A hop, skip and a jump from Mumbai to Delhi, via Rajasthan and Agra. Phew!
Trying to leave our Mumbai bubble was harder than we'd ever anticipated and Findia, India's evil brother (can you guess what the 'F' stands for?!) meddled massively in our attempts to migrate. We had an overnight train booked and as we left the beautiful apartment where so many fun times had taken place, holding back the regretful tears on having to move on (when there was a Bollywood music video being filmed that we could have featured in. Don't ask!), we had accounted for the time it would take to get to the train station that we had been using daily since arriving in Mumbai. We had not, however, accounted for a rickshaw driver who didn't understand English and who mistook instructions to go to the railway station, for instructions to go to the Taj Mahal hotel (?!?!?). We didn't acount for the grinding traffic that we got snarled up in as a result of this blunder and we definitely didn't account for the fact that the train station we had assumed we were departing from was actually a 20 minute walk from the terminus that our train actually left from! Aaaargh! As we huffed and puffed our way through the teeming night crowds, intrusive horns and shouts in our exasperated faces, I cursed Findia. Plotting against us and making us miss our expensive train journey, making us despise this impossible, frustrating country and inciting vows to flee this godforsaken place at once! At the right terminus, we tried impotently to book more tickets for the next day. Again, Findia struck and I was reduced to a deflated heap of exhausted disheartened mush, whilst Sally persevered with the infuriatingly blasé ticket officers. And then, as has occurred so many times on this trip but oh so explicitly in this sweaty station, India fought back. Sally received help from an all-too-happy-to-assist Indian man; I was approached by a group of teenagers who were bearing the cutest Andrex puppies I'd ever laid eyes on and let us play with them; and then, on leaving the station a gaggle of about 15 excitable lads in football kits surrounded us, shouting and laughing, along with about 5 adults who helped us with rickshaw translation, and there Sally and I stood, in the centre of this beautiful storm of people, animated, smiling, laughing...it was infectious and we fell back into India, head over heels! Just when you think you've taken all the punches you can, just when you're ready to sack it all in and get the hell out, India, the precious, enticing, radiant power, pulls you back into her bosom with such force, charisma and allure that there is no way on Earth you can resist! And so, the India/Findia battle wages on!
When we did finally leave Mumbai, we headed to Udaipur in Rajasthan. Sally and I had decided to go separate ways for a week (she was doing some volunteering and I wanted to keep heading on up the state). I was excited and anxious in equal measure about getting alone time in India - this was new territory for both of us and after being in such close proximity with so many people in Mumbai, it was to be a shock to the system. But I have to say, I loved it. It tested so many layers of my personality and independence that I had never had to utilise before and I reveled in using them, storing the memories and feelings like precious artifacts to be restored at another time in the future.
Udaipur was beautiful. Exactly what I'd envisioned Rajasthan to be like - tall, narrow buildings protruding randomly into the atmosphere, countless temple spires peering out over the roof tops, small winding roads and dilapidated buildings, a multitude of traders calling urgently for your custom, an expansive, shimmering lake with floating palaces bobbing their heads out of the sun-lit liquid, women beating and bashing their clothes and sheets into cleanly submission on the lake ghats, and of course, an enormous, grandiose, towering Indian palace standing dignified and omniscient on the scape. During my short time there I packed as much as I could in, I met a multitude of brilliant people, and I felt the rush and vigour of being on the move and actually travelling surging through my body once more. On my one and only full day in Udaipur I hired a rickshaw driver and enjoyed my big day out with Billu! Billu was a dude of the highest order. A proud father of seven and a Udaipurian rickshaw veteran. I immediately took a shine to him. We journeyed to various places, and I greedily soaked up and papped the vibrant colours and radiant faces all around me. My favourite of all the stops was a small outdoor arts and crafts centre called Shilpgram, where many people perform and create their wares for passersby to see/buy/appreciate. I was drawn in by a group of 5 traditionally dressed Rajasthani musicians. Predominantly the draw was initiated by my new found love for turbans. They're brilliant. Especially the dazzlingly bright ones (neon green or yellow are the 'in' colours in Raj right now!) that are accompanied by outrageously bushy moustaches. I adore it! The Valley group of Shilgram were fine examples of such turban-flouting men. Like a bloodhound that has picked up a tantalising scent, I drifted towards the rich sounds they were producing. One man was playing an intriguing string instrument that belonged to the same family as the Sitar but was the size of a Viola and was played like a Cello (!?!?). The look and sound of it was fascinating and exotic. Also being played was a keyboard/accordian-type device, flat wooden percussion boards that are held in the hands and clapped together at great speed, drums and voices. Oh the voices! They were entrancing - effortlessly harmonising whilst belting out off-key, jagged notes that shouldn't have sounded good together but actually sounded like heaven. The powerful melodies flowed from their mouths, from their hearts, with such velocity and emotion that I found myself spontaneously beaming from ear to ear and holding my hand on my chest to attempt to calm my breathing. And looking into their warm, smiling eyes as they sang, an invitation piercing through me to join in, dance, dive into their magical musical world of colourful turbans, dusty rhythmic stamping, exotic fruits and delicious, confusing beats. They blew my socks off...took my breath away...and made my hairs stand on end.
Pushkar was my next destination and unfortunately brought about a flurry of bad luck for me. Firstly, the lake in Pushkar, the main event, the source of Full Power and the epi-centre of the town's activity...was dry. Due to poor monsoons and infections in the remaining water the lake was instead an expansive pit, with cows roaming through the scattered litter and small pools of green-tinged water. Secondly, I dropped my my beautiful new Tibetan pendant on a stone floor and broke it. Ouch. Thirdly, and worst of all, I lost my memory card containing all my photos from the past three months. Quite a blow to take, especially being on my lonesome, but regardless of my triple load of bad luck, Pushkar shone through to ensure that my time there was Shanti Shanti, Full Power, and packed to the brim with visual and musical delights. Pushkar, for me, was unlike any other place, in its relaxed aura, its community vibes and the peaceful and cheerful attitudes of the locals. It's a magnetic place and everyone I met had returned or intended to do so! As a result of losing my memory card I met a lovely group of people who worked or were staying at a place called U-Turn, a friendly guesthouse with a lively rooftop restaurant hosting lots of impromptu live music. Silver lining and all that! I ended up spending numerous precious moments with these people, including a trip to the family farmhouse of one of the guys who worked at U-Turn. The group of us all rode on scooters and bikes to the farmhouse, where we relaxed, swinging rhythmically underneath a magnificent white tree, looking out over the electric green fields of wheat, playing with the neighbours kids and the veritable zoo they had living there, and climbing the tree to watch the sunset through the leaves, surrounded by spindly, reaching branches. I watched the sun set that evening and then the next morning watched it rise, atop a towering hill that looked down over Pushkar. Gasping my way up the steep climb at 5.30am under the stars reminded me of Nepal trekking moments, but was a slight shock to my unprepared system! I was a little premature in my timings and so settled on a rock to witness the stars slowly disappearing to make room for the all-consuming sunshine that closed in on their shooting tails. The calm, diamond-blue sky soon enveloped the scape, so pure and peaceful and laced with long, white veils of tenuous fluff, flecked from below with golden texturising touches. As the sun crept closer and closer to the horizon, the colours developed into deep, rich, burnt reds, seducing the eye with its' temporary rouge before the sun peeked up over the mountain facing us, finally radiating its' beams over and into my chilly bones. Pushkar was no longer a twinkling expanse of night lights, but a gorgeous white city of interesting temples, buildings and the Lack (!), encased on all sides in deserted raw hinterland. Such an enchanting place to peer down on. On another day our little bike brigade trundled off to see a Baba called Alu Baba, a holy man who lives at a temple on the outskirts of Pushkar. He had come to be a surrogate parent to an orphaned baby monkey and we had heard about this and went to check it out. The monkey was so cute and so small, and had been trained to feed from a baby's milk bottle. It just sat there tipping the bottle up to drink from it and generally looking adorable! It wasn't so cute however when it peed on me! Apparently it's meant to be good luck but it just felt warm and damp...yuk!
U-Turn hosted the best music nights in town. Musicians of all shapes, sizes, races, nationalities and religion turned up to play their drums, sitars, flutes, guitars, saxophones, percussion and voices. One of the nights I stayed there, there was a big party, with the cosy rooftop packed full of people and vibes - there was dancing on the seats, whooping and whistling, cacophonous clapping, sporadic singing, booming drum beats and mystical melodies. No one could help from moving with the music and looking around the room, all faces inside it were happy and smiling. Full Power! During the night everyone joined in the atmosphere, in whatever way they wanted to... I sang, out loud, for the first time in forever and was so liberated by the feeling it brought to me. Not caring about what anybody was thinking, everyone just getting involved and going for it, regardless of ability or skill or perception. And I think that was the really resounding message emanating from Pushkar: just follow your heart, do as you will, and others will appreciate you for just being you.
A less than desirable Agra was my next stop and the marvellously majestic Taj Mahal. I awoke for the event early, intending to see the sunrise, but unfortunately the day happened to be the mistiest I'd ever known...you could barely see your hand in front of your face! I only had the morning to see it though so I plowed on, through the bone-chilling mist, waiting three hours for the Taj diva to show her hugely coveted white-marble body. Like a spoilt actress she hid even when you were stood right next to her walls, looking up expectantly but receiving no hint of a glimpse. A true performer - she had us all chomping at the bit! The shroud was unveiled at around 10 o' clock and as the eerie mist dissipated the long, cold wait became worth it. Such a magnificent building to behold amongst the now teeming crowds of people. The intricate carvings and precious stone inlays boasted years of dedication and commendable craftsmanship. The Taj houses a mausoleum containing the bodies of Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan, the brains behind the operation, and his beloved wife, Mumtaz Mahal, whom he built the building for after she died giving birth to their 14th child (poor woman!). The most impressive monument to love surely ever created.
Last stop for this humongous blog entry is Delhi and Daddy time! Dad had sneakily coordinated a business trip to coincide with my arrival in Delhi, and it was such a treat to see him. He put me and Sally up in a relatively luxurious hotel and we saw the sights of India's capital city from the comfort of a 4x4, chauffeur driven car (thanks to his work colleagues, Virinder and Nusrat)- just a slight difference to the standards of living we had gotten used to!! Delhi is a fume-fuelled, frantic, sprawling metropolis, lacking in character and allure. But seeing Dad was amazing. The first night we spent just the two of us before Sally arrived in Delhi the next day. It was Republic Day, a national holiday in India, and a celebration of how ruddy great the country is. Dad and I headed to India Gate where there had been a military procession, and strolled amongst the crowds of families hand in hand, soaking up the palpable patriotism in the air and gazing up at the beautifully lit India Gate monument and the presidential buildings. Such a gratifying feeling to see all those families and finally have my own there. A safety and warmth that only a Daddy can provide, seeping through our interlinked hands and surging over me. And there ends this entry!
Highlights since my last blog entry:
- Getting some much needed solitary time in beautiful Rajasthan. Proving to myself that I can do it!
- Singing in Pushkar...la de daaa dum de dum!
- Seeing my Dad in Delhi and being treated to a little luxury!