And so it was onward, from the sunny, balmy evenings of Mumbai, 16 hours train ride north to Ajmer and the barren, desolate desert of the Rajastani landscape. It was dry, empty and... very different. Having battled my way out of the train station at Ajmer and onto a bus, I was off to Pushkar - 'it's beautiful, the lake, it's magical... and great for shopping' - I'd heard from various travellers alike.
To much disappointment, after such a long journey - there is no lake in Pushkar. The pollution was so bad all the fish died and so it's being emptied for cleaning.
It looked a little sad and I felt sad for it - but nevertheless, I wanted to see what it had to offer: Hippies and Israelis mostly - which a great if you're a hippy or an Israeli. But I'm neither of those things and so Jones felt a little out of place! But easily consoled by shopping (I must take after Mum and CERTAINLY Katie), I hit the shops - a camel leather bag, yak wool shawl, camel leather shoes, silver bracelet and toe ring later (to fit in with the hippies I presume) and I was done (and all at 'Indian price' I was assured... hmmmn.). A morning trip to the world's only Brahman Temple and I was ready for the off.
Jodhpur it was. The Blue City. I liked it straight away - bigger, more bustle and a bit more like India. I lost myself in the winding maze-like streets, tasting local spiced teas and Indian sweets (Gulab Jamin was made in heaven), I headed to a local (expensive) hotel.
The view was to die for - overlooking to old Blue town and the fort - a place to lose yourself for sunset, have a bite to eat and return to your 100-rupee-a-night room around the corner... The fort was great too, I headed up with some fellow Londoners (Wembley's British-Asain finest - and Hindi speaking too!) in a dodgy rickshaw - encountering no less than 3 accidents on the way... That aside, it is a beautiful example of Rajastani splendour, beautiful. Jaswant Thada memorial was equally as stunning and with fewer people - a great spot to listen to the calls of the town's mosques. But Jodhpur had a hidden gem awaiting me the following day - her name was Rekha. A gorgeous mother-of-two who owns a grocery-cum-cosmetic-cum-spice shop near the infamous Omlette Shop (Cheese Masala omellete - where have you been all my life?).
being blessed at the lake
I arrived at 9 am and spent the entire day with her learning to cook the Indian way. We did everything, from masala chai, chapatti, paratha, masala rice, dhal makhani, dholka and too much food for me to eat in one day! It was great, a wonderful woman (who also threaded my eyebrows as a 'treat'...) and a wonderful home - great day!
Then the carnage started - a whirlwind trip onto Agra and beyond. Carnage being the right word. Agra - home of the Taj Mahal, an iconic symbol of love and possibly one of thelong lasting images of Inida - and it's in Agra. The smell hits you before anything else, I think it tops the smelly list thus far. I had heard wild things about this busy town, but I was hoping it would delight and surprise.
Having arrived late another long train journey, I got up at 5 to make it to the Taj gates for sunrise - and so did everyone else it would seem! But, my god, I don't even know if I can find the words to describe that first sight of the Taj Mahal. The light was hazy, the sun barely up casting a lilac-golden hues over everything, and as you turn the corner from the gate into the archway that frames the Taj like a postcard - wow. It took my breath away. Goose bumps - like all iconic landmarks you see you entire life in books, on TV, on the internet - to suddenly make that transition to a reality is overwhelming. It really is a vision of beauty. I just stood for ages looking at it, walking around it, admiring it, touching it, walking round it again. Just amazing. I can't say anymore.
Go see it. The Fort and Mosque and even Fatephur Sikri paled to insignificance in comparison. I even went to the river for sunset over the Taj too. Shame about Agra.
Well, that big one well and truly ticked off the list - I was onto my next and final stop in India - Varanasi: a place I had been excited about and equally worried about for my whole trip. The spiritual epicentre for Hindus and a city of torrid tales from travellers. And so it was with a mixture of apprehension and wide-eyed wonderment that I embarked on (yet another long) train journey there. The tales told were not without reason. I was faced with a less than helpful rickshaw driver who dropped is (it transpired) precisely nowhere where we wanted to be or go! And it's a totaly maze - a crazy maze filled with motorbikes, cows, water buffalo and all the excriment that goes with them, too many people, including dead ones - all sorts.
at the only bhrama temple in the world
All sorts and everywhere. After 4 hours of hotel hunting (what a nightmare) - I only hoped that the initial onslaught and rather abrupt introduction to this city will improve or be worth it...
I had met and fondly clung to Fabien and Maryline - a beautiful young French couple (who have just embarked on a year long wqorld wide trip together - even I was jealous!) The following day we wandered the ghats north; admiring and taking in the magical Ganges, the rituals that take place all day long on its banks abd enjoyed the relief from the intense streets that lay behind. The Ganges Aarti is a ritual / spiritual procession that takes place every evening on the banks of the Old Town. We arrived keen and early - and with a goo spot we awaited the spectacle.
It did not disappoint. Incense, smoke, fire, flowers, bells, singing, chatting, drums, harmonium - it had it all. It was a visual and experiential feast. And - to top it all, Zack from Hampi
was there too! After watching the whole thing - we had a good catch up over veg pillaow, dhal and Kingfisher (a local delicacy he tells me he hasn't had since Hampi!). Nice. The following morning was an EARLY start, meeting a small groups of friends pooled at 5.45 to negotiate a boat trip for an hour up the river to watch sunrise. Amazing, the river is alive at this time of the day as if it was 2pm. It was really beautiful to watch too, a beautiful experience. ANother day of wandering, dodging the streets and a live music concert in the evening and I was nearly done with my time in India - just enought time to get sick and feel terrible then.
.. yep. But lovely Golda (from New York NOT America) was on hand to lok after me though and she saw me off on my way to the airport bound for the (hopefully) quiet, calm mountains of Nepal...
So - thank you India, you have amazed, frustrated, delighted, shocked, appauled, enlightened and fed me well; I thank you.