Making the most of our last 2 weeks...
Once again, the sun is shining on the subcontinent and I've managed to find a small patch of shade on the beach next to the Arabian Sea to write about the last couple of weeks. We're in Goa for the day, to break up what would have otherwise been a 48 hour journey down south to catch our flight home. We still have a 20 hour train to go, but that doesn't leave for a good while yet.
Towards the end of November, we revisited a few places including Agra, Delhi and Dharamsala. With a few nights on our hands in Dharamsala (the home of the Dalai Lama), we did an overnight trek in the Himalayas. At just under 3000m, it was my highest night's sleep to date and a pretty chilly one at that. We'd actually arrived the day before the hike after travelling on the fastest train in India followed by a 'semi-deluxe' overnight bus. The bullet train (despite travelling at a not-so-staggering 100km/h) was complete luxury, and being used to the cheaper/slower option, we made the mistake of buying food and water beforehand (when we ended up being served it all for free onboard). No chai or samosa sellers on that train.
The so-called semi-deluxe bus that followed was a slight shock to the system, and not just for a travel sick stomach. I'm struggling to find the words to describe it, but picture hard seats barely big enough for a young teenager, windows that can't be locked sliding open with every bend in the road letting the mountain air in, and a luggage compartment too small so that an average-sized rucksack has to travel on the roof. Fixing the window problem with a hair tie, we tried our best to get some shuteye. Unfortunately, no amount of travel sickness tablets could cope with such a journey, so when three green faces stepped off the bus at dawn, one started throwing up before reaching the curb, another was sent to the roof to retrieve the last bag themselves, and the other was busy trying to find our next bus (as perhaps worst of all, we weren't even at our final destination). Thankfully we were able to check in early so we spent the rest of the day sleeping and recovering. My stomach didn't actually recover in time for the hike, so I ended up climbing over 1000m on no food and two sachets of dioralyte. Many breaks were needed but the sunset at the top made it all worth it.
From Dharamsala, we then made our way to Jaipur via another overnight bus and train. Arriving at 5am in Delhi, we had about 5 hours to kill before our train was due to depart, and we spent it in the only establishment open at the time: McDonalds. You know you've outstayed your welcome when the caretaker is giving you a feedback form to fill out. Having been on a few trains already, we weren't very surprised to learn our train was delayed. What we weren't quite prepared for was just how much it had been delayed. In the absence of our train number on the board, we asked at the enquiry deal and were told our train wouldn't be departing for at least another 5 hours. Armed with an unexpected abundance of time to spare, we headed out onto the traffic ridden streets of Delhi and filled a few hours before returning to the station for 4pm. Of course, it was probably naive to think our train would only be 5 hours delayed. After a further 4 hours of waiting, we finally boarded the train and arrived in Jaipur at 2am - 30 hours after leaving Dharamsala. Still, it could have been worse - a train which was arriving just before ours was delayed by 21 hours...leading me to question when a delay becomes a cancellation.
In Jaipur, we roamed around the street markets, explored the extensive Amber Fort and experienced life as a 19th century woman in Hawa Mahal. We also climbed up a lot of towers and viewing points, and it seems instead of stairs, Jaipur favours smooth slopes with slippery ridges, presumably there in an attempt to facilitate walking.
After seeing camels, elephants, monkeys and snakes on the streets of Jaipur, we then went on safari in Sawai Madhopur where we saw somewhat less 'exotic' deer, antelope and birds. We did track four different tigers however, following their footprints and hearing them from a distance, and the diversity in scenery was stunning. Leaving in the early morning and afternoon, we had two very different experiences: the first in a jeep, exploring a vast area with various landscapes; the second in a canter with about 20 other people. After sitting in a National Park trying to listen for a tiger next to other locals (parents and grandparents), I now feel much less guilty for not being able to get a class of 10 year olds to be quiet. Apparently watching a kid dancing on YouTube without headphones is far more interesting than searching for a wild tiger.
We then headed onto Udaipur, a relaxing city with a big lake and lots of posh fancy 5 star hotels, before getting an overnight train to Mumbai. Unfortunately, even when we started booking trains three months ago, this train was sold out and had a long waiting list. We did manage to get two beds between the three of us though, which meant a pretty squished 17 hour train journey south, and (as usual) lots of staring.
In Mumbai, we ate copious amounts of street food, witnessed a few hundred men playing overlapping cricket games in the local park (an act which is probably more organised than meets the eye), and were able to explore Dharavi (the largest slum in Mumbai and the one used in Slumdog Millionaire) for a couple of hours with a guy who grew up there. Before entering the slum, he pointed out 'poor' people on the side of the road and explained that no one inside the slum is poor. The rent and deposit for a place inside is relatively quite high, given that there are 18000 people living in each acre, and only 1 toilet for every 1500 people. The number of industries inside is pretty staggering and they're now even making products with the Dharavi label.
The train system in Mumbai was very useful, though I have no idea how they make any money, as tickets aren't checked at any point on the journey. There also aren't doors, and stopping at stations seems almost pointless as everyone's already jumped on/off by the time it does actually stop.
With just two days left in India, I'm quite excited to be able to walk down the street and have no one staring, selling me things, asking for photos or taking surreptitious selfies with me in the background. But there are plenty of things I'll miss: the positive 'it'll be fine', 'it'll work' and 'there's always space' attitude; the food - even with the best recipe and intentions, I doubt I'll get close to recreating it; the colours - in clothes, food, everywhere you look; the cycle rickshaws - the cheapest and most humble form of transport (rarely ripping you off unlike the auto rickshaws); the music and dancing, particularly the Bhangra style in Punjab; and of course the trains. After travelling on 25 trains here, we've learned a few things: whatever the temperature during the day, it does get cold overnight, the journey will vary wildly depending almost entirely on the people around you, and you won't be the boss of your own stomach - if you don't eat when it's available, it might be another 4 hours before the glorious sound of someone shouting 'samosa samosa samosa'.
There's far more I could write about, but hopefully some photos and video will speak much louder and better than any words I can conjure up. So for now, I'll prepare to wrap up warm and wish everyone a Merry Christmas - I hope it's a good one