Sunday, 30 December 2007

Full Time Results

As our plane sat on the Tarmac back at Edinburgh airport the full time whistle was blown on the 'old firm world match'. Probably just in time as the players would have noticed the considerable drop in temperature from 34 degrees Celsius to -2 degrees. There would be enough time to file the match report first though as the front door of the plane was jammed shut and we had a bit of time on our hands while they found a way to get us out the back door instead.

To catch up on the first half, click here.

It was a disappointing second half to what had been a tumultuous beginning to the match. Coming back on to the pitch, the Gers knew they would have to score two more goals than Celtic, just to get a draw. So 6 - 4 the score was when the referee blew his whistle starting the second half. It was a slow beginning as the ball was passed back and forth up and down the pitch. No real flare seemed to be coming from the players as the months ticked away without so much as a glimmer of a goal. The game passed out through South-East Asia, and all the way across China without much excitement. Then out of the blue, Celtic snuck a ball into the net, leaving almost no evidence from where it came, the crowd certainly didn't see where it came from and though I know for sure it happened, I can't even remember where I saw it. 7 - 4 to Celtic and more weeks of nothing. The first fans were starting to leave the stadium as full time approached. Then in Pochara, Nepal, a man standing on a shop roof wearing a Celtic top took the Celts yet further ahead. Rangers seemed to lose all heart at this point and with no real competition Celtic too seemed to lose their enthusiasm. One more goal was to come though, a boy working on a building site in Goa wearing a Rangers top tried hard to bring the score line back up but it was too little too late. Rangers failed to capitalise on the young man's comeback and as the last fortnight saw the full time approach, the score stayed Celtic 8, Rangers 5.

In Conclusion

We had spent the last month just waiting to come home really. The anticipation of getting back had become bigger than the distraction of being away. That's not to say the last month wasn't still good, but we very much had one eye on the ticking clock for most of it.

It's funny reflecting on a full year away, trying to answer the one question that everyone has - "Where was you favourite place?". There were places that were real highlights and places that were not. The trip all done and dusted now, Vietnam still sits under a black mark. Borneo, Cambodia, Nepal and Goa all stand out as real highlights. Not to take anything away from the other places too.

There were surprises on the way too. We had expected China to be a very difficult country. In our ignorance, we expected the people to be closed, abrupt and of course to speak absolutely no English. This couldn't have been more wrong. You can't sum up an entire country's people of course, but on the whole, we found the Chinese people to be some of the most helpful and lovely of the trip. We didn't expect to find such a diverse culture, changing as we crossed China in degrees comparable to crossing Europe. In fact so hospitable were they, that it wasn't until we reached Tibet that we remembered why we weren't supposed to agree with China, as a government.

Tibet although tinged with sadness, was still more upbeat and optimistic than we expected. Again, in our ignorance, we had expected to find a disenchanted and disenfranchised population. But that's not the case. True, they are an occupied country, and true they are severely restricted in their personal freedoms. There's no denying the Chinese occupation in Tibet is a bad thing, but the spirit of the Tibetans is such an inspiring one. They're still chipper, getting on with life as best as they can, and smiling.

Vietnam could learn a thing or two from the Tibetans, and the Cambodians. It was striking in Cambodia to consider the brutalities of the Khmer Rouge, so recent that the bloodstains can still be seen. Talking and engaging with most of the population, you know they had to endure it, and you know that they weren't all on the same side. Cambodia wants justice for what it has endured but that justice looks slow in coming. It will probably not happen until most of the proponents of the massacres have died themselves, but despite that, again, a country is trying to get on with things. The people of Cambodia aren't best impressed by their big chief, but still, they're smiling and making visitors welcome. Cambodia is possibly the least developed of the countries we visited, and yet it is one of the most clued in on how to deal with tourists (except maybe the immigration officials).

In terms of looking after tourists, Nepal does exceedingly well too. They have such an abundance of natural resources from the mountains to provide no end of adventure sports and electricity. They have the sports and trekking nailed, now they just have to sort the electricity.

Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and Laos were all excellent countries, and sat well positioned on our itinerary as we slowly immersed ourselves deeper into the world. New Zealand, a homecoming for Nikki, and a 'meet the family' for me, was sort of like a pre-trip trip, preparing ourselves before launching into Asia. Alabama, with everything that came between there and home feels like a decade ago, but not so long ago to forget the fun we had with Sarah and Brennen, camping in Savannah and Chellis taking us out and about all the time too. (Remember me asking for a beer at the Cracker Barrel?). India had the unfortunate privilege of being our last stop. Competing for our time with too much to show us too late. We barely scraped the surface there, but it seems likely we'll be back.

Has the trip changed our lives? Given us a new perspective on life? Yes and No. There was no one life-changing experience but there were a number of real eye opening moments, particularly with the poverty. The staggering number of people with so little for themselves was one of the hardest things to walk past. Everyone wants your money, and everyone could certainly make use of it, but giving to one person while ten more look on in earnest is very difficult. Children are trained by their parents to beg for money or beg you to buy a trinket and it breaks your heart to say no, but to say yes exacerbates the problems. We tried different tactics, saying yes to everybody, saying yes to some, saying no to children, saying no to everyone. No tactic worked. All we could do was listen to, or sometimes ignore our hearts.

The corruption in government across Asia, the reckless standards of driving, the poor sanitation and provision of amenities bring home the privileged conventions we take for granted in the West. We might complain about traffic or government policies here, moan about rates and other such things but we really don't have it all that bad you know. In many ways that is probably one of the biggest things we got out of the trip, perspective.

People keep asking where we're going to go next. Do we have itchy feet yet and so on. We don't have itchy feet. More importantly, we don't have any money. A year away from home is a long time, I think it'll be a while before we need to get away big style again, but having said that, there's still a couple of corners of the world to see. For now though it's time to settle back into life, here in sunny Scotland. It's true what they say, there's no where quite like home - New Zealand came close though.

Sunday, 23 December 2007

Lights, Camera, Inaction!

Our sleeper train to Mumbai was comfortable with an endless stream of food and hot drinks carried through the carriages to buy. As the train entered Mumbai's suburbs the apartments loomed in the pre-dawn sky. It was like entering the set of 'Escape From New York'. Dark and decaying apartments with dim energy saving lights competing against the gloom. Early morning commuter trains rode aside us, the open aired carriages carrying the early shifts into the workplaces, half awake people, slumped like zombies as they trundled past. There was no colourful tint to the sky, just horrible murky shadows hanging over the city. It was about five o'clock in the morning.

We disembarked at the final station and avoiding the sinister touts, we found our way out onto one of the dirtiest streets we've seen. Even the rats looked unimpressed at the smell as we walked double pace to get back to the street lit areas. As the first hints of daylight started to creep into the sky we found our hotel after a fairly straight forward ten minute walk. The room was grim, the rates sky high but we had a room which was more than could be said for the next half dozen people who asked for a room after us, as we sat waiting for it to be made up from it's last occupant. We would move the following day but today's breakfast was first. As the city started to wake up we ate breakfast in a local cafe, watching the street scene unfold. Leafy avenues with old vehicles and well dressed pedestrians changed the set to another New York movie, only this time set in down town Manhattan in the 50's. The trucks were old enough to fit the scene, with their big round headlamps and protruding bumpers. The thin men in their suits and hats filled the pavements, side stepping the men with aprons and mops, washing down their little patch of sidewalk.

We spent that day looking at other hotels and hostels. It was hard work finding anything better or less expensive and we didn't fully succeed . In the end we settled for a hotel which was dearer and still not really adequate but in its favour, there was no demolition work happening in the next room. We made do and got on with Mumbai.

We had expected Mumbai to be this fantastic shopping city and were very disappointed in what we found. Everything was overpriced tat, made to the lowest quality standards allowable and overpriced as far as they thought a white person would stupidly pay. We walked around the city a bit, stuck our noses into an art exhibition but did very little else. We admired a couple of buildings in the passing, namely the Gate of India, from where the British Raj departed India and the Taj Hotel, built by an upper class Indian during colonial times, incensed at being refused entry to the 'white' establishments. As sight seeing goes, that was about the extent of our endeavours.

Disappointed in the shopping we decided it was going to be a case of just watching and waiting for the clock to tick down before we would get the plane home. We had promised to catch up with Nick and Esther again (of kayaking fame) as we knew we would all be in Mumbai at the same time but apart from that there was nothing else to do with ourselves.

Then one lazy afternoon as we stepped out from 'Barista Coffee Shop' we were confronted by a man who claimed to be an agent for Bollywood. Suspicious at first we were eventually lured by the promise of fame and fortune and signed up for a day's work as Extras on set. Two mornings later we were on a bus driving out to Bollywood with about a dozen really annoying teenagers who all thought they were going to be the next big thing. Also riding on the bus were Nick and Esther.

We weren't actually filming on a Bollywood back lot, instead we were out on location in a shopping mall. The film, which was part financed and set in Australia was now in India for it's first day's filming here, and the first scene to be shot was set in a mall in Australia, hence the bus load of white folk. For the best part of the morning we wandered back and forth around the mall, up and down escalators, crossing back and forth in the back of the same shot, looking like the worlds most confused couple. If the confusion couldn't be read on our faces it was probably being disguised by our terror of the director who was a big fat sweaty man who spent all morning yelling down a mic and out a Tannoy in the middle of the set. It would seem that continuity is not such a big deal in Bollywood as we were plonked left right and centre, jumping around the mall like magicians appearing simultaneously behind the two opposing characters.

The afternoon was a bit of a different beast. First we had the gun scene. Baddie A, riding down an escalator is trying to shoot Goodie B going up the other escalator. Goodie B is quite oblivious to this turn of events though, not least because Baddie A has fitted a silencer to the front of his gun. There was nothing silent about the pyrotechnic though which blasted the necessary spark from the barrel for the camera. By the end of take 10 or 11 tinnitus was starting to set in.

A little break followed and then it was time to shift down to the front of the mall. The mall had been open all day while we filmed in it and as word spread that there was a film crew, so the numbers of spectators exploded, especially when for the last scene of the day one of the Bollywood Mega Stars stepped on set. It was absolutely chaos with the crowds surging to catch a glimpse of their hero. There were no cordons to keep them back, no line marked on the ground, instead a handful of security men, armed with clubs who would periodically decide the crowd had pushed too close in and would charge at them shouting and waving their sticks at anyone who didn't run back fast enough.

We had a fun day, finishing an hour early and being paid handsomely for our time. When we worked out our hourly rate later we realised we had made quite the fortune, raking in a whopping 34 pence per hour.

Our little brush with Bollywood gave us the momentum to see us through to the end of our time in Mumbai. We found a fab little delicatessen which had good coffee and cakes and made good proper breakfasts (quite the rarity). A few little souvenirs to pick up for presents and before we knew it, it was time to come home. Not before we finally found the time to go and see the Bollywood blockbuster which had opened back when we were in Delhi though - Om Shanti Om. By now, everyone and their dog had already seen the film three times and we had the cinema almost just to the four of us. The final box ticked, we could now leave India.

Holiday in Goa

Goa was our holiday from the trip that we needed. We were here for 10 days and we didn't intend to move. Goa is a former Portuguese colony and the influences are apparent everywhere, especially in the Catholic shrines that are on every street corner. The food too is quite different from the rest of India, consisting of heavier meet, including beef and a strong appreciation of garlic.

Our first stop in Goa was a beach called Anjuna. With a string of restaurants in big beach shacks by the water and a couple of roads coming back up from the beach with other restaurants and guest houses on it, the village is really pretty small. Our Guesthouse did fabulous breakfasts and the restaurants around the village were all of an exceptional standard. We were quite taken aback by the standard of the cuisine, and our days seemed to spent eating, punctuated with short periods of idleness.

After fitting in three big meals, a dip in the sea and a wee wander somewhere or another, the day was pretty much over so we spent another four days doing that to make sure we didn't miss anything. We hired a scooter one day and took a ride up to another beach where a restaurant there, owned by two French chefs serves food that would seriously sit beside world class cuisine anywhere else in the world. It wasn't cheap by India's standards, but we had a good feed each for the price of a glass of wine in a comparative place back home.

With about three days left we moved down the coast to Benaulim, the biggest beach resort in Goa. We had deliberately avoided this at first because we thought it would be full of tourists and touts exploiting them and the area. We came for the last couple of days though because it was close to the train station from where we would be departing to go to Mumbai.

Getting from Anjuna to Benaulim was going to be arduous. It was further than the distance from the airport, and the cost of the taxi from there had equalled a night's accommodation so we were keen to find an alternative method. The only option available to us though was by bus, and it was likely to take us all day, having to use four separate buses and move between bus stations. It seems the Goans are so laid back because everything just seems to fall together here. Our buses, given our past experiences could have been an utter nightmare, and the chances of getting a wrong bus or getting off at the wrong place or missing the last connection, or anything else, would in any other place be astronomically high. Somehow though, it all slotted together perfectly as if it was all supposed to. Even when our bags got stuck down the front of the bus and we got stuck up the back with about 60 people between us (on a bus rated to carry about 25), it all worked out fine. Joy of joys, we found a little Coffee Day and I guarded the bags while Nikki and a girl on the bus with us went off in search of accommodation.

Anjuna had been one of our most expensive stops, and we expected this to be even more so but it turned out to be really cheap, with accommodation every bit as good and food also on par, at less than half the price. The tourist trap thing didn't seem to exist either we were delighted to discover. The beach too was lovely, with silver sand that squeaked as you walked on it. The sea was ever so slightly cooler than up the coast, but as the mid-winter sun beat upon our backs, it offered a blessed relief. It was great wading out into the sea because the sand declined into the water at such a shallow gradient, you could walk out for what seemed like miles, then finding a sandbar, you would come back up a bit and then down slowly again. We could stand a good 150 meters or more from the sand and still only be above waste deep. The water was pretty calm too. Our next three days passed in a similar routine to Anjuna and at the end of the three days, we were thoroughly relaxed and ready to face Bombay for our final week of our adventure.

Going to Goa

The next morning was to be a leisurely one. We had time for breakfast at our hotel first, which after three days absence confirmed to be the source of our unsettled stomachs in Delhi. Nikki especially had a a couple of rough days earlier and diligently made sure she could tick the Delhi Belly box before leaving the city. Breakfast done , we put our bags on our backs and caught a tuc-tuc to the airport. A scene ensued when the driver promised us he would put us in 'his taxi', as we had requested, since it was quite a distance on the motorway and we didn't really want to do that in a tuc-tuc.

It became obvious though that he didn't have a taxi, (yet another lie which as the end of the trip approaches we are looking forward to the end of) and instead he was simply wasting our time driving around looking for a taxi who would take us off him and give him a cut. We had already left it too late in leaving our hotel and this was not helping matters so after ten minutes we got out and walked away and found another tuc-tuc at a much more reasonable price and hared it down the motorway in that.

We arrived at the airport with an hour before our flight was due to take off and our hearts sank when we saw the chaos inside. Everyone, for every flight has first to get all their luggage scanned and tagged before they then get it all back and take it up to the check-in desks and hand it over again at the check-in. The queue for the x-ray machine was less a queue and more amele as people fought and queue-skipped and jumped passed each other to try and get through the system.

We fought, shoved and shouted our way through the process, successfully checking in with 10 minutes to go before take off. Then it was through to the next security stage where the women and men get separated and processed. That took a further 15 minutes and more fighting with a massively fat man before we were through all of that. Then, with four departure gates, and our flight at none of them it was time to worry about our flight. Not for long though as the airport staff casually ushered everyone through the gate for a different plane and we were onto our delayed flight as if it was just another day at the airport.

Our plane was brand new, fresh out of the wrapper and we had a good flight to Goa arriving in the evening. Another taxi next, at an exorbitant but pre-paid and apparently on the level fare and after an hour we arrived at our next guest house.

The air in Goa felt cleaner, we could hear the birds settling down in the trees and everyone seemed happy and relaxed. We knew straight away that Goa was going to be good.

Friday, 21 December 2007

The Taj Mahal

We had now used up one of our four remaining weeks. We departed Delhi by train in the morning to head to Agra, home of the Taj-Mahal. It was a short journey of only a couple of hours, but long enough for a free paper, bottle of water and a decent breakfast served on a tray that beat most of the big flights we've taken on the trip. The journey was fine and finding a hotel was also fairly effortless. We had three days now to see the town, the Taj and possibly pop out to see an abandoned Mogul city too if we could be bothered.

Our first day was spent around town. The Taj is no small tourist attraction and the roads through the town give some clue to the number of coaches they must serve by their size. As is our tradition, we walked for miles in the midday heat to find lunch and then find the tourist district. Our hotel was a little bit out of the zone, the cost of affordable accommodation. Pizza Hut served us well for lunch, and once again provided a much better menu for vegetarians than back home (you see this was still a cultural experience, not just the soft option). Then we found where to come the next day for the Taj. There was a new sight here, which was introduced without explanation - camels. Carts pulled by camels, ponies and cattle plied the route between the Taj-Mahal and the ancient fort, carrying tourists between the two destinations. We followed on foot and made an off the hoof decision to pop into the fort and see it for ourselves.

The setting sun gave a beautiful cast across the walled courtyards and terraces protected within the mighty walls. From one of the ramparts, we could look across the haze of the town and see the Taj-Mahal in the distance, recreating the legendary past time of the committed king who had built the grand tomb and then been imprisoned by his son for squandering the empirical funds. An old phenomenon was starting to recur again while we were here and it would continue the following day too at the Taj-Mahal. Groups of people, usually teenagers would ask us to pose for a photo with them. The best instance was earlier in the day though when we posed beside a camel with an entire family around us who thrust their new born baby into Nikki's arms while we posed grinning down the lens.

The fort was mostly red sandstone, cut with intricate details and with latticed windows of stone and narrow alleys and corridors. There were also examples of the trade mark mogul design which the Taj is such a famous example of; the cut marble with precious stone and jewel insets. We spent a couple of hours wandering around the mini-city, exploring the interlacing multilevel walkways and gardens. As night fell it was time to head back and prepare for our big visit the next day.

We arrived at the Taj Mahal around 9 o'clock in the morning. We had considered going earlier to see the sunrise and beat the queues but we were advised against it and quite right too. The queues, which had been huge the previous afternoon (Sunday) were really quite small the following morning and we were through them in no time. Also the cool winter sun was only just beginning to burn off the mist when we got there so if we had been any earlier we wouldn't have seen a lot.

After passing through the ticket check, we followed the crowd into a huge courtyard. The buildings on the right and left followed the Moguls fascination with symmetry and when these finally opened into the square, so that road we had just walked down was also mirrored in front of us with an opposite road leading in. To our left was an almighty tower with a massive doorway in the middle of it. Through this arch, perfectly framed was the Taj-Mahal behind. It is impossible to take a bad photo here because everything seems to follow the magic equation for lining up beautifully. The Taj-Mahal itself has an identically proportioned archway and it was possible to stand so that these seemed to be one. After taking a few moments to take all this in it was time to step through the archway into the central complex.

The area is a giant square with the Taj-Mahal standing at the opposite side to the gate house where we were. Between us and it are the gardens. Perfectly manicured lawns, tended by gardeners and an ox pulled lawnmower. At both of the other two sides of the square are what are called the water houses. These are where the water poured into the complex from outside the walls. At one time the buildings had small waterfalls that poured down from the middle of them and fed the geometric system of canals that run around and through the grounds. Today the water seems to come from an undisclosed source.

From where we were standing the Taj-Mahal was only just visible through the morning mist and looked rather ghostly as it glowed feebly from the distance. I felt thoroughly short changed at first but the mist did burn off and the sight which we saw again on our way out was really rather impressive. We had been given shoe covers when we bought our tickets which meant we didn't have to take our shoes off to go up into the building. The Taj is flanked on either side by symmetrical mosques which are open faced. We had a wander around the left hand one first, watching a little bit of the restoration work that was being carried out on it. Then in keeping with all that we have learned on our travels we circumnavigated the Taj in a counter clockwise direction. The sun was now starting to rise quite high in the sky and as it proceeded around the building we could see the subtle shifting of shadows and the colour of the light as it reflected off the white marble.

They say the building is losing its pristine white colour to marble cancer - the effects of the corrosive pollution in the air. In an attempt to prevent this the government has banned traffic from driving in a 100 meter radiance of the site, unless you are important enough and your car is big enough in which case the rules don't really apply. That said, it's still pretty white for now but apparently it is starting to go a little off colour.

Once we'd walked around the building and took a little rest in the shadow behind it, it was time to climb up on to the giant marble plinth it sits upon. One more lap of it again to get the feel from it up here next, walking between the building and the four pillars that guard each of it's corners. Then it was time to pop inside and give it a sniff. The building is a tomb and inside there is a walkway that runs around the inside hidden behind marble latticing that you can't go into. Next is the inner chamber where everyone goes, and in the centre of that, inside more latticing are the two coffins of him and her. The whole indoors area is even more intricately embedded with precious stones, marbles and jewels than the outside. The locals who came to see the Taj from around India paid a far cheaper entrance fee than us, and in return didn't get shoe covers, meaning they had to remove their footwear before entering. What we discovered on our sniff inside was that the place really smells of sweaty feet.

We had great day at the Taj-Mahal and left suitably impressed in the early afternoon. By chance we bumped into Nick and Esther, our two friends from the remedial Kayaking group in Nepal later in the day and spent the night enjoying a very good but small dinner at a restaurant near our hotel.

The next day was our last in Agra. We would be getting a train back to Delhi in the evening, spending a night there and then flying south the next morning. We were tossing up whether we could be bothered going to see Fatehpur Sikri, an abandoned city or not. In the end we decided we would go. We packed our bags and checked out of our hotel and then checked our bags in at the train station before taking an auto rickshaw to the bus station to get a bus to Fatehpur.

The city was built as a new capital city for the Mogul region but only served for a couple of decades before everybody packed up and left it. It would seem that the water supply was too salty to serve the king and people and so the buildings and courts were left to time. The British restored the city during their reign and today the site stands perfectly preserved like a walk back in time. The buildings are all perfectly intact and you have complete freedom to walk around them although some upstairs floors were locked. By the time we had gotten there and then had lunch, we only had a couple of hours to see it all before heading back. Again we had got it right though and the setting sun served again to really bring out all the details of the buildings and make it all the more remarkable. Because it was the end of day there weren't too many people there adding further to the sense of it being a ghost town where everyone suddenly saw you coming and just vanished.

We saw it all, took many more great photos and then successfully made it back to our old faithful hotel in Delhi, enjoying another fab meal on the train and crashing out on our beds exhausted.

Thursday, 20 December 2007

Delhi Dallying

We had a choice to make. With four and a bit weeks of our trip left we had to decide what we wanted to see in India and what could wait till next time (note that 'next time' indicates a fundamental shift of mind since Varanasi). India has no shortage of attractions but as we did our research we became aware that the ticking clock wasn't our only consideration. After a year of wandering and taking in breathtaking sights, we were starting to get a little saturated with the whole big old stone structure thing. In short, we had seen enough. We still had this month left though and we weren't going to just sit and watch the clock tick down, but we did decide to take it easy and do a few things over a longer time rather than try to squeeze lots in.

First Delhi. In our trademark style, we wandered across most of the city, refusing to pay the auto-rickshaws the 'white tax' they imposed on us by refusing to use their meters. We ventured across town by a combination of metro, walking in circles and final capitulation to the heat and auto-rickshaws to find the Nehru Planetarium. Named after India's first Prime Minister and situated in the grounds of his Prime Ministerial house, the planetarium is a 30 year old tribute to his interest in the science. It has in it the capsule that three cosmonauts returned to Earth in, including India's first man in space. Possibly the best thing about the spaceship, was that in complete seriousness, the Soviets saw it fit to paint the common symbols seen in the postal service for fragile and 'this way up' on the side of it. It took us two attempts to see the show having arrived for a booked out display on National Children's day the first time, but it was well worth coming back for on our second visit. We stuck our heads into Nehru's house for a wee look, given our situation on day one and would follow that up later in the week with a stroll around the very impressive government buildings which lead down to the great big arch which stands as a war memorial.

Having said we were saturated with big old stone things, we would be going to see the Taj-Mahal in Agra later, and before seeing that, it felt appropriate while in Delhi to visit the tomb of a Persian big wig, Hanuman, which was said to have served as a prototype to the Taj. The complex was amazing. We reached it about an hour before sunset having walked for about two hours trying to find the place. The entry fee could be paid in either Rupees or US Dollars, and with the dollar being so low at the time, we promptly pulled out our get out of jail coupons and saved ourselves a couple of pennies. The main showpiece did indeed look like a less grand, and not white version of the Taj-Mahal, but some of the most fun parts of the complex were the other Persian temples and tombs off to the side where you had much more freedom to climb up the stairs on to the roofs and walk under the stone pagodas crowning the faded, but mostly intact structures.

Delhi otherwise passed in a week of happy idleness. We wanted to see the latest Bollywood blockbuster called Om Shanti Om but didn't seem to find the time. One of our more amusing activities was riding the Metro. Part underground, part over ground, the metro railway is the first in India, and still a new thing for Delhi. It has been open two or three years now and is proving a success. It seems though that the people haven't quite got the hang of it yet. In most countries it is recognised that in order to get on a train, you should first let the passengers on board disembark. It is further realised in most countries that the best way to do that is to stand just to the side and let everyone funnel out between two queues of people who next step onto the train and fill the void. Not in India. As you stand preparing to leave the train waiting for it to stop and the doors to open you have to take the stance of an athlete waiting for the starting pistol. In addition you need to clench your fists and brace yourself like a boxer. When the doors open you are faced with a crowd of people entirely blocking your exit and immediately all competing and elbowing each other to get on the train first. There is no comprehension that if they let you off first there will be more space, or that the train won't go without them. As an exitee you have to look for the smallest person then lunge straight at them and push them backwards out through the crowd. This has several effects. Firstly it rather effectively clears a path for you and everyone behind you. Secondly, it means that someone else takes all the knocks for you. Thirdly it makes you look rather tough and everyone else makes an effort to huddle out of your way, thus helping create the path, and fourthly, for a fraction of a second you can almost see the dawning realisation in the little person that maybe there's a better way, but only for a fraction of a second. Shouting "Charge!" as the doors open is also a great way to see terror strike the faces of 30 people instantaneously as you launch yourself into them kicking and punching as you go.

Tuesday, 18 December 2007

Coming to the Capital

We stepped off our train in Delhi and braced ourselves for the forewarned onslaught of touts, agents and other what-nots, all who would seemingly be most concerned about us spending too much money at the wrong places though who would themselves ensure that particular outcome happened. Before leaving the station we sorted out our bearings and had a good idea which way to head. If all went well our hotel would only be a ten minute walk or so, straight down the obvious road that should be facing us when we exited.

Our packs were buckled onto us, front and back, our hands tightly gripping our other bags. Our caps were tipped over our faces to avoid the eye contact of doom and we were ready. Head down we started out. With the weight of your bags on you, once you get up to speed you have a useful force of momentum which is often a good aid to repelling advancing 'friends'. In particular, a pack attached your front is an excellent buffer with which to ping your adversaries, who are normally smaller in frame and standing roughly still, far across the station car park. The tipped cap then gives you the confidence that any onlookers will simply assume you didn't see the now horizontal fellow, and if otherwise, it aids you in pretending you don't see them.

We charged out through the doors and there was a wall of waiting people. We slipped through them, maybe they were waiting for family after all. Next the car park jammed with tuc-tucs (which in India are called auto-rickshaws), nope they didn't seem interested either. Busy road to cross, that means standing still, we're doomed. Nope, got across that. Wow, we're doing great. Right there's the road we want, hard dash down that should do the trick. It took us about ten minutes down that road until we got to our hotel. In that time, only one person offered us a hotel and even then accepted our 'no thanks' with almost immediate satisfaction. Our arrival in Delhi turned out to be one of our easiest arrivals.

Our hotel on the other hand was rubbish. They had our booking, for that we should at least give them credit, but we had picked this one and phoned ahead on the recommendation of our guide book. It's hard to pin down exactly what it was that made us decide to find another hotel the next day. It might have been the owner who asked us every five minutes to give him our laundry, or the shower that only provided five minutes of warm water if you phoned reception first. Maybe it was the window with glass made of wood, or it could have been the ceiling fan that was as noisy as if a single prop plane had nose dived the roof. As the mosque to the right of us and the Jain temple to left competed to make the most noise in our room we resolved to check out first thing in the morning.

Day two, and our second hotel fairs little better. Its fan is quiet, in fact we have two fans and they're both quiet. The room is massive with two double beds and a couch. The couch is so grotty though you wouldn't want to leave your clothes lying on it, let alone sit on it yourself. The only window is back into the internal indoor courtyard thing which is surrounded by every other room's window and door too. The only thing that prevented us from being overly distracted by someone else's telly was the racket of the several parties happening on the various floors. Then at 5 o'clock in the morning, like clockwork, the daily two hour power cut meant the generator got started to shake and rattle its way around the down stairs concourse rousing everybody for breakfast.

Day three and our third hotel does good enough. It's not great but as the best of a bad bunch it serves us for the next week. We are staying in a corner of Delhi called Parhganj, this is the budget travellers quarter and consists mostly of a single street with hotels running the length of it, and stalls selling cheap tack and souvenir clothes.

With our somewhat deep immersion into the noisy, less sanitary ways of India, our first priority for Delhi was to hang around the nice big clean shops and cafes and enjoy a little bit of 'clean' again. Connaught Place performed admirably. A giant ring of big posh shops with a park in the middle and circled by a road carrying cheaper more affordable shops on its circumference. The shopping on offer would not stand up to most western city's ideals but it was good enough for us, especially since our budget didn't stretch much past a T-shirt for Nikki and a clutch of magazines anyway.

We spent a couple of days doing very little else, using the time to find a comfortable relationship with India. One of our favourite haunts was a chain of cafes called Coffee Day. In Connaght Place alone, there was about half a dozen of these shops, where we sat and plotted our attack strategy for seeing the city. Another chain restauranteur we were making friends with was a familiar fast food company from home but with a distinct difference. McDonalds in India doesn't serve Big Macs, Hamburgers or Cheeseburgers. In fact, India being a largely Hindu country, it serves no beef whatsoever. The same selection of Chicken Dippers and McChicken Sandwich are available but that is where the meat offerings end. The menu must be as much as 50% vegetarian, offering about 4 or 5 different vege-burgers, plus wraps, pizzas, pies and chunky potatoe wedges. It was fab.

We were recomposed and ready to get out there and see the city.