India (16) – Home again

After all the build up, a very uneventful flight, in which I somehow managed to get one of the prime seats.  Arrived in Amsterdam this morning, to deliciously cold air and a sunny sky.  By 9 o’clock or so I was home and reunited with Rupert, Zephyr and Rasha, who looked very pleased to see me.  Rupert looks fantastic, and it’s hard to believe he’s the same cat who was wearing a nose tube and lampshade not so long ago.

India (15) – Coming home? Or not?

Despite the fact that we had nothing planned today, we were all up early, fretting about the flight situation and the fact that we were likely to be stuck here for the next 10 days.  As soon as 9 o’clock struck, we were back on the phone to KLM, trying about 4 numbers before we finally managed to get to speak to someone.  At the end of the conversation we weren’t any further along – they’d call us back later with some information (we never did hear anything back from them).
We could have had our city tour, but with minds only on the flights, we hung out in the hotel room instead, glued to BBC World and busy with our photos and blogs.  Since we didn’t want to venture too far whilst we were waiting for KLM’s call, lunch was the hotel’s buffet, a tasty and extravagant affair.  Just how extravagant, we realized when we got the bill at the end!
After lunch, a surprising and very welcome call from our local agent.  Apparently he’d spent the morning at the KLM offices, 40km out of the city, and managed to persuade them to put us on the list for tonight’s flight.  If the flight was going, we’d be on it.  We began a little tentative packing, but didn’t want to commit ourselves til we heard back from him.  At 6 he called again – the flight was running and he’d pick us up around 9.30.  To be doubly sure, we rang KLM and they confirmed…. we’re on our way home.
Checked out of the airport at 9, with some amount of shock at the bill we’d manage to run up in just 24 hours – internet usage, laundering enough clothes for a 10 day extension to our trip, phone calls to KLM and of course the buffet all added up!
The airport was in total chaos.  Queues of people lined up outside the terminal, trying just to get in the building.  Without being able to show proof of a ticket, you weren’t allowed in.  So the first stop was the ticket office, to get an updated copy of our ticket.  Our agent fought through the clamour of people trying to get the representative’s attention, and had a long, and slightly worrying looking discussion with him.  Then we were beckoned into the ticket office itself, whilst the KLM rep checked the computer.  The result – nothing but our original booking.  He checked the flight list – no mention of our names.  Our agent shouted, the rep shouted back… the reality was, we were getting nowhere.
If I’d been on my own at that point, I think it wouldn’t have been long before I’d have given up and left the airport, but our agent was made of sterner stuff, and having promised us that we’d be on the flight, was determined not to let us down.  Somehow he managed to persuade the security agents to let us into the building, despite not having a ticket for the night’s flight, and once inside he proceeded to do battle with every KLM representative he could lay his hands on.  The net result, after an hour or so, we got our names put onto the wait list.  After that, it was just a question of sitting down in a corner, and waiting until 12.30am when the main check in closed.  One by one we watched other people from the list being called over, the question was, just how many free seats would there be.  Eventually our agent came over and handed us the departure cards to fill in.  The first moment where I really thought there was a chance we were leaving.  Another 10 minutes and a lot of discussions, and we were beckoned over for check in!  We’d done it, 5 minutes and a lot of typing later, and we were clutching on to boarding passes like our life depended on them.
The main hurdle over, we took our leave of our extremely diligent travel agent.  Only thanks to his efforts were we able to leave just a single day behind our scheduled departure date (and yes, I do feel rather guilty about all the other people there who have already been stuck for longer), rather than being stranded for the 10 days KLM promised us.
Eventually, after getting passports, boarding passes and hand baggage tags stamped multiple times by immigration and security, we left India at 3am.  A fantastic holiday, and one that fortunately wasn’t as marred as it could have been by an unwanted extension.

India (14) – Bandhavgarh to Delhi

Waiting, waiting and more waiting has been the theme for the last couple of days.
We finally left the resort for Amaria train station just before it got dark last night.  I thought I was getting used to Indian traffic, but our first non-city ride at night proved otherwise.  The cars and trucks don’t have rear lights, the cycles have no lights, so as we drove along the windy roads, cyclists kept looming out of the  darkness at the last moment.

Once at the station we had a wait of over an hour.  A little bit tedious, but I kept myself occupied counting the trucks on all the freight trains that went by (Dad has taught me well).  End result – all coal, all 58/59 trucks.  Arie also gave a group of young lads a tiger slideshow on his laptop.  It was obviously well received, and when the boys moved off we kept catching the word ‘tiger’ in their fast Hindi conversation.

Once the train arrived we had to run down the platform with our bags to try and identify our carriage.  A hasty goodbye to  Major, our hardworking driver of the last fortnight, and we were off.  Then the challenge of trying to identify our places (all in different sections), when every section was curtained off and half the occupants were already sleeping (the train has been running for 2/3 days already, apparently).

The train was not too uncomfortable, and the air-conditioning was very welcome after we’d done without for the past couple days.  But the ride was long.  Awake at 6am, there were still 8 hours to go until arrival.. in the end it was another 10 hours, as we made a couple unexplained long (1hr) stops along the way.
The original plan for the afternoon was a city tour of Delhi, followed by the transfer to the airport.  However, as the agent meeting us straightaway confirmed that our flight was cancelled, we asked to find a hotel first and cancel the tour.  A good plan, as it started raining on the drive.  This time, not the budget hotel we started out at, but a flashier place with internet and a swimming pool.
In the room we promptly got the internet working and started scanning flight options to Madrid, Rome, Athens. Lisbon and anywhere else we could think of that wouldn’t be affected by volcano ash.  The results weren’t promising.  A couple cheap options flying with Uzbekistan Airlines through Tashkent which would have still left us stranded in Athens (no good train links there), or a couple exorbitantly priced options through Dubai and Jordan.  Arie managed to get on the phone with KLM only to be told that they could fit us in on the 30th April.. a 10 day wait.  That pretty much dampened our spirits, so we went for dinner in the hotel (expensive, but very good) and drowned our sorrows in a couple bottles of beer (Arie, Marcel) and a double gin and tonic (for me!) before going to bed.

India (13) – Bandhavgarh to Delhi

A long and rather boring day.  After another hot and stuffy night, I was out wandering around the resort looking for birds to photograph by 7.30.  I didn’t turn up much new, although I did get a pond heron.

We had expected to be leaving the resort in the early afternoon to catch the train, but on discussion with Major mid morning it turned out that we didn’t have to go until 6.30.  What a waste of a day, had we known, we’d have organized another tiger safari. After yesterday’s disappointing all-western dinner, we were relieved that lunch was back to the full-Indian buffet.  A big improvement.  Since we won’t get dinner before boarding the train, which we’re on for 17 hours, only arriving in Delhi early tomorrow afternoon, we were relieved to get a proper lunch.  Looks like we’ll be subsisting on crisps and nuts between now and then.
The afternoon, like the morning, we spent hanging around and reading the books on offer.  And, of course, discussing the Iceland volcano situation.  After checking the our booking on the KLM site this morning, we are none the wiser what will happen with our flight, and expect that we will be stuck in Delhi for a few days.  At this point, I think we are all ready to go home…

India (12) – Bandhavgarh

After a hot and muggy night, of tossing and turning and getting tangled in the mosquito nets, we were up at 5 o’ clock this morning for our second safari.  Leaving at 5.30, it was blissfully cool for the first couple of hours.
Varied sightings on the safari, but no tigers.  We did hear the characteristic monkey alarm calls, but they didn’t lead us to a tiger.  Instead, a far rarer sighting, that of the sloth bear (Bahlu in Hindi, and I think Baloo in the Jungle Book).  We didn’t manage to get any good photos of the bear, as it was running full tilt away from us, but still it was exciting to see.
We also saw a large number of sambar deer, spotted deer, wild boar and monkeys, and stopped for quite a few birds, including a crested serpent eagle, ibis, storks and Indian rollers.  The last are beautifully coloured, especially in flight.
Back at the resort, the temperature had risen sky high, so we took things easy.  Walking around to photograph the many birds, including a cattle egret colony of about 30 birds, and some colourful song birds. 
In the afternoon we had our second safari of the day.  This began very quietly, with very little sign of any wildlife, not even birds.  Finally, one of the naturalists heard an alarm call and we headed over in that direction.  Before too long we came across two jeeps stopped in the road, and a tigress walking across between them.  She jumped up on some rocks about 10-15 yards away from us, and proceeded to wash herself thoroughly.  By the time the show was over and she’d fallen asleep, there were 20 jeeps lined up, though we undoubtedly had the best spot.  Certainly a great way to finish our last tiger safari.
Back at the lodge, dinner was a huge disappointment.  When the waiter lifted the lid off the chapati container, it was filled not with chapati, but slices of bread.  The rest of the selection followed the theme – not a single Indian dish amongst them.  This ended up being the first meal in India where I didn’t eat Indian food, and I really missed it.  After dinner we were shown a documentary about the park.  Interesting, but I for one could hardly keep my eyes open, and was relieved when it was over and we could go to bed.

India (11) – Kajuraho to Bandavgarh

An uncomfortable car ride this morning – 5 hours over some very bumpy roads.  So rough, in fact, that most of the cars were driving along the sandy verge at it was easier going on the car and passengers.  We finally arrived at our latest, and last, resort at the Bandagvarh Nature Reserve. 
The resort is lovely and quiet – in fact, there was only one other guest present at dinner, and is situated in the middle of the forest.  The accommodation is fairly basic, but more than satisfactory.  The only downside is the rather unpleasant smell of kippers in our cabin, which seems to be caused by a dead bird in the water in front of the extractor fan. Turning the fan of reduced the smell, but lead to a sweltering night.

We had originally expected to spend the afternoon at the resort, as our first tiger safari wasn’t booked until tomorrow.  There is a limit of 45 jeeps in the main zone of the park at any one time, and as luck would have it, there was a cancellation, and we were able to fill in that place.  

And lucky we certainly were, because we hadn’t been driving too long before our driver suddenly accelerated and joined a group of about 8 jeeps and a couple elephants all huddled around a tiger sighting.  Two cubs, of about 11 months old, sitting in the middle of the road.

When the cubs moved on, we moved further up the road to an open grassy area, and were rewarded for our wait after 10 minutes or so when first the cub’s mother appeared, and then all three of her cubs followed.  We had an amazing view of them playing together, and licking and rubbing against each other, just like Rupert, Rasha and Zephyr do.  Truly an wonderful experience.  The photos didn’t turn out as well as I would have liked – the light was fading, and my shutter speed was a little slow to really catch the action.

It wasn’t only jeeps watching the show, we also saw a couple elephants loaded up with photographers.  Hiring an elephant for the day appeared to be very expensive, and whilst you have the advantage of being able to go offroad, the elephants did seem to get quite distracted by eating, rather than following the tigers at times.

By the time the show was over, all the jeeps had to head back to the park entrance at high speed to get there before closing time, leaving us all covered in dust.  Along t
he way, we had another tiger sighting, this time a young adult male, the elder brother of the cubs.  As he wasn’t doing much other than sleeping, we didn’t hang around too long.

Once back, we had just enough time to shower off all the dirt before dinner.  The food is definitely the best buffet food we’ve had so far – all Indian food, and spicier than what we’ve been given in other hotels along the way.  

India (10) – Kajuraho

We started early this morning, as our guide for the morning was scheduled to pick us up at 7.30am.  Before we came here, none of us had heard of Khajuraho, and even after spending 24 hours here, we still can’t get the name straight in our heads.  Having read the description in the tour guide, which described the highlight as being ‘temples containing erotic sculptures’, we weren’t really sure what to expect.

As it turns out, far from being hidden away in the middle of nowhere as I’d expected, the temples are to be found in the middle of town, in the middle of a large and well maintained park.  They were created about 1100 years ago, by the Jains, and as well as the erotic sculptures for which they are famed, they feature scenes of daily life and battle.

The temples themselves are awe-inspiring, with incredible architecture.  Unfortunately, not all sculptures have survived the ravages of time and the Moghul invasion, but a remarkable number are intact, and the level of detail is amazing.  Also hard to imagine that when the temples were rediscovered by the British (on yet another hunting trip), they were surrounded by jungle, not a town.

We spent a couple hours at the temples, whilst the guide showed us various sculptures of interest, and explained the architecture.  After a short visit to another site with a few smaller temples, and also an active Jain temple (that we couldn’t enter), we were flagging from the heat, and returned to the hotel.

We had a lazy afternoon back at the hotel, snoozing, photo editing and updating the blog.  Luckily the hotel’s internet connection, which had been broken when construction work cut through the cable, was restored, but it worked only long for Arie to upload one blog post, and for me to check my email.  The blog backlog is therefore growing.

In the evening we went to the cultural centre to watch a folk dancing show, showing dances from a number of regions in India.  My view was hampered somewhat by the ceremonial candlestick, but I managed to get a few photos nonetheless.  We finished the day with dinner on a rooftop terrace, in a restaurant named ‘La Terraza’, ‘specializing in Italian, Indian, Chinese, Japanese and Korean food’.  I still haven’t lost my desire to eat Indian food, and this was freshly prepared (we waited a long time!) and good.

India (9) – Orchha to Kajuraho

Today our photography has rather a different focus – primarily people.  We had a late start to the day, as Major wasn’t coming to collect us until 9.30.  We realized afterwards that we could have had a wander around Orchha village beforehand, but as it was, it was nice to have a bit of a lie-in and a relaxed breakfast.

We had 170km to travel to the town of Khajuraho, which as on previous days was split into two parts.  I have to admit that when we stopped at Alipura to see ‘a nice palace’, I didn’t feel too enthusiastic about walking around in the midday sun.  As it happened, though, the palace was low-key, the main features being some paintings and the view over the village.  Our guide, from the palace (which is now a hotel/restaurant) also took us around the village, where we had fun photographing the children.  Getting the kids to pose was not so difficult, getting them to look natural, and not to leap in front of each other in desperate attempts to be in the picture, was!

After a short stop in the restaurant, for a small snack of pakora, samosas and french fries we continued our journey along the rapidly deteriorating road.  Not only a single track road, but one so full of potholes that we were weaving all over the place.  Come to think of it, we do that anyway, since Indian driving includes frequent overtaking on whichever side of the roads takes your fancy.

Despite the state of the road, we were making good progress until we hit a road closure.  First a small warning wall built across the road, which we drove around, followed by a more definitive wall a kilometre or two further along.  Defeated, we had to turn back and take detour.
We arrived in Khajuraho in the early afternoon and were looking forward to cooling off and relaxing a little.  Major had a suggestion for us – to take a bicycle ride up to a village 5km away.  Despite the heat, and the fact that after our bird sanctuary tour we’d sworn off bicycle riding for a while, we decided to go for it, and it turned out to be a good decision.  This time I was luckily enough that they found me a ladies’ bike, albeit one built for giants, or more likely, the Dutch.  According to Bilal, our guide, all his clients are Dutch.  It figures, who else would be crazy enough to go cycling in over 40 C?

The trip took us along bumpy gravel roads, with frequent stops to see the work of the local villagers – digging wells, making bricks, etc.  We ended up spending quite some time touring the village, and again photographing the villagers, particularly the children, who loved seeing their images on the back of the camera screen.

Finally back at the hotel round 6pm, we wasted little time in heading for the swimming pool to cool off before doing some photo/blog work.  Dinner was a big improvement over the last couple nights, having turned down the extortionate 630 rupee buffet option, in favour of the cheaper and tastier a la carte menu.

India (8) – Agra to Orchha

There’s been a recurring theme to the last few days, and it was repeated today – forts!  Spectacular as they are, they are beginning to blend a little into one, and when we sat down at the end of today, we had a hard time remembering anything at all about the first fort of the day.  Truly, we are becoming a little forted-out.

Anyway, I’m getting ahead of myself.  We left Agra this morning for the 240km drive down to Orchha where we’d be spending the night.  The morning took us as far as Gwalior, a city named after the holy man Gwalipa.  We picked up the guide for our (yes, you guessed it) fort tour at a hotel, and took advantage of the 5 minute delay to pick up the hotel’s free wi-fi from the car… just long enough to download the emails, and most importantly blog comments.
Gwalior is quite a large city, and therefore yet again a driving eye-opener.  The bonus traffic item this time was a train line which runs through the middle of the narrow streets.  The line was originally set up by one maharaja or another to take him out to his hunting lodge, but is now heavily used by the locals.  We were luckily enough to see the train coming through, an interesting experience, as all the traffic had to shuffle to one side, to let the train through.  There was a level crossing, but it didn’t actually cover the train tracks!

The fort itself was at the top of a ‘very zigzagfully’ road, and housed not only the palace, but a school and a couple temples.  It was interesting enough, with the highlights being the green/yellow/blue decorations on the outside walls, and two octagonal chambers in the basements, one was the queens’ (all 8 of them) ‘swinging room’ (and later, the hanging room, when the fort was used as a prison), and the other was the queens’ bathing room.

On the way back down the hill from the fort, we stopped to take a closer look at the statues carved into the rocks.  They look a little like Buddha’s but are actually Jain statues.  Unfortunately many of the statues had been defaced (by the moghuls, if I have it correctly), although some were restored by the British (or Britishers, as told by the guide).

Lunch was taken in the same hotel where we met the guide.  The food itself was rather uninspiring, again a buffet with too much emphasis on the western, but we made good use of the wi-fi and updated our blogs whilst eating.  Granny would have been horrified at our manners!
Ever since Agra or thereabouts, the roads have been plastered with advertisements for both schools and tutors.  Some with some quite inventive study topics, such as the physics tutor offering lessons in ‘thermodynamics and strongth of materials’.  I’ve been surprised to see so many children, even in the poorer areas wearing immaculate (very English looking) school uniforms.  Our guide this morning explained that the public schools not only offer free tuition, but also provide books, bags and uniforms to the children.
In the afternoon we continued on to Orchha along a road which was being repaired.  Short stretches of fresh tarmac, alternated with rather longer stretches of bone jarring gravel.  Finally arriving in Orchha we were hot and tired and ready for the hotel.  Alas, Major had other plans for us, and took us up to the fort for a visit.  I was quite pleased to hear that this visit would be guideless, but of course it didn’t work out that way.  Before we knew it we’d been accosted by a guide and availed of his services.   He was keen, appeared to be knowledgeable, but was totally incomprehensible!
Having purchased our tickets, we confusingly left the fort and headed to the other side of town to visit the Laxmi temple, which was arguably more interesting than the fort itself, as it was decorated with fantastic paintings.  Back again at the fort, some more paintings, and the typical meeting halls and palaces.  No idea how many wives this chappy had – none of us could understand the guide.

The highlight was a walk around the top of the fort, giving a good view over the town and surrounding countryside as the sun was setting.  Finally, onto our hotel, and a much needed dip in the pool, before the mosquitoes drove us out.  Dinner, yet another buffet, was expensive (two/three times restaurant prices) and again a let-down, especially the rather bizarre deep-fried paneer which was served chinese style.  Not a good combination!

apologies for the small number of photos – taken a whi;le to get working internet, and what we have now is painfully slow

India (7) – Agra

We left our palatial residence in Bharatpur this morning, for the short ride onwards to Agra, home of the Taj Mahal. Along the way I practiced some car photography, trying to increase my collection of ‘people on scooters’ photos. This one is a clear winner, with the most folk we’ve seen on a single scooter… not only the 4 that you see, but also a baby on the mother’s lap!
Halfway to Agra, we stopped to visit the palace ‘Fatehpur Sikri’. We didn’t know anything about the palace beforehand, and we were all impressed by the size and detail in the buildings. To reach the palace we had a choice of electric bus or tuk tuk. Eager to try another form of transport, we of course chose for the tuk tuk, quite a squash for the three of us in the back, though we’ve seen larger groups of people in them.
Fatehpur Sikri was build by the third Moghul emperor, to house himself, his three wives (one Hindu, one Musilim and one Christian) and his 500 odd concubines. Each of the three wives had their own palaces, which were not only different in scale but also ‘different different’ in architecture. Each of the palaces ornamentation contained symbols of the three religions, though confusingly, not necessarily corresponding to the wife in residence.

After we arrived in Agra, we had a brief stop at the hotel, before heading out for some lunch. After a couple days of uninspiring hotel buffet, we really enjoyed eating something with a little spice in it… not to mention the garlic naans, which have pretty much become compulsory with every restaurant meal.
In the afternoon we had guided tours of the Red Fort, and then of course the main reason to visit Agra, the Taj Mahal. After Fatehpur Sikri the red fort was a bit of a disappointment. Some interesting architecture, but the most attractive bits were behind railings and neither easy to view or photograph (especially for little people!)
On to the highlight, the Taj Mahal, which was unbelievably busy. No chance of getting a photograph of the Taj without people in it, but then we knew that before we arrived. On the plus side, the majority of the visitors were Indian, wearing traditional Indian dress, which is far more photogenic than Westerners in jeans and khakis. I also used it as an opportunity to try and focus on people photography, something I don’t find particularly easy. Some were straight shots, others hip shots.
It was quickly clear that the best view of the Taj Mahal is also the one you see in every photograph. Up close, the building loses some of its charm, as the symmetry is lost. We also entered inside the mausoleum, but there wasn’t much to see. My overriding impression was of the crush of sweaty people, and the smell of feet…
The guide had hoped to take us for a demonstration of marble inlaying, but we cried off on the grounds of exhaustion, and returned to the hotel to download our photos before dinner.

At the time of writing it’s been exactly one week since we landed in Delhi, so we’re halfway through our trip. Up until now we’ve managed to avoid our home ‘cultures’ pretty well – no Irish pubs spotted yet (surely a record!), and also no other Dutchies!

My companions’ posts for the day: Arie & Marcel.

Tried to post this last night, but after an hour or so of fighting with the exorbitantly priced hotel internet (300 rupees for one hour – that’s more than the price of a main course in a restaurant), we gave up.  Luckily managed to pick up an internet connection along the way today…