Portraits of India

 

Plastic Sorter.     Dharavi, Mumbai.

Dharavi Mumbai_plastic boy

Family Business.     Dharavi, Mumbai.Dharavi Mumbai_proud family

Teamworkers.     Dharavi, Mumbai.

Dharavi Mumbai_seated boys

Paint Tin Strippers.     Dharavi, Mumbai.

Dharavi Mumbai_paint tin strippers

Holi Festival.     Smile.     Jodhpur, Rajasthan.

Holi Festival_yellow man

Holi Festival.     Peace.     Jodhpur, Rajasthan.

Holi Festival_purple man

Holi Festival.     Little Lion Man.     Jodhpur, Rajasthan.Holi Festival_little lion man

Holi Festival.     Colourful group.     Jodhpur, Rajasthan.Holi Festival_holi menStreet Portrait.     Village Lady.     Sholavandan, Tamil Nadu.Street Portraits_village ladyStreet Portrait.     Shoe Polisher.     Madurai, Tamil Nadu.Street Portraits_shoe polisher

Street Portrait.    Nice Flowers.     Guhager, Maharastra.Street Portraits_nice flowers

Street Portrait.     Market Stall Holder.     Hyderabad, Andra Pradesh.Street Portraits_market stall holder

Street Portrait.     Kerelan Fishermen.     Allepey, Kerela.Street Portraits_kerelan fishermen

Street Portrait.     Father and Son.     Hampi, Karnataka.Street Portraits_father and son

Street Portrait.     Catman and Robin.     Street Portraits_catman and robinStreet Portrait.     Village Boys.     Wayanad, Kerela.Street Portraits_boys with dogStreet Portrait.     Bicycle Shop Owner.     Madurai, Tamil Nadu.Street Portraits_bicycle shop ownerSchool Portrait.     Perengadu, Tamil Nadu.     
Perengadu School Portrait 05School Portrait.     Perengadu, Tamil Nadu.Perengadu School Portrait 04School Portrait.     Perengadu, Tamil Nadu.Perengadu School Portrait 03School Portrait.     Perengadu, Tamil Nadu.Perengadu School Portrait 02School Portrait.     Perengadu, Tamil Nadu.Perengadu School Portrait 01

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Pictures of memories….

I know its been a little too long since I’ve posted anything. Sorry about that!
Lack of internet and spending what feels like ages trying to navigate ‘normal life’ again has taken recent priority!

I have however uploaded quite a few photos to the exploringforever flickr page.
Click on the pics just down there on the right hand side…
If you go to ‘photostream’ it’ll take you to all the recent photos.

I’ll upload some more soon….

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Out of the frying pan and into the…cold and wet?!

Jaded, tired and just a little hungover we touched down at Munich airport. The surrealism crept in. We weren’t in India, we’d arrived in the future!
Vehicles were sleek, fast and silent. Buildings were shiny solid cubes of glass and metal. No bamboo scaffolding anywhere!  The streets and houses were spotless, immaculate even. A far cry from our eastern home of chaos.
We soothed (and to a point, exacerbated!) our culture shock by staying with friends in their fantastic 60s apartment near the city’s English Garden. It was nice to stay in a proper house again, with friends instead of landlords!
We gave ourselves a week off, enjoying the city as if on holiday. Visiting the insanely over designed and overly technical BMW museum, an enthusiast’s dream but a tad boring to us lay folk!

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We cycled around the still contemporary 1972 Olympic park, the top of the ‘Olympic Mountain’ gave us our first glimpse of the snow covered peaks of the Alps.
We ate Indian size, huge portions of delicious Bavarian food. Sitting in sunny biergartens gulping crisp beers and munching fine meaty bratwursts with honey mustard.
After our holiday our legs were yearning to pedal again, even if our minds were happy with the comforts of a home.
It was a tough first week back on the bikes. A baptism of water you could say as the heavens opened and didn’t shut for days. Heading south away from Munich into the grim reality that Europe at the beginning of April might not be quite the balmy, easy ride home we’d hoped for! Days of freezing horizontal rain, temperatures that aren’t exactly ideal for camping plus lots of damn steep hills made for a pretty testing time.
The weather gods decided we’d put up with enough for the time being. The dramatic grey sky eased a little, giving way to glorious sunshine as we camped at the base of the mountains.  After several soggy nights we sat outside the tent enjoying a glorious sunset next to the beautiful lake Banwaldsee.

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Fulfilling our various niece’s dreams we visiting the fairy-tale castle of NeuSchwanstein. Perched on the hillside, all turrets and princess towers its no wonder the building was the inspiration for so many of Disney’s films.

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As we followed the mountain range west towards Lake Constance, we passed by rivers and lakes of the most iridescent blues and greens. It was as if the saturation had been enhanced on our surroundings.

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Leaving the great peaks behind we headed through ever more beautiful scenery. The greenest grass, perfectly sculpted hills and deep beautiful valleys. Smoke billowed into the crisp clear air from beautiful wood shingled chalets and farm-houses. True chocolate box landscapes.
In the lakeside village of Wasserburg we were reunited with some lovely new friends we had met in India. Surrounded by springtime apple blossom, we stayed in their delightful flat above their fantastic organic restaurant, Eulenspiegel.
We all took a day out to Meersburg, indulging in more hearty Bavarian grub, a trip around a medieval castle and more tourist chintz than we’ve seen in a long while. The lace tray covers a signal that some places still hark back to the good old days!
After yet another emotional farewell we took a ferry across the icy blue lake. Eating tinned olives and crisps we sat out on deck, trying to soak up as much of the remaining sun as possible, even if we did have to cower from the wind sat practically underneath a table!
A very brief days jaunt into Switzerland, even more quiet and pristine than Germany. So much so that we felt uneasy and out of place. Our clunky, muddy and messy touring bikes not quite fitting their manicured surroundings. Very pretty and thoroughly neat the place seemed, there was no edge to add any memorable depth. We made our way back into Germany quick sharp!
Out of Bavaria and into the even hillier Black Forest. The weather again turned out of our favour. A week riding through misty forests, lakes and gorges. IMG_5676An unending pine covered landscape, undulating all the way to the horizon strangely suited the gloom of the weather. Our clothing was holding up well to the wind and rain but when there was a huge temperature drop we had to escape the outdoors. -5°c is no fun in a tent but it meant we had to live it up for a day or two in a brilliantly German B&B hotel. The comfiest and warmest beds, huge portions of food and the amazing tiled radiator bench in the deliciously chintzy restaurant, and of course meat, cheese and eggs for breakfast!
After a long and tiring uphill we crossed out of Schwarzwald and down to the lovely market town of Frieburg, all cobbled streets, craft shops and towering church spires. Thinking the big climbs were behind us the thigh crippling 2km long 13% gradient into Kaiser Stuhl was a bit of a shock! Worth all the pain of the ascent as this tiny German wine growing region was one of the most picturesque we’ve seen. IMG_5776Tremendously beautiful vineyards straddling the rolling hills amid tuscanesque scenery leading to our first ride on the huge Rhine river.
We followed the water North, camping in forests where the loud burps of ribbeting frogs woke us in the night. Sat in the trees we greedily slurped wild garlic soup picked just a metre away. With horrendous breath the next day we rode through glorious sunshine along the border to France and the city of Strasbourg.

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Onwards and upwards….just!

With our final day in India upon us we’d planned out our grand departure! A trip to a gallery in the morning, a slap up meal in the evening and then a quick taxi ride to the airport. Easy.
Nope!
In the morning I headed out to book a taxi for later on. Luckily I found a small travel agency who could help us. When the gentleman asked our flight time, he spun the computer screen round with a slightly wary eye. Our flight number didn’t exist. Panicked I put the cab on hold and ran back to the guesthouse to check the net to find out what was going on. A pilots strike at Lufthansa meant out flight had been PRE-poned! Instead of flying early next morning our flight would now leave 11 hours earlier! We still managed a whistle stop tour of the modern art gallery. Turned out the best exhibit was outside anyway! Then our nice meal-out turned into a hurried take away. A white knuckle taxi drive through Delhi’s finest rush hour traffic, complete with a driver who didn’t seem to know where the brake pedal was and we arrived in the more modern building for a long time.

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At the impressive entranceway to the Indira Ghandi airport we were bemused by the queues to get into the terminal. Armed guards stood on each door checking tickets. As ours now didn’t exist we weren’t allowed in! Every single guard barred our entry. The fact that we needed to get into the building even to change our tickets didn’t seem to matter. The flight number no longer existed so they were not letting us in. With time running out of an already frantic day our pleads and tears at every door, literally begging to be let in just weren’t being heard. I had to find a member of staff inside who would eventually persuade the unbending (jobsworth) guard to let us in. Inside the building we were now told our flight had been cancelled!
Even more tears followed, as the strike was planned for 3 days. We thought we were stranded in the airport. Amazingly, we were eventually told that we’d been rerouted.
Via Bangkok!
The wrong way around the globe!
Booking our bikes onto a new carrier proved another fun obstacle, we had the problem that our original tickets allowed all our baggage but Thai Air’s allowance was less than half. It was going to cost an arm and a leg to get out of Delhi, and we had less than an hour to go through the inevitable Indian beaurocracy that would accompany it. Thankfully the Thai Air staff were wonderful, pulled a lot of strings and in the end our costs weren’t quite as extreme as we thought. We still cut it horrendously fine. Once we’d paid, taken the boxes to the oversize luggage office at the other end of the airport,(of course) we had security to deal with. Huge queues everywhere, but incredibly we got through with minutes to spare. Almost a kilometre run with hand luggage panniers through shiny duty-free, we breathlessly shambled our way into the aircraft and breathed a huge sigh of relief!
With the huge stress of our last day in India plus the fact we were now flying 5 hours away from Europe towards a 7 hour stopover in Bangkok, we decided to make it worth our while by drinking as many double gin and tonics as possible!

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Possibly not our finest hour as we drunkenly departed our first flight into the quite unbelievably huge Suvarnabhumi airport.

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Literally km after km of building. The same shops repeating at each huge gate made the place a bewildering maze. Of course we lost each other and spent the next couple of hours trying to find ourselves in the air conditioned labyrinth. A quick alcohol/stress/tiredness/India induced row later and we’d made up. Still with raging hang-overs we found a sofa and while we watched the sun rise over Thailand’s capital we dozed.
Still on Indian time, we couldn’t figure why our gate said it was boarding for our flight 2 hours early. It was only when staff came looking for us that we realised our mistake and almost missed our second flight!
After the nightmare of the last 24 hours, the fabulous flying experience on Thai Air really almost made up for it all! We felt like we were in first class. The food tasted and looked like food. The service was impeccable. The alcohol all top notch and the in-flight entertainment worked the whole way!! After so many crap cheapo airline experiences in the past this almost felt like air travel was a pleasure again! As an extra bonus the plane was half full meaning we both had an aisle each and could start to sleep off our 25 hour extended journey!
Arriving in Munich the next evening, our baggage was waiting for us. Such a relief after ourmangled journey. We left the spotless terminal into the spotless car park to take a swish Mercedes van taxi. As we left the airport into the dark, the Xeon blue lights of BMWs and Mercs flew past. Buildings were lit with spotlights and coloured fluorescents in stairwells. There was no smoke from fires at the side of the road. No cows anywhere in sight, people kept to their lanes and bloody hell did they drive fast! Our taxi had seatbelts, no holes in the floor and the driver wasn’t drunk or spitting out the window.
We were not in India anymore!

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We’ve come full cycle!!

As our last cycle stop in India, Udaipur was the perfect end to a brilliant and sometimes difficult ride.  The beautiful white city is set around a seriously gorgeous lake, flanked on all sides by the sharp peaks of the Aravalli mountains. A really special place and a city that by Indian standards is beautifully romantic and really rather relaxing.

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Stepping off the bikes after a long days ride down from the mountains felt really good. We’d survived 5 months riding on the ever interesting Indian roads! After travelling through some of the most fantastic, fascinating and mind boggling places we were in need of some low key post ride celebrations!
That first night we parked our bikes, dumped our panniers and headed up the 7 flights of stairs to the roof terrace. Drinking ice cold Kingfishers we watched the sun set behind the mountains and the lights twinkle on all around the lakeside. One of the finest city views and a good few days to enjoy it!
Exploring the city we wandered through the usual bustle of tourist shops. The same stalls selling the same (admittedly rather nice) things that cover the rest of India. Not as pushy as some towns, it was enjoyable to browse and wander the steep lanes and alleyways. Pinning ourselves up against the walls every few minutes as the hair raising moped riders bottle necked the junctions, horns beeping at ear piercing decibels. It still amazes us that such situations never arose with any anger or frustration. That’s just the way it’s done. Take any gap possible, others will move out of your way, beeping is mandatory, drive as fast as you can, any direction on any paved surface. It’s an education, that’s for sure!
We visited the immense City Palace. Twelve magnificent buildings, perched on a hill overlooking the lake. Some of the finest and most incredibly elaborate spaces. Elegant interiors and exquisite exhibits along with some lovely views over the city. While having a beer in the palace courtyard we bumped into the Prince Royal! He rolled by quite handsomely suited in a trundling golf cart followed by a crowd of people taking a few photos. Not quite the paparrazi of home!
One evening we climbed the hill to the Karni Mata temple, a delicious sunset viewpoint which gazes out over the white-hued city and the sparkling lake. Sat in the middle of the water is a lovely temple as well as the ‘floating palace’ used in the 007 film Octopussy. Unfortunately now an elite Taj hotel that you can only visit if you book a £290 room!
The White City was definitely a favourite of the towns we visited in Rajasthan. May have been slightly due to our excitement and relief at finishing our Indian bike tour, but it really is a special place.

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With the days ripping swiftly from the calendar we booked our cycles onto the train. Amazingly there was no hassle, we packed them ourselves and basically just handed them over. A pleasure of an experience!
After our last meal of a huge and delicious Thali at a great little place we climbed aboard our last overnight train, headed towards Agra as most people do to add another tick to the tourist list.
Arriving after little sleep on the noisy train, Agra train station was a slightly different experience to Udaipur. We wasted 3 long painful hours going back and forth between luggage offices. Not one person willing to help us or even just to communicate with each other.

 

wpid-agra-parcel-office-photo.jpg.jpegThe coolies in the parcel warehouse had the time of their lives, laughing at us as we struggled with our heavy bikes and bags. Our time in the unfriendly warehouses of staring and laughing underpaid lads was not a pleasant experience. These guys will probably spend their whole lives doing the same tough chores in the same grim sweaty room. They took a fair bit of pleasure meeting our struggle with mockery and abuse. It was a good job neither party could understand the other as we met their taunts with our own cursing and forced insults. It was not turning into a good morning. After a knackering few hours lugging huge 30kg bags back and forth while pulling our hair (what was left of it!) out, we finally booked the bloody things onto the day after’s onward train to Delhi.
We eventually left the train station and found a guesthouse in the seedy mosquito ridden sprawl of Agra. Washing away the stress and train grime with a quick warm shower we started to feel more together. A rushed bite to eat and we jumped back in a rickshaw for a whistle stop tour of Agra Fort and the Taj Mahal. We bought our ‘Non Indian’ tickets at a price of 1000rp, an almost 900% increase on the price an Indian tourist will pay. A quite bewildering thing that we’ve been met with throughout India. Nowhere we’ve travelled before have we come across what we started to call (tongue in cheek) ‘racist tickets’ like these.
Both impressive buildings, the fort is another huge marvel of Indo Muslim strategic architecture. The red stone battlements enclosing some beautiful gardens and elegant palace architecture.

 

wpid-agra-fort-photo-2.jpg.jpegWith little time we took another chaotic ride through the dirty and seedy Taj Gang area. The messy sprawl of settlements appear to be layers of temporary parasite living spaces surviving solely from the tourism for the ubiquitous Taj.
Dropped at the gates we joined a line to go through the strictest of security. Bags, cameras and electronic equipment seemed fine but Jodie’s plastic toy mascot was just too much for the police officers. Obviously they’ve watched too many 80s action films with bombs inside teddies!
After leaving ‘Lewis’ at a stall outside we entered the grounds of the Taj Mahal. Beautiful manicured lawns defined walkways through the geometrically perfect courtyards. The initial view of the mausoleum through the entrance archway was breathtaking. A truly beautiful and architecturally exquisite building. Looking back, that small glimpse at perfection was actually the epitome of the visit.

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Visiting the Taj was obviously a special experience, seeing it in real life, watching the sunlight change the colour of the translucent marble and experiencing Shah Javan’s tribute to love and his beloved wife Mumtaz Mahal was magnificent. It was however tainted by the huge crowds of people. Although from afar the milling colourful groups gave some scale to the huge white mausoleum.

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On entering the building itself, a bizarre segregation forms on the stairs. Beyond belief, ‘higher priced ticket holders’ (westerners) enter on one side of the staircase and Indian tourists barricaded into the other side. Entering the tomb we were aghast when the Indian tourists flaunted all the signs about ‘no photos’ and ‘silence inside the tomb’. Ridiculous Facebook poses and the all too common shrieking really ruined the ambience inside. Even more shocking, as we made our way out we had to wait pinned against a side wall before another huge group of Indians poured into the sacred place. The only description that suits is like rats deserting a sinking ship! Herded around the circular crypt with whistles and armed guards shouting, slightly diminishing the calm and serenity the space is supposed to embody!
After our quick trip to the most touristy of sites in India we caught our final long distance train in India. Watching as the landscape changed from buffalo herding children in the fields, to smoke spewing industry and the suburb slums of Delhi. We arrived at Nizammudin station. Picked our bikes up from the biggest luggage warehouse we’ve ever seen! This time the workers were more interested in how the air-horns worked than anything else! We all shook hands and laughed when they just wouldn’t work and I had to mime pumping them up and the noise they make!
We cycled into the big scary city to find the room we’d booked. Of course we couldn’t find it for love nor money. A couple of hours riding slowly along the streets looking at house numbers before our hosts called and pointed us the right way. We had our own simple room with access to a shared kitchen and some courtyard space that were ideal for boxing up our bikes. We went straight out into the local market, finding almost immediately all the packaging materials we needed. Several beers with bombay mix along with several hours wrapping parcel tape around boxes and folding our machines into cardboard and there would be no more cycling in India! Quite a bizarre feeling. Luckily Delhi has a great metro system, that may be even better than our own lovable if a little worn tube.

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After 5 months of horror stories from practically every other traveller we met, we loved Delhi! A great big city that feels very modern but with lots of links to its past, forward thinking and open people, as much culture as you can take and all without the level of perceived danger and vulnerability that usually comes with such a large conurbation.
We had a fantastic final few days exploring some parts of the city. We found the contemporary Lotus Temple.

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An opera house-esque building that is possibly the only space in the whole of India whose interior is silent! An evening at Humayan’s tomb, a building easily on a par (IMHO) with the Taj, followed by getting lost amongst the narrow alleyways of the Muslim old town of Nizammudin.

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As the sun set, staining the alleys orange and the low wattage bulbs flickered on, illuminating small groups of people sat chatting in shop doorways. We felt again like we’d travelled back in time. It was a lovely calm place albeit pretty confusing to find our way out of!
Even more confusing the next day, were the electricity cables that run throughout the whole of the Old Town. An insanely manic crush of small shops, shouting cycle-rickshaw drivers and huge hand delivered parcel carts.

 

wpid-delhi-photo-1.jpg.jpegAll pushing between each other along thin lanes crowned with a tangle of wires that stands no chance of being modernised. The unfathomable mess is a direct visual representation of the Indian temporary, think of the present mentality. It is also a testament to their ‘do it for your self’ nature and somehow it seems to work!

 

 

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wpid-delhi-photo-4.jpg.jpegOn our last night we ate some great food and drank some cold beer overlooking the bizarre Connaught Place area. A circular maze of buildings that overlook a huge 30m flying Indian flag. It seemed fitting to toast our journey around the country while looking out over the flapping stripes of saffron orange, white and Indian Green.

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A riot of colour!

For Nana.

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Working our way into the warren of the tangled streets we burrowed into the Blue City. Overlooked by the massive fort above, we spent a couple of days losing ourselves amongst the cubist fascination of blue havellis and the squared off buildings of Jodhpur.

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We took a trip into the immense fort, one of the few tourist attractions we’ve visited that actually works the way it’s meant to, great information, well looked after and properly thought out. Definitely due to the private funding by the Maharaja’s family. It seems most sites paid for by the Indian Government are on roads to nowhere. The unfortunate downfall of so many similar places throughout the country.
After making our way around the many beautiful buildings and courtyards of the fort, we watched sunset over the city from above. Stumbling down the steep hill we were lured into a small havelli where the son of the house told us of his mother’s delicious 35rp thali. His brilliant marketing hooked us in and we followed suit ordering the most expensive 200rp thali and beer! The daughter of the household also trapped Jodie into having some henna done and then she forcefully abused me with the semi permanent dye! writing the typical tourist stamp of the ‘Om’ symbol on my palm. We left feeling we may have been ‘had’ a little. Albeit our bellies were pleasantly full, we were a little pissed and only slightly pissed off!

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Having made the decision to change our plans to cycle out into the desert, we booked the night train to the fortified desert city of Jaisalmer.
We had been recommended a hotel by a chap in Jodhpur. Booking meant we didn’t have to defend ourselves against the relentless touts waiting like hyenas at the railway station. We arrived at 5am and were picked up by a strange little man in a tuk-tuk. Our weariness meant his over friendliness wasn’t quite tickling our bullshit receptors yet. Making us complimentary chai as we watched the sun rise over the golden city was a nice touch. Although when it came to checking in we realised the reasons. The insipid Little Jonny was a very hard sell on his Camel Safari tours. We battled hard for a decent price, and as it was the main reason we’d come to Jaisalmer we relented and booked onto one of their tours. His pushiness leaving a sour taste in our mouths. Despite our negativity towards the hotel itself, the camel safari was a great experience. Dropped 50km into the remote desert environment, ourselves along with two Canadian guys met our camels and their drivers.

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Armand the leader with a particularly regal air, and then Gordon, the more feral camel man, an opium smoker and someone obviously used to living in the harsh desert environment. His continual grimace giving the impression of someone who has ‘seen things’. The two men were great company and leading our small train of great lumbering beasts we headed out into the vast desert.
Camels are uniquely bizarre animals. Huge in stature they appear to be the amalgamation of several different species. Hind legs of a horse, the long swinging neck of a giraffe, chewing motion of a large cow, the muzzle of a huge rabbit or kangaroo, and the balding mullet hairstyle of Terry Nutkins! Their strangely folding double knee joints, patches of rough elbow skin for sitting on and their fantastically cushioned feet make for an animal so strange we were sure by the end that they were aliens!

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Hauling ourselves onto the hump straddling saddle, we clung for dear life as the beasts mechanically raised themselves to a standing posture. A few metres off the ground and the novelty of the ride takes over. Soon enough the pain and discomfort overwhelm the excitement! The inelegant gait of the lumbering animal chaffs the insides of your legs and numbs the behind! Being covered in camel snot and scared for your life as the animal shakes and scratches itself with one of it’s legs is all part of the fun! We trekked through vast arid scrubland, passing the endless wind turbines and out into the sparseness of the dunes. Being surrounded by nothing but huge waves of rippling sand is quite an experience.

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Climbing the curving untouched dunes we made our tracks into the unknown. Cooking over a camp fire in our valley of sand, eating delicious chappatis and drinking sweet chai we watched an alien sunset. Dulled by the dust storms on the horizon, the sun lost it’s intensity and appeared like a huge yellow moon, dipping below the flat land as the warmth and light was filtered from the landscape. Chatting while wrapped in blankets around a camp fire we relished being alone and hassle free for the first time in India! Falling asleep, the moon illuminated the sky unfortunately blocking the stars, although waking at 4am the glowing satellite had set. We spent a while wiping the blurriness of sleep from our eyes and gazing, totally overwhelmed into the vastness of tiny twinkling lights. Stars filled the whole sky as far as the eye could see.
After another long hot morning riding the camels, no-one argued for more when we took a long lunch and waited for our jeep to pick us up again!

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After a few days in the confusing Golden City we returned to the Blue and soon to be Rainbow City! We were in Jodhpur for the brilliant Holi festival. Celebrating all manner of things, ancient Hindu stories, the upcoming harvest as well as the simply joys of water and colour. The first evening we enjoyed the closeness of the local community, all the families near our guesthouse gathered around a bonfire made of cow dung, set alight to commemorate the story of Holika and Prahlad, the firelight representing good over evil, the height of the flames are also a good luck blessing for next years harvest, so its a good job cow shits very flammable!

 

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We spent the twilight hours being doused with colourful powder from all sides by the lovely children of the local families. Invited to carry on the celebration later, the whole street descended on the house of a new-born baby. The poor thing looked terrified as the room filled with people stained in different colours. The men of the families beat a stick above the child’s head, chanting a ritual right of passage, blessing him with good luck and bravery through his life.

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The festival culminates in an energetic fun filled frenzy, everybody throws coloured powder and water at anyone they see!
The next day we truly got involved in the colourful riot, mopeds of purple and orange people sped by, canoning us with vibrant dye powder and colourful liquid.

 

wpid-holi-night-1-photo.jpg.jpegAnyone and everyone is fair game during the festival of Holi! We morphed into giggling human rainbows.

 

wpid-holi-day-2-photo-2b.jpg.jpegDucking out of the madness we drank coffee dusted in colour. As the day hotted up we joined a street party, dancing in the hot sun to loud bouncy music, buckets of water drenched us and bottles of dye changed our cheery rainbows into a sticky brown mess!

 

wpid-holi-faces-photo-3.jpg.jpegThen came the thick indigo dye that was pasted all over our faces. We had been well and truly ‘holi’d’. Such a fantastic and exhilarating experience. As the heat rose we went back to our guesthouse for a beer, the sun baking the colour into our skin, giving us the impression of ancient tribal warriors.

 

wpid-holi-kids-photo.jpg.jpegAfter a painfully long time scrubbing in the shower we gave up, joining the other pink tinged people on the rooftop. Hungrily enjoying dinner as we listened to the intense drumming down below and watched as a huge electrical storm engulfed the sky above. It felt like the whole universe was celebrating!
After the unsettling riding experiences of the desert we were apprehensive to carry on. Making our way out of Jodhpur, leaving the multicolour stained streets behind, it wad much quieter than normal. Everyone nursing and scrubbing their Holi hangover! We rode south towards the Bishnoi villages. A group of small communities, supposedly nature loving and skilled craftspeople. As we weren’t in a tourist jeep tour we cycled through the real village. Disappointingly we realised these villages are no different to anywhere else. Litter plagues everywhere, children begging foreigners for money, sweets and the ubiquitous ‘school pen’. The idea of the nature loving cult has seemingly been swallowed by more and more shops aimed at the tourist dollar.
Riding the long straight roads we came across a huge crowd by the side of the road. Visiting one of the most incredible temples we’ve seen. A crashed Royal Enfield motorcycle is enshrined in glass, a bustle of pilgrims circle the machine, offering alcohol and praying for a safe onward journey. Legend has it that I’m Banna was riding along after a fair bit of drinking, the poor chap hit a tree and died. The police recovered the motorbike, yet in the morning the machine had returned of its own accord to it’s resting place. This supposedly happened several times and now the Bullet Baba seems to be one of the more unusual and most visited shrines around!

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Another few days riding towards and into the lovely Aravali mountains. Pedalling through more small tribal villages, the grimaces we expected turned out to be happy waves and excited greetings, as one child noticed our passing the rest would soon catch on and before we knew it a class of giggling children would be screaming towards us to wave as we passed. We were so relieved to feel a degree of acceptance once more.
The rolling landscape of sand coloured stony peaks and elegantly crafted dry stone walls passed by as we climbed a green forested pass. The first time since the South of India that we’d had shade from leaves!
Riding the long undulating ridge over the mountain range we had to don our dust masks. The road was being widened, rubble and sand strewn all over. Ironically the widening works made the actual road narrower! We were pushed ever closer to the clouds of dust being swept up by the thundering juggernaughts. Mixing with the road dust were plumes of fine particles from literally 20km of side by side marble merchants. Mining the precious building material and selling it astonishingly cheap next to each other along the hilltop highway. The result being fine mountain views and a nice new layer of crusty grime coating our skin.

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Nevertheless we were soon descending from the dusty hills, past ancient temple villages, hidden from the tourists eye they were in turn serene and calming and as energetic as can be.

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The ancient Eklingji, a beautiful Jain monument sat on a remote hilltop and the buzzing Nathdwara. A huge temple complex with as much happening inside as a full sized village. Temple bakery and kitchens sprawled with people next to busy offering rooms and halls of waiting pilgrims. Both utterly delightful and bewildering to wander around.
Templed out we descended towards our final bicycle destination in India, Udaipur. The White City….

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Feeling deserted…

Our train pulled into Ajmer at 3am. Cold and dark, the platforms were already full of blanket huddled families waiting for their onward journey to begin. Immediately we noticed the change in dress, colourful safas,(turbans) thick woollen shawls, the women’s’ double nose piercings and the men’s’ rakishly twizzled moustaches. Decorative leather slippers and beautiful sari scarves adorned the slumbering crowds.
Waiting for the sun to rise so we could cycle to Pushkar, we spent a couple of hours on the platform chatting to a friendly Indian Army squaddie.
As dawn broke we left our military supervision and the already bustling station. Even though we were riding our bicycles out of the rickshaw stand, we were still stopped by the drivers who were insistent that they would be taking us over the hill to Pushkar! Not the first time we’ve experienced this kind of obstinate mindset. Cycling, as in much of the developing world is seen as a very poor person’s mode of transport and not the type that a ‘rich’ westerner would use, so even though we are quite obviously travelling by bike, the taxi drivers chose not to acknowledge them! We are often asked which bus or train we took to get to places. Even when we’re sat on the bikes halfway up a mountain!
Needing some breakfast we found a small fresh food market unpacking its stalls. We bought bananas and joined the huddle around the camp fire as our chai was being cooked, sheltering under a roof overhang away from the unexpected drizzle.
As day began we rode through the filthy waking streets of Ajmer, mainly populated by wind blown rubbish, saddeningly bony cows and viciously barking dogs. Dodging the fanged menace we headed straight out of town. Our legs struggling to shake off a week of train travel as we climbed the low pass over the Snake mountains. For a change there was no glorious morning sun, instead the brooding grey clouds unleashed a heavy rain storm, the kind of which we haven’t had since we left Britain in October. A cow had the right idea and we stopped halfway to join her sheltering underneath a rock overhang. As the rain eased we made our way over the hill to Pushkar. A small town set around the beautiful and auspicious Pushkar Sarovar Ghats (lake). Gorgeously run down buildings and what is best described as a ‘wannabe hippy’ shopping centre line the main street. Handicrafts and festival clobber galore, we felt like the only ones not in fancy dress! Even a bus load of America’s elderlies had bought into the ubiquitous ‘traveller garb!’
On our first trip down to the stepped ghats we were pounced on and gained our ‘Pushkar passports’. A scam we were thankfully notified of by our guide book. Luckily once you’ve undertaken the ‘pooja’ (and paid for the pleasure of course!) by the suspiciously normal looking and strangely whiskey scented ‘holy men’ you have a piece of coloured string ‘from a temple’ wrapped around your wrist. Showing said bangle passport prevents any more attention from the ‘holy men’. Almost as effective as garlic to vampires!
On a fine sunny day walking around the beautiful stepped ghats, we were forced again to cower under a temple roof. Sheltering from another freak thunder and lightning storm. The heavy rain and hail stones making the grim open sewers overflow, creating a 2 inch river of pooey litter ridden water in place of the road.

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As the wet day turned into a muddy evening, we followed a long line of singing and dancing ladies dressed in their best spangly saris in the midst of a wedding procession. Making their way to the huge marriage hall nearby our guesthouse. The skin wrippling-ly loud music blaring from untuned speakers made for an interesting nights sleep as the party went on into the early hours.

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Leaving the touristic bubble of Pushkar we began our journey into a whole new landscape. The lush green was gone and the plentiful agriculture had dwindled. The local vernacular had also changed, terracotta pitched roofs and decorative wooden framed structures given way to much simpler flat roofed box style housing and round mud huts, their tiny windows limiting the fierce desert sun’s heat. It felt like a totally different country let alone a different state. We cycled through arid sandy scrub-land, the long straight roads seemingly never ending, glances to the side showing the same landscape constantly repeating.

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Flat and smooth the challenge was much more of the mental kind rather than physical. We kept ourselves entertained watching the dust snakes ripple across the road following heavy vehicles, the shimmering mirages playing tricks on our minds.
As the heat of day was rising and our dust masks getting increasingly filthy we kept our eyes open for a place to stop. Our gaze drawn to a western elderly gentleman cruising along on his elegant Enfield Bullet. Waving our respective greetings we thought nothing more until the thudding single cylinder engine was drawn up alongside. Chatting a while, the kind man invited us to his ‘small house’ for ‘five minutes’. Riding down a dusty track we came to the type of huge fortifications normally associated with castles! As we stood around waiting for someone inside to open the strong wooden gates, there was a glimmer of slight concern about our safety, until the doors creaked open revealing the most wonderful fortress courtyard and any doubts were swept clean away!

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Painfully courteous staff showed us through the handsome gateway towards the delicate sparseness of the central courtyard. A manicured lawn ringed with tall thin trees shading a brick and sandstone patio, the patterns and subtlety of the stonework and window frames of such an elegant design we could have been in a Chateau somewhere in rural France.

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Sitting under the shade of Eucalyptus trees we shared the courtyard with a family of tortoises, our new hosts Monica and Michel came and found us, the quick 5 minute meeting soon morphed into a delicious 5 hours! Eating warm Swiss bread, cured meats and cheeses topped off with cold beer and fantastic conversation and company. A truly interesting (and random!) meeting, discovering all about how this fine Swiss couple met here in India 39 years ago, were married within 3 months and have since set up a small handicraft foundation. The direction and ethics of which is the first we have seen where the instigators ideas are realistic and will actually do more good than harm. The Nilamoti Trust has been set up to help a group of village women, developing high class stitching and handicraft skills. The team of women work together, leaving outside any discrimination based on caste to create wonderful garments and objects. The products are then sold both in the Trust’s own shop in India as well as back in Switzerland. All profits then pour back into the project in India, Monica and Michel soon realised that they cannot heal India’s problems, the project will run until they can no longer carry on and until the current women will become comfortable grandmothers back in their villages. What happens afterwards is someone else’s project, no idealistic thinking that this project could be set up all over to help the poor, in a country such as India with corruption and ignorance so widespread Monica soon realised there would be no way of achieving such a goal. This idea thrown out the window, Nilamoti now runs successfully, properly helping a few and being an inspiration to others.
It would not be our last meeting and before we left to cycle the quick (not so quick!) 30km to the next town, we accepted an invitation to stay with them the next night at their craft centre in the town of Khimsar, 100km away. That evening was the first of several unfortunate experiences in Rajasthan. Getting into the strange railway town of Merta, our arrival was met with a lot of leery lads, offensive stares and unfriendly cackling. The first time we’ve both felt on edge in a town. Another grotty and overpriced hotel only exaggerating our unease.
As ever a new start and fresh heads made the next day feel slightly better, we continued riding on more relentlessly straight and dusty roads through the barren landscape.

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As we crested a hill we came upon a quite magnificent gypsy camel train, an elderly lady pushed her son towards us, swaddling child in hand to beg for money. Not our only meeting with desert road beggars, a band of urchins sporting the instruments of a travelling band snatched and grabbed at us as we cycled past, totally outnumbered we felt vulnerable even though they were only about 11 years old! It wasn’t taking long for us to realise just how exposed we actually were. As a couple, travelling through this harsh, sparsely populated land whose inhabitants didn’t appear to relish our presence we were soon wondering if our plan to cycle into the desert was wise.

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We stopped for lunch in a roadside dhaba, sitting on charpoys to eat and figure out our plans. We enjoyed the now rare sanctuary where one of the workers had lived in touristic Pushkar and was used to strange westerners. Jodie was even given make up tips by the 65 year old non English speaking owner. Some dark eyeliner would apparently make all the difference!!
Heading towards our meeting at Khimsur we took a small road through the back country, initially enjoying the quiet and isolation of the bush as we passed through a remote village a huge crowd swarmed, prodding and pressing at us and our bikes. We felt out of our depths. I couldn’t look after myself and Jodie as well with such a heaving mass between us. Prising our way out we had to practically race away from the village, worried about the unpleasant young men following us on motorbikes. We only felt safe when we joined the highway an hour later.
Arriving just before our hosts we entered the gated compound around the Nilamoti craft centre. A soothingly hot shower and a couple of bottles of good Chilean red allowed us to shake the day’s rigmarole.
We enjoyed the cool evening, wrapped up in shawls around the warm glow of a candle, we munched the tasty pop corn like fried Lotus seeds. Fine dining at the Raja’s fort hotel made for an extremely pleasant change from our usual cheap local eats. As we discussed Nilamoti and our respective experiences in Rajasthan, we heeded the wise words of nearly 40 years of experience here. It looked like it may be prudent to rethink our route and leave behind the rose tinted romanticism of cycling through the desert. Reality had bitten us a few too many times recently and rather than put ourselves at risk we decided to head instead for the Blue city of Jodhpur.

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