Shimla’s mountain air: cool at last

For the past 90 days, we have sweltered and sweated our way through India; our faces dripping and our clothes sticky.  Three days ago, after five hours of bus travel, we climbed 2200 metres into the foothills of the Himalayas and left the heat and humidity behind.

Our last week in India will be spent in India’s oldest hill station – the former summer playground of the British upper crust and the current favourite of newlyweds and Indian families fleeing the spring and summer heat. Today in Delhi it was 38 degrees; in Shimla, it was 23 degrees with a light breeze. Once night falls, we  will need coats and hoodies. We’ve been sleeping under two heavy blankets and no air conditioning – heaven.

Shimla, with the snowy peaks of the Himalayas on the horizon.

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We have been putting our legs and lungs to the test – the town is built on seven steep hills, and the inclines can be brutal. Some of the smaller staircases are a little heartstopping – a fall down these stairs and you would be airborne.

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We’ve been able to soften our ascents and descents by sticking to the broader roads, most of them pedestrian-only. The main part of Shimla’s centre core is defined by The Ridge, a large open area ringed with small greenspaces, monuments to Gandhi and Indira Gandhi, and vistas of the town and mountains. This is where everyone gathers- Ground Zero for  the millions of selfies that threaten to drive me mad. I’m trying to sidestep fogey attitudes, but  for some reason, selfie-nation gets under my skin in a big way. There is no background too innocuous for a selfie; no opportunity wasted for yet another shot of me, glorious me.

Don’t hate me cause I’m beautiful. (at some point I may look around and appreciate the scenery, or…maybe not.)

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Selfies aside, without cars and motorbikes and tuk-tuks dominating the landscape, the people-watching becomes far more interesting.

Stephen has been collecting photos of mannequins – this started last year in SE Asia, where the mannequins were bizarre and downright scary. He’s found a few in India and noticed this one – her hair cut with pinking shears by a stoned best friend who also gave her really bad advice on eyeglasses. The gorgeous girls in front of the mannequin wanted us to take a photo of them as well.

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We stopped in a square for a break from our mountaineering, and almost immediately these two little brothers began tearing around in front of us – trying to get our attention and showing off outrageously.  Of course, we were encouraging them until their mother scolded them to behave properly, and on her instruction, they came over to practice their English.  “Are you from America?” “Do you like India?” “Thank-you for speaking to us.”
There are a number of very good schools in Shimla, and these two boys are attending one of them – learning their subjects in English.

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Shimla is different from much of India in a number of ways. Due to the steep terrain, traffic is confined to lower roads,  which means much of the city core is like a walk in the park –  peaceful and stress-free. There are very few beggars here, so hopefully that means there is a little more money to go around for more people. There is very little garbage on the streets. There are do-not-litter signs up everywhere, and plenty of garbage cans. Shimla has declared itself a smoke-free city and smoking inside and outside is punishable by fine. We did not see a single smoker – amazing. And – hallelujah – spitting is another civic misdemeanour.  We did see a few spitters, but it’s a hard habit to break.

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I marvelled at this store. Does this mean anyone could kit themselves out in full uniform and pass themselves off as police officers? Think of the revenue possibilities.

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Two of Shimla’s police officers in ceremonial garb – patrolling the streets.

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Due to the incredibly steep inclines on many of the streets, moving goods is done by sheer brute human force. You can imagine what four cases of pop weighs, held in place by heavy nylon straps. We saw many such amazing feats of strength – including incredibly, a full-sized refrigerator.

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The main shopping street, called The Mall, weaves around the Ridge on either side and runs for seven km. This is where tourists and locals congregate, and where some of the town’s main attractions and interesting architecture are found.

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One very curious business enterprise in Shimla are bathroom scales. Vendors set up blankets on the ground with the scales in front (and mysteriously, there are often horseshoes set up alongside – perhaps a token of good luck for the weigh-ee?) The cost is 10 rupees – about 20 cents. I passed by a number of decrepit scales until I came to this lady, with her bright shiny digital scale, unadorned with horseshoes – just the scale.  I liked her style, plus she charged double her competitor’s prices – 20 rupees, so with the logic of “you get what you pay for”, I removed my shoes, and hopped on. Aha! I’ve lost at least 10 pounds  – worth every rupee.

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Thus encouraged, we continued on to our destination – The Oberoi Cecil Hotel.

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Built 130 years ago on the site of Tendril Cottage, where Rudyard Kipling lived and wrote his novels, The Oberoi Cecil played a large role in the social life of the British Raj era and was the scene of many balls and galas. As Kipling noted, Shimla at the height of British rule had a reputation for ” frivolity, gossip and intrigue.” The Cecil no doubt added to that reputation.

It was completely refurbished in 1997, in the  original understated old money style and while we could not afford $400 a night to stay there, we decided to stop for lunch in the atrium, just to absorb the atmosphere.

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Our delightful waiter would have noticed our less-than-polished appearance and our consternation over the menu prices. When we decided to forego lunch and share the least expensive item on the menu, he nodded as approvingly as though we had just chosen the Himalayan trout, paired with a crisp white wine.

Our coffee, served with tea cakes and complimentary biscuits. Coffee was excellent, cakes were a touch dry.  Our bill was just over $30. (Lunch would have been just under $100). Nonetheless, a wonderful experience.

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The main dining room of the Oberoi Cecil. Can you not imagine the glasses of sherry and the poached fish and the dinner conversations?

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Shimla still has many buildings from its heyday as the summer capital. From 1864 to 1939, the entire government of India would flee the heat of Calcutta and transport all the files and documents of government to Shimla. It became not just the centre of government, but also the stage for the social life of the British elite.  Picnics, balls, galas, hunting, and amateur theatre at the Gaiety Theatre became the focus of each Season.

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The Gaiety Theatre has been beautifully restored, and on-site historian Mr. Gautam gave us a very animated and interesting tour of the theatre and explanation of its history. He modestly shook his head when I ask him if he was also an actor, and acknowledged that I was not the first to come to that conclusion.

The theatre was a huge diversion, and each summer plays by Shakespeare and George Bernard Shaw would be staged by amateur  British actors to a British-only audience. No Indians allowed – neither on stage nor in the audience.

Today, about 15 local theatre groups still perform on the well-worn stage.

View from the stage.

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Restoration projects are happening all over Shimla – so many grand mansions that have sadly been left to ruin.  This one – Bantony Castle – is almost impossible to imagine that it can be reclaimed. It has deteriorated to the point where the roof has collapsed in spots, so interior damage must be severe. However, restoration is in the works – it would be so interesting to see when the work is completed.

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The simple, elegant Christ Church Cathedral is another landmark from the British era. Built in 1846, it is one of the oldest churches in northern India.  We walked around the side to the manse, where they were serving Good Friday hot cross buns and coffee.

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Shopping in Shimla is a curious mix of Western knock-offs (Puma, Adidas), carved wooden toys and keychains and embroidered clothing and wool shawls. We bought a large shawl made of yak wool from Tibet, (which we will likely use as a lap blanket) – our only purchase so far, other than light clothing. There were many beautiful things along the way, but we didn’t want to have to carry stuff along with us as we travelled, so we’ve bought nothing. We may end up spending our remaining rupees at the Delhi airport.

Fancy gold jewellery is a huge thing in India – for weddings and for everyday use. While this jewellery is far too ornate for me, it is perfectly suited to Indian women, with their beautiful saris, their white teeth and red lipstick and their dark colouring.

There are a number of very good jewellery stores in Shimla – here is an example of some typical Indian gold jewellery.

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This has nothing to do with shopping, but is an interesting fact of life in Shimla.  Since vehicles are limited to the lower roads, traffic is horrendous and parking is at a premium. Most of the roads have limited shoulders and/or are on very steep inclines. Many hotels have just a handful of parking spaces for their guests and this is what they look like. Can you imagine the nerves required to park cars on this rooftop?

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Sunset at Shimla.

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We’re in Shimla for another four days and have lots more to tell you about.  I’ll be sending out another posting before we leave.

Happy Easter from India!

Chandigarh: “one of the greatest urban experiments of the 20th century.”

Chandigarh is India’s only planned city; and at 60 years old, it is one of its youngest.  After the trauma of Partition in 1947 and the loss of Punjab’s capital city Lahore to Pakistan, plans began by Prime Minister Nehru to create a capital city that would serve both states of Punjab and Haryana.

Work began in 1949 and finished in 1960. Over 50 small villages were cleared to create a city and union territory that Nehru claimed would be “symbolic of India’s freedom.”

After early plans by architects Mayer and Nowicki were scrapped, Swiss-French architect Le Corbusier was hired to implement Nehru’s vision.

Part of the City Beautiful movement, the goal of Chandigarh was to create a city unlike any other in India.

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Billed as being one of the cleanest cities in India, as well as one of the wealthiest, we were keen to see how it differed from the many faces of urban India we had already experienced. “Sweeping boulevards, lakes, gardens and grand civic buildings.” Sounds lovely. “Buildings executed in Le Corbusier’s favourite material: reinforced concrete.” Hmm… not sounding so cozy. Maybe a little grey.

Le Corbusier’s urban plan was to create rectangular Sectors – each measuring 800 by 1200 metres; with each one intended to be self-sufficient and fulfill four functions: Living, Working, Circulation and Care of Body & Spirit.

Each Sector includes greenspace and small interior roads, with the main arterial roads dividing the Sectors and punctuated with roundabouts. The main arterial roads also feature tree-lined boulevards, to soften the effect and provide safe walking paths.

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A quote from Le Corbusier, to describe his philosophy:

The curve is ruinous, difficult and dangerous. It is a paralyzing thing. The straight line enters into all human history, into all human aim, into every human act.

So how has this experiment worked? We don’t know how it functions for residents, but as tourists, we found the city design extremely disorienting. Yes, we could leave our hotel (in Sector 35), and walk down the street to discover stores and restaurants. We could walk on a sidewalk, and not have to dodge cars, scooters, and cow patties.

But where was the life? We trudged along in a straight line (sorry, Le Corbusier, most people do not follow a straight line – either in life or out for a stroll.)  to our restaurant, then walked in a straight line back to our hotel.

We were “contained” in our self-sufficient Sector, until we hailed a tuk-tuk to take us to other Sectors.  Driving along the arterial roads, the scenery remains unchanged from one Sector to the next – broad boulevards, trees and vehicles.
What lies behind those high walls?

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Le Corbusier envisioned apartment buildings and office buildings designed in the same linear fashion as the Sectors – concrete, rectangular and efficient.

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The main shopping area is Sector 17, also referred to as City Centre.  We headed there with hopes of finding a “downtown” or a  gathering place, and we did find a semblance of a centre core. Much of the main area is pedestrian-only, which is what every good city should have. The challenge is that there is no obvious centre – no collection of temples, churches, plazas or seating.

This pathway leads through a park to the main shopping area.

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The shopping area runs for a number of blocks, with mid-range North American stores such as Nautica and Gant side-by-side with university bookstores  and sari shops. It resembles North American plazas from the 60s – the same charmless layout and gone-to-seed ambiance. No-one can be bothered to even sweep the streets, it seems – it just ain’t as pretty as it used to be.

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Still, parts of the shopping complex attracts greater crowds – drawn by the fake Ray-Bans and the cotton candy.

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The shoeshine boys were hopeful – many of them chased us to demonstrate “a free sample of my work”. We probably should have taken them up on their offer, just to see what magic they could work with our worn-out Merrill running shoes and dirty old Birkenstocks.

One nice feature was this Le Corbusier-inspired “Open Hand” fountain.  There are many Open Hand sculptures around the city – designed as “open to give, open to receive.”

Behind the fountain you can see the typical storefronts, not just in Sector 17, but throughout the city. Three-storey rectangles of stained grey concrete, plastered in signs for travel agents, shoe stores and hair salons.

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After failing to make a connection to the City Centre, and trying to find the essence of Chandigarh, we headed over to Sector 10 to take in a couple of museums.

We spent a few hours wandering through the Government Museum and Art Gallery, admiring carvings, textiles, old terra cotta, Mughal miniatures, and a decent contemporary art section.

Le Corbusier – designed building.

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The entrance.

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We were keen to see some examples of Indian contemporary artists and these were a few of my favourites.

Sheltered Woman by Arpana Caur – an artist who works in feminist themes.

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On the Beach by Amrita Sher-Gill. A fascinating Hungarian-Indo artist who lived a short,  scandalous life and died tragically at age 28 under mysterious circumstances.

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The Pilgrim – Guru Nanak  by Jaswant Singh. I couldn’t find a lot about this artist, but his subject, Guru Nanak,  is the founder of Sikhism.

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Enroute to the museum, we walked through the Rose Garden, dutifully obeying the many “Keep off the Grass” signs, although very few other people paid attention.

There are many parks in Chandigarh, but they’re not at their peak – they’re dry and washed-out looking – the way our gardens look by late August. They must be stunning about a month after monsoon season.

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The Nek Chand Rock Garden is the one that draws the crowds. In absolute contrast to Le Corbusier’s straight-line world, Nek Chand is all about the curves.

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With the idea that it is better to ask forgiveness than permission, Nek Chand worked quietly to create his fantasy garden, built of stone, debris, and discarded junk. The  transport official began his work in 1957, and it took over 20 years to complete. At first, he worked in total secrecy at night for fear of being discovered. When authorities did find out what he was up to, they threatened to demolish it, but in the end decided the garden had civic merit and paid him a salary as well as provided money to hire other workers.

Today, it stands on 25 acres and is a fantastical creation of waterfalls, amphitheatres, narrow pathways, child-sized doorways, mosaics and  2000 sculptures.

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Nature is well-incorporated into the stone and rock.

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One of the many waterfalls provided a natural backdrop for photos.

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Another small shaded pathway.

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This gentleman came over to chat with us and find out what country we’re from. This has been a common experience here in Punjab, since so many Indians from this region either have family in the Vancouver area, or they have moved there themselves and are back in India for a holiday. It has provided an instant bond; followed by their curiosity about our impressions of India. Followed by photos of us standing beside them!

As it turns out, this gentleman and his wife have lived in Paris for 20 years, but their son has just graduated from University and is moving to Montreal.

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Much of Nek Chand’s genius involved the creation of small “villages” of human and animal sculptures.

Look closely and you will see that these women’s bodies are encircled with broken plastic bangles.

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There is a more sombre tone to this group – bent postures and sad expressions.

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In the background, a wall made of broken crockery. In the foreground, some unsettling images. Are the figures begging? Holding out a plate for food perhaps?

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The Nek Chand Rock Garden was our favourite part of Chandigarh. We walked with groups of people and had the opportunity to connect with them – for photos, for chats, or just for acknowledging curious stares with a smile.

We admired the unimaginable work that went into the making of this garden and wondered about the motivations of the artist. We cooled off in shady rest spots and shared benches with other tourists.

Best part of all – we all flowed together down the curvy, labyrinthine pathways – not a straight line to be found.

We’re happy to have had the chance to visit this unique planned city, and it was a welcome change to dial back a bit on India’s usually full-on assault, but still…
From a tourist perspective, there’s no heart, no soul, no people-watching and way too much concrete.

And now, we’re on our way to the foothills of the Himalayas – to Shimla, one of the British hill stations.  We’ll be there for a week – enjoying day trekking in cool mountain air before we fly home from Delhi on April 8.

See you again in a few days.

 

Amritsar: not all that glitters…

This is the reason that tourists find their way to Amritsar, in Punjab State: the spectacular Golden Temple that is India’s holiest Sikh shrine and a sacred pilgrimage for millions.

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The Golden Temple is the centrepiece, but it is set within a huge compound and surrounded by the Amrit Samovar, or Pool of Nectar – a massive tank of water kept clean by a school of koi. Refreshingly, there is not a speck of garbage around – not so much as  a gum wrapper is floating in the holy water, which is said to have healing properties. Pilgrims (men and children only) come from all over the world to bathe in the waters and wash away their mortal sins and bodily ills.

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The Golden Temple is free of charge and open to everyone, regardless of religion. To enter, you must first remove your shoes and walk through a foot bath ( kept clean by piped-in flowing water.)

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Dress is modest and heads must be covered.  With that protocol observed, the Temple takes on a home-away-from-home atmosphere for devotees; many of whom will spend the entire day there. It was not uncommon to see people simply flaked out in the middle of the pathways.

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Some devotees appeared overcome by emotion; many dropping to kiss the marble floors and others engaging in quiet prayer.

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One of the extraordinary features of the Golden Temple is the Guru-Ka-Langar – a gigantic dining hall where free meals are served to over 100,000 people every day. The Sikh principles of equality are at play here – everyone sits on the floor and eats together, regardless of caste, religion, colour or economic status. We were still nursing tender tummies and did not want to appear rude by not eating, so we didn’t partake, but we did gratefully accept bowls of filtered water being offered at stations throughout the compound.

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Stephen, with souvenir scarf,  in front of the Golden Temple. We were among the very few white faces in the crowds and attracted a fair bit of attention, especially from the children, who gazed at us with such curiosity.

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One does not have to be Sikh to feel deeply moved here – by the respect, the devotion and the awe that we witnessed from almost everyone around us. We could imagine how profound an experience it was for them, as it was for us.

The temple is made of white marble and encased in 750 kg. of gold leaf and is accessible by walking down a long causeway. But first, you must line up and with an estimated waiting time of up to two hours, we were just not up to the challenge.

We did hang around for a bit at an opening in the lineup and talked to a man and his son. He became quite animated once he found out we were from Vancouver – he is an NRI (non-resident Indian) living in Langley and back to India for a visit.

It was fun to watch the method of crowd control – once the lineup made it to the straightaway, there were large bamboo poles in place to measure out the next chunk of people allowed to move forward.  By now, they had been waiting for an hour and a half, so they were chomping at the bit.

They lift the pole, and they’re off…dashing ahead in a mad, albeit good-natured, pack. The pole comes down again and the next group will be let though in about 10 minutes time. The video didn’t pick it up, but about another dozen or so people shimmied under the poles and squished in, pushing ahead in the lineup. It’s the Indian way.

The prize – worth waiting for a chance to visit the inner sanctum.

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From the peace and serene beauty of the Golden Temple compound, our re-entry to the outside world was somewhat jarring.

Amritsar is doing its best to Keep India Chaotic – back to the world of beeping, honking, garbage-strewn madness. The side streets and alleyways are enticing, but we’re on a mission – we’re heading to the scene of a 1919 massacre.

During this time, Amritsar was the scene of protests and action for the Independence Movement, and it was at Jallianwala Bagh that 5000 people gathered into a public courtyard for a peaceful protest. The British army moved in and without warning, opened fire on the unarmed crowd. With just a narrow laneway as the only exit, most were trapped. When it was finished, over 1000 were killed and more than 1500 wounded.
It was a vicious and unprovoked attack that was widely denounced around the world.

Today, the courtyard is a beautiful space, filled with gardens, a memorial, a small museum and signs pointing out the bullet holes that are still visible in the brick walls.

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We also visited the excellent Partition Museum. This relatively new museum explains the tumultuous events leading up to India and Pakistan becoming self-governing countries, and the catastrophic fallout.

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The partition of 1947 coincided with the dissolution of the British Raj era, and the independence of India. The history and key figures of Partition are far too complicated to explain in a blog posting, but in a nutshell, this is what happened:
The state of Punjab was divided into East and West, and overnight millions of citizens found themselves on the wrong side of the borders and were forced to flee. A mass migration of 1.4 million people created a refugee crisis of epic proportions, and more than 800,000 people of all religions were killed in the riots that followed. The killings and hatred continued, creating religious-based conflicts that are not entirely over to this day.

It is a part of history I had only heard fleetingly about and knew very few details.  One haunting display in the museum was a recreation of a well – to illustrate how women would fling themselves to their deaths in the wells, rather than be captured, raped and killed. Yet another potent example of how we never seem to learn.

The interior courtyard of Town Hall – part of the stunning complex that houses the Museum.

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Our visit to the Partition Museum was a perfect set-up for our visit to the border-closing ceremony between India and Pakistan (we’re just 30 km. from the border), but more on that in a moment.

First, a couple of signs that caught our eye.

This doctor’s office was just down the street from our hotel, and this sign stopped me in my tracks.  India leads the world in TB cases, with an estimated 2.2 million out of a global rate of 9.6 million.  (Canada had just 1600 cases). (WHO 2011)

We’ve both had phlegmy, rattly coughs for the past couple of weeks, so this sign was not reassuring. Mind you, everyone has phlegmy, rattly coughs here – the air is just so dirty.

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We passed this sign on the walls of a military installation – long, clean walls with this sign every 200 yards or so.

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It’s not a friendly sign, and we won’t be the ones to put it to the test. As in Jaisalmer, Amritsar is close to the Pakistan border,  and relations between the two countries are still uneasy. The hundreds of troops and tanks and armoured vehicles are not there for show.

The famous border-crossing ceremony at the Attari-Wagah border, on the other hand, is pure show.  Part Monty Python Silly Walks, part military showmanship, this 30-minute spectacle draws 20,000 – 25,000 people every afternoon.

The suspense begins as we make our way from the parking lot to the border. Cycle rickshaws are on hand for those who don’t want to walk the final kilometre.

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We are instructed to bring our passports, just in case. (they were checked), and we all pass through a security scanner and a vigorous patdown. No bags allowed – just a small purse and camera.

Then, once past the military and the police dogs, the games begin. Vendors hawk flags, fans  and hats with “I Love My India”. We brush past them to race for the stadium – trying to get the best seats, preferably in the shade. Several military are on hand to direct traffic and in our case, to encourage me to stay put, after I had been told (with several blasts on the whistle) to sit down. Down we sat, and watched the hordes flow in and fill up the seats.

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The whole point of this ceremony is to take down the flags on either side and close the gates for the evening, but what started out as a semi-formal, military drill has turned into a theatre of the absurd.

On the Pakistan side, the crowd was being warmed up with a somewhat sedate performance.

On the India side, it was raucous. Jai-Ho (the famous song from Slumdog Millionaire) brought the crowds down for an impromptu Bollywood performance.
Vendors worked the stands, selling ice-cream, popcorn, and drinks. The crowds kept streaming in.

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And then…with military precision – the dancers were scooted back to their seats, the vendors shooed away and at 5:00 pm on the nose – showtime.

It began with officers running smartly with their dogs, and the crowd went wild.

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Actually, the crowd went wild for the entire 30 minutes, and amazingly…they were otherwise very well-behaved. At the first sign of trying to stand up (and block everyone else’s view while they got their photos), they were sternly told to sit down, and didn’t need to be told twice. Subsequently, everyone got to see and everyone got their money shots.

A lot of to-ing and fro-ing and perfectly choreographed arm-swinging and leg-lifting.

And then, the chest-thumping, teeth-baring finale. Flags were lowered, carefully folded and carried away.
Soldiers on both sides carried out a provocative show of force – first from India:

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Followed by a call and response from Pakistan:

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And the India-Pakistan border was peacefully closed for another night.

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Now we’re in Chandigarh, which could not be more different from Amritsar.  It is still in Punjab state, and is  India’s first planned city – by Le Corbusier, no less.

Jaisalmer: on the edge of the Thar Desert

Jaisalmer is the most western and remote of the Rajasthan cities: the golden jewel right on the edge of the Thar Desert. Formerly a prosperous camel-trade route between India and Asia, its fortunes dropped drastically after Partition in 1947, and the area seemed destined to dry up.  Ironically, its proximity to the Pakistan border gave it fresh importance and today the economy is bolstered by a massive tourism revival, numerous military installations  and countless  kilometres of wind farms.

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The city is small – just 65,000 souls, and golden – most of the buildings are of shade of tan and gold, which reflect the desert sun and heat. This is not the landscape bold colour. It  is dominated by the mammoth Jaisalmer Fort; which from a distance looks like a giant sandcastle constructed by an army of six-year-olds armed with inverted sandpails. (Please forgive the poor, fuzzy and distant photo quality, but this is the best shot I have – taken from our hotel rooftop).

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The main attractions of the fort are the Jain Temples and Fort Palace; but inside the fort walls is an actual small city, with people who have lived there since its founding in 1156. Currently there are about 3000 residents, whose homes and shops are lined along narrow winding lanes. For centuries, residents have necessarily been meticulous about water conservation and have lived without incident until recent years when tourism and its incumbent unrestricted water use has brought about extremely serious consequences.

And herein lies yet another example of how untrammelled tourism has the potential to take away so much more than it brings to a community. Water usage and disposal have not been monitored nor restricted and the Fort is under serious threat unless appropriate measures are taken to restrict water use and/or continued guest occupancy within the fort.  It is built of sandstone, and part of the wall fell down because of water seepage; an ongoing issue as  there is nowhere for the water to drain away. Tourists are encouraged to book rooms outside the Fort, but certainly guesthouse owners inside are not willingly giving up their revenue streams.  It is shocking to think that irreversible changes to such a treasure could be allowed to happen and yet it appears headed in that direction.

This is the entrance to the Fort – on overview of some of the exterior details.

Once inside, one runs the gauntlet of shop after shop selling colourful and really beautiful hangings, rugs, tablecloths and cushion covers. Although we’re not in the market to buy, it is still a pleasure to stop and admire, and that becomes impossible as the slightest side glance turns into a full-on sales pitch. “Come in madam. I have more inside. Lots of colours. Good prices. What are you looking for?”  Since entreaties to be allowed to quietly look are ignored, I freeze and panic at the onslaught and keep moving.

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The Fort offers endless glimpses into people’s private lives, but then that could be said about the rest of India – much of life is lived publicly and outdoors.

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The Jain Temples date to the 15th and 16th centuries, and the opulence and carvings are extraordinary.
Jain religion forbids the wearing of leather and all shoes are left outside the door. I wondered how many leather belts made it inside, or small leather bags and wallets.

The temples forbids menstruating women from entering  the temple as they are “unclean”. This is not restricted to Jain temples but it was the first time so far we had  seen the sign. Since proving menstruation is difficult, women between the ages of 10 and 50 are simply banned from some temples at all times. Encouragingly, protests against this shameful notion have been ongoing in India for a few years; another sign of the push-pull struggles of modern India.

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The interior of one of the temples:

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A closeup of some of the carvings:

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Back in our little ‘hood, lots going on as well. Our hotel is called The Secret House, a brand new build by the extremely charming Naru, and designed by his Spanish wife. After some of our less than pristine guesthouses, arriving here was a gift – of comfy bed, immaculate bathroom, fluffy towels and scented air – along with sweet design touches and very professional service.

This became our refuge from the blistering 38 degree mid-day desert heat.

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Not all our neighbours live as comfortably as The Secret House.

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We met some of the locals on our walks, including this little gang of kids who waved and smiled and yelled out to us like the bold little kids they are, and the second I asked for a photo, this happened:

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Next time we take a tuk-tuk, you can bet we’ll be checking  the seats carefully for signs of goat-hair.

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In the market, we came upon this stall of amigos – one of them giving his friend a strenuous leg rub with what looked like coconut oil. In India, the land where PDAs among opposite-sex couples are not considered appropriate, it is open-season for great physical affection between men. Some young girls walk together with arms entwined, but it is the men who have cornered the market on touching. They hold hands, fingers spread and clasped tightly. They walk with arms around one another. It is unabashed, seemingly without any sexual intent or overture – just the way it is. This is a man’s world.

I’m trying to imagine this same gentleman sitting there, with his wife massaging his legs in public – just wouldn’t happen.  Another of India’s many mysteries and contradictions.

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Camel safaris are one of the biggest tourist draws in Jaisalmer:  half-day, full-day, or multi-day excursions.  The most popular one is an overnight safari leaving mid-day, with two hours of camel riding, camping for the night and sleeping under the stars. By all accounts it is magical.

Before I go any further, I must tell you both Stephen and I had been extremely sick for four days leading up to our arrival in Jaisalmer. Delhi Belly hit with a vengeance as we arrived in Jodphur and after a night to remember, we then just fell into a waking/sleeping/sweating/shaking/ fitful limbo where the hours slowly crawled by and day turned into night and the nightmares were horrifying and we didn’t seem to be getting any better. Then, bit by bit, we emerged and made it to Jaisalmer in what could be described as 70% function and health. Unfortunately  we missed Jodphur entirely.

I’m telling you this for two reasons – most visitors to India have similar stories to tell and now we have ours.   I was going to use it as an excuse not to go on a camel ride. “I don’t think my tummy can take a camel ride – let’s just go on a jeep safari.” 

Stephen was not all that keen to ride camels either, so we chose to book a jeep safari and it ended up being a highlight of our time in Rajasthan. Our guide Papu grew up as a camel driver and still lives in a village out there. He spoke perfect English and was extremely knowledgeable about everything.

We drove through a small village that is populated by “untouchables.” This low caste, called Dalits, have been ostracized from the rest of society and consigned to do the dirtiest work such as cleaning public latrines. There is much effort to do away with the caste system, but it still exists in remote places. Naturally we did not take photos.

Our next stop was a typical village – neat and orderly and modest and similar to the one our guide lives in.

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A source of income in this area is goat farming – the males are sold for their meat.

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Papu brought us into this home to learn a little about village life and be served chai. A single-room cottage with no electricity or running water, it was spotlessly clean and swept; the pots shone and gleaming. We sat on a thin carpet on the ground and talked.

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This woman lives here – photos of her family are prominently displayed, most notably several large ones of her husband, retired from the military. Hers has not been an easy life, I wouldn’t think, but she has family, friends, community, income and a home. She seemed quite interested in learning more about us.

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On to the main event – we off-roaded up into the desert (or at least what I think of as being desert – it’s all desert). As we passed a few camels, Papu casually mentioned that we should consider going for a short ride – even 15 minutes. Stephen really warmed to the idea and considering we were there, and would likely never be back, we went for it.

Like a mirage – two drivers and three camels soon appeared! They brought their animals down to allow us to climb on ( if you are looking for ways to feel ungainly, this would be one), and then gave us instructions to hang onto the pommel and lean back as the animal rose to its feet. Whoa – up, up , way up. There…we did it.

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And again.

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And away we went – with me gathering promises from the driver that he would go slowly and not let the camel trot. You’re about 10 feet off the ground and the gait is rolling – you have to let your body follow the animal (as opposed to hanging onto the pommel for dear life and hyperventilating as I did for the first five minutes). If you ride horses, you would likely take to this in a snap.

The driver took us up into the higher dunes – a ride of about 15 minutes in total. I’m very happy we did it (that Stephen talked me into it) – I think we would have been so disappointed to have missed out on our tiny camel adventure. We were then directed to climb the top of the dunes to watch sunset before being picked up again.

An example of the dunes – as Papu noted, “not the Sahara” but good enough for us.

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Another camel train going by.

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A driver collecting his animals for the night.

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Desert sunset.

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Good-bye beautiful Jaisalmer – thank-you for providing us with such memorable experiences.

Tomorrow we fly to Amritsar, home to the sacred Golden Temple.

P.S. A few hours ago, we went to the local lake to witness the Gangaur festival that was pure joy.  Women and girls celebrate the monsoon, harvest and fidelity; hoping for marital happiness. Today was the final celebration after the 18-day festival; culminating in a procession leading to the lake, with groups of women  carrying offerings to the water, and enroute, dancing to Lord shiva and Goddess Parvati.

It was an incredible spectacle, with hundreds of beautiful women of all ages taking part. We are including the photo of this little boy (whom we suspect is a girl in costume), because he reminds us for all the world of our friend Nick McAnulty. He was our son Alex’s best friend since they were five-years-old, and are friends to this day. This is what he looked like back then, and it made us feel sentimental.

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The street dancing and drumming was fabulous – many groups performed as they travelled down to the lake – this was one of the more energetic ones, thanks to the drummer.

 

Udaipur: The Most Romantic City in India?

Based on our travels through India so far and with so much yet to see, we can’t say for sure that Udaipur lives up to its marketing slogan, but it is certainly one of the most photogenic we’ve seen.

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Udaipur is a city of lakes and mountains, with centuries-old havelis ringing every shore – the setting is magical. Rooftop dining is romantic – many restaurants boast views like this.

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But there will be no romantic strolling hand-in-hand through charming narrow lanes. Those charming narrow lanes create a constant bottleneck of traffic; a chaotic every-man-for-himself pedestrian and vehicular mash-up, accompanied by nonstop honking and beeping. There is but one way to navigate – wade in, watch your toes (for cow shit and motorcycle wheels), and keep moving. You’re unlikely to be hurt if you do get hit – no-one is going very fast.

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Based on everything we had read about Udaipur, we arrived here with great expectations and the city has lived up to them all. This is the “White City” (Jaipur was the “Pink City” and Jodphur is the “Blue City”) – so-called because of the predominant paint colour of many of their buildings.  Crazy traffic aside, Udaipur is a walker’s paradise – twisting, winding alleys open into main streets, then close up again, to bring you closer to the heart of the local neighbourhoods.

These neighbourhoods are not rich. Many of their citizens may do their bathing and laundry in the lakes. We got a glimpse into lives that are poor, but not desperate – possibly typical of how many Indians live.

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Before we arrived in the north, we were told that the people here were “different” – a little harder, a little tougher, the men a bit scary. We have found exactly the opposite – we’ve found the people here to be so friendly, and welcoming and curious. Sure, the men stare, but that is cultural, not threatening – I just walk by.   The women stare too,  but I smiled and they smiled right back. When I asked if I could take their photo, the lady in the middle perked right up. She primped her hair, adjusted her headscarf and demanded to see the photos afterward.

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Now before I go any further into extolling the many virtues of Udaipur, let me confess that we succumbed to the starstruck madness of Octopussy – a hilariously cheesy James Bond film that was shot largely in Udaipur in 1983. Long before the days of #Time’s Up, Roger Moore is at his eyebrow-lifting, double-entendre best and of course, every Indian stereotype is hauled out.

A number of restaurants are still dining out on an event that took place 35 years ago, by showing the movie every night. Obviously saturation point has been reached, as we were the only diners in our chosen restaurant but we had a great time laughing ourselves silly. We were asked to suspend disbelief long enough to imagine James on an island full of young women in red jumpsuits (when he was not fighting an angry Sikh on top of a  plane, or navigating crowded Indian streets in a tuk-tuk capable of pulling wheelies down staircases).

imagesSince James Bond stays only in the finest hotels, we followed his path to the ultra-luxurious Shiv Niwas Palace Hotel, part of the City Palace complex, and apparently closed to those who can’t spring $600 a night for a room. I can’t say I blame them for their discretion – busloads of camera-wielding tourists hanging out in the lobby and checking out the washrooms would put a serious crimp on the exclusivity of the place. This is as close as we got.

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Another exclusive hotel – Lake Palace Hotel – is accessible only by boat, thereby guaranteeing privacy from the non-guests. This was the scene of Bond’s women-only fantasy island.

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Stephen and I said that one day we might treat ourselves to a crazily-expensive, full-on pampering retreat. Then we discussed it a little further and realized first we would need to upgrade our wardrobes, get better haircuts, perhaps lose a few pounds and invest in a decent suitcase. Then we would need to cultivate insouciant attitudes – it all feels like way too much work, and so not us.

City Palace – the star attraction of Udaipur, Rajasthan’s largest palace and a seriously impressive complex of several buildings connected by courtyards. The first building began in 1599 by Maharana Udai Singh, the city’s founder.

You enter the place by the main gate, Tripolia, built in 1725. Now we’re talking – this is the India of my imagination.

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And this guard, resplendent in uniform and Rajasthani moustache – handsome and proud.

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The main palace courtyard.

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The palace is graced with many shady courtyards, to rest and recover from the sun – a godsend. It allowed us to spend three hours wandering, without buckling from heat exhaustion, as is so often the case with trudging around large palaces and forts in the hot sun. I watch groups of senior travellers, red-faced and sweating, clutching maps and brochures, and feel sorry for them, until it dawns on me. “I too am a red-faced, sweating senior, slugging water and gasping like a guppy. ”  I may never get this whole travelling-in – hot-countries thing down gracefully.

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One of the many decorative courtyards, with stained glass, mirror and glass mosaics and intricate carvings.

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A closeup of some of the mosaic and tile work.

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A relic from bygone days – carrier pigeon cages.

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India is full of charmingly-phrased signs; a country where English is prevalent, but often a tiny bit lost in translation.

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Another movie nod – this time for a substantially more worthwhile film – Gandhi. The glasses Ben Kingsley wore for the film are on display.

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Another important building is the 18th-century Bagore-ki-Haveli, once a prime minister’s residence that had been left to ruin and was fairly recently restored.  A bit of a letdown after the grandeur of the palace, the haveli has by no means been brought back to the level of its former glory, but it is  a good example of wealthy homes in Udaipur at that time. One lonely guard watched as we wandered through the halls.

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Its museum houses some esoteric exhibits, including the world’s largest turban, weighing in at 30 kg., measuring 151″ long and 30″high. The photo doesn’t do it justice – it looks less like a turban than it does any number of disgusting things, but interesting  for folks who like the “world’s largest, biggest, tallest, etc.” sort of attractions.

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We noticed this plaque with a quote from Mark Twain’s 1897 book Following the Equator, based on his travels through India. In pure Mark Twain fashion, he nails India in this passage. And in all that time, so little has changed.

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One final tourist-y thing – the Jagadish Temple – a stunningly carved multi-storey structure. As we entered, we noticed about a dozen men sitting along a wall, being fed lunch. They were obviously very poor and I wondered  if the temple feeds citizens every day. Hopefully that is the case.

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A close-up of the carvings:
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Boat rides on the lake are hugely popular – we took one last night for sunset, joining a large tour group of British high school students who spent the entire time checking their phones, gossiping about their friends and snogging with their boyfriends. It’s so funny – so often the field school is a good excuse to get away from parents, with the destination being a secondary attraction.

We did not snog, and paid attention to what we were seeing.

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Jagmandir Island – a hotel, restaurant and bar – open to visitors.

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Sun setting against City Palace

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Art take many forms in Udaipur – from wall murals:

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To these whimsical and beautiful designs that decorate many a doorway. They are all variations on a theme – horses, elephants, maharajas, etc. and appear to be the work of one artist.
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We believe they must be stencils, but this young man Ricky claimed to be the artist for this one.

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Udaipur is crawling with artists and art classes – many of them are classes in Mughal  miniatures. Every second store carries similar pieces of art and the artists all claim that a single piece takes them 20 hours of work, yet they charge just $6 or $8. It is hard not to be a little skeptical, since the price does not reflect the effort and the effort appears to be identical from one shop to the next and available in massive quantities.

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We are splashing out a little tonight – having dinner at a fancy restaurant on the water’s edge. We want to celebrate our last night in Udaipur – the most romantic city in India – in style.

Next up – Jodphur – the Blue City, home to a huge fort and birthplace of those unique riding breeches.

Tiny Pushkar brings us back

We had hit that point in our travels where the heat, dirt, noise, garbage, cows, dogs, beggar kids and marauding motorcycles were taking their toll. We were losing our energy and worse, we were losing our interest. Emails and photos from home were making us homesick – not just for friends and family but for cool, clean air and toast with marmalade. We were planning out the rest of our trip, saying, “Just four more weeks and we’re home“, as though our remaining time here was an obstacle to be endured.

And then we arrived in Pushkar, a cattle and camel trading town of around 20,000 souls, perched in a valley and ringed with low hills, and something switched in us. There are still the unrelenting touts and throat-closing smells and starved dogs, but we realized we have an incredible opportunity now. Our trip no longer stretches ahead without horizon, with days to be frittered. Now, we don’t want to miss one thing – good, bad or sad.

Pushkar is a holy town; many Sikhs and Hindus make a pilgrimage here at least once in their lives.  The town centres around a small  holy bathing lake, ringed with 52 ghats. Some of Gandhi’s ashes were scattered here. One must remove shoes to walk around the lake and photography of temples or bathers is strictly forbidden, but we did sneak in a couple of long shots of the buildings on the other side.

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Our first evening in Pushkar, we spent a couple of hours by the ghats until we were driven away by the touts. There is a well-documented scam that exists here – there are even official signs posted for tourists to beware of anyone “offering gifts.” What happens (dozens of times) is this: you will be approached by young men trying to press small flowers into your hands for “good karma”. If you refuse to take the flower, you are angrily accused of being disrespectful. The whole idea is to bully the unaware tourist into approaching the lake with the flower, and then the sales pitch for a hefty donation begins. Because we knew about this ahead of time, we cut them off every time and each time we were met with anger. It is the downside of Pushkar and casts a deep shadow on the holiness of the place.

We discussed this concept with another young man, Sandeep, who has no use for these characters. As he said, “karma cannot be bought.” What can be bought from Sandeep however is chai tea.

We were expertly hauled into his stall and before  we knew it, we were sitting on stools and waiting for our tea tasting tray to be prepared.

Sandeep’s chai is not served with milk,  “a hangover from British rule”, he said. He prepared 6 small cups of chai – rose, lemon, mint – among them – all of them refreshing and healthy. We bought a tin to bring home – paid way too much for it, but you can’t keep your guard up all the time and he was charming. Good karma.

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There are over 400 temples in Pushkar (many of them tiny shrines, really), and non-Hindus are not allowed to visit inside most of them.

This is as far as we could proceed, but it will give you an idea of the intricate lacy design.

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Everyone is welcome to visit the Sikh temple – a massive white pile on one end of the lake. I had my head covered, but Stephen’s ball cap was not allowed, so they tied a dirty old dewrag on him. We washed our hands,  removed our shoes, bathed our feet and proceeded. It is a somewhat strange thing to visit temples – we have no context of it being a religious building, so it is not always clear what we’re looking at.

On a purely aesthetic basis, this temple was worth the visit.  Stunning, pure white marble and immaculately clean.

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The town of Pushkar is made up of twisty, tiny laneways that lead down to the main shopping bazaar and beyond that, the lake.  Our hotel is well tucked away from the hubbub, and this is the lane that leads up from our front door.

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There are so many shops and stalls and impromptu markets all over India. We’re trying to figure out the business plan. In little Pushkar,there may well be 400 shops or more selling almost identical merchandise. How do you bring enough tourists in your door to make it work? One enterprising young man offered me cigarettes and when I told him I don’t smoke, he was undeterred. “You can start!”  Refreshingly, there seems to be less of a hassle here than elsewhere in India – often the shopowners just sit and let the world go by.

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The produce market is also low-key. They’ve got all day. We watched this old gent park his bike, walk slowly over to inspect a bunch of parsley, make his purchase and head back again.

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On one of the India forums I follow, I had noticed a query about a good place to get a tattoo in India.  I can’t get my head around why anyone would run the risk of getting a tattoo or piercing in India, with the lack of sanitation and uncertain standards of hygiene. Here in Pushkar, I found my answer. If you’re going to get a tattoo in India, you’re already a badass.

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We stopped by a shady garden restaurant yesterday for a cold drink and had a most interesting chat with the young Russian manager Olga who has lived in India for six years. We admired her tattoos – an airplane on one arm ( to express her love of travel), and these sayings from Mother Teresa on the other arm. I had not heard them before – and I love the way they can be interpreted a number of ways.

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Today was International Woman’s Day and we were delighted to come across this march. These young girls were loudly and proudly yelling out as they marched along; no cowed and covered girls – these are the faces of modern India.

They belong to a school that was created just a few years ago, with 60 girls. Today, there are over 500 students.

The alleyways bring such surprises – you have to remember to look up, backwards and sideways to see it all. Much of the paint has a chalky quality to it – almost as though it would wash off in the next monsoon.

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Many teeny little doors or windows like this one. Yes, I am quite sure those are urine drips running down the wall.
Stephen and I were sitting on a shady ledge today, minding our own business, when a dog came over to us, lifted his leg and peed on my foot. A woman walking by told us that it is good luck (I think she was making it up to make me feel better.)

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Beautiful carved doors, filigree, stained glass on the second floor – all set above a nondescript ground level.

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Art imitating life – this scene repeats itself countless times across India.

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Part of Pushkar’s raison d’être is the camel trade – each year the Camel Fair draws thousands of buyers, traders and tourists. The rest of the year, camels are available for safari or for a cart-drawn ride around the outskirts of town.

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We passed a number of camel carts on our way to grab the cable car to Savriti Mata Temple – a Lego piece precariously perched on the narrow top of the hill. There are two ways to get up and/or down – the cable car or a 45-minute to 1-hour walk up very high uneven steps. We chose to ride up to begin to watch sunset, then head down and catch the full sunset before we reached bottom.

The panoramic views from the top were amazing, especially to watch the shadows lengthen on the mountainside.

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We watched a young photographer chase down a number of tourists for photos. He  did snag a few shots, including this family.

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We were kept company by dozens of black-faced monkeys, who according to everyone we speak to, are the “good” monkeys. They will approach if you are offering food, but otherwise are not aggressive. The red-faced macaques are trouble – they’ll jump on you, grab your glasses, bite and scratch if provoked.

We had the chance to really observe them – they are tender with their babies, they groom one another and except for a couple of squawks, seem to get along.

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Our photographer friend was demonstrating to his customers how to feed the monkey out of his hand; the little boy did not look convinced.

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As we made our way down the steps, we met a donkey train on the way up. The first two were labouring under the weight of dozens of water bottles. The last one fairly skipped up with his load – potato chips.

These items could easily have been transported up in the cable car, but as is often the case in India this small job creates work for someone.

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Our reward for the long climb down.

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Pushkar came just at the right time – we really enjoyed our stay here, and tomorrow we head south to Udaipur – billed as the most romantic city in India.

Jaipur: Rajasthan’s Pink City

Well, we are more than halfway through our travels and I had to jinx myself. “We may make it through this trip without getting sick,” I said. Oh boy, a day later it began, with chills and fatigue (luckily we flew from Varanasi to Jaipur before I began feeling unwell). By the time we got to our hotel, I needed to lie down and a few hours later, I got nailed with a particularly virulent strain of acute diarrhea that lasted for 24 hours, eliminating whatever evil I had ingested but leaving me too weak to move for hours after.

The reason I am telling you about my GI woes is this: I missed Holi – one of India’s most exuberant holidays. Holi is set around the full moon – this year March 2. Holi, (or The Festival of Colours), marks the end of winter, the triumph of good over evil and the burying of old grievances – all done by rampaging around town with fistfuls of coloured powder and squirt guns and playfully “baptizing” anyone in your path. It is meant to be festive and fun, but you need to know not to wear your best clothes.

I was so looking forward to being part of this silly, happy street event, so it was extremely disappointing to be sick and stuck inside our hotel. Stephen headed out to see what all the fuss was about and almost immediately he encountered these Aussie kids.

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By the time Stephen made it back to our hotel, he had been thoroughly, although monochromatically “holi-ed”. They use cheaper synthetic powders these days, so it took a couple of days for the red to leave his beard.

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We had been warned by our hotel manager not to travel around on Holi by tuk-tuk, because “there is a lot of drinking and driving.

We’re so interested in the conflicted approaches to alcohol in India; many of them driven by religious beliefs, but not necessarily observed. At least three states are completely dry but almost everywhere we’ve been outside of Goa has a secretive attitude towards drinking. Many restaurants will serve beer but you have to ask – it is not listed on the menu. Finding a liquor store is almost impossible and if you are in a predominantly Muslim area, there is not a drop of alcohol to be had. As a result, we drink very little (not a bad thing!), and from time to time, if beer is easily available, we order it.

Last night we went to one of Jaipur’s favourite tourist restaurants, The Peacock. Set on the rooftop of a heritage hotel, we had a wonderful evening, with fun people-watching, fabulous wood-fired pizza and beer.

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The Peacock offered somewhat cheesy entertainment for the tourists, but it was traditional and lent a nice background tone.  We were the only ones paying attention to them – all Stephen could think was how much the singer looked like Russell Peters.

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Our bill arrived – with our beer added on to the printed bill by hand! The denial of sale and consumption is a mystery, but from what we hear over-drinking is a serious problem in India and these prohibition-style rules must feel like a solution.

So…here we are in northern India, in the state of Rajasthan. If your impressions of India include images of camels, massive sandstone forts, desert dunes and palaces, you’ll find it all here.

There may even be a snake-charmer or two. We wouldn’t normally fall for this, but we were kind of ambushed by our tuk-tuk driver on the way to a fort.  We were assured the snake was “very dangerous“, but I’m sure I could have wrapped that critter around my neck and taken it for a walk.

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Jaipur is the capital of Rajasthan and home to the Old City or Pink City (named for its salmon coloured buildings) that contains most of the city’s important architecture as well as the honeycomb of bazaars within its walls.

Beyond Old City, Jaipur sprawls; a city of over three million people. Our drive in from the airport was pleasant – past modern office towers and luxury hotels. Our travels around town since then have been the opposite – absolute chaos.

We have been commandeered by a young driver, Ilyas, who keeps his tuk-tuk just outside our hotel.  He has taken us around to a few sites and to give him his due, has respectfully accepted our refusal to “go shopping.” He did show us a video on his phone of his friend smoking hashish – floating it out there as another potential revenue stream. “Why yes, we’ll buy drugs from a tuk-tuk driver in India,” was our first thought.  Since Stephen does not partake and my very occasional foray usually results in paranoia and sightings of giant squirrels, Ilyas had mis-read his clientele.

However, he was excellent and chatty company as he drove us around –  telling us about his life as a father of three, married to a Muslim woman but still seeing the Hindu girlfriend he had not been allowed to marry due to religious differences. He’s uneducated but street-smart and seems to have a few deals on the go to keep things afloat. Very hard-working and doomed to live this hard-scrabble life until old age.

We visited City Palace, much against Ilyas’ best advice – “they charge you 500 rupees ($10CA) for a museum – it’s a rip-off.”  We dutifully went in, because it is listed in Lonely Planet and he was right – large courtyards, a few boxy gardens, and little else to look at.

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Driving through the streets of Jaipur provided us with way more to think about than any palace. As in all of India, animals roam freely, but we had not yet seen pigs right in the city. These big porkers drew our attention to the thick black sludgy sewage that ran along the gutter – a perfect bed for them, but also for small children and dogs.

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The smells were almost overwhelming – even mouth breathing was not helping. These ladies must make a few rupees sorting through garbage – it appears to be a lot of plastic.

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Traffic on most streets looks something like this. The beeping is constant and miraculously everyone gets through without mishap. We have driven past vehicles with not even inches to spare dozens of times. I look around – no-one bats an eye – they’re all on their cellphones.

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I am currently reading The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga; an unforgettable Man Booker-prize-winning novel about India that is all the more compelling for us being here and witnessing what he is talking about.

Cell phones, for example. EVERYONE in India has cellphones and not just any old flip phone – smartphones!  They are obviously cheap to buy and plans are cheap. As Adiga points out in his novel – the government has made it possible for everyone in India to have a mobile, but not drinking water.

Even mahouts are on their phones 24/7; this photo breaks the magic a little for me, I have to say.

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Amber (pronounced Amer) Fort is the big draw in Jaipur. About 11 km. out of town, it is  a formidable presence. Built in the late 16th century of sandstone and marble, the Fort is built in four sections, each with its own courtyard. 

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Amber Fort is accessible from the main road by crossing the lake then climbing up stone steps to the entrance. This 10-minute walk is also available by elephant, but there were few takers. Hopefully the message about cruelty to elephants is starting to penetrate.

Just watching them within the confines of the fort is a beautiful sight though – reminiscent of how it likely was 300 or 400 years ago.

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People-watching was almost as much fun. This group of Thai women were unabashedly posing and their guide snapping away madly. I waited to ask them about their gorgeous Indian outfits (bought at Anokhi, an upscale shop). Fabrics here are simply the best – I will have to pick up a couple of things just before we head home. These are way too nice to travel in.

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They were very pleased to hear we had been to Thailand. One lady thrust a parasol in my hands and told us to pose and their guide began snapping away.

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I love seeing large groups of Indian women – like a flock of tropical birds in their colours and flowing fabrics.

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And then we ran into this trio. I seriously thought they were part of a cult – dressed in white muslin, with fluffy white bedroom slippers, a mop tossed over their shoulders and the “speak no evil” paper tied in front of their mouths. They are part of the Jain faith, an ancient Indian minority religion that practices among other things, an absence from hate and harm and from attachment to belongings. They are vegetarian, if not vegan and wear no leather. Not all Jains look like this – I wish I could find out more about them.
They were quite friendly, posing for photos, and chatting, but obviously eschewing an attachment to objects does not include giving up a cellphone.

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And then there was these two beauties – attached to everything life will bring their way.

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The Fort is well maintained and appealing – we spent close to two hours wandering through courtyards and along narrow hallways.

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On the way back into town, we pulled over to view the Water Palace – at first glance, a shimmering vision. When you walk up to the fence for a better look, the first two or three feet of water are filled with garbage.

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Hawa Mahal is an extraordinary building – intricate layers of salmon-pink that was built to allow the royal ladies the ability to watch processions in the streets below in privacy.

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Right across the street is this building. It seemed to be a popular hangout and we stopped by for a cold drink, but could not find a table in the shade. The building is typical of those lining the streets in Old City.

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Hawa Mahal rises up five stories and tiny corridors open up to views like this one.

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These little windows would allow the ladies their chance to watch goings-on without being observed.

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Back out on the street – it is business as usual. The bazaar is in full swing, with everything from key-cutting…

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…to shaving.

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And now we leave the big city behind and move on to discover Rajasthan’s famous  and much more manageable charms. Next up is Pushkar.