I forgot to mention that yesterday we went food shopping for the first time since the beginning of this trip and went for an oil change. All together we will have driven almost 4000 miles by the end of this trip.
In the morning we went to Pine Island beach. It was a nice small beach with a playground, cafe, and knee deep calm waters. All the ingredients for the happiness of 3 and 4 year old boys. Also there were horse shoe crabs, regular crabs that buried themselves in the sand. Also we were at some point in the middle of a swarm of black flies. All of a sudden we were covered in them and the next minute they were gone. Then everyone’s cellphone got an Amber alert. That was puzzling but thank God for Google – we found out that the Amber alert means that a child was abducted in Tampa. Apparently they let everyone in the state know.
Our kids had a blast at the beach and we stayed there as long as the weather permitted. We had already prepared for the evening rain in the morning.
Since the beginning of this trip we were carrying three pieces of tarp with us – only now we got to use it. When I had bought the tarp and opened it up in my apartment I was thinking this is huge! Now that we opened it on the campground to hang it over the table it looked impossibly small! So we managed to hang two of them over the picnic table and to cover two beach chairs. It only took us two hours. Our neighbor on the other hand had a perfect set up with expandable poles that originally served as gold ball retrievers which he now used as the center dome for his tarp. A real engineer at work.
But our construction held up well. It was raining pretty heavily in the late evening and most of the night but our table and chairs kept dry. Our tent once again proved its worth as well – no water inside at all!
The next morning we made our last campfire, slowly packed up and prepared for the long trip home, with only one extended stop, in Richmond, Virginia. No more camping – it’s cold and wet north of here, so we’ll drive right through.
In case I ever said anything about Mumbai being polluted and having bad air, I take everything back. Now that we’ve spent five days in Rajasthan, we can proudly announce Bikaner to be the most unbreathable place we’ve been to in India so far.
But let’s start at the start. Our flight to Jaipur was uneventful enough. Deepak insisted on driving us to the airport, and we survived the usual shenanigans of chaotic security checks, travelers cutting in line and middle aged men picking their noses with gusto in public. We arrived at our hotel (the Umaid Bhawan) quite early in the morning, and the place was very nice with a lovely rooftop.
We took off in a car to the City Palace, which wasn’t all that great, followed by the very nice Amber Fort, where we spent a long time wandering around. There was plenty of Western tourists and the appropriate number of touts and hawkers to match, but overall, it was a lot less hassle than we had anticipated. The weather was quite cool in the morning, but it got pretty warm later in the day. Jaipur really is quite nice, thanks to one of its founder, Jai Singh II (1688-1743), who according to our travel book was a bit of an urban planner and introduced some revolutionary ideas, namely hygiene, beauty and commerce. Of these, only the last one seems to have survived into the 21st century, but at least the wide roads of the old city are still pretty wide, the town is still mostly pink, making it almost possible to walk around relatively unscathed, at least in the morning.
Unfortunately, hygiene standards don’t seem to have been upgraded in the last 200 years, so there are plenty of open sewage canals, everybody is spitting and snotting everywhere (just like Mumbai, only more so), and an abundance of camel and cow shit takes care of the rest, not to mention the autorickshaws, which are (thankfully, slowly) replacing the bicycle rickshaws. Some of the sidestreets really are an incredible sight of disgusting filth. Nevertheless, Jaipur is a shopping heaven, at least in terms of quantity and curiosity; quality not so much, but we are almost used to that caveat by now. Even the hawkers and touts we could deal with, or maybe that’s because we had feared the worst and therefore immediately shut up anyone who got on our nerves too much too quickly.
We left for Bikaner by late afternoon the next day. We’ve know by now that train stations in India tend to be the cleaner parts of town, and at least when we are leaving a town, there’s less of a chance of getting hassled by some rickshaw driver about which country we are from, where we want to go, and that he will drive us anywhere we like. Of course, there’s still always someone who will try to lure us into his rickshaw back into town, even as he sees us walking fast and straight towards the station entrance. The train arrived 90mins late in Bikaner, but on the upside, we only had to stand in line for half an hour to fill out the application for seat reservations, which as usual required vital information such as our gender, age and address. Since the clerk was unusually slow even by local standards, the crowd got proportionally more pushy, as if rubbing belly against backpack could speed things up and as if ruthlessly cutting in line were a matter of spiritual pride and honor. When we told someone to back off, the helpfully happy and proud explanation was this is the system here.
Late as it was when we finally made it to Bikaner, the town came as a bit of a shock even to us jaded expats. The rickshaw ride from the train station to the hotel was like cruising through a garbage can in a desert, which incidentally describes Bikaner quite well. The town is dusty as dusty can be and the rickshaw fumes eat at your eyes like little ants. Someone said traveling India is like traveling for Graduates (Thailand I guess being for amateurs), but at this point we are wondering whether it maybe isn’t more for the demented. Then again, as we now look at our pictures, the explanation is clear: all pictures lie, because they are never able to show the dust, and the stink, or record the cancerous coughing and yacking all around you. All the Rajasthan travel books show gorgeous colors, graceful women, majestic forts and beautiful landscapes, but the predominant impressions, at least this evening and most of the next day in Bikaner, are incredible dirt and filth, unbreathable air, and enormous pollution. If I had to go here in the summer, when it gets as hot as a frying pan, I’d shoot myself, even though there were a lot of gorgeous empty houses in Bikaner’s old city.
On the other hand, our hotel in Bikaner (Bhairon Vilas) was the best we’ve stayed at so far in India. The owner is a descendant of the Maharajas and of the Prime Minister of Bikaner, a young guy who decided that he likes restoring old furniture and stuff, so his hotel has a lot of character and is quite lovely. Maybe we should have stayed in the hotel all day, because there was a film crew doing some shoots of a traditional Rajasthani music and dance troupe, but we went to the fort instead, which was rather shabby.
We also went to a camel farm, which was a bit sad looking (although the two minute camel ride was surprisingly comfortable), and to the Karni Mata Temple in Doshnoke, where hundreds of unhealthy looking rats live in and run around in filth, enjoying being worshipped as the reincarnated relatives of the local villagers. There were a few equally scrubby looking Western tourists around, who may have thought this temple was the greatest thing since sliced bread, but we kind of thought that it was … well, interesting, and sheer insanity.
Back in the hotel, the film shoot continued as we were having dinner. There was a British guy who had spent five days at the temple shooting a documentary and a female Spanish dope head who we speculated was doing the hotel owner. As they were finishing off a bottle of rum at the bar, three middle aged Germans talked loudly and waltzed right into the film set, twice. We briefly considered joining the bar, but then thought better of it, so we could get up in time the next day for our train to Jodhpur.
The train ride to our last stop was another 7 hour affair, but the 3AC class is comfortable enough and you get a pillow to sleep on. Our hotel wasn’t exactly nice or beautiful; in fact, it seemed to have on offer a large number of small imperfections. Some call that charming, we find it inexplicable, whether it’s the layer of oil swimming on top of the coffee, the curtain rods being installed in all manners crooked, the curtains being of wildly varying length, the hot shower being cold, the bed sheets missing, the paint being applied rather liberally at the wrong places (i.e. on the windows and lamps), etc. etc. In an effort to save electricity, the city shuts it down from 8am to 11am every morning, but at least it wasn’t as cold as Jaipur, and the roof top restaurant was actually quite nice (well, not the rooftop, nor the restaurant, but the view was). In terms of air quality, Jodhpur was only a marginal improvement over Bikaner, but the fort is high enough above the rest of the city that it was ok.
That fort was actually quite nice, even though one would have to be a real nut for armor and weaponry to appreciate a lot of the exhibition in these Rajasthani forts. It was the first such place that offered an audio tour (more expensive than a live guide; I guess they know how annoying those guides can be), and it was pretty well restored and preserved, with money from both the Getty Foundation and the UN. The tour was well done, although at the end they lost it a bit, when two female descendents of the Maharaja were asked to talk about their lives now. One was shamelessly promoting her publishing house, while the other was blubbering incoherently about how looking at the fort to her is like looking at a computer window and how she’s crying thinking about it and how it’s all for her family god.
Anyways, at that point my camera battery was empty and we were pretty exhausted after all this, so we just made a quick stop at the very decent Jaswant Thada memorial to Jaswant Singh II, and then took off to the airport. Arriving back in Mumbai, we had to yell at some tout as soon as we left the terminal, since he wouldn’t take our ignoring him at first and then saying no twice for an answer. Soon after that we took in some fresh Mumbai air, realizing that maybe this place isn’t so bad after all; there’s always worse, apparently.
We are still a bit puzzled about the great allure of Rajasthan to Western tourists. The British guy in Bikaner had told us about Peru, and slowly walking up the Andes or floating down the Amazon river sounds so much nicer right about now. We are also wondering whether we could possibly be the only Westerners prepared to tell the endless touts and hawkers and scammers to fuck off, because they obviously keep trying and sometimes seem genuinely surprised when we respond unkindly. Could we possibly be the only Westerners who are wondering what people must be smoking when they talk about spirituality here? We see a lot of in-your-face religiosity and a lot of praying and talk about god, yes. Everything seems religious here, but spiritual? Not so much. We can’t see much spirituality in driving like an ass, talking out of your ass, cutting in line like an ass, or feeding plastic garbage to your holy cow. Another one is warmth and hospitality. Getting asked literally fifty times a day which country we are from stops feeling warm and fuzzy real quick, as does getting stared at like a two-headed Martian in the zoo. The usual mix of having people bend over backwards to crawl up our ass on the one hand and getting scammed and taken for a ride on the other doesn’t help much either.
Anyways, enough of that. Not sure where we’ll go on our next trip, maybe Orissa, maybe Gujarat, and maybe we’ll have a little less to whine about then.
So our trip to the South was moderately successful. One thing Indian airlines have going for them, is that the food is consistently edible. The coffee is unsurprisingly the worst on the planet, but the food isn’t bad. It sort of even makes up for the fact that no-one ever wants to see any ID. They instead prefer to have you show them your boarding card about five times, and God forbid your hand luggage has no luggage tag, or even the luggage tag of a different airline. They have a little box with the luggage tags from all the different airlines, and you better pick the right one, or else it won’t get stamped as the bags get x-rayed. The box looks a bit like a box of candies, so in that regard, their security measures are kind of cute, although probably even less effective than the ridiculous taking off your shoes ceremony they invented in the US.
Anyways, we arrived in Bangalore and were almost impressed with the fact that Bangalore’s name Green City isn’t entirely pulled out of thin air. It’s noticeably greener than Mumbai, which of course doesn’t mean much. There’s a whole bunch of colleges, an army of software companies, and then the real army in town. I don’t know for what purpose exactly, but the Indian Army occupies large areas right in what seemed to be the middle of town. Or maybe it was the Air Force, because there was also a sad looking statue of some little jet fighter or something right in the middle of some intersection.
We eventually made it to Nrityagram, which was quite nice. Right next to it is a fancy Taj resort, and Nrityagram itself is a nice little place. They take on only six dance students every six years, two of which, we were told, actually make it all the way. We saw them rehearsing for an Odissi performance, which was really quite fascinating. The were performing at The Joyce Theater in NYC last year, and apparently will go on tour in the US later this year.
We then took off to Mysore and arrived pretty late by train. As we got off the train, we got, as usual, mobbed by an army of rickshaw drivers, but we always prefer to stand in line for the pre-paid rickshaws, even though it might not actually be cheaper. This time, we got yelled at by some guy who told us that it’s against the law to smoke in public and that we should study the law before coming here. We were too tired to tell him to shove it, so we just stepped away from him. Presumably it’s decidedly not against the law for the rickshaw driver to yell out to everybody standing or sitting around which hotel we had asked him to drive us to, because that’s exactly what happened. At least no one gasped ah, expensive hotel! like the rickshaw driver in Kotchi did a few weeks ago.
Anyways, the next day our itinerary brought us to the Karnataka State Silk Factory, which, sad as that may be, turned out to be pretty much the highlight of the trip. Basically, they just let you walk around the factory, no one bothers you, everybody was friendly and no one made a fuss. So we walked by a zillion machines (the older ones Swiss, the newer ones Japanese), from where they twist, wind, double, and rewind the silk yarn to rows and rows of screaming loud silk saree weaving machines, all operated by one or two guys. Unfortunately, photography was not allowed, but the machines were quite complicated, and some of the patterns were quite elaborate. The people were obviously proud of their work, and were happy to try to show us how the machines function. This one jolly happy chap was asking me how much money I make in Mumbai – it’s a pretty common question of strangers to ask – and then he complained laughingly that the Rs6,000/month that ($150) he makes after 30 years of service are not quite enough.
Our next stop was the Government Sandalwood Factory, pretty much next door, but that place was more like a deserted museum and there wasn’t much to see. So we went to the Mysore Palace. For some reason, we couldn’t really warm up to that building. Maybe it’s because it’s probably the youngest palace I have ever seen (it’s not even 100 years old), or maybe it was the crowd. Our Brahmin tour guide told us at least six times that the palace is decorated with 100,000 light bulbs, which didn’t really help, and by the 10th time he marveled over useless stupid facts like this chair is made of 65kg of silver, that box is made of 17kg of gold, these windows were made in Belgium, those mirrors were brought here from Bohemia, and so on and so forth, we were about ready to smack him. Funnily enough, their website only mentions 97,000 light bulbs, so maybe that explains his silence when I asked him whether those 100,000 light bulbs all work. By the way, the palace was occupied by the last Mysore Maharaja, whose father had built it (well, he didn’t build anything, he just went on an expensive shopping trip to Europe). His big fat son is now a politician.
After that, we had about enough of royal families and annoying tour guides, so we took off in a bus to Mudumalai. It was a bit of a challenge to actually find the right bus, because no one seemed to know or care when there’s a bus going in that direction, or if they did know, they all seemed to be talking out of their asses, because we got about five different departure times from three different people. Eventually, we found our bus, kick boxed our way to some seats and there we went and arrived pretty late in the evening.
We stayed two nights in Mudumalai, because it was green and calm, and because it turned out that it wasn’t actually simply a rumor that there’s wild animals living there. The first morning we went for a two hour walk with a guide and a French couple from La Réunion, and we saw a whole lot of elephant shit. No elephants, but at least their bathroom. We saw a lot of deer, some peacocks, but no tigers or even boers. I wouldn’t completely rule out that people here would simply get up even earlier in the morning than we did, just to strategically place some elephant shit here and there to scam the tourists, but the next day, we did actually see a real wild elephant and a boer. And tiger shit, or so we were told. The evening before, we had also seen a pretty impressive elephant feeding ceremony in an elephant camp and made acquaintance with one elephant that was rumored to have killed 18 people. He was a bit mad, we were told, but now he is fine.
From Mudumalai, our trip went literally downhill. First we made a stop in Ooty, which was pretty unattractive. Always on the hunt for the ultimate fabrics, we were led to the house of a Toda family. The fabrics weren’t very impressive, and the man sadly smelled of alcohol on this early afternoon, but their houses were quite interesting.
Then we took the toy train to Mettupalayam. Because that utterly unhelpful woman at the Mysore train station ticket counter was not in the mood to make reservations for us, we were left with buying last-minute tickets, which got us standing room only in the completely overcrowded general admissions car, right behind the criminally loud steam engine, with hot steam and smoke for added pleasure. That trip lasted about three and a half hours, and really wasn’t all the fun that it’s made up to be. Judging from the ecstatic screaming every time we went through a tunnel, the other passengers were having the trip of their lifetime though.
These three hours of madness were only the beginning for us. We then changed into the Express night train to Chennai. Luckily, we got a private sleeper coach, but we didn’t get much sleep, not least because the train conductors were helpfully knocking on our door asking about this and that and insisting that we fill out their customer satisfaction survey before they would leave us alone and let us sleep. The train arrived at 5am, and by that time we were seriously ready for a shower, but we still had another day to kill, and what better than taking a two hour bus ride to Kanchipuram, a town of many temples and many hand looms for silk weaving.
We went to RIDE and had a chat with their director, who was quite the character. There weren’t many sarees to see, but it was still pretty interesting. The director was basically saying that the poor get screwed by religion and corruption and that his organization is trying to teach them how to take their lives into their own hands, especially the women. We didn’t quite get what he was saying about getting death threats from some Swedish guy, and what the story was about him getting his feet washed by his maid, but it was an experience nevertheless.
The bus ride back to the Chennai airport was another death trap, but we somehow survived it and actually managed not to miss our flight. For some reason, you get cold wet towels in the plane these days. This time, we didn’t mind, and as we wiped our faces with them, they turned suitably brown from all the dust and dirt, so at that point it was definitely time to get home.
Originally, I had wanted to drive out of town yesterday, but then it was raining cats and dogs, so I just ended up going for a coffee at the Juhu Mocha with a Scottish expat whom I had met a week ago at the other Mocha in Bandra. I find myself going to Mocha quite a bit. Anyways, this Scottish expat is a teacher in training at the Mumbai Rudolf Steiner School, which is kind of interesting. On Wednesday she, her friends and I went to a club called Seven, which happens to be located in the sixth floor of a shopping mall. This club actually would have a nice view, except it was of course dark. The music was as usual total crap – why on earth people love Bryan Adams so much that they have to play three songs of it, is beyond me. But the crowd was ecstatic and sang along with full gusto.
Then yesterday I went to Club IX with our American Mumbai tour guide, her boyfriend and another expat from work. Club IX has equally atrocious music, but at least no-one is singing along and the place feels a bit like a Jugendzentrum – i.e. one of those youth clubs they have in Germany, Russia, and elsewhere, where 15 year olds (like me) grew up on beer, ping-pong and foosball (which we called kicker). It had plush brown couches and incredibly tacky paintings, but the Kingfisher was cold, and so what else can one ask for. And despite being called Club IX, there was no dancing.
So this morning I set out to drive out of town. It takes a good hour to actually get out of town, but then heaven starts. Well, at least there’s a real highway with three lanes in each direction, actual lane markings, and a surprising lack of potholes. This is the Mumbai-Pune express highway, and my little silver machine did a solid 120km per hour, no problem. I was tempted to go a little faster, but who knows what happens if you push your luck with a new Ambassador. I wanted to go to the first destination listed in the 52 Mumbai Weekend Getaways book, but of course the important directions are in Hindi, or maybe I am blind, but in any event I missed the exit to the road towards Goa.
So I drove to Lonavala instead. Lonavala is pretty high up in the mountains, and as I drove up, the rain and the fog thickened with every kilometer. When I was still in the plains, the views and the green were really quite fantastic, but here I was, crawling up the mountains to Lonavala. I guess if it weren’t for the fog and rain, the views from up there must be quite spectacular, but as it was, the view was gray. Nevertheless, the place was packed with weekenders. There’s lots of waterfalls there, and everybody just goes take a shower in full clothes. Truckloads of young men (hardly any women), singing and dancing next to their parked cars, drenched from the rain and from their adventures in the waterfalls and rivers.
The air was very nice and fresh, but the weather was too crap for any pictures. I had some chicken masala, which I think ended up being mutton, but what the hell. I was hoping to be able to sit down and continue reading Maximum City, but unfortunately it was a bit too wet and crowded. Maximum City currently is quite the bestseller – it’s written by a guy who left Bombay when he was 14, lived in London, Paris, and New York, and then returned 21 years later. So far, it’s great, because it really helps me be able to actually read the newspaper, as it gives a lot of context to the daily reports on the incredible extent of corruption, the Shiv Sena party (which is basically made up of thugs and religious extremists, and which rules parts of Mumbai), the slum lords (which apparently control the majority of the Mumbai population). Not to mention the currently almost daily riots by commuters who are fed up with the non-functioning railway service, so they frequently start attacking railway workers, block trains for hours and wreck all kinds of additional havoc on a weekly basis.
In NYC, we used to have a cleaning woman, who’d come in every two weeks and clean everything in three hours. She is from Chile and does a great job. Now, having a cleaning woman in NYC was strange enough for me, at least at the beginning. It’s not like I grew up on Beverly Hills or Windsor Castle, quite the contrary. But living in Mumbai, it is pretty clear pretty quickly that spoiled Westerners that we are, we need a maid on a daily basis, at least part time. First of all, this place is dirty and our apartment would get covered in dust very very quickly. Also, we have no idea what to buy in terms of groceries etc., where to buy it, and what it should cost. And even if we did, we’d have a hell of a time communicating with the shop owners. So we were recommended a maid and hired her.
She came with a number of references and spoke English quite well. She said she would clean, do the shopping (or rather order the stuff for delivery, since everything can get delivered), do the laundry and cook a couple of times a week. Unfortunately, we were not prepared for the fact that having a maid is basically a full-time job. We were naively thinking that you could just have her come in, and she would know what to do without much prompting. Instead, Ksenia tried for a week to show her how to clean, to convince her to do the shopping, but basically nothing got done.
Other people confirmed then confirmed that getting a good maid is very very difficult, and that one basically needs to spend a few months explaining to them exactly what they need to do. Our maid basically refused to do the shopping, because she said there are no shops around (there are, besides, then she made a big long face when Ksenia asked her to call somebody for delivery). After a week of her cleaning our living room, our telephone was still covered in dust, because she didn’t know that we wanted her to clean the telephone, too.
We still don’t really have any idea about how this works, but we sort of thought that if our cleaning woman in NYC can figure out without being told that dusting the living room includes the telephone, then it should not be too much of a problem here. Well, apparently it was, plus at the end of the week we think that we are missing a number of Rs500 bills from a locked drawer, and although we cannot be 100% certain what happened to it, we figured it would be better to let her go.
Our landlord told us that you basically cannot trust any maid and that they will all rob you and need very strict supervision. Another expat told us that in her Indian friend’s family, the maid is basically locked up in the kitchen, where she sleeps on the floor. So what do you do? We obviously want to treat our maid like responsible adults, but it turns out that this may be easier said than done.
Anyways, so we have now hired a different maid, who was also recommended to us with all sorts of references. Her English is not quite as good, but so far, she’s quite a bit more thorough. She was cooking a tasty chicken dish today, and while she didn’t do the vegetable dish that she said she would do, nor cleaned the kitchen cabinets that she said she would clean, she did call the grocery to get the chicken and vegetables delivered.
Speaking of which: at this point, we have slowly lost any concept of believing what anyone says. The cable guy said he would stop by in the afternoon to get us digital cable; he never did. The dry cleaner said he would stop by in half an hour to pick up some shirts; he never did. The furniture shop said they would come at 2pm to deliver the furniture; they never did. We then drove to the shop ourselves, and then the story was that the furniture was actually made in a different store outside of town and that it can’t get delivered until Tuesday because of the floods. The travel desk at work told me they’d come by in 10 minutes to give me Ksenia’s tickets to NYC; they never did. When I went there myself, it turned out that the tickets were double booked and that the real ticket will be an electronic ticket. I guess we have yet to learn how to get this sort of information on the phone, without actually having to show up in person. There’s countless stories like this, and maybe even more so than the heat and the rain and the traffic and the pollution, it makes India quite an exhausting place to live.
In any event, I guess it’ll be interesting how things will go once Ksenia is off to NYC for two months, and I will only have half an hour or so in the morning to tell the maid what to do. I think I might be bitching about my maid and become a Desperate Housewife myself. Of course, Ksenia thinks I will spoil her and let her get away with doing nothing, and then she will have to fire her, when she gets back, because her tolerance for questionable work ethics is a bit lower than mine, but we’ll see. I am already calling Ksenia My Good Colonialist, but really, we have no idea what people were talking about when Indians in the US say: “Oh, you are going to India on US salary – you are going to live like a King, you’ll have a maid and a driver, and everything is going to get delivered!” Yeah, right, but I’ll have to quit my job first, so I have time to manage my maid and my driver.