Friday, 22 April 2011

India - The first IPL game

April 19-20

Hello everyone!

I really, really like India. I do feel, however, that one or two small issues are preventing me from completely falling in love with this rich, incredible country. Being back in Delhi has reminded me of the frustrations of dealing with rickshaw drivers.

You need to be firm. You need to know when to walk away. But most of all, you need patience. Here are some examples of fares we were quoted during our two days in Delhi, followed by the price we actually paid and how long negotiations took:

· Nizamuddin train station to Bashir’s house: Rs60 but had no idea where we wanted to go, Rs90, Rs200. Paid: Rs75. Time taken: c.15 minutes.

· Old Delhi to Humayun’s Tomb: Rs200, Rs150, Rs120. Paid: Rs110. Time taken: 10 minutes.

· Humayun’s Tomb to Lotus Temple: Rs170. Paid: Rs60. Time taken: 5 minutes.

My favoured bargaining technique is the laugh-in-their-face, followed by the ‘gora price’ (white price) quote, then moving up 10-20 rupees, before walking off but taking one last longing look at the driver whilst stating my price with my fingers. It is an effort, and many would think that haggling for Rs10 is pointless, but it’s the principle. They are trying to drain every last rupee from me, and I cannot let that happen. Rs10 is sometimes two cups of chai!

Even once the price is agrees the game is not over. Some will want to take you to a shop; others will moan and wail and (possibly) curse. But the favourite trick is to say they have ‘no change’. A cycle-rickshaw driver – who was probably more deserving than most, pedalling us around in the oppressive heat – tried this trick on us when he dropped us at the cricket ground. Luckily, cricket games are a big deal here, meaning army soldiers are dotted around. Walking up to one of them and explaining the situation made our cyclist find his change very quickly.

We were at the cricket ground to see an Indian Premier League (IPL) match. The IPL is the second highest-paid sports league, based on first-team salaries on a pro rata basis, second only to the NBA. It is estimated that the average salary of an IPL player over a year would be $3.84 million. It is quite simply monstrous. You would think that a place may be exhausted of a sport after hosting – let alone winning – its World Cup, but the relationship between India and cricket is stronger than the Hulk on steroids. As a result, it is quite difficult to get a ticket to enter the 48,000-seater home of the Delhi Daredevils, but the soldiers don’t seem to pay attention to the ticket touts, and we were soon inside.

Well, we thought we would be. Frustration reigning supreme once again. We were initially turned away because I had a bag, and only girls are allowed to take bags inside. I left it behind the counter in a petrol station and we returned. We were then told that coins and bottles could not be taken into the ground. The suncream, hand gel, mosquito spray et al are put into my bag – and a Rs10 tip into the hand of the man looking after it – and we returned to finally enter the Firoz Shah Kotla Stadium. Until they found our cameras.

There is a list stating that 39 – thirty-nine – different types of item that cannot enter the stadium. These range from pens to coins to flags to…cameras. Now we had a problem. We couldn’t risk leaving something of actual value at the petrol station, but they had meticulously checked Kristina’s bag once, and were sure to do so again. In spite of my pleading with security, they told me there was no locker in the ground where we could leave them, and my attempt of telling them that it would make the IPL popular in Austria fell on deaf ears. One then quietly said to try a different gate. Our bag is checked, and nothing on the big list is found. Challo!

The lengths they went to prevent us taking our cameras seemed perverse when we reached the top tier to find several people videoing the event on their phones. I started using my iPod and aroused no suspicion. The atmosphere, though not as glorious as at the World Cup matches, was vibrant and colourful, even though spectators seemed to cheer everything, rather than just cheer Delhi’s positive moments.

This may be because the IPL is only four years old – meaning that the bond between club and fan isn’t yet tight – and because most fans seem to identify with the favourite people, as opposed to the local team. Many, for example, support Mumbai, because Sachin ‘God’ Tendulkar plays for them. Most IPL teams are also owned by Bollywood stars, so a person who loves Preity Zinta would be more inclined to support Kings XI Punjab than their own city’s team.

Of course, they may have been cheering both sides because Delhi were well and truly rubbish and gave us very little to shout about. I did thoroughly enjoy it – county cricket in England could never be this glamorous or popular – and Kristina…well, I think she enjoyed it once it had started and I could explain the rules. Everybody in the stadium loved it, though I’m sure some bought tickets just to stare at the American cheerleaders imported in for the tournament.

This was the two days we had set aside to see the major sights of Delhi. The Red Fort, known as Lal Qila (a curry house I used to eat at in Manchester), was compact and appealing, seeming more like residential grounds than a defensive barrier. In fact the only time it has a military edge to it was when a man with a large gun came over to tell us to stop trespassing in areas we weren’t supposed to frequent.

We also saw Hanyuman’s Tomb, which is a beautiful building with unerring similarities to the Taj Mahal.

Finally, there was the spectacular Lotus Temple, which is surprisingly plain on the inside. I think it’s because a person of any faith can worship here, so they don’t want to offend anyone.

We once again stayed in the wonderful company of Bashir and his associates. We even had the pleasure of visiting his own house for breakfast. Just the seven pieces of toast were forced down me, but I was happy to eat as he recalled selling goods to Carrie Fisher (Princess Leia in the original Star Wars) and not having a clue who she was, before then being invited for tea with her in Beverly Hills. As ever, dinner was enormous, in both quantity and the level of satisfaction.

It was a busy, gruelling, yet entertaining two days. Kristina has now unfortunately had to return to Vienna, so I am once again flying solo. My volunteering placement starts on Monday, so I have a few days to try to experience something new and incredible. What’s that? Go try and find an endangered tiger? Oh, go on then!

Love you all


India - The first Bond set

April 16-18

Hello everyone!

An overnight train took us away from the mayhem of Agra to the serenity of Udaipur, back in Rajasthan. It was Kristina’s first overnight train, and couldn’t have been much worse for her. I’ve been ill on this trip, but it has never hit me hard when on a train. Not what you want. I have a cold – yes, a cold in consistently 30-40’C India, I don’t understand either – but that’s just an irritant, and not serious enough to keep me running to a toilet all night.

As a result we spent our first day not seeing very much of the city dubbed the ‘Venice of the East’. It is a rather tenuous link. Udaipur is a romantic place, and there is more water here than in your standard city, but there are no canals. There are roads. With cars and rickshaws and cows. Things I don’t associate with the city Italians call Venezia.

We probably saw more of Udaipur on TV than in person on that first day, as we watched the first half of Octopussy that evening. Much of this movie was filmed on location in Udaipur. It may well be one of the worst James Bond movies ever made, but don’t say that to the locals. They are proud of it. So proud, it seems, that numerous guesthouses will screen Octopussy at 7.30pm. Every night.

I guess we would have disappointed the locals somewhat by not actually visiting the key locations from the film. The Monsoon Palace is far away and high up on a hill, and we weren’t going to spend Rs700 getting a five-minute boat to the Lake Palace Hotel; a trip that would only make us wish we had more money to throw around. I say that, but we couldn’t complain with the view from our guesthouse. Even though I spent a bit of time moaning about Kristina wanting us to wake up to see it at sunrise. Good decision, actually.

The view after the sun sets is also something to behold. The illuminated building that captures your immediate vision is the City Palace, one of the sights we did see. It possesses great views of the city and equally commanding Lake Pichola below. Ti was a pretty palace, and probably would have been better if we had known what room we were in at any point. The only information we learnt was due to us following a German couple and Kristina listening to their guide, before translating for me. Sly.

The City Palace’s tranquillity was balanced by our trip to the chaotic Mandi Market to buy some spices. When in an Indian market I often let my mind become vacant – partly so I can absorb the bustle, sights and smells; but also because it is silly to try thinking or conversing when you cannot hear yourself do either. Shortly after I had a dish called dal baati choorma; something I was told I had to eat. I don’t know why. Kristina ordered a thali and it seemed as if we had the same food. Still, at Rs50 and with unlimited refills of all foodstuffs, I’ll score it quite highly.

The best sights we saw were actually quite far from Udaipur itself. We hired a cab for a day on the recommendation of the lovely rickshaw driver called Manu, who picked us up from the train station and bought us chai, and were driven to two places. The first, 84km to the north, was a stone fort called Kumbalgarh. It soars impressively on the top of very high, craggy rockfaces. The fort is 1100m above sea level, which is higher than any point in Wales. It did make me wonder if you would actually be able to see enemy forces approaching, but you do realise how impenetrable it must have seemed to those craning their necks below.

It is a great fort and, though it was a hazy day, it is definitely worth persevering the steep hike up through the Kumbha Palace to get to the top. Kumbalgarh houses hundreds of temples and, at 36km, possesses the second longest wall in the world. A distant second, admittedly, but still colossal.

Colossal is one word that can accurately describe the other attraction we saw, the temple at Ranakpur. The structure, made entirely of glistening white marble, is supported by 1444 pillars. Impressive enough, but it is only when you discover that no two pillars are alike in design that you appreciate the intricacy and artistry of the Chaumukha Temple. Of course, some pillars look awfully similar, and even the most passionate architect or sculptor would tire of looking at each individual column, but it is a wonderful complex.

From Ranakpur it is a 90km drive south to return to Udaipur. It is a long day – made longer by the cows ambling leisurely in the middle of the roads – but a beautiful journey through some stunning landscapes, and the two sights are a rich reward for those who make the trip. Our driver, Ganesh (yes, he has the same name as his God, but before you judge think of all those Spaniards who have the cojones to call themselves Jesus), also took us to a sumptuous lake just north of Udaipur, called Fateh Sagar. Good man.

Udaipur was a very relaxing place – we had no need for the joint we were offered in the rickshaw as we were driven to the train station. The peace that I felt as we sat watching families go about their routines and wash in the lake’s shimmering waters are images that I can always revert to when in a more chaotic location. Like Delhi, to where we now return. But I was say to leave Udaipur; a place for the romantics. And James Bond fanatics, of course.

Love you all


India - The first infuriating child seller

April 15

Hello everyone!

I wrote so much about the Taj last time that I forgot to even mention the other UNESCO World Heritage Site that we visited during our time in Agra. We hopped on a local bus early in the morning and headed 40km west to the town of Fatehpur Sikri. It’s one of India’s 28 World Heritage Sites – the UK has the same number, and the United States has 21 – in order to preserve the fortifications and buildings from when it was the capital of the Mughal empire, over 400 years ago.

The reason the grand mosque and buildings exist is because the Emperor at the time, Akbar, was struggling to have a son through his three wives and 300+ girlfriends; until he visited this village. He consulted a Sufi saint, who told him he would have an heir (really going out on a limb there, considering the number of women available to bear him one). When this prophecy was fulfilled, Akbar moved the capital here, and built structures befitting an important city.

The first one you see, after a steep hike, is the Jama Masjid – the mosque. A young man called Raj offered us a free tour. Very few things are free in India, so I was sceptical. He took us around and was an informative, friendly man – though he repeatedly claimed that all Japanese people are really short – and then took us to his shop within the mosque’s grounds. Exactly the same happened way back in Mamallapuram, and again we walked off. He didn’t pursue us, though, and was a nice guy.

From here we saw the palaces and the pavilions. As we walked I refused the offer of a guide for the third time, at which point the man claimed I had no idea where I was going. Not the best way to get customers, that. He was right, though. It took us a while to find the most picturesque part of the complex – the ornamental pool. The water was a bit too green, but the whole area was tranquil.

Unlike the town itself. Every Indian town or city seems to have an area of chaos where you cannot hear yourself think, let alone speak. I think Indian people call them ‘markets’. Fatehpur Sikri is no different. One really annoying child followed us all the way down the slope asking if he could have our ticket from the complex. I keep these miscellaneous items as mementos, so refused, and got suspicious of him when he said he could get money from it. Whiny little child, and possibly the biggest test of my patience so far in India. Especially when he persuaded the water-seller – another child – to try to sell me water for Rs40, when it is always Rs15 or Rs20. I slapped down Rs20 and walked off with screams and wailing piercing the air behind me.

The Brat, as I will call him, said he was only 10 years old. It’s worrying how many children are put to work at such a young age here. Another boy was trying to sell postcards, and the started blowing a whistle really loudly when we declined. Agra was a similar story of small boy trying to sell you snowcones and poor-quality Taj souvenirs. I know it’s a quick rupee for the family or his boss, but the child is losing out on an education that would vastly improve his life. That’s what I’m telling myself I will offer them when I start volunteering in a week or so.

Fatehpur Sikri is definitely worth a visit if you are staying in Agra. Part of the reason is that Agra is a bit…well…rubbish once you’ve seen the Taj. But it is also an insight into a time long ago, and once again impresses the power of the former Royal families upon you. Just avoid those meddling kids…

Love you all