Sunday, February 19, 2012

If vs. when

The Maharaja, Peter, blowing his candles out
I’m as cautious of our dinner in the desert as I was earlier of mounting a camel – it’s the first Indian curry I’ve braved since the E.coli episode. I try to block out the visions of burying my face a toilet bowl, and try even harder to enjoy the spicy dishes. The plain rice and chapatti bread are a blessing. After dinner, Lalu sneaks off and brings out Barn’s birthday cake, candles lit. We sing “Happy Birthday” enthusiastically, and present the haul of gifts – including a booby prize of a filthy, rancid-smelling, and torn 5-rupee note that has been circulating the group for several weeks. It’s so bad that even a chai-wallah on our train to Varanasi laughed and rejected it. Since then, we’ve insisted it stay between us; woe betide anyone owed a cheeky fiver. “No, please! Let me shout you this chai - no need to pay me back! Honestly!”

Waking up in the desert - things could be worse
After a hugely successful surprise birthday party for Pete in the desert, we happily lie under the stars in the most comfortable, thick swags made of woollen blankets. These could, in fact, be the most comfortable beds we’ve slept in over the past six weeks. This is the life. We try not to fall asleep too quickly, but before we know it, we’re being woken by Lalu with cups of hot chai to watch the sun rise. I’m finally feeling much better this morning, and join the others for a breakfast of boiled eggs, toast and desert porridge before we trot off on our camels back to the camel drivers’ base, where a jeep picks us up. Vishnu was supposed to be meeting us out here, as it’s on the road out of town where we're heading, but we get a call from Adventure Travels to say that even after agreeing to the previous day, Vishnu is now refusing to drive out here, as it’s “not on his itinerary”. We roll our eyes, and blame miscommunication, yet again. He obviously doesn’t realise this would have shaved two hours off our travel time today, and would have meant he could knock off early. It doesn’t take the shine off the camel safari though, and we all agree it is the number one highlight of our Indian adventures.

En route back to Delhi, we stop for the night in Pushkar; it's late in the day when we get there, and we see a number of Indian weddings taking place down the streets we pass. Grooms arrive on white horses to colourful and brightly lit venues, some resembling Las Vegas wedding joints. Pushkar is one of the five sacred dahms (pilgrimage sites) for devout Hindus, but it’s also famed by hippie travellers (the dreadlocked and blatantly European ones who bow and say “Namaste” to passersby) for its availability of marijuana. We stay at Third Eye, a hotel with a 5/5 rating on Trip Advisor. The rating is deserved, as the rooms are clean and comfortable, the showers hot, and the food absolutely delicious. The owner’s wife, who's also the cook, is from the Middle East, and makes the most incredible-tasting falafel pita pockets, so good that we all order one for a takeaway lunch for the next day’s car ride. Not exactly Indian, but it's not McDonald's either.

Harriet being conned out of rupees at the ghats in Pushkar
In the morning, the early birds (Clare, Pete and Erin) opt for a sunrise walk, while Harriet and I take a more casual approach to the day, wandering the streets and visiting the sacred Pushkar Sarovar (lake) and its 52 ghats (a series of steps leading to the lake, where pilgrims can take sacred baths). Touts drag us to the ghats and perform rituals with flowers and other offerings to the lake, and demand we pay huge amounts of rupees in return for prayers for our family members. They try to guilt us into paying at least 100 rupees per family member, or US dollars if we have them. When Harriet is told by her man that I have generously paid 700 rupees, she laughs, knowing that I don’t have a single rupee on me; we were on the way to an ATM when we were mobbed by the pedlars. 

We have another long day of driving ahead of us, so we press on to Delhi later in the morning, dropping Harriet and Erin back in Jaipur in the early afternoon to catch a plane to Mumbai the following day. We say our goodbyes, promising to have an Indian-themed get-together when we’re reunited in Auckland. Vishnu requests a photo with all of us in front of the Tourist-mobile, and then we’re on our way again. We pass through the newer part of Delhi on the way in, and it’s almost a shock to see high-rise buildings with fluorescent lights advertising Nokia, Digicom, Alcatel-Lucent, Sony, Philips and countless other international companies. For the past six weeks, we’ve really only seen broken down shacks in dusty and filthy streets awash with beggars and sewerage. We stay the night at the Smyle Inn, the hotel from where we set off for Rajasthan, dining at Everest Café in preparation for our next leg of the journey.

Where's the tie, Wild?
Vishnu picks us up the following day and drops us at the airport to catch our flight to Kathmandu. As we enter the airport, I breathe a sigh of relief upon sighting a café with an espresso machine. Halleluiah! It's been a very long time between real coffees. I spend an hour battling in Hinglish with a post office clerk trying to send a parcel of presents home, and make it through customs just in time to hear our flight being called. As I approach the gangway, I see a man looking stranger than me in my bright blue camel-print pants, orange cardigan and pink sneakers. It’s Tim Wild in a new suit paired with Asics Tiger sneakers. “Hoping to get upgraded?” Barn jokes.

It’s fantastic to see Tim again and hear about his time in Sri Lanka and about our friend Ash’s wedding that he’s just come from in Chennai (hence the suit). I depart India on a high, but after a month amid chaos, I can’t wait to get to the hopefully tranquil Himalayas. For a brief moment, I wonder if India was everything I hoped it would be, or much more I really hoped it wouldn’t. But the jury’s not out for long.

"That one is definitely Everest, Tim. I swear!"
As we fly over the vast Himalayas below, attempting the impossible task of picking out Everest (Tim rolling his eyes every time I claim to see it), I remember the people of India, their faces, and their fascinating lives. I think about their many faiths, their collective passion, and their obvious love for their country and each other.

I recall the contradiction of filthy streets – despite the women’s incessant sweeping of dust from one spot to another – and the remarkably clean clothes of the children who sleep on the floor of the home in Nilakottai. I think about how hard some of the people work, while others laze about, watching life just happen. The vibrant colour of saris and of fresh produce being sold on the streets of Kodaikanal stand out above the endless the brown-on-brown buildings, shacks and slums; I think of the warm smiles of bright white teeth against dark skin. We were selflessly welcomed into people’s homes, and I remember being cooked for, cared for, and served bottomless pots of sweet tea. I think about being nursed back to health by Dr Jaggi and his medical staff in Agra. The smells of delicious new foods remain in my memory above the stench of the streets, and for all the touts, hawkers and rickshaw drivers who ripped us off, there were dozens more who couldn’t do enough to help us.

India receives the big tick, and I resolve to come back one day – and not just in transit on my way home from Nepal in three weeks’ time. With so much of the world still to see, and so little annual leave, it’s not a question of if, but simply of when.

A careless whisper

Naughty Leos defying Odi by taking a lion-esque photo
A driver picks Erin and me up at the Amit Jaggi Memorial Hospital in Agra late in the afternoon, and we sail past the Taj Mahal in the distance as we leave the city – me, having never made it there in person. “Aggra-vating,” I mumble – totally intending the pun – but the joke falls flat, even on myself.

Erin tries to comfort me: “Lucky we could see it from the window of our hotel that first night!”
“Yeah,” I sigh.
“And awesome that we had a poster of it at the foot of our hospital beds!” she jokes.
“Yeah, awesome,” I try, not finding it funny just yet. It will come, I think, remembering a Brotip about bad experiences slowly turning into funny stories and then happy memories. All in good time.

We knock on the door of the Pearl Palace Hotel room of the others when we arrive in the "Pink City" of Jaipur, and get a great reception from Harriet, Clare and Pete, hugging like long, lost friends – having been parted for just over 24 hours. We head to the rooftop restaurant for some dry toast and antibiotics for dinner, and check out the lights of the city, planning the next day’s outing.

In the morning, we meet India’s most annoying tour guide, Odi, who insists we stick to his regimented plan and will not answer any questions outside of his script, which he delivers in a particularly grating sing-song manner. We visit City Palace and the neighbouring Jantar Mantar, a collection of architectural, astronomical and “jod-ee-ark” (zodiac) instruments and sundials built by the Maharaja (king) in the 1700s. Odi then proceeds to tell us exactly what we must take photos of. “You take photo NOW,” he instructs authoritatively. The antibiotics I’m on are as nauseating as Odi, so the whole sightseeing fiasco doesn’t go down too well. Mercifully, we release Odi from his services in the afternoon and I sleep the rest of the day away at the hotel while the others walk around the Pink City taking photos of whatever they would like to, and not what Odi says they must.

The Blue City and its fort
We leave Jaipur at 6am the following day, and travel the long, straight road filled with more cows and now horses, to Jodhpur, the "Blue City". We arrive at lunchtime to a similar-looking city to Jaipur (only with everything painted blue, not pink), with wonderful views of the city’s fort from the rooftop of our hotel. There’s definitely a set formula for these cities in Rajasthan – paint the buildings all one colour, tick, build a fort, tick.

We head out for a walk up a steep road to the fort, but I don’t quite make it to the top, nearly fainting on the way – this does not bode well for our Everest Base Camp trek in just 10 days’ time. Instead of jostling with the crowds at the fort, Clare and I find a quiet spot on the adjacent hill with monuments resembling Stonehenge, perched above the Middle Eastern-looking city. We fall asleep on some rocks in the sun, listening to a brass band rehearsing for the following day’s celebrations for India Republic Day, the same day as Australia Day. It’s not quite Advance Australia Fair or Walzing Matilda I’ve heard on the 26th of January for the past few years at the Australian Open in Melbourne, but the traditional Indian folk music is played just as passionately and patriotically.

We have another 6am departure from Jodhpur, and after a quick phonecall to Dr Jaggi back in Agra, I stock up on anti-nausea meds he recommends, still trying to shake off the side-effects of the E.coli-fighting drugs, days after leaving hospital. On our journey to Jaisalmer, Vishnu swerves at random to avoid donkeys and camels, and of course the customary cows that roam the highways. As we pull into the “Golden City” of Rajasthan (again – choose a colour, build a fort), people are dressed in their Sunday best outfits and school uniforms for Republic Day, and a shambolic parade is taking place. We drive through the town in the Tourist-mobile, as we’ve dubbed our ever-so-obvious mode of transport, and almost become part of the parade. We certainly are a star attraction; strapping King Peter (with his four princesses in tow) receives a lot of stares.

Contrary to popular belief, Erin and Barn are not conjoined
The manager of our hotel is extremely excitable and, most unfortunately, has a lisp. He tells us about the “Jaithalmer dethert fethtival” that we won’t be around for in February, and he says one of the highlights is a “tharee” (sari) tying” and turban-wrapping competition between the locals “to thee how fatht they can tie them!” he enthuses. We tell him we’re keen to do an overnight camel safari, and he happily points us in the direction of Adventure Travel, recommended by our friend Cassie. There, we meet the German office manager, Martina, possibly the most helpful person we’ve come across on our travels. Being a rare European citizen of Jaisalmer, we ask how she came to live here, and she smiles and says, “My heart.” We’re not sure if she means she loves the place, or someone in particular here, but she tells us she lives six months of the year in Jaisalmer, and the other six months in Britain, and she seems to make it work. Martina gives us the ins and outs of overnight trips into the desert and shows us the thick swags we’ll sleep in on the desert sand. We head off in very high spirits, eager for our safari the next day.

We walk up to the fort and buy birthday presents for Barn, whose birthday was almost forgotten last week in the blur of the Agra hospital visit. Us girls have decided to surprise him with a camel safari birthday party in the desert, and we go all out – Clare and I buy him a bronze camel statue, while Erin and Harriet purchase a fancy Maharaja (king) shirt, a wooden recorder and plastic party whistles. We also pitch in for a cake from the German Bakery, and ask them to write “Happy Birthday Peter” on it, before changing our minds and asking that they make that “Happy Birthday King Peter” – as much to the owner’s amusement as our own.

Jeep ride into the desert
The following day Harriet’s not feeling well at all, and waits until the last minute to decide that she will still come on the camel safari – not letting King Peter’s birthday celebrations be postponed again by illness. We board a jeep for a 50-minute ride into the desert, and meet our camels and their ‘drivers’ (trainers). I’m a little nervous of the large animals, having not “got back on the horse” after being bucked off one at El Rancho camp in Waikanae as a 10-year-old. Noting my apprehension, Lalu the camel driver appoints me “Babbu Bhai”, the smallest and best-behaved of all the camels, he promises. The camel drivers wrap our turbans on our heads, and after the initial terror of climbing on the camel and lurching forwards then backwards as it stands up, we trot off in a row, and it is actually quite fun. In our colourful camel-print pants and rainbow of turbans, we feel very Sex and the City 2 – well, the girls do anyway. Barn doesn’t have a bar of it.

Sweet ride
We ride the camels for just over an hour into the desert, stopping along the way at a local village in the middle of nowhere, with huts made of dried camel dung, mud and water. Children mob us when we climb off the camels to have a look around, and Lalu tells me all about the people of the village. He was brought up in a desert village like this, and he’s never been to school; “I learn my English only from the tourist,” he admits. I tell him his English is very good, and he blushes, shrugging it off. “The children here now are verrrrrry luckeeeee,” he reckons, as they get picked up by buses each day to go to a desert school.

Home for the night
We continue on our camel safari, and after another short ride we arrive at our spot for the night – untouched dunes with sand swept across them in neat waves, like freshly groomed powder of ski-fields. We arrive just in time for photos in front of the sunset, and Clare helps Lalu and his cooks make a large pot of deliciously sweet Indian cardamom tea. As the cooks make dinner by the impossibly dim light of their mobile phones and the flames below the pot, we chat and aimlessly dig our feet into the still-warm and silky sand. A young Indian guy from Delhi, Sagar, is also on our safari trip – the only one not from our travelling group – and he’s much more in the know with the Indian desert, managing to get the camel drivers to source some suspect-looking desert alcohol made from the cactus plant. He becomes chattier after a few swigs of the stuff, and asks us what kind of music we listen to, before pulling out his BlackBerry and generously playing a few tunes aloud for the group.

Clare's culinary skills put to the test in the desert
We stifle grins when he blasts WHAM!’s “Careless Whisper” – somehow I don’t think it’s on the Top 25 Most Played lists on any of our iPods. It couldn’t be a more inappropriate tune for the occasion, but it’s a nice gesture, nonetheless. Barn is the only one of us game enough to try the vodka-like desert drink, but he’s quick to give me a slightly more careful whisper to let me know it tastes like paint-stripper. Under the moonless sky, he’s able to rid his makeshift cup (a Fanta bottle with the top sliced off, care of Sagar) of the drink on the sly. As if on cue, George Michael belts out, “Now that you’re gone, now that you’re gone,” from the BlackBerry, signalling not only the end of the song, but mercifully for Barn, the end of his foray into dodgy desert alcohol.

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

In sickness and in health

Slapping cockroaches dead on trains - a novel way to pass time
We catch an overnight train back to Delhi from Varanasi the next day, after returning to Blue Lassi with Harriet in tow, Erin refined to bed rest again. The train is only 14 and a half hours this time, but it still passes rather agonisingly, thanks to the endless stream of cockroaches scuttling up and down the walls and floor our carriage. I spend the majority of the night on cockroach watch, slapping them dead with my jandals, and thanking my lucky stars we have a driver and flights booked for the remainder of our transport in India. It’s at about 3am – when we’re still nowhere near Delhi, the snoring from the Indian man in the neighbouring cabin is becoming deafening and the ‘roaches are seemingly unconquerable – that I start to think my family’s trip to Melbourne to see the Australian Open tennis is looking like a much more appealing option than India. What was I thinking?

I doze off to sleep just in time to be woken up as we pull into Delhi at 7am. It’s a cool 4 degrees when we hop off the train, but waiting on the platform for us is Vishnu, our driver for our tour of Rajasthan. Vishnu, “like the name of Indian god”, he proudly says, is a tiny man in a bright purple jersey. He has thighs the size of my forearms, very dark skin, a moustache, goatee and a cheeky smile. For the car, Vishnu on call 24/7, petrol and taxes, it’s only costing us $200 each for 10 days. A total bargain.

We’d specified a vehicle with seatbelts, a very careful driver, and one who speaks English. Vishnu takes us over to our car, which is described on our itinerary as a SUV but is more of a people-mover. It’s white, and has the word “TOURIST” emblazoned in large capitals on the top of the front windscreen. Could we be any more obvious? After some fumbling, we locate all the seatbelts, and set to the roads. Vishnu is indeed a careful driver, but his English leaves a bit to be desired. Oh well, two out of three ain’t bad. 

The Famous Five Do Rajasthan
It’s a slow start as we crawl through the extreme fog covering Delhi, but the roads of Rajasthan are more like real roads than any others we’ve travelled on so far. The drive to Agra passes relatively painlessly (although, to be fair, I’m asleep most of the time), and when we arrive, we take photos of the Taj Mahal from our bedroom windows. As Vishnu’s English isn’t the best, the tour company is supplying us with guides in each city; shortly after arriving, we meet our Agra guide and have some lunch, before a minor drama unfolds: Clare misplaces her small handbag containing USD $500, credit cards, an iPhone and passport. We comb the restaurant and cross-examine the staff members, but later return to let them know that all is well – the handbag has been located at the hotel. Crisis averted. We head to the Red Fort (Agra Fort), overlooking the Taj Mahal, where we will visit tomorrow, as it’s closed for worship each Friday. 

King Peter and his princesses at Agra Fort
At the Red Fort, we pose for photos with Barn sitting on the King’s seats, and us (his four wives/princesses, as we’ll now be known) surrounding him. The tour guide shows us a secret room with walls filled with water, and we have more fun than 25- and 26-year-olds probably should whispering into one corner of the room, and hearing what the other person is saying just like a phone line in the opposite corner, 10 metres away.

Before the day’s tour ends, we have to visit a marble factory and another sales spiel. Today’s is like a carefully scripted play – the shop owner has his lines down, and his assistants all switch the shop lights off in unison as a torch is shone beneath a marble table to show us the colourful stones in all their glory. We get away without purchasing an outdoor marble table, but Harriet takes one for the team this time, buying the smallest marble elephant they have.

That night, we dine in the company of a throng of Korean tourists at Joney’s Place, highly recommended by friends and all the guide books. We sample more Indian delights and wash them down with lassis before heading back to our ‘VIP suite’ which isn’t all that VIP (cold saltwater showers, which eventually turn into lukewarm saltwater showers). We lay out our best Indian outfits for the morning – we’re getting up at 6.30 to go to the Taj Mahal at sunrise – and head to bed, excited about the day ahead.

And then it all goes horribly wrong.

I wake up at 1am and power-chuck the contents of my dinner into the toilet bowl. Thinking I feel better, I head back to bed, only to wake up every 20 minutes for the next eight hours to vomit up copious amounts of the brightest yellow bile. It’s like clockwork. Excruciatingly painful clockwork. Twenty minutes, to the minute. I’ve never been this sick in my life and as clichéd as it sounds, I would never wish this upon my worst enemy. It’s a living nightmare.

In the morning, I’m lying in the foetal position on the camp-bed by a heater, and groan a farewell to the others as they head to the Taj Mahal – the supposed highlight of a tour of Rajasthan. In fact, it’s probably the highlight of the whole of India. I’m in Agra and I’m not going to see the Taj Mahal; this is unbelievable. When the crew return, they try to hide how amazing it was from me. “It was freezing cold,” says Harriet. “Taj schmaj,” offers Clare. I bet it was incredible.

The next few hours pass in a blur as the team decides we can’t travel to Jaipur today as planned. They find a new hotel, and take me to the general hospital next door, which looks like it’s the set from a 1930s war movie. Everything is rusty and broken, and there are sick people everywhere. I’m helped into a wheelchair and taken to be examined by a doctor who loudly asks over and over again “How many times vomit?” and “How many times defecation?”, which does bring the tiniest of smiles to my ashen face. I’m admitted overnight and sent to a very cold but private ward next to a public ward with dozens of Indian mothers and babies lying over beds in every direction. I hand over the 2000 rupees ($50) for my room, give the doctor my passport and am examined again by a host of what I think are trainee doctors and nurses on rounds. The room is packed, but hardly anyone can speak English, so much of our communication (or rather, miscommunication) is mimed.

The cleaner, of all people, comes back in and hands over a list of around 15 medications, written in Hindi. She hangs around and awkwardly stares at me for an age, until Barn comes back into the room and subtly lets me know that someone in the carpark has told them that this is the “poor man’s hospital” and that we should be at the “rich man’s hospital” down the road. Sure enough, Lonely Planet also suggests the “rich man’s hospital”, more formally known as Amit Jaggi Memorial Hospital. 

Hospital number one, a fridge
Before the cleaner gets her chance to pump me with unknown medicines, Harriet spends almost an hour discharging me and signing countless forms, while Clare calls BNZ TravelCare to tell them I need to cash in on my policy. Because we’re self-discharging, the nurses no longer let me use the bathroom, instead pointing me in the direction of the filthiest squatter located in the burns unit when I’m about to be sick again. I run outside and vomit in the carpark instead. New low.

Eventually Harriet returns to the car with my discharge papers, and we even get back the money for my room, bar a 160 rupee admin fee. Vishnu then takes me to Amit Jaggi Memorial Hospital, where I’m instantly seen by Dr Jaggi himself, Senior Physician and Medical Director. Dr Jaggi’s office looks like a much more legitimate excuse for a doctor’s surgery, with degrees and diplomas adorning the walls, and the latest medical textbooks on shelves. This is a good sign. When Dr Jaggi asks my name, I groan “Rebecca”. He smiles, “Ahh, you must be Rebecca Kennedy. Your travel insurance company has phoned me already. I will call them back to let them know you’re here.” I nearly cry with relief – the man speaks English and he knows who I am.

Dr Jaggi says I have a “very bad bacterial infection” and am “extremely dehydrated”. A whole team of doctors and nurses march into my hospital room and try to find veins in my arms for about quarter of an hour, the first three attempts being unsuccessful. My right arm is squeezed black and blue and a vein is finally located, and I’m pumped with I/V fluids, and given general antibiotics while my bloods are tested for what the bacteria is. I feel so awfully nauseous that I’m in tears, almost hysterical, and that’s when Ali, one of Dr Jaggi’s assistants, announces that he is about to inject something in my backside. New, new low.

Ali smiles at me and exclaims far too happily, “No, no, no, no, no, nooooooo worrrries!” Well, maybe not for you, Ali. He means well though, and quickly becomes an ally in this battle against my own body. In the afternoon, Erin decides to get checked out by Dr Jaggi too, as she hasn’t been feeling very well since last week. She’s admitted into the same room as me, and is great company and moral support as further excruciating injections are endured and more new lows eventuate.

Not quite a tequila sunrise
I sleep the whole next day and miss the others when they come in to make a new travel plan. In the end, they decide to push on to Jaipur while we stay another night in hospital, and they arrange for a driver to come and collect us when we’re discharged. Erin and I talk to our families, and then spend the evening watching movies on HBO, including Sex and the City 2 – The Movie, and – aptly – Slumdog Millionaire. I even catch a bit of one of Caroline Wozniacki’s matches at the Australian Open, and don’t feel so gutted about missing it in person.

On our third day in hospital Dr Jaggi confirms that our cultures showed we had E.coli, and says we’ll be able to be discharged in the afternoon. The young doctor who’s been treating us (‘DK’ as he tells us to call him – not to be confused with TK from Shortland Street) administers even more antibiotics and one last injection each in the backside. They send us on our way with very best wishes and little brown paper bags of medicines to see us through the next four days.

Close but no cigar - viewing a poster of the Taj
As we walk out of the hospital, I don’t even recognise the outside of the place, having been in such a state when I arrived. We’ve made it out alive thanks to selfless love and help from some incredible friends: Pete for dealing with hospitals, drivers, hotels, and for staying in touch with my family; Harriet for discharging me from the “poor man’s hospital”, and constantly making sure we were comfortable; Clare for her texts and phonecalls to my Mum, and calling the travel insurance company; and Erin for sharing new lows and new, new lows.

I've said before that to avoid cultural faux pas in India, I may as well be married to Pete, but this week I may as well be married to all of my travel buddies. After all, they're proving they'll stick with me in sickness and in health – but hopefully not til’ death do us part. 

Thursday, January 26, 2012

I hope you like the scarf

Clare, Uttam and Pete
The autorickshaw Uttam drives now is one he rents for around Rs 200 per day. “I pay for tyres, brake pads, brake fuel and so on,” he says. Pete asks if he’ll buy his own one day, and he tells us he’s saving for one, but saving is tough going.

I enquire about the Indian driver licensing system. Apparently, it exists. All up, it costs several thousand rupees to become fully licensed. First up they have to sit a learner’s licence – “You can sit that when you are 18. Then you go for private licence within one to six months, and then after three years you can go for government licence,” Uttam says. “That one gives you discounted medical care – they pay 25 per cent if you have a crash – and other benefits too. But not if you crash when you are driving drunk,” he adds. “You need to renew your government licence every three years, as well. And then you can get your commercial licence, but the government licence is good enough, so I do not need this one. Uttam tells us the government licence costs around Rs 3000, but it can change “according to goodwill”. Uttam says, “If you know someone in government, it can be little bit cheaper, say, 2500 rupees only.” It seems the notion “It’s who you know, not what you know” is universal.

Barn’s phone rings in the rickshaw, and it’s an Indian number calling. We assume it’s a hotel about a booking, but he looks confused and repeats the caller’s introduction. “It’s my new friend calling? Sorry, who is this?” He explains when he hangs up that it was a customer service representative from Vodafone India who he had spoken with earlier in the day when he was having issues with his sim card. The first time they spoke, Barn was having trouble remembering his new Indian number and she had given him a lecture: “You are verrrry confused, sir. Please write down your number on a piece of paper, and then read it out to me exactly as it is written down.” Just as they were making headway, he accidentally put her on hold and the call was disconnected. Amazingly, this girl displays exceptional customer service contradictory to my earlier rant about Vodafone. She had saved Barn’s number and rang him back from her personal phone when her shift was over, to see if the issue had been resolved. Ten points, Vodafone India. She then proceeds to call him back five more times in a stalkerish manner. Negative ten points, Vodafone India.

Our tour of Varanasi finishes with a trip to the Muslim Cooperative Society – the oldest manufacturing area in Varanasi. A Muslim man shows us around, and we bypass the mosques and head down some alleyways to see silk khadi (hand weaving). We’re told it’s a slow process, with some Muslim dresses taking five to six weeks to complete. A group of men and a young boy are painstakingly threading silver beads onto a piece of silk and explain that silver ones are used for wedding garments only. We meet another man who’s weaving 7000 Kashmiri silk threads finer than strands of hair on an ancient leg-operated machine that has programming cards with codes for different patterns. It’s the same kind of device they’ve been using since the 14th century, and we’re told it’s like an early version of a computer. Again it’s painstaking work; “I’m going to look at my pashminas differently now,” Clare says. Me too.

The man showing us around says they export to lots of countries: “Europe, the USA, Jordan, Dubai, Australia – many, many counties.” “New Zealand?” we enquire. “Many, many countries – but no, not New Zealand. You know Australia? We export our bedspreads for 8000 rupees to Deevad Joes.” “Ohhh, David Jones!” we chorus.

No more duvets, please!
Before we can return to Uttam in the rickshaw, there’s a catch. There’s always a catch. We have to visit the man’s silk store, where he proceeds to unfold all the king-sized silk duvets he has, trying to tempt us to buy. There’s ones with pictures of the fort we visited this morning, more with elephants. Initially, none of us has the heart to say we're not in the market for duvets, but as we slowly drown in fabric, we shake our heads, saying we can’t take any more luggage. But he persists. “We can post!” he says, continuing to unfold. “They’re washable in liquid soap!” he enthuses. “Made from baby cocoon silk!”

He gets out some Rs 3000 ($75) pashminas made from the tummy hair of Himalayan goats. “We have ones from the beard part, too!” he exclaims. "God, they're expensive," Barn mumbles. We start to look at each other. There’s only one thing to do now. One of us will have to buy something so we can escape. I should get my mum something nice, but not $75 nice (sorry, Mum). The man looks at Barn, suggesting he buy a scarf. “He doesn’t have a wife,” I say. “Girlfriend?” the man replies. “You like the green one, sir? Maybe for a business friend?” We all laugh, imagining Barn buying one for his new boss at Russell McVeagh.

At this point, it’s getting dire. I ask if he has any cheaper ones and he brings out a pile that are only 50% pashmina, for Rs 300 ($7.50). Taking one for the team, I pick up one the colour of Mum’s mother-of-the-bride outfit from my sister’s wedding last year. “I’ll take it!” I say, not even bothering to bargain with him. I hand over the 300 rupees and we bolt out of there.

On the way back to our hotel, we ask more about Uttam’s marriage. He says he’s 24 and has been married for two years. Despite his family’s protests (he was meant to have an arranged marriage with a family friend’s daughter), he married for love. “I met her in Assi [Assi Ghat]. I see her one or two times, and we talk. Then friendship turns to love.” In Indian marriages a girl’s father has to pay the husband – it’s a tradition from hundreds of years ago. The government is trying to outlaw it, as apparently it’s not uncommon for women to be murdered after their dowry has been handed over. But Uttam reckons the government can’t do anything about. “For good family, nice family, you just have to pay. But she have no dowry, she have no money, but I say I can do without that.”

They had a small wedding, marrying in a temple, with just a few friends there. “My family would not attend, and her family would not come either.” Uttam tells us that he had great support from a Swiss girl, Anna, who he met when she was volunteering for Red Cross in the area. “She was good friend, she support me a lot and help me, but she’s gone back to college, to university now. Maybe she will come back again, she said maybe in five years, so maybe in 2015,” he says, with a sadness in his eyes.

Taking one for the team
When we get back to the hotel, Erin and Harriet have deteriorated. The poor things are in pain and in need of medical attention, so Barn calls the doctor. One arrives around 7.30pm, diagnoses the girls and prescribes a host of medicines. Barn, the legend, then hops on a motorbike driven by the hotel manager, in search of a 24-hour pharmacy. He’s gone for what seems like an age, and returns, valiant, medicines in tow, having visited six pharmacies. They’d also had to make a return visit to the doctor, as he’d prescribed a medicine that either did not exist or was not available in any of the five pharmacies visited previously. What a champion. At 9.30pm, we dose the girls up and send them to bed, before we head to the rooftop restaurant of our hotel for some dinner and to get Barn a well-deserved beer after a frantic day in the Holy City of Varanasi. Mum, I hope you like the scarf.

Hard work in the holy city

Sleeper train to Varanasi
Arriving in Delhi, Barn and I can’t believe how Western the city feels, relative to the other places we’ve visited in India. Road rules clearly still don’t exist here, but there’s slightly less tooting on the roads as we leave the airport. Furthermore, they’re roads which actually resemble real roads. This is a first. We ask about the 2010 Commonwealth Games and what we glean from our driver’s broken English is that the city was cleaned up in a huge way before the Games – a bonus for those living in Delhi.

We meet up with Harriet and Erin at the hotel and try not to share all the news of our past 10 days apart, as we have a 17-hour train ride to Varanasi the next day. When we get to the platform, Barn reminds me that we’re going to be spending longer on this train than we have in most of the hotel rooms we’ve stayed in so far – not a comforting thought.

As we board the train, a man pushes in front, separating me from the others. He’s stalling, looking into each cabin as I try to push past to get back to the group, and I realise his friend is right up behind me. I feel something touch my handbag, and quickly pull it closer to me before stopping at a seat and insisting they both pass. When I look again, I realise a 20cm hole has been sliced into my bag. Fortunately, the cut was made right where my sleeping bag liner and jersey were, so nothing was taken, apart from my naivety, perhaps.

The Ganges at dawn
The train passes as slowly as expected, and we arrive at Rahul Guest House on the banks of the Ganges in Varanasi at 5.15am. We have a much-needed coffee and board a boat at 6am to watch the sun rise over the Ganges. It’s a must-do experience, but not one I’d jump at repeating any time soon. We float through thick fog past the ghats where some bodies are being burnt and others are being tied with rocks before they’re released onto the water to sink.

The Ganges
There are boatloads of other tourists doing the same thing we are, and others with men selling tacky Varanasi souvenirs from them. It seems wrong for people to be capitalising on this situation, but where there’s a rupee to be made in India, you can guarantee somebody will be making it. Nearing the end of the journey, a Canadian on our boat comments that it’s interesting we haven’t seen a corpse yet. Less than 30 seconds later, we pass one floating face-up. I can’t look for long, but the corpse is still well formed and you can tell it’s a man. There are crows sitting on the man’s bloated stomach, and ceremonial paint still adorns his forehead. He even has his silver wristwatch on. It’s creepy, to say the least.

We walk the city in the afternoon, try a thali recommended in all the guide books, and navigate the intense traffic. After dinner at a restaurant overlooking the Ganges, we meet another lovely autorickshaw driver, Uttam, who we enlist to take us sightseeing the next day. On the way home, Uttam proudly shows us the sparkly Indian bangles he’s brought his wife, and we tell him he’s chosen the best ones. He smiles, stoked, and tells us that in India, it’s not common for men to buy their wives gifts. He tells us he’s 24, two years our junior, and asks Barn if he’s married yet. “Unfortunately not,” he says, “But I’ll be buying bangles soon enough,” Barn adds, laughing.

Clare arrives off a train from Delhi in the morning, and we begin the day as a foursome; this should be the start of “The Famous Five do Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh”, but Erin is struck down with an as yet unknown illness, so Pete, Harriet, Clare and I head off with Uttam while Erin rests up. He takes us first to the Ramnagar Fort and Museum, a 17th century fort and palace on the eastern banks of the Ganges. We wander through the slightly underwhelming museum and look at cases of weaponry – Indian swords with flint lock pistols, axes, daggers, some bejewelled swords, and a lot of empty cases that should be holding ‘ivory articles'. There are elephant tusks, and – bizarrely – a relatively modern Indian lounge suite behind glass. We see tiger heads, animal hides, a lion trap, and a once-beautiful ballroom with leadlight windows that’s sadly now in a state of disrepair. Pete reckons it would have been a great 21st venue in its heyday.

Harriet starts to go downhill, so we drop her back at the hotel for some R&R with Erin, while Clare, Pete and I continue on to Blue Lassi for “The best lassi in all of Varanasi” – an advertising slogan Clemenger’s would be proud of. This place has been talked up by everyone who’s ever visited the city, and it’s unfortunate Erin and Harriet aren’t with us to enjoy our first one as they were huge campaigners. We’ll have to come back tomorrow, we say. On the way there, Pete accidentally says “bang lassi” instead of mango lassi (Freudian slip?), and our driver Uttam launches into a big spiel about “bang lassis” – the drug-laced version of the milky drinks. Pete’s pleading, “No, I didn’t mean that! We do not want the drug version!” but Uttam presses on. “Bang lassi you can only buy one day of the week in Varanasi. It is very dangerous. The marijuana last four hours, but bang lassi lasts 12. It’s made with the baby leaves,” he says. “It have delayed reaction – you not feel it for one and half hours. Easy to have too much.”

He admits he’s tried it many times before – but he doesn’t do it these days, now that he’s married and has a 10-month old son. “The feeling is very nice, but you can only have little bit, no more. But it is not good; you drinking more and more of it and you become mad. Things are always running in your mind. Anything you think of – the spiritual matters, the sexual matters. You are always thinking, deeper and deeper, any matter,” he warns. “Not long ago, tourist come here and he have the bang lassi. He was in the street for six hours – six hours! – playing with dolls like a baby. More than 200 peoples were watching him in the street, and he not watch any of them, he just watch the doll.” 

Clare ready to tackle 'The best lassi in all of Varanasi'
We get to the lassi place and I opt for a banana and coffee flavoured one. Pete tries the Lonely Planet-recommended apple, and Clare a banana coconut. As we’re ordering, the owner says, “We have special lassi, magic lassi. We can get a lot of things here. We can add magic seeds.” Uhhh, no. Definitely no magic seeds, thank you very much. In her job at Telecom, Clare’s doing some work for Fonterra, so she films them churning the milky drinks, and asks about the ingredients. “Milk, cream, saffron, rose water, and pistachios,” they say. They tell us it’s buffalo milk, not cow, and when we leave, we quiz Uttam about the Indian dairy industry. He tells us buffalo milk is Rs 20 per little, whereas it’s Rs 40 for a litre of cow’s milk. He adds that the buffalo milk is stronger and you can add 300mL of water per litre to dilute it. Apparently they save the cow’s milk for ceremonial use – it’s one of the offerings to the Hindi gods. Temples are even washed in the stuff. “We have big shortage of cow’s milk when we have big religious ceremonies – this is 14 times a year.”

Uttam picks up his sister’s 10-year-old brother on the way, and we say hello and ask if he goes to school. He doesn’t. He sells postcards to make money for his family. He’s one of 11 children and there’s no one to pay for his education. Uttam tells us more about his own family – one brother and one sister, both married now. His father died when he was nine, so he’s been working since he was just 14 years old. First, it was “small jobs like chai shop,” he says. “I started driving auto in 2008, but I do one year learning in 2007. I work one year for no pay to learn.” Clare says that must have been hard, not earning any money for a whole year. Uttam replies in an unintentionally poignant manner: “In India, to get something you need to lose something.” We all nod and look down, silently and unanimously agreeing on the value of hard work.

Guests are god

Scary puppets, scarier puppeteer
It's not often that the best dining experience of your life is outdone the very next evening. But it happens to us in Ahmedabad. All the tourism websites say that dinner at Vishalla, a 5km rickshaw ride away from Hotel Volga, is a must-do.

Like the Agashiye last night, this restaurant displays a number of The Times of India awards in its candlelit entranceway. We pay the set menu price for dinner at the outdoor restaurant, and are told there'll be a 40-minute wait. Forty minutes almost isn't long enough, as the grounds of Vishalla are fascinating. The area is huge, and set up like a traditional Gujurati village, dotted with fireplaces and smoky with incense that almost overpowers the thick smog that’s enveloping the city this evening.

According to its website, the place is “fit for the purpose, owing to the vastness in the ambience and immense relaxation it offers”. Apparently, the restaurant got its name from a book in which Vishalla is a meditation place: “The name caught the sensitive eyes of Mr Patel [the restaurateur], as it related to his vision for the restaurant – a place to have home-like food in a relaxed atmosphere and free mind.”
Dining at Vishalla

We stop by some of the cultural performances going on in the grounds of Vishalla; one’s a puppet show reminiscent of Czech Marionette dolls (albeit slightly more frightening – at one point a puppet snake is flung into the children in front. Very Brothers Grimm). We sit around one of the many fireplaces in the grounds and listen to drummers and bell-ringers, drinking the lemon and ginger juice we're presented when we walk in. I can't help but think that the only thing that would improve this experience would be a shot of vodka in my juice in this dry state. I must be turning into my parents, who managed to pass off their glasses of Lindauer as sparkling grape juice at my 7th form leavers’ ball.

We're called for dinner at 9.30, and are invited to sit cross-legged on mats underneath low tables. A dozen waiters swarm our table and present the most incredible selection of dishes and condiments on top of plates made of banana leaves beautifully sewn together. It is a work of art. A very, very delicious work of art. Like last night, they just keep returning: “More chapathi, madam? More sambar? More dahl?” The meal finishes with more of the caramel sesame seed treats we’d tried earlier, and a bowl of pistachio-flavoured ice-cream, rendering us almost too stuffed to shuffle back to a rickshaw to get home. But shuffle we do, with bed in mind – there’s nothing quite like a Christmas Day-style food coma.
Sunrise in Ahmedabad after the first day of Utturayan

The next morning, still feeling high as kites after our authentic Utturayan experience and five-star thali the previous night, a very rare thing happens. The world’s most notorious not-a-morning-person person (me) suggests a pre-breakfast walking tour of Ahmedabad. Pre-breakfast, pre-coffee, even. Hard to believe, I know.
The walking tour takes us through the heritage area of the city, and along some of the Pols (streets) and Kanchos and Khadis (small streets/lanes). We wander the pols, through secret doors and shortcuts, and come across book markets and plenty of jewellers – Ahmedabad has one of the largest jewellery markets in India. We also pass by a huge number of temples, and our tour guide tells us that in the 600 pols, there are an incredible 1600 temples. The ornate temple we visit is decorated with swastikas, which we’re told are a symbol of the Hindu faith, as well as Jainsim - a religion that promotes non-violence to all living things. Swastikas and non-violence? Seems a little ironic.

Getting lucky, Gujurati style
Also on our tour are a lovely Indian family, a father, mother and daughter who are visiting from another city in Gujurat. The father is an orthopaedic surgeon, and the daughter is following her dad’s footsteps and is in her first year of medical school. Along the way, they buy us chai, help with translation and tell us more about Gujurat. When we see cows being fed and ask whose responsibility it is to look after the thousands of them that roam the streets, the Gujurati family take us over and buy some grass for us to feed the cows with – apparently it’s very good luck to feed a cow on a birthday or other auspicious occasion. Well, it’s not every day you’re in Ahmedabad at Utturayan.

We visit the stunning (and mammoth) Masjid-e-Nagina mosque – the second largest in India, where 10,000 Muslims come to worship every Friday. Interestingly, the mosque’s interior design and architecture includes elements of other religions, and it even displays some of the Hindu/Jain swastikas we saw earlier. The orthopaedic surgeon tells us the man who established the mosque was very liberal, and liberalism at the mosque continues today – amazingly, there’s even a place for women to worship. Very progressive.
Speaking and hearing no evil at Mahatma Gandhi's Ashram

After the enlightening walking tour, we head across the bridge to the Petang Tower in search of breakfast, but the menu is Indian only. I’ve been embracing Indian food for lunch and dinner, but I draw the line at pre-midday chili. We walk on, and a short time later I make an elementary mistake. Walking with my head down to avoid the human faeces underfoot, I forget to look up for a short time and smash my head at full pace into a tree overhead. Searing pain ensues. I still don’t have my eggs for breakfast, but there’s now a large one on my head. India 101 – not only look both ways, but look up, down and all around at all times.

In the afternoon, we’re tempted to abandon the idea of visiting any other tourist attractions, but eventually decide on visiting Mahatma Gandhi’s Ashram. I’m so glad we do, as it’s one of the most fascinating places we’ve visited so far. We spend the afternoon reading about Gandhi’s many principles and beliefs, and learning more about his “non-cooperation” movement and his practice of non-violence.

There’s not enough time to take all of Ghandi’s teachings in, but I promise myself I’ll find out more about his work when I’m home. Barn buys a biography and I buy a quote book for my brother-in-law, before we head to the pentagonal lake on the other side of the city, which is packed with Indian families celebrating the public holiday.

More kite flying in Ahmedabad
It’s nearly time to head to the airport for our flight to Delhi, and on our way to the rickshaw, we get more waves from families flying kites on their rooftops. One calls down to us to come and join them, and initially I’m not sold. We’ve done the rooftop thing already and should get to the airport pronto to go through the rigmarole of checking in for domestic flights in India – it’s no Air New Zealand self-check-in and baggage drop system. But Barn convinces me otherwise, and it turns out to be sensational. The sky is bluer than yesterday, and kites flood the skies. We’re now the new best friends (and Facebook friends) of another Indian family who teach us to fly kites, offer us masala fizz and beg us to stay for dinner on their rooftop, which is pumping Indian beats across the neighbouring rooftops from a huge speaker.
Pre-E.coli: "I love India 2012"

We eventually have to take our leave, but exchange email addresses and phone numbers. Soon afterwards, Barn gets a text from Darpan, the 20-something-year-old civil engineering student of the family, saying: “Ya, we enjoyed the day but we were missing you guys. I would be pleased if you come to my home for a spicy Indian dinner, and give my love to beautiful lady Rebacca.”

We’ve had an incredible time in Ahmedabad and been welcomed so warmly into people’s homes. The rest of Darpan's text sums it up perfectly, by saying: “And don’t say thanks to me, as we Indians always treat guests that way… ‘Atithi devo bhava’ – it means guests are god.” 

Thursday, January 19, 2012

High as a kite

Arriving in Ahmedabad
As expected, but as clichéd as it sounds, landing in Mumbai is an eye-opener. Slums occupy a huge amount of the city, but are broken up by pockets of desolate apartment blocks and half-finished high-rises. We’ve had to slash Mumbai from our itinerary to fit Illam and the kite festival in, so when we land in Slum City en route to Ahmedabad, we hope they’ll let us off the plane, so we can at least say we stood on Mumbai soil. Considering our surroundings, it’s completely inappropriate to say we’re “starving”, but the other reason we want to get off the plane is that we’d love a feed; breakfast was hours ago.

Pete asks if I reckon Mumbai Airport will have a McDonald’s, and I respond with a very disapproving look, lips pursed (we haven’t caved and had Western takeaway food yet). He reminds me he’s one up on me after he had a masala dosai and sambar for breakfast the other morning when I opted for jam and toast. Defeated, I finally agree he can give Maccas a go, provided he has a Chicken Maharaja-Mac, a BigSpicy Paneer wrap or something strictly Indian. His hopes are dashed, though, when the airhostess announces (first in Hindi, then in Tamil, and lastly in English) that we’re to stay put.

As I flick a text to my sister, I glance over and see Pete googling “McDonald’s Ahmedabad” on his iPhone. Snapped. Apparently there are three McDonald’s restaurants in the city, but Ahmedabad has a huge range of well-regarded eateries (actually, more than half of the top 20 things to do in Ahmedabad are cafes or restaurants), so I think we’ll try and steer clear of the golden arches. We arrive at a much more glamorous airport than Chennai, and read up on Ahmedabad in our taxi into the city – the highlight of which is yet another jaw-dropping red sunset. Apparently Ahmedabad is the fifth largest city in India, and has a metropolitan population of 6.4 million. According to Wikipedia, Forbes magazine rated Ahmedabad as the fastest-growing city in India and the third-fastest in the world, in 2010.

On the way to our hotel, we spot some kites in the air, and work out our plan of action for the kite festival, known here as Utturayan. In light of the day being a national holiday, and with many of the city’s attractions being closed, Barn sets us a challenge for how we’re to spend Utturayan. “We need to do some serious friending,” he declares. “Imagine how much more amazing it would be if we’re invited up onto a roof to fly kites with an Indian family!” I tell Barn I’m quite good at befriending people, and get slated for it by some of my workmates – one in particular, who I think is mildly envious of my superior BFFing skills (just kidding, Gemma). The challenge Barn sets is quite specific; his preference is for an Indian family with the following: “At least one elderly, just for character, a couple of small children, and someone our age – or late teens.

Rooftop dining at House of MG
Challenge accepted, our taxi pulls up at Hotel Volga, which isn’t as uncouth as its name suggests, even though a dog promptly vomits on the doormat outside shortly after we arrive. We’re shown a selection of reasonably priced rooms, and regrettably turn down the one with the 1970s circular double bed, choosing a twin room with air-con, but no external windows. The boy who collects our bags and shows us to our room empties three-quarters of a can of asphyxiating lemon air freshener into the windowless room before we can stop him. He asks where we’re from, and when we say “New Zealand”, he smiles and says, “Stephen Fleming”. What is it with Indians and Stephen Fleming? A quick google tells me he played in the Indian Premier League in 2008, something I’d no doubt have known, had I had brothers instead of sisters.

We’d made a dinner booking at the city’s “House of MG” (officially called The House of Mangaldas Girdhardas), a beautiful heritage mansion converted into a hotel and famed for its three-course Gujurati Thali meals. Upon arrival, we’re greeted by the assistant manager of guest relations, who had responded to my earlier email with “Dear Mr Rebecca Kennedy” (I think I almost prefer Rrrrooopka to Mr Rebecca) and we confirm that yes, we’ll go for the deluxe dining experience over the regular one. We’re going all out, splashing 600 rupees each ($15).

Agashiye - Ahmedabad's best dining experience
Lonely Planet promises that Agashiye is Ahmedabad’s best dining experience – a claim that turns out to totally deserved. I’d go as far as saying it’s the best dining experience I’ve ever had, anywhere, but admittedly I’m still waiting for an invite to dinner at Logan Brown, so I don’t have much to compare it to. We’re served drinks and traditional Gujurati canapés of Dalvada (deep-fried dumplings) and Dohkla (steamed split beans/rice cakes) as soon as we reach the terrace, and are then escorted to a candle-lit area with fairylights and outdoor fireplaces overlooking the city.

Patang (Kite) Markets
We’re served our main course (countless delicious vegetarian dishes such as Sarson Da Saag (green vegetables and mustard leaves), Paneer Bhurji (mixed vegetables and scrambled cottage cheese), breads, curries, and rice) by more than 10 chefs who roam the rooftop refilling our plates as soon as we’ve finished each mouthful. When we beg them to stop, they clear our dishes and serve dessert of dried fruits, stuffed betel leaves (that we’re not overly sold on), home-made chocolates, and coffee. After dinner, we brave the Patang Markets, where all the kites are sold. It's lovely to see all the brilliant colours of the kites, but it's less lovely to be jammed up against with thousands upon thousands of others and be groped by teenage boys; we get out of there as soon as we make it to the other end of the street.

The next morning, I pass up Barn’s offer to join him for a 6am sunrise walk – even though I really should after last night’s dinner – and have a much-needed sleep in. In my defence, it is a Saturday, and travelling really does take its toll. In preparation for tackling Utturayan, we have a late breakfast at a more casual café, The Green House, at the front of the House of MG, and go over the befriending strategy.

Adalaj Stepwell
Jumping in an autorickshaw, we head over to the other side of Ahmedabad and visit the Law Garden, opposite the city’s Law Society, and then wander the streets (passing one full of huge monkeys slung over front gates and in windows of people’s homes). We make our way to a Hindu water building called the Adalaj Stepwell, built in 1499 for Queen Rani Roopba (now I know why they all think my name is something like that). It goes five storeys underground, and our rickshaw driver happily takes us down and shows us inside. Pete takes a look at the mosque next door (“not woman allowed”), and I crane my head in search of kites. We shake off our rickshaw driver who doesn’t understand why we’d want to go for a walk around the area, and the BFFing begins.

We look up and see crowds of people gathered on the rooftop of an apartment block. They smile and we smile back. They wave; we wave back. They motion for us to come upstairs. We look at each other and nod – our strategy is going perfectly to plan – “Textbook friending,” Barn says.

The wave that got us invited up to the rooftop
The rest is history – we climb four flights of stairs to the top, and are instantly mobbed by the dozens of extended family members gathered there for Utturayan celebrations. Kites, food, drinks. We’re offered beer and whiskey, despite Gujurat being a dry state. I politely refuse, but Barn has a Pepsi and Whiskey, followed by a straight whiskey when the Pepsi runs out.

The women crowd around me, the men around Barn. We watch them fly kites, we fly kites. We chat to them, meet their cousins, wives, daughters, sons, brothers, sisters and neighbours. I’m handed a child to hold for a photograph, then another. Suddenly there are many little Indian children hanging off me and I’m posing for photograph after photograph on their mothers’ mobile phones. We’re fed traditional Utturayan sweets of peanut brittle, caramel-flavoured sesame seed treats and something made with rice bubbles.

Kite Festival-goers handing me their children for photos
We’re introduced to the best friend of the man of the house (who’s getting quite tispy by this stage and actually declares Barn his new best friend). The original best friend happens to have lived in Christchurch for the past 10 years, running a Guthrie Bowron store there, so we chat to him about New Zealand, and he helps us book another highly recommended restaurant for dinner, despite the family’s protestations that “Peeeeterrrr and Rrruuupeka” stay to share a meal with them.

Exhausted from all the activity, we bid the family farewell (which takes longer than saying goodbye to all the cousins at a Hallagan/Kennedy family do back home – no mean feat, as anyone who’s experienced a Waipukapalooza or Chinese Banquet at Box Hill would know).

Ahmedabad family and their new 'best friends'
I’m not quite game enough to negotiate the traffic on foot around here, but Barn braves it and heads out for a run along the river, while I spend the rest of the afternoon back at The Green House café listening to the cacophonous traffic trying to out-do the wailing of sunset prayers at the mosque. I sip lime sodas and order more of the patra steamed leaf snacks we enjoyed last night, so content in the knowledge that we nailed the Utturayan experience that I can’t wipe the goofy grin on my face. Anyone would think I’m high as a kite.

Our rooftop home for Utturayan

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Fishy fundraising

Chinese fishing nets in Kochi
We make an escape from our mosquito cultivation lab of a hotel room and head out to see what Kochi has to offer the discerning sightseer. The city is the third largest in the state of Kerala, on the south-western coast of India, and according to the brochures, it’s home to some giant Chinese fishing nets which are well worth a look. 

Kochi was the first of the European colonies in India, and over the centuries it has been occupied by the Portuguese, Dutch and British, all of whose influence is pronounced in the city’s architecture and culture. There’s also an international feel to the touristy area of Fort Kochi, where the 20-metre Chinese fishing nets are located. The nets are huge mechanical gadgets consisting of a cantilever, an outstretched net hanging over the sea, and large boulders suspended (somewhat dangerously) from ropes as counterweights. The weight of a man walking along the main beam causes the net to descend into the sea, where it’s left for a couple of minutes before being pulled up so the catch can be retrieved and sold. Some of the local restaurants even let you bring your fresh fish in and they’ll cook it however you like. 

The nets are fun to watch for all of five minutes, but then we head off to walk the city, feeling like we need something else. With the help of a local auto-rickshaw driver, we work out which bus we need to get to the airport the following day. He asks where we’re from, and before we can finish saying “Zealand”, he exclaims, “Ohhh! Stephen Fleming!” He’s clearly a big fan. He goes on to list Adam Parore, Chris Cairns – all the big names. The driver introduces himself as Sainu, and then offers to take us on a tour of the city for just 50 rupees each. With not much else planned, we decide to give it a go, and he leads us to his Spiderman-decorated rickshaw – known (possibly only to him) as the ‘Kochi Ferrari’.

Joyriding in a rickshaw
Sainu, who's been driving rickshaws for 13 years, is a pretty cool guy. He insists we each have a go at driving his Ferrari, and the lesson includes the message that tooting is compulsory. We stop by the Dutch cemetery, St Francis’ church, and – randomly – an outdoor laundromat. There are bays of people knee-deep in pools of water repeatedly rinsing clothing and slapping it dry on stone blocks in front of them. We see dozens of piles of white sheets being ironed with an original, heavy, wooden-handled charcoal iron, and I’m then asked to pose for a photograph with the iron. Clearly India still thinks women belong in laundries and kitchens only.

Women's work
Sainu tells us that Kochi’s hospitals and hotels get their washing done here, and when Barn and I walk out to the field and see hundreds of washing lines full of tourists’ smalls, we realise the laundry we’d had done the day before was almost certainly slapped to buggery on slabs of stone. We both agree we won’t be sending off our Icrebreakers for the washing torture treatment any time soon. 

We also visit temples, a spice shop and a Catholic church that Sainu points out was named after Pete, and then the tour concludes with a few stops at Government-approved souvenir shops. Sainu openly admits that if we stop at four of them, he gets to collect Government petrol vouchers, even if we don’t buy anything. So, armed with the knowledge that we do not have to purchase any souvenirs and that we simply need to walk into the shops and out again, I promptly go and get sucked into buying scarves and trinkets at three of the four. Reverse psychology of some sort, I suspect.

Mastering the art of chapathi
The day ends with a cooking class recommended by all the guide books at a guesthouse called Leelu’s Homestay. Leelu, the woman of the house, teaches us how to cook a Keralan fish curry, pumpkin masala curry, a sambar, dahl curry and chapathi bread. And then we get to eat it all – easily the best part of the lesson. 

On the way home, Pete and I stop for a beer at one of the only bars in town – actually, it’s the first real pub we’ve come across in India. It’s already well into the second week of January and I haven’t yet made any New Year’s resolutions, so over a drink we hatch a grand plan to help raise funds for Illam Trust’s new school buildings. We decide we’ll cook all our new South Indian dishes and charge our friends an arm and a leg to come over and eat them, and then we’ll donate the proceeds to the Dream School. I feel a new fundraising focus coming on – looks like it’s out with the African camels and in with the children of Tamil Nadu for 2012.