On the beach – Marari, Alleppey and Varkala

We drove down from Munnar to Marari Beach, where we were staying at Marari Villas, Palm villa. The villas are on the beach, however as there has been some erosion from cyclones and high tides, a wall of rocks and sand bags lines the beach front directly in front of the hotel. Along the beach to the north, the area opens out, and you can see remnants of at least two houses that have been destroyed by the sea. This beach is home to fishermen, with their colourful boats, nets and smaller paddle bats they use to collect the nets with. They are more like a surf board than a boat, and the men who operate them paddle them for kilometres without a motor.

There is little else around here, and we find that we are the only guests at the hotel, so we are given the royal treatment, meals cooked to order and staff at the ready for our every whim, and the pool all to ourselves. The food here is excellent, best hotel food so far, and Neil opted for a cooking lesson with the chef, which also involved going to the market and choosing the fish and vegetables for dinner.

This place is really lovely to chill out and have rest for a few days, which was out intention. These villas are very comfortable, and the owners go to extra trouble by providing little things like beach mats, sunscreen, nice toiletries, real coffee and plunger, board games and toys for kids etc.

 We had hoped to be able to swim on the sea here, but we were a little put off by the fact that the fisherman also use this beach as their toilet. All along the beachfront at the high tide line, if you go for a walk in the morning you will see little piles of turds (no pleasant way to say this) and fishermen squatting after they come in from the sea. So, maybe we were being squeamish, but we opted for the pool when we wanted to cool off.

One day while at Marari, we drove down to Alleppey (Alappuzha) town and beach, wandered around the shops, where I bought some silver anklets ( as you do) and then had dinner in a restaurant by the beach, Raheem Residency, where we enjoyed some good food, and a gin and tonic, finally! Very few restaurants here have alcohol, so this was indeed a treat.

We had some difficulties with Lewis Hamilton, our driver, who refused to drive us because he had gone home, even though he was supposed to be available to us, so we spoke to his boss and requested a new driver for the rest of this section. By then we had enough of his crazy driving, refusing to listen to what we wanted to do and taking us places we didn’t want to go.

The next day we left Marari with our new driver, Shafi, who is a much more careful driver and a very quiet and softly spoken, nice fellow. What we did  discover is that drivers are not given accommodation here, they mostly sleep in their cars outside your hotel. When we realised we offered to pay for Shafi to get a room, but he didn’t want one. Our hotel here kindly made a bathroom available for him to use.

In Varkala beach, we are staying in a small guesthouse on the south cliff area. Varkala beach has two cliff areas, north and south, and between there is a low area where you can access the beach. This is lined with shops and restaurants that wind their way along the path up to north cliff. This is a very popular area for backpackers and young travellers, so there are lots of ‘hippie’ type shops and cafes, but there is also a lot of domestic tourism too.

Our room at the guest house is on the second floor, and has a lovely terrace overlooking the sea, and a table where we are served our breakfast each morning. These small homestays in India are great value for money and offer a homely experience that is much more personal and genuine that the big hotels.

Not a  lot to do around here except go to the beach, but it’s a lovely place to do just that, and on Sunday evening everyone else thinks so too. Sunday evenings are family time, and so you will find hundreds of families at the beach at sunset, playing in the water, taking selfies, and generally enjoying themselves. We have seen this a few times now; everyone is in their Sunday best clothes, getting splashed by the waves and having a ball. Especially the kids; little girls in long frilly dresses, getting drenched and falling over on the sand, and no-one telling them off for messing up their clothes. We walked along the beaching just watching families having fun together, the headed up to a beach restaurant to have a beer, watching the sunset. Magic!

The next day we decided to go to a lake nearby and take a boat trip to Golden island, which has a temple ( actually three small temples, one for Vishnu, one for Ganesh and one for Shiva. We also saw some water birds and more sea eagles, and watched one swoop down and grab a fish from the water. I was too slow to film it though.

We returned to Varkala beach for lunch at the Coffee Temple, which is a hippie kind of place with a wide selection of things like smoothies, juices and veggie burgers. We have done a little shopping here; we found a place that makes clothes to order from organic cotton and linen, hand woven fabrics and vegetable dyes. Simple but well made clothes, so I have ordered a shirt and a dress, and Neil a shirt, all done within 24 hours. I also bought some jewellery, a silver bracelet and ring to add to my collection.

Today is Vishnu day, which is a big holiday here, and there are lots of goings on at the local temple around the corner. We wandered around to the temple in the evening; it was all lit up with oil lamps and there was a dancing performance going on, while many people were coming to offer prayers. It was hard to photograph, and we weren’t really sure if we were allowed to, but I did spot these girls backstage, waiting for their turn to perform, and they happily posed for this photo.

Munnar – heading for the hills, tea country

Our driver arrived to take us to Munnar, but then advised that we would need to change vehicles and drivers along the way, as there was a problem. So, we set off, and then met the new driver and vehicle. The vehicle was not what we had paid for, and there was no seat belt in the backseats, and not enough room for our luggage, so I complained to the company who advised they would change the vehicle the next day.

Meantime our new driver was a 21 year old lad who thought he was Lewis Hamilton. His driving was very fast and crazy (even by Indian standards) and I was sitting in the back without a seatbelt. He was negotiating winding country roads, overtaking on blind corners, narrowly avoiding oncoming buses and trucks, all with one hand, while using the other to hold his mobile chatting and checking messages. In the end we had to tell him to stop on the side of the road to talk on the phone. He also had some idea that he needed to take us to various tourist stops along the way, as was upset when we didn’t want to go to the tea factory or the jeep safari, trying desperately to convince us to go (presumably to get his commission).

He did manage to convince us to get an Ayurvedic massage, so off we went to the centre, where we were greeted by a ‘doctor’ who explained all of the treatments. We had a two hour session with massage and Shirodhara as well as PodiKizhi (I think). The Wise One found it all very relaxing, but I wasn’t so sure. After about one and a half hours of having oil drizzled on my forehead, and my whole body bathed in oil and pummelled with hot bundles of ‘medicine’ I had enough, but my request to stop was greeted with horror from the poor young girl, who was frightened she had done something wrong and that I would complain, so I reluctantly agreed to allow it to continue. Perhaps I’m just too uptight, but after about 90 minutes I was ready to finish.

The hotel was in a tea plantation and had a lovely outlook, one direction over the tea estate, the other direction into the forest. I also spotted some interesting birds in the forest.

On our next day in Munnar our young driver had some sightseeing planned for us…we went to see a flower garden, which was quite spectacular with loads of beautiful flowers in bloom, so of course we took a few photos!

This lady wanted her picture taken with me, lord knows why.

Then it was off to see a dam, and another dam, and a lookout all of which were a bit humdrum. Each place had lots of stalls selling food and drink and toys, tea and chocolates and even pony rides etc, and there were always lots of domestic tourists there taking photos of themselves.  By the end of this process I felt like I was in the tourist sausage machine.

We asked to be taken to Munnar town to walk around and see shops etc, but our driver was adamant that it was too dangerous, and just kept driving. He was however, keen to take some photos of us in a tea plantation.

Lunch was at Ali Baba’s 41 dishes, where we had some nice grilled fish and accompaniments. Whilst at lunch the skies opened and we had what to us seemed like a torrential shower. So, on the way back to our hotel the roads were awash with flash floods and streams running across the road, this however did not deter Lewis Hamilton who clearly saw it as a challenge to drive as fast as he could on the wet and dangerous roads, not reducing speed to match the conditions and becoming impatient with anyone who did. Fortunately, our white-knuckle ride home was without incident. We had some stern words with him the next morning to slow down and drive carefully.

Whilst in Munnar and the surrounding hilly countryside there was evidence of many previous landslides which had destroyed parts of the roads and in some areas huge chunks off the sides of the mountains had given way, this was all a result of last year’s monsoon floods in Kerala. Worryingly there is quite a bit of development going on with some large hotels maybe 6 – 10 stories high or more being built on the sides of the mountains, with large areas of forest cleared and excavated creating additional erosion risk. Whilst Munnar was quite beautiful with forests, waterfalls and tea plantations, increased tourism seems to be adding to the degradation of the delicate environment here. It’s a concern as a tourist that you are contributing to this, although of course, tourism brings big dollars to the local communities, so there’s always a friction between the environment and bringing jobs and money into the area.

Kochi – southward bound

The differences between Rajasthan and Kerala could not be more marked. Rajasthan is hot, dry, dusty, noisy and crazy. Characterised at this time of year by dry river beds, brown rocky landscapes, red hilltop forts and golden wheat fields, it is a palette of autumn colours, punctuated by the vibrant colours of people’s clothing and household decorations. I’m sure at other times of year, after the rains, it is a different place, of different colours. On the streets in Rajasthan you see cows wandering at will everywhere, along with buffalo, dogs, pigs, camels and sometimes goats. As a foreign tourist, every minute you are on the street there is someone trying to convince you to buy their goods or services. It is a constant barrage of competition for your dollar. The people here have a hard life, they work hard in the unrelenting heat. They are primarily Hindu, and Sikh with some Muslims.

Kerala is green, lush, humid and feels abundant by comparison. On arrival at Cochin International Airport, you are greeted by a newly renovated shiny modern space. Once outside you notice an absence of touts. To get a taxi here you go to a booth and pre-pay, then you are allocated a taxi. No bargaining, no discussion, no tuk-tuks. This airport is fully operated on solar power as can be seen by the large arrays of solar cells in fields as you leave the airport.

We were booked into a hotel close to the airport as we arrived late at night and the drive to Fort Kochi as about 2 hours. I approached the pre-paid taxi booth to see about a ride to our hotel, a mere kilometre away, and was told by the officious woman at the booth that it would be 500 rupees. This was outrageous for such a short trip, so we called the hotel, that fortunately supplied their own complimentary car for pickup. Having realised that the fare to Fort Kochi the next day would likely be very high in a taxi, we made enquiries about other forms of transport to the city, and found there are buses running every half hour, so the next day we took the hotel car back to the airport and caught the bus to town. This was a comfortable airconditioned bus, that made a few stops along the way, including at the famous Lulu Mall, and arrived in the heart of the Fort area in about two hours, all for 88 rupees each.  Along the way we saw the new high speed rail metro, some of which is now open, and some still under construction, which will eventually also connect to the airport. The metro is characterised by its overhead carriageway, stations with solar power and vertical gardens, and its mission of assisting disadvantaged women and transgender people by preferencing them for employment. The metro is managed exclusively by women.

While driving along here you notice the absence of animals by the roadside, few dogs, no cows, no pigs, no camels, no buffalo. The houses are more solid and cared for, there are no signs of roadside shanties or makeshift housing; this area is noticeably more affluent than Rajasthan. There are many churches and also mosques, as there are bigger Christian and Muslim communities here.

There is water everywhere, growth everywhere, creepers grow on anything left still for too long, houses have huge roofs sitting above the top of the house to provide a cool, rain proof space on the rooftop. The shops have a more permanent look and are cleaner and selling more upmarket goods.

When we got off the bus in Fort Kochi, we were only about a kilometre away from our hotel, but with heavy bags, we decided to get a tuk-tuk. We actually had to look for one and ask him to take us, he seemed ashamed to charge us 50 rupees ($1) for such a short trip. Our hotel is in a 350 year old building built by the Dutch East India Company. It has huge rooms and high ceilings made of dark timber and white solid plaster walls, with a lovely courtyard area which now houses the restaurant and pool.

We settled in then walked into town; the humidity was extreme in comparison to where we had come from, and it was hard for me to get acclimatised. We sat in an open air bar and had a beer and some chilly prawns – we had been looking forward to seafood as there is none in Rajasthan.

That night I began to feel unwell, and found I had succumbed to the dreaded ‘travellers diarrhoea’, so spent much of the next day lying in my room, with the aircon, rehydration solution and bathroom proximity being my only requirements. The Wise One went out and explored a little, and took some lovely photos of the sunset and the Chinese fishing nets.

The following day I was feeling somewhat better, so we decided to take a car down to Alleppey (Alappuzha) to take a boat cruise on the backwaters. We found a boat and it was decided we would cruise for 4 hours with a lunch stop along the way. This area of backwaters is a complex of river, lakes and canals which are plied by houseboats and water ‘buses’, longtail boats and some canoes. People live alongside the water in simple but sound and well kept houses, with the river or canal at the front and paddy fields behind. Suffice to say there is water everywhere, and this is not yet the wet season here, there is growth and a kind of green bucolic abundance. Some of the houses are also shops, selling food, drinks, ice creams, and other necessities.

We saw a few water birds and lots of eagles, which are Red Backed sea eagles or Brahmin kites whirling around above us. We stopped for lunch at a little restaurant and there was a tame eagle sitting on a stump at the restaurant. As far as I could tell it was free to fly away, there were no bindings on it and its wings were not clipped, and it seemed happy enough to be photographed sitting on people’s arms or shoulders. We had a basic lunch of curry on a banana leaf and we also had a few fried fresh water prawns, which were quite nice. On the return journey we stopped for a coconut water which was very refreshing. The boat ride was slow and relaxing, with just the two of us on the boat, we could lay out on the lounges and just chill out as the world glided by.

On our return to the hotel we headed down to the beach to watch the sunset, which we missed, but found instead that the whole foreshore was full of people just out enjoying the Sunday evening. As was walked along the promenade, there was an array of little carts selling exotic pickled vegetables, and pineapple with chilly in little paper plates, men roasting and selling spiced masala peanuts and what looked like home made Cheezels, there were young men with fairy floss in little cellophane bags on a stick ringing their bells as the went, and of course ice cream vendors. We looked for an ice cream place that was busy and found one where the man was so run off his feet selling his ice creams, we figured they must be the best and lined up for ours. Neil had mango and I had chocolate, and they were very good, smooth texture with clean flavours. It was so pleasant strolling along eating ice cream in the evening along with hundreds of other people with their families, just enjoying the atmosphere.

Jaipur – the pink city

Jaipur is a large city in Rajasthan with a population about the same as Melbourne.

On the way from Jodhpur to Jaipur we stopped at Pushkar, famous for its annual camel fair, which sees thousands of camels, goats and horses traded, which happens in November each year. Whilst we missed this, the place still has a lot of camels around, mostly used for basic transport and tourist rides. We stopped here for lunch after visiting the Brahma temple, apparently the only temple to Brahma so it is important for many Hindus. I would not recommend this temple for non-Hindus as it has become a tourist rip off. The temple itself is unremarkable in architecture and there are touts everywhere.  We were ‘allocated’ a guide which we had to pay for, then he ushered us to the Ghats to talk to a priest who coerced us into giving money to ‘improve our Karma’. The amount we gave was not enough and he pushed us to give more. The whole thing felt like a cynical money grab. I think I’d prefer to earn my Karma by being honest and kind, rather than giving money.

I took this picture of the lady making what I think was dahl Baati over hot coals, where we had lunch. She was sitting on a concrete platform, under an umbrella, in 38-degree heat with hot coals next to her. When I asked to take her photo, she was only too pleased. I have noticed that people really like having their photo taken here in India, and on many occasions I have been asked to pose with people and their families – who can imagine why anyone would want to be seen with an old white woman wearing a dorky hat?

Our next day included sightseeing at the Amer (or Amber) fort, built in 1592 by Maharaja Man Singh I. It is interesting because it combines Hindu and Muslim architecture and decoration. One impressive room is the hall of mirrors where it is said that dancing girls were brought in to amuse the queens, and the colours all reflected in the mirrors as they danced. The king had 12 wives, who each had separate quarters and secret passageways from the kings bedroom, so he could visit any one wife without the others knowing. Though I’m sure there would have been much gossip in the morning!

In the evening we were booked into a leopard safari at the Jhalana reserve, and so we headed off in our jeep. As we were driving along behind another jeep, we noticed a stray dog following the jeep. It turns out that dogs are a favourite food for leopards, so we were very concerned that this little dog was being encouraged to tag along to attract a leopard; a very uncomfortable thought.  This practice seems to be regarded as normal, and we were shown video of another dog being attacked by a leopard on another day.

I was almost glad that the leopard decided to stay hidden as I did not want to be witness to or part of this cruel game. As night was beginning to fall, we saw another leopard far away on a hill watching some deer, so we managed to get a couple of shots, but from so far away and at dusk, the quality is not great. In any event we saw two leopards, so that was nice, and our canine companion survived another day.

One particular highlight in Jaipur was a visit to the Jantar Mantar, which is an amazing collection of astronomical and astrological instruments built by Rajput Sawai Jai Singh II in 1734. It features a giant sundial which can measure the time down to 2 second intervals, it was impressive. The whole place was fascinating and the Wise One was in his element. There are also devices used to plot the signs of the zodiac and positions of the constellations; others predict eclipses and solstices and equinoxes, calendars and azimuth of the sun predicting sunrise and sunset times. It was truly awesome. If you want to know more, check out www.jantarmantar.org

Jodhpur – the blue city

The Mehrangarh fort which stands imposingly on the hill looking over Jodphur is a huge complex, built in 1459 by Rao Jodha, inside which there are a number of palaces and museums.

We arrived in the morning, as this fort also boasts another attraction which I was keen to try – zip lining. There are six ziplines which traverse from the fort across lakes and ravines, so I paid my money and off I went. The staff from Flyingfox were amazing, helpful and patient with this old lady. We had some initial training and a short, low, test zip to practice, and then off we went. Initially I was a bit nervous, but it felt very safe. The experience was awesome fun, but not very scary. The heat made it a hard slog between zip stations, with little shade, but otherwise it was a great experience.

The Wise One explored the fort while I zipped. Like many of these attractions, you can get an audio guide which explains the history and details of the fort.

After lunch we returned to the hotel for a nap, as we were both exhausted. Then in the evening we visited the Sadar Clocktower market, which was a crazy bustling place with loads of shops and stalls selling everything you could want. I bought some bangles, as every woman needs bangles, to go with my tailor made shalwar kameez bought in Udaipur.

We visited the Jaswant Thada mausoleum, built in 1889 which is a marble memorial for the royal family.

We stopped at a shop where the Wise One bought a red beret, as he has seen many people wearing them here; he also chose a badge which turns out to be that of the royal family of Jodhpur, so now wherever he goes, people smile at him, especially when we visited the royal palace!

The Umaid Bhavan palace and museum was built in the 1930s and completed in 1943 by Maharaja Umaid Singh, who died 4 years later. This building is home to the current Maharaja of Jodhpur, who was crowned in 1947 when he was 4 years old. It also has his vintage car collection on display and the museum houses some of the royal family’s artefacts including photographs, jewellery, weapons and household items and antique clocks.

Scenes from the road – Udaipur to Jodhpur

Sometimes the things you see and experience along the road can be as interesting as those in the towns and cities. Little slices of life you witness, sometimes in a flash as you drive by, sometimes there is time to stop and take it in.
We spotted these Rajasthani cameleers, their camels heavily laden with hay.

On the way to Jodhpur we stopped at a Jain temple, at Ranakpur built entirely of marble, with amazing intricate carvings everywhere you looked. Built in the 15th century, it has a series of domes, all carved in beautiful patterns, several sculptures of elephants and some amazing relief carvings.

In an area which was very hilly we came across a water wheel being driven by a bull. The bull walks around the wheel, which turns the buckets which bring the water up from the well to water the fields. The man looking after this, kindly let the Wise One sit behind the bull.

As we passed through a wooded area, Prakash threw the last of our guavas out of the window, saying “look, look!”; within seconds there were heaps of monkeys, (black faced macaques) clamouring onto the car to see if we had more food. You would not have even known there were any monkeys there, until the food arrived. Note to self: not a great spot to have a picnic.

Later we drove through a national park which had deer and also a lake with many water birds, including flamingos, Painted Storks, Black Winged Stilts and some ducks, not sure what kind.

The last stop of the day was at a temple dedicated to motorcycles, I kid you not. The story goes that on this very spot there had been three fatal motorcycle accidents in one night, and so a temple was made to keep motorcyclists safe. There were many people there praying and making offerings. Given our previous association with motorcycles, we thought it made sense to stop and have a look. 

On the road again…to Udaipur

Our driver, Prakash, arrived and we set off for Udaipur, the city of lakes, founded in 1559.

We stopped and bought some guavas from some ladies by the road, and also some excellent samosas in one of the towns.

roadside guavas

Along the way we passed large areas of wheat cultivation being harvested so there were many people working in the fields harvesting the wheat by hand. This work seemed to mostly be done by women, and the sight of them in their brightly coloured saris in the golden wheat fields was beautiful, belying the arduousness of work in the heat of the day. The sheaves of wheat were then loaded into threshing machines and the harvest was then loaded into what looked like  huge overfilled bags on the back of trucks or tractors. We saw many of these along the road. The tractors were often decorated with tassels and tinsel and painted in bright colours. There are so many sights along the way here that seem remarkable to us, but are clearly commonplace for the locals. Cows, bulls, buffalo, goats, pigs and camels all roam around freely, crossing roads at will and eating whatever they can find.P

Another area we passed people were making bricks from clay then building hollow mountains of unbaked bricks inside which they would build a fire to cure the bricks. Once again it seemed the women were working very hard carrying loads of bricks on their heads, piled up in a neat stack of maybe 4 or 5 bricks high by 4 across and then climbing the brick mountain to place their load at the top. It must be so hazardous and exhausting, and it seemed an impossible feat of balance and strength. I have nothing but admiration for the women in this country, they do hard manual work beside the men and also cook, wash and clean as well as bear and raise the children. In many fields you could see makeshift shelters with little ones sitting in the shade underneath while their mothers toiled nearby.

We stopped for lunch in an area know for it’s slate quarries, here once again we saw the hard manual labour of men and women together breaking up the huge blocks of red and grey slate into thin tiles.

Lunch was in a dingy basement below a couple of roadside shops. The food was excellent despite the uninspiring decor and dubious cleanliness. At the back of the restaurant was a slate business, of which we were trying to get a photo. Of course then the local children wanted to have a look at us, so we had an audience. They laughed and smiled at me when I said hello, I’m sure they were wondering about the crazy white lady with the hair like a sheep. (My hair is out of control and looking a bit wild) We gave the kids some sweets and they waved us goodbye with big grins on their faces.

The road was mostly good, quite a bit being a four lane tollway, although the last 100 km or so, there was a lots of roadworks, building the new Delhi to Mumbai expressway, so the going was a bit rough, slow and dusty. We arrived into the city of Udaipur at dusk, and as you come over the hill you can see the city in the valley below, so many white buildings and the monsoon palace on top of the hill overlooking the city.

Udaipur – city of lakes

We arrived near our hotel, but because it was located in the old city, the streets are too narrow for cars, so Prakash organised a tuktuk to take us and our luggage the remaining few hundred metres to our hotel. Our room had a balcony looking out across the lake, and at night the lights reflected in the lake have a fairytale look.

The first night in our hotel I could not sleep, as it had the hardest bed I have ever felt. (I know this is an effect of my privileged life). But seriously you could have dropped a bowling ball on it and it would not have made a dent. So we spoke to reception the next morning and they showed us some other rooms. So there I was trying out the bed in each room like Goldilocks, looking for the one that was just right. We settled on one that was at least a bit better.

After dropping off our laundry, we headed for a street market. As usual this was totally chaotic, noisy and crazy but vibrant and amazing as well.

In the evening we headed up to the top of the mountain to the monsoon palace which overlooks the city, to watch the sunset. This is where the Maharajah spent the wet months, presumably to be well above any chance of flooding.

After a better night’s sleep we took a boat ride around the lake and to the city summer palace, which lies on an island. At present the water level in the lakes is quite low, so it’s not looking it’s best, but I imagine that after the monsoon rains it looks very pretty.

We have eaten in two great restaurants here, enjoying kebabs and a variety of delicious breads from the tandoori, as well as spicy curries and some awesome pickles, followed by lassi. Generally we washed it down with a Kingfisher beer, or my favourite soft drink here, fresh lime soda (sweet). The food so far has been excellent, thanks to the great advice from our driver, Prakash.

Tiger, tiger…where are you?

We came to Sawai Madhopur specifically to go to Ranthambore National park to try to see a tiger.
So, we booked a jeep for a morning safari. The process of booking a jeep is quite complex and is best managed by an agent, as there are quotas and bookings must be made within short time frames online, this is best handled by someone who knows the system and terminology.

Our jeep arrived at 6:30 am for our safari, there were five of us in a small open top jeep, plus the driver and our guide. We set off with blankets around us to keep warm in the early morning chill and the bracing wind from the speeding jeep. Once in the park, the guides began the search for a tiger, looking for pug marks and scat to see if any were nearby. The park is over 300 square kilometres and holds about 62 tigers. There are also leopard, deer, mongoose, antelope and many bird species.

Many times our driver stopped to listen to the noises of the jungle, because these are indicators of the presence of a predator. We heard the sambar deer call nearby and suddenly the race was on to find the spot where the tiger might appear. Along with a few other jeeps we found a place to wait. There was some commotion as one guide said they could see the tiger through the bushes. Now I can’t be certain but I have a photo with a thing in the distance which appears to be striped, and I am reliably told this is a tiger. Taken with a 600mm lens, so I could barely see it. Fairly unimpressive, I know, not what I would actually call a sighting. See if you can spot it.

We saw many other animals, mostly deer and antelope, a Mongoose, some monkeys and many peacock and other birds but alas, no tiger.

In the afternoon we took another safari, this time to a different zone of the park, further away from our hotel. In the back of our open jeep, we had a one hour bone crunching, hair raising ride over dusty, potholed roads amidst extensive roadworks, which incidentally did not mean that our driver drove more slowly or carefully, but rather just presented more opportunity to drive like some crazed Fangio. At one time we came across an excavator which was across the road, our jeep just drove right under the arm of the digger! (I didn’t get a photo, too busy having my life flash before my eyes)

We finally reached the park gate feeling grateful to have arrived. Again the process of searching for a tiger. This time our guide was rather unhelpful. We heard the roar of a tiger, so our driver decided to go in another direction, and was most uncommunicative. Suffice to say, we saw no tigers. Then we faced the return drive cheating death once again. On the whole, not a great experience, although when it comes to animals in nature, they are completely unpredictable so you have to expect some disappointment. A young woman we met had seen two tigers the day before, it’s complete chance, just not our lucky day, although surviving the drive was pretty satisfying!

Agra and the Taj

Sunday morning we left the hotel for the Nizzamuddin railway station to catch our train to Agra.
The railway station was chaotic, a jumble of humans, bikes, tuktuks, buses all trying to get to and from the crowded station. We were accosted by porters who commandeered our bags and carried them on wound up scarves on their heads.
We followed our bobbing bags through the throngs of people pushing in all directions to platform number 5, where the Gatimaan Express would arrive. After giving all our remaining cash to the porters, who were most displeased because we didn’t give them enough, in exasperation we showed them our empty wallets, and they humphed and went off.

We realised we had better get some cash because we were sure to have to pay porters at the end of our train journey, because there is no saying no to these guys. We asked an official where is the nearest ATM, which was outside the station down the street, so off I went while the Wise One stayed on the platform with the bags. Off I went, back into the throng, down into the crazy insane street. I was feeling a bit apprehensive because the ATM was about 150 metres down the road in what was a pretty seedy area, but I managed to withdraw several thousand rupees without any drama and return to the platform unscathed.
Our train pulled into the station and we boarded our carriage. The train was quite comfortable, air conditioned and with good seats. Once the train departed, on time, a variety of food and drink was delivered to our seat for breakfast, including bread and jam, as well as aloo paratha and pickles and fresh fruit.
The train was an excellent high speed express and we arrived into Agra Gantt station after 1hour and 40 minutes as planned. We went through the whole porter charade again then caught a taxi to our hotel.
This hotel was a homestay, a cute little place with brightly coloured paint and a quaint little courtyard garden full of flowers, birds and squirrels. It was very peaceful and calming.

After settling in, we went out for a walk to find some lunch and saw a few places on the road to the Taj but were harassed so much by touts trying to get us into their restaurant, we were put off by the whole thing. Everywhere you go in the world, in tourist areas the restaurants have touts, I wish they would stop doing this, it’s really off putting and I believe counterproductive, I will not eat at a restaurant that does this. They might have great food, but I will never know because they make me so grumpy, I move on. (I digress)

After a light lunch we took a tuktuk to the Agra fort. This was a really interesting place, built in the 16th century by Akbar, the grand father of Shah Jahan, in red sandstone and white marble, it was the home of the king and his 300 wives. It was surrounded by a double wall, then two moats, one filled with water and crocodiles, the other tigers. The way they managed water was amazing, channels ran all around the palace creating cooling and also drainage during the monsoon. The rooms had huge curtains of silk and muslin which could be wet to create evapourative cooling. The buildings were added to later by Shah Jahan, when he became king after his father died and he killed off his rivals.

Once we had finished our tour our faithful tuktuk driver was waiting for us, and returned us to our hotel. He was most amused that we were Australian, and rattled off about the cricket (it’s always the way)
We had a lovely dinner of vegetable curries and home made chapatis that were great.
Next morning we arose at about 5:30, just after hearing the call to prayer at the nearby mosque. It was quite cool and we were able to walk to the Taj Mahal and arrived before the crowds. There are very strict rules about what you can and can’t take in to the complex and heavy security, with metal detectors, scanners and patdowns as you go in. On entering the East gate, you see that iconic view of the monument as you walk to under the archway and there before you is one of the great wonders of the world. It’s quite breathtaking as you take in the whiteness of it and the sheer size of it, truly beautiful – a thing to behold. I confess I felt a little emotional, mostly I think feeling grateful that I am so lucky to be able to see this. I have longed to be here for so many years, for it to finally happen was a moving experience.

Of course people here are also preoccupied with taking selfies in front of the great monument and there are even professional photographers available to take the perfect shot for you. But just being in the presence of this stunning building is an experience in itself.

I also saw this cute little fellow munching on a flower. 🙂

Delhi – New and old

The morning air was still quite cool when we arrived in Delhi airport at about 6am yesterday.
Unsure of what metro station was close to our hotel, we took a taxi at what was probably a highly inflated price, but airport customers are ripe for taking advantage of. The drive along the ubiquitous 3 lane airport motorway was uneventful except for seeing regiment of mounted soldiers taking morning exercise along the road, some wearing what appeared to be ceremonial turbans.
On arriving at our hotel entrance our car was checked for bombs by the security guard, and we were sent through scanners and metal detectors when entering the hotel. A grim reminder that India has been through a number of terror attacks in recent years.
My first impression of Delhi was that is was cleaner than I had expected and the parks, gardens and roadside verges were a riot of colourful flower beds and trees. I also noticed what I took for eagles flying around constantly over the city, they are everywhere you go. (They are actually black kites -Milvus migrans). We also had a resident pigeon on our window ledge, and some ring necked green parrots.

We headed off in search of a shop selling SIM cards and wound up taking our first tuktuk ride through the traffic. See short video.

Somehow we ended up in a travel agency (who knew tuktuk drivers might scam you? Lol ) where our question about what to see in Delhi became an elaborate exercise in ‘helping’ us to organise the rest of our trip. Oh well, in the end it seemed to work out though I suspect we may have been a bit gullible and paid too much. So we ended up with a car and driver at our disposal for the next two days.
Our first visit was to the Shri Lakshmi Narain temple, then on to India Gate, war memorial. This place amazed me not of itself but because of the many Indian visitors to the site, dressed in their best clothes, make up and accessories, taking selfies in front of the gate. India is the selfie capital of the world, I’m sure, after being here only one day, already I have seen more selfie taking then I thought possible. India does have the dubious honour of being the “killfie” capital, with the most deaths from taking selfies – why am I not surprised?

We also visited the Qutub Minar and mosque complex, which is an UNESCO world heritage site. It is a tall tower minaret built in around the 12th century – pretty impressive and of course, so many selfie opportunities here!

We were totally exhausted by around 4 and headed back to the hotel for a rest.
Today we headed out with our driver to see the Red Fort -so called because it is built from red sandstone. This was commissioned by the same emperor who built the Taj Mahal, Shah Jahan. When you visit these places there is an entrance fee, one amount for locals, and about 10x more for foreigners. The big advantage is you don’t have to wait in the really long queues with the locals, you get a special foreigner entry gate. For the fort we also had a guide to take us around and explain everything, it’s a huge complex and it was helpful to have Raj explaining the history, and of course half of Delhi was there taking selfies on a pleasant Saturday afternoon.

Once we finished here we headed for lunch, then back to the the hotel for a swim. Later we decided to give the metro a try and headed to old Delhi’s most famous market, Chandni Chowk. It was amazing bedlam, alleyways filled with shops, people, noise and smells.

More pictures to follow, I’m just having a little trouble uploading them via limited wifi.