Monday, November 10, 2014

Agra

The city of Agra itself is quite nondescript and just looks like another blurry traffic-filled suburb of any city in India. Of course nobody really comes to Agra to see the city, they come for one building and it's the only thing you'll hear Tuk Tuk drivers say; "Taj Mahal?"

The madness of India's roads seems to lull me into the most peaceful of sleeps where the only thing to disturb me is the harsh swerving to avoid cattle on the roads. Four hours later we arrived in Agra and after my first taste of a masala dosa we were off to India's pride and joy. Our ticket got us a complimentary bottle of water, a free ride in a battery operated tourist wagon (exhaust fumes ruin the marble so there is a ban on cars in the nearby area) and some foot cosies (really used to cover your feet in a sign of respect or to protect the marble or both! I just enjoyed having my mosquito bites covered up for a while). We passed through airport-like security and you were barely allowed to take anything in so Teddy had to stay at the hotel. A massive storm cloud had been dancing around the sky for most of the day and by this point it had unleashed whatever it was brooding and we might as well have poured our complimentary water over each other - we were soaked. The weather did make for very atmospheric photos with white marble against dark grey clouds and authentically Indian photos with the Taj Mahal and monsoon rain.


Our guide told us the history of the building but as ever I was far too distracted looking at it. It's much smaller than you think and you don't realise there is so much greenery around it but the true difference to photos and real life is when you get up close and see the intricate carvings in the marble. The building is entirely symmetrical on the inside except for the kings body which lies to the side of his "favourite wife" who he built the tomb for - jealously obviously wasn't a factor between women in these polygamous marriages. The rain finally stopped and so we went for a walk around the building, along the river and gardens.






The behaviour of tourists trying to take photos of everything is funny at the best of times but not more so that at the Taj Mahal. It's also homage to the ways of the 21st century where people feel the need to take all kinds of photos of everything (yours truely is one of the major offenders). Here




the biggest queues are not actually those to go inside the Taj Mahal but the one so you can take the profile-picture worthy shot of you with the Taj Mahal on the same bench Princess Diana did. Indian families also differ greatly from British families; where the latter would take one hasty photo of the whole family with everyone blinking and babies crying, Indian families will take hundreds of pictures with every combination of family members looking their finest - this didn't help the patience of any British families who had attempted to create a organised queueing system.

Sunday, October 05, 2014

Palaces, Photo Op's and Prescriptions in the Pink City

Our "Tourist Vehicle"
After what felt like a blink of sleep we were already saying bye to Delhi - but not too quickly as with rush hour traffic it took a good half an hour to get near the suburbs let alone out of the city. Saying that, Delhi doesn't really have suburbs - it has satellite cities such as Guargaon where all the call centres you know so well are located. They have built tons of housing for the workers at these centres and I can't help but see it like a modern technological equivalent of the building of tenements in the industrial revolution. We trundled out in our specially painted "Tourist Vehicle" which was an air conditioned bubble in the swarms of rush-hour Delhi traffic - it also meant we were like an elephant in the Arctic: easy prey. India is always described as a colourful place and I now know that that is relating to the people: from their colourful saris to their colourful personalities. The cities themselves are actually lacking in colour and a bit worn and crumbling and every single piece of space is used for advertising of some form - from houses to natural boulders at the roadside everything is painted advertising something. Most likely it's to do with education or even showing off a local student who got 99% in his degree exams.

This lack of colour is true for cities like Delhi, but not so much Jaipur which is known as the Pink city due to the colour of the stone used to build the walled city. People also always say India is a "country of contrasts" due to the wealth spectrum and we got a proper taste of it in Jaipur where mansions and slums were merely walls apart. In fact, compared to Delhi Jaipur was a bit like India on steroids.

The drive to our hotel took us through a mad market (for India) and our guide kept mentioning how the hotel had so much "character" and so we slowly reached for our hand sanitiser and sleeping bag liners. It is safe to say that we were more than pleasantly surprised when we drove through the gates of Hotel Bissau Palace which was a bit like what The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel was trying to be. It was an ornate palace that once belonged to a noble in the city but now due to land ownership laws it was converted into a hotel which had that smell of being full of history.

In the evening we went on an orientation walk which simply took us down the main road from the west gate but that was almost enough to take in every single sight and smell we assumed India had to offer. Then Manu (our guide) led us up too a Hindu Temple (partially reclaimed by monkeys) which offered a view of a Fort as well as the much more scenic construction works for the Jaipur Metro.

In the evening we were going to one of the things I was probably most excited about coming to India for: a Bollywood film. We threw ourselves in a Tuk-Tuk which weaved it's way to the Raj Mandir cinema which was a beautiful art deco building in the centre of Jaipur. The film we went to see was called "Mary Kum" and was a biographic film on a famous female Indian boxer. It wasn't a typical masala Bollywood film that I had become used to but there were still some elements where you had to forget about reality for while. One of the highlights was actually during the interval (yes Bollywood films are that long that they need an interval) when a woman asked for a photo with the tourists.

The following day was our main sightseeing day and we were bundled out at 8am to go see the Amber Fort via Hawa Mahal or the Palace of Winds. Our concept of time is completely lost here because at any time of day the streets are absolutely full of both tourists and locals pushing past in a rush to get somewhere but I never quite worked out where everyone was heading at every hour of the day. The Palace of Winds is basically a large sandstone building covered in windows in the middle of the street which to allowed the ladies of the past to nose on everybody on the street when they were not allowed to leave the palace itself.  Passing elephants, snake charmers and even the odd Mercedes Benz  we made our way up to the Amber Fort and were transported to the age of Arabia except with more tourists and flashy cameras. Drums were playing along to charmers horns and elephants paraded along the edges of the courtyard and only a few hawkers actually came up to pester you. We ascended each level of the fort which had numerous beautiful courtyards on each level alongside increasingly stunning views above Jairpur to compliment them. I couldn't help thinking how good a game of hide and seek could be here...

On the way back into the city we spotted a photo opportunity as we saw a camel elegantly sitting at the side of the road. We each paid 50 rupees to ungracefully get on the beast which had mastered the art of folding away excessive meters of limbs where it lost all form of elegance. After the photo opportunity we wandered past the Water Palace which was a serene palace built on a lake surrounded by mountains - pretty much my ideal house. Our final site for the day was the City Palace in the centre of Jaipur and you may have noticed by now that I get far to distracted by the pretty buildings to listen to history but the palace not only contains museums but it is also still a royal residence for the Maharaja of Jaipur.

In the afternoon we visited the numerous bizarres along the streets where I managed to get my first sari before meeting for dinner. Before then though I had to run to a nearby doctors to get my foot checked out as it has swollen and blistered after a mosquito bite. Visiting a doctor in a foreign country is always interesting but let alone visiting one in India. The office was in this shady breeze-blocked building adorned with faded posters of smiley westerners with the words "Acute Pain" next to them. After only a ten minute wait after arriving and I was seeing the doctor (probably a white tourist privilege) and the doctor himself actually had a lovely bedside manner and filled out a massive form in script that I think was English but as with most doctor's handwriting it could easily have been Hindi. His little minions went to the attached pharmacy and handed me a plastic bag of pills of different colours and after paying him £6.50 I was on my way to recovery. If only it was like that at home?!



Traffic en-route to Jaipur
Poverty and privilege side by side

Coming into Jaipur



Out hotel foyer

Market

Being a tourist

Metro Construction

Palace of Winds


Amber Fort


Water Palace

City Palace

My prescription...

Wednesday, October 01, 2014

Ribbons and Umbrellas

I'm going to completely fast-track my blog entries to yesterday where we went on a little explore of Hong Kong during these protests and I thought I'd tell you what it's like as someone who is here but is completely unaware of all things politics. As far as I am aware the whole story has been on worldwide news but essentially it is all about keeping democracy in Hong Kong which is a Special Administrative Region of China. If you want to know more on what it's all about then this is a good post as you all know I'm not good with political mumbo-jumbo: http://www.scmp.com/article/1604649/what-occupy-central-10-things-you-need-know

If Hong Kong was a cinema, Hong Kong Island is currently a new blockbuster which is The Anabolic Expendables and Lamma Island is a silent film. I'm situated in this silent film so we've felt very far away and have only seen what's on the TV so we decided to go take a look at the excitement. As we stepped off our ferry Hong Kong looked like usual - locals hurrying around and expats sitting at the Beer Bay steps. Our first clue was a line of police trucks and then the notable lack of public transport running through the centre. It was only once we got past the Bank of China where we began to see completely empty streets and crowds building. The streets were immaculately clean and the only remanants of people being there were the barriers and police cones used to contain them. We discovered that this cleanliness was to do with the impressive recycling system the protesters had put it place. In fact they'd managed to organise a microcosm with food stations, first aid points and recycling areas all organised through a communal effort with no real logistics manager in charge - it was all quite impressive considering the majoirty of people involved were students ( I don't think you'd see British students being quite so organised in clearing up after themselves!). The news seems to be portraying the whole thing as quite violent but everything I've seen so far has been quite peaceful and pretty inspiring really!




This girl was handing out cold, wet towels and was very talkative!

852 being the area code for Hong Kong

Sitting out in the heat meant a spot in the shade was lucrative!

It was all quite calm really!


It's being called the Umbrella Movement/ Umbrella Revelution after
umbrellas used for shade were used against tear gas

Examples of the ridiculously organised resource stations

Yellow ribbons are the symbolic support of the movement and
are slowly covering Hong Kong

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

The Wildlife of India's Roads

Indian roads are notoriously chaotic and busy and the noise of the chirping horns of the numerous vehicles is like the urban birdsong of the city. It took me almost a week to realise that they are meant to drive on the left here but I think I’ve come to familiarise myself with the wildlife of India’s roads.


The Cows, we have to start with the cows. I’m pretty sure the practical Indian driving test must involve navigating your vehicle in between a row of cows rather than cones. They are always given the right of way but they have little care in the world as to where you are going and how quickly you need to get there.


The trucks back home are pretty dull to say the least with the occasional colourful  LED scottish flag flashing in the cabin but here almost every truck is decorated with ornate stickers and ribbons. One of the main things painted on the trucks is “blow horn please” on the back which explains why horns are heard so regularly - they are actually used like indicators.


The Tuk-Tuk is the best means of getting around cities in India. They defy physics on a daily basis winding in and out of potholes while chirping to each other like birds. These Auto-rickshaws are also designed in exciting colours where each owner takes to his Tuk-Tuk as a Scottish boy racer would take to his new Subaru.

This is what they are trying to achieve...
Motorbikes outnumber cars by miles. It’s not just because every male in the whole country wants to perfect their Shahrukh Khan bollywood entrance, it makes sense to have a bike as half the streets are barely big enough to navigate a car down and that’s without skillfully navigating the maze of potholes - if you want to become a skilled biker you should train up in Delhi! You’ll rarely see a saloon-style car here, they are all those awkward box shaped cars nobody dares buy in the western world. However, India is a practical country and anything with a bonnet bigger than a centimeter will be bashed to smitherines in no time. You will see these conspicuous “Tourist Vehicles” which will be used to cart you around in an air conditioned bubble but if I was you I’d try out any of the other methods before this modern equivalent of a carriage.

(None of these are my photos..yet)

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Arriving in the heart of Delhi Belly

I sat in Glasgow departures enjoying my last sweet taste of Irn Bru and dairy milk before flying halfway around the world to the land of spice and unwelcome stomach bacteria that is India. I'd heard great things about Emirates and the best thing was through no fault of their own but I ended up with the whole row to myself which although too small for any normal sized human, it is the perfect size to fit a sleeping Rose. Now was no time for sleep though as I'd just discovered the Bollywood section of the inflight entertainment and dinner was yet to be served. I sat eating my yoghurt chicken curry enjoying a bollywood movie accustomising myself to a lifestyle I could get used to. As we flew into the night I thought I should try to sleep for a bit so as I sprawled out on my chairs I discovered probably my favourite thing about Emirates; as they dim the cabin lights to mirror outside'

s setting sun they simultaneously light up the roof to provide the night sky inside. It was quite nice to just follow the roof out the window to the real starry sky.

You could tell you were flying over the gulf states as the black of the desert at night was interspersed with huge orange gas flames lighting up the oil refineries. Dubai which appeared as a orange glow itself over the wing tip before it sprawlled out to the horizon and into the sky. (By the way watching the front facing camera during landing is actually quite terrifying.)

As soon as I stepped off the plane I was smacked by intense heat which I thought was just a consequence of standing near the jet turbines but that was just wishful thinking. Dubai airport wasn't actually as swish as I thought it would be but there did seem to be a garden and pond slap bang in the middle of the place and the bum warmers in the toilets was maybe a bit extravagant. I enjoyed the feeling of feeling like I was abroad, like really abroad and not in a western country and this only increased as I got to the gate of my next flight where I started to really feel like a gap-yah tourist. I was impressed by the nooks and crannies some people could fit themselves in to get some shut eye but I was more mesmerised by the bisare UAE soap operas that were on at 3am - the kind where you are not sure if they were re-runs of something from the 70's or actually just the norm for here.

Of course this flight had a lot more bollywood but I had a lot more sleeping to do and I only woke up for breakfast and landing. I was definitely getting further from home as nobody seemed to be following the seat-belt sign commandment as strictly as I was. I essentially sleptwalked up to immigration, scribbled in an immigration form and sighed a sigh of relief as I was reunited with my rucksack after 12 hours.

I walked out into arrivals where I was to meet by my airport transfer driver and saw a man with a sign saying "Rose" and followed this stranger to a car and as I sat down in the passenger seat I noticed the large crack in the windscreen right in line with my face. A subtle introduction to India's roads and driving style. There is some weird unspoken sense of confidence you get when you are travelling alone where you will easily follow a stranger into his bashed up car with a broken windscreen in a foreign country.


From the airport the roads actually seemed quite tame but I spoke too soon as as soon as you got out of the airport area you reached the rush-hour gridlock where you lost count of how many lanes there were in the road. Delhi seemed to have numerous "dual" carriageways running around the city which had turn-offs which landed you straight into the chaos of countless shops and hotels stacked high like cardboard boxes along the main bizarres. I kept an eye out for my hotel "Hotel Perfect" but as we pulled up I couldn't see it anywhere and I followed my driver to this other hotel and the an at the desk didn't seem to question my arrival and talk of a tour meeting at 2pm so I assumed there must have been a last minute change or something. I was taken up to my room and I'd really luck-ed out as I had a king-size bed and a fishtank in my room - proper boudoir stuff. I still had a doubt in my mind and soon enough I got a call from reception asking if I had a booking with them. My stomach dropped as I realised something had gone wrong after mere hours in the country. It turns out that in my bleary-eyed, jetlagged state I decided reading more than just "Rose" on the sign at the airport was pointless as how many Roses would be expecting an airport pick up? At least two apparently. I'd managed to steal the airport pick up from some Rose from Brazil and so got taken to the wrong hotel... So to right my wrong they got my driver to take her and I got myself in my first ever Tuk Tuk across Delhi to the right hotel. The chaos and Tuk-Tuk drive was great fun and just what I expected from India - I even got some Hindi and bargaining practice in which was like being thrown in the best kind of deep end.

I arrived at the correct hotel an hour before my tour meeting was due to start so I had time to throw things out of my rucksack and meet my roommate for the trip (A nice lady from Australia - might be a handy contact for later on!). There was only 4 of us on the tour which was quite good as it made everything a little bit more flexible and there was a good amount of time to yourself if need be. Our tour leader, who we know as Manu, was pretty young but knew his stuff and his English was absolutely top-notch!

It was pretty much go from there as we headed to a nearby Sikh temple where we were told about the community aspects of a Sikh temple where many materials and maintenence are through voluntary donations of materials and time which is best demonstrated by the huge community kitchens. The temple itself was blindingly white in the afternoon sun so we were releaved it was necessary to cover our heads but the hot marble burned our bare feet. The visit taught me a lot about a very refreshing and interesting religion which I - shamefully- knew nothing about before.

We were then taken on a drive to New Delhi which was built by the British and it was quite pretty - a contrast to the higglty-pigglty buildings near the hotel. These were basically huge, sandstone versions of St Pauls and the National Gallery which were used for government buildings. At the other end there was even a road resembling the Mall with a war monument at one end that looked like a stretched out Arc-de-Triomphe.

My first Indian meal came from a pretty western looking Indian restaurant - I suppose I have to coax my stomach into these spices- and I stopped complaining about being too western in when my paneer pasanda (a special Indian cheese and cashewnut sauce), naan(with ghee) and mango lassi (a kind of smoothie made with yoghurt) was absolutely delicious. By the time I got back to the hotel I was so ready for bed which made me beat jetlag in one day.