India is nothing and everything; so much at times it leaves tourists utterly speechless.
They say there is no present like the time and no time like the future. India is all about the here and the now for its 1.35 billion people. What is at dispute is some tourists too hastily saying that India is an assault on your senses.
Some see squalor, poverty, filth, terrible conditions but for others, like us, the ethos of India is cathartic, peaceful, spiritual, fun, embracing and sometimes challenging. Here, life is a privilege, not a right. We have tasted many countries and many cities. Now we can’t wait to get another taste of India; or very kind people; amazing food; sights and sounds.
For New Zealanders, we needed to prepare for any hiccup. We had all bases covered for health issues and upset tummies. We ate street food, restaurant food, hotel food – but never western food – and we felt the healthiest, happiest and never had any issues – especially after worrying how to cope with squat toilets. The food was just amazing.
Our first moment of excitement was at Indira Gandhi international airport in Delhi where we went to check-in for our Air India flight and a staffer told us they were offering 50 percent discount on the price of business class seats for our flight to Jodhpur. We felt in the mood for a treat, especially after a nine-hour transit at Changi in Singapore and six-hour wait at Delhi domestic. But when we went to board, the airline staff told us the flight did not have any business class seats! We learned the first rule of India, there’s always a bright side.
As our plane prepared to land; the captain announces no photos are to be taken of the airport. A nice young guy from Delhi next to us explains it’s because of a lot of military and fighter planes aimed at Pakistan, just in case of any attack a few hundred kilometres from the border.
All the fighter jets are stationed under bunkers covered over on three sides to look like dirt mounds from the air. When we get out of the plane, we see large signs saying – no photography. Because of the last-minute chaos at Delhi we worried if our bags would ever arrive on the antique looking conveyor belt of bags, delivered from the plane by tractor and rickety old trolley cart into a grand old terminal building.
One by one five cart loads of bags arrived on the belt but no sign of our bags. Then the sixth and last cart arrived and there they were. Jodhpur here we come. The foot pathless streets lined with trees, with dusty sandy edges, neat piles of rubbish, dusty looking shops, 19th century carts carrying produce pushed by their owners, mangey dogs, cows, stalls selling brightly coloured textiles quickly transformed into tiny alleyways too narrow for cars to pass and just enough for tuk tuks to pass.
We thought we were in a slum or rundown area, but suddenly out driver turns left off Sutharo Ka Bass Road through a sandstone arch into our immaculate cobbled Raas hotel courtyard. We had arrived at our five-star oasis. The quality of this jaw-dropping revamped haveli was exceptional. We were given a gracious and humble welcome by immaculately dressed staff in neatly pressed pastel blue Indian clothing. Mac, not the name expected at a far-flung luxury hotel on the edge of the Thar desert, took us to our room, via an inviting crystal clear large blue swimming pool with a little waterfall running toward loungers covered under cream canvas canopies; past restaurants and rooftop bar. We had finally set up base in the ancient walled desert spot of Jodhpur, the second largest city of Rajasthan.
We freshened up and hailed the hotel’s signature blue tuk tuk to take us to the central city’s Sardar market – for R200 there and back. Within a day we would just walk to the market in just five minutes. They were bustling, rammed with rickshaws, motorbikes, bikes, cows, women carrying larger piles of produce of textiles in bundles on their heads, mangey dogs and horses; orchestrated seamless chaos. At first, we stepped warily on the hazardous wobbly cobbled roads and alleys. It took little time before we were taken on our first kickback to a slick textile market. They told us they had had eight floors, like a jungle, of textiles. We wanted to believe him, but we were never quite sure.
Our first evening meal in India on a Raas rooftop restaurant with the imposing 750-year-old Mehrangarh fort lit up and bearing down benignly on us was a slice of heaven with food more tasty, tangy, different and more interesting, though not as spicy as we had expected. We had dreamed of this moment for a long time; at last we were here. The wait-staff were genuinely kind, friendly, gracious like something we had never experienced anywhere in the world before; more genuine than the Ritz in London. We felt humbled and not for the first or last time we began to understand why we had always wanted to relish India.
The next morning, we were gently woken to the soothing sound of a daily pre-dawn Islamic prayer over a nearby loudspeaker. The hotel offered ear plugs, but the prayers put us in a mood to enjoy the gift of India each day. After a delicious Raas Indian breakfast we walked up to the fort. It was another clear, sunny day of 37Cdeg and on our way down we met a man who was running a new restaurant, Indigo Blue who was very warm self-effacing. A bit further down the hill we stopped for a break and started chatting to two women, one of whom drew a henna with a brown dye like a tattoo which lasts for a week or so on my partner’s hand. We chatted for ages. Life stood still then we just lost ourselves in the tiny alleyways, looking into copper, spice and textile shops.
Someone then approached us and said he knew of the vest textile shop for us. All genuine – but how gullible we were as first-time tourists to India. So, this guy took us down the tiniest of back alleys that were so narrow I just wondered what might become of us but then we arrived at this shop.
The shop manager told us Richard Gere and Mick Jagger had bought from the shop and he showed us international magazines like Forbes and Vogue that had run articles on the shop. He may have been right, but you are never quite sure.
Our slick salesman spent half an hour laying our different fabrics of different qualities, colours and styles until we were under his spell and we bought a lot and had the goods posted back home to save excess baggage costs.
The days rolled into one inside our walled city. We had kind Muslim tuk tuk driver to take us to a Kunj Bihari Hindu Temple on Clock Tower Road and then to the grand Umaid Bhawan Palace, on Palace Road. The palace was the last royal palace built in India before 1947 independence.
Another tuk tuk driver Haargi later drove took us behind the fort to the old blue city – which is how Jodhpur got its name, the blue city, as most of the houses there are painted blue. The streets and alleys felt narrower that it seemed impossible for bike and tuk tuk to pass, let alone a car. The alleys became tinier, older, possibly dirtier as we started drifting back to the 15th century. We were lost in time. It was amazing place. So old, tiny, cramped strolling through tiny lanes of blue painted houses or homes where people had lived for centuries. There is something spiritually cleansing about Jodhpur – a city seemingly without any tagging or graffiti.
Our next stop was Jaipur, a six-and-a-half-hour drive along a very worn and bumpy road at first but then smoothed out to a tidy motorway as we drew closer to Jaipur. We saw lots of cows, goat herds, camels, monkeys, women in red clothing cutting millet and mounding in stacks in the paddock. It was very dusty and hot going through. We stopped just once. The toilets were very clean – but the men’s toilet had no running water and the women’s had no toilet paper.
As we entered the pink city of Jaipur, a bustling largely modern city of seven million people, much more westernised then Jodhpur. We wandered around our local park in the early evening and joined in a game of cricket with some young 11 and 12-year-old boys – who were very competitive.
We enjoyed the contrasting sights of the City Palace, the amazingly honey comb shaped Hawa Mahal near Johri Bazaar and the astronomical designs of Jantar Mantar, the site of the world’s biggest stone sundial. Scenes of beggars, mums and tiny children, people sleeping on the streets, hawkers and hustlers, work horses, goat herds, cows, monkeys and chickens is everyday life here.
We enjoyed the intense bargaining along jam-packed Bapu Bazaar on Gopal Ji ka Rasta and came away with shawls, camel skin bag, jewellery and an elephant patterned shirt.
The next morning, we headed off 17km north east of the city on what would be a highlight of our trip – spending a day with ‘our’ elephant. Elefantastic owner Rahul told us all 24 of their elephants were domesticated from circuses or had been used for various processions. Our 52-year-old female one tusker Sampa had such a calm nature. We fed her cane, washed her, sat on her while she pelted water all over us; and we took her for a walk along with another elephant who was 33 and blind. It was a very slow plod – with her mahout Raju – out around the hot, dry dusty fields, full of rat holes, cows, bulls and calves.
This was an unforgettable lovely day. We left privileged to have been so close to Sampa, just for that day. We didn’t visit the jewel in Jaipur’s crown, the Amer Fort, as it has elephant rides to the top of the hill and we feel people should start boycotting the use of elephants just for this purpose.
Our other memories of Jaipur were the busy lanes and streets of our suburb Raja Park, where we stayed at the outstanding Airbnb Aman Home Stay. Our gracious and impeccable hosts Pammi and Surjit could not have been more accommodating, generous and supportive.
We loved the Raja Park street food, for breakfast, lunch and tea. Yummy kathi rolls, samosa, soft coconut sugary dessert rolls, mild turmeric flat lentil type base with spices and green chillies. Mmm. By the end it seemed second nature to share the footpath-less roads, with camels, horses, goats, dogs, cars, buses, tuk tuks, motorbikes and peddle rickshaws. We had nothing but admiration for the tireless laundry women around the park using hot coals in tiny sheltered areas to heat their irons to press clothes for residents.
Our last two days were in Delhi, staying at the Radisson Blu hotel which was a perfect transitioning spot before heading back to the western world. The staff, again, were warm and engaging and we even shared a bottle of Indian red wine for our 18-course degustation meal one night.
We briefly strolled around the famous Connaught Place area in the epi-centre of New Delhi via a clean, efficient metro train service. Interestingly, for a city of 25 million, the Delhi haze was behaving. A latest World Health Organisation report says India tops a list of countries that recorded high numbers of child deaths linked to air pollution in 2016. At least 14 of the 20 most polluted cities of the world are in India, according to the WHO. We had the best of Delhi days; and the finest India adventure.
Much more by this author on his very excellent New Zealand News website.