.  It was so still in the evenings that we could sit on our terrace and listen to the live music being played at the bars in the village.

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During our time in Milina we inherited quite possibly the saddest, mangiest cat on the planet.  She didn’t seem to have a name, but loosely belonged to the motel and was getting up there at the ripe old age of 11 years.  What started off as a saucer of milk, turned into sharing leftover sausages and, before we knew it, we were trawling the supermarket aisles trying to decide what brand of jelly meat an almost-dead cat would prefer.  We may have only stayed 4 nights, but during that time unnamed mangy cat enjoyed roast chicken, Pelion sausages, Whiskas jellymeat, saucer after saucer of milk and probably more attention than she’s had in a very long time.

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Days were spent sun-lounging, reading books (I’m averaging a book every two days) and swimming.  In the evenings we’d cooked dinner in the apartment, feed unnamed mangy cat and then head down to the rocks to star-gaze and lounge about on the sun-baked rocks enjoying a few cold ones.  Our conversations ranged from the mildly intellectual (Do people in the northern and southern hemispheres see the same stars? Answer:  Not really – the sky that we see gradually changes as you move from the North Pole to the South Pole), to the idiotic (How bad would it smell if you got caught short and had to poop on one of these hots rocks? Answer: You wouldn’t hang around to find out).  There weren’t many topics not covered in some way.

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Our time in Greece, and Europe has now come to an end.  It has been a fantastic 2.5 months and we have got very comfortable travelling around this part of the world.  We have seen some amazing things, been to great places, met wonderful people and eaten like it’s an occupation.  We’re sad to be leaving, but it’s time for the next adventure.  This time tomorrow we’ll be winging our way to India.  We have an arsenal of hand sanitiser, baby wipes and Diastop at the ready.  Wish us luck!

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