Travels with John Smith
Chapter 44 year 6 (2017)
Golden Triangle, India
-Sikh temple is cooking
-new friend Maninder
-the Emperor and his wives
-Pink Palace of wind
-the women of Amber Fort
-mad ride to the Mosque
-using the bag in the plane
Travels with John Smith
Chapter 44 year 6 (2017)
Golden Triangle, India
We walk into a huge kitchen full of giant pots full of curry, lentils, rice and chapattis cooking on flat grills. Steam rises from every pot and the room bustles with the colour of turbans and head scarves as the volunteers of every age peel vegetables, squeeze lemons, stir pots, knead dough and flip chapattis. It is a Sunday and the Sikh temple is packed with visitors and everyone who wants a meal will get one, free of charge. In fact, anyone who needs a meal can come here 24 hours a day and receive one. We walk past a room full of people sitting on the floor with trays in front of them. When they are finished their meals, they will leave and the space will be filled with the next group waiting to come in. The volunteers who work here believe in helping others and whole families show up to put in their time.
John and I take a turn at stirring the huge pot of curry that is bubbling away and I feel like a wimp! Moving a stick that is taller than we are in a circular motion is difficult, even for the short time we do it. It is also very hot and despite this, people look up from their work to smile and say hello.
Our guide Maninder is a Sikh and he says during the week it’s not quite as busy as a Sunday. He takes us to the storage room, where people come to donate food or money. There is a man sitting at a table writing everything that comes in, into a large book. The walls and floors are lined with industrial bags of rice and piles of food that are as tall as the ceiling. All this food will be sorted and dealt with by other volunteers.
We walk around the temple upstairs where there are 3 musicians playing, singing and reciting from their holy book. Maninder says the book is taken from it’s protective place every morning and put back there in the evenings, when it is ‘put to bed’. He suggests we pray for something we really want when we pass by the book and it will come true. I forget to do this as getting through the room and past the hordes of people seems more important in this moment.
We get past and outside, there is a lineup to receive a drink of holy water and Maninder says this water will cure everything, including Delhi Belly. I am a little worried it might causeDelhi Belly but join in the positive vibe of the moment.
There is a huge kind of swimming pool outside, that people are taking a dip in. It looks inviting since it’s about 41C today but we decide to go check out the next thing on the agenda instead.
We arrived yesterday after a very long journey, as we had an 8 hour wait in Guangzhou, after leaving Wuhan quite late and then another 7 hour flight, so didn’t get much sleep.
Our driver, Mr Imran picked us up from the airport and took us to the hotel after a lengthy drive through the city, stopping at the Tour place so we could pay the balance of what we owed for the ‘deluxe’ tour we booked online.
After giving us a long speech about all the things we should watch out for if we stepped out of the hotel; telling us not to talk to or follow anyone, and informing us that tourists have been robbed, raped and worse, we decided to stay in as we were very tired anyway.
We were also very hungry and there is a great restaurant in the hotel, where we had our 1st delicious Indian food. After watching a family of hawks swooping back and forth in front of their nest in a big tree on the street, we went straight to bed about 5pm.
We slept through the night and woke up early. As we waited for our driver to come, we watched a woman come out of a kind of shack on the rooftop of the apartment building across the street from our hotel. She walked back and forth on the rooftop while brushing her teeth for about 20 minutes and it became clear she had a routine that involved combining teeth hygiene and exercise.
On the top of another building directly across from the hotel, a man took a shower using a hose on the side of his rooftop shack and then dressed himself as the sun began to warm the city.
Another man appeared from under a piece of corrugated tin leaning against a pile of bricks on the rooftop next to that one and began talking on what looked like a mobile phone.
Mr Imran came up the stairs into our hotel accompanied by Maninder, who he introduced as our guide. We liked him instantly as he greeted us with a beaming smile and a friendly, relaxed manner. We noticed his turban was the same sienna yellow as his shirt and he laughed and said he always wore matching turbans to his shirts. He then proceeded to show us pictures of him in matching outfits, he says his wife chooses for him. We found out he was national cricket player in the past and he is full of interesting stories including wonderful memories of the village where he was brought up in Kashmir. We felt like we had met a new friend.
We drove through the city, passing goats hanging out on corners, horses laden with goods, meandering along the street beside tuk tuks on the busy roads and cows weaving calmly alongside and in and out of the traffic.
There were some uncomfortable moments while sitting in our air conditioned car at stop lights, while beggars tapped on our windows, trying to get us to open them and our wallets. It is heartbreaking seeing so much poverty and I also noticed some of them before they noticed me, while they were sitting together laughing on the side of the road. As soon as they saw the foreigners, their faces and manners changed to despair as they passed a baby around like a prop to hold and looked forlornly into the window, while miming feeding themselves and the baby.
This is of course one of the things people say before you come to India; nothing can prepare you for some of the misery you will see and most of the posts online warning about various scams say do not give money to children/beggars as most of them are either in some kind of gang so they won’t actually get the money themselves but also they see begging as easier than working so it is actually encouraging them not to work/go to school, etc. They say the babies are actually borrowed/rented from their mothers and drugged so they are sleeping and that some of the organized gangs kidnap the children that work for them and they sometimes maim or blind them as they will get more money that way. They say tourists are perpetuating abuse as, if there is no gain, there will no longer be the human trafficking. They also say that by giving money you are also adding to their shame and loss of dignity and so on.
All that said, I feel guilty and torn as we are more fortunate than they are but I also know that we are seen as an easy target. We take our lead from Mr Imran and Maninder and most of the time they avoid eye contact, looking straight ahead.
We drive slowly through a market that Maninder calls ‘Thieves Market’ as he says everything here has “fallen off the back of a truck”. There are crowds of people, squatting on the ground in front of piles of famous brand running shoes, jeans, T shirts, etc.
We go to the Jama Masjid Mosque, then take a tour through old Delhi which is fairly quiet due to it being a Sunday, but we see street venders and many people on bicycles carrying loads more suited for trucks. We visit a small but busy Tea shop that had amazing mixtures of tea beautifully packaged, including some that will help a man ‘stay awake’.
They spread out different qualities of carpets (Wool, silk, cashmere) and ask us to walk on them barefoot. We touch and look from every angle. They offer us a delicious tea, they say comes from Kashmir, while we decide. There is a dizzyingly confusing amount of carpet on the floor so I leave the room to clear my head. I come back and choose the carpet that appeals to me the most and luckily, it’s the same one John chose.
We are in a place where families who are refugees from Kashmir are selling hand woven carpets and various other things. Maninder says there are many places where you can buy the carpets from Kashmir but they are government owned. He says this family has a long tradition of doing this work, handed down from generation to generation.
The sun is glowing low in the sky now, and after seeing more markets, historic buildings and sites, we are on our way back to the hotel. We drive past a park that Maninder says he brings his family to for picnics, and we see a young woman sitting cross legged in the middle of the road, on her phone. Maninder is in the middle of a story and does a double take. It is the 1st time he has done this today, despite seeing many things we consider strange and he says “There is a girl sitting in the middle of the road!” We all laugh at the idea he would see something he is actually surprised by.
We pass golden fields with small straw buildings that look like the straw house the 1st little piggy built, in the story ‘The 3 little pigs’. I try to catch a picture but the train is moving too fast. The buildings are round with a pointy hat kind of roof. John says they are not buildings but probably grain bins. In the towns, we pass women carrying gigantic bundles on their heads and cows congregating in the copious garbage alongside the tracks.
In some places there are small brick huts backed on to or on the side of the tracks, and we see people sitting on haunches playing board games, children playing cricket or women sweeping the dust.
This morning our driver dropped us in front of the station with instructions not to talk to or show anyone our ticket until we were inside the station. We are in the 1st class cabin, which is a little worn, but there are friendly young men and women serving us meals and snacks, like on a plane. I preordered the meals when we booked the tour and decided it was safer to go vegetarian and they aren’t too bad.
We are walking through a darkened gate and on the other side, we can see shining white marble in the sunshine, surrounded by bright blue skies. It is the building that was commissioned as a final resting place/tomb for the emperor Shah Jahan’s favourite wife, Mumtaz Mahal. It is what we have come to see.
The Taj Mahal is considered to be one of the 7 modern wonders of the world and a ‘jewel of Muslim art in India’. If it had been built today, it would cost approx. $830 million dollars. Some of the precious and semi precious stones in the intricate marble inlay are sapphires, jade, turquoise and blue lapis lazuli. It is exquisite. A symbol of love.
We are taken by our Agra guide to a couple other places including the Agra Fort, a red sandstone ‘sister’ to the Taj Mahal, which was the main residence of the emperors of Mughal Dynasty when Agra, not Delhi was the capital of India.
Shah Jahan (the guy who built the Taj Mahal, and also rebuilt this fort) was deposed and detained here at the end of his life by one of his sons. There is a room here with a view of the Taj Mahal from one of the balconies, where they say he spent his last days, looking at the place he would be buried.
We go to a place where the speciality is the beautiful inlay we saw at the Taj Mahal and after admiring the handiwork there, we decide to cut the rest of the day and go back to our beautiful hotel ( which is like a modern palace, so we want to enjoy it).
We also do not feel that close with the guide we have today and we have already seen what we came to Agra for. We lay by the pool in the shade and the temperature drops from 44 degrees Celsius to about 38 degrees Celsius. It is nice to relax in this Oasis and we wish we could stay here longer but we are starting again early in the morning.
We decide to watch a movie on TV after dinner and ‘Slum-dog Millionaire’ is on! It’s been a while since I’ve seen it and it’s perfect timing because a lot of the scams we have been told to watch out for, and have seen, are in the movie.
We pass tuk tuks that normally hold 2 people with 6 to 8 people in them. We see trucks with boys and men packed into the back, feet swinging off the end or from the side, on their way to work. There are 2 story junk yards of stacked cars left to rot on the side of the road, carts with large heavy bags pulled by donkeys and cows sitting in the shade or eating the garbage. There are carts filled with large round cow dung patties, which will be used as fuel and motorbikes with 5 to 6 people pressed tightly together or loads precariously balanced on the back.
We are on our way to Fatehpur Sikri. It is another palace city made from sandstone. It was built by Akbar (who was Shah Jahan’s Grandpa and a Mughal Emperor). There are mixtures of different kinds of architecture beautifully combined. The local speciality here is rock carving and there are some gorgeous examples of it here.
We have a different guide today and he is a nice young man who is telling us lots of stories about the court and how the Emperor would deal with his wives of differing religions; How he would be in his bedchamber and one of his wives would be led in, via a passage which only she would use. His bed would of been on a raised stone platform (approx 6 or 7 feet off the floor). There was a small walkway and stairs on the inside of and around the walls, leading up to it. In the summer, when the weather was hot, cool water with fragrant flower petals in it would fill the bottom of the room.
We also visited the wives individual chambers and there is a distinct difference in how they would be arranged or decorated. I particularly like the Muslim wife’s room; when inhabited, small candles would sit in the oval and star shaped cubby holes inside the walls. There is a gorgeous pattern of cut stonework on the ceiling and above and on the archway of the door. The latticework pattern allows a cool breeze to blow through, like air-conditioning..
We visit the young man’s uncle’s shop on the way out as he says they are expert stone cutters. There are some things he says he made himself, though he admits he is still learning. We buy a couple of small things and are on our way.
A man with a white military blazer is wrapping 9 metres of red cloth around his head to make a turban. It takes him 1 minute and 15 seconds. We take our picture with him and our guide tells us how much we should tip him.
The guy who showed us the making of his turban was friendly and cheerful. 2 minutes later, 2 guards ask if we want our picture with them and embarrassed to say no, we oblige but these 2 are devoid of friendliness. They are clearly bored with the process and don’t even bother to smile or make any small talk at all so we give them a tip and move on.
We are inside the Hawa Mahal (Palace of Wind) in Jaipur. The outside looks like a large pink pipe organ. This 5 story building was designed to look like Krishna’s crown . He is a Hindu God. There are over 900 small windows on this side and originally, the lattice on the outside of the windows was to allow the ladies (the wives and women of the harem) to look at life on the street below without being seen themselves. In those days, there was a practice called purdah, where the women had to cover their faces, unless they were in the company of other women or the men in their family. This area is called the pink city as many of the buildings are made from red and pink sandstone.
Inside the walls of the palace is a garden/ courtyard with a fountain and on three sides surrounding the garden, are the chambers of the harem. There are beautiful arches covered in mosaic peacocks and a museum that is open to the public, where the guards make some of their money posing with tourists.
Our guide, who’s name is Krishna, is full of stories about the royals who have lived in this place and shows us the flag hanging from the part of the Palace that is still inhabited by the current Maharajah (who is apparently studying in Switzerland or somewhere). He says the flag is at half mast which means the Maharajah is here(in the city) right now. As he is telling us this, a dark car, with dark windows drives past and he becomes very excited, saying “It’s him!”
We see pictures of the various Maharajahs, 2 of whom were not born emperors (they were adopted because the Maharajah at the time had no male heirs). One of them looks like John Lennon with small round glasses. The other one is quite handsome and looks like a movie star, often pictured in his polo gear with his horse. There are pictures of him and a beautiful woman who the guide says was his 3rd and favourite wife. Krishna says she became important for women and politics in India. I see a book in the bookstore written by her, called ‘A Princess Remembers’ so I buy it to find out more.
Krishna asks if we want to see the ‘weapons room’ and I am not sure I am interested but follow John and him upstairs anyway. As much as I am not really a fan of weaponry, I am blown away by some of the beautiful objects in that room; Daggers with the entire handles made from jade, quartz and ruby, every kind of metal and shape of sword with jewels embedded in the handles, guns that have knives and shoot bullets at the same time, and intricate shields made from silver, etc. It is like looking at jewelry that could kill.
We go to a place where they make hand dyed fabric and the same thing happens as with all the other places where there is a speciality. They lay out beautiful fabrics, starting with the cheapest, which is cotton and end with embroidered silk.
On our way to Amber Fort, we see many camels on the side of the road and elephants with coloured paint on them. We visit a Hindu temple (where the priest’s bed is in one of the alcoves in the main room of the temple. On the outside of the temple, little Kama Sutra figures carved in stone decorate some of the pillars. In the village, where the temple is, there is an ancient baths/stone swimming pool that had 5 stories of steps leading down to it.
Amber fort follows the general idea of the other palaces and forts; with separate quarters for the women of the royal household in purdah, a garden in the centre of each courtyard (in this one there are 4). The fourth courtyard is where the Zenana (Royal family women, including mistresses or concubines)lived. The rooms of the women all opened to a common corridor that the king would use when he visited one of the women, without any of them knowing who he was visiting.
Right now, we are in my favourite place of everything we have seen so far; the mirror palace or Sheesh Mahal, which is a room or a quarters that has walls and ceilings made from mirror mosaics and coloured glass/foil. It is designed to look like a jewel box glittering in the candle light.
There are musicians playing traditional Indian instruments and I pretend to be in a Bollywood movie and dance with some young people that asked to take their picture with us earlier. I hear a stringed instrument and see a man with eyes that are the colour of his skin but also seem transparent. He is playing a 3 stringed instrument with a bow, that has small bells on it. He is dressed in a white and red traditional outfit with a red turban, singing what sounds like an Indian folk song. He lets me try to play the instrument but I hand it back after a dismal try and try to sing with him instead. .
We weave our way through the small streets, avoiding the many cows that seem to be wandering aimlessly down the streets. We were told that the cows all over India belong to people, and morning, they are let out and they visit various houses. The people who live there touch them on the forehead (this is akin to touching God in the Hindu religion) and give them food. And that is their day; going from place to place, getting food, including perusing the many garbage dumps as we have seen. We heard that this practice is killing them due to plastic bags they ingest. When they are not eating, they are trying to find a place to rest in the shade.
We are in the town of Pushkar and we are standing on the steps that lead down to the water (similar to pictures of the Ganges), where people are bathing. This is a holy city and we have been told that no one will bother us with trying to get money or pick pocketing, etc. We arrived this morning and the hotel we are staying in is full of charm, with dark wooden colonial furniture, including 4 poster beds, fans and light switches that look like they come from the 1940’s.
There is a beautiful garden in the centre of the hotel and a rooftop garden and long balconies in front of the rooms overlooking the water where the bathing and chanting happen. There is a cute little restaurant where we didn’t bother looking at the menu and when the waiter came, dressed in a traditional high collared white shirt and orange turban, I asked for a cauliflower dish and John asked for chicken. The waiter smiled and said “We have no meat on the menu. There is no meat in the entire town.“
Right now, we are in a tuktuk travelling at top speed up an extremely narrow street. Our driver has a Johnny Cash T-shirt on and he is beeping his horn like crazy as the people we pass are forced flat against the wall to avoid being clipped by the vehicle. Every second we narrowly miss a person or solid thing along the route and it is a little scary. The people we pass are inches away from out faces and stare directly into our faces. One woman, amused at the look on my face actually reaches in the carriage and pats my cheek as we pass her. As we get closer to the top, there are more and more people, mostly men with little white caps and long tunics.
The women’s heads and bodies are covered. Soon we cannot go forward as there is simply no where for the people to go to get out of our way. There are beggars sitting and standing, lining the walls, with their hands, palms facing upward. They push forward to ask anyone that passes for money but especially any foreigners and at this moment we are the only ones. I have already covered my head with my scarf and my arms and legs are covered so am extremely hot in this 40 degree closed airless hallway leading to the Muslim temple. We are edging forward with small steps, carried by the crowd, trying to avoid eye contact with the many beggars closing in. There is a steady stream of people, still mostly men coming out of the doorway where we must somehow find a spot to remove our shoes. I have been feeling unwell most of the day and simply do not have the energy to go further.
Our guide has somehow forgotten that this is probably the worst time (at Friday prayer) to visit this mosque and even though we have repeated several times that we cannot miss our train (which leaves in an hour), I cannot see how we can get to the door, take off the shoes, pay them, walk around the temple and get back in the tuk tuk, go down the hill (it took about 15-20 min to get up), find the car (where our luggage is), and drive the rest of the way to the train station. He insisted we would have enough time but we are clearly not in control with how much time this has already taken. I confer with John and he is thinking the same thing. He says the tuk tuk ride was worth the money so we have already had a small thrill. We would rather be a little early for the train. We have a 7 hour journey ahead of us and this is our last day in India so we have seen enough holy buildings to last a lifetime. We have experienced the many faces of India; The spiritual, the friendly, the giving, the scams, the tolerance, the humour, the openness, the tradition, etc. John says India is like China on acid.
The plane is travelling down the runway when I feel it coming. I cannot wait. I grab the bag from the back of the seat, in case I don’t make it and run down the aisle to the back of the plane. The washroom is locked. I run to the other one. The stewardess is about to tell me to go back to my seat but I manage to mumble ‘I’m going to be sick!” I jump inside, half close the door behind me and it all comes. I quickly flush, wipe my hands and sit in the 1st empty seat I see, buckling up in one swift move, just as the plane is lifting off.