Fear of Ghosts

Republic Day: 26/01/2013
A military parade on tv: enormous Soviet style missile is the star attraction. This is the Agni 5 – Agni means ‘fire’ – which is later described by the Pakistani press as “an unsettling display of muscle flexing”. It can reach parts of Europe, apparently, although which parts they fail to specify. Look out Bulgaria and Romania, I suppose. Soldiers marching in roughly British uniforms, but topped with uniquely local headwear – turbans and assorted exoticisms. The marching is interesting: a tight, stiff legged shuffle and then an enormous goose step kick on the command of eyes right. The left arms rise way over shoulder height; over the head even, and with their white gloves hands all rising and falling at once the effect is like a flock of egrets taking off. The Garhwal regiment: oriental soldiers in bush hats, like Gurkhas – they are from Uttarakhand, which borders Nepal. The Rajasthani camel corps, the great beasts decorated all over with dangling glittery tassels, swaying ponderously with their delicate, high stepping tread. There’s something very loose limbed about tropical armies marching, quite unlike the tight clockwork of the British regiments. Now the soldiers are singing, in turbans which sport a huge colourful fan on top. When they eyes right the effect is that of a peacock unfurling its tail. Now the Punjabis, whose contrasting webbing has the unfortunate effect of making them look like they are wearing suicide belts. Girls in kilts and the skirl of bagpipes. Tribal dancing girls doing some kind of stick dance – they ceremonially clash sticks overhead, perform a half pirouette, shimmy and sway as they go.

Nightfall at Chapora. The village is dominated by a large banyan tree in the middle of the road. Benches are attached to it and upon these sprawl various dreadlocked boom shankars, ragged clothes and dirty feet. One man is sprawled face down in the recovery position – when I pass by two days later he is still there; perhaps he hasn’t moved. Perhaps he is dead. I wonder what the locals make of it all: this is a small village. Turn off the main drag and you are in rural India. How do they feel about these enormously rich westerners flying halfway round the world to collapse half naked and profoundly stoned under a tree? It’s like that park full of heroin addicts in Zurich. They value the income, of course, but what cultural impact must it have? A bus blocks the road and I have to back up the bike, shuffling it backward with my feet. In doing so one of the pillion foot pegs touches a metal sign offering bike hire, which sways by an inch or so. A sleepy eyed local in grubby vest and torn shorts sitting nearby says irately, “what is your problem, man?” I look him up and down and say, “the bus is the problem, man. But I’ll deal with it.” He tuts and scowls. It is such an extraordinary reaction around here, so aggressively big city and out of character, that it can only have been learnt from outside influences. As has the expression.

Two elderly German men share my table. 60s, 70s, I don’t know. I always think ‘Wehrmacht age’ to myself. Boorish loud English men at next table. French rap on the stereo with the chorus ‘I don’t give a fuck’. Cultural contexts. “Where come you from?” London. “Ah, lonn-donn. Schoen tsity. I was once there in… 1965. Prrrimrrrose Khill. You know this?” Oh, certainly, I nod, squashing memories frantically that threaten to take me somewhere else entirely. My small craft hits a choppy wave, sways and bobs, then resumes its course once more in calmer surface waters. The turbulent currents of the depths are stilled.

The ancient Greeks built their temples in sites such as this: high on a hilltop overlooking the shimmering sea. The wind sighs and rustles the thorny undergrowth. The sun is hot and there is the continuous sussurus of cicadas above the boom of the sea on the rocks below. Groups of Indians are here to watch the sunset and take in a view. In fact views are so in demand that one girl stands overlooking miles of jungle and tropical beach, and asks “is this the view? I think there’s more view on other side.” Large girls in jeans waddle uphill, squirming like tadpoles encased in tight denim, flat footed in flip flops. The boys shout and whoop and bounce like playful puppies. I leave the fort behind and head out on a narrow path down to the headland. Finding a rock perched high over the sea I sit and look at the sun fading, growing smaller and redder with each passing minute. I am completely alone. Then a jingle draws near: a small brown dog with a curled tail. He climbs up onto the rock and sits down next to me, watching the sunset. I stretch out a hand and stroke his greasy, matted fur. His eyes turn briefly to me then go back to staring out to sea. He pants and drools incessantly. What does he see out there? Is it all in black and white, shades of grey? Is something as fundamental as circadian rhythm, the ending of the day, hard wired into us all in some profound animal connection? Together we sit looking out at the sun fading, disappearing into greyness just above the horizon, feeling a companionship at something deeply felt and shared, humbled by the size of things neither of us understand.

Nightfall on a verandah, overlooking a garden shining in the moonlight, luxuriant tropical vegetation giving off the scents of flowers in the warm, velvety dark. We smoke and chat in low voices. Then someone’s phone rings: there’s been an accident. The police have been called, and an ambulance. “Don’t let them treat you,” one cautions. “Which hospital?” A discussion ensues about the relative merits, or rather demerits, of assorted local hospitals. “Stay there, I’m coming to get you,” someone says. They buzz away into the night on their scooter. We sit again and smoke more. After an hour they return, with a passenger: I can see a large bandage round his head in the moonlight. He staggers up to the porch and collapses into a chair. A drink is brought for him, a cigarette offered. He is in a sorry state, and reels punch drunk in his chair. A motorbike crash. He is Spanish, and somehow managed to crash into another Spaniard – both of them complete strangers. What are the chances? His eye is swollen shut, he is covered in bruises. It emerges that most of these are from the subsequent punch up rather than the crash itself. Neither of them wearing helmets- nobody does here. It’s lucky, to say the least, that neither are more seriously injured. Hospital is suggested and dismissed; you only go here if you are at deaths door. It is fortunate indeed that he hit a fellow countryman, the Police didn’t want to get involved in two foreigners. Had he hit an Indian it would have been another matter, like the tourist arrested two days ago for causing an accident on a scooter, although causing is a relative term given local driving. After making elaborate snorting noises for a while in the garden he staggers back up the path and collapses into the chair, and we embark on a complex discussion about Mexican Indians and their use of psychedelic plants to bring about altered states of consciousness. Pleased to see his brain is still working, if slightly concussed, we chat about London for a while, where he once lived. It seems very far away indeed.

“The further I get from the things that I care about, the less that I care about how much further away I get.”
The Cure – Fear of Ghosts

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Goa Trance

Hippies had been coming to Goa since the 1960s in search of enlightenment, and by the 1970s the parties were legendary, held on the beach when there was a full moon, long before Thailand made them famous. The cheap and powerful local hash was an irresistible draw, as was the general air of ‘anything goes’. Curious locals looked on bemused at the children of the revolution disporting themselves free of the constraints of home, and it was a great unifier in many ways: Germans, French, British, Americans, Scandivanians… all mingled happily, speaking a basic lingua franca of each other’s languages, catered to by enterprising locals who despite their bemusement, were only too happy to learn how to make banana pancakes or sell imported Mars Bars to the foreigners. By the late 1980s a new trend had arrived via the clubs of Europe: the futuristic sound that became known as acid house – a digitalised set of bleeps and squeaks with a thumping bassline. Ecstasy became popular and the music changed accordingly; the slower beats of rock and reggae popular with the hash smoke crew now seemed old fashioned, out of step with the stimulated buzz of E. Acid House merged with the mechanical, industrial sound of Techno, but added a distinctively tropical twist, incorporating the exotic locale by sampling ethnic sounds, psychedelic influences and wafty ambient backgrounds. Mellower than the frantic beats-per-minute of Techno, faster than the old reggae/dub/rock, Trance had arrived.

By the early 1990s a series of superstar DJs had ‘discovered’ Goa, and plugged it hard. Paul Oakenfold was probably the best known at the time, creating a two-hour ‘Goa Mix’, but many others followed suit. Here’s a sample of it:

Pretty mainstream these days, but at the time it was highly influential. Oakenfold himself, already a superstar, entered the pantheon of DJs and somehow indefinably lost his cool. But more talent was lining up, and it was reflecting the new political realities of Europe as the Berlin Wall came down: the Russians were coming. And they wanted harder, faster beats, to suit harder, faster people; they had a sense of wanting to make up for lost time, having been restricted in their ability to travel, to have access to the licentiousness of the west, for so long. Here’s an interesting one, which is by a Ukrainian producer featuring an Indian singer, Arunima Bhattacharya, which is a pretty good example of the sound:

Anjuna and Vagator beaches were the main location for these parties, but as with anywhere that people congregate in a spirit of mutual hedonism, assorted predators circle to pick off the weaker ones. Drugs in Goa are rife. Police corruption is notorious. Underworld money, whether from Mumbai or Moscow, funds hotel resorts, the drug trade, everything. There is a status quo to be upheld, an equilibrium to be maintained, whereby young holidaymakers bringing desperately needed hard currency into the Indian economy as tourists want simply to have fun, and the vast majority are law-abiding (relatively speaking. Even at home in Europe the odd joint will rarely get you more than a slap on the wrist, and Ecstasy usage is widespread). But the predators circle, and sometimes a single event can reveal the sleazy underbelly. In 2008, on a patch of ground behind the beach shacks that thump out Trance music every night across Anjuna, a British girl was murdered. She was 15 years old, and her name was Scarlett Keeling.

It’s not unusual to see teenagers partying all night here, although most would be 18 or so – first year undergraduate age. Scarlett Keeling was a bit different. Her mother was an old India hand, and they had lived a lifestyle best described as ‘bohemian’, alternating between the UK and India. For complicated reasons, Scarlett had been left on her own in the care of a local guide who was friends with the family while her mother went travelling down the coast with 6 more of her children. What happened next was an awful yet illustrative example of a young girl already out of her depth drawn into a darker and darker scene: one which involved drugs and the predatory individuals who pick off the loners, single out the vulnerable in the crowd. Her diary betrays her despair, with entries like ‘I feel so trapped, I just want to make a decision and get out of this’. Fuelled by a cocktail of drugs she found herself watching hardcore porn in the company of a group of local boys, encouraged by her ‘boyfriend’. Essentially she was being groomed. The story is complex and contradictory, many details still unexplained, but the outcome for Scarlett was the same: the 15-year-old Devon schoolgirl was found naked and battered on a patch of ground behind Anjuna beach. She had over 50 injuries and had been repeatedly raped. Two men were later arrested and charged: a local barman was the chief suspect.

The Goa scene has never quite recovered. It’s one of those situations where it is suspected that certain people know more than they are letting on. The police procedure was incompetent even by local standards, and reeks of a cover up. This is, ultimately, a small town, and as in all small towns, people clam up, tap their nose, don’t want to say too much. But the story made headlines all over the world, Goa’s tourism department went into a panic, and they tried to clean up the place’s image. In part they succeeded: the Goa scene is a shadow of what it was. But drugs are still openly used, and the people who lurk on the margins, who are involved in the sale of them, still exist. It’s like the old argument about criminalisation of something only driving it into the arms of the criminal fraternity. And there’s still that old equilibrium to be maintained. If Goa enforced India’s drug laws as rigorously as they are in Europe or the US, the place would shut down. Nobody would come, other than a few wholesome middle-aged tourists staying in four star hotels and spending all day at the beach. So the scene continues, diminished but not destroyed.

Anjuna Beach: 10.30pm on a Friday night. We ride the bike down increasingly narrow tracks until we are bumping over loose sand and stones. Small stalls sell brightly-coloured clothing of a vaguely ethic description, and Bob Marley T-shirts. Three Swedish teenagers stagger past, tipsy blonde girls in tiny tight shorts. They are followed by four hot-eyed Indian men. We stop to look for a place to park and a middle-aged man looms out of the darkness and hisses: “Hash? Hashish? You want drugs? Anything?” No thank you. We ride on.

The road ends and we walk down the beach. Green lasers whirl around the sky and there is a tremendously deep thump of bass from one of the shacks. The waves wash up and lap at the foot of the shacks. Local guys sell fluorescent bangles, torches that create a kaleidoscope of light. They murmur softly, indecipherably. Groups of young Indians from out of state swagger past. Towards us comes an elderly gora (white), with a shock of white hair like an absent-minded professor. He looks like he got lost on his way through a BBC4 documentary. But as he draws closer his clothes give him away: combats cut off at the knee, a patchwork colourful Rajasthani waistcoat, a tie-dyed T-Shirt. He must be in his sixties. One of the old guard. Two Mediterranean girls go past, in denim hotpants and see-through tops: I hear the choppy guttural sibilants of Hebrew. We stop on the beach outside a shack called “Hippies”. The techno beat is earth-shaking. On the sand in front of the shack locals have set up stalls as in any market place: a small, rotund lady wearing a shawl round her head, despite it being nearly thirty degrees, sells eggs and bread. Groups of young foreigners sit cross-legged on the sand smoking joints. A low wall, not more than two feet high, leads into the dancefloor. Inside 90% are foreigners. The other side of the wall, on the beach, are the locals. They jig to the music as much, if not more, as the people inside. A group of young village boys stand in a circle and do a jumping, clapping sort of dance, like Arabs. Another with the hungry look of the not-quite-arrived surveys the scene with an acquisitive eye, checking the girls. An unlit cigarette dangles from his lips. A short, powerfully built Indian with a proper 1980s mullet hairstyle down his neck, in stonewashed jeans and a white stripey shirt tucked into them, jigs his leg back and forth, and then when the beat kicks in properly, is inspired: he flaps his elbows like the Chicken Dance and stamps his right foot. He looks deeply, hopelessly unfashionable, even here amongst the freakwear of assorted 1960s throwbacks, but seems to be having a good time. I stand with K amongst the Indians outside, all of them jigging up and down to the beat, feeling pleased to be on their side of the wall and not in there with the miserable-looking goras.

A small European girl, perhaps ten years old, comes out of a shack and sits down on a beach chair, scowling at the sea. She sticks her fingers in her ears and keeps them there, looking angry, lost, miserable. A man brushes past me and whispers: “Hash? You want hash?” A toddler runs zigzagging through the crowd with a towel over his head, arms out for balance, short curtailed childish steps, looking for his mummy. In front of the shack, about 6 feet from the gate, so close that people entering have to step round him as one has to drive around sacred cows here, which always have the right of way, sits an old Indian man. He sports a maroon turban and has a blanket pulled tight around his shoulders. I watch him for at least ten minutes and he does not move a muscle. Utterly impassive. The ground is shaking beneath him to the trance beat, drunks stagger past yelling, a couple lie entwined on a mat, a young guy lies down in the waves and tries to pull them up over himself like a coverlet, then shouts angrily when a wave hits him in the face with a wet slap and his friend goes to try to get him back onto dry land, and this old Indian man sits there as solid and impassive as if he were made of stone, like an aborigine who simply refuses to see what is around him. I could wave my hand in front of his eyes and he would look through me. He may well have sat here for thirty years, when the music was Pink Floyd or Led Zeppelin or the Rolling Stones, the hippies wore flares and smoked hash and Ecstasy hadn’t been invented and the world was unrecognisable from what it is now, and he may be here in another thirty for all I know. He is the only real object on this entire beach.

Going Troppo

Arambol beach, an hour’s ride north of Anjuna. A beach shack with ambient trance in the background. The sea is shining, the sun dipping towards the horizon. Having brought backpack with sunblock, bug repellent, hand sanitizer and notebook, I realised I had forgotten my pen. I borrowed one from the waiter for a while but then remembered my phone; I had installed the Pages app before leaving London, so am sitting here word processing, like any office worker who happens to be on a tropical beach. This is mainly a Russian shack, with a few Germans thrown in: beautiful, lissom girls and heavyset scowling men with chains around bull necks. One couple however could only be English; they are prawn pink from the sun and look uncomfortably hot.

I got lost coming and ended up on a single track through a village. Dogs lay snoring in the middle of the road, and men stood round a tree talking about whatever they talk about. I stopped outside an enormous temple and checked the map, which seemed an exercise in optimism as it bore no relation to the roads on the ground. Thunking through the village in first gear a few incurious eyes turned towards me but they are used to goras on bikes here. Eventually reaching Arambol I went down increasingly narrow lanes lined with ethnic clothing shops, past long haired westerners clad only in shorts and the occasional stunner in a bikini. Despite the Enfield not being exactly a quiet bike – in fact it has an impressive roar to it – it was amazing the number of people who failed to get out of the way. All of them tourists. The Indians seem to have a better sense of self-preservation, although you wouldn’t guess it from the driving. In fact it’s all about the next life here – pull out without looking to see if anyone is coming, because if it’s your time it won’t make a difference one way or the other.

A hot, still night of howling dogs, crazing moonlight and a low booming from a trance soundtrack somewhere. I am sweating in the heat – it’s 30 degrees and humid, at 11pm. In fact the day begins mercifully cool for about half an hour, lying in bed – or rather on bed – with a crosswind through the windows. I can hear the thwack of wet cloth against stone as the lady opposite does her laundry. Then the heat grows. By 10am the balcony is too hot to walk on in bare feet. I have bought a pair of local flipflops branded ‘Step Care’. This has rather odd connotations, bringing to mind both step-parents and the British euphemism of institutional care for children. By midday the sky has turned an opalescent white and even the crows are subdued, through hawks still lazily circle high above. 2pm and the sun is sweating beads of gold from the stones of the buildings. A solitary ant makes its way up a pillar. It has consciousness, knows where it is going, as a microcosm of some larger whole – the intelligence of the swarm. The tin roof cracks in the heat on the next house. Two backpackers trudge out of the house, and mounting a scooter, buzz away into the glare. The town snoozes.

At 4pm things start to stir again – shutters are opened, people emerge slowly. The crows begin to caw and cackle one more. At 6.15pm night falls, dark in 10 minutes, and the trees are alive with shrieks and chirps. A bat the size of a seagull flies past. Something screams in the tree opposite, and then dozens of crows take off and sweep away into the night. 8pm, 10pm, midnight – you sweat, continuously, monotonously, incessantly. The fan spins but the breeze cannot relieve the heat. Everything is languid, slow and drawn out – and this is the cool season. In Africa they called October ‘suicide month’ – it just got so hot that people went mad, couldn’t take any more, blew their brains out. Going troppo, the Aussies call it, from ‘tropical’. Zapped on the local weed here, people’s synapses fire at random and everyone is drowning in treacle. We are covered in a sheen of sweat from dawn to dusk, the air contains too much moisture on some nights to breathe, your skin glows with heat, people look shiny and exhausted. Going troppo. I dream of ice fields, the high Himalaya, air so cold and pure that it hurts to breathe, the clarity of distant peaks, the crunch of snow underfoot and the chill of dawn. How fast we forget.

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Unexplored Worlds in the Treads of a Sandal

There was an elephant in the lay by where I pull in to drop K off for work. Being fairly large things, it occupied most of it. A white bearded type in orange robes accompanied it, and asked me if I would like to take a photo. I would not. I see it most days in another location, usually with a couple of tourists posing on top of it, for which they pay through the nose. I’ve ridden elephants before, in Thailand, and can report that they are slightly less uncomfortable than a camel but better than a donkey.

Our toilet is made by Yamaha. It has the three crossed tuning forks logo and everything. I’m sure this would cause great amusement amongst the Honda riding fraternity.

I went in search of sandals last night in Vagator. The boy, fifteen at most, described them to me in a soft voice: “here you are having two layers on sole, and look,” he ran his fingers over the treads, counting to himself, “one… Two… Three… Good treads, and smooth for foot but underside for walking very strong with new upgraded design.” All this in a slow, mellow singsong voice, as if deeply stoned. It reminded me of pot smokers staring at some everyday household object as if seeing it for the first time, discovering previously unexplored worlds in the treads of a sandal.

A night ride through the jungle down a winding road, following two friends on a scooter. We are lost. The night is hot and humid, and we pass through dips of cool air, microcosms of temperature. Small shacks are lit feebly by candlelight, and each wafted the scent of incense into the night. But all the scents are different: vanilla, roses, sandalwood. In a few minutes we pass through a dozen different scents perfuming the warm night. Then the road climbs, the Enfield thunks solidly up a hill in third gear, and we are high above the trees with the moonlit glimmer of the Indian Ocean off to our right. I feel cool for the first time in a week in the sea breeze.

I’ve been sporting an Enfield blow dry for a while, a sort of swept back bouffant, so I go to the barber shop at the end of the lane; a small shack, unprepossessing from outside, but within three barber chairs and all manner of utensils dedicated to the grooming and clipping and curling and shaving of assorted clients. No mechanical clippers at grade five here: everything is done by hand. He snips slowly away with the scissors, a snip every two or three seconds. The left side takes a good fifteen minutes. I am so mesmerised by the languid pace that I almost fall asleep in the chair. Periodically I am dusted down as a prelude to more snail paced snipping, then he pulls out a cut throat razor, inserts a fresh blade, and spends a good ten minutes trimming my neck and sideburns. I think it is the most laid back haircut I’ve ever had. In the corner a tv shows a Hindi movie: I can make out the words “assistant chief inspector very angry is. Culprits were nabbed and charge sheeted but then released and absconded”. Barely conscious by now he unveils me from my apron, I pay 100rs (a little over a pound) and wander dazed into the sunlight. A passing cow belches loudly, and I kickstart the bike, which goes a-thunk a-thunk a-thunk… Even the motorbikes here are laid back.

I breakfast on two Malabar parathas, a sort of flakey pancake, friend for a minute or two each side. This accompanied by achaar, a spicy and tangy green mango pickle, not a bit like the sugary gloop known as mango chutney in the uk. Afterwards is fresh papaya and a cup of tea. I was already fairly cosmopolitan before I arrived – I often ate parathas and achaar in London – but the longer I am here the morse Indian in my habits I become. No cheesy beans on toast for me thanks.

Can I do you now sir?

Can I do you now sir?

Cultural Contexts

The flight got in at 6.30am and it was already 28 degrees C. Descending the aircraft steps we boarded buses in the dark, a motley collection of miserable looking Northern Europeans and ebullient Indians; this was a transit flight from Mumbai. The skinny local next to me had sniffed like water down a plug hole every five seconds for the duration of the flight. Grumpy Russians muttered in guttural syllables devoid of vowel sounds; the British made sardonic asides in regional dialects and Germans sat peering out of the smeared window with misgiving. The bus performed a u turn, narrowly missing a fuel tanker, in what was to be a preface to Indian driving. I had forgotten the sheer craziness, even in sleepy, tropical Goa at 7am. We sat straddling the centre line, a foot from the car in front which then pulled a sudden right turn, bumping off towards some shops. A cow plodded towards us down the middle of the road. People squatted on the verges tending small fires. A spray of shocking purple bougainvillea cascaded over a concrete durawall. Gigantic tropical trees draped lianas. Skinny hooded crows breakfasted on the carcass of a dog. I had the strangest sense of déjà vu: this looked like Africa. Then we’d turn a corner and it resembled Thailand or Vietnam; more Vietnam really. Slightly knocked about. Buildings mildewing in the steamy grey morning. Two buses headed toward us, one overtaking the other in a cloud of black smoke, the two of them occupying the entire road. A carolling air horn, and one scrapes through by inches. Above the second bus, painted over the windscreen in letters a foot high, it says simply: “Jesus!” Yes, quite.

An hour after reaching the apartment, shot to bits with jetlag and with shoulders around my ears from weeks of stress, I take charge of a 350cc Royal Enfield Bullet motorcycle. The brakes are about as sharp as an oil tanker’s, the gears are all upside down, and it takes ten minutes of kicking to get it started from cold in the morning, even if cold is a relative term when it is 34 degrees and humid as a greenhouse. But it has a lovely thunderous engine note and is a great deal faster than the scooters most people ride here. No helmets in sight, and few people wear shoes; most ride in flip flops – as indeed do I on short runs. I picked up K from work and we went to lunch in a small shack: fish curry, with a big oily slab of bony fish, a pot of curry sauce, another of some kind of boiled veg, and a mound of damp rice. Halfway through a cat came and joined us. It had the endearing habit of placing a paw on your leg, folding back its ears and mewling pitifully.

The hot water is lukewarm at the best of times, but in this heat it doesn’t really matter. However, due to the frequent power cuts this morning I squatted under a dribbling cold tap in semi darkness, keeping my mouth firmly shut – god knows what microbes exist in the tap water; I even brush my teeth with bottled since an acquaintance got typhoid. I liberally apply Piz Buin factor 30 prior to heading out, and you can tell it is good stuff since even my luminous white feet are not burned, despite not having seen the sun for a decade. Not sure about the description of ultra absorbent, non-greasy, however. I look like I’ve been slathered in butter.

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A long ride on Sunday north to Arambol – full of Russians. They really do look more miserable than anyone else, even the Swedes (who are well named, being bland, vaguely yellow and rather root vegetable in demeanour.) It was blazing hot riding at midday, with a hair dryer wind. After a strawberry juice and hummus with chapattis (the Israelis are also here in some strength) we walked around a hill, following a trail through thick bush.

We were heading for a banyan tree – a popular spot with what the Rough Guide calles the ‘Boom Shankar Chillum Brigade’. They were out in force. 15-20 tourists, overwhelmingly white, most with dreadlocks, many in dungarees, and with more bangles per arm than a Bangalore housewife. They sat in a circle with an expression that was simultaneously aloof yet expectant, as if waiting for some kind of enlightenment to strike without wanting to appear too keen to admit that it hadn’t yet already done so. And around them were more tourists, taking photos of the ones sitting in a circle. It was like going to the zoo: “And here, children, we can see the greater spotted new age traveller, resident of Ko Phan Nga but now highly endangered there. These ones are the result of a captive breeding program in northern Europe, and they migrate south in great numbers to congregate on the beaches of Goa, immediately spotted by their similar appearance to each other.” I made eye contact with a couple and they quickly looked away, like commuters on the Tube. Enlightenment still some way off yet. We adjourned to a rock a little further down the path where we smoked and swatted mosquitoes. The, through the birdsong filtering down through the canopy, there came a muffled thump. I groaned. They had got the bongos out. Soon a ragged and rather uncertain chanting started up, before dying away in a paroxysm of northern European self-consciousness, despite the valiant efforts of a few evangelicals. I’m afraid I found the entire episode hilarious, representative as it was of the utter poverty of the imagination, the total submersion of the individual into the conformity of the mass. People who escape the conventionality of life at home to then dress identically, all go to the same place and act out some pantomime of meaningfulness appear to have bought into spiritual materialism just as much as they have bought into other forms of materialism. Take the trappings but miss the meaning.

We encountered another tribe on the beach at Calangute, occupying a small shack bedecked with football flags. The next shack along sported a Russian tricolore, but this was England. The occupants were all large, pink, tattooed and shaven-headed. They had the banter of long familiarity, and the enterprising shack owner had accommodated their assorted tastes by featuring items on the menu such as ‘Cheesy Beans on Toast’ or ‘Full English Breakfast’. One man, clad in a tiny pair of speedos, absent-mindedly stroked his enormous belly while he talked, as one mind pet a large dog, and regaled his audience with an account of how our Sharon got ‘stook’ at the ‘airdresser’ after two inch of snow caused total chaos on the roads. He was joined at his table by a lady who resembled an overtanned wallet, sagging mahogany-coloured hide prominently on display. I wonder at the enormity of these people – they are three times the size of the locals, who glide around them loose-limbed and smiling, extracting rupees effortlessly.

 

Jaisalmer – Ranakpur – Jodhpur (2011)

Travelstained and looking increasingly disreputable, we rolled into Jodhpur after a seven hour drive from Jaisalmer. The sun had been on my side of the car all day as we drove east, and by the time we arrived I was glowing nicely. But the hotel proved elusive. I never had any idea from one day to the next what kind of place had been arranged – whether a glorified truck stop or some kind of former palace, and as we headed into increasingly battered-looking suburbs I began to resign myself to a dingy room with cold water bucket shower. This ‘Indian-style’ shower is by far the most water-efficient form of ablution. You fill a large plastic bucket from the tap, tip water over yourself with a small jug, soap up, then sluice off the suds. Nevertheless it’s nice to have a proper shower from time to time. Jaisalmer had promised “hot and cold water – 24 hour!” but sadly that hadn’t been the case.

Kothi Heritage

Kothi Heritage

The Kothi Heritage announced itself in a blaze of whitewashed stonework which rose out of an indifferent side street. I wandered into the reception past a fountain filled with petals, feeling culturally zapped, wide-eyed at the ornate decor: it was like walking into one of those palace museums. Red velvet cushions were placed around a tall hookah waterpipe, and coloured glass in the windows threw kaleidoscopes of sunlight across the floor. Someone wandered up and offered to take my bag. I asked whether I oughtn’t to check in first. ‘Later no problem sir – you must be tired.’ I was presented with a glass of fresh mango juice and a garland of marigolds placed around my neck, so I wandered into the garden and sat down in the shade, ordered a pot of chai, and drawing deeply on a Navy Cut cigarette, marvelled at my good fortune in finding this place. And I was to be here for two nights. Thank goodness for civilization.

The hotel was in fact a family home, with the family still in residence upstairs. They were Jains, and as such were strict vegetarians, with a ban on the eating of foods that grow beneath the ground. This was no problem for me – I had been vegetarian for most of the trip so far, and didn’t miss what is discretely referred to as the ‘non-veg’ option. That night I dined in the cavernous lounge on vegetable biryani, which was delicately spiced. A waiter hovered nearby, and since I was the only diner I was the object of great scrutiny. Eventually, feeling a bit like some exotic species in a zoo, I sent him away with the words “I’ll call if I need you”. He retired to the other side of a curtain, where he hovered some more.

Mehrangarh Fort Jodhpur

Mehrangarh Fort Jodhpur

I hit the shops that afternoon, stocking up on Christmas presents. Tie-dyed shirts, silk scarves, dresses for my niece in vibrant Rajasthani colours and a set of kurta pyjama for myself – the traditional long white shirt and tapering trousers. The National Handloom Corporation is one of the few outlets here which offers fixed prices on things, so you bypass the tedious pasttime of bargaining. In the manner of Vietnamese restaurants, however, there are several variations on the name, and it took a couple of attempts to find the right one. When one salesman told me, almost with tears in his eyes, that the quilt he had unfurled across the floor was made exclusively by widows and orphans, I raised a sceptical eyebrow and swiftly left the premises.

The newspaper here has an article about the lengths that parents are going to to get their children into decent schools. Kids are being offered coaching in skills such as deportment, table manners and ‘positive demeanour’ in order to impress interviewers. The local journalistic style is a bouncy, jaunty sort of affair, interspersed with cricketing metaphors. One might find that a bad examination result ‘knocks them for six’. It is of course important to play a straight bat at all times. Female college students, apparently, ‘chirp’. And while I certainly acknowledge that it has been pretty chilly, to read the headline that ‘Policemen brave the elements in temperatures as low as 5 degrees C in devastating Cold Wave’, one would think there had been a tornado. Schools have closed all over the state due to the Cold Wave. Still, it’s nice to know it’s not just the British who are completely incompetent at dealing with a bit of cold weather.

Mehrangarh rooms

Mehrangarh rooms

My laundry is returned to me at 10pm smelling of carbolic soap. Small coloured threads have been tied onto each item to label them. After several trips round South-East Asia, where they have a similar practice, some of my clothes have a veritable embroidery of different coloured threads going on. I’m sure I’m supposed to remove them, but I quite like it; I feel a bit like a wandering stupa bedecked with prayer flags.

Jaswant Thada

Jaswant Thada

We visited Ranakpur the next day, a beautiful Jain temple on the way to Udaipur. Being Jain, there is a ban on any leather goods inside the temple. I must admit, I hadn’t realised quite how much of my stuff was leather. I not only remove shoes but also belt, camera bag, money belt, Swiss Army knife case and pen case. Anxious-looking tourists shuffle round in their socks with their trousers falling down, pockets stuffed full of thousands of rupees.  My initial foray into the entrance did not go especially well. I had forgotten my Aussie hat in my bag, which is of course made of suede. A sharp-eyed security lady gave me a stern look and wordlessly pointed back down the steps. I reorganised, and had to dispense with my water (‘Kaiser Kwencher’ of all things) and a couple of packets of Navy Cut. Eventually I was acceptably pure and was allowed admittance.

Ranakpur Interior

Ranakpur Interior

Collonades of ornate pillars and a cool marble floor. People praying in the alcoves. Soft-footed padding of pilgrims. Doves wheeling overhead. At this point I reached into my pocket for my camera and encountered… my wallet. Black, multipocketed, and advertising that it is made of ‘Echtes Leder’. For anyone who doesn’t speak German it is also helpfully accompanied by an image of a spreadeagled animal hide. I was immediately struck with guilt. I was deep within the temple now, and was probably committing a mortal sin, or at least the Jain equivalent thereof. What if my contaminating presence somehow negated all the prayers said that day? What lengths would they have to go to to purify the place? I developed a furtive air of immense guilt, and tried to casually saunter back towards the entrance. A security guard caught my eye, and I immediately looked away, uncomfortably aware of the large chunk of dead Germanic animal nestling in my pocket. Acting nonchalent I regained the entrance steps and strolled down them like a good tourist. The security lady looked me up and down disapprovingly, and said “Leaving already?”

“Oh, yes, sorry… must dash. Very interesting place. Fascinating.” Carrying my sinful cargo I scurried off to the safety of the car park.

Arches

Arches

Mr Mukesh was deep in conversation with another driver when I arrived, and turned to me and said: “You wanting lunch?” I was. Round the back of the temple was a small canteen, to cater for pilgrims, worshippers and just the generally dispossesed. We paid 25 rupees each for two coupons (£1.00 equals 70 rupees) and took our places on the end of a long bench packed full of people spooning up dal with their bare hands, all dining in silence. A few curious eyes turned to me briefly before getting back to the serious business of eating. A rather sweaty man carrying two buckets in a yoke across his shoulders waddled over and dumped a ladleful of brown liquid into a bowl before me. Another passing figure chucked a couple of puris onto the top – like rather subdued Yorkshire puddings – which I began to nibble tentatively. The sweaty man came back and gave me a spoonful of what looked like potato salad, and as he did so, broke the previous record for ‘service with a smile’, until now held by a loudly sniffing waiter in Jaipur, by giving an earsplitting belch as he flung the stuff onto my tray. He then wandered off scratching himself.

Ranakpur Temple

Ranakpur Temple

Having finished what was on my tray, which was not too bad really, although definitely in the ‘not spicy’ category, lacking as it did any onion, garlic or chilli, all eyes on the bench turned to a small, wizened figure in a white dhoti carrying a bowl of rice. He was terribly short-sighted, and would shuffle up to someone, push his face toward their tray until it was only a few inches away, in the manner of a myopic tortoise, and then, having established the general direction in which to aim, would fire a spoonful of rice at the blurry shape before him. I ended up with a sizeable amount in my lap, which I picked at in between courses.

Four teenage lads arrived, all with mullet hairdos and the kind of wispy moustaches that only a 15-year-old could carry off. They looked like a wandering 1980s boyband. They gaped at the gora (me) for a bit but then got distracted by trying to avoid the food being flung at them by the servers. Mr Mukesh hoovered up what seemed like scores of puris in the manner of a camel at a waterhole stocking up between distant oases, before loudly belching himself and making for the tap to rinse his hands.

Black faced langur holding toes

Black faced langur holding toes

Jaisalmer – Jodhpur (2011)

Jaisalmer at dawn. The fortress has disappeared in a chilly cloud of mist. Trucks grind along the road, their airhorns carolling to each other. A compound door opens in the lane below and a group of women come spilling out into the road, all laughing and teasing each other, excitable as schoolgirls escaping a classroom. They crouch down on their haunches round a small fire on the roadside, stretching out their braceleted arms to its warmth, and draw their shawls around themselves.

 

Cow and lady

Cow and lady

Sitting in the restaurant at breakfast I felt a nudge on my leg beneath the table. Expecting a dog or similar I looked down to see a boy sweeping the floor with a wet rag. My presence was no obstacle to him – he carefully wiped the rag around my feet and then scuttled away crablike across the floor. Later I commented on this rather incongruous form of cleaning to a German doctor I was sharing a table with. “I too have noticed this,” he said. “They take the dirt so, from one side, and they move it so, to this other side. But still the dirt is there, no? It has only moved.”

Dinner last night was at Monica’s Restaurant, which I had some trepidation about, recalling a 9 hour bus ride in Laos through a jagged limestone landscape, only to end up in Vang Vieng, a town full of restaurants with enormous plasma screens blaring out re-run episodes of ‘Friends’. Fortunately Monica’s Restaurant in Jaisalmer appeared to have no such Friendly connection. In the corner of the room stood a small shrine from which coiled fragrant wafts of agarbathi incense, and some ambient world music chillout was playing softly on the stereo. The only other diners were three uptight young German lads who looked pink and freshly scrubbed in their brand-new trekking gear, each with a Lonely Planet guidebook on the table before them. I ordered a thali, a large silver tray with multiple dishes in bowls upon it and several kinds of bread, which I have to say was very good. 120 rupees for this one, a little under £2.00. Most of the places I go with Mr Mukesh would be half that price.

Jaisalmer square

Jaisalmer square

We headed out to Kuldara, an abandoned village some 30km outside Jaisalmer. Rumour has it that the village was abandoned overnight, although theories vary. Mr Mukesh the romantic gave me the popular version: that the local maharaja had fallen for a village girl who was in love with another man. The maharaja threatened the couple with banishment, whereupon the entire village closed ranks around them, deciding to abandon their homes. In a place where honour killings are commonplace, with young couples sometimes murdered on the orders of village headmen because they are of different caste or religion, this had a suspiciously whitewashed air to it. I later heard a more prosaic explanation – that the local maharaja had demanded an increase in taxes from the villagers, and threatened to evict them if the money was not forthcoming. The villagers decided they would take their chances elsewhere, upped sticks and disappeared. It was an eerie place, silent but for the desert wind which keened and moaned between the buildings.

 

Kuldara temple

Kuldara temple

Heading to Jodhpur we stopped at a roadside chai stall with the usual charpoy string beds, young kids serving the tea. These two were pests, with a hard-eyed acquisitive glitter. After initial curiosity, they began to demand that I give them ‘one pen’, or failing that, 10 rupees. “You bring do chai, I give 10 rupees,” I told them. “Nay chai, nay rupiah.” Eventually the tea arrived, and we sat on the beds while Mr Mukesh explained to them, somewhat to my surprise, that I was a PhD student doing ‘research’ in London. In what subject? All subjects. Politics, mostly, and also some history. I fought to prevent myself from snorting with laughter as he enumerated all manner of academic accolades to which I am not entitled. The boy to my left began fingering my watch – only a cheap Casio that I use for travelling. I showed him the time in London, thinking I might as well add geography to the impressively long list of my specialisms. “You give me,” he said. I’d had enough, told them to ‘hurry up and go away’ in Hindi, stood up and walked back to the car.

Jaisalmer Fort

Jaisalmer Fort

We were heading for Osiyan, the site of a famous temple, but finding the place proved far from straightforward. We headed off onto a minor road – a single strip of tarmac wide enough to accommodate one vehicle with dirt verges – passing through increasingly remote scenery. Many of the fields were divided up with dry stone walls, an incongruous sight in this landscape; if you half-closed your eyes you might be in north-west England on a particularly fine day. Mr Mukesh stopped several times to ask directions, and became increasingly jittery as it became clear we were hopelessly lost, driving too fast through villages and playing a game of chicken with oncoming traffic, swerving onto the verge at the last minute. Entering one village at around 80kmh we crashed over a set of speed humps, and he suddenly screamed to a halt and pulled off the road. A crowd of people were walking toward us – farmers in whote dhotis and orange turbans.

“What is it?” I asked.

“Dead body coming,” he replied.

I saw that the crowd were bearing a litter upon which someone lay beneath a sheet. We could hear the wailing women as they went by, and Mr Mukesh pressed his hands together in prayer and bowed his head. I wasn’t quite sure what to do, so I removed my hat and lowered my eyes until they had passed.

Street scene

Street scene

Eventually we found Osiyan, and I walked round the temple, which was imposing. One tip for prospective travellers – avoid white socks. Given the frequency with which you have to remove your shoes, black’s probably the best option. Within seconds of entering the temple a young man with a vaguely snide manner approached me, despite my rather unfriendly gaze.

“Sar? Sar? This carving of Lord Krishna.”

“No guide, thank you.”

“Not guiding, sar. Only showing.”

“Well I want to be left alone.”

Nevertheless, he persisted in following me, helpfully pointing out things such as “this is like Lord Ganesh,” which I couldn’t possibly have worked out for myself, although the trunk and large floppy ears were a bit of a giveaway as to the identity of the elephant-headed god. On leaving he hassled me for a tip, and sulked when I stuck 20 rupees in the temple donation box. He sulked even more when Mr Mukesh saw him, and said (as he later explained to me): “Don’t bother trying to sting him for a tip just because he’s a gora. He doesn’t fall for that stuff.”

Osiyan temple

Osiyan temple

 

 

Bikaner – Jaisalmer (2011)

We left Bikaner at 9am for the long drive to Jaisalmer. It was absolutely freezing. The heater in the Tata turns out not to be working – the dial only turns as far as the blue then sticks fast. Mr Mukesh tried putting on the fan, which came on with a wobbly screech and wafted a fishy, glue-like smell around the cabin, so I turned it off. After an hour my feet had gone numb and I was shivering, so he dug two blankets out of the boot. We draped these over our heads in the local manner and wrapped them around ourselves, hunched over like two old ladies in shawls. Through a grey haze a tiny, pale sun rose into the sky, giving no heat. Then, abruptly at 11am the mistyness began to disperse and the temperature started to climb.

Mr Mukesh looks worried

Mr Mukesh looks worried

The road to Jaisalmer became more and more arid with each passing hour. Camels browsed on thorn trees and drifts of sand spread out across the road. The colour of the earth changed, from red laterite to beige, but sometimes we would pass an expanse of green foliage with yellow flowers: mustard plants. The oil is used for cooking here. We were frequently overtaken by 4×4 vehicles emblazoned with the names of tour companies, usually sporting a couple of brightly-coloured rucksacks on the roof. Mr Mukesh sticks to a steady 80kmh, and indeed this proves to be wise, since we frequently crash into potholes which feel like they will tear the wheels off. Nevertheless, the Tata soldiers on.

I notice a small silver reservoir stuck to the dashboard; the liquid inside slops whenever we hit a bump. I know Mr Mukesh is vegetarian, and surmise that he must be a Hindu, so perhaps this is some kind of holy water, maybe from the Ganges at Varanasi? I ask him.

“This?” he says, removing the lid and dipping in a finger. “This is agarbatti (incense). Nice smelling.” It turns out to be an air freshener.

Jaisalmer

Jaisalmer

We pass a convoy of army trucks coming the opposite way. On the back of each one, as on all Indian trucks, is a colourful stencil saying ‘Horn Please’. Above the offside mudguard is the admonition ‘Wait for Side’, although what this means I have no idea. “Army”, says Mr Mukesh. “Many army in Jaisalmer. Because Pakistan. Pakistan peoples…” he tails off into laughter, shaking his head at the assorted unspoken follies of Pakistan. “Very angry with Indian. Maybe Pakistan army coming to Jaisalmer. Here border is closed, but in Amritsar, Indian side, happy! Smiling! This! Dancing! Pakistan side” – he wipes the grin off his face with a hand and looks stern – “very serious. Not laughing.”

I smile weakly at this rather improbable account of spontaneous merriment, trying to maintain a semblance of diplomatic immunity, and look out of the window at the thorny scrubland that stretches away from us all the way to the border and then on for a thousand miles the other side.

Cow parking

Cow parking

We pass a few isolated truck stops en route, including one where, upon seeing a gora (white, foreigner, long-nosed devil etc) in the passenger seat, the boy sprints towards us while frantically waving his arms so enthusiastically that he almost gets run over. “This place not good,” pronounces Mr Mukesh with a slight wince of distaste. 10 minutes further on we spot a small row of stalls and a sign for the Panihani Restaurant, so we pull in for some lunch. This one is much more laid back, and we are ushered inside and I am handed a greasy menu. An endless squadron of flies circle about the room, one continually landing on the back of my hand as I study the menu. It advertises Nan Stuff, Cheez Nan, Peez Pulao and something called Special Vag. Deciding against the vag, special or otherwise, we settle for Dal Fri (Fried Lentils) and Tandoori Roti. I carefully sterilise my hands with my antibacterial wet wipes, which assure me that they are effective against 99.9% of bacteria. Of course if anywhere was going to be a reservoir of that rogue 0.1% it would be India. Despite my precautions, which leave my hands smelling like a mixture of bathroom cleaner and baby lotion, the boy who brings the roti has a disconcerting habit of carefully folding over each one with his hands before putting them on my tray. A young lad no more than eight years of age takes two stainless steel cups and makes a great show of wiping them repeatedly with a grimy dishcloth tucked into his trousers, while grinning broadly at us all the while. I sip at my Fanta like a maiden aunt at a vicarage tea party, trying not to touch anything. Despite this lingering paranoia, the dal is pretty good.

Standing room only

Standing room only

We reach Jaisalmer in mid-afternoon, entering the usual chaos of Indian traffic before bumping off down a dirt side road towards the Hotel Bharat Villas. It’s functional rather than fancy, and has a rooftop terrace restaurant with a nice view of the fort which dominates the hilltop. The surrounding side streets are full of small mechanics’ workshops which echo to the sound of clanging and hammering until late at night. Small hairy pigs snuffle through piles of rubbish, periodically being chased squealing away by one of the resident dogs. One rubbish pile has pigs, dogs and a solitary cow all contentedly rooting through it. Motorbikes zoom up and down the narrow streets, honking incessantly.

Jaisalmer Haveli

Jaisalmer Haveli

Jaisalmer is unusual in that the fort on the hilltop is part of the town, so rather than pay a couple of hundred rupees to get in (or 100 rupees foreign student discount courtesy of an expired student card), there is no charge to walk around the walled city. The sandstone used in construction here is a pale yellow in colour, and when the desert sun begins to lower in the sky the entire town turns golden. There are many small shops selling the inevitable backpacker-style ‘ethnic’ clothing, some of it traditional, much of it not. This town is used to tourists, so the prices are relatively high; casually asking about a shirt I am quoted 1000 rupees. I bought an identical one in Delhi for 250 (about £3). At sunset the chanting from a temple echoes through the walkways of the old town, the sound mingling with the laughter of children playing cricket with a stick and an old bundle of rags taped into a ball.

The Golden City

The Golden City

Mandawa – Bikaner (2011)

“Many Indians unHonesty. But my India great.” – Mr Mukesh, 2nd January 2011

Winter in a desert town. When the sun disappears around 6pm the chill gets into your bones. Bikaner is a baked mud-brick town with hotels that look like fortresses, decorated with red ochre battlements and crenellations. Wide open streets and a sense that on the outskirts of town lies a great nothingness – we are on the edge of the Thar Desert. I appear to be the only guest at the Palace View Hotel, which one might reasonably assume to have a view of the palace, although one would be wrong in that regard.

A tour of the fort, which was imposing, if rather battered. Dusty mementoes and faded photos of fresh-faced Sahibs out from England posing with freshly slaughtered tigers. They peer out of an opaque sepia fog in the photographs which thickens a little more each year, until one day they will fade into obscurity completely. One of the maharaja’s toys in the garage is a biplane.

Chai stall

Chai stall

People mostly speak a rudimentary form of English, but sometimes none, so I have to try out my extremely basic Hindi. As a language it appears to have few of the flowery politenesses with which we bedeck English. If I say to Mr Mukesh: “Can we stop at some point so I can buy some cigarettes?” he will smile, nod, and keep driving indefinitely. If I instead announce “Stop here!” he will immediately do so. Something like “Would you mind passing the salt” would become more of a metaphysical question on the nature of free will. The chap who comes to collect my tea things is puzzled by the absence of a cup, which I had left on a table where it had already been removed. I tell him: “I left the cup over there but another waiter took it.” He does a cartoon parody of terminal confusion, knitting his brows and scratching his head. “Cup gone before already” I tell him, and understanding spreads across his face like a shaft of sunlight emerging from stormclouds, he beams and waggles his head happily.

Bikaner Fort

Bikaner Fort

The hotel owner is a mine of information about local history. Dressed in a beret and a khaki anorak, with a blunt, military-style moustache, he emanates soldierly efficiency. But when I question him he replies wistfully that no, he was never a soldier, although his great-grandfather led an elephant charge once against the Maharaja of Jodhpur.

The television, which seems to show nothing but cricket, Sikhs in enormous turbans singing interminable songs, and raunchy Bollywood dancing in strobe-lit nightclubs where it is always raining, emits a long, drawn-out farting noise when I turn it off. Terribly appropriate somehow.

I breakfasted alone on toast and omlit in a dessicated dining room of faded gentility, waited on by a solitary ancient retainer who had a disconcerting habit of sighing loudly to himself periodically, as if suffering from some terrible depression. Still, he was better than the waiter yesterday who deposited my tea in front of me with a loud gurgling sniff, shortly before shambling over to the gutter and embarking on a course of painful-sounding hoickings and flobbings.

Camel cart

Camel cart

We stopped at a roadside truck stop for chai, sitting on charpoy string beds. A man squatted at the end of one and soaped himself all over before sluicing away the grime with a plastic jug. Three young boys were running the place, none of them at school. The teacher, they explained, seldom bothered to turn up, and when he did he usually fell asleep. It was a government school, and apparently not an unusual scenario. The place is covered with newly constructed private schools, as well as universities that look like building sites (here, in this howling wilderness, of all places). Government schools pay reasonably well, but the whole system is so corrupt that inspectors are paid off to give favourable reports. Either that or teachers are well connected, with a relative who is a ‘big man’, and are therefore unsackable. As we talked, a man roared off into the distance on a brand new Honda Hero motorbike, and one of the boys tilted his head at the departing dustcloud. “There goes the teacher”, he announced.

Truck stop

Truck stop

 

 

Jaipur – Shekhawati (2011)

New Year’s Eve found me sitting on the rooftop of the hotel Arya Niwas in Jaipur, smoking a large cigar and watching as boys on adjacent rooftops flew small diamond-shaped kites. They fought pitched battles, trying to bring down each others’ kites by glueing ground glass to the string and attempting to saw through the others. The kites wheeled and bobbed, making a high snapping flutter upon the breeze. Towards midnight other guests drifted up to the rooftop to watch fireworks spread out across the city, distant flares of light in green and gold that burst into cascading showers of colour that glittered in the darkness as they fell. Two Germans who had been standing nearby turned to me on the stroke of midnight and we all solemnly shook hands and wished each other happy new year.

View of Jaipur from Jaigarh Fort

View of Jaipur from Jaigarh Fort

Arya Niwas had its own tour company, and I had asked them to put an itinerary together for me, staying in mid-range hotels on a trip round the state lasting 2 weeks. This was compiled by Mr Rakesh who fairly bubbled over with enthusiasm at the task, waxing lyrical about the many glorious visions and spectacles that lay ahead of me. “Tomorrow you go to Shekhawati – it’s like a huge open-air gallery!” he enthused in a frenzy of head-waggling. Jaisalmer the Golden City, Jodhpur the Blue City, and Udaipur the Lake City (which I misheard as ‘the Black City’) were all on the itinerary, in what promised to be a vibrantly colourful trip. I had already established with Mr Mukesh the driver that my preferred hour of departure in the morning was 9.30am, which felt civilized and yet early enough to make good time, and so it was that the next morning I emerged after breakfast (parathas, ‘omlit’ and lots of sweet, milky tea) to find him waiting by the freshly washed Tata. Destination: Shekhawati, or as Mr Mukesh called it in his Rajasthani accent, ‘Seh-car-vati’. Notes from the drive to Nawalgarh:

Peacock Door, Jaipur

Peacock Door, Jaipur

A shop called ‘Cat Moss’. Tractor bedecked in tinsel with loudspeakers playing Bollywood hits. Roadworks – women in saris carrying rocks on their heads. Sign – ‘Work in progress for better tomarrow’ [sic]. ‘Explosive Godown’ (a warehouse with inflammable goods). Billboard ads for Sheba underwear ‘with less tension’. Camel carts. The camels’ disdainful plodding gait. Small, round mud huts that look like Africa. Women colourful as birds carrying silver ‘matka’ pots of water on their heads. The Aarg Travel Company.  Pillion on a motorcycle wearing a zimmer frame over his shoulders. Police in leather jackets sitting with their backs to the checkpoint, reading newspapers. Disney Academy – Tuition in the English medium. Anisha Boys’ Hotel. Trust in the God. A house painted in mauve and lime green.

“How far to Shekhawati, Mr Mukesh?”

“Not far. Maybe 160km.”

(Strewth, that’s a hundred miles.)

We reached the town of Nawalgarh in mid-afternoon, famed for its painted havelis, or merchants’ houses. Many are in a state of disrepair, on roads that are basically sinking, but they are still inhabited by people. Some have been restored, and the eye wanders over colourful decorations, every wall or surface alive with squirling calligraphy or paintings of gods and goddesses from the vast Hindu pantheon. We stopped for chai in the main square – 5 rupees each – served scalding hot in small glasses. I developed a trick of slurping the tea over my thumb to avoid making contact with the glass, which had undergone a cursory rinse with a tap that dribbled endlessly into a gutter that was choked with effluent. Nice tea though. Mr Mukesh picked up the tab.

Lake palace Jaipur

Lake palace Jaipur

Although the days are hot, it is cold at night – down to 4 degrees. People shuffle around wrapped in blankets. The Apni Dhani eco-lodge is full of French people, who express polite amazement that an English person can speak their language, and the dinner that night has something of the atmosphere of a dinner party somewhere in provincial France as we spoon up our dal and curry from banana leaf bowls. My room is a rondavel mud hut with a feeble energy-saving bulb, so I sit out in the main circle and chat to two Indian students of development who are extremely switched on and very interesting company; he comes from Assam in the far east and appears Oriental, she comes from Tamil Nadu in the deep south. At sunset the bougainvillea over my head is alive with the chirping of sparrows. Smells of dust and woodsmoke, a distant cockerel and women’s laughter from the compound as they do the washing up. Nightfall in rural India.

Apni Dhani Rondavel

Apni Dhani Rondavel