Orchha: We left the state of Rajasthan last Thursday and made our way to Madhya Pradesh in central India. The roads got better and better as we left Rajasthan, but it was still a very long journey. With just under 2 hours to go, Raju was keen to stop for lunch so we pulled into a pretty dicey looking roadside restaurant. I decided on sight (when a dog ran out of the kitchen and based on the number of flies on the workbench) that my tum was not up to this particular lunch. This resulted in a comedic stand-off with Raju, in which he refused to eat lunch unless we were, and we insisted he was being silly and should eat if he was hungry.
In the end we compromised, and he had the house special and the lovely chef (that’s him, below) whipped us up some vegetable pakora – the logic being that surely you can’t get sick from something that has been cooked in boiling hot oil. That logic held true for me, but perhaps not so much for Campbell who had to excuse himself midway through the sound and light show at Orchha Fort that evening to begin power-chucking. Once again though, the sickness was perfectly timed. We had a day to spare in Orchha, so Campbell could rest up and recover. It was also bucketing down the entire day, so we both felt less guilty about designating it a ‘duvet day’ and holing ourselves up in our room to watch (power cuts allowing) Blade Runner, Mrs Doubtfire, X-Men and The Gambler. The movies are heavily censored here and almost all bad language and sex scenes (even kissing) are edited out – not such an issue for Mrs Doubtfire, but when we watched American Pie it ended up being about 20 minutes shorter than the original and with all the best bits removed.
Agra: On Saturday morning, we were on the road heading to Agra in Uttar Pradesh. Agra is the home of the Taj Mahal, and forms part of the tourism Golden Triangle, along with Delhi and Jaipur. We were both ready to leave Orchha, and pick up the pace after 5 days dominated by downtime and feeling under the weather. We swung past the Orchha Royal Cenotaphs on our way out of town, but other than that Raju had plotted a direct course to Agra. Our approach to eating at that stage of the trip was fairly conservative, and there was an unspoken agreement from the time we got in the car that we would not be stopping at a roadside restaurant for lunch.
It felt really good to arrive in Agra, a city of over a million people with lots of activity and a bit of a buzz. First stop was a very nice touristy restaurant for lunch. As we were finishing up we came across this guy, who we initially thought was just another street busker. Turns out that he was a snake charmer, so we were straight back out of the car to watch the show. In the little basket he had a King Cobra that rose up out of the basket when he started to play his Pungi and seemed to sway along with the music. He also had a “baby” python, which he offered to wrap around our necks and promised was trained not to start squeezing us to death. Thanks, but no thanks. Raju said that snake charming is a dying art in India due to a number of laws prohibiting catching, and owning, snakes, and that this man obviously had a deal with the Police, which is why he wasn’t being hassled.
In the afternoon we visited the Red Fort. The Fort is an amazing complex, which has the extra advantage of looking across to the Taj from certain points. It was very busy with Indian tourists since it was a Saturday, and Campbell was in hot demand for photo shoots. It has slowly become apparent that Campbell is the celebrity of this relationship and I am his B-grade other half. The people here just love him – they rush up to shake his hand and can’t get enough of having photos with him. There was one man who followed us for 5 minutes before plucking up the courage to ask for a photo, and then followed us for another 5 so he could tell Campbell how happy he’d made him. We can’t figure out whether it’s because he is so tall (by Indian standards) and blonde, or if it’s his resemblance to cricketer Brett Lee, who had a fleeting stint as a Bollywood movie star, put out an Indian music video and who remains a low-grade celebrity in India. Whatever it is, he’s the duck’s nuts over here.
As you would expect, the absolute highlight of our trip to Agra was our visit to the Taj Mahal. It is hard to express in words, and even in pictures, just how amazing the Taj really is. We decided to go along at sunrise which, along with sunset, is when the Taj is apparently at its best. The whole building gives off a sort of pearly glow, and even though there are a lot of tourists, everything is remarkably still and quiet. People just sit in the grounds of the Palace and marvel at how beautiful it is, while others wander around trying to take in the beauty of the surrounding gardens and buildings. It really is an absolutely stunning place – highly recommend.
Delhi: We arrived in Delhi on Sunday afternoon and were straight off to meet up with Campbell’s old workmates, Preeti and Manish and their daughter, Ira. Delhi is by far the most western and metropolitan place we have been in India and, after 2 and a bit weeks in rural Rajasthan, we were ready to embrace the city. Preeti and Manish took us to an amazing new mall where we had drinks and dinner and a really lovely catch-up. Things really only took a turn for the worse when we went to leave and realised that none of us had paid any attention to where we had parked the car. The car park was massive and every level looked the same! While Preeti and Manish tried to find someone to help track down the car, we waited in the air-conditioned exit lobby looking after Ira. It hadn’t really occurred to us that we might appear a bit unusual, but we got a lot of funny looks from other shoppers who were trying to figure out how we had come to be looking after an adorable Indian baby, and whether perhaps we’d just pinched her from the family room at the mall.
Monday was our last day with Raju, so we made the most of it and crammed in a bit of last minute sight-seeing. We opted to avoid forts and temples (having done a lot of those already), so Raju took us to see Jama Masjid (one of the largest mosques in India), the Mahatma Ghandi memorial (built around the site of his cremation), the India Gate war memorial, the President’s house and Government buildings and arranged a bicycle rickshaw ride for us through a Muslim market. It was bittersweet saying goodbye to Raju who had taken incredibly good care of us for close to 3 weeks, but we were looking forward to a few days to explore Delhi independently.
We were originally supposed to be spending our last few days in India in Varanasi, a sacred city and major Hindu pilgrimage site on the banks of the Ganges. However, the monsoon is in full flight and large parts of Varanasi are currently under water. This means we wouldn’t have been able to take a trip on the Ganges, or witness any of the cremation ceremonies on the ghats, which were really the point of the visit. Since cremation activities have been suspended there is also the issue of the increasing number of corpses that are building up waiting for a ritual cremation. Taking all of that into account, we decided it might be nice to just hang around in Delhi.
We have enjoyed Delhi for reasons that I am almost embarrassed to admit, because they make me feel like a failure as a real ‘traveller’. I enjoyed that Delhi was comparatively clean, there were roads and footpaths instead of mud tracks, there was great shopping and an amazing array of cafes and bars and, despite the chaos, it was just a whole lot easier to go places and get things done here. It has been the perfect contrast to our time in Rajasthan, which was amazing, but left us both feeling a bit done in. That’s not to say that Delhi hasn’t been without its challenges – it is very hot and humid, it has rained every day, it’s incredibly busy and has more than it’s fair share of hustlers.
We have spent our time lazing about in cafes, planning our SE Asia trip and visiting some of Delhi’s many shopping markets, including Khan Market and Connaught Place. We’ve done a lot of window shopping, but actual shopping has been a bit of a non-event for both us. We just cannot handle the hassle and intensity of the shopkeepers and running the gauntlet of hustlers between shops. I much prefer some of the snooty, can’t-even-be bothered-looking-at-you-let-alone-saying-‘hi’ shop assistants that we have at home. We also managed to catch-up with Manish one more time who treated us to an incredible lunch of Indian street food from Haldiram – a restaurant set up like a food court that serves regional cuisine from throughout India. It was a bit overwhelming when we first walked in (if we’d be alone we would have walked straight back out, or resorted to the stereotypical Kiwi order of butter chicken), but Manish took care of all of the ordering and picked all sorts of things that we would have never tried otherwise. The food was incredible.
We have one full day left in India before we take to the skies again. Before we visited a lot of people had warned us that India is a place that you either love, or hate, but I’m not sure it’s that straightforward. We have had some amazing experiences in India, we have met wonderful people, eaten incredible food and seen both beautiful and heart-wrenching sights, but at times travelling here has felt a bit like an endurance sport. The heat, the rain, the traffic, the noise, the dirt, the smells and the chaos can really do your head in. My sense is that we may not fully appreciate this experience until we reflect on it in a few months’ time.
Right now, we are ready to make a move and embark on the next leg of our journey to Vietnam. We are especially looking forward to having some very special visitors – Mum and Dad! We can’t wait to see these two.