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Published: March 9th 2016
After a week in India, I am now on my cruise ship bound for Greece via Oman and Jordan. It’s been a whirlwind tour of India and for a number of reasons I am only sitting down to do the blog now. Fortunately, none of those reasons has been Bombay Belly and by and large everything has gone well.
I arrived in Delhi very early on Thursday morning after flying from Sydney via Singapore. Traversing through Indian immigration was much less hassle than I was expecting, but that may have been the early hour. Once through I was met with representatives of the cruise company – Voyages to Antiquity – and met the first of my fellow passengers. It was no great surprise to find they are all are on the older side, although the first couple that I talked to were younger than the others but still older than me. This is fine by me because I am here for the itinerary rather than the party.
Once everyone was through immigration we boarded a bus and were taken to our hotel. The journey gave us our first glimpse of the realities of Delhi. Although the airport is quite
new and the roads and facilities there were modern, we were soon amongst the hustle and bustle of Delhi. Sitting on the air-conditioned bus we were thankfully isolated from what I can only imagine was a terrible smell. The roadside was littered with rubbish and animal refuse. I was also glad to be a passenger rather than the driver because the traffic was a law unto itself. Any attempt at traffic control such as roundabouts, traffic lights and lane directions seemed to be, at best, a guide.
It took nearly an hour to get to the hotel. We were staying at the Sheraton which is within its own compound. There were security guards manning the entrance gate, and our bags had to be x-rayed and we passed through metal detectors. Once through the door we were welcomed with a dab of red on our foreheads and ushered through to a much-needed breakfast. The rest of the day we had to ourselves so my first task was to have a shower. My second was to have a sleep because I had had little on the flight.
Waking up at about 12, I decided to brave the outside world and
head to a nearby mall for lunch. Although my sheltered, Australian psyche was a bit on edge walking out of the Sheraton compound, it was all fine. Once again I had to pass through security to enter the mall, but once inside it was much the same as any mall in Australia. After a quick wander, I headed up to the food court and walked past the McDonalds and Subway in the hope of finding something a little more authentic. Mall food courts are probably not the place to find authentic Indian cuisine though, so I opted for a chicken tikka donner. They didn’t have chicken tikka for some reason I couldn’t catch, so the guy asked me if I wanted something spicy or not. I said not too spicy and he suggested the Mexican or Iranian donner. I opted for the Iranian one and if that was not too spicy than I am glad I didn’t ask for something spicy! It tasted fantastic, but my mouth was on fire. I had to finish it off with an ice cream to recover. Thankfully that was nowhere near as spicy!
The rest of the afternoon I did very little (I
am on holiday after all!) and had a much less spicy sandwich for dinner in the hotel restaurant.
The next day we had our first real day of the tour. Anyone who has read my previous blogs will be aware that I have been on such group tours previously and often find them lacking in time at the sights. This one, however, took that to a whole new level. Admittedly, though, I was not greatly perturbed because I was somewhat jetlagged still and the sights outside the bus were not always particularly inviting. This time we were on the road during peak hour traffic and the chaos was stepped up accordingly. Everyone would inch their way forward whenever there was a hint of space opening up, cutting off other vehicles in order to gain an inch or two of advantage. It was in this environment that the massive number of motorcycles on the road made complete sense. I originally thought that it was just because of the cost, and while that is no doubt a factor, they were zipping in and around the cars and generally getting ahead quicker than larger vehicles.
Eventually we made it to our
first stop which was Raj Ghat, a monument for Ghandi. His body was cremated here after he died and the monument is huge, and surrounded by massive parkland. While the park was an oasis from the chaos of Delhi, it would not be correct to say it is unique because, surprisingly, Delhi has a lot of parks around. Apparently this is from the influence of the British, but thankfully it is a tradition that is very much continued today.
We walked around the monument and the heat had me sweating despite it still being quite early in the morning. As we walked back to the buses we saw the clichéd Indian snake-charmer. I didn’t bother with a photograph because he expected money and as I had spent very little so far, the lowest denomination I had was a 500 rupee note.
We continued our tour of Delhi and I was surprised that Raj Ghat turned out to be our only disembarkation from the bus on the morning tour. We saw a number of sights from the bus, however, including the Arch of India and some glorious buildings from the British era. We also saw plenty of the real
At Qutb Minar
Delhi, most of which you will expect and I won’t bother going through in detail. But there were beggars, animals and most of all, chaos on the roads. As we stayed on the bus, my photos were limited to sights on my side of the bus which naturally was usually the wrong side. Photography from within a bus is also quite difficult so there were not many in the end.
We returned to the Sheraton for lunch before heading out again in the afternoon. Our destination for the afternoon was not too far away, called Qutb Minar. This is an archaeological site and was an early palace and mosque of one of India’s early Muslim rulers. I must confess that I missed much of our guide’s information about the place because I was trying to get good photographs. As it turned out, this had been a good idea because when he finished we were only given twenty minutes free time to explore the site. Naturally, it was impossible to see most of the place, but I managed to get a few good photographs between all the crowds.
From Qutb Minar we drove through Delhi and passed the Bahai
Lotus Temple. The building is quite impressive and large, but most of the Australians on the bus thought it a pale imitation of the Sydney Opera House. That’s probably a little unfair, but the comparison is an obvious one.
We headed back to the hotel and I decided to spend the evening doing some of the writing for the course I am doing back in Sydney. I did so in the hotel bar where they had a two for one deal on domestic Indian beers and wines. I had a delicious Indian cabernet sauvignon and because of the special, I had to make sure to have an even number. My fourth glass emptied the bottle and was not quite full so the waiter insisted on giving me another glass to make up for it. By this point I’m sure my writing was very much suffering in quality so I called it a night.
Saturday morning and we had to pack our luggage and a smaller bag because our main luggage was to be taken to our hotel in Jaipur while we spent Saturday night in Agra. Once all of that was organised, we got on the buses and
drove about 180 kilometres down what our guide insisted was the best road in India. I could quite believe it because it was a dual carriageway but even still, it had its rough spots. The fact that cars are (in theory) limited to 100kph and larger vehicles 60kph shows that the road was not quite up to what we are used to in Australia.
We arrived in Agra at our hotel where we had lunch. It’s probably worth pointing out that the food we have had on the tour has been fantastic. Buffets all the way, but there has been extensive choice. No doubt the Indian selections have been significantly toned down in spice, but I for one am not entirely disappointed with that.
Our afternoon’s destination was the Red Fort in Agra. It was extremely busy there and difficult to get any photos without the crowds but I got creative at times and managed to get some. There was a great view of the Taj Mahal from the inner palace of the fort. The fort is called the Red Fort (there is also a Red Fort in Delhi) because the outer walls are made from the local
red sandstone. The inner palace was mostly made from white marble and it would have been extremely impressive when it was built. It was still impressive today, but it is clearly not in the condition it was. We had a bit more time to look around here than we had in Delhi, but we left just as the sunlight was entering golden hour so I was disappointed to have to leave. As it was, I held up the bus trying to get some last photos in the beautiful light of the late afternoon.
Sunday morning was an early start. We had to be up and ready to go at 6am to try and beat the crowds to the Taj Mahal. This we did, but it was by no means empty while we were there! Of course, the Taj Mahal needs no introduction and is generally considered to be one of the wonders of the world. I can only agree with such assessment. It is always a worry when visiting such an iconic sight as to whether it will live up to your expectations. In this case, the Taj Mahal not only met them, but exceeded mine and everyone else’s
Carvings in sandstone
At the Red Fort, Agra
on the tour. I won’t bother trying to convey in words what it was like to see. My photographs should give some idea, but it is really something you have to see for yourself.
We had to wear special shoe covers while walking on the marble surfaces, but I’m not sure what they achieved because the covers were filthy when we took them off. Again we were given a limited amount of free time to take photos. And again I held the group up as I was late returning to the rendezvous. Nobody seemed to mind though, so that’s good. We headed back to the hotel for breakfast.
After breakfast we drove through Agra again and headed towards Jaipur. Sunday is the day off for most Indians so it was fascinating to see people out and about shopping and so forth instead of working. The number of cricket games going on was astounding! It’s no wonder that India is such a power in the world of cricket.
The road to Jaipur is a national highway, but not a dual carriageway like the road from Delhi to Agra. This meant that the road travels through villages, and it
also has tractors, animals pulling carts and all manner of chaos that was absent on the expressway. It was a much more interesting drive for all that though and I managed to get a couple of decent photographs along the way.
We stopped at another archaeological site not too far from Agra called Fatehpur Sikri. It was a palace and fort built by the grandfather of the Moghul ruler who built the Taj Mahal. It was abandoned about 18 years after it was built because of the problems with water in the area. We got off the bus down in the main carpark and had to walk the gauntlet of hawkers so we could ride in mini-buses up to the palace. One fellow attached himself to me. His name was Jahan and he had a shop near the carpark. He made me promise I would come back, which was fairly safe to promise because I had no plans to stay in the palace.
After a short ride up to the top of the hill we entered the palace. The first courtyard had a nice green lawn which went well with the red sandstone as I was taking photos.
We were lead into the second courtyard by our guide and there were many excellent carvings into the red sandstone. The structure in the middle of the courtyard was where the Moghul ruler consulted with his nine ministers and in the centre was where he himself sat. The raised structure he sat on was one of the most impressive carvings.
We were then given a paltry 20 minutes to wander around and take photos. I say paltry because the place was absolutely massive and there is no way we could have seen all of this palace, let alone the second palace that was apparently there. I only found about that when a hawker suggested he could guide me around it. Unfortunately for both of us, I was out of time. Again I was late getting back to the rendezvous but I wasn’t last. We then headed out to where the minibuses were supposed to be waiting for us. Of course, they weren’t so it was a case of hurry up and wait.
When we arrived back at the main carpark, sure enough Jahan was there waiting for us. I would have liked to go and have a look
At the Red Fort, Agra
at his shop but we were under instruction to head straight back to the bus. He was practically begging me to just spend one minute, but I could not. As I walked toward the bus I heard him say something under his breath in Hindi. I don’t think it was complimentary.
Off we went, back on the highway to Jaipur. It wasn’t long though before we stopped in another town for lunch. Not that we actually ate in town. We stopped at another hotel inside a compound, isolated from the real India outside. The food was delicious though, and the hotel and grounds were very pretty so it was nice and relaxing. We were soon back on the road.
The trip to Jaipur was mostly uneventful, but there were some interesting sights along the way. The first thing I noticed was that, unlike all of the terrain we had seen up to that point, we now had hills and mountains around us. Up until then it had been extremely flat. Another interesting sight was a whole bunch of trucks which were essentially just a chassis with a makeshift canvas cabin. Our guide said that someone will have bought
At the Red Fort, Agra
the trucks but wanted the rest of the truck built by someone else in Jaipur so these poor drivers had to drive a chassis from Agra to Jaipur. It must have been terribly dangerous, but being on the road at all in India is dangerous so I guess it didn’t faze them. The final sight of note was two boys casually sitting on the back of a truck as it raced down the highway. They were not opportunistic hitchhikers because they looked to be sitting on a cushion or something so I assume it was intended. Judge for yourself when you see the photo.
One slightly hairy moment though was when we encountered roadworks. At this point in the road there was a dividing median strip which basically made it into a dual carriageway. Our side of the road was closed and we were diverted onto one lane on the other side. The fact that traffic heading towards Jaipur was on the same road as that heading away did not stop truck and car drivers from overtaking and there seemed to be many near misses. Once again, I was so glad not to be the one driving!
At the Red Fort, Agra
a very long drive (more in time rather than distance) we arrived in Jaipur. Immediately it impressed as a more modern and wealthy city. Jaipur was where all the Raj’s came from so it was definitely a wealthy city. As we got closer to the centre of town we came across a town wall that was pink with white highlights. My first thought was that it was a cheesy tourist thing, but in fact it was the old city wall. I’m not sure if it was actually made from terracotta, but it was at least coloured so to celebrate the fact that terracotta was a big industry for the city. We arrived at the hotel, which was definitely the nicest yet – and that was really saying something because they had been pretty nice so far. As we had done very little since having a large lunch, I didn’t really feel like dinner so I spent the night processing photos and chatting online with a night owl friend in Sydney.
The next morning we had our sight-seeing in Jaipur, which was basically a bus ride around the city and a trip up to the Amber Fort. Buses can’t get
up to the fort so we had to transfer to jeeps. One advantage of being a single on this trip was that I got the front seat while the couples got squeezed into the back. The ride though the city backstreets up to the fort was an experience itself and I enjoyed that as much as anything else that day.
Arriving at the fort, we were once again bombarded with hawkers selling all manner of crap souvenirs. I studiously ignored them and found that I had hit on the right formula to avoid the constant harassment – most of them didn’t even bother asking me. Someone else remarked that they didn’t ask me and I said I just didn’t look at them or talk to them. They said they tried that but it didn’t always work. May be I just looked poorer than the others, I’m not sure.
The fort itself is actually one of three on surrounding hills. They are joined by walls that look a bit like the Great Wall of China, although nowhere near as long, of course. Inside the main courtyard, besides the hawkers buzzing like flies, we were greeted by a parade of
painted elephants. Apparently if you have longer than us you can ride them all the way up from the centre of Jaipur, but you can’t ride them down because it’s more dangerous going downhill on the back of an elephant, apparently.
Once again we were given a small amount of free time but I did not feel constrained by it this time. I didn’t think the fort was as spectacular as the other sights we’d seen, and we got to see most of it while our guide was showing us around. We headed down the hill once again by jeep, where we met the buses and continued our sightseeing around Jaipur. This time we basically headed back to the hotel but we went via the town centre where we saw more of the terracotta town walls and a spectacular building that I can’t remember what it was.
Back at the hotel we had lunch before heading to the airport. We were flying to Mumbai. There wasn’t much of note to report, although I did get a grilling from security for all of the electronic items I was carrying. I was used to only removing the laptop but they
At the Red Fort, Agra
wanted to check everything so I basically had to empty both of my bags – my backpack and my camera bag. In the end they picked me up for having a large pack of batteries for my noise-cancelling headphones. I’m not sure what the problem was, but apparently the solution was to put half of them in one bag and half in the other. Once past security I was tempted to transfer them back while we waited to board but one thing I know is that airport security is not the place to prove points.
We arrived in Mumbai at 7:30 and it took us quite some time to gather everyone together, then to travel through Mumbai to the port where the Aegean Odyssey (our ship) was waiting. Getting through Port security also took quite a bit of time so by the time we finally boarded it was quite late. Thankfully they had kept the restaurant open for us and we were able to have a late supper before retiring to our cabins.
My cabin is small, but that’s fairly normal for a cruise ship, I think. My biggest concern was the lack of desk, but I guess
that just means I will need to be less of a hermit and do my writing out in public. So far it has proven okay, although the lack of power outlets means I have to limit my laptop use. Thankfully most of the writing I do for my course is with pen and paper, so I think it will be fine. I have since discovered that the air-conditioning doesn’t work in my cabin and will probably change cabins tomorrow, but it will be essentially the same cabin, just on the other side of the ship.
Tuesday morning was our sightseeing tour of Mumbai and once again most of it was done by bus. I hope that trend doesn’t continue, but I suspect that may be the downside of joining a cruise/tour designed for oldies. Having said that, it should make for a relaxing holiday which is something I rarely do. The first section of the tour was through the dock area where there were a lot of beautiful buildings from the colonial era. We got off the bus at the Gateway to India, a spectacular sandstone arch made to commemorate a visit by one of the British kings. When
the British left, the last regiments of soldiers to leave marched underneath the arch, so it was very symbolic of the colonial era. My newfound ability to deter hawkers worked here again, except for one beggar girl who saw right through it and followed me until I went through security. It is such a difficult position to be in, because I knew I could easily afford to help but not only does giving money to one person have limited effect, but it also makes you a target for others including hawkers and pickpockets.
We got back on the bus and drove down past the main beach in Mumbai. Being a workday, it was fairly quiet but apparently even when it is busy nobody swims there. The waters of Mumbai are just not swimming friendly. We drove through the wealthy part of town where the residents have water views and headed towards our next stop. I can’t remember the name, but apparently it is famous for all of the washing that is done there. It provided a nice photo opportunity with handwashing in the foreground and new business towers being built in the background.
Back on the bus we
got (avoiding the hawkers again) and headed towards the highlight of the tour, which was Ghandi’s house in Mumbai. This Ghandi fellow seems to be a big deal here in India. Unfortunately I only got as far as the library on the ground floor before I ran out of time and it was time to head back to the bus. We headed back to the ship and it was time for the compulsory lifeboat drill.
We were supposed to leave port then, but apparently Indian bureaucracy struck and we were delayed for some hours before we were able to get underway. This meant we would be a bit late arriving in Porbander the next day, but on the plus side the captain opened the bar. There wasn’t a general announcement, but I was sitting in the bar working on my photos after a fascinating lecture on Roman trade with India. When I went to order my second glass of wine, I was told it was free and when I came back to the bar after dinner they will still free. It was a good night.
This morning I woke up and reported my air-conditioning problem. As we were
originally not supposed to reach Porbander until 4pm, I was planning to spend the morning writing this blog at last. The only expected interruption was another lecture, this time on the history of trade in the Indian ocean and Arabian sea. However, the skilled captain had managed to make up some time somehow and we arrived in Porbander at 2pm. So the blog was only half-written before we had to head ashore.
What to say about Porbander? Some people described it as how they had found India to be when they visited 30 years ago. It was the “real” India. But before we get there we had to get off the port, which itself was a dustbowl. At the entrance to the port we boarded tuk-tuks and headed into the town.
The first thing I noticed was an intense olfactory assault that, as far as I could tell, consisted of human waste, garbage and rotting fish. I am not sure that I have ever smelt anything that bad in my life. The tuk-tuk ride though was quite fun. It was hair-raising at times, but it was exciting and I had a smile on my face the whole way.
I just made sure to breathe through my mouth.
Our first stop was a temple of some kind. Our guide did tell us the story but I was honestly struggling so much with the smell that I didn’t pay attention. I declined to enter the temple though because we had to remove our shoes and we couldn’t take photos. So I stayed outside and took photos of young children playing in a nearby maze, which was more interesting to me.
The next stop was Ghandi’s birthplace. They welcomed us there with floral necklaces and the obligatory red paint on the forehead. I decided to skip it this time because, I was kind of over it. While our guide was talking to us I was approached by some young guys who seemed to be making a video of some kind. I had to stand in front of the shrine there and tell them who I was, where I was from and what I thought of Ghandi’s shrine. They even had microphones in front of me like it was a press conference – technically I guess it was my first press conference! I must admit I did exaggerate how I
felt visiting Ghandi’s birthplace, but they seemed happy with what I said.
We then were given twenty minutes free time to wander around the market. This was not a tourist market though and gave a good feel of the real India. I met a young fellow named Numar who worked in a shoe shop. It looked like his father was prompting him to talk to me, so I suspect he was practicing his English so I was happy to help. I had a couple of less savoury glances while I walked around, but nothing dramatic happened. I got back to the tuk-tuk before most of my group and I sat there with the driver watching the world go past. At one point a very attractive girl walked past with her father and when they were gone the driver turned to me and smiled. He then said the only English word I had heard him say – “Hot”. I smiled in return because it was a fair assessment.
We then headed back to the ship. The scene at the port was every bit as chaotic as the streets of Delhi. All the tuk-tuks arrived back at the same time,
but there were no buses to take us to the ship. There was also a large crowd of locals watching us and many of the children were wandering around asking for something. Apparently some people were giving them money, which only made it worse. I missed most of that because I managed to get on the second bus. I was glad to get back to the ship, wash my hands and face and change clothes. I saw the real India today, and I must confess I was glad to leave it behind.
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