Sunday, 29 August 2010

Pushkar in the monsoon

Does anyone bother to visit Rajasthan in the monsoon? You should. When it's been raining solidly for six-odd weeks, as it has been, Rajasthan sheds its dusty dry desert skin and grows a dense, lush, green new covering. Rather than choking on dustballs, it's so humid you could chew the air. Last November Pushkar was so dry the famous lake was little more than a few desolate puddles; in August it was full to the brim again.

Just a day and a half after returning to Delhi from Ranikhet a couple of weeks ago, I was back on another overnight train to Ajmer, the town adjoining Pushkar, to review a resort on the outskirts of town. I had planned to sleep, swim, play on the internet while sipping g&ts and go for long walks. Instead, it rained incessantly, the internet was not accessible on my Mac, and the hotel had me on a schedule: a tour of the town, dinner with the owners, an early morning camel ride, an ayurvedic massage. So instead of reading the New York Times online, posting photos of myself by the pool on Facebook and writing bits and pieces, I actually did stuff.

This was my camel. He kept arching his neck back in a scary double-jointed manner to swat away the flies.

The ride went for a good hour and a half: I was well and truly over it halfway through and tempted to get down and walk, but didn't want to appear a wuss. Already, my travelling companions - two hotel workers - had laughed long and loud at me after I screamed when the camel stood up.

Because of my reaction, they'd opted to stick to the gravel rather than head for the off-road sands, because that is where camels can run free and wild.

After the massage there was another run into Pushkar town, mainly because I wanted to revisit this stall near the temple:

It sold nothing but rose petal products: rose water, rose perfume, rose cordial and most of all, rose petal jam, or gulkand, which helps reduce body heat. It is also so sweet it makes your eyes water.

And then, finally, it was g&t time by the pool, listening to the peacocks cry and watching the sun go down behind the hills.

The GreenHouse Resort

Kishanpura Rd, Village Tilora

Pushkar, Rajasthan

ph: +91 (0) 145 2300079

Monday, 23 August 2010

Back to the hills: Ranikhet

(I wrote this two weeks ago but am very tardy in posting)

Blue skies are rare in Delhi; usually the sky is glaringly white, or raincloud gray.

Here in Ranikhet, a town in the foothills of the Himalayas, I am sitting on a swing on a balcony overlookinwg manga cartoon-green hills and valleys, under a beautiful blue sky.

It is paradisical. Butterflies keep fluttering past, occasionally joined by a dragonfly or three. There's a gentle breeze. Out in the distance, fluffy low-lying clouds hug the tops of distant mountains. The air is scented with pinecones and deodar. The only sounds are of birdsong and rustling leaves (discounting the tinny Bollywood muzak wafting from the restaurant).

And it's all so, so clean.

I'm here, in this garrison army town in the state of Uttatranchal, on an icebreaker long weekend with a class I'll be teaching. For many of the kids (although they're postgrad, in their early 20s) it's their first trip to the hills. Some have rarely ventured outside Delhi. They keep calling me ma'am, like my maid. I now tell them, "Please don't call me ma'am, call me by my first name." They say, "Yes, of course, ma'am."

It is, without doubt, the loveliest place I've visited in the Himalayas so far, and quite probably the best in India. The hotel we're staying - Woodsvilla Resort - is a bit out of town so is fairly quiet and isolated, although there's a cafe serving filter coffee about a 10-minute walk away.

You have to understand, finding a well-dressed cafe serving half-decent coffee in a small, rather remote place like this is like finding a clean toilet at a dhaba, or an anti-corruption agitator on the Commonwealth Games organising committee.

Saturday, 21 August 2010

Transport woes and monsoon lows

I don't have a car, and get about by autorickshaw most of the time, occasionally in taxis or when kind friends ferry me about. I don't love autos, but I deal with them, somehow. Now, in the midst of a patch of particularly heavy monsoonal rains, it's really quite tiresome. Last week, while holding a pile of heavy textbooks, my laptop and various other accoutrements, I waited for an hour and a half for an available and willing auto to take me home, part of that time in the rain.

Autos in Delhi are difficult. Rickshaw drivers operate on very narrow margins: most pay high vehicle rents (because there are a finite number of auto licenses in the city) and make 300 rupees on a good day ($US6.50). As a result, there is an inevitable haggle over the price: they often ask for two to three times (or more if I'm with a firangi) what the meter will show. Now that might be fun if you're a visitor to India, a prelude to taking a turn at the wheel yourself, but believe me, three times a day is not fun.

Taxis are also difficult. You won't see them out on the street like in Bombay, usually you have to find a taxi stand, haggle a price, and then be prepared to pay an extra 20 percent for air conditioning. They will tell you the meter is not working, or there is an extra charge for "luggage" (your laptop bag).

Meru Cabs (AC, compulsory meters, clean, often English-speaking drivers) are a godsend (as are all the other so-called radio cabs) but you have to call and book, and often, particularly during these rainy days, they are booked out.

We have a driver with his own car on speed dial, whom we use regularly and have always had a great relationship with. He works full-time for an American woman who is often out of town, so he moonlights for us and others. He is great, entertaining and trustworthy, but sometimes his juggling act wears thin.

Like today. Despite having booked him many weeks ago for a Very Important Airport Pickup, he admitted yesterday his employer, who is abroad, had demanded he drive a friend around. Never mind that said friend is on an expat package, has her own car and driver and is perfectly capable of arranging her own transport, this woman blithely disregarded any notion that her charge might have made other arrangements for some extra cash.

It was the second time in a week she'd done it. Earlier he'd had a full day's work that he'd had to turn down because she had him do an airport pickup for a friend.

Later, when Jason saw him, this proud, strapping, Punjabi Sikh was in tears.

Of course, he is on her time, her dime. But if she is out of town, is it not okay for him to make some extra money on the side? She pays him 30,000 rupees per month, or around $US650. Apart from car repayments, he has a wife, a mother, five children, an alcoholic brother and his children to support. Who needs more help - his family, or her spoilt expat friends?

I'll tell you who - almost - lost out in today's equation, me. I convinced him to squeeze in my job, and we went to the airport to pick up my aging parents - my father is not a well man, just a few days out of hospital in London and with a dangerously infected diabetic foot. The rain was pelting down, the roads were swamped, in some places knee high, causing major traffic snarls. Inside the car, the temperature and stress levels were rising: would my driver have time to do my airport run and be on time for Spoilt Expat Friend? He then said, please get another taxi from the airport, I have to leave after we get there.

No amount of pleading, cajoling, even blackmailing from me could get him to change his mind.

At the airport I slammed the door and stomped off, umbrella aloft, and after finding my parents joined the long line for the pre-paid taxi booth. Shortly after, however, my cabbie had a change of heart, and took us home, racing off immediately so he could still make his other appointment.

So while I got what I wanted, the whole incident has just left a bad taste in my mouth. His employer leaves Delhi in a month, after which he is without a regular income, but until then he is beholden to her and her complete and utter lack of understanding and empathy. On the flipside, while I want him to do the best for himself and his family, I feel like my needs were not met. I am quite happy other times to do what it takes to help him out - whether it means hopping out of the car and into another waiting taxi so he can do another job, but there are times when I really need reliability.

I think the answer is to get a car and join the motoring fray.

Wednesday, 18 August 2010

The Pushkar camel fair

I visited Pushkar last year for the annual camel fair; by the time my group arrived the camel trading had wound up and all the villagers who'd descended upon the town were intent on just having good clean fun while spending all the money they'd made on the camels.

Then, in early November, Pushkar was dry and dusty, the famous lake nothing more than a few desolate puddles. Nothing at all like the Buddha eye it is famed to represent.

But the light was incredible: a soft pinky sheen that turned the desert sands a rosy colour.

I've just spent the past week travelling: first to the foothills of the Himalayas, then back to Pushkar. All my grand plans to blog from location were scuppered by a lack of a reliable interweb connection. I can't wait for the day when air will be wired.

Monday, 16 August 2010

Monsoon Weeding

Moonsoon Weeding was the title of a pirate DVD I bought in Sydney. I bought it and kept it, even though it didn't work, tickled by the syntax error in the title, picturing gardeners hard at work in the moonlit rain.

It's monsoon season here in Delhi. We were here for monsoon last year, but it was paltry, just a couple of days of downpour and then all over. This year it's on for young and old - and the weather bureau says rainfall will be roughly seven percent above average and that the monsoon will last longer.

Skies are grey and my hair is going crazy in these days of 97% humidity, but it's great: fresh and clean and damp, and under 30 degrees. Even when it's still relatively hot, it's still a treat to sit inside, tea in hand, listening to the rain thundering on the roof.

(photos: Jason Staines)

Friday, 6 August 2010

How to pack for a train trip in India

There is a single, salient truth about train travel in India: the further you are from the toilet, the better. That's why I always dance a little jig whenever I find that I am positioned close to the middle of the carriage.

Train travel here is a fine art. Those who've been doing it since childhood have it all figured out and know all the quirks: when a waitlisted ticket will definitely get confirmed, how to get the best seats, which trains are better than others. After perhaps 8 or 10 train journeys I'm slowly getting to know things. First rule of train travel: don't go to the toilet. The trip is far smoother if you don't. That might mean sipping rather than drinking water for the duration of the journey, but trust me on this one.

Another is how to pack. What you don't pack is as important as what you do - particularly as I sleep almost on top of my bag for safety.

I have a few short trips coming up in coming weeks so am doing a master pack now that I will then hone for each trip. I'm a bit loath to do a packing post - particularly after watching one such video post by a blogger I had previously admired, in which her key bit of advice was to pack a toothbrush.

But this may well turn up in Google searches and people probably do want to know - so here goes.

Silk sarong: this is an indispensible travel item regardless, but particularly useful on overnighting Indian trains. The sheets might be fresh and clean but still, I like a barrier. It's a sheet, a pillow, a pillowcase, a towel, a scarf, a shawl. It can also be a skirt, a tablecloth, a napkin, a veil or a blankie if you must. Three months backpacking in Greece when I was 21 introduced me to the many and varied uses of a sarong. I got mine a few years later in Goa, and it's been my travel staple ever since.

Book: the lighter the better. Forget India After Gandhi, you will curse it as you struggle through tight corridors and slender doorways. My ideal train read would be something light-spined but meaty, say a Penguin Classic such as Evelyn Waugh's Scoop. However a review of Frank Gardner's latest is due next week, so that's what's in my bag.

Earplugs: Sod's law means you will always end up in the compartment with a snorer.

Tripod (optional): To combat the above menace, a camera tripod can - and has - been used, with minimal force of course, to gently prod the snoree into remembering to roll over.

Spray fragrance: The carriages might be old and rickety but they're usually clean and, if you're away from the toilet, olefactorily neutral. Nevertheless it is nice to be reminded that nice scents do exist. I usually carry Caudalie's Eau de Beaute, which doubles as a face spray, but it was recently nicked by my evil maid.

iPod/iPhone (optional): If you have one. I don't. I hate anyone who does.

Toilet paper: for if you really must venture that way.

Soap, hand sanitiser, other toiletries: I don't need to tell you this. Surely y'all know to bring a toothbrush.

Wednesday, 4 August 2010

Art from Cochin, Kerala

Cochin (or Kochi) is emerging as a bit of an art hub: just like Soho or Wollahra, but without the jaw-dropping prices, stark white walls, carefully tilted lighting, gallerinas and having to pretend you understand the meaning of, say, a sculpture made out of jelly babies. Rather, you'll find art on cafe walls, piles and stacks in the back rooms of shops, and in modest galleries in the back streets of Jewtown.

Last year while in Cochin, we were in a cafe watching the rain bucketing down and drinking tea when we struck up a conversation with the owners. Did we want plantation-fresh vanilla beans? Were we interested in checking out some art? Yes and yes, so upstairs we went. There, we found ourselves in a capacious room flooded with natural light, in amongst hundreds of paintings and drawings.

Immediately I was drawn to this one:

It shows camels at a beauty contest. I liked the bright colours, the expressions on their faces, the scale and the detail. It's by a local artist called Appu Vennikkal, who also painted another canvas of big bright green leaves, a single pink flower and a girl's face in the corner, that I was also drawn to.

Jason hated it.

His choice?

One of a series of moody oils of rickshaw-studded streetscapes. I am such an art novice I didn't even think to write down the name of the artist.

We spent two days working our way through this room and another showroom owned by the same people, but kept coming back to these two paintings.

Now, they're hanging in our flat. Visitors tend to gravitate towards Jason's painting, politely murmuring "yes it's very interesting" when I ask if they like the camels, but I still love it. Even Jason came round, eventually.

Darshan Art Cafe
6/74 Jewtown, Cochin
0091-484-2222544 / 098474 78882

Then there's...

We stayed at Malabar House (an anniversary blowout)

Another hotel is the Brunton Boatyard, which has a great restaurant with an outdoor section that's right on the water.

Years ago I ate dinner in a gorgeous little cobblestone courtyard restaurant and never forgot it, and this time went around Cochin describing it, hoping to find it again. Naturally, it turned out to be called The Old Courtyard.

Monday, 2 August 2010

In Search of Delhi's last Blue Potter

It suits to go into Old Delhi with a mission. Why else would one bother to venture into that teeming squalid tangle of tiny lanes? For fun? For the pleasure of eating a deep-fried parantha cooked on the street at Parantha Wali Gali, in the midst of millions of invisible flecks of flying fecal matter? It's really not all that, no matter how the guidebooks might try to romanticise it. It just makes you feel grubby.

But there is one quite decent way to see it: perched four feet off the street in a cycle rickshaw that's winding it's way through off-the-map back alleys. There's lots to see, and your chappals aren't being cakes in goat poo.

And there are goats, lots of them, everywhere. With my feet jammed against the footstop (the cycle rickshaws of Old Delhi have no sides, making a journey in them a precarious folly at times) I spotted countless animals, here in the heart of the city. After a while, when the goats become ho-hum, you suddenly spot a flash of glossy black. There, in an alleyside pen the size of a bathroom, are three water buffaloes.

And then, in amongst the cycle and pedestrian traffic, comes an ox cart.

I was there on a mission: to seek out the last Delhi Blue potter, a practitioner of a style of pottery that's a hangover from the days of the Mughals. You might have spotted faded turquoise tiles on various monuments around the city: that's Delhi Blue.

In fact it's just the local, British-given name for the Persian Blue tiles of the Islamic world: from Samarkhand, to Isfahan, to Kabul. The style wound its way across to India, where potters settled in a village in Uttar Pradesh called Khurja, still known as a pottery hub. Delhi Blue pottery is made from a mixture of crushed minerals, while the lapiz lazuli-like blue colour comes from cobalt oxide that is cast in a mould and then glazed.

Now I am not sure whether it's the common Jaipur blue pottery with the yellow flowers you can get easily at any souvenir shop or Dilli Haat - I think most likely not, but there is only one way to find out. And that's how I found myself perched precariously on the back of a cycle rickshaw in Old Delhi.

The details I had were sketchy. All I knew was that the man called Hazarilal lived somewhere in Hauz Sulaiwan, in one of the alleys behind the southern Turkman Gate entrance.

Turkman Gate is ideally positioned right next to the Delhi Stock Exchange, an image that no doubt will feature in many Delhi: Old and New feature stories in coming months, as the Commonwealth Games approach.

Here, I hopped out of the rickshaw and shuffled my way through the hordes of people through the gates to the left of the arch. Where was Hazarilal? I suddenly realised exactly how daunting this little endeavour was. So I stopped and asked these guys, in one of a number of hole-in-the-wall stalls lining the main road into the old town, if they knew him.

It was a long shot, but it turned out they did and even knew where he lived. They flagged down a cycle rickshaw for me and instructed him where to go - Hazarilal's home/studio was a good kilometre away: and there was little chance I would have been able to find it myself.

Each time I'd been to Old Delhi before I'd been to the area around Chandni Chowk and the Jama Masjid, but this route took me through winding back streets that were well off the tourist map.

It was schools-out time, so every few minutes we passed another cycle rickshaw carrying up to a dozen schoolchildren squeezed into every corner of the vehicle.

Ploughing deeper and deeper into the bowels of the old walled town, I started to get nervous. Would I ever be able to find my way out? Then the cyclist stopped. We were at Hauz Suiwalan, a small 'neighbourhood': really, a collection of maze-like streets. He asked around. I flourished a sign I'd had the foresight to prepare with 'Hazarilal' written clearly. Curious passersby shrugged, not knowing and not bothering to lie.

Then one guy pulled out a cellphone. He knew Hazarilal and his grandson. "Where are they?" I asked excitedly.

He shook his head. "Not here, they've moved,"

Turns out, Hazarilal, the last in a line of blue potters who've lived in Old Delhi since Mughal times, a year ago made the move to suburbia: decidedly less colourful, but far more comfortable.

I'm due to visit sometime in the next week; stay tuned for part two.