What A Pallava!

Your name sir?’

‘Paul’

‘I am Kumar. Your hair very good – very nice.’

‘Thank you Kumar’.

‘Very handsome man’.

‘How kind’.

‘I am stone carver. I carve stone for famous Buddha temple in Exeter.’

‘I had no idea there was a Buddhist temple in Exeter.’

‘It new one! You want see my stones? First we go temple – you don’t pay – I don’t do for money, but I see you are nice guy. I know special way. Come. Come….’

And so it began.

My ego up, my guard down, and I’d enlisted Andrew and I on another south Asian magical mystery tour. This time, chasing the young stonemason, at rocking speed, around the seventh century rock temples of Mamallupuram.

We staggered precariously along ancient steps, ingeniously cut from a titanic piece of granite, recklessly attempting to keep up with the young Kumar, who was practically Simian. We learnt later that this acrobatic detour was in order to circumvent the normal gated entrance, thus avoiding the need to purchase a ticket.

An artful piece of dodgery from our new found mate – though we both suspected the relationship may get rockier as the daytime heat began to rocket.

‘How the fuck do we get rid of him now?’ Andrew asked me far too loudly.

‘Oh just chill out a bit – we’re getting a free tour, and free entry’ I countered.  Knowing deep down that we’d be paying for both of those benefits at some point.

I knew Andrew thought the same. But Kumar was roguishly charming, if alarmingly pungent, and he certainly knew his way around the ancient temples of the ‘Pallava’ kingdom.

It was easy to see why UNESCO had labelled the place a ‘World Heritage Site’. The stone carvings absolutely rocked.

Along with the mad dogs it was, of course, just The Englishmen that struggled unnecessarily through the blistering midday heat. Our whistle stop tour may have been unplanned, but the location was so atmospheric, a veritable concert of rock, that we both continued on, allowing Kumar to lead the way.

The mischievous Gods and Goddesses danced out of the rock face, revealing the face of a society which had partied hard for over six hundred years.
And neither of us had ever heard of them.

The Pallavas!?!

Of course, the real Pallava occurred when we finished with the final meditation temple, and were lead conveniently through a gate directly into a small shack, in order to meditate on Kumar’s wares. His stonewares to be precise!

Suddenly the tour guide became the salesman, and we were both made to sit through an uneasy psychic energy session, as Kumar theatrically discovered our healing stones.

And then introduced them to us!

Each at a starting price more worthy of ‘The Star Of India’!

Immediately, we were transported back to the dodgy jewellery dealer we’d met in the suburbs of Jaipur, where we’d come across another absolute gem of a scam! These invariably Kashmiri Shopkeepers are sly, smart and deftly apt at the art of deceit. But they always possess a ‘tell’ – a giveaway – and Kumar’s came with his dreadful impression of an Indian mystic. He threw himself onto his own bed of nails as he launched into a dreadful mix of Derren Brown and Noel Coward’s ‘Madame Arcati’!

Hanging himself  with his own ropey trick!

The drama in his performance was nearly as exaggerated as his prices. Perhaps these blyth spirits think all Westerners completely off their rockers. We may give that impression!

But Kumar soon realised Andrew and I were not quite stoned enough to invest in his.

Then, as Andrew, playing bad cop, audibly hissed that we couldn’t afford the stoneware, and that I wouldn’t be able to eat for the remainder of our stay if we purchased the five items that had inexplicably found their way into our basket, Kumar tried to carve out one last deal.

‘This Ganesh. Good for good friend who is now without husband’.

We knew the trick. Kumar had obviously picked up on something we’d said earlier. The ploy was cheap but still impressive. Unlike the Ganesh we were practically sledgehammered into buying.

As Kumar realised ‘The Lola Boys’ were not the diamond mine he’d hoped for, his mood darkened. The glittering smile became a leering snarl and he barked in throaty Tamil to a colleague who was bashing away in the workshop next door. The workman, who looked straight out of the Stone Age, burst through the shop doorway, with a Neanderthal grunt and a wave of his heavy tool.

The one that cut the rock!

‘He not happy’ Kumar said firmly. The treacle having now dripped away from his voice.

‘Why he not happy?’ Asked Andrew, equally as authoritative, yet in an Indian accent.

‘Because he make this. Not happy with price’.

There was something mildly threatening in Kumar’s tone. Not least because we were surrounded by a weighty array of potential stone weaponry. Fred and Barney had disappeared and the whole drama had grown much darker – more ‘Game Of Stones’!

We’d definitely left ‘Bedrock’!

We stood in the dark for what seemed an age!

I was having visions of the billiard room in Cluedo. Professor Kumar had clubbed Andrew to death with the lead carving. It was time to stop this little game!

I stood. Sighed dramatically, and piped up that I was in need of air and beer. Not necessarily in that order!  That I had grown weary of the unexpected auction this jaunt had now become. And perhaps we would be forced to leave the rockery empty handed after all.

Kumar wasn’t the only actor in the room!

I then tried to appear as nonchalant as possible as I trembled past the giant with the ferocious chisel.

‘Ok’ said Kumar. ‘Ok’. He then instructed Boris Karloff to pack the elephant we’d agreed on earlier.

‘Thank you’, I said, as icily as a good pint of lager, ‘we’d love to buy more. But as you heard Andrew say, we shan’t be able to eat if we do’!

Kumar stared at me stonily.

I was caught for an agonising moment between a rock and a hard face.

Andrew grabbed the packet from Boris and we legged it.

Before we knew it he had led us into an entirely unfamiliar part of town and we stood sweating, legs leaden, attempting to get our bearings.

‘I knew this wasn’t the bloody way’ I gasped.

‘I just wanted to get away from him. That selling! Jesus!’, Andrew complained. ‘I was losing it!’

I had to agree. The hard sell was akin to being whacked across the head several times with a large lump of marble. These salesmen sculpt such a convoluted life story, that before one realises, one is lost in their retail maze, as they attempt to chisel away at one’s sanity. Mining skilfully  until they strike a precious seam in one’s wallet!

It was both wondrous and enlightening to clamber amongst the boulders into an entirely different strata of history – one we were both entirely igneous of !!!

But sadly our relationship with the pushy Kashmiri Kumar ended somewhat, on the rocks.

Sting! Stoned! Stung!

What a pallava!

*********************************************************************

That evening we were both laid out motionless on our beds, after too many hours spent negotiating the debilitating heat.

It was our last night in India, and we had mixed emotions.

Feeling burnt in every way possible, her beauty and her beasts managing  to sear themselves onto our collective consciousness.

The sweet stuff here clings to the imagination like the gooey Indian confectionary, found on every street corner, sticks to the teeth. One cannot simply brush it away. India’s beauty is both ephemeral and eternal.

And the indisputable ugliness? Well that just seems to disappear after a while. Down the pan quicker than a dodgy biryani!

I’m almost certain we shall be back to sample her wares once again. She is too much of a good saleswoman to give up on us completely, and her shelves too well stacked to resist.

Her people are infuriatingly charming. The geography sometimes unfortunately alarming, and the holy spirit, which undoubtedly resides here, utterly disarming.

Love ‘Mother India’ or loathe her, she won’t be ignored.

She certainly won’t go quietly!

As we pack our rucksacks ready for the long hike back to reality, I can hear her already whispering to me on the tropical breeze. Her hot breath invading my senses.

‘Namaste’ she purrs into the black panther night.

‘Namaste’ x

Vive La Difference!

Andrew and I have now traversed The Subcontinent, and made our way from the torrid heat of the south east, to the baking oven that is the south west.  We have now hit the steam-room of that ex French colonial town known as Pondicherry.  Or ‘Pondy’ to those in the know.

Oooooh La La!

Or Fuck Me!!!

This has to be the steamiest place I ‘ve ever been – other than an infamous sauna I twice visited in Munich, but that’s by the by!

The temperature here steadily remains above forty degrees et plus during the day, and creeps down only marginally when the sun bids adieu.

Even the locals find it tiresome!

My hair has gone crazy!

I have a look of Queen’s Brian May after a blow!

A ‘Blow-dry’ that is.

(God forbid the lovely Anita Dobson would do anything like that!)

 

We have appropriately arrived on the eve of the first round of the French general election, and are staying in the inappropriately named, ‘Whitetown’!

Madame Le Pen would be thrilled!

However, thankfully the place is nothing like it’s nomenclature. There are a few colonial hangovers, but most of the town seems to be run very successfully by Indians. Or should I say Tamils! One is never sure how to be politically correct here.

Here Here! As I’ve never been one for ‘Le politiquement correct’!

Our guest house has just four rooms, and is definitely one of the most charming locations in which we have lodged during our Indian odyssey.

It would cost at least ten times as much were it located somewhere in La France. Therefore I shan’t be revealing the name of the place.  Sorry!

It has air-conditioning to die for, which is preferable to the current heatwave here – which, tragically, is also to die for!

It’s a welcome treat for Mr Kennedy and I, as we’ve been quite adventurous when it comes to boarding houses this trip, up until now.

However, the cuisine so far has not yet come up to that of the unfashionable state of Karnataka, from where we’ve just arrived. There, the Tikka, Tandoori and hospitality were phenomenal. Not least, because we were taken into the home of a new found Indian friend and made as welcome as could be at his baby daughter’s naming ceremony. An evening we shall never forget.

But, let’s put things in perspective, here in Pondicherry they have cheese!

Proper cheese!

I had know idea that ‘fromage’ produced here in Tamil Nadu could be so good! I should have realised that since The French didn’t leave here until 1954, their Gallic pong is still incredibly fragrant. Not just evident in the dairy produce, but also in the architecture which has a charm that exudes that certain, ‘Je ne sais quoi’!

Today, Monsieur Macron would have been proud, as we elected to make a ‘Frexit’,  and crossed the stinking canal, making our way into the ‘Tamil Quarter’.

Or ‘Browntown’ as ‘La Front Nationale’ would no doubt have it.

Equally as chaotic as any other Indian city we have visited, it had a vivacity and ‘Joie De Vivre’, that is somehow lacking in our upmarket French Quarter.

Amid the humidity which was as heavy as the traffic, we stumbled for hours along uneven pavements, negotiating open sewers and bumping  into the most friendly of folk. Most of them more than happy to to say Bonjour with a toothy grin. Yet, also content to run you down at the drop of a ‘chapeau’!

Our temples sweated in sweaty temples and we managed until midday before we had to surrender to the blistering heat and return to the safe cool of our colonial splendour.

Sadly, this heated excursion has taken it’s toll. We have both lost about three pints of liquid, not to mention a touch of dignity,  as we’ve manoeuvred over cracked concrete and played numerous games of ‘Poulet’ with the ubiquitous rickety rickshaws. But it’s been more than magnifique to visit the other side of the canal.  The less fashionable part of town.

Still with colourful shutters, yet with less of the colour shut out!

Perhaps if Madame Le Pen were brave enough to do the same she may change her petite mind. I do not mean to be either political or judgemental. But ‘Browntown’ is so much more colourful than ‘Whitetown’!

Un peu more unusual perhaps. A tad more unnerving.   But no less chic!

Come on Marine. Don’t snort.  Why not leave le pen and cross the tracks?

And in the words of that marvellous Francophile Ms Petula Clarke.

‘Don’t hang around and let your problems surround you, there are moving shows – Browntown’.

Or ‘quelque chose’ like that!

‘Get Us Outta Here!’

As Paul ambled purposefully beneath a torrid ‘Noel Coward Sun’, he wondered how it always transpired, that at the hottest time of day, in the hottest of climates, he was always the Englishman! He’d left the ‘Mad Dog’ behind, at the cool guest house. Andrew was terribly busy ordering new flavours for his Vapouriser! So Paul set off through the smouldering back streets of Panjim.

As he made his way down narrow lanes, simmering with colourful heat, he dabbed at his brow with an old hankie he’d kept for that very purpose. The vivid pigments which reflected from the Portuguese houses both blinded and enthralled. It was difficult to avoid the open drains and meandering traffic as Paul made his way to the railway agent to collect the tickets for the next leg of his and Andrew’s Indian adventure.

They were soon to be on their way to Karnataka, in the deepest south west of India.  Their new pal Santosh had become a father to a beautiful daughter and it was time to hold the ancient baby naming ceremony. Andrew and Paul had been thrilled to be invited along.

Before that, somebody needed to pay for the journey. Having experienced one too many railway booking counters belonging to ‘The Indian State Railways’, the boys thought it wise to avoid the bureaucratic  hideousness that is inevitably involved, and let an agent take the strain.

Which one did, for a cool fiver! Quite a lot considering the price of the journey was only a tenner. Still….

Sweating alone in the tiny booking office, Paul felt a thump on his left shoulder, and turned immediately, half-suspecting to see Andrew grinning, having caught up, post Vape order. Instead, he was greeted with a gappy smile and a thick set bloke in a sari.  Admittedly, a very pretty piece of clothing, but it was doubtless, a fella.

Jewellery laden, make-up free and a jaw like a like Joe Bugner!

Paul learnt later, that this lady was a member of an Indian caste of transvestites. Some of them gay, some hermaphrodite and some, poor sods who’ve been kidnapped and castrated!

Known as the Hijras, they often performed, uninvited, at functions and sometimes worked as prostitutes!

Paul couldn’t help but see the similarity to his own line of work. The Lola Boys’ were little more. Only better paid!

At times!

‘Oh, hello’, he said.

Open as ever, yet a little perturbed. This was no ‘Ladyboy’!

He smiled as the guy done up like a gal clapped his hands fiercely and then made a furious begging action. It was quite obvious what she wanted.

And it weren’t make-up tips!

Paul shrugged and showed his empty trouser pockets, attempting to appear as nonchalant as possible, yet failing dreadfully. The fact that it was an honest action, that he’d parted with all his cash moments previously, the ticket agent having no change, made no difference. This was a frighteningly heavy-set woman, with the charisma of Vin Diesel, and she made Paul very nervous.

‘I’ve no money’, he mouthed largely, in the way an ignoramus talks to foreigners.

Ma Diesel  gave several nods of the head, and thrust her hand forward in the manner of a Right Jab! Paul ducked, but she was too quick and her palm slapped on to the top of his scalp. She muttered a few words and then again made the same begging gesture.

Paul knew at once, that he’d just been blessed. And Ma wanted something for the collection box!

‘I still have nothing. No Rupee!’ he said.  Too slowly, and far too loudly.

Ma stared for an endless moment, and then made a furious action with the saintly hand she’d just used to bestow her blessings. She whirled it around and made a couple of tapping motions as if trying to reverse the spell.

‘No good now love,’ Paul said calmly, ‘you’ve given it so you can’t take it back!’

He laughed to himself, in a slightly condescending way, and would have felt guilty, were it not for the fact Ms Diesel had followed him into the travel agents and had then been terribly bullish. And bullying was something Paul always stood up to, after having had a very good training at naval school in Waterloo.

This bully was gonna meet Waterloo if she didn’t bugger off.

Feeling the resistance and perhaps, believing the lack of cash line, the Hijra took her leave, without so much as a smirk.

Paul put his head though the small brick doorway and lent into the brilliant sunshine. He watched as the brash and bejewelled beggar-women made their way down the narrow lane. Criss crossing the street and putting their hands together with a violent clap, to let people know they were around. Some gave willingly, and some were more than cajoled.

The ‘girls’ hit the butcher, the baker, and the joss-stick maker before they finally turned the corner and their riotous energy dissipated. Paul felt a collective sigh, much as if a hardened girl-gang had just left one’s subway carriage.

‘They may have swiped some jewellery – but we’re all breathing’ he thought.

He was sure he wasn’t the only one.

He then made his way back to the very pleasant guest house he and Andrew were sharing. He looked at the third class railway ticket for which he’d just overpaid enormously, and wondered if he would still be breathing when Andrew found out.

The following day, following far too many hours on a hot train, Andrew followed Paul into an equally hot hotel and they both wondered what the hell they were doing there. Mangalore, a coastal city in south west India, at first sight seemed ordinary, shabby and most unchic.  After venturing out, and having time to explore, it seemed ordinary, shabby and even more unchic.

After stumbling through the early morning  fumes, along a crumbling dual carriageway, and finding nowhere for miles which served anything resembling coffee, Andrew said, with some tongue in cheek,

‘Get us outta here!’

*******************************************************************

An hour later we were in a taxi heading deeper into Karnataka. A state which has yet to convince us of her charms, of which there are doubtless many. But perhaps, more hidden.

Much like those of the bolshy Hijras I had met in Panjim.

But as I’ve learnt, it is not always the most obvious that has the greatest appeal.

And so we wait, with baited breath, for this part of ancient India to reveal herself to us.

She’s already been quite a tease.

But if she slips her sari off her shoulder and gives us a wink, we shall no doubt fall for her dubious charms.

Just as we’ve done with the rest of this intriguing country.

Hopefully!

Beached Wails!

For too many nights and days , Andrew and I have been practically marooned on a first-rate beach, in a second-rate guest house, with third-rate plumbing, fourth-rate bedding and fifth-rate company!  We’ve loved it.

After the rigours of Rajasthan it has been just what we needed. An almost antidote to India, but it has taken it’s toll…

I have developed a near psychosis attempting to tan in what is constant sunlight – and yet, failing miserably. T’is true I’m wearing factor 30, but without, I would resemble a Heinz Ketchup bottle within minutes. Minus the superior branding!

It just ain’t worth it, I tell my wan, washed out self in the filthy mirror, as a geriatric Oliver Twist stares back.  Why do I always become so ‘Dickensian’ during our travels?  It’s as if I grow paler by the day. Unburnished! Despite my earnest attempts at Bronze Ageing! Still, I gain assurance from a quote from the aforementioned author, that such things take time.

‘The Sun himself is weak when he first rises, and gathers strength and courage as the day gets on.’

And so, just like that great star, I shall live to tan another day.

It’s good to read – especially when beached!

And beached we have been. Outcasts ashore. Unwilling to crawl from our hermit like shells, much like some of the other more diminutive residents down by the shoreline. Their crabbiness has rubbed off on us, especially Andrew, who is now celebrating almost a month free from the claws of Mr Marboro.

Unsmoked, he has drifted slowly into quicksand and fast booze! This is not entirely his fault, and with my own vintage and effervescent history, I am certainly not one to judge. My husband has been helped ‘roll out the barrel’ by the carbonated charm of the bar-staff, and the convenient fact that the normal beer runs out terribly early and so the ultra strong – ‘husband-beater’ – is the only pint available!

This has invariably ended with Mr Kennedy either panicking in the sea, burning his feet on the sand, or losing his footing entirely. Today, after a particularly heated conversation, which ended with me telling him to ‘travel to somewhere fiery’, (or words to that effect), my hot lover jammed his foot heavily against an obvious brick and fell head first towards the just lit tandoori oven.

It was almost ‘Andrew Tikka’ on the menu!

I hadn’t actually meant ‘Go To Hell’!

‘Sit down’ I say. He seems flushed with embarrassment, or severely burnt – I can’t tell which.
‘Oww’, he wails, sort of manfully, ‘look’.
He gestures towards his left ankle, which is horribly grazed with skin hanging and plasma oozing down to his in-step.
‘Look. I’ll never dance again’ he says. Laughing.

Pissed.

‘I’ll get you the Savlon shall I?’  I spit.  Cold, hard and impenetrable after days of sharing a hut with a less well-heeled Jack Nicholson.

The beach was bringing out the bitch.

‘Nurse Ratched’ was beginning to kick in.

‘Itsh fine’ he manages.

After the entire establishment is greeted to a loquacious treatise on the rights and wrongs of ‘Brexit’, the plusses and minuses of arranged marriage, and the growth and implementation of radical Islam, Andrew then retires for a siesta. Leaving his entire audience wanting to do the same.

Exhausted, if not amused, by his malty rhetoric.

It’s quite clear it’s time we left this paradisiacal malaise and made our way on to harsher climes. Other Kulcha and culture beckon. Colour and squalor are calling us on.

Plus the fact we have to get to a ‘Vape Shop’ fast before Andrew runs out of juice – literally.

He’s down to his last phial of coffee flavoured liquid nicotine. If the pot boils dry I dread to think what could happen. I could be the fag he lights first.

He has a quick fuse when unlit!

There’s enough to last the night, and then we’re off, to inhale the fumes of another Indian city in search of the vapours.

I do hope they stock the stuff…..

All play and no vape make Jack a very dull boy!

I’ve hidden the axe!

Delhi Belly!!!

New Delhi! India’s frenetic capital, can sometimes be hard to stomach. Especially when the jaded visitor is suffering from that most infamous of south asian complaints – ‘Delhi Belly’!

If the forty degree smog and exhaust fumes fail to exhaust, the constant concern that a lavatory may be needed at the drop of, shall we say, a hat, certainly takes it’s toll.

Despite sensibly taking plenty of liquid and dosing up with Imodium, I still have no respite. I long for my faeces to be in pieces! A little too much information I realise, but the usual niceties one applies to such ablutions don’t seem relevant here, especially as it is quite usual to see a good number of folk squatting by the side of the road, and not to take the weight off their feet! Still, there is an urban, if not urbane, charm to the place which is undeniable. One cannot help but get swept up in the street-life which hits the traveller like a chapati in the face on every corner.

As well as visiting the less salubrious side of the city, Delhi’s underbelly, Andrew and I also managed to make our way to Connaught Place. A Victorian parade encircling a vivid green park, peopled with many pairs of young lovers. Most doing something shady in the welcome shade. The wide avenues, complete with colonnades, reminded me of a tropical Regent’s Street.

A faded colonial hangover, with old fashioned shops stocked with archaic items such as ‘Fountain Pens’ and bottles of ink. Juxtaposed with such quaintness, there also exists, of course, the very modern. A branch of ‘Burger Singh’ amused us as it sang out garishly next to a religious ‘Jain Bookshop’. Fasting and fast-food co-existing beneath the ‘Lutyens’ designed canopy. Such opposition can’t help but attract. One is constantly knocked off balance by the exotic eclecticism here, as well as the careering tuk-tuks and rickshaws. It is always necessary to look in every direction at least sixteen times before attempting to walk anywhere, unless of course, you are a cow. Bovine crossings exist everywhere and on many an occasion we have used a weighty heifer to negotiate the heavy traffic.

The other negotiating which can become quite wearisome, is the one that concerns pricing. Having travelled extensively in Asia, Andrew and I have become fairly adept at bartering. However, here in Delhi, this practice is taken to a whole new level. There seems to be a myriad of price tags depending on how you look, act and from where you might hail. Andrew seems to do a little better than me, with his smoky looks and the slightly angry demeanour of a man who has just given up the fags!

Myself, being untanned, uncool and understanding, am presented with the same deal one would get if shopping on Bond Street!

I have been marched into numerous pharmacies in order to purchase powdered milk for insistent ‘glummy-mummies’ more times than they’ve had hot dinners! Andrew has been deserted on the roadside on several occasions, as I’ve queued at a variety of chemists for ‘Complan’, which he then assures me the woman is gonna swap for smack the minute my back is turned. On occasion I’ve wanted to smack him – but in truth, he has a point. Too much charity can become egocentric when faced with so much poverty. I’ve had to learn that my small contribution is a drop of milk in a vast churn of need. My guilt is alleviated far more than their pangs of hunger. Who am I really helping? It’s not just the oppressive heat that makes it hard to sleep here. The oppression brings insomnia too.

Sleep, however, has come very readily over the last few days, as Mr Kennedy and I, forgetting we are no longer twenty-one, have completely knackered ourselves out. The sleeper-class trains (a dreadfully dishonest description if there ever was one!) The two days on camelback and the month long traipse around Rajasthan, rucksacked and backsides unpacked, has taken it’s toll. We nearly finished ourselves off completely yesterday by making a manic whistle-stop  visit to that most famous of monuments to love, the exquisite Taj Mahal.

‘It better be worth it”, Andrew intoned, after nearly four hours spent wedged inside the tiniest car imaginable. As we sat entangled together in the back, like a game of tropical ‘Twister’, our driver went like a highwayman along a highway that had yet to be surfaced. Lacking suspension of any kind, and with an A.C. unit that insistently blew hot air into our parched eeks, we rattled and sweated our way to Agra. Mercifully, on sighting the marble masterpiece, Andrew’s fears were abated.

It was most definitely worth it.

The initial glimpse of the mighty mausoleum, framed through the dramatic arch gateway through which one enters, was certainly enough to bring a tear to the eye. I was unsure if it was the sheer beauty of the wonder before me, or the grit that had constantly blown out of the old jalopy’s air conditioning unit that caused this lachrymose  state of affairs.

Whatever, any love that can inspire such a magnificent erection has to be respected.

Unlike our guide, Lucky, for whom there was no love lost! As he whisked us around the grounds at such speed, I half expected Mo Farrer to overtake us as we came to the finish line!

When it came to the obligatory tipping point, suffice to say, he was not so lucky.

Nor did we play ball when the pace eventually slowed as he took us to his uncle’s gem shop.

‘What would you like? To see some Onyx, some Jasper, some Amber?’

‘Some Amber Nectar’ I replied.

‘What?’ He looked blank.

‘Some Beer!’ I snapped.

One’s patience can crack after weeks of hard sell!

We returned to the capital in the squeaking heap of junk that passed as a car. As we were dropped half a mile down the dusty road from our hotel, we were once again, harassed for a tip, this time from our driver, Ahmed. I sighed and gave him much more than was necessary.

‘Why so little? Are you not pleased with me today?’

‘Yes’, you were alright’ I said. Leaving out the fact that I could now barely walk or breath after the car ride from hell.

He looked at me with pleading eyes until I took another note from my pocket and thrust it into his hand.

Overpaying yet again.

I think I need to toughen up.

I am not sure I have enough fire in my belly to exist in Dehli.
I’d be begging for milk powder before you know it!

Even though this great city can leave one with a little indigestion, Andrew and I both left with a great appetite for the place.

We’d certainly book a table again.

And no doubt we’d pay the service charge!

 

Having A Camel Ball!

We set off into The Great Thar desert to escape what is probably the most beautiful shopping mall in the world. Jaisalmer fort, founded in the twelve century, yet another genuine spectacle in this ancient land, is astonishing. A gigantic yellow sandcastle that has stood up against countless marauders, and the test of time, yet has now become more of a ‘Jaisalmart.’

Once through the formidable sandstone outer walls, the visitor is bombarded with seller after seller plying their wares. Shops, cafes, even hotels combine with the temples and palaces within the crumbling antique stonework, creating a medieval Portobello Road Market.

A Jaisalmall !

It’s impossible to avoid bartering amongst this bombastic brickwork. Andrew and I were cornered by the most charming, middle-aged Hindu lady improbably called ‘Bobby’, whose sales-pitch was all around helping the women of Rajasthan. The divorced and the widowed.  Ladies who had sadly only managed to produce female  children in this still patriarchal society. Bobby helped these unfortunates, by selling their handicraft in a small establishment within the fort. She was incredibly tenacious.

IMG_0276

We swallowed it, hook, line and sinker! Due mainly to the colourful snaps she showed us of the girls at their spinning wheels, plus the fact that she could talk the hind legs off a camel and it was forty two degrees! We sunk far deeper into our wallet than we usually would, to purchase two quite ordinary trinkets that would surely have cost less in ‘Harrods’ – but hey, it was for charity. Hopefully! And I’m not completely sure that the aforementioned Knightsbridge retailer would stock such exotica as a decorated massage ball made from a Dromedary’s kneecap!

I’m sure it’ll come in handy at some stage.

So it was, after spending several baking days in this fascinating city, that we decided to make our way into the desert proper.

I’ve always had a ‘Lawrence Of Arabia’ fantasy, considering myself a slightly plainer Peter O’Toole, and Andrew has always had a whiff of Omar Sharif, especially after a chicken Jalfrezi. Therefore turbaned up, we set out for a two day desert safari, with David Lean’s masterpiece being our only real experience of the wilderness, and Andrew never having seen that all the way through!

Leaving the golden city, we sped west towards Pakistan, in a four by four driven by the handsome Nanu. A Rajasthani with an impressive handlebar moustache, yet slightly less impressive skills on the handlebars, or rather, steering wheel. We sped further and further into the treeless landscape, dodging goats and the odd nomad by a whisker!

Eventually we came to a piece of sand he, inexplicably recognised, and we drew to a halt. We bade goodbye to Nanu, and were introduced to our guides and our camelid friends, the latter laying impassive on the hot sand, not at all impressed with our arrival. We were soon taken to meet our camel in person, so to speak, mine was named ‘Robert’ apparently.

With hardly a cough and a spit, we were up and in the saddle. Well – sort of!

Nine feet up and rocking like a dodgy Brittany ferry. I now see why these creatures are known as the ships of the desert, however, I had no  idea one would feel so seasick.

After a while, I began to get my ‘camel-legs’ and the rocking became almost soothing. The chafing, on the other hand, did not. My buttocks have not seen such action in a long while, if ever!  Even Andrew looked like he could do with some extra padding.

As we rode further away from civilisation, our chief guide, Tripolis, would shout back occasionally from the front, making sure our small group was ok. After an hour and a half of trekking through blazing sunlight we were all sporting blazing saddles, and were more than ready to dismount on reaching camp.

The dismounting of this animal is even more precarious than the going up in the first place. The rider is flung violently forward and backwards as the creature makes it’s way into a laying position. Then, one must attempt to climb off of the beast without kicking it in the gob therefore giving it the right hump. It’s not at all easy. I fell from mine in as dignified a fashion as I could manage.

Andrew just slumped into the sand.

Our lodgings for the night were truly extraordinary.
Dunes of such a pristine nature, it looked as if we’d come upon them for the first time.

Our small group sat, recovering from the desert crossing, as our transport lay nearby, eyeing us all with a haughty disinterest. It felt comforting to have them with us though, like we were in it together. This desert lark. One seems to make friends terribly quickly.

As night came, quick as a light-switch, our guides set a small fire, and we sat around chatting and sharing beer, as they prepared dinner. A simple feast of vegetables, rice, chapatis and dal, cooked on iron skillets over the flames. It was delicious, if not a touch mysterious, as in the dim light we had to hazard a guess as to what we were swallowing. Mind you, that’s not a first for either of us and so we managed manfully.

Later, we sang and danced around the campfire. I say we, but it was mostly Andrew and I that provided the physical entertainment. The Lola Boys, live from the sands, as it were. I nearly set fire to myself at least twice, much to Andrew’s chagrin, but it was great fun. Our guides clapped out of time and sang so disharmoniously that it must have been correct, tribal perhaps! Although to us it sounded like a camels’chorus!

When it was time for bed we were each given a mattress, spotless I might add, and were able to position ourselves wherever we liked amid the dunes.

Andrew and I chose a spot not to far from the campfire, and not too far from a thorn-bush, should we need to decamp in the night.

We held hands briefly, gazing at the celestial ceiling which was ours for the night. It was a rare moment of romance after twenty-five years together – and it didn’t last long. But I shall remember it forever.

In the morning we were woken by the yellow noise of the sun. We’d both slept well. Andrew coming off slightly better than me, by missing out on the Bactrian nightmares I’d so enjoyed. On seeing how near the fresh camel dung was on waking, I did wonder if absolutely all of it had been a dream. But I thought it best not to dwell on such things, especially as they were our only way home.

After a breakfast fit for a camel herder, we set off back through the ‘Marwar’, or Land Of Death, in search of the living. It had been an exhilarating experience and we were both full of life, if not a touch saddle sore.

Desert mice and antelope peered from behind the scrub to check out the strange caravan as we passed. We felt like a band of brothers, completely at ease with each other, in sync. Perhaps friends are easier to make in the desert.

It’s very bareness lays people bare.

The landscape engulfed us, but we didn’t feel small. We felt at one with each other. Perhaps more so, as the struggle to exist here is so precarious and implausible, that breath seems even more precious. Life itself, miraculous. We adored the entire journey – both the physical and the spiritual.

Sadly, our ride tonight is less poetic. The beast we are riding is The Delhi Express. We are second class, not a first, and are packed into carriage S2, like curried sardines!

The elderly couple in the berths beneath ours could be Indian cousins of ‘The Adams Family’. He bears a striking resemblance to a very tanned ‘Lurch’, and his wife has two and a half teeth. All of them orange!

They have taken to their beds terribly early. It is just six-thirty and the ‘Mrs’ is making more bestial noises than our entire troupe of camels put together. The husband, who has knocked back more pills than Amy Winehouse on a night out, is silent as the grave. I only hope they shan’t need to dig him one when he doesn’t alight at Delhi Central.

Andrew and I are suffering a little from our ‘camelcade’ as we rattle along precariously on the tiny top bunks. But our butts will just have to take it.

It’s only eighteen hours after all !

And as we are lulled to sleep by the heavy growling of Morticia Patel beneath, I shall be reminded of our night in the dreamy dunes, drifting off under The Milky Way. I shall imagine it is those majestic ships of the desert making themselves known through the blackness. Groaning, snorting and winnowing loudly as they keep watch over us.

And if it get’s too much, and that fantasy begins to fail, I shall just have to take Bobby’s camel bone ball from it’s wrapping, and massage the poor, snoring, woman’s larynx. Firmly, as recommended.  Perhaps then, she’ll become as peaceful as her husband!

I’m sure Bobby would approve. After all, it’s quite obvious the wretched woman needs putting out of her misery!

It would be a charitable act, and using a charitable gift!

I just knew it would come in handy sometime!

 

Little Vikram And The Missing Tiger.

Our hotel in Jaipur has not quite lived up to the picture created in the hit film ‘The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel’. It’s been more like ‘The Quite Nice Carnation Guest House’ – but we’ve loved it.

The staff at the establishment, just outside of the Pink City’s walls, have been charming, if not a little perplexed. For instance it has been practically impossible to order food, as the English menu seems to be beyond the poor chaps, even when one is using the Hindi words. Of course, it could be our pronunciation, though when one is furnished with a cup of tea so sweet it could strip five layers of varnish from an Indian teak floor, when the instruction ‘without sugar’ has been repeated fifteen times, one does begin to wonder. But the poor boys look practically suicidal if you complain, so I imagine I shall be returning to Europe sans teeth and in need of some major dental work.

It is not just Andrew and I who have had communication issues. I overheard one conversation at breakfast that could have come straight out of ‘Fawlty Towers’!

‘Does your muesli contain nuts?’ Asks one British lady. A septuagenarian I imagine.
‘No’, the chef responds.
‘There are no nuts?’ she continues.
‘Yes’ he says.
‘What do you mean yes? Are there nuts or aren’t there nuts?’
‘Yes’
‘Yes there are nuts, or yes there aren’t nuts?’
‘Yes’ he repeats.
‘Don’t keep saying yes. Are there nuts?’
‘Yes’ he says again.
‘Show me’,
‘What madam?’
‘Show me the muesli!’ She screeches.
The waiter then removes the lid from the plastic container and presents it to the lady wanting breakfast.
‘There are no nuts in there!’ She says.
‘No’, he responds, ‘You want nuts?’
‘Yes’ she affirms, in an exasperated fashion, ‘you have nuts?’
‘No’ says the waiter.

And this is a short conversation.

Usually one is practically ready for lunch by the time breakfast has arrived!

At night a young puppeteer has sat banging on a drum to get us diners attention. He has then attempted to entertain us with a show consisting of various mannequins, each representing unpronounceable Maharajas past, waving their arms about unconvincingly and wobbling their brightly painted heads. Apparently all of these have been handmade by his blind, great grandmother of one hundred and eleven. Because I was one of the few to take notice, this budding showman has taken a shine to me. Unfortunately, with strings attached! I’ve had to tell him in no uncertain terms, that I have absolutely no interest in working his limbs. He eventually took the hint and asked me instead for a big tip in order to buy some new rubbers. I presume he meant the kind used in the classroom, although I can’t be sure!

This city has shown us the best and the worst of this diverse country in such a short space of time, but it has certainly won us over. It has been a feast for all of the senses, and so of course, as with any overindulgence, indigestion is inevitable. But we leave with our appetite more than sated.

In the morning we are introduced to our driver- Ramrash. I am only hoping, in one of his more reckless moments, Andrew doesn’t take this as an instruction. In the fantasies we’d constructed, Ramrash looked very like this.

Sadly he doesn’t!

But he is tremendously affable, with a kind face and absolutely no English. This tour is gonna be interesting to say the least.

On leaving Jaipur, Ramrash drives us south towards the national park of Ranbamthore, one of the few places left in India where one has a semi decent chance of spotting that most enchanting of beasts – the tiger. We make a brief pit stop to stock up on travel sickness pills and some illicit Valium – both essential if one is to commit to any long road journeys here. Then we hit the almost open road.

As we career down the carriageway, missing trucks and pedestrians by mere millimetres, Andrew and I discuss with amazement how few incidents we have witnessed here. We decide there must be an innate Highway Code, which is invisible to us foreigners, keeping everything on two or more wheels in order. A few miles up the highway, we realise we’ve spoken too soon. A small crowd has gathered by the side of the road, and as the traffic is forced to slow, our vehicle comes to a standstill next to a body in the road. It is a man with half a head, his brains frying on the burning tarmac for all to see. Indeed some of the spectators are filming the scene on their mobile phones. It comes as quite a shock as two policeman both grab a limb and begin to drag the corpse towards a waiting van. At this point, I’m feeling more than grateful that we both took a ‘Vomitstop’ pill earlier to help with the journey, or we could have been chucking our own cerebral fluid all over the back seat.

Our conversation was somewhat muted for a few minutes, before the inevitable black humour took over. A defence, no doubt, to cover the horror of of what we had just witnessed. But even during the joking, I couldn’t help but ponder this fleeting dance that is life. At one moment this poor guy was happily motoring along through the warm sunshine, on his hard-earned scooter, and the next ,bang. Brain dead! It was sobering. So much so that we decided to crack open a beer to take the edge off. We’ll, it was after noon – for us lucky ones!

When we arrived in Sawai Madhopur, a distinctly unattractive town close to the jungle where the big cats roam, we began our search for somewhere to lay our heads, still feeling grateful we had them! The first guest house we tried had the charm of a Victorian asylum, only with less character. And it wasn’t cheap! After an almost biblical experience searching, we eventually found room at the inn. Not a particularly salubrious establishment, but with very accommodating staff which improved the accommodation. After another brilliant vegetarian meal, at less than a tenth of the price one pays in Europe, we lay down our weary bones and dreamt of tigers and leapards and bears. And brains!!! It was not the most restful of nights.

In the morning we woke to a chilly start. Apparently it never rains here in March, but today, the day we’d chosen for our safari, it appeared the heavens were about to open. We took a stroll, searching the one mall that exists for something waterproof.

However, there was not even a bin liner in sight. So instead we opted for a bottle of Indian Scotch, (a misnomer if their ever was one!), and Andrew, a packet of Marlboro Lights,(yet another!!).

In fact, Andrew has supposedly given up smoking since finishing his last packet three days ago. He is now using his terribly expensive vaporizer, which he purchased in England before we left, including a multitude of expensive refills. However, that idea seems to have gone up in smoke, and he is now puffing in conjunction with this new-fangled machine – sometimes simultaneously ! Except for situations when it is forbidden to smoke, that is when the ‘vape’ takes over, to ease his brain. As on the occasion when we came across the poor gentleman without one.

Even I had a puff then!

As if to balance that fatal moment we’d witnessed the day before, something much happier occurred on the piece of scrubland that constitutes the view from our room. A shepherd took his crook and tapped the back of a large nanny goat in his care. He then lay her on her side and held her down for a moment, seemingly against her will. I, with the same car crash mentality as that of the previous day, could not take my eyes away. I asked Ramrash what was occurring and he replied ‘baby coming, baby’. Andrew and I were then privileged to spectate as a new life came into this world, in fact two. It was equally as visceral as the moment yesterday, but with a much happier conclusion.

Life’s scales always seem to balance in some way or another in this crazy country. If at times they can swing rather precariously from one extreme to the other !

So, uncomfortably ensconced in our new digs, without a cloud in the sky, we set off on safari. Tucked into a jeep, known as a gypsy, with our new friend Chris, a freelance editor from our neck of the woods, we headed into some.

Naively, we thought we may have the vehicle to ourselves, but we were soon joined by a very smart Indian family who were also on the lookout for some big game. A young man, his very pretty wife, and their nearly little boy, with a grin as wide as his midriff. They took their seats behind us in the jeep and we pulled off, in an unrecognisable gear, towards the forest.

We bumped around for about an hour, cheerfully chatting, and sharing the odd swig from our bottle of Coke! (Nudge nudge etc…). We saw nothing. Unless three deer, two peacocks, and a partridge in a bare tree count as a significant sighting.

The sky, by this time, was looking as grey as a Some of the tap water here, and we all knew we should have looked harder for something waterproof. And then, as we came out from the bush and hit the open plains, the skies did the same, and opened! There was a small kerfuffle in the back of the vehicle and we came to a juddering halt under the pouring rain. Our guide stepped out to help one of our Asian friends into the front seat undercover. I assumed it was to be the young lady, dressed in a very fine jade-green saree – but no, to my amazement, it was little smiling Vikram who was helped into the front seat. Vishnu forbid the child get slightly damp.

As we carried on driving through the driving rain, the mini god in the front seat demanded we stop now and then, in order to see a squirrel, or another deer. We waited, patiently dripping, as little Vikram took photo after photo on his mobile phone of the ordinary fauna which surrounded us. At one point he also decided to play with the handle of his seat, so not only was I getting soaked to the skin, but I was also beginning to develop serious bruising of the patella. Added to this, it was now looking increasingly unlikely that we were going to spot a tiger. I mean surely they wouldn’t be daft enough to come out in this weather!

It was during this slight malaise, and as the weather began to worsen, that our driver decided to take cover under a Banyan tree. We pulled up alongside an identical vehicle to ours, only I noticed with envy that this vehicle had only one passenger. We sat in silence for a moment before the elderly occupant shifted in his spacious seat and turned towards us. I smiled, there was no response. Chris, our new companion then piped up,

‘Have you had any luck today? Spotted any tigers?’

‘Oh yeah’ the dour faced pensioner responded, ‘Sure!’

We knew at this point our friend sharing shelter under the canopy was one of our American cousins.

‘We’ve seen nothing’ I offered, ‘well, a few cows’.

There was silence. The man looked at me with a troubled expression. No doubt he was a Trump supporter.

Chris tried again,

‘Today, you mean today you’ve seen a tiger?’

‘Oh yeah. Lots.’ The guy boasted. ‘This morning I saw two of them mating!’

No doubt ya did I thought. But kept quiet.

‘It was quite something’.

The animal envy was palpable. Everybody tried to be polite, but the ignorant git’s arrogance was too much for Andrew, who decided to do his best Floridian accent with a very loud,

‘Oh yeah. Gee – I saw two of them fucking this morning!’

This wasn’t lost on the old man, who gave another hard stare.

‘You’re stage whisper could do with a little practice’ whispered Chris, giggling with amusement, the editor in him coming to the fore. Andrew laughed. Our friend from across the pond did not. He just continued with his cold hard stare.
I stared back in silence. I had no charm left for the old fool. I’d obviously displeased him by even having the nerve to exist. I was relieved as we eventually parted and went on our separate safaris.

The rain continued unabated, and soon we came to a clearing where several other jeeps and cantors were grouped. We soon knew why. At the top of a hillock there stood a brick shelter where the rest of the humans were taking shelter.

We did the same for a while. It seemed ironic that we were spending the majority of our time on our exotic safari huddled in a man-made shelter.

After a while it was all too mundane for me, and I left to take my chances under the trees, joining a few deer who had the same idea.

It reminded me very much of an expensive version of Richmond Park in London, only the deer were much further away, and not as impressive.

Soon we clambered back onto our wheels and began the trek again. It was at this point that the little Indian god, still shielded from the precipation in the front seat, decided to turn to me and say, with a self-satisfied smile,

‘We shall see no tigers today.’

‘Oh’, I replied, in that condescending manner in which an adult talks to a strange child, ‘ and why is that?’

‘The rain’, he said, laughing as though I should be aware of this fact too.

I growled. It was the only one anyone had heard so far.

It was at this point that Andrew turned to me and said, in his opinion, we would all have a better chance of spotting one of the great beasts if we had some bait, and perhaps it would be a good idea to tie something to the back of the jeep to flush the animals from their hiding. A small Indian child perhaps. We laughed far too loudly at this, I don’t think his parents, who were in possession of a little English, were that amused. But neither did they look too bothered, they, after all, had also paid big money to spot one of these big cats.

As the time wore on it became increasingly unlikely we would be lucky. We came across another charabanc full of excited folk, most of them with a look of Princess Anne, who couldn’t wait to tell us that they too had seen the two tigers having it off that morning. Several times.

We, on the other hand, were more likely to see one of these fussy felines on the front of a Kellogg’s Frosties Box. They were beginning to irritate.

They weren’t grrrreat – just grating. These wonderful elusive animals were proving to be just that – Kipling’s ‘Sheer Khan’ was proving to be more, ‘Sheer Can’t be bothered.

Another hour later, wet and cold now, loathing children and tigers, our driver stopped our vehicle when a burning smell was detected. Little Vikram had been playing uncontrollably with the controls and it seems something or other had burnt out. We sat for at least fifteen minutes whilst our guide fiddled worriedly with parts of the jeep.

It would be just our luck, I thought, if a veritable ambush of tigers, hungry and bored of deer, appeared suddenly out of the scrub. I knew if that happened, we’d have absolutely no choice but to sacrifice little Vikram. His parents were young, they could try for another. After realising that the ‘wiper-machine’ was causing the problem, our driver got the vehicle to start, and little Vikram was ordered not to touch anything else. He’d had a lucky escape.

And so, we exited the park without so much as a glimpse of anything orange, bar some dodgy headgear a Scandinavian lesbian was seen sporting.

We bade goodbye to our Indian friends and were dropped back at our guesthouse, which was now,of course, bathed in full sunlight.

q

I sit on the roof, watching the local nature pass by, both human and otherwise, and can’t help but laugh. Who cares whether we’d managed to catch a glimpse of that Blakean myth, that maharajah of cats. This country has a roar all of it’s own. It certainly doesn’t require a giant striped feline to make one feel it’s awesome energy.

Sitting with a Kingfisher beer, drying off, I recite William Blake’s famous ditty to myself,

Tyger, Tyger, Burning Bright,
Did We See one?
Did We Shite!

But we still felt the roar.