Frank and George go to….Nigeria

I’m hijacking my own India blog here, really just to jot down a few thoughts following my first trip to Nigeria.  I was there for only a week, and spent most of that time working, so it’s hardly insightful.  However, if you happen upon this blog through a search for travel information relating to Lagos, you might pick up a couple of tips.  Or you might not.

When we first got wind of a potential project in Nigeria, I have to say the response in the office was, er, less than enthusiastic.  The news had us all jumping on to the Foreign Office advice sites, speaking to contacts who knew people who knew people who had worked there, and we perspired ever so slightly over reports of kidnap, extortion, terrorism and general violence.  After a lot of thought, some internal resourcing issues (“Hey, hands up those who would like to go to Nigeria?”) it became pretty apparent that the only option was….me.   Mo “Expendable” Gillespie: that’s my name.

So, having had my trip confirmed just before Christmas, I was then sent into a mad panic trying to obtain the business visa (a joyous procedure in itself) and extra vaccinations (the doctor nearly hit me when she found out I’d studied Parasitology but yet still complained about having to take anti-malarial pills in a high-risk country).  I also had to ensure the client had arranged the appropriate security measures, although I wasn’t exactly sure what they should be.  Oil workers apparently insist on personal bodyguards, armed vehicles and outriders; I was content with the promise of a driver who I might find waiting at the Hertz desk at Arrivals, and a confirmed booking at the Radisson on Victoria Island in Lagos.

This brings me to the Murtala Muhammed Airport: I had read reports of general chaos upon arrival into Lagos airport, but nothing quite prepared me for the madness I faced as I disembarked.  Bearing in mind I had been told to go to the Hertz desk and look for Elijah, I was surprised and confused to find a man waiting for me at the gate (i.e. literally as I stepped off the aircraft) with a piece of paper bearing my name scrawled in biro.  So when he said “Come with me!” my initial reaction was “No way!”.  Apparently people with fake name boards capture their kidnap victims this way, so the alarm bells were ringing…. But.  I looked ahead at the crazy bustling queue trying to snake its way through the narrow corridors of the hot, sweaty airport and, having decided that this man must have made it airside for a good (official) reason, my gut feeling was to follow him anyway.  Good plan.  He pushed me through all the queues (there were hundreds of people now “queuing” – if you can call it that –  for the arrivals section), and then said “OK, give me your passport now”.  Again, I said “No way! I’m keeping my passport with me at all times!”.  He sighed and continued to push me along.  When we neared a desk in the middle of a crowded room, he said, “Please give me your passport – I will get it stamped for you and make this quicker!”.  Still I resisted…but then he said, “Look, I am an off-duty immigration official” and again showed me his badge.   At this point I was hot, sweaty, and pretty tired, and decided just to go with it – I figured it would take about 4 hours to get out of the airport, and if this man could speed it up then, hey – what the hell.  If he never came back with my passport I would just have to phone the British Embassy.  Or something.  I’d work it out.  So off he went with my passport, with me trying to keep an eye on him at all times…and he came back!  Excellent.  So, this whisked me through visa verification, and next stop was actual immigration.  Same process – I gave him my passport, he disappeared, then came back 5 minutes later with my entry visa stamped in my passport.  I didn’t have to present myself anywhere with my passport – I just walked right through, leaving behind several hundred travellers all jostling through the sort-of-queues (which were just a heaving mass of mayhem).  We found Elijah (remember him?) and eventually made it out of the airport, having been stopped randomly near the exit and asked for my baggage tag, to prove my suitcase was mine.  Seemed a rather strange place to do this, but never mind.  It took about another half-hour for Elijah to get his car to the roadside, but that was pretty good going considering the traffic, all over the roads and verges, trying to get out of the airport.  A policeman who happened to be standing beside me as I got into the car did ask me, “Have you got a gift for your friend?”, but a combination of smiling and generally ignoring him meant I got out without having to put my hand in my pocket.

I later found out from the client that they have a ‘special arrangement’ with certain immigration officials to help visitors enter the country, i.e. they pay the officials to work extra hours when they finish their shift to escort the likes of me through the chaos and therefore get processed, and get out, faster.  These officials then pay bribes (paid for by the client) to their on-duty counterparts at the immigration and arrivals desks, and magic happens.  Brilliant, but I just wish they had TOLD me this before I arrived.  I thought I would log this short trip to provide a bit of travel knowledge should anyone else have to come to Lagos, but I can’t really comment on how on earth the lone tourist would fare getting through the airport – I would just suggest you prepare yourself for an awfully long, frustrating, confusing, boring, and sweaty wait.

Elijah took me from the airport to the hotel which was located on Victoria Island, the main business district of Lagos, and reached via a 14km bridge (the longest in Africa) across the water.  I couldn’t help but compare everything with my experiences in India, and was pleased to note that here people generally stick to the marked lanes in the road (I say ‘generally’), and there are no wandering cows, goats and stray dogs to throw into the mix, so it’s pretty good, but the traffic jams can be utterly appalling (as I found out on my return trip to the airport).

Security at the hotel was pretty similar to that I experienced in India – you have to go through a security gate where the guards may or may not bother to check the car for explosives, but once you’re in it’s all pretty normal. Phew.  There was a sign at reception advising that ‘money laundering’ activities on the premises were banned, but as I wasn’t planning to launder even my smalls during the short stay, I figured I wouldn’t get into any trouble.  I had another ‘secure car’ (i.e. just a car) and driver assigned to me for the week, and he arrived late the following morning, complaining about the appalling traffic.  All anyone does here is complain about the traffic.  Mind you, they have a point – it is effectively gridlock here from dawn til dusk.

The working week was then spent travelling between the hotel and the office (with a couple of sojourns out to a restaurant and a bar), so I feel I’m not at all qualified to give opinions on Lagos itself.   However, I tend to judge new places primarily by the people, and my experience here has been fabulous!  Seriously, I have never felt more welcomed than I have in Nigeria – everyone is incredibly friendly and very relaxed, and women seem to command a much higher level of respect than they do in India.  It’s a joy to be greeted with a big smile, a cheery hello and a firm handshake everywhere you go, and the warmth of the locals is really infectious.  Everyone works hard, but there is a lot of laughter in the office – we could learn a lot.  My local client colleagues were delighted that I wanted to try all the local food (most visitors order European takeaway food), but it’s too tasty, and there’s too much of it, so not brilliant for a post-Christmas diet.  Oops.  Also, my hosts were incredibly generous: I had insisted I take them out for dinner to repay their hospitality, yet they refused to let me pay when the bill came.  They took me to a great wee bar (with live music – hurrah) and we gorged on spicy goat soup (delicious) and local spicy chicken with jollof rice (a rather addictive staple).  Actually, Boye had spicy snails, but I couldn’t bring myself to try them – they were too huge and juicy-looking for me, and I really didn’t want to offend my hosts by being sick on the table.

Some interesting things I learned on my night out with the lads (Adeboye, Abiodun and…Edward):

  • When naming a child in Nigeria, the name is made up of a number of different descriptive parts, e.g. ‘Ade’ means ‘crown’ and ‘Boye’ means ‘title’, so said Adeboye.  A first-born might have an amazing array of name components including ‘sent from God’, ‘most beautiful’, ‘miracle’, etc.  I asked what then happens when the second-born arrives: do they struggle to find equally-adoring names, or are they just less interested?  Yeah, I know – I’m a second-born but I’m not bitter!  Anyway, Abiodun amused by saying he’d had to shorten his newly-born daughter’s name by several characters as he realised he’d showered her with so many names the characters exceeded the number allowed on a passport.  We also chuckled about the surprising English names given to many children: these range from ‘Goodluck’ (as we know) to ‘Godspeed’, ‘Sunday’, ‘Miracle’, and even ‘Frog’.  Yes, ‘Frog’.  Dear oh dear.  Edward admitted he’d been named a traditional Nigerian name at birth, but decided aged 12 to change his name to Edward.  He said that for several years after this, his offended father would deny all knowledge of an ‘Edward’ when his friends phoned the house!
  • The frequent power cuts (oh, how they reminded me of India!) are a big problem, and the power outages are currently high on Goodluck Jonathan’s agenda: he wants a solution within 6 months.  However, there are big bucks being made by importing industrial power generators (all businesses spend a fortune on them – not that they stop the outages – I spent quite a lot of time in the office in the pitch black), and the obscenely rich, powerful men who make the money from such imports are all….politicians in government.  So, the future’s not looking bright for uninterrupted power supplies in Nigeria
  • There is a rather commendable focus on maintaining a clean environment in the city, and I have to say, it shows.  While the streets are still dusty, and buildings look dated and worn, I must admit I didn’t see the huge mounds of rubbish and god-knows-what piled up on the streets and sides of buildings like I saw in India.  While everyone appreciates the need to clean up and maintain order, I had to laugh when I heard that the government has an odd way of ensuring participation:  on the last Saturday of every month, there is, effectively, a morning curfew, where everyone is expected to help clean and tidy their neighbourhood common areas.  So, if you are caught loitering outside on a Saturday morning before 10am, a police officer can make you go and mow some common grass, or pick up litter in the street.  So what, I asked, do Adeboye and his friends do?  The answer?  ‘Go clubbing on a Friday night and sleep through the morning on Saturday until the cops have gone’.  Fair enough.

We had a great night, so much so that Abiodun suggested we all go clubbing on the Thursday night, insisting that they’d get me to bed by 2am (!).  I declined politely, explaining that since they’d paid good money to get me out there to do a job, I didn’t think that they would get much value for money if I were to spend Friday in the office with my head in my hands, pleading for Irn Bru.  Next trip, though, we’ll hopefully get to see some more live music and a few more bars.  I’m keen to explore the local musical heritage – Fela Kuti, the father of Afrobeat, was a local, and there are museums and festivals dedicated to him. I want to see some!

Friday in the office was ‘dress down’ day, and loads of the guys came in wearing traditional dress, which looks fantastic!  I love the colours, and they’re already planning to dress me up as a local woman on my next trip. Dressing up?  Yippee! Can’t wait – I’ve always loved the way Nigerian women dress with beautiful bright headscarves matching their dresses, but I think I may actually look rather ridiculous.  We’ll see.

I had a few shocked looks when I said I’d been filling up the office kettle from the tap (“No! You must use bottled water!”.  Just as well I’d taken my cholera vaccination, I suppose.  Still, I haven’t been sick yet (or since) and the only ill-effects I have felt, I put down to those blooming anti-malarials:  I have had the weirdest dreams, involving cess pits and jellyfish…but these may have been flashbacks to India, of course.  The last hour on Friday afternoon was spent by my new-found client colleagues rolling around in hoots of laughter at the thought of my being kidnapped, and the captors quickly realising exactly what they had taken on:  having spent a full week in my – ahem – ‘formidable’ company, Adeboye and his workmates reckoned any potential kidnapper would endure about 15 minutes maximum in my company before demanding to have me released.  I could have been slightly offended by this, but they all wished me bon voyage, with big hugs, and assured me they were really looking forward to my return.  I think they actually meant it; I hope so anyway, because I’m due to go back in February….and March.

Anyway, off I trotted back to the hideous airport on Friday evening, feeling perfectly safe at every turn despite (not because of) being surrounded by police brandishing AK47s.  I managed to skip all the queues out without the aid of a corrupt immigration official, although I have to say the security was really poor:  I was able to take all manner of liquids (half-drunk bottles of water, toiletries, etc) through security and, despite being asked to surrender all cigarette lighters, I counted at least 4 in my (unsearched) handbag as I boarded the plane.

Before I left, I even managed to get one over a shopkeeper at the airport when I decided to buy a handbag as a souvenir:  having haggled down the price by over a third, I handed over my useless US dollars (everything locally was paid in Naira, the local currency), and inadvertently short-changing the bloke by $5.  When he pointed this out, I smiled and said, “Surely you can let me have that as a gift for your new Scottish friend?”, and I shook his hand firmly and walked away.  Ha! On my next trip in February, I shall arrive bearing evidence of an amazing, valuable inheritance for which someone in Lagos is the sole heir.  Now that will be fun.

P.S. A few terrible photos below – I apologise.  I had only my phone with me, and little opportunity to take any photographs, so the few I had were taking mainly from fast-moving vehicles. I’ll try harder next time :-)

Reassuring to see that attention to H&S is just like in India: men up a large tower, welding, with no safety harnesses, hard hats, or visible fear.

Reassuring to see that attention to H&S is just like in India: men up a large tower, welding, with no safety harnesses, hard hats, or visible fear.

View from the hotel deck, overlooking the lagoon, with a massive gin palace floating past.  There's money in these parts.

 
View from the hotel deck, overlooking the lagoon, with a massive gin palace floating past. There’s money in these parts.
Typical road just outside the office.  Hardly exciting, but at least it's clean.

Typical road just outside the office. Hardly exciting, but at least it’s clean.

Our cute little bar in a colonial district of Lagos: location for Wednesday night's spicy goat soup.  And those mammoth snails.

Our cute little bar in a colonial district of Lagos: location for Wednesday night’s spicy goat soup. And those mammoth snails.

Final view (and what a view!) from Kongde.  Oh my giddy aunt.

A Himalayan Adventure

What does an unfit, Scottish chubster, who hasn’t yet managed to quit the tabs, and who doesn’t particularly like hills, decide to do for fun during her precious holiday?  That’s right:  book a trekking trip in the Himalayas.  That sounds perfect, doesn’t it?  Well, I’d had a bit of an obsession about seeing Everest ever since I’d known I was coming to Delhi; I mean, Nepal’s pretty close by, and would I ever again get the perfect chance to do this?  Probably not.  I kept swithering over whether or not to take the plunge, but decided a few weeks ago basically to bankrupt myself and book the trip of a lifetime, reasoning that if I wanted to see Everest, I would blooming well have to earn it by doing a couple of days’ trekking to get to the first main viewpoint.  No, no, that wasn’t enough – I wanted to see it, and I wanted to get up close too, but didn’t have time (nor, more importantly, the required level of fitness) to trek all the way to Base Camp.  So I found a bloody expensive 6-day trip to Nepal which combined the hard part (trekking) with some elements of ‘luxury’ – I’ll explain more as I go along. 

Arriving in Kathmandu

Queuing at immigration, you have to fill out various forms to get your Nepalese visa.  Now, this costs money, and the Nepalese immigration will accept only foreign currency such as Euro, Sterling, Dollar, etc.  They won’t take Indian rupees (of which I had plenty). Still the visa was only £18 Sterling, so I happily handed over my Bank of Scotland £20 (the only Sterling I had left), only to be told “No, no – we don’t accept Scottish money”.  This led to a very familiar conversation (I work in London most weeks in the UK, and I make a point of filling my wallet with Bank of Scotland notes on a weekly basis just to annoy the London cabbies), during which I pointed out the word ‘Sterling’ clearly emblazoned on the banknote.  More heated exchanges ensued, until finally the three blokes behind me, all of whom work for the British Council in Delhi, proffered a Bank of England note just to get the queue moving again.  Grrr.

I had booked my trip through a trekking company so fortunately was picked up from the airport, thus avoiding the hordes of taxi drivers wrestling for business, and off we went into Kathmandu so that I could buy a few hiking essentials. I had bought new walking boots in Delhi a few weeks ago but hadn’t had a chance to break them in, so my list of things to purchase included surgical tape, blister plasters, as well as socks, walking breeks, warm undergarments and Diamox pills to help prevent and/or combat altitude sickness.  No-one seemed able to tell me how cold it might get at the various elevations I was supposed to be heading to, so I decided that being a hardy Scot would be just fine – I wasn’t going to fork out for a down jacket, and I sure as hell wasn’t going to hire a second hand one full of sweaty skin cells from a previous trekker.

We popped into the office of the tour company to finalise a few details, and I asked the staff how hideous the climb would be to Namche Bazaar (the first and main viewing point for Everest on my trek): when booking the trip I had done the equivalent of searching for holiday weather forecasts to suit what I wanted to hear when heading to the beach (come on, we all do that).  In this case I was looking for favourable reports on how manageable the climb really was (there are very few articles which say this!).  In the week prior to my trip I started reading all the blogs written by seasoned trekkers, many of whom said it was an absolute fecking nightmare.  Oh crap.  What on earth had I done?  I know I’d been joking about the supposedly terrifying flight into Lukla Airport, but in all honesty I was quite looking forward to that (I’m a bit of a thrillseeker), and what really worried me was the prospect of collapsing in a heap on the route up to Namche, and having to get airlifted out of the Himalayas while clutching my Benson & Hedges: now that would be embarrassing.  The guys in the tour company office said ‘you look strong, you’ll be fine’, but I think they say that to everyone. I had to fill out more forms confirming my insurance details, next of kin, and medical emergency details, which really helped calm my nerves.

Off then to the Gokarna Forest Resort, just outside Kathmandu, and I settled down for an early night.  I was to be picked up at 5am on Tuesday morning, and I had a bit of a restless sleep worrying about what on earth I had let myself in for.  5am came too quickly, and I was taken back to Kathmandu airport to queue with the dozens of trekkers who were waiting patiently for their flights to Lukla.  Everyone else looked extremely fit and rather professional, which again did little to soothe my worried mind.

Onto the plane, and I legged it on first to get the best seat: up front, behind the pilots, and on the left hand side of the plane – this way, you get a great view of the Himalayas as you fly, and a pilot’s eye view of the landing strip on approach to Lukla – hurrah!  I had been told by a friend to sit at the back of the plane as it was safer, but bugger that. The views were phenomenal, and I switched to video mode for the landing, which I’ll upload somewhere if I get a chance.  The landing strip slopes upwards and finishes at a wall, so the pilot has to land, brake, and then make a sharp right turn at the end to avoid colliding with bricks.  Our pilot managed to do this just fine.  In fact, I was rather disappointed it wasn’t more scary, but I guess I should just be thankful that we had clear weather, a good landing, and we survived.

View from the plane, flying to Lukla

View from the plane, flying to Lukla

Plane taking off at Lukla - it's a sheer drop at the end of the runway!

Plane taking off at Lukla – it’s a sheer drop at the end of the runway!

Tenzing-Hillary (Lukla) Airport.  I'm pleased Tenzing's name is first.

Tenzing-Hillary (Lukla) Airport. I’m pleased Tenzing’s name is first.

I was met by Bal Kumar, who was to be my guide for the next three days, and almost immediately I bombarded him with “Do you think I’ll make it to Namche?”, “How many don’t make it?”, “Can I get strapped to a yak if I collapse?” – but Bal K was brilliant from the start, and assured me that we would take it slowly, we’d be fine, and he promised he’d get me up that bloody hill.  Our first stop, though, was Phakding, which was apparently 3-3.5 hours trek from Lukla.

Lukla (2843m) to Phakding (2656m)

The main route out of Lukla leads you through the village, where there are plenty of shops selling essential trekking items (for those who forgot to buy anything in Kathmandu), at vast expense, and local handicrafts.

The start of the trek: through Lukla village.

The start of the trek: through Lukla village.

Trotting on, we quickly came to the first checkpoint – you need to have proper trekking permits to hike in the Himalayas – where your name and permit number is logged in case there is some disaster, so that your whereabouts is a bit easier to locate.  Very quickly we started passing sights which would become very familiar along the trail:  prayer flags, prayer wheels, and carved stones – all used for worship, and all have their own rituals. I became used to following Bal K’s example and spinning every prayer wheel.  While Bal K was praying for good health and happiness, I was pleading ‘Get me to Namche!” to whoever might be listening.  The trail takes you past many little villages and rest points, all catering to the thousands of trekkers who come here.  For those looking for a ‘get away from it all’ experience, this is probably not ideal, as it’s extremely busy!  It’s the main route to Everest Base Camp (or EBC as it’s known), but it’s also used as the principal thoroughfare for all trade in the region:  very quickly I developed a Pavlov’s Dog-type reaction to the sound of cowbells, which always preceded a herd of mules or dzomo (yak/cow crossbreed) beasts thundering up the path. They don’t care who is in the way – they will just knock you down and trample over you – so best to jump to one side and let them past!  Also, there’s an unwritten rule that you step out of the way of the scores of porters and sherpas who ferry all the goods up and down to the main trading post at Namche – they carry enormous weights, supported by a headstrap, and they do this every day.  They carry food, water, grain, doors, wood, beer, lavatories…..each porter that passed had some unbelievable cargo strapped to himself.

A typical prayer-wheel ("get me to Namche...get me to Namche...")

A typical prayer-wheel (“get me to Namche…get me to Namche…”)

Buddhist 'mani stones' all along the route

Buddhist ‘mani stones’ all along the route

Already the views were stunning – looking ahead we were following a valley through which ran a perfectly milky-aqua river (was tempted to jump in but remembered that it would be a damn sight colder than Loch Ken), and the mountains on either side were covered in native pine and rhododendron (the national flower of Nepal).  Every now and then a snow-capped peak would appear and cause the jaw to drop, and these sights never got any less exciting!  The scenery was to die for, and I just had to remember to keep looking down as well as up, for there was a lot of animal dung along the footpath.

Early views along the trail

Early views along the trail

Snow-capped Himalayan peaks popping up all along the route

Snow-capped Himalayan peaks popping up all along the route

The eagle-eyed among you will have noticed that Lukla to Phakding is a net drop in elevation, but it didn’t mean that it was downhill all the way. I very quickly learned from Bal Kumar the phrase ‘Nepali flat’ which means ‘repeatedly going uphill and downhill’ – it wasn’t too bad on this stretch, but I really felt it the next day.  Anyway, I was gobsmacked when, after only 2.5 hrs, Bal K said “We’re here!”, and pointed to the Yeti Mountain Home, our first lodge accommodation.  Eh?  It was only 10.30am in the morning!  I was feeling fine, I had no blisters, and I pleaded with Bal to phone his office and try to get us accommodation a few more hours down the trail, but no – he insisted that we stay, acclimatize, and rest before the next day.  I decided we should walk further anyway to see what tomorrow might bring (lots more, worse,  ‘Nepali flat’ it seemed), before we headed back to Phakding, found a reggae bar, ate momos, and played pool for the afternoon while the rain came down.  I didn’t even have a beer.

Arriving in Phakding village

Arriving in Phakding village

'Nepali flat' trekking - lots of downhill followed by more uphill.  All the way.

‘Nepali flat’ trekking – lots of downhill followed by more uphill. All the way.

When the clouds come (which they did at 2pm), the wind also picks up, and it gets pretty cold. Add to that a bucketload of rain, and I was very glad that we were staying in a ‘luxury’ lodge, complete with hot water, bedlinen and….electric blankets!  I haven’t had an electric blanket since Granny Mary used to try to cook us, her grandchildren, when she had us to stay, but I was so grateful that night, as my legs were beginning to seize up from the cold.

Phaking (2656m) to Namche Bazaar (3450m)

Next morning I woke up and thought:  “This is the day I have been dreading for weeks.”  I quickly tried to banish the negative thoughts and replace with some positive ‘you CAN do this’ inspiring mantras.  A quick breakfast, where I chatted again to some really nice American ladies who were en route back to Lukla, before we set off at 8.15am.  Now, the reason this is a difficult trek is that you effectively hike (‘Nepali flat’ in a big way) for around 4-5 hours before you climb the hideous last part – straight up – to Namche Bazaar, the principal local trading place.  So, chances are you are pretty knackered already when you stand at the bottom of the final climb.  Very soon after leaving Phakding I could feel the strain in my leg muscles (where have they been for the last few years?) but Bal Kumar was brilliant, and insisted we go at a slow pace to conserve energy. This also included a stop for ginger tea, which was a great idea, particularly as about 30 mules came racing along the path and nearly wiped out a group of German hikers who were trying to photograph them (I was looking down from the tea spot, giggling).  The trail was becoming more and more picturesque, and we criss-crossed the river five times over huge steel suspension bridges, all of which were adorned with fluttering prayer flags.

Me halfway across one of the suspension bridges

Me halfway across one of the suspension bridges

Entering Sagarmatha National Park (not too far from the foot of Namche)

Entering Sagarmatha National Park (not too far from the foot of Namche)

Interesting and polite request notice for visitors to the Park.  I didn't break too many of these rules.

Interesting and polite request notice for visitors to the Park. I didn’t break too many of these rules.

Following the mule train, and keeping well out of the way

Following the mule train, and keeping well out of the way

After a few hours, we stopped at the final village before Namche, had a bowl of noodles, and stocked up on water (“no more water until Namche”, read the signs) – poor Bal K had to carry an extra couple of litres for paranoid Mo.  I also bought a couple of Snickers bars at vast expense, figuring I might need the sugar, and not caring about the calories at this stage.  A last stint along the shore of the river, and there it was: the final bridge to take us across to the bottom of the Namche climb.  Lots of trekkers were sitting around here, having a final rest before the push up the hill.

Last suspension bridge before the 'climb of doom'

Last suspension bridge before the ‘climb of doom’

Over the bridge, and there were the first dreaded steps.  Slowly, slowly….just one step at a time, and stopping regularly to catch breath and have a swig of water.  It’s the only way to do it.  You also have to remember that as you climb to Namche there is a much higher chance of getting altitude sickness, and I had read stories of people passed out on the side of the trail, crying, sick, or just plain knackered and unable to go any further.  I had also read that it can take anything between 2-4 hours to get up there, and I fully expected I would be nearing the 4-hour mark. So I had a half a Snickers bar to cheer me up. Another sight which spurred me on was a young Sherpa girl who was carrying several cases of Everest beer up the mountain, so I followed her, promising myself I’d have one of those if I made it to the top.  Some French hikers passed us on the way, and as they called ‘Namaste!’, I shouted back ‘Bonjour!’ which pleased them a lot (they even spoke to me in French – a first in my experience).

First steps up towards Namche Bazaar.  There's going to be a LOT more of these. Groan.

First steps up towards Namche Bazaar. There’s going to be a LOT more of these. Groan.

Inspiration to keep going up gleaned from spying this Sherpa girl's cargo.  Mmmm...beer....

Inspiration to keep going up gleaned from spying this Sherpa girl’s cargo. Mmmm…beer….

After about an hour and a bit, we stopped at a big resting point, where around 20 people, including the French group, were sitting having water, eating bananas and trying to see Everest through the clouds (unfortunately it had become really overcast, and from this resting place, the first available ‘view’ was completely obscured).  Bal K and I decided to have a fag instead, and the French group started whispering and pointing, until I laughed and pulled out a packet of Gauloise, promising them that if they were good, I might let them have one if they got to the top.  Apparently a Gauloise is as good as a cigar.  Phew.  It was funny though:  all the fitness freaks looking appalled and disgusted at the sight of a smoking trekker, but if they’d looked around, they would have seen that a huge proportion of local trekking guides and Sherpas ALL smoke, and they can still make it up and down the mountains faster than these label-clad tourists!  I’m not suggesting that smoking is good for you, but it doesn’t make you a bad person, and I am more appalled at the litter-lout trekkers who have no regard whatsoever for what is a stunning national park.

Anyway, moving on, and so we did.  The first half of the climb was really steep, and seemed to comprise a never-ending zig-zag of steps.  From the resting point, the path gradient becomes less severe, but the oxygen level is noticeably thinner (down about 40%) and my legs were really feeling the pain.  Bal continued to be great with his encouragement, and we stopped more frequently to catch breath and jump out of the way of mules (where do they all come from?).  I couldn’t believe it when, after just two hours (yes, just TWO hours!) we had reached the checkpoint for Namche! Thankfully, due to my research, I knew that the village itself was still a fair way off, but we made it there in under 30 minutes, so I was incredibly chuffed to bits, to say the least, that not only had I successfully completed the climb, but also I achieved it in 2.5 hours!  Hurrah and huzzah!  The last few steps up to the Yeti Mountain Lodge were the worst though, and I was ready to collapse after every few metres, but I finally lugged my sorry ass in through the doors and flaked out in front of a log stove.  Phakding to Namche Bazaar took 7.5 hours.

Namche Bazaar - at last - I made it!

Namche Bazaar – at last – I made it!

The main Everest viewing point was only about 10 minutes’ walk uphill from the lodge, but by now the whole mountain was surrounded by cloud and fog, so there was no point in going up there.  Instead, I chatted to other trekkers, including a lovely old, bearded German man who had just hiked up to Shyanboche airstrip (about 1.5 hours straight up a steep climb from Namche) to take photographs.  He’d last been there 37 years ago, but when he got home his ‘slides’ didn’t develop properly so he never got the images; he’d promised himself he would come back and get the photos, and here he was having done just that (I’m sure I saw a tear in his eye).  Bless.  I should also point out, for the benefit of my younger sister, Annie, that this hiking trail in the Himalayas is packed full of greying-bearded men, so would be a very appealing holiday destination for her.

I had a very long, hot shower, then retreated to the bar and spent almost £5 on a can of Everest beer, but didn’t begrudge this as I’d seen the efforts of the poor, sweating Sherpa girl who’d carried a load of it up to Namche.  Also, my state of knackeredness, combined with the very thin air, meant that one beer felt like the equivalent of three, so if you can be arsed to clamber all the way up here for a party, I reckon you could get drunk quite quickly and cheaply. I didn’t want to, though, because I wanted to get up early and see Everest!  The weather pattern for the week seemed to be: glorious blue skies and sun in the morning, with cloud quickly covering the region by mid-morning or lunchtime, followed by rain.  So, to get a clear view, an early start was key.  And this brings me to the final ‘luxury’ part of my trek. I had booked a tour which included great lodges with hot showers and warm beds, but it culminated in a helicopter trip to Kala Patthar, a ridge close to Everest, and the closest viewing point where a helicopter can actually land!  I was supposed to be getting the flight from Shyangboche airstrip in the morning, but given the weather conditions, we decided it would be best to take the ride straight from Namche at 7am, cutting out an additional 1.5 hours’ hike and maximising chances of a good view.  Besides, I’d done the really hard part (for me) so decided I could live without seeing Shyangboche.

Mount Everest

Next morning I was up at 5am, and looked out of the window to see….blue skies!!  The view from my window looked straight across and up to Kongde (another stopping point on the helicopter ride), and I was SO excited!  Bal Kumar met me at 6am and we walked straight up to the Everest viewing point – this was to be my first (and well-earned) view of Everest, and I couldn’t wait.  My legs, though, had other ideas (they were really suffering after the previous day’s exertions) so it took a few minutes longer to get there, and I was also secretly glad at this point that I didn’t have to climb for another 1.5hours that morning!  Up a path, past some trees….and there she was!  Wow!  I could hardly believe it:  here I was, standing on this mountain, looking across at Everest in the distance, with its famous ‘plume’ of snow billowing off the summit.  The surrounding mountains were also fantastic – Ama Dablam amongst others – but I couldn’t stop gazing at Everest.  I’d seen pictures of the view before, but nothing quite prepares you for seeing it with your own eyes.

My first glimpse of Everest!  (In the middle, in the distance, the left-hand peak; Ama Dablam is on the far right)

My first glimpse of Everest! (In the middle, in the distance, the left-hand peak; Ama Dablam is on the far right)

Reluctantly tearing myself away from the view, we walked back down the hill to meet Ashish, our pilot, who was happy to bring along Bal Kumar as a passenger – like me, Bal had never before been in a helicopter, and I wanted him to have a treat, so he was really chuffed at the prospect of seeing the trail from the air and  getting a ride home to Lukla to save him the usual trek home alone.  Ashish also asked me if I minded another couple of people coming along, and I said “not at all”.  This was also a winning decision, as one of the people who wanted a ride was a Swiss mountaineer called Will who had been resting in Namche before his attempt to climb Everest without oxygen.  Wait a minute…so that meant we were dropping Will off at….Base Camp?!  That wasn’t part of my original tour itinerary, so I was thrilled to get a chance to go there too!, Ashish ushered me up front into the co-pilot seat for the best view, and away we went!  We flew through the valley, above Tengboche Monastery, and followed the trail to EBC.  Bal K was so excited to see it from the air, and I snapped away and grinned all the way there – it’s hard to describe,  but flying between (and pretty close to) the mountains, seeing the glaciers, below, is beyond breathtaking.

Flying through the valley towards EBC

Flying through the valley towards EBC

More views from the helicopter...er, we were quite close to the ground?

More views from the helicopter…er, we were quite close to the ground?

Grainy aerial shot of EBC taken through dirty front window of 'copter!  You can see the start of the hundreds of yellow tents

Grainy aerial shot of EBC taken through dirty front window of ‘copter! You can see the start of the hundreds of yellow tents

We landed at Base Camp and I was allowed to jump out for a couple of minutes to take photos – the pilot has to keep the rotor blades running and they can’t stop long otherwise all the engineery-fangled mechanisms might freeze. And that would be dangerous.  Base Camp is HUGE – there are hundreds of tents, and they are all perched on and beside a huge glacier!  You can’t actually see Everest from here (it’s blocked by other mountains) but it’s not far away.  I could see lots of hikers, mountaineers and support staff scurrying around, and we waved goodbye and good luck to Will, then hopped back into the helicopter for the next stop:  Kala Patthar.

The edge of Everest Base Camp, spilling onto the huge glacier

The edge of Everest Base Camp, spilling onto the huge glacier

Proof that I was at EBC!

Proof that I was at EBC!

Again, it’s a very brief stop, but this time we could clearly see the summit of Everest, (as close as you can get without actually hiking there through the snow and ice), and the sun was blazing down through the clear blue sky.   It was absolutely perfect.  I still can’t believe I was actually standing there, with Everest behind me.  I had never imagined I would have the opportunity to do this, and I probably never will again. But I’ve been there, and I’ve seen it!  Fecking amazing.

Frank and George somewhat overwhelmed in the shadow of Mount Everest, at Kala Patthar ridge.  (Follow the sun spots which point to the summit).

Frank and George somewhat overwhelmed in the shadow of Mount Everest, at Kala Patthar ridge. (Follow the sun spots which point to the summit).

Back into the helicopter, and we zoomed up to Kongde (opposite Namche Bazaar, but higher), where I was supposed to stop for a champagne breakfast (that ‘luxury’ tour again).  However, the cloud was now moving in quickly, and I could sense that Ashish was worried about flying conditions, so I told him to forget the champagne breakfast if we could just manage to land one last time – I had heard the views from Kongde were unbelievable.  Ashish thanked me, and happily landed while I clambered out, awestruck for the millionth time that morning, looking out at the panoramic view across the Himalayas.  What a bloody fantastic final view.  I will remember it for the rest of my life.

Final view (and what a view!) from Kongde.  Oh my giddy aunt.

Final view (and what a view!) from Kongde. Oh my giddy aunt.

View from Kongde without me spoiling the view.  Breathtaking.

View from Kongde without me spoiling the view. Breathtaking.

Just as we took off, the approaching cloud bank was getting really bad, so Ashish performed some nifty flying moves to take us away and safely back to Lukla, where I said goodbye to Bal Kumar, and amused myself watching some planes landing on the crazy airstrip while Ashish swapped ‘copters to take me back to Kathmandu.  Brilliant flight back (although it meant I didn’t get the chance to do a fixed wing take-off from Lukla, over a sheer drop off the mountain), and Ashish took me to their helicopter office to wait for a car to take us into the terminal.  While we’d been chatting on the trip, Ashish, a local, had said that he’d never made it up to Namche Bazaar (he’d trekked only to Phakding) and to him Namche felt like Everest.  He was so pleased that I told him I’d felt exactly the same way, and he’s now inspired to go and do it for himself.  I told him that if he did, I’d learn to fly a helicopter and come to pick him up. So that’s a deal.

I should also mention that I know (though my obsessive internet research) that many seasoned trekkers sneer at those who take flights in the Himalayas, saying it’s ‘lazy’ or ‘easy’ or whatever, but I think that’s rather self-righteous and a bit mean-spirited.  After all, each person is different, and we all have our own personal challenges, and as long as we push ourselves, what does it matter? While trekking to Namche Bazaar  might be a walk in the park for some, for me, it was a massive challenge, and I am so proud of myself for getting there!  I earned my view of Everest from Namche, so why not round off the trip of a lifetime with a fantastic, thrilling helicopter ride as a reward?  The whole experience was undoubtedly the best trip I have ever had, and to finish it off with a helicopter flight was the wispy, snow-capped summit of the holiday.  It was astonishing, and I still can’t quite believe I was there.

IMG_1420

Mumbai yaar (m’lud)

During the past 6 months, I have been to Mumbai only once, unfortunately.  I say ‘unfortunately’, because I knew as soon as I stepped off the plane at Mumbai airport last December that it was a place I would love.  I was really pleased that my post-contract week of networking this week would take me back to the city, and I hopped on a flight last Sunday morning to get in early and try to see more of the place.

Staying in a hotel bang in the middle of Mumbai would, I thought, be most convenient for work, as my appointments were all over the place, but it also had its drawbacks:  Mumbai is very much a party city which livens up each night and carries on into the wee small hours.  My god, it was noisy!  At 5.30am I realised that the hotel was also plonked right beside a large mosque, as the ‘call for prayer’ blasted through the double-glazing and ruined my beauty sleep.  No matter, the sun shone all the time, the palm trees swayed, and I decided Mumbai is a bit like New York, but with LA weather.  A great combination.

With limited time for sightseeing, I booked a couple of tours to maximise the time I had.  I am already a huge fan of the early morning cycling city tours, so a 6.15am bike ride in Mumbai was first on my list.  When I got to the meeting point, there were just 2 other blokes there (Jan and Jack), and we got chatting.  As soon as I found out they were from the Netherlands, I started enthusing about the DelhiByCycle tour company I love in Old Delhi, and telling them how it was set up by a Dutch bloke.  I told them they absolutely had to do those tours, how wonderful they were, blah blah blah….until Jan finally said, ‘are you going to tell her, Jack?’, and Jack told me he was the founder and owner of said company.  Haha! Well, I was glad to be in such esteemed company.  So, the three of us, plus our guide, Chetan, set off at sunrise to see the sights.  The architecture in south Mumbai (where we were) is predominantly British, and there are some beautiful buildings all around the area.  We passed Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus (formerly Victoria Terminus) – the busiest railway station in India, where the final scenes of Slumdog Millionaire were filmed and, sadly, one of the sites of the terrorist attacks in 2008.   References to and landmarks from the Mumbai bombings featured throughout the cycle tour – I hadn’t appreciated, previously, that the majority of the multiple attacks had taken place in a relatively small area of Mumbai (the city is huge), but it seemed that our little tour took us past each and every site: the railway station, Nariman House, the Metro Cinema, the Oberoi and Taj Mahal hotels….the list went on.  The repercussions of the bombings are evident across India:  since 2008, there is a high level of security in all public places, offices, malls and hotels.  You get used to being searched and scanned before entering any building, and your car being stopped and searched as you approach any hotel.  In Mumbai, the security is even tighter and, unfortunately for tourists, photography is not allowed in or near a lot of the really interesting market areas, which is such a shame.  We respected that on our tour, of course, but it does mean I can’t share many images of a wonderful city.

Jack, Chetin and Jan: my bike tour companions.

Jack, Chetin and Jan: my bike tour companions.

Victoria Terminus - design is based on St Pancras in London.  Jai ho!

Victoria Terminus – design is based on St Pancras in London. Jai ho!

We had the doubtful pleasure of being allowed inside the meat market, where I saw a man very casually chopping the head off a chicken.  He stopped to chat to his colleague halfway through the act, and the poor chicken was left dangling in his grip waiting for him to finish the job.  The day was really warming up already (even though it was early morning) and the stench in the meat market was quite hideous.  Imagine my joy, therefore, when we were taken to the FISH market on the pier towards the end of the tour!  My god, I tried so hard not to barf – I am not brilliant with fish at the best of times, but being surrounded by huge mounds of peeled prawns and fish guts in, by now, 35C+ heat…let’s just say I had one eye on the nearest bucket all the time we were there.

Mr Melons clearly suspecting a couple may have escaped.  Frank and George unavailable for comment.

Mr Melons clearly suspecting a couple may have escaped. Frank and George unavailable for comment.

A market alleyway in south Mumbai

A market alleyway in south Mumbai

We also visited a sort of cow sanctuary, where special cows and bulls are kept and cared for – every local has their favourite and will pop in, buy some corn, and go and feed them.  It’s quite sweet, really.  From there we went to fruit markets, temples, and alleyways, soaking up the atmosphere and enjoying the bike ride. Chetan led us down Marine Drive, and he stopped at one point to tell us to be careful, as there was a danger area ahead.  What on earth could that be?  “The ladies’ motorbike learning centre”, replied Chetan.

Ladies' moped driving lessons off Marine Drive.  We proceeded with caution.

Ladies’ moped driving lessons off Marine Drive. We proceeded with caution.

We took our bikes back to the “Happy Cycle Shop” and I asked the owner how far away was Leopold’s Cafe.  Now, Leopold’s is very famous, and was also targeted in the terrorist attacks five years ago, but I wanted to go there because of “Shantaram”: a must-read book for anyone planning to visit Mumbai or, indeed, India.  I’d read it following a recommendation (thanks, Richard) and loved it.  Much of the activity centres around Leopold’s, so any fan of the book just has to go there.  Anyway, it turned out that Mr ‘Happy Cycle Shop’ knows the author very well, and proudly showed me pictures of himself with Gregory David Roberts.  He then showed me pictures of himself with various Hollywood actors, so either he’s pretty nifty with Photoshop or the Happy Cycle Shop is, indeed, a hangout for celebs.  So, off I went to Leopold’s for a quick drink and to see if I could spot Mr Roberts (he still frequents the place).  No luck while I was there, but it’s a great wee cafe and bar, and doesn’t seem to have lost any of its charm despite its fame.

Mr "Happy Cycle Shop" and son holding aloft a picture of them with Gregory David 'Shantaram' Roberts

Mr “Happy Cycle Shop” and son holding aloft a picture of them with Gregory David ‘Shantaram’ Roberts

Inside Leopold's.  I made it!

Inside Leopold’s. I made it!

From Leopold’s I went on to Chor Bazaar, or “Thieves’ Market” where apparently you can find items which were previously stolen from you (bit like the Barras, I guess).  I half-expected to find there my Take That CD from my flat burglary in Glasgow in 1994, although I’m still not entirely convinced that my then flatmate, Ross, didn’t just hurl it out of the window.  [Yes, Mr Gordon, I am freely admitting, publicly, to owning a Take That CD.  I also had a video of theirs, too. Does that make you feel better?]. I did find some old tat, including a classic Charles & Di commemorative wedding biscuit tin (!) which I obviously left well alone, and a great little stall selling Bollywood posters and cards from the 1970s – the images are hilarious, like dreadful 1970s knitting pattern catalogue models, in ethnic dress, and on acid.

Chor Bazaar, or "Thieves' Market"

Chor Bazaar, or “Thieves’ Market”

I had a dedicated driver, Dilip, while I was in Mumbai, and he certainly was value for money.  His chat ranged from “mam, you look even more beautiful if you grow hair” (I’m emphasising the ‘even more’ bit there, of course, and I’m assuming he meant ‘grow your hair longer’, in case any of you think I’ve gone completely Sinead O’Connor – I haven’t quite yet), to “is it true that in UK you have free sex?”.  I never really got to the bottom of what he was referring to, but we covered everything from prostitution to drunk Essex girls, so I think he got a relatively colourful picture.  He also asked me, “Where in the UK do you find white people?” – I was particularly confused by this one and tried to explain that I was in fact white, which was difficult for him to comprehend as by this stage I was relatively tanned; he seemed to think I was mixed race, which was quite funny. To be fair, he was a very sweet guy who actually knew where he was going pretty much all the time (a rarity here), so I didn’t mind indulging his chat.  I even made him take me to some dodgy street food stalls in between client appointments and order local food for both of us, so he was quite happy.

I also went on a ‘slum tour’ – I did have my reservations about doing this (maybe too intrusive?) but I found a great company on the internet who appeared to have a very good relationship with the community, and work hard with them (and put money back into the community) so I decided to do it.  We went to Dharavi slum, which was the biggest in Mumbai (over 1 million residents) and also featured prominently in Slumdog. Incidentally, Danny Boyle is considered by Mumbai folk as a bit of a hero or lucky charm – anyone I spoke to chattered excitedly about him, almost as much as they do about their cricket heroes, and this quickly dispelled any nagging doubts I had over the social responsibility arguments relating to the film.  Back to Dharavi – again, no photography, this time for privacy reasons, which is quite understandable.  Our guide, Sunny, also warned us not to hold our noses or make any obvious ‘boak’ faces when hit with various smells, so that we didn’t insult the residents.  After the overheated fish market, there wasn’t much that could further offend my nostrils, so I was perfectly fine with that.  Well, I was, until we reached a narrow alleyway with an open and overflowing ‘waste duct’ underfoot.  I and my open Merrill sandals will never learn…

Rather hot and sweaty; just before we entered the Dhavari 'slum'.

Rather hot and sweaty; just before we entered the Dhavari ‘slum’.

On the rooftops of the plastic recycling area in Dharavi

On the rooftops of the plastic recycling area in Dharavi

The tour was a real eye-opener – I hadn’t expected to see such industry in what I had pictured as being a vast, densly-populated, poverty-ridden area.  There was the most incredible recycling area – all the waste plastic from the streets of Mumbai is brought here by workers who scour the streets on a daily basis, and it’s sorted, ground down (using home-made machines), washed, dried and sold on to Indian companies.  There’s a similar set-up for aluminium, plus processing areas for leather, clay pot kilns, huge open air areas where women make papadums for local companies….wow!  The houses themselves are, of course, tiny – each just one room of about 10m2, with a ‘wet’ corner for washing, a ‘cooking’ corner, and space on the floor to lay out mats for a family of between 4-8 people.  The government does supply electricity and water, but the water is on for only 3 hours per day, so residents fill huge drums each morning for washing, cooking and drinking.  The alleyways are really narrow, and it’s difficult to navigate (particularly when there is open sewerage underneath), but the children scuttle back and forth really quickly, without seeming to fall into any of the hazardous holes.  The kids were really cute, actually, and would bound up to us to say hello or touch our skin.  I sent one child into peals of laughter (delight, I hope) when I asked him his name, in Hindi. What’s more, he responded in Hindi – hurrah!  I shouldn’t get too cocky – I still haven’t progressed much from my basic introductory words, but it just goes to show it’s worth making a bit of an effort.  Our little group left Dharavi feeling quite uplifted, actually – it was quite different from our expectations.  That’s not to say that there’s not a massive problem with poverty here, of course, because there is, and the gulf between rich and poor is enormous.  There is a billionaire in Mumbai who lives in a mansion with 4 of his family, and apparently he has 600 servants.  ’nuff said.

Gateway of India: the most famous landmark.  Crap photography due to restricted access (or due to crap photographer).

Gateway of India: the most famous landmark. Crap photography due to restricted access (or due to crap photographer).

My last night in Mumbai was spent with 2 guys from a company we do business with globally.  We hadn’t met previously and, when deciding where to go for dinner, I asked if we could go somewhere which served authentically ‘Mumbai’ food.  After a lot of chat, Bipin said that he would take a risk and take me somewhere local, and this turned out to be the best ‘corporate’ dinner I’ve ever had, as Bipin and Niranjan took me into central Mumbai to stand on a corner eating the best street food I have ever tasted!  What a refreshing change from stuffy restaurants – we stood on the pavement as the stall holders served up dish upon dish – I was completely stuffed after the first few, but they guys insisted I try everything on offer! Fab.  I asked them how often they had brought out visiting contractors for this type of meal, and the answer was, of course, ‘never’.  Again, I felt sort of honoured that they could read me well enough within the first few minutes to know that I would really love it, and they were delighted I enjoyed it so much!  So much so, that Niranjan invited me back for Diwali in November to spend time with his family and their family friends…including a certain Sachin Tendulkar (I now know enough about cricket to realise that this is rather a good opportunity).  Not sure I’ll be able to wangle a return trip to India, but nice to know that if I do, I’ll be partying with a legend.

So, I have now officially finished work, and all that remains is for me to (a) pack up the apartment this weekend and (b) go on holiday!  I’m both excited and scared thinking about both (a) and (b).  Right now, I’m more scared about the packing part (how on earth am I going to cram 6 months’ worth of living into a few suitcases?), but by Monday I’ll probably be cacking myself at the thought of Tuesday’s flight from Kathmandu to Lukla. Go and search for Lukla  on the web if you’re brave enough: you’ll find it listed under ‘world’s most dangerous airport’.

Sunrise:  I'll have you know I was up at 6.30am to witness this, which was some feat considering the gin & 'is it?' shenanigans the previous night.

“Let the sun beat down upon my face; stars to fill my dream…”

When Monika first suggested we head to Srinagar, Kashmir, for the Easter weekend, I have to admit I wasn’t entirely sure about it.  We’ve all heard about the continuing unrest, violence and protests, and even very recently (within the past few weeks) there have been disturbing reports of fatal attacks on the military in the city.  However, there is a constantly high threat of terrorism throughout India, so I figured that Kashmir probably was as safe as anywhere else.  I’m really glad we decided to go.

Monika had also persuaded Dave and Alison, a ‘newbie’ Scottish couple, to join us on our adventure, so we booked the flights, found a houseboat (a must in Srinagar) on TripAdvisor, and off we went!  The flight is only about 1h 20 mins from Delhi, and during the descent into Srinagar, Monika and I were sprawled over the neighbouring passengers, gaping in awe at our first close-up view of the Himalayas.

View from the plane.

View from the plane.

Waiting for our luggage, we all switched on our phones, and realised very quickly that none of us had any network or 3G coverage at all.  Strange.  We found out later that the government effectively blocks all non-local SIM card coverage, in an attempt to restrict communication and reporting from within the state of Jammu and Kashmir.  Ah well, a weekend without internet and email is no bad thing.

The Indian army presence at the airport was very prominent, and approaching Srinagar through the military checkpoints reminded me just a bit of Belfast in the 1990s, and it didn’t feel at all uncomfortable.  We had booked a houseboat on Lake Nagin, adjacent to the larger Lake Dal, and we were ushered into a ‘shikara’ (a long, thin, boat powered by a man with a paddle) which ferried us, and our luggage, across the water to reach our home for the next 2 nights.  We didn’t have to pay the ferryman, either, and I even managed to restrain myself from treating my companions to a quick chorus of Chris de Burgh to mark the occasion.  Steph will be proud of me.

View from our houseboat across Nagin Lake.

View from our houseboat across Nagin Lake.

Traditional houseboats on the lake.  Really beautiful.

Traditional houseboats on the lake. Really beautiful.

Snow-capped Himalayan mountains.

Snow-capped Himalayan mountains.

Rahim, the owner of our houseboat, was brilliant – he effectively acted as our tour guide for the weekend, and took us to the Shalimar gardens (I did ask if there were some Shakatak gardens nearby, but apparently there aren’t), and to the Indira Ghandi Memorial Tulip Garden, where we witnessed men in dresses dancing vigorously for the benefit of the media.  Scottish Dave felt mildly uncomfortable with this. The gardens were very Indian:  lots of half-finished renovations taking place, and a strange sort of randomness and incompleteness everywhere.  We also drove high up the hillside to a beautiful old Mughal fort, which now has army outposts complete with soldiers and guns, keeping lookout over the hills. I asked one of the soldiers if he would mind if I took a photo of him:  he said “No, not allowed”, so I said “smile!” and he posed for the camera.  So I shot him, but he didn’t shoot me, which was fortunate.

Another army post at Pari Mahal.

Another army post at Pari Mahal.

Pari Mahal: a gorgeous old Mughal fort high up on the mountainside.

Pari Mahal: a gorgeous old Mughal fort high up on the mountainside.

On the way back down to the lake, I gingerly asked Rahim if he would mind stopping somewhere where we might buy a little (ahem) wine – this is, after all, a Muslim state, and we had heard that it was “dry”, so we had prepared ourselves for a sober weekend.  But, no, Rahim said it was no problem at all, and took us to what looked like an off-licence in Partick: a small, shabby shack with iron bars separating the customers from the booze.  The only difference was, there were no star-shaped neon price tags stuck onto anything.  I bounded up enthusiastically, snapping away with my camera, but realised quickly that 3 men were shouting at me, “No cameras! No photos!” so I smiled sweetly, slowed to a trot, and approached the grille.   The 3 men continued chasing me, now shouting “No women! No women!”, so I gave up and let Dave and Rahim go ahead into the scrum to find some alcohol. Dave emerged (relatively unscathed), pleased that he’d found not only some Australian white wine, but also a bottle of Indian gin which retailed at 263 rupees (about £3).  Armed with that, and a quick stop for some lemony mixers (no chance at all of finding tonic here), we headed back to the houseboat.  We chatted about some of the curious expressions that Indians use, one of which is the phrase “is it?”  We all come across this frequently, usually in response to a statement such as “I’m going to jump in the river”, or “Last night I watched an amazing lightning display”, so we concluded that it’s some sort of exclamation of surprise, where we might say “Really?”.  By the end of the evening we had named our new cheap gin and lemony mixer-thingy drink “Gin and ‘is it?’”, mainly because we were surprised at how palatable it actually was.

The Partick-inspired off-licence in Srinagar.

The Partick-inspired off-licence in Srinagar.

Rahim joined us for dinner on the boat, and he proceeded to get pretty drunk (we, of course, did not). I asked him about wildlife living in the lake, and at one point I was convinced there must be a Nessie-type beast lurking under the water as he described a native creature as this: “it looks like a cat, it’s the size of a duck, it eats only fish-heads, and it has leathery skin which you can make hats out of”.  Scary stuff! It took until the following day for him to remember the English name for this creature:  an otter.  Phew.  There are also scores of kingfishers, eagles and kites to be seen, and the lakes also attract flocks of migrating birds, so definitely a good hang-out for Bill Oddie, should he ever be passing.

Next day we lazed around on a shikara (not to be confused with the similarly-named annoying nasal popstress from Colombia) for a 3-hour excursion across the lakes, we pottered about in the local market, and Rahim took us to his family home for lunch and gallons more Kashmiri tea.  The houses in Srinagar are generally huge, and we were told that most people who live there are wealthy – we certainly didn’t see the sort of poverty-stricken sights common to most Indian cities, which was a bit of a surprise.  We had seen some farmers on the lake, tending to their ‘water plots’ (crops growing in and on grassy reeds on the water) and had assumed they were relatively poor, but Rahim insisted they were all pretty well off, and that they just choose not to lead an opulent lifestyle.  Strangers were keen to run up to us and exclaim a huge welcome, along with statements like, “See?  No fighting!”.  Everyone here seems very keen to convince tourists that it’s a safe place to visit, and they also insist that what is reported in the media is propaganda by the Indian army in an attempt to justify their presence.  It’s hard to know what exactly is the truth – Rahim went so far as to say that the Indian army and government feed absolute lies to the news channels, reporting incidents and attacks which just haven’t happened, but who knows?  It’s really hard to find a neutral view anywhere.

Shikara...Shakira...whatever.

Shikara…Shakira…whatever.

We added to the local economy by splurging on pashminas and cushion covers – the handicraft industry is obviously one of the biggest exports and tourist magnets – and Dave & Alison even bought a carpet for their new flat in Gurgaon.  We were all tempted by the silk rugs but, bargainous as they may have been in comparison with a bland John Lewis effort, we resisted – just.  However, if anyone is looking for beautiful soft furnishings, I am now in possession of some good local contacts who will happily export to the UK!

Local farmers with no obvious irrigation issues.

Local farmers with no obvious irrigation issues.

I managed to crawl out of bed at 6.30am the next morning, which was a bit of a miracle as Dave had acquired some more of that dodgy gin (and ‘is it?’) for Saturday night’s entertainment, and I witnessed the sun rise over the mountains, casting beautiful light across the glassy lake.  Quite stunning.

Later that morning, we were introduced to a local saffron seller, and we succumbed (mainly because we were all now addicted to Kashmiri tea, which is saffron-based), and we also bought some ‘salageet’ – a sort of tar-like substance which is supposed to be the ‘conqueror of weakness’.  I think it’s used mainly by men as a sort of Indian Viagra, but the lure of ‘strength’ was enough for the ladies to get sucked in, too.  Rahim said that I didn’t need any, as I was “strong in personality”, and when I asked him if this was a euphemism for “loud” he didn’t deny it much.  I bought some anyway, mainly to see if I could get any louder, and you can judge the results for yourselves in a few weeks’ time.  I know you’ll look forward to that.

We headed back to the airport on Sunday afternoon, leaving plenty of time to negotiate the TEN security checkpoints which were quite unbelievable.  At the first (on the road to the airport) we stopped at an army checkpoint, where we had to get out with our luggage, have it (and ourselves) fully scanned, before we were allowed to proceed to the terminal.  Rahim laughed when a soldier made some remark in Kashmiri, then told me he had said that I have “a beautiful chest”.  Indignant, I asked Rahim what he had replied, and he admitted he’d said “You’re telling me!” or words to that effect.  “IS IT?” Way to go, Frank & George: causing trouble AGAIN.  The nine subsequent checks were just arduous (Frank and George were subjected to a right good groping while other female security guards guffawed loudly), and one of the final checks (beyond normal security) included having to walk outside, airside, and re-identify each checked-in bag before it was loaded onto the plane.  Eh??  We were getting pretty grumpy by then, and were cheered only by the sight of a random cat within the airport which we had first spotted at check-in riding the baggage conveyor belts then, later, upstairs, hiding in a drinking fountain before it jumped out and crapped on the floor.

I managed to swap seats on the plane home so that I could again gawp at the Himalayas, and get excited about my forthcoming trip to Nepal: it’s only a couple of weeks until I fly to Kathmandu, and on to Lukla airport – help!

Work is now really busy (I have only one more week to go on the client contract) and not helped by 3 consecutive nights out since Wednesday, culminating in another visit to the illegal drinking haunt, Knightrider, last night (see previous posts).  It’s been renovated!  Whitewashed walls, comfy chairs, and that miracle loo is definitely still there, and still clean.  Mind you, we were on the Indian whisky again, so I may have dreamt it all.  Who knows?

Some non-houseboat watery dwellings on the lake.

Some non-houseboat watery dwellings on the lake.

Kashmiri street food in a poke!  Fried crispy potatoey things with a really spicy carrot dip. No idea what it's called, but it was yum.

Kashmiri street food in a poke! Fried crispy potatoey things with a really spicy carrot dip. No idea what it’s called, but it was yum.

Interesting scaffolding structure on this mosque!

Interesting scaffolding structure on this mosque!

Some non-houseboat watery dwellings on the lake.

Some non-houseboat watery dwellings on the lake.

Indira Gandhi Memorial Garden.  I assume that sign reads "Get orf my tulips" or something.

Indira Gandhi Memorial Garden. I assume that sign reads “Get orf my tulips” or something.

The U2 shot in Shalimar / Shakatak Gardens.
The U2 shot in Shalimar / Shakatak Gardens.

Sunrise:  I'll have you know I was up at 6.30am to witness this, which was some feat considering the gin & 'is it?' shenanigans the previous night.

Sunrise: I’ll have you know I was up at 6.30am to witness this, which was some feat considering the gin & ‘is it?’ shenanigans the previous night.

Me with my Kingfisher Strong at 10am on Sunday morning.  I am such a jakey.

Playing with the boys, ‘Ganga Style’

When nine blokes from work invited me to join them on their camping and white water rafting weekend in Rishikesh, my sister commented on Facebook, ‘Do they know what they are letting themselves in for?’  I hadn’t thought of it from that angle, but it turns out Fiona was right: I managed to embarrass myself rather spectacularly within 2 hours of leaving Gurgaon.

The lads had hired a 12-seater minibus, and we congregated at work late on Friday night to make the 250km trip north-east.  I decided to bring a bottle of Balvenie to add to the carry-out, thinking that we could have some sensible whisky tasting (i.e. comparing it with Antiquity Blue, the Indian whisky of choice) at some point.  Well, within 20 minutes of departure, the Balvenie was being right royally tanned up and down the bus, and I was threatening to wallop anyone who dared put coke or lemonade anywhere near it.  No need to stop for a ciggie, as it was apparent that the ‘no smoking’ laws in India don’t apply if you’re in a fun-bus with a stack of booze.  Hurrah!

So, full of expensive, imported Scottish malt, we approached the border with Uttar Pradesh, and the bus driver pulled in to pay some sort of boundary tax to enter the next state.  I decided it was time to go to the loo (of course) so as we wandered off the bus I asked Piyush to help me find somewhere to go.  Piyush is the guy who had found me the magical, gleaming loo in a dirty place previously (at ‘Knightrider’ for those of you who follow this blog), so I had high hopes.  Nope, this time there was none to be found, so I insisted (despite Piyush’s protestations) that this time I would definitely go and find a dark corner and just get on with it.  I wandered round the back of a grotty building, and climbed down a step, thinking that I would cross over what looked to me, in the dark, like a litter-ridden piece of dirty land, and that this route would take me far enough away to do my business away from prying eyes.  However –  and I actually feel sick at the memory – when I stepped out onto a paper plate (thinking it would protect the soles of my sandals), I effectively plunged straight into what was, in fact, a huge expanse of dirty, sludgy slurry-like SHIT.  And I was now in it, up to and over my knees, as my other leg had followed automatically to stop me falling flat on my face into the disgusting mess.  I was mortified!  I stood there for about a minute, wondering what on earth I should do next, as by this stage I was stuck firmly between the emotions of embarrassment and absolute horror. Eventually, I plucked up the courage to clamber out, and I stood at the side shouting for someone to bring me water…when the guys saw me, covered in shite (trousers and sandals ruined), I think that this was the point I remembered Fiona’s comment on Facebook.  Our party was held up for 20 minutes while I tried my best to wash my legs (helped by Nilesh – he gets the bravery prize for the trip), got changed on the bus, then settled down for some rightful teasing for the rest of our journey.  I skulked up to the front of the bus in an attempt to protect the rest of the group from my honking self, and decided that consuming more whisky was the only way to repress both my embarrassment and my gag reflex.  Our band of very merry (we drank tons more whisky through the night) and stinky (just me, sadly) travellers eventually passed out at I don’t know when (3am? 4am?), and next I knew it was just after 6am and we were approaching Rishikesh – hurrah!  Hang on, we set off at 10.30pm, and it had taken almost 8 hours to drive 250km?  Feck.

We got to the campsite on the banks of the Ganges and climbed down the hill with our bags, and the remainder of our gigantic carry-out.  We had been allocated two tents: one slept 7, and the other 3, so I bagged the smaller one and no doubt the guys were drawing straws at this point to decide which two would have to sleep next to the foul-smelling Mo.  Then, breakfast (with lots of cups of chai tea, which I’ve decided is brilliant for a hangover), some volleyball, and before we knew it it was time to go rafting – jeah!

One thing I learned on the way to the rafting point is that the vast majority of my companions couldn’t swim – in fact, it’s rare for their generation, as they were brought up in landlocked Delhi without easy access to swimming pools, so it’s quite unusual to find someone who actually can swim.  One guy from Mumbai could, though, and the two of us were dying to jump into the Ganges, or the ‘Ganga’ as it’s known locally.

We were taken by jeep to the rafting point, and found our guide, Vicky.  After the obligatory donning of life-jackets and plastic helmets, we were off!  Vicky quickly realised that the guys had no sense of teamwork when paddling, so he insisted I sit up front (“Mo is good!  Follow Mo!”) which meant that I was now in prime position for getting wiped out on the rapids. Hurrah again!  Our trip took us down 16km of the Ganges, and we were allowed to jump out and float in the calm areas (I somersaulted backwards into the water before he had finished saying that we could) – it was amazing, and so clean, and so green! The rapids themselves were hilarious – we had 5 or 6 rapids on our trip, and one of them was rated a 3.5 (pretty tough) – I was at the front and got completely battered by the walls of water which hit us again and again – it was amazing!  We didn’t capsize, but the next rapid (a 1.5, so supposedly easy) took us by surprise, flipped the raft upwards 90 degrees, and I was jettisoned, backwards, straight under the water.  It was a fantastic feeling, and I was quite happy riding the rest of the rapid hanging onto the raft’s rope, while the guys panicked and tried to haul me in.  I was laughing (as was Vicky), and kept saying no, it was brilliant being hurled around in the water, and I wanted to stay in for much longer!  I think they thought I was slightly crazy, but it really was the best experience in the world.  Vicky sensed I wanted to do more craziness, so he tried to find a suitable spot on the river for cliff-jumping but, sadly, the water was too low so we didn’t get an opportunity.  Maybe next time.  I did try to swim in the river when we stopped for a snack, but the current was incredibly strong and I had visions of being swept downstream and unceremoniously deposited on the banks of a yoga meditation retreat (thought I might spoil the effect for folk who had paid a fortune to ‘find’ themselves), so I just dooked myself a few times and washed away a lifetime’s sins (and the remainder of the cack on my legs) in one go.  Easy peasy.

Our rafting experience ended in Rishikesh itself, and Vicky was impressed enough with my efforts to give me his email address and invite me to do some much crazier white water rafting in China. I might just look him up.  Climbing up the steps into the main town, it felt like we were entering a film set from the 1960s: there were hundreds of people bustling through the streets – hippies, Hare Krishnas, Buddhists, tourists – all there on their own personal journeys, perhaps to ‘find’ themselves, or perhaps to just soak up the atmosphere in what is a curious but fascinating place.  The Beatles came here in 1968, and many of the songs for the White Album and Abbey Road were written while inspired here, so I’m expecting a sudden rush of creativity to engulf my brain and erase my abiding memory of dried-shit-on-legs.

Nilesh bought a large bunch of bananas before we boarded our bus back to camp and, when we arrived 20 minutes later, he threw one to a passing monkey to amuse himself (and the monkey).  A few seconds later, Nilesh was at risk of being viciously assaulted by the hordes of monkeys which appeared from the roadside, so he threw the entire bunch at them and scarpered.  Monkey pandemonium!  A marvellous sight.

I’m just sorry that I didn’t take my camera on the rafting expedition, but I was worried it would get completely ruined (it may well have done) and I’m relying on photos from others for what are some fantastic memories.  I’ll post them here if I manage to lay my hands on any – Gaurav is supposed to be compiling pics from all of our cameras but he seems to have disappeared from work in the last couple of days (there were a number of our party on ‘sick leave’ on Monday – I wonder why?).

Back at camp, we drank more whisky, the boys played some more volleyball, and they asked my why I kept making references to ‘Top Gun’ as I watched them frolicking about in the sunshine.  This did lead to a full-volume chorus of ‘Dangerzone’ at one point, which just served to support my point.  I was so knackered I decided to go for a kip before our bonfire and BBQ dinner, and emerged relatively refreshed (as much as you can be without having had a proper wash in 24 hrs) and re-joined the group with a bottle of wine.  We all sat up until around 1am, marvelling at the stars and discussing politics:  the guys were really interested in how the UK is run, and they wanted to learn more about the devolved parliaments, the history of the Union, and national feeling.  I think that at least 9 people now in India have got a true sense of Scottish nationalism!  Not that I’m biased or anything.  In return, they gave me a much better understanding of Indian politics, Kashmir, and the many diverse cultures which exist in this country.

I ended up flopping into my tent (not a good idea as the camp bed was really hard), fully clothed (it was freezing) at about 1am, and tried to sleep through the various interruptions during the night: it seemed that every time I woke up, there was someone new sleeping in one of the adjacent camp beds.  I’m not sure if the boys were rotating sleeping quarters because they (a) wanted to sleep next to me or (b) DIDN’T want to sleep next to me (was I still emitting hideous odours from the previous night?), so I gave up thinking about it and tried to snuggle down as best I could.

Next morning, I definitely needed a wash, so I braced myself for the ‘bucket of cold water’ bathing experience, which was actually pretty refreshing.  Into a clean change of clothes, breakfast, and then we all wandered back to the river to soak up the wonderful morning scenery and the early sunlight bouncing off the water.  What should have been a peaceful, spiritual entry to the new day descended quickly into general mayhem, however, and the unavoidable splashing around turned into a full-scale water fight and inevitable submersion.   Some bright spark thought it would be a great idea to add beer into the fun and frolics, so before I knew it I had transitioned from ‘Mo finding her inner self on the banks of the Ganges’ to ‘Mo finding herself fully-clothed, sitting fully submerged in the Ganges, drinking Kingfisher Strong (equiv. of Tennents’ Special Brew)’.  I’m not sure George Harrison would have approved.

As we were packing up to catch the fun-bus home, Piyush came over to me and said, “Mo, you are not like most girls: you are strong, you do anything, and you can drink lots of whisky.  You are like a cowboy”.  I think he meant “tomboy”, and I’m not sure if this was a compliment or not, but I was glad to be accepted into the boys’ gang, and that I wouldn’t be remembered only as “the girl who jumped into a cesspit”.  Actually, come to think of it, that sounds like a great title for a Scandanavian novel.

Tired (mainly due to Kingfisher Strong), we boarded the bus at noon and braved the 8-hour drive back to Gurgaon.  We stopped for a fabby lunch on the way (I let the boys choose, and they chose wisely), and had some more of that fantastic sweet treat: jalebi (the fried yumminess that I just can’t describe – if you ever come across it, just eat it).  I hung out of the window like a labrador and waved at bemused village-folk all the way home, and we even managed to polish off the rest of the whisky.

All in all, an absolutely fantastic weekend, and I would urge anyone visiting north India to make the trip to Rishikesh.  However, next time, I’m taking the train.

Early morning sunshine by the river

Early morning sunshine by the river

Sunday morning: playing with the boys
Sunday morning: playing with the boys

The team: the boys and the "cowboy"

The team: the boys and the “cowboy”

Me with my Kingfisher Strong at 10am on Sunday morning.  I am such a jakey.

Me with my Kingfisher Strong at 10am on Sunday morning. I am such a jakey.

Piyush and Gaurav with the remnants of the whisky on the bus home,  We finished it, too.

Piyush and Gaurav with the remnants of the whisky on the bus home, We finished it, too.

Jalebi: food of the Gods.  Try this at your peril.

Jalebi: food of the Gods. Try this at your peril.

 

 

Approaching the Taj through the first gateway.

Ticking off the Taj

At last: the sun is finally winning its battle with the smog in Delhi, and I’m astonished at how quickly the temperature is changing. Rewind to the 5th of January, when I landed in India wrapped up in my North Face jacket and sheepskin gloves, and was STILL cold (mind you, I was hungover, which never helps)… and yet within two weeks I was happily pottering around in shorts and t-shirts at the weekends.  It wasn’t boiling, but it was certainly passable for a half-decent Scottish summer.  Now, just in this past couple of weeks, the temperature has climbed from the low twenties to around 30C+. Cue, hasty dash to the shops to stock up on suitable attire, and I’m now bracing myself for an uncomfortable few weeks.

One thing I won’t be sorry to see the back of is this couture item which has been sported openly by the female populace during the autumn/winter ‘fashion’ season:  it’s what can only be described as an unforgiveable “camel’s toe” (and yes, I actually think it looks worse than the sort of “camel’s toe” to which you think I am referring, and that’s saying something).  Just have a swatch at this:

The camel's toe: surreptitiously snapped on the Metro.  It isn't even a clean example. Bleurrghh.

The camel’s toe: surreptitiously snapped on the Metro. It isn’t even a clean example. Bleurrghh.

Yup, it’s a sock designed especially for wearing with flip flops and sandals, and I am amazed by the sorts of otherwise-fashionable ladies who don’t realise (or don’t care about) how awful this really looks.  If it’s cold, wear some boots, for heaven’s sake!  As my wee brother would say, I’m afraid I just don’t get the ‘get’ at all.

I finally managed to make the trip down to Agra last weekend, and I’m really pleased I did, despite my earlier comments regarding my lack of interest in ticking off the major sights.  I’d arranged to go down with Shiju, a friend from work whose family is away in Kerala for a month, so he’s a bit bored and fancied being my tour guide.  We decided to head down early on Saturday morning, visit Agra Fort, and then stay overnight to ‘do’ the Taj Mahal early on Sunday morning (I would highly recommend this approach, as it gets monstrously busy as the day progresses).

So off we went, driving down the Yamuna Expressway – a huge, new toll road, which makes the longish journey pretty easy.   It took us through Noida (not particularly picturesque) and past the new F1 racing circuit, which looked pretty impressive.  I think I’m sounding a bit Partridge-esque here, so let’s move on.

Eventually we arrived in Agra, which was, as expected, bustling with tourists and tour buses.  It occurred to me that I hadn’t seen so many white people in one place for quite some time, and Shiju was highly amused when I told him I didn’t feel like a tourist (although I am), I felt more like a local who was getting rather grumpy at this invasion of ‘my’ country.  I have definitely gone slightly native.  It was great having Shiju as my companion, as he was able to negotiate with the tuk-tuk drivers and find the best tour guides, while I tried to impress all and sundry with my basic Hindi – it worked – the locals told me my Hindi accent was great (I’m sure it’s not) and they indulged me in my conversational basics as I introduced myself and asked them how they were.  Indians are much more polite, patient and accommodating in this regard than are the French.  In fact, they really appreciate the effort, and will probably charge you less than they would normally, if you’re buying something, so give it a go!

Firstly, to Agra Fort.  As with all major tourist attractions in India, there are two queues, and two corresponding prices, for Indians and for tourists.  The tourists pay a lot more to get in, but it’s well-known that this is the case, and I tried to ignore some English tourists who were obviously grumbling about this set-up.  We found a good guide, and our tour took twice as long because our guide described everything in Hindi, and Shiju then had to translate for me. I’m sure he probably told me a lot of porky pies, come to think of it, but I wouldn’t know.

Agra Fort in the sun

Agra Fort in the sun

The Fort has seen a lot of action over the years, but I won’t go into it here (look it up on Wikipedia) – suffice to say it’s complicated but fascinating.  I kept getting confused about which Mughal king ruled when, and who had which wives, and who was responsible for filling the moat with crocodiles as a deterrent to invaders (or as a swift way of disposing with unruly subjects), but I got the general gist.  The one constant I kept hearing was how the building used to be more ornate, with many rooms decorated with gold and precious stones, but that the ‘Britishers’ came in and took the lot.  I made sure that the guide understood I was a ‘Scottisher’ which is, of course, completely different.

This ornate ceiling used to be decorated with gold, until the 'Britishers' came along and stripped the lot.

This ornate ceiling used to be decorated with gold, until the ‘Britishers’ came along and stripped the lot.

Part of Shah Jahan's addition to the Fort: he was obsessed with white marble, obvs.

Part of Shah Jahan’s addition to the Fort: he was obsessed with white marble, obvs.

The majority of Agra Fort is built of red stone, but there is a huge section in white marble which was constructed by Shah Jahan (he of Taj Mahal fame).   After Shah Jahan had built the Taj for his deceased wife, he wanted to build a black replica on the other side of the river, but his son declared him bonkers (i.e. didn’t want him to splurge another massive fortune on the project) and had him held under house arrest in Agra Fort until his death 8 years later.  He was allowed to live in the marble rooms where he could look out across the Yamuna River and see the Taj quite clearly, and when he died he was popped in a boat and shipped up the river to join his wife.  He was definitely rather eccentric, illustrated nicely by his insistence that the designer of the Taj have his hand cut off when it was finished, so that he couldn’t again design anything so marvellous.  Apparently the designer agreed when the Shah promised he would look after his family, children and subsequent generations financially.  I wonder if ol’ Norrie Foster has had similar offers?

More prettiness.

More prettiness.

A cannonball ricocheted off a stone throne, then popped clean through this wall.  Bloody 'Britishers' again.

A cannonball ricocheted off a stone throne, then popped clean through this wall. Bloody ‘Britishers’ again.

Thieving monkeys at Agra Fort. Check out the naan bread in the mouth.

Thieving monkeys at Agra Fort. Check out the naan bread in the mouth

After a quick interaction with the monkeys (I got soooo close this time, but was convinced I would be bitten or assaulted), we headed back to the hotel for some cocktails and a cairry-oot – in true Scottish style, we had brought our own booze to avoid hefty hotel prices, and I taught Shiju how best to avoid detection from the hotel staff: buy a couple of glasses of wine at the bar, then head outside into the gardens and replenish from the carefully-hidden bottles in my bag.  I explained this was ‘jakey-drinking’, a common pastime back hame, and we merrily put the world to rights and bitched about people at work until we realised it was 11pm (we’d been there since about 5), we were a bit pished, and hadn’t had any dinner.  Thankfully the restaurant staff could see we clearly needed some food, so rustled up some chicken biryani and politely ignored the contraband bottles of wine poking out of my bag.

Next morning, we headed early-ish to the Taj Mahal in order to avoid most of those pesky tourists.  The monument opens at 6.30am, and by the time we arrived at 8am it was already pretty busy.  We’d secured the services of “Raj at the Taj”, a highly-amusing tour guide who tried to convince me that he had escorted Tom Cruise round the premises, and that his father had done the same for Bill and Hillary Clinton.  I told Raj (definitely not his real name but I can see why he chose it) that I would be sure to give his number to my pals George Clooney and Brad Pitt, should they ever find themselves in Agra looking for something to do.

Me with 'Raj at the Taj' discussing Tom Cruise's good points.  A short conversation.

Me with ‘Raj at the Taj’ discussing Tom Cruise’s good points. A short conversation.

Approaching the Taj through the first gateway.

Approaching the Taj through the first gateway.

Actually, Raj was really good value, and he told us loads of interesting facts about the Taj, and he showed us some pretty cool optical illusions along the way.  Also, Shiju admitted that he’d learned more on this visit than he had done on two previous tours, so I think we did pretty well.   Raj is also useful because he’s well-known, and managed to help us skip queues, hide illegal fags/lighters (no-one told me I couldn’t have them in my bag, but thanks to Raj they stayed with a dodgy bloke who reappeared when we exited a while later), and fend off the hordes of youngsters who were trying to flog glittery snowglobe souvenirs.

Beautiful, eh?  The Taj is pretty nice, too.  Bah ha ha.

Beautiful, eh? The Taj is pretty nice, too. Bah ha ha.

Close-up - an optical illusion (looks like 6 facets, but actually just 4).  You had to be there.

Close-up – an optical illusion (looks like 6 facets, but actually just 4). You had to be there.

Our tuk-tuk driver took us back to the hotel, calling me ‘bagpiper’ (a new one on me) all the way there, before proudly showing me his Lion Rampant sticker (a gift from some friendly Scottishers, obviously) on the front of his vehicle.   We tried to set off back to Delhi, but couldn’t because the car battery had gone dead overnight.  Arrghh…I envisioned an RAC-style wait for assistance but, no, I keep forgetting this is India!  A bloke knew a bloke just round the corner who could (and did) come within 5 minutes to sort it all out.  Happily, off we went, stopping only for a motorway snack (hot samosa instead of UK-style stale sarnies) and the obligatory loo stop – I realise I haven’t yet mentioned anything toilet-related in this post, so should really rectify that – it was like entering a scrum with all the Indian women pushing haphazardly into the cubicle area, and barging past all the patient Europeans. No queuing system whatsoever, so some German girls and I formed a breakaway group and commandeered one cubicle for our own use, using a sentry-type guarding system to prevent any unauthorised queue-jumping.  Glaring, harrumphing and making judicious use of pokey elbows also helped.

Our tuk-tuk driver showing off his Scotland sticker.  Excellent!

Our tuk-tuk driver showing off his Scotland sticker. Excellent!

Now looking forward to next weekend’s trip to Rishikesh for some camping and white water rafting adventures!  At least, I was looking forward to it until someone told me, casually, today, that we have to watch out for wild animals in the area, as they are very common; I said, “Why, what sorts of wild animals might we expect?”.  The response? “Leopards”.  Gulp!

The "I'm not bloody doing a Lady Di" shot.

The “I’m not bloody doing a Lady Di” shot.

Pigeons, Piyush and other stories.

So, this week, some of my family members were horrified to learn that I asked Sam in our London office to FedEx me some fake tan.  Come on, I’m desperate!  I’m going to a ball next weekend, I’m whiter than the contents of Francis Rossi’s nose, and there is no chance of finding anything here to  give me a ‘summer glow’, least of all the sun which is still hiding behind banks of fog and polluted air.  There are potions and lotions to lighten skin tone, and adverts on the TV basically insinuating that you will improve your job prospects if you buy a particular brand of skin-whitener, so I knew I would have to resort to desperate measures if I wanted to look vaguely healthy.

Aside from this occasional craving for western ‘stuff’, I’m actually feeling very settled here and, dare I say it, I’m really enjoying myself!  My driver, Rajesh, is starting to teach me Hindi while we’re stuck in traffic, so I can now say “What is your name?” and “My name is Mo” in Hindi.  I am chuffed, because up until now my local language knowledge has been limited to “Hello”, “OK” and “Motherf***** “: all of which have proved very useful, I might add, particularly the last word which I had occasion to shout at an aggressive tuk-tuk driver who was trying to rip me off late at night when I was a bit worse for wear.  The shock factor of my indelicate language bought me enough time to hurl my 500-rupee note at him and scarper, leaving him at the mercy of three security guards at the entrance to my apartment complex.

I’m still convinced that the alcohol here leads to hangovers which are ten times worse than those suffered back home.  I guess I’m not helping myself by tanking the local stuff, but it’s cheaper than  buying imported booze.  For example, a bottle of ‘Cloudy Bay’ Sauvingnon Blanc which retails for about £9 or £10 in the UK will set you back £45 here in India.  So far, the most economical night out has been a trip to the local illegal drinking spot with some Indian colleagues from work.  Actually, they didn’t let me pay for anything at all, but even if I had managed to part with some cash it would have been only a few quid. I sit with a really nice bunch of guys at work, and they invited me out on their Friday night drinking session, so I jumped at the chance to go with them to ‘Knightrider’, a roadside establishment near the office.  Incidentally, they told me it was named after a cricket team, and had nothing to do with ‘The Hoff’ (sadly, they had never heard of the 80s TV show, although I did wonder where the cricket team got its name from).  Anyway, what happens is, you go up to a sort of outdoor off-licence and select your poison (literally) for the night.  We chose ‘Antiquary’, a delectable Indian whisky.  You take your bottle of spirits into an adjacent courtyard, where you are served plastic bottles of mixers (to improve the taste of whatever nonsense you’ve just purchased from the offy) and you’re given plastic glasses. The owners of the booze stall own or lease the courtyard, and although this set-up is technically illegal, the cops are kept at arm’s length by bunging them massive bribes.  My boys from work had called ahead and reserved a ‘private room’ (I really wish I had a photo of this – it was like a grubby cave with dodgy broken furniture – but sadly I don’t) off the courtyard, as they were concerned I might attract some unwelcome attention, given that the place is not frequented by westerners, let alone women.  We had a brilliant night – I think we managed 3 bottles of whisky between 6 of us, plus several cigars – and the only tumbleweed moment was when I asked where I might go to spend a penny.  “Mo, there is nowhere for women here – we will need to leave now”, was the reply, despite my protestations that I would quite happily “go” anywhere as long as it was dark, reasonably secluded and free of snakes.  I’m not sure what happened after that, but Piyush (great name, great guy) then disappeared and came back saying that he’d found somewhere, so off we stumbled; I was fully expecting to be presented with the bog from ‘Trainspotting’, and started preparing mentally for the gag reflex to kick in.  I was stunned when Piyush led me, in amongst the dusty, dirty surroundings, to a doorway…behind which was the most gleaming, clean flushable loo I have clapped eyes on in this country!  I kid you not. I am still half-convinced that someone must have shouted “lady needs loo!” half an hour earlier, and a bunch of locals must have built it especially in 30 minutes flat.  There is no other explanation, other than perhaps the possibility that Indian whisky makes one hallucinate wildly, and in a rather good way.  Anyway, whatever, I’m looking forward to my next jaunt to Knightrider, as it’s right up my street, and I think the concept would go down a storm in Scotland.  Again, none of my long-term ex-pat friends have experienced this sort of local fun, but I can’t help thinking it’s because I seem to be the only westerner here who is really making an effort to get to know the locals, and joining in with ‘real’ Indian life.  A lot of the guys from work tell me that no other ex-pat that they’ve come across has made any effort to mingle or go out with them, and I find that pretty sad.

I think this is why I’m enjoying myself: I have realised I’m not the sort of person who has to go through a tick-list of ‘things to see’ while abroad; I will return to the UK and people will say ‘did you see this monument, or that museum?’, and I’ll probably say ‘no’, because what I’m really loving are the experiences.  For example, I went with friends on another tour of Old Delhi this weekend – this time, a food-focused walking tour.  I’ve actually seen quite a lot of the city, but each local guide will tell me or show me things which fascinate me, and I love it.  Dhruv, our man on Saturday, ushered us up to a roof terrace where we were bemused to see three grown men shouting, whistling and waving what looked like giant lacrosse sticks up to the sky.  Dhruv let us watch for a while before explaining that they were engaging in a popular local game involving pigeons.  It was only then we realised that their shouts and calls were actually directing small flocks of pigeons to fly away/come back/land/whatever!  They rear their own batches (not sure of the term here) of pigeons from the moment they hatch, and teach them to respond to their individual calls: the pigeons know their masters, and the masters can tell which pigeons belong to them from an incredible distance away.  The object of the game is to confuse your opponent’s pigeons into getting mixed up with your own flock, and then call them in to land on the roof, having effectively ‘kidnapped’ some of your rival’s birds: these you hold to ransom until he pays you a nominal sum.  Bonkers!  Standing on the rooftop we could see that this game was being played all over the old city – apparently it can go on all day (so a good, possibly more entertaining, alternative to cricket, I think). We all got to hold one of the tame pigeons (and while I was stroking one it promptly shat on my bare foot, of course), and I got the opportunity to brandish the lacrosse stick and direct a flock for a few minutes.  Unfortunately my over-enthusiastic birling of said stick resulted in my whacking one of the guys soundly on his arm, but he didn’t seem to mind too much, or if he did then at least he didn’t call me a ‘motherf****’, because I would have KNOWN, you see.  Dhruv then took us back down to eat street food from the roadside vendors – everything we tried was mouth-wateringly amazing – and he pointed out other things which had previously escaped my notice:  three men in red hats offering an ‘ear-cleaning’ service on the street (I really wanted to have a shot but Natalie and Stewart said I was gross); a step-ladder dangling from a third storey window (“that’s an emergency exit”); lemons and chillis dangling above every doorway (“to ward off the evil eye”)…and so it went on.  Fantastic stuff.  We had our arms and hands decorated with henna, and we ended up having lunch in Dhruv’s beautiful haveli in the centre of the old city.  Afterwards, I decided to wander off and make my own way home after a quick visit to the crazy market of Chandni Chowk, but then called it a day as it was pishing with rain, mobbed, and I had attracted two new stalkers – one backed off after I gave him a death stare, but the other, more persistent, tried to woo me with the line “Hello, I have to say you have beautiful arse”.  Me: “What?!”. Him: “Eyes…I said you have beautiful eyes”.  Ah, that’s ok then.  But then he said “Can I come on the Metro with you?”, so I legged it.  I still find it odd that strangers are so forward, but when I step back, look around, and realise that in these places I am the only white person as far as the eye can see, I can sort of understand the novelty factor.  I don’t feel threatened at all during the day, but people definitely behave differently if I am with a group of other westerners, compared with when I am on my own.

In less interesting news, my current bugbear is mothballs.  Indians are obsessed with them, but for me they rank second only to tinned tuna in my list of smells that ‘gie me the boak’, as they say.  They STINK. Indians put them in all the plugholes (apparently to stop insects crawling up), and my housekeeper has started hiding them round my apartment, or so it seems.  Each day, for several days on the trot, recently, I would return from work, open the door, then run around the flat, holding my breath, flushing the offending white balls down the loos, until I was certain I’d got rid of the very last one.  Next day, they would appear again, and the process was repeated until my housekeeper (who I never see because he comes when I’m at work) apparently got the message and stopped.  But I know he’s left some somewhere in the kitchen, because I can still smell them.  I’ve ransacked every cupboard, poked in every nook and cranny, all to no avail.  He’s doing it to torment me, and it’s working.  What’s more, I smell the same honk in people’s hair, their clothes…everywhere!  I don’t know what mothballs are made of, but shampoo and washing up powder is clearly manufactured from the same stuff.  Bleurrgh.  I should also note here that I have since had to deal with some rather large and terrifying moth visitors, but they are marginally more bearable than those revolting smelly balls.

Talking of Balls, I went to a fun one in Gurgaon on Saturday night (where I was accosted by an ageing Glasgwegian woman who screeched “You sound just like Barbara Dickson, hen!  And ah would ken coz ah’ve met hur!”  Errmm…ok), and next weekend I’m heading back to Pune for another (hence the requirement for fake tan).  I’m looking forward to ditching the fog and smog for the weekend, and to soaking up some southern sun (and hopefully not some cashew moonshine).

My final word this week is that there is a new member of the team at work; his name is Chandeshekara and his email address is chandashekara.g.ananthanarayana@[client name].com. You see, he has to put his middle initial in there to distinguish himself from all the other Chandrashekara Ananthanarayanas in the office.  There are literally hunners of them.

A British Safety Council-certified emergency exit in Old Delhi.

A British Safety Council-certified emergency exit in Old Delhi.

A rather delicious, fluffy, saffron-adorned, milk-based foodstuff I can't remember the name of.

A rather delicious, fluffy, saffron-adorned, milk-based foodstuff I can’t remember the name of.

 

Natalie getting a henna tattoo.

Natalie getting a henna tattoo.

Playing 'catch the pigeon' on a roof terrace.

Playing ‘catch the pigeon’ on a roof terrace.

Fresh papaya - yum, yum, yum.

Fresh papaya – yum, yum, yum.

Fast food: chicken transportation.

Fast food: chicken transportation.

Roof terraces in a 'posh' part of Old Delhi.

Roof terraces in a ‘posh’ part of Old Delhi.