A final spot of shopping, watching chaos from the rooftop, and time to take a break from Asian Rambles.

Day 155: Agra, India. Today’s mission was to finish our dreaded clothes shopping, before we head back to the UK early this coming week.

We started our shopping extravaganza on the first floor of a five story mens clothes store, in a strip of shops about 5km from our hotel. Eight overly excited sales staff helped Jim find a pair of black trousers that mostly fit him, albeit they had to do an on-the-spot rush tailoring job. On a positive note, we were offered comfy seats and served hot coffee while we waited.

There seemed to be an awful lot of sales staff in the store, and not very many customers. The owner said he employs 100 people in total across five floors (bearing in mind each floor is only about 10m x 5m, it sounded like a huge amount compared to Australia), and that they expect a ‘big rush’ in the run up to the Diwali festival, which is next weekend.

We wandered upstairs to level three to buy a tie, which thankfully turned out to be a lot simpler than the trouser selection. Once Jim had chosen one, the sales guy insisted on carrying it all the way down to the ground floor for him, so he could pay for it. It’s all part of the customer service apparently (and probably a useful way to keep some idle sales staff busy).

Afterwards we walked down the street in search of mens shoes, and stumbled across a rather eclectic shoe shop. We had a quick browse around, then one of the sales guys rummaged around in the store cupboard and dropped 14 boxes of shoes in front of Jim. Thankfully he managed to find one pair that were big enough for his large foreigner feet.

We headed back to town where Lil bought a shawl in a local ‘cottage industry’ shop, along with some Indian style shoes with curled up toes. They’re a little weird and will no doubt cause some raised eyebrows, but given the limited choice and Lil’s very narrow feet, they were the best she could find. And for the first time in ages, we had to shelter from a rain storm.

This evening we had drinks and dinner on a rooftop restaurant in the town, enjoying the views over the chaotic streets below, as our visit here comes to an end. It’s been a fabulous eight week ramble around India, and despite the chaos and the frustrations, we’ll really miss the place.

We’re taking a short break from Asian Rambles now, as we head back to the UK for Jim’s dad’s funeral. We’ll be back online again once we resume our adventures, in about ten days time.

More soon.

Shopping malls largely devoid of shops, a freshly painted antique telly, and Lil declines the offer of a goat.

Day 154: Agra, India. Today’s big plan was a shopping trip to buy clothes for our UK visit next week.

Fuelled by a hearty breakfast and some very strong coffee we headed out, resigned to the horrors of crowds and changing rooms. A vegetable stall had randomly set up in the lane way outside the hotel, with an impressively flexible stall holder, who weighed and sold vegetables to passersby with his foot firmly planted on the top of the wooden cart the entire time. Had we attempted the same feat, we likely wouldn’t be able to walk for a week.

We’d collated details of half a dozen shopping malls, spread across the town. The first one was a complete wash out. Only four or five stores were open, mostly selling saucepans and dinner plates, and the rest of the building was derelict. There was one mens’ clothing shop so Jim had a quick look around, with three eager shop staff trailing one inch behind him the entire time. The clothes weren’t even close to what he was after, but he spotted some shoes he quite liked. Disappointment followed, as Jim’s shoe size is 11, and the shop’s stock only goes up to 10.

We walked a kilometre to the next shopping mall, through lots of small streets that clearly don’t see many foreigners, causing a bit of stir as we went past. We were amused to see a heap of cows bathing in a very muddy pond nearby, clearly happy to cool off from the afternoon heat. And to be honest, it looked a lot more relaxing than shopping.

The next mall was a little better, with two open clothes shops catering for both men and ladies. Lil had a quick rummage, found a dress she liked, and headed to the changing room to try it on. When she came back out to show it to Jim, he was in the process of being reprimanded for daring to step three inches across the threshold of the changing room, with a sales guy barking at him “Not allowed sir, no men, you must stay outside all times!” On a positive note, a gang of eager sales staff crowded around and gave Lil a big thumbs up on the dress she’d chosen.

Jim tried on many many pairs of trousers. The fashion trend in India just now is to wear pants with very narrow legs, and in some cases cropped bottoms too. Frankly, they made Jim look like a goof. The sales staff kept bringing more and more options into the changing room, each more ridiculous than the last. One of them even tried to upsell him with a pair of yellow and white patterned shorts, and looked pretty horrified when Lil started falling about laughing.

We decided to stop for a caffeine break, although we struggled to find a coffee shop. We asked a couple of security guards, who seemed baffled that we wanted coffee at a shopping mall. In the end our only option was McDonalds, though we decided to skip the ‘McAloo Tikka’ burger on offer.

We caught an Uber to the next shopping mall, a few kilometres away, thinking it couldn’t be any worse than the previous ones. Turns out we were wrong. The entire place had been knocked down, so there was no shopping mall at all. At that point we gave up and headed home to work on travel plans for our UK trip and beyond.

Early evening we walked into town for dinner at the same restaurant as last night. We initially decided against going up to the rooftop due to the mobs of mossies, plus we spotted a sign warning that monkeys are out to get people’s food – they love thali apparently.

The downstairs restaurant had just undergone a major painting job, with every single inch of the room now covered in fresh paint. Including the antique telly, which was now sporting the same brown woodstain effect as the panels on the walls.

We ordered two beers, which came in chunky mugs, and were asked to store our half empty bottles under the table. We’re guessing they’re not licensed to sell alcohol.

A little kid appeared at the window while we were drinking our mugs of beer. He waved madly at us, then started doing some sort of weird interpretive dancing, and was clearly after money. We smiled and waved him away. We could see a bunch of his mates lining up across the road, ready in join in if any rupees happened to be on offer.

After a bit, Lil went outside for some fresh air and to get away from the paint fumes. She wandered over to have a look at a very cute black, brown and white goat outside a shop across the street. The guy offered to sell it to her, however she explained that it might be tricky to get it into the overhead locker, and that customs might not be too happy either.

The paint fumes eventually got too much for us, and we made our way up to the rooftop. Thankfully the mossies weren’t as bad as last night, and the monkeys left us alone. We chatted for a while to a lovely couple from Australia, who are just starting a six week stay in India, and were keen to pick our brains on all things India. We had lots to say.

Tomorrow is shopping day number two, with two more malls on our list. Hopefully the shopping malls still exist, the trousers have wider legs, and someone somewhere stocks size 11 shoes.

More then.

An offer to ride in a very broken tuk tuk, a feisty tug of war with a badger, and welding fairground planes back together.

Day 153: Agra, India. After breakfast this morning, we headed out to visit Agra Fort – our last historical site visit before we leave India next week.

The fort is a couple of kilometres from our hotel – an easy walk through the town. A gazillion tuk tuk drivers called out along the way to try and get our business “Tuk tuk, sir, madam! Very cheap price, where you going?”.

We laughed when the owner of a tuk tuk that was clearly very broken offered to take us to the fort, in the hope we’d hang about while it was being put together again. It might have been quite a wait.

We got to the fort, bought tickets and joined the reasonably lengthy entrance queue. There was no signage and we only realised closer to the top of the queue that there were in fact two separate lines – one for girls and one for guys. Lil made a quick attempt to climb over the tall barrier but the security guard shouted at her, so she had to push her way back through the crowds to get into the other line.

For anyone who’s read ‘A bit about this blog’ on the asianrambles.com web site, we travel with a stuffed badger called Bodger, with a challenge of getting him into one photograph every day. He’s always parked in the bottom of Lil’s backpack, ready for a good photo opportunity.

The security lady who was checking bags at the fort smiled broadly when she saw Bodger, then quickly said “Cannot take into fort” and placed him on a side table, in a clear effort to try and badger-nap him. A feisty tug of war broke out, and Lil managed to wrestle the badger back.

We walked back to the cloak room to leave Lil’s bag there. Before she handed her bag over, we put the badger and other valuables into Jim’s backpack. And funnily enough after going through Jim’s bag, the male security guard made no comment about the badger not being allowed into the fort. Badger-napping nicely averted.

Reviews say Agra Fort is an overlooked wonder, as a lot of people visiting Agra head straight for the Taj Mahal and don’t pay any attention to the fort. It’s billed as being one of the best examples of Mughal architecture, and the only fort where all Rajasthan kings have stayed at some point since 1570.

The fort is impressive and huge, but very run down in parts with much of the fine inlay-work picked out from the marble, and the paintings covered over. There’s been lots of really high quality restoration, especially to the stonework of the structure, but some lovely original features still stand out.

Sadly there’s lots of graffiti on the walls of buildings, despite signs asking people not to do so. It baffles us that anyone thinks it’s a cool thing to do.

To the east side of the standing fort and palaces, there are ruins of an older palace which is said to have housed a harem of 5,000 women, each with their own chamber. The mind boggles on how that all worked. Lil of course had to ask the question “With no social media, how did they all meet each other?”

When we’d finished at the fort, we walked around the perimeter (which was a fair distance), then back to the hotel via a cute little cafe for coffee and pancakes.

Later in the evening, we walked back into town for dinner. We were amused to watch a local welder working on some fairground aeroplanes (without any eye protection, which seems to be the norm here) – let’s hope his welding skills are good.

We had dinner at a small rooftop restaurant with fabulous 360 degree views over the town. A large family in a yard below us was cooking food in monster pots over open fires, which they carried up to their own little rooftop. The only downside of the rooftop was the swarms of mosquitos which gleefully chomped Lil, despite a thick layer of insect repellent.

While we were eating, fireworks started across the town, marking the run-up to Diwali, the most significant Hindu festival which peaks in ten days on 27 October. We’ll miss the main day, but hopefully we’ll see some more pre-festival celebrations before we leave next week.

Then we headed back home, to get a good night’s sleep and brace ourselves for a spot of shopping tomorrow to buy some clothes for our trip back to the UK. Hopefully there will be no more badger-napping attempts at the shopping centre.

More then.

Things that go bump in the traffic, a wildlife safari on bicycles, and making a donation for chapati flour.

Day 152: Agra, India. We were up and about early today for our trip to Bharatpur Bird Sanctuary, around 50km west of Agra.

We had a quick breakfast at a local eatery, where coffee was served in small paper cups with a logo that we can only assume is a direct rip off of Nescafe. Unless Nescafe now has a sub brand for use on Indian paper coffee cups in small local cafes, which we tend to doubt.

We walked down to the nearby Taj Mahal gate and ordered an Uber to take us to Idgah bus stand. Along the way, the car got rocked from side to side by a bunch of rowdy cows that were pushing their way through the early morning traffic. However it was nothing compared to the jolt we felt a couple of minutes later, when a bus ran into the back of the car.

Chaos ensued, with the Uber and bus drivers shouting loudly and making increasingly animated hand gestures at each other. A nearby traffic controller wandered over, but didn’t manage to control much and just shouted even more loudly at both of them. Very quickly a gang of other onlookers came to check out the action, so we locked our doors and waited in the car. A guy on a bicycle came over, clocked the Uber driver around the head, then pedalled off again. Eventually the traffic controller shouted at both of them to move their vehicles, so the Uber driver got back in and we continued on our way. How you sort out insurance on that one – or whether anyone actually has any insurance – we have no idea.

We arrived at the bus stand and wandered into the ticket office. We scanned the room but couldn’t see where we were supposed to buy tickets. A helpful guy pointed to two recesses which looked more like boarded-up windows than open ticket desks. We bent down and peered through the screen, and yes there were people in there. With the help of Lil flapping her arms to indicate ‘birds’ (which to most people probably looked like she was suffering some kind of fit) we got two tickets to Bharatpur.

The bus was a bashed up state government number which looked like it might have been in many accidents with Uber cars and cows. We were assigned two seats at the front of the bus on a three seat bench. Unfortunately the guy by the window was rather chunky, so Jim squeezed in next to him and Lil hung off the edge of the seat, only one metre from an open door, which stayed open for the entire journey.

Before we set off, a man climbed on with a pile of flower wreathes (called mala) and hung one on the rear view mirror of the bus. Then another guy got on and did some sort of sales pitch, shouting loudly down the bus while waving small containers over his head. From what we could see it said ‘Super Vicks’ so we assume it was a rip off of Vicks VapoRub. Thankfully no one bought any as it was a little early in the day to endure the strong menthol smell of Vicks.

We arrived at Bharatpur and started the lengthy process of buying tickets and agreeing transport. The options were walking, bicycle, auto rickshaw or jeep. We decided to hire bicycles which turned into a bit of a comedy sketch. They only had two mountain bikes, and they were both tiny – we would have been constantly applying band aids as our knees scraped off the ground. The guys didn’t seem to think it mattered that they were kids bikes – they said “once inside the park you go slow anyway”.

The ladies regular bikes were too small for Lil, so she got one of the mens bikes and Jim just had to make do with the largest mens bike they had in the place, which still made him look like a chimp pedalling around in a circus ring. We got our briefing on the park, and were heavily pressured to rent a naturalist guide (who we were told knows where to find all the birds and animals). We really didn’t want a guide, but agreed to hiring one for an hour just to get out of the briefing area and onto our bikes.

Our guide was called Gobin, and he was pretty good at spotting birds – though to be fair, we could have spotted 95% of them ourselves. He also pedalled ridiculously slowly – perhaps due to the fact that he had a whopping great telescope perched on his shoulder.

We saw a couple of owls (which looked startled at being disturbed during daylight), an Egyptian vulture which was very cool, then we stopped at some wetlands and saw a whole bundle of birds wandering about around the water. A very impressive sight, and made all the better by being able to peer through Gobin’s high powered telescope.

Next we visited a temple close to the wetlands. Gobin said something about large turtles so we parked our bikes and followed him through the gates. We walked through a clatter of monkeys that were a little too active and erratic for us, then down a few stone steps to the side of a pond. And yes, there were lots of huge turtles in the water – Gobin said some of them are about 350 years old.

A guy from the temple sat on the steps next to us and started mixing up some flour and water, and making odd noises which must have been some sort of turtle lingo, as the turtles quickly started swimming to the steps. We watched as the feeding session got underway – it was pretty cool to see the turtles up close, though we could have done without some of the mad monkeys scrapping over the food.

As we left the temple, an old guy approached Jim and asked for a donation to help fund the purchase of chapati flour for the turtles.

At that point our hour with Gobin was up. He did his very best to try and convince us to hire him for another hour or two, but we firmly said our thanks and goodbyes and headed off on our own. We had a quick stop for tea and pop at the park canteen, where we had to wake up the guy who was managing the place, then headed off on our bikes.

A sign warned that there are leopards in the park, and tourists are advised not to roam outside the tracks and ‘to take necessary precautions accordingly’. We have no idea what ‘necessary precautions’ are, but we headed on and just hoped for the best.

We spent the afternoon pedalling on rough paths around the national park, with our bums getting increasingly more sore. The scenery was spectacular, and we saw a huge amount of birdlife including storks, vivid blue kingfishers, egrets and black ibis. We also saw an antelope, lots of deer, wild boar, heaps of squirrels and monkeys, and Lil nearly ran over a metre long water monitor lizard which ran out in front of her bike.

When we’d finished at the park, we dropped our bikes back and walked across the main road to catch a bus back to Agra. We saw a bus approaching and waved our arms like loons to stop it. It was packed, but they moved a bunch of luggage and people around and allocated us a top sleeper where we sat squished and cross legged for the journey back to town. At least we were sitting down – there were about a dozen people who stood for the entire journey.

When we got back to the hotel, we were happy to find Lil’s replacement credit card had arrived by Fedex, so that’s all three cards now sorted.

We got showered and changed and headed our for dinner. We went back to Joney’s Place and were again impressed by their food, and still very impressed by how they cook it all in such a tiny kitchen.

And so to bed to recover from the long bike ride today. Tomorrow we’re planning to visit Agra Fort, a couple of kilometres away from our hotel. Which means we can walk there without having to rely cars, buses or tiny bikes.

More then.

Getting up close and personal with the Big T, a secret photography club in the mausoleum, and rooftop views of a moonlit silhouette.

Day 151: Agra, India. Today’s big plan was a visit to the Taj Mahal – or ‘the Big T’ as Jim calls it – something we’ve been looking forward to for ages.

Every article we’ve read warns of massive queues to buy tickets, then more big queues at the entrance gates, then more for the cloakrooms. Granted the massively inflated price that foreigners pay (a whopping 22 times more than locals) at least gives us the privilege of a separate, and less busy foreigners entrance gate.

We’d already agreed a 5am start to watch the sun rise wasn’t going to happen, so we enjoyed a snooze on after yesterdays’s crazy sleepless night on the overnight bus from Mandawa to Agra. We left all our unnecessary belongings at the hotel, to avoid having to use the cloakroom at the Big T, had a leisurely brunch in town, then wandered around to start queueing for tickets around 12:30.

And here’s the thing. There wasn’t a single person in the foreigners queue for tickets, and when we got to the Taj Mahal, there was no one in the foreigners queue there either. Some god or other must have been smiling down on us – we walked straight through and found ourselves staring in awe at the Great Gate only a couple of minutes later.

Tickets limit visitors to a three hour stay, which was more than adequate. We started with the mandatory pictures from the gardens (and no, we didn’t do a ‘Charles and Di on the bench’ pic.) The architecture is simply stunning, and it deserves its reputation as one of the most beautiful buildings in the world. Rudyard Kipling described it as ‘the embodiment of all things pure’, while its creator, Emperor Shah Jahan, said it made ‘the sun and the moon shed tears from their eyes’. 

Then we put on our shoe covers, which are included in the cost of the ticket, and made our way up to the platform of the Taj. The shoe covers clearly aren’t meant for larger sized feet, and Jim’s looked quite comical stretched to the limit over his trainers.

We walked around the outside of the Taj, then went inside to the Mausoleum. Buried there are Shah Jahan’s favourite wife, Mumtaz, and beside her in a later addition is the Shah himself. The tombs are surrounded by finely carved marble screens and are a little tricky to see. The walls are covered in Arabic script and many beautiful flowers, all inlaid with mother of pearl, black marble, and other semi-precious stones.

There’s a strict ‘no photography’ policy inside the mausoleum with security guards shouting at anyone who dares to try to sneak pics near the entrance. However at the back of the mausoleum there were no guards, and it was a like a secret photography club in action. People were snapping pics and selfies and one girl shot an entire 2 minute video of the interior.

The mausoleum was quiet enough that we were lucky to be able to go around for a second look – we’re guessing at busier times of the year it turns into a solid human push and shove, just to get a couple of minutes inside.

Next we explored the two buildings flanking the tomb, that are similar in design. To the east is a sandstone and marble building once used as a guesthouse, and more recently as a meeting hall. The ceilings are beautifully inlaid with marble decor. And to the west is a near identical copy, but which is configured as a mosque with a centre altar arranged to point to Mecca, and with marble and sandstone prayer mats inlaid into the tiles on the floor.

We visited the small museum, which has some of the original letters of the land being purchased for the Taj Mahal, which was built in 1631. It was interesting to see from how far and wide the different semi-precious stones had come, including corals from Iraq and malachite from Russia.

We walked around the grounds and sat on a bench for a bit. A family stopped to chat and ask where we’re from and insisted their little boy had to sit between us for a photo. The poor boy was a bit freaked out, however they dragged him over, and pushed him onto the bench. And we of course took a pic of them for our album of random strangers.

When we’d had our fill of the Taj, we walked back into town for a coffee, then headed home for a rest before dinner, stopping at a fruit stand along the way.

We had dinner at a great little rooftop restaurant in town, which looks out over the Taj Mahal and has fabulous street art in its stairwells. Interestingly the Taj isn’t lit up at night (for a variety of reasons), however we were still able to see the moonlit silhouette from the rooftop.

Then home for another good night’s sleep. Tomorrow we’re planning to visit Bharatpur Bird Sanctuary, about 25km west of Agra. Which Jim is already referring to as the Big B.

More then.

A bone bruising bus journey, Jim’s impressive frog impression, and our first sighting of The Big T.

Day 150: Agra, India. We didn’t struggle to wake up this morning, as we’d hardly slept all night.

The ten hour bus journey was torturous. The roads from Mandawa to Agra were filled with potholes and we were shaken and stirred all night, like two big cocktails, only the end result was two badly ruffled people with bleary eyes.

Lil’s journey was particularly arduous as she was right at the back of the bus. Every time the bus drove into a crater or over a rock, the bus suspension bounced her into the air and back onto her metal base with a crash. She ended up with bruised shoulder blades, which is pretty impressive for public transport. She also had to contend with some loud video games being played, and had to push different parts of a guy back out of her bed space during the night when he rolled over (he was lying on the raised aisle area outside Lil’s sleeper).

In the morning, a guy in the aisle decided he was too hot and reached through a gap in the curtain into Lil’s bed space to fiddle with the air conditioning. Lil snapped the curtains tightly shut and turned the aircon back to where it was.

We arrived to a sunny cool morning in Agra. Albeit Jim’s pallor was a little green from travel sickness, a little akin to Kermit the Frog. Move over Ali Baba.

We climbed off the bus to a sea of tuk tuks and their drivers, all a little too much first thing in the morning. We bashed our way through and walked up the street to find the hotel address on our phones, then got a calmer tuk tuk driver to take us there. The driver was lovely and spoke good English, though he wanted a tip for walking us from the tuk tuk to the door of our hotel across the street, which we didn’t ask him to do.

After we’d settled in, Lil called Visa International to try and sort out delivery of her replacement credit card while we’re in Agra. It took ages to try and iron out the delivery address. Visa tend to use the address published on Google, which was different to the address on our hotel booking confirmation, which was different again to the address on the business card we picked up when we arrived at the hotel. While Lil was on the phone, Jim scurried up and down the stairs to try and get the hotel manager to confirm what the address actually is.

Visa’s process includes a call to the delivery address itself, to confirm someone will be there to receive the package, and to double check address details are all correct. Jim was in the reception area when the call came through and was able to listen in to the hilarious exchange. The lady from Visa, with a strong American accent, kept pointing out the address on Google was different to the address the hotel manager was providing. The manager kept repeating “yes but the address on Google is incorrect”. Then, getting a little impatient, he said “just tell the delivery man the hotel is close to west gate of Taj”. Her response was just wonderful: “Taj what?”

We headed out to take a look around the town and visit the Taj Nature Park. We’d only gone 50 metres down the street when a guy came running out of a shop and started jogging next to Jim shouting “only 200 rupees, yes 200 rupees sir, 100 rupees, 100 rupees, only 100 rupees sir, yes 100 rupees!!” while waving a rather hideous looking snow globe at him with a model of the Taj Mahal. We said no thanks repeatedly and eventually managed to shake him off, though he wasn’t happy.

We were bugged constantly to buy stuff as we walked through the town, and were glad to reach the peaceful surrounds of the Taj Nature Park. We bought our tickets and spent a couple of hours wandering up and down paved paths through wooded areas and some open grassland spotting lots of great birdlife along the way, including heaps of peacocks which are India’s national bird. We had a go on the swings in the kids playground (big kids that we are) and also scored our first view of the Taj Mahal, which Jim has now started calling ‘The Big T’.

When we’d finished at the park we walked back through the town to see if we could get down to the banks of the Yamuna river. On the way a young boy tried us to sell us some fridge magnets, which were just as hideous as the snow globe thrust at us earlier in the day. He walked beside us and refused to go away, telling us we really needed to buy fridge magnets. We said we didn’t have a fridge, and he rather cleverly responded we should buy them for our friends. His original price as he chattered away next to us was 100 rupees for one fridge magnet. By the time we eventually managed to get him to go away, his price had dropped rather drastically to 300 rupees for 20 magnets. We still weren’t tempted to buy them for our friends (sorry guys).

As we walked towards the pathway which wound down to the river, an early evening monkey migration was underway. Hundreds of monkeys were scampering along the path and into the local trees. There was no way we were going to risk walking through them (and local sign boards suggest staying well away), so we stood well back and waited until they’d all passed.

We walked through a settlement down by the river – lots of people living in small houses, roughly built huts and under tarpaulins. We stopped to buy chai at a roadside stand, then wandered to a small temple and down to a the river front, where lots of people were gathered and open fires were burning under a huge animal barn.

A local guy asked if we could take a picture of his rather animated friend – so animated that he must have either been having an incredibly good day or was under the influence of something. He jumped up and down like a loon, waving his arms and striking various bizarre poses for photos.

This evening we had dinner at a tiny little restaurant called Joney’s Place. They’re well known for their great cheap food, banana lassi that comes with a ‘money back guarantee’ (we doubt anyone ever asks for their money back, as it tastes sensational) – and all prepared in the tiniest kitchen we’ve ever seen. They serve breakfast every day from 5am for anyone who’s in need of some sustenance before braving the sunrise session at The Big T.

We walked back to our hotel, past a restaurant cooking food in a monster pan that looked liberally laced with chilli. We’d have to build in another ‘stay close to the loo day’ if we braved that one.

And so to bed for a peaceful long night’s sleep without rocks or craters. Tomorrow we’re planning to visit the Taj Mahal, and perhaps we’ll make it to the fort too. Though we’ll skip the offer of breakfast at 5am.

More then.

Paying a fee to pet a donkey, Lil gets a job at a local travel agency, and shooing people on the bus.

Day 149: Mandawa, India. We were up and about early, eagerly anticipating the arriving of Jim’s replacement credit card, which had a promised delivery time of 10am.

After breakfast we sat in the courtyard keeping a beady eye on the hotel gate. The hotel staff seem to come and go as they wish, and the last thing we wanted was for the delivery man to arrive and then go away again without anyone signing for the delivery.

While we waited, a man with a donkey and cart came through the hotel gates, delivering what looked like floor tiles. Lil went over to pet the donkey, and a little embarrassingly, the guy refused to leave the hotel courtyard until she paid him some money for the petting privilege. She shook her head, wandered off to the bathroom, and when she came back he was still standing there waiting. (Meanwhile Jim sat at a nearby table grinning his head off, wondering how she was going to get out of this one). The hotel staff couldn’t shift the guy, though we’re not sure they tried very hard and probably also thought we should pay a petting fee. In the end Lil handed over some money just to get rid of him. Jim’s summary of the event was “Don’t touch what you can’t afford”. Alrighty.

10am came and went, and there was still no sign of the delivery man. At 10.30am, Lil called to ask where he was and he said he’d be arriving in 20 minutes. 40 minutes later, he came sidling through the gate.

Out of sheer frustration, Lil explained that his decision not to deliver the package as scheduled yesterday had cost us a decent chunk of money on wasted bus tickets, plus an extra night’s accommodation. He said ‘sorry mam’ but didn’t look like he could care less. And unbelievably, after the package had been signed for, the guy stood waiting, looking very hopeful that he might get a tip. No chance. “And he didn’t even let you tickle his ears”, remarked Jim.

Instead of catching an overnight bus, we thought we might catch a bus to Fatehpur, about 25km away, and then an overnight train to Agra from there. A quick check online showed that there were no train tickets left, so our only option was to walk into town and book another set of overnight bus tickets. Oh joy. We can see availability online, but international credit cards aren’t accepted as payment.

Late morning, we walked to Happy Travels, the same travel agent as yesterday. A young guy was sitting behind the counter and after a quick phone call to someone, turned to us and said “you come back at 3pm”. By which time there probably wouldn’t be any bus seats left either.

Luckily we found another travel agent who said they could help (though we had to wait 20 minutes until someone returned from buying vegetables at the market). Their approach to helping was to get Lil to jump behind the desk and use their computer to book the tickets, while they stood and looked on. Then they handed her a local credit card made out of cardboard, and asked her to enter the details. After the booking was confirmed, we paid them in cash for the booking, along with a pretty hefty service fee.

We managed to get the last two sleepers, at opposite ends of the bus. The bus departs from a town before Mandawa, so we anticipated that by the time we boarded, there would no doubt be large families camping out on our sleepers.

We went for another coffee on the stone verandah where the guys play cards every day. A guy came over and stood staring at us for a bit, then announced he used to be a school teacher and that he could see we were very happy together. Whether those two statements are linked or not, we’re not entirely sure, but it was lovely of him to come and chat to us. After a bit he got distracted by another conversation happening nearby – he explained that there are by-elections happening soon and his friends were speculating on the results.

Jim popped over to a food cart to buy some roasted peanuts, and we settled down for a while on the verandah, shelling nuts and watching the world go by.

A cow parked itself right in front of us, and somewhat alarmingly, ate a cow pat it found on the ground. As Jim remarked “No wonder they have bad breath”. Then it had an enormous wee, after which it thankfully decided to move along.

With bus tickets confirmed, we headed back to the hotel and booked accommodation for a couple of nights in Agra. Lil is also waiting for a replacement credit card, so she called Visa International to provide the hotel address in Agra. Fedex (rather surprisingly) is closed on Sunday so they couldn’t confirm if they will be able to deliver to Agra within the timeframes, but we’ll find out tomorrow, and meantime we’re keeping fingers crossed.

Then we headed out for a long walk in the sun to clear the cobwebs and frustrations. It was a searing hot afternoon, but glorious to walk through some of the surrounding fields and pastures around the south of the town.

Afterwards we headed back to the hotel, ordered a cold beer followed by dinner, and got ourselves psyched up for the long overnight journey to Agra.

We left the hotel just after 9pm and walked down to the bypass, which we were told was the bus pick up point, and not the bus stop in the middle of town as printed on our tickets. We assumed that we needed to stand roughly where we were dropped off when we arrived by bus in Mandawa, though there was no information anywhere to clarify. Lil walked down the street to ask a few guys outside a restaurant and they insisted on walking back up with her, showing us exactly where we needed to stand (on a well lit but pretty desolate corner), waited with us, asked for some selfies and made sure we boarded the bus safely before they left. What lovely people.

Lil climbed onto the bus ahead of Jim and so got the job of shooing lots of people out of our sleepers. The bus driver took off at speed as soon as we were onboard, so Lil nearly wiped out a bunch of people as she dragged her backpack down the bus to her sleeper, squeezing past and climbing over heaps of people sitting and sleeping in the aisle.

We tucked ourselves up into our tiny spaces, messaging each other to say goodnight, and settled down for what was undoubtedly going to be an interesting and very bumpy night.

Tomorrow, assuming we’re not too wiped out after the nine hour bus trip, we’ll do some exploring around Agra. And at least tomorrow night we won’t need to message each other to say goodnight.

More then.

A laborious process to book bus tickets, causing chuckles at the coffee cart, and looks like we’re stuck in Mandawa again.

Day 148: Mandawa, India. Our plan today was to hang about in Mandawa and wait for Jim’s replacement credit card delivery to arrive by Fedex, then catch an overnight bus to Agra.

The email confirmation from Fedex said the delivery was scheduled to arrive ‘before 5pm’, so we had no idea when it might actually appear.

While we were eating breakfast on the patio, a pretty gorgeous looking camel appeared at the hotel gate. We were hopeful it might be Jim’s Fedex delivery but nope, it was just bags of cement for some construction work that’s happening at the hotel.

Around lunchtime, we packed up our bags so we were ready to leave later in the evening, and walked into town to get our bus tickets to Agra. We walked up and down the main street, but couldn’t spot any travel agents in amongst the eclectic mix of stores. We asked a guy in a shop, who for some bizarre reason pointed us to a hardware store selling hammers and concrete, which in any case was closed.

After asking around again, someone else told us to go to ‘Happy Travels’, which we also struggled to find. Largely because their signage is inside the shop, making it a little difficult to spot. The shop seemed to be a bit of a multi-purpose outlet, selling anything and everything but at least they also claimed to sell bus tickets.

The guy behind the counter, who is still using a 2017 diary, said he could help us with tickets. We asked for sleepers on the upper level of the bus – we said it’s because it’s cheaper, but really it’s so that people who haven’t got seats are less likely to sit on us. He set about tapping keys on his keyboard very slowly while frowning madly (admittedly the plastic sheet covering his keyboard made typing pretty tricky).

After what seemed like an age, and with lots of Lil’s help to show the guy what information he needed to type and where, we got two confirmed bus tickets. We also got a printout, though the guy’s printer was almost out of ink so really it was just lots of random black marks on a page.

As we walked back through town, we spotted another camel with a cute red pompom on its head and some rather dashing necklaces. For a moment we hoped it might be our Fedex delivery on the way, but sadly not.

We spent a chunk of the rest of the afternoon sitting on the stone verandah by the coffee cart, drinking coffee and hanging out next to the guys playing cards.

We caused much hilarity when a guy asked how old we are, and discovered that Jim is younger than Lil. He laughed and laughed, told his mates sitting next to him (who also started cackling), then called more people over to tell them. All very amusing, if a little odd.

It was a perfect chilled afternoon of sitting and watching the world go by. So many interesting characters, and so many lovely people (even if we mostly have no idea what they’re saying or asking us).

We bought some roasted peanuts on the way home, which were piled high on a food cart. The lovely guy weighed and scooped them into a hand made newspaper bag, which is way better than dishing out plastic.

For Lil’s last ‘feed the pooches’ mission, she set off around the local streets and dropped a torn up sliced loaf on the pavements for the local dogs. A pooch that looked like it recently had puppies found a bread stash pretty quickly and wolfed a large amount. Perhaps not the most nutritious food, but still heart warming to see it scoffing whatever it could find.

We had beers at the hotel, while we waited, and waited, for the credit card delivery. The original time of ‘before 5pm’ had now been extended online to ‘before 8pm’. Given our bus was at 9.30pm, we were starting to cut it a little fine.

8pm came and went. We chatted online with Fedex, who said the local delivery guy had received the package for delivery at 3pm, but didn’t do anything with it. He’s now promised to deliver it at 10am tomorrow, which means we’re stuck in Mandawa for another night. And the beat goes on.

Meantime, we’ve received so many lovely wishes for Jim’s loss of his dad. It gives us comfort that although we’re tucked away in what feels like deepest darkest India just now, we can still be connected with others across the planet. Sincere thanks everyone.

Tomorrow, we’ll be hanging out in Mandawa again. Let’s hope the driver turns up at 10am as promised, we get on the overnight bus to Agra, and that no one sits on us.

More then.

Jim stays close to the bathroom, a meander through scenic countryside, and some fully elastic underpants.

Day 146 & 147: Mandawa, India. We’ve wrapped two daily blog posts into one today, largely due to a bout of Delhi Belly which kept Jim attached to the hotel bathroom yesterday. And which meant, not a great deal happened.

Jim’s condition was likely due to him accepting the hotel manager’s kind offer of a bowl of his special ‘vegetable chilli recipe’ the night before. The watery vegetable dish was so hot it’s questionable whether it should be consumed by humans. Which however didn’t put Jim off – he scoffed the lot. Lil had one teaspoon quickly followed by a litre of water in a vain attempt to eradicate the fiery pain. Jim, undeterred, says he’s hoping for another serving tonight. Devil for punishment, and all that.

Thankfully Jim had recovered by this morning and we were able to venture out to complete our walk east and north of Mandawa. We walked about 5km around town and out to the outskirts, where we wandered through a lot of sandy rubbly land, dotted with trees and small buildings, some for animals and some for people. The scenery is achingly beautiful. We also saw lots of birdlife, including some very regal looking black and white Hoopoes.

We received a lot of stares as we walked out through town. The concept of two people going for a walk, for the sake of going for a walk, seems to be lost on people here. A guy with a donkey and a wooden trailer pulled up on a dusty track, gestured to his trailer and asked “You want Indian taxi?” We said no thanks. In any case the poor donkey would probably have collapsed if we’d both climbed onto the trailer.

For a small town, there’s an incredible amount of mosques, temples and shrines dotted around the town, and yet more on the outskirts. Some of the shrines are simple little open fronted alcoves, others are gazebos within existing structures decorated with colourful fabrics, flowers and bunting.

We also found another five wells as we walked in and out of town, none of which seem to function any longer. They’re pretty fascinating.

And of course we saw an awful lot of goats and cows – there must be at least as many animals as there are people in this town, perhaps many more.

More kids came up to say hi and ask for ’10 Rupees, 10 Rupees!’. One little guy came back to follow up his request with ‘please, please please!’. It’s tough to say no, but if we give to one, we’ll have the entire town full of kids (and probably a lot of adults) following us around asking for money.

We stopped for a coffee at the Haveli where the guy refused to take coins the other day, saying ‘they only take coins in Jaipur’. As we mentioned in that day’s blog post, people here seem to make the rules as they go along. Today the guy was more than happy to accept coins – he even suggested we should give him coins, as he didn’t have sufficient change in notes.

The Leaning Tower of Aquafina

After searching in vain for a restaurant that Trip Advisor says is in the middle of town, but Google says is in a neighbouring village 25km away, we stopped for another coffee – you can never have enough caffeine. This time a delicious milky masala coffee made at the side of the road.

The coffee cart is the central hub for a bunch of guys playing cards on the raised verandah behind. They’ve been there every day since we arrived in Mandawa, and no doubt will be there long after we go. The coffee was a sixth of the price of the Haveli, and 10 times as good.

While we were sitting on the nearby steps sipping coffee, we spotted an awesome ad above the shops opposite for Dixcy Scott underwear which promises ‘Fully Elastic, Fully Fantastic’ underpants. We’re not sure of the relevance of the sumo wrestler guy, unless they specialise in very large sizes.

As we walked back to the hotel, another guy called out to Jim “Hey it’s Ali Baba!” Jim decided he’s now a little over it, so our next stop was at a tiny general store to buy some disposable razors.

Sadly, when we got back to our hotel, we received the news that Jim’s dad has passed away after a long illness. So we’ll be starting to make our way back to the UK over the coming week.

Assuming tomorrow’s replacement credit card delivery arrives on time, we’ll leave for Agra on a nine hour overnight bus trip tomorrow evening. Which finishes our trip around Rajasthan and lines us up for returning to the UK via Delhi. And perhaps before we leave, Lil might buy Jim some Fully Elastic, Fully Fantastic underpants as a souvenir.

More then.

Dealing with the demands of over-excited kids, coins not accepted for caffeine purchase, and Jim gets likened to a fairy tale character.

Day 145: Mandawa, India. Yesterday’s Navratri festival celebrations continued very late, eventually fizzling out around 3am. We lay in bed with the music from several streets away blasting through the closed windows, glad when silence fell at last. And then the local mosque call to prayer began just after 4am. Oh joy.

We woke feeling pretty wiped out, had a late breakfast, did more reading (nodding off occasionally into our books) and then around lunchtime headed out to look at another chunk of the town.

We’ve already walked up and down the main street a bunch of times, and seen most of the sights (namely the fort, which has restricted access as it’s now a heritage hotel, and a bunch of havelis). We had read online there’s also an interesting well in the town, called Harlarka, marked by four pillars and an old camel ramp (with warnings not to get too close to the edge as it’s seriously deep). We set off to try and find it, weaving around back streets and tiny lane ways and eventually stumbled across the well in a very quiet part of town.

The history of the well is unknown, but its an impressive bit of architecture, comprising a central (and yes, seriously deep) well, surrounded by pillars and small gazebos. Jim peered over the edge of the well but couldn’t see to the bottom of it.

Interestingly, later in the day we found another three wells dotted about the town and built in the same style. Including one where the effigies of Ganesh and other gods had been thrown into a nearby shallow tank, after yesterday’s Navratri celebrations.

We continued our walk around the back streets of Mandawa (where the majority of the cows and goats seem to live). It’s a lovely feeling to watch people going about their daily lives, and to hear friendly voices calling out as we walked past.

A local school was finishing for the day as we walked past. We were quickly surrounded by gangs of over-excited little kids wanting pics, money, and chocolate. Even kids who don’t speak English have learnt to say ’10 rupees’ or ‘money, money’, or ‘some chocolate’. Although it would be easy to slip them a coin or a sweet, we always shake our heads and say no, knowing it’s the right thing to do.

Further around town, we came across another old haveli – a rather majestic looking building with ornate (though badly worn) steps and lots of decorated gazebos. There was a sign outside saying entrance fee 60 rupees, including tea or coffee.

We wandered in and sat on the rooftop with coffee, enjoying the great views of people and cows in the nearby streets.

As we were leaving Jim handed over a 100 rupee note, a 10 rupee note and a 10 rupee coin. The guy handed back the 10 rupee coin and said “not allowed”. We questioned him why and he said ‘coins only allowed in Jaipur’. Which is odd, given Jim had been given the coin in change from a nearby shop just an hour ago. Lil asked why that is, and he snapped back “Don’t know, not my government”. A quick look online confirms that refusing to accept coins is illegal up to a limit of 1,000 rupees, but it’s just never worth having the conversation. Everyone seems to make their own rules here, and for some reason, everyone prefers notes.

And of course we got hassled by a couple more guides, even though we were away from the main thoroughfare – the guides probably live in the back streets too. One of them chatted us up, then told Jim he looked like Ali Baba, which certainly didn’t increase his chances of securing any business from us. (Though Lil reckons there’s a pretty good likeness.)

We checked out a few more havelis and other old buildings, then wandered back to the hotel for beers, dinner and a very early night.

Tomorrow we’ll take a walk further north and east of the town, to see what life lies within the back streets there. And perhaps Jim’s resemblance to Ali Baba will extend to us finding a magic cave full of thieves’ gold.

More then.