Only a few days passed since I arrived in India, but the pace is so fast here that I feel like I already have too much to write about. On arrival Delhi hits you hard. It hits all your senses at the same time: the smell, the hearing, the touch, the sight, the taste, the spice, the brain. You get a complete sensory overload right from the airport. And if you are an unlucky traveler like me and are not picked up from the airport by your hotel and it is a night time, then you can experience the whole list of schemes used for extracting money from travellers in one single taxi ride.
But let me start from the beginning.
I flew from Australia to Delhi on Thai airlines which had a stopover in Bangkok for over 12 hours and so I got out and explored Bangkok. The palaces and shrines in the old city of Bangkok are absolutely stunning and there are no words to describe their beauty. Maybe some pictures, but one should see this in real life. Crouds of tourists including large groups of russians roam around the palace grounds. The emerald buddha sits high up in the meditation pose and looks as if he is levitating in space. Golden domes, colourfull statues of warriors and gods. No words... In the evening I flew to Delhi, where I had booked a hotel in advance and was to be picked up from the airport by a pre-arranged car from hotel. To my big surprise there was no car waiting for me at the arrivals gate. I waited a bit, but as it was getting close to midnight, I decided to act on my own. So I got a taxi and bargained the price down to a reasonable 400 ruppies, which is about $9US. The driver said that he knows my hotel and will take me there - no problem.
Lesson #1: All drivers in Delhi will tell you they know the way even when they have no clue. Well, we got into the city and started driving in circles. The driver then said - since it is late night, the road to your hotel is closed for the night - no way to get there, but he can offer me another hotel. This is a well known scam described in the Loneley Planet and I was not about to fall for that. So I said he has to get me to my hotel. Then he said, he does not know how to get there, but we can check at the "goverment tourist office". Right :). This is the next scam - there are no goverment tourist offices working at that time, but there are a lot of those that pretend to be. They book you hotels, tickets, etc, but for a triple price and then get a hefty commission. But there was no option as I needed at least a map and was hoping to get it there. Well, in the "tourist office" they gave me a very warm welcome until I started insisting that the driver should take me to my hotel. Then we went into scam number 3. They said that I can call my hotel from their phone to find out the directions and reconfirm my arrival. Of course on the other end of the phone there is another guy who always says that there have been overbooking and that my room is given away. That was exactly what happened and luckily Loneley Planet prepared me for that as well. Meanwhile the driver started taking my things out of the car expecting me to give in and book with the "tourist office". But not so easily. I took my backpacks and started walking away telling him that I will not pay and will just walk if he does not take me where I want to go. That was a bit of a gamble on my side as the one thing you do not want to do is to go alone with all your things on a shoddy Delhi street in the middle of the night with only homeless and stray dogs lurking around.
But my actions had desired effect. First they said that it is not safe walking like that, but as I continued to walk away, the driver realized he is loosing his 400 ruppies and went for some real help. He quickly found the address of the hotel and in 5 minutes I was there. Lesson: Alway insist on your original destination/decision. Never give in to any kinds of touts, however nice they seem.
To my surprise, my room was indeed already occupied (but that is a coincidence as they never received any phone call from the "tourist office"). So this was a separate mess up - the owner of the hotel keeps two reservation books in parallel and forgot to copy my reservation from secondary into primary. That explained the no-show at the airport. They found a place for me to sleep and in the morning the owner was very apologetic. The hotel is very nice and I would stay there again and don't hold it agains them. The next morning I again had to move to a new hotel as there were no rooms in mine and I did not book in advance, but here owner helped me a lot, providing me with a car and driver and a few recommendations, all for free just to find a hotel. That did not take long and I finally started the proper sightseeing in Delhi.
To say that I did not like Delhi is to say nothing. The city is super noisy, super dirty, super polluted and worst of all - supper aggresive when it comes to dealing with foreigners. You are literally never left alone. Yuo cannot stop for a second - you are immediately surrounded by people trying to "help" you, but in reality, trying to extract money from you. There is a constant non-stop stream of "hello, sir", "where are you from, sir", "do you need a ticket booking, sir", "come with me, sir", and some literally grabn your hand and want to lead you away. I had been in third-world countries before. In South America, for example. Well... The worst of South America does not even come close to prepare you for Delhi. I cannot say that I was not having fun the first day. It was really interesting, but so exhausting and stressful, that the first thoughts were of leaving India right away and only understanding that this is a culture shock and that I will adapt and that other cities are much nicer kept me from going away. I will not go into describing the sights in Delhi. Actually, I was not too impresses and was probably too stressed out from just getting to and from the various places. But I learned to manage velo-rickshas and auto-rickshas pretty well by now. I spent in Delhi a couple of days and left for Rajastan - one of the most popular tourist destinations. Rajastan I a big state, mostly in the semi-desert area stretching west of Delhi all the way to Pakistan border. It is known for beautiful palaces, temples, camel safaris and other exotics. A train from Delhi took me to the caspital of Rajastan - Jaipur in about 5 hours and today spent my first day in Jaipur. I finally got lucky and found an excellent tuk-tuk driver Ali. Tuk-tuk is a three-wheeled motorcicle with a wide back seat - like a ricksha cart. They are noisy, they are crazy, they are everywhere and they are more efficient than cars when it comes to squeezing throught the city traffic. True people carriers.
Once again thanks to Loneley Planet, I found an excellent hotel in Jaipur, owned by 4 brothers. Family owned hotels usually called guest houses and usually are much nicer and friendlier than plain hotels. I got room with an outside terrace, private bathroom and hot water for a meager $11US. The brothers are very helpful and every time you walk out they remind you to be very carefull about buying stuff or getting to friendly with strangers. Buying is not on my agenda, but getting to know a bit about locals is, so while being very cautious, I still did not protest too much local friendliness. People are not as pushy in Jaipur as they are in Delhi and that was relaxing in comparission. They still call up to you, but a simpe "no" or a couple of "no"s usually suffice. Also, I think by the third day I have developed that proper facial expression and look, that fewer and fewer people try to hassle me offering services and stuff. Ali took me around town in the afternoonm of my arrival. He was the first autoricksha who spoke english very well and even could tell a few stories, make jokes and be very pleasant at the same time. I did not escape one visit to a shopping place, but instead of plain shop he took me to the factory where I could see little kids making beautifull saris and bedcovers and was even given a tour of the place. Of course in return I had to spend half and hour looking at various products, but that was fun I got to learn about materials and methods used and people again were not too pushy, albeit dissapointed that I did not buy anything. The interesting thing I learned from Ali is that rickshas get 50Rs (ruppies) from the shops to which they bring tourists regardless of whether tourists buy anything or not. This is the "marketing" expense of the shops and it makes for a great incentive for the autorickshas to take people into the shops. That allows them to quote some low price to the unsuspecting tourists for a "city tour" and then make a lot more from 4-5 shops to which they'll take them on the way. That was very honest of Ali to actually tell me the tricks of the trade. So for the next day a agreed for him to take me to a number of locations I wanted to visit and at 10:30 in the morning he arrived on time. This is where it got a bit strange. He claimed that he got some allergy and his nephew will take me insted. I chatted a bit to the nephew and decided to try. It went well and I was taken to the beautiful Amber Palace outside the city. The place has some mignificent mirror miosaics, fine marble carvings and is immence in size, with elephants taking tourists up the zigzaging road to the palace. I did not take an elephant as it was a bit to touristy and walked on my own with the common people.
After Amber palace and fort, I was taken to a few nice gardens and smaller temples - very peacefull and beautiful, but not mentioned in the guidebooks so I was the only foreigner in these places. The last place I wanted to visit is called Monkey Temple and is located just 2km outside the city. I got there at about 1pm and have not noticed how the time passed until I realized it's already almost 5pm. The place definitely has some magical powers. First you walk up about 100m to the high "Sun Temple". There a monk put a safron spot on my forehead and explained a few things about the temple. After I proceded over the hill to what is known in the tourist guides as a Monkey Temple. Well.. This is much more than just a monkey temple. Situated in a very narrow gorge between broken up red basalt and limestone cliffs is a collection of elegant buildings/structures/temples, with flowing water and beautiful basins (separate for women and for men) cascading down to the main area with a garden and a couple of shrines and ashrams for meditation. There were no foreigners again and only some schoolchildren with their teacher and the local inhabitants with a few casual indian visitors around. I made good friends with the schoolchildren - all smiling, laughing, happy to be there, happy to meet someone from Russia. We took a few pictures together and then enjoied looking at them on my digital camera. They all wanted to see their faces and were showing themselves to each other. Later I met Dinesh - the guy who oversees the whole area of ashrams and temples. He used to own a good business, but quit his job to volonteer for the temple. There are meditation classes there and hindu classes there. As we spoke he he mentioned that hi has a digital camera that he does not know how to use as he lost the manual. We went to his small and simple room and he pulled out a nice modern Cannon on which indeed a few setting were off. His daugther lives in New Jersey and send him the camera. I fixed the setting and explained him the tricks. In return I got an interesting lecture about the place. It exists for 500 years and in one place he showed me the fire that has never died in 500 years. The monks keep it burning all the time. There is a cave in the mountain with entrance now enclosed in a small temple, where one of the famous hindu authors and gurus spend years in meditation eating and drinking nothing but plain milk. I followed Dinesh's suggestion to spend some time alone trying to meditate in the cave. According to the legend, this mountain and the area contains some high "good" energy. I do not know about that, but I can only say that even though I only ate a small breakfast early in the morning, it was only when I left the area at almost 5pm, that I realised that I did not eat or dring anything the whole day. I stop by another temple on the way - a temple to Ganesha's mother - I forgot her name and got another intreresting lecture and another spot on the forehead - this time from the ash of the fire burning in fron of the temple. Interestingly, after I got those spots, people started looking at me quite differently and I has not been hassled even once, until I washed them off later in the evening. But what about the monkeys? Monkey are there - lot's of them. They came later in the day and were running around, scratching themselves, playing, eating and looking quite at home and happy. There is a temple there that worships monkeys as well. One little monkey was amasing - it would jump into the pool and try to swim. It did not swim too well and sometimes had abvious trouble. But it kept on trying. It was quite young. Other monkeys looked at it with an obvious expression of disbelieve and disapproval on their faces. The definitely thought that this monkey is crazy. Are monkeys known to swim? This is the first time I saw a heard anything like that.
I think this place was the best I visited in India so far. The tranquility, the beauty, the spirituality and the exotics all came together in a perfect balance there. Actually Dinesh offered me a room to stay there and live for a few days. No pay - just work with others to keep up the temple and meditate and learn with others. Maybe I'll take him on the offer if I come to Jaipur again. But I want to see a bit moreof India before stopping. This would be a perfect place to rest, though.
In the evening on the way back my autoricksha mentioned that his boss is going to the city of Pushkar tomorrow and that's where I wanted to go too. So I met his "boss" who is in the jewelery business. A nice young guy and he invited me to an traditional indian wedding of his friend that was happening this evening. This is the season of weddings in Rajastan and they are everywhere. So I cautiously accepted.
I will tell you about the wedding in the next note, as I have to run and catch a bus that will take me to Pushkar. (the boss was not going to Pushkar after all, but I still got to see the wedding) I'm getting used to India and I'm beginning to understand what I want and what I do not want to do and see in this amazing country.
Till next time,