066 / Hello Safari
After a short stay in Jaipur, Adam and I took of with the night train to Bikaner, a rather non-touristic place (the proof: we spend 2 hours trying to find an internet connection) on the edge of the Rajasthani desert. Via Pankaj, whome I met in Mumbai, we were hosted by Mr and Mrs B L Sharma. We had the address and the name of the people, but the address didn’t lit evocate much interest of the local people when we asked for instructions. However, when we mentioned the name Hari Babu, everybody became curious and overly friendly. We found out soon that the man is one of the well known people in town. The couple were the owners of, a.o., a movie theatre that offers place to more than a thousand people. Their house was a big, beautiful oasis of green and quietness in a city that felt a bit like the inside of a vacuum cleaner to me. Their food (and associated explanations) were true discoveries of the local cuisine, with the finest herbs and the best ingredients. Their devotion to letting us experience the best of what Rajasthan has to offer was limitless. A remarkable stay.
Adam, the New Zealand pilot who works in Papua (Indonesia) for the moment, has a funny habit of using unusual adjectives to comment things. He calls a dish beautiful, a beer nice,... all this to the occasional confusion of the local people who are less conceptual users of the English language. It’s interesting and fun to travel some days together. He also geared me up with seasoned action plans for my future stays in Bali and New Zealand. No problem.
The reason why we came to Bikaner, and the highlight of this stay was an overnight camel safari (technically, it dromedary safari, but that doesn’t ring very well…). We left around 4PM and by 4.11PM we realized that riding a camel is about a comfortable as driving a bicycle backwards without a saddle… A little pain, a lot of laughter. Around 5PM, the pain/laughter balance shifted dangerously to the pain side, but miraculously the sour butt feeling goes away when the huge evening sun start to kiss the horizon. Drenched a welcome silence (after some 10 days of bamboozling noise), this produces views that easily outclass the pictures. We arrived at our camping place. The sand was warm and inviting, and the thai hot and sweet. After playing with the children, trying to get the perfect sunset picture of Manman (my camel) and a long chat about “let’s call it man stuff”, we sent to sleep by 10PM. I woke up once because a dog had way to much affection for my cheek and once because a desert beetle passed my ear with so much noise it actually woke me. A wild peacock announced sunrise at 5.30AM. After a basic breakfast and once the dished done (with sand), we were ready to go, each of us with their own blisters and thoughts.
065 / People Posing
If Agra would not be the host of the Incredible Taj Mahal, it would possible be as famous as Hasselt or Saint Denis. One hit is enough to become a global star. The Taj has been named by many the most beautiful building on the planet, and unless my eyes rest on a more mind-blowing construction in the future, I join their camp. It’s a sight that only exists on postcards and computer desktops for years on end. On television you see famous people posing before it’s delicate fountains since childhood. Until that very moment you walk throught the red colored entrance gate and you feel an excitement that you can not easily explain. It’s a bit like the minute before you would meet Nelson Mandela in person I guess.
When you arrive in front of schrine, the only thing you can do is try not to blink you eyes. It has the force of a USS aircraft carrier but the subtleness of a cello player… The hundreds of people who are there at the same time dissolve in the air for a minute. Your postcard comes alive. As you walk closer, it’s sheer size humbles. “Should I touch it, if only once…?”. When I walked back from the monument, passed the crowds that noisily come and go like the waves on a rocky coast, it struck me how funny everybody acts when posing in front of a monument. I decided to take some pictures of random people posing…
My motoricksaw wallah drove me around sunset to the other, more intimate side of the Taj Mahal, just across the river. There, I entirely understood the magic on India for the first time. I felt even ready to write the introduction of the Lonely Planet 2011 Edition… A group of youngsters were celebrating the end of the Ganesha festival in a ritual that consists of putting a big elephant like Ganesha god floating into the river. Their joyful moves blended perfectly in the peaceful scenery. A bunch of local women and children could not get enough of having their picture taken and looking at it on the little screen of my amazing camera.
That night in the rooftop bar (with mandatory Taj view) a quick talk with a rather pale looking guy from New Zealand about the quality of the local beer evolved into a Rajasthan discovery trip for the days to come.
064 / Delhi Mirror
After three days in Mumbai, I’m bound for Delhi, the rebellious capital of the mighty subcontinent, that was at the time of my arrival struggling with the organization of a chaotic Commonwealth Games, one of the heaviest monsoons of the century and a latent terrorist threat. Welcome.
I was greatly hosted by Jishnu and his lovely wife in DLF Phase One (Gurgaon), a brand new satellite city of Delhi, an urban jungle of metal, steel and the world’s famous brands that combines state of the art office buildings with potholes in the road big enough to make record breaking size paellas…
The first day was a cocktail of some highlight visits, like Qutb Minar which goes back to the onset of Islamic culture in India and the renowned Bahai Lotus Temple, a recent construction (1986) celebrating a type of meta-religion founded on the base of the acceptance of all religions in the world before making my way through the eternal traffic jam Delhi is.
At night, I discovered both the bright and dark site of Ol’ Monk (the local strong alcohol, close to whiskey). After the rediscovery of Skype, the A/C zoomed me into a short but profound sleep.
Delhi Day Two was dedicated to it’s historic Red Fort and the father of the Indian Nation (Mahatma Ghandi). A hard hearing but soft spoken guide in The Red Fort brought me some insights into the today’s India by telling me about its past. He defended that Indian glory is eternal ( in contrast to the Egyptian, Greek and Roman cultures) because India is a master in the art of assimilation. Indian culture doesn’t oppose to but rather absorbs whatever hostile cultures that conquer the country. Therefore, the Indian culture is destined to continue forever following Darwin’s evolution theory applied to nations (The very different groups of people living in India is the exemplary byproduct). The rest of the afternoon I passed on the Ghandi Memorial which is erected on the place the great father of the nation was shot in 1957. What a life story, it reads like a dramatic, adventurous thriller with a predictable but even so shocking plot…
The most local Indian experience I’d had so far was the New Delhi train station and the tireless efforts I spend to order a regular train ticket. The first class was fully booked, so I booked a second class ticket (1€ for 300km) to Agra in the early morning…
003 / Dabangg
Travelling solo is a bit like debuting in horseback riding. You have to get on the horse without hesitation, even after an occassional fall, and you need to get used to the different speeds of the horse (standing, walking, trot, gallop). You also have to start feeling comfortable with the idea that you depend on others (a horse, restaurant keepers, taxi drivers…) for your well being. The same as one cannot question every step of the horse while moving, one cannot have doubts by all micro-decisions you take along the road.
The third day in Mumbai (and in my trip in general) was one of relative leap of faith. Gone Indian friends to negotiate, gone prepaid taxis who wait for you where they drop you off. As I was walking toward Juhu beach, I decided to leave the main road for a secondary road, through an even smaller street, passing by some dodgy alleys. The idea is not to go and look for trouble, but to get at ease with the different degrees of public safety (for now, I still prefer everything bigger than the small streets…).
When I arrived at the beach (don’t consider skinny dipping, because the water is rather toxic), there were a lot of pushy vendors and curious children who give me the “Sir, sir, my friend, where are you from? First time in India? My business is going very bad”-treatment. I’m developing some techniques to polity, even playfully create the necessary distance. I will have to foolproof these skills in Delhi and Rajastan. I'll keep you posted. As far as food is concerned, I have a new policy as well : I systematically order a safe dish (fried noodles) and the free style dish (an order without knowing what is going to show up on the plate whatsoever). Yesterday, this bought me a sort of deep-fried pancakes you dip in pickles sauce and eat with raw onions (they looooove onions here…).
Close to sunset it was time to pay my respect to the stars of Bollywood. I took a 2€ ticket (take this, Paris!!) for the smash hit of the moment : DABANGG! Literally speaking, this means FEARLESS. The movie is about a police guy with the fighting skills of the Matrix, Zorro, Wall-e, Charlies Angels and Xxx combined all while being a great lover, a devoted son and a huge fan of Ray Ban glasses (this part, I understand). The movie is only shown after a collective rising for the national hymne, brought by a choir of different ambassadors for the Indian people. I watched 2h of movie entierely in Hindi (with the exception of the random English sentence I discovered around the end : “Cast your vote, don’t vote your cast” I’m still figuring out the place of this sentence in a randon action movie). Breaking news: I also discovered where Roger Federer got a second job to make ends meet. He’s costarring as the evil guy in epic Hindi stories. Very convincing I have to say.
On the way home, I decided to take a moto rickshaw (three wheels, steer of a scooter, engine of a Phillishave and a driver on speed). For some reason, my driven wasn’t passed by one single vehicule during the 20 min ‘drive’ (flight would be a more appropriate word). I didn’t know he had a tuned AMG 65 Bi-turbo Compressor rickshaw. Dabangg without the option of retake. I can only conclude my driver was either very skilled, very lucky or more likely both.
After a Kingfisher (local beer) or two on a rooftop bar on the 6th floor, we had dinner with Pankai and Vadya in a great Indian place (no need to go for the noodles with these sweet experts around!). Thank you very much for the great hospitality in a bamboozling city. Good night J!!
062 / Taxi Mumbai
With an unbeatable army of 50 000 cruising the streets daily, the best way to visit Mumbai is the Black&Yellow, or the regular street taxi. You can rent them for the day for the price of 12 macarons at La Durée in Paris, and they take you wherever you want to go. So it happened that I teamed up with an aged, Hindi man who was silent for long periods of time, but when he talked, he couldn’t stop. Little did he care that I didn’t understand a single word of the entire monologues! At our first stop, I started my daytime visit as glamorous a possible. I got into an argument with a security guy of the Sidhi Vinagate Elephant temple for bringing accidentally a camera into the temple. When I tried a second time to enter the temple without the camera he gave me the evil eye and a speech about obeying the rules. When I answered that the camera was gone and that he was a bit too rigid with the rules, I stepped right into a … dogpoop. I had almost forgotton how fast priorities change when you step into dogpoop. Discussion closed, the guy smiled, I smelled…
Later, I was driven to the Haji Ali shrine, a mosque deep in the water with a long pier connecting the city and this sacred place. The walkway is ‘notorious’ for the number of beggers that hope pelgrims will be generous. Everybody who has been in India warns everybody who goes to India to prepare for some unusual shocking sights… Here is where I got my face to face with extreme human tragedy. Some things only live in real confrontation, not in explanations : the smell of bread, the touch of skin, poverty…
In vast contrast (probably the word that fits Mumbai the best), is the most expensive private residence ever built to date… A 35 story building for… 4 people. I stopped by the Mahalaxmi Temple, who is dedicated to the Goddess of Wealth where I had an explanation of an official about the rituals but I was too intrigued by the thickness of his glasses to pay any attention… After my awakening passage of Haji Ali, I didn’t dare to ask more money or property anyway!
Next up was lunch close to the Victoria Terminal, a train terminal where daily close to 3 million people pass, and where ‘the train is full’ is redefined permanently by keeping pushing people into the compartments (up to 4 times their legal capacity). The vegetarian restaurant was a revealing experience as well. Some people know I care as much about food as about the color of the underpants of Bono. I was ordering blind, and ended up with a dish which comes the closest to French fries that have been drowned in chilly sauce and onions for about an hour. In general the food is bearable, and my stomach is outperforming his provisions.
The day ended in a monsoon rain shower, but not before a quick visit to Dhobi Ghat, the biggest human washing machine on earth. Since 140 years several hundreds of people handwash the clothes worn in Mumbai. They hit the shirts and sheets with a violence that makes me feel sorry for the little guy in the suit who, in detergent TV commercials, lives in the clothes fibres and pops out surprisingly to say why white is not white enough … I start to understand why he’s always repeating the same, useless message … Brain damage.
061 / Air(re)borne
I’ll be soon an excellent flyer, equipped with amazing headphones, a capacity to drink red wine at any time of the day to sleep steadily and a talent for not going to the loo during flights up to 12 hours.
A brandnew country, new smell, temperature, humidiy, you sense it even in your sleep. New routines, and absence of reflexes, scams, little defeats and victories… When I first got to the prepaid cab, a guy carried my bag for like 11 seconds. Afterwards, he asked me 10 Euros… First second I thought it was a lot of money, second second I was actually thinking about paying, third second I had a vague flashback of a taxi scam in Istanbul where some people still make fun with, and the fourth second I realized that at this rate, this guy would have a monthly salary of roughly 800K€, which is probably not the case. So I refused, using this last argument with conviction…
My hosts (Pankaj and Vandra) are really nice. After a nap and a shower, we were ready to visit the city by night to start with. Gateway to India, Taj Hotel, Victoria Terminal, the Queen’s necklace, etc were done. We talked a lot about the 2008 attacks, who still cast occasionally a shadow over this gigantic town. We went to Leopold’s Bar, one of the five venues where the attacks took place, and where the bullet holes and broken windows are the silent witnesses of this trauma.
Afterwards, I experienced my first share of "sololuck" (these are the nice situations are opportunities you meet because you’re travelling solo, with a state of mind that puts you in position for unexpected adventures. I went to a saturdaynight gathering of the family of the wife of the friend of Arjoon. On paper, people where you’re not more connected with as with some strangers you’re taking the bus with in Brussels in the morning. Delicious food, great talks, interesting and interested interactions with this unlikely gang really colored my evening (together with too much local beer, for the record). Hospitality is a truly amazing quality. I think you could sell it really expensive in Western Europe, because of tremendous scarcety.
To close this first Saturday we went to a cool club in a building of 15 meters hight, with great statues, Bombay Sapphire cocktails and no tourists. I’m in the zone, on the waves. The adventure is calling and I really feel eager to respond their pleas.
To be continued… and continued… and continued…