To the Border

Time to leave Varanasi and head for the Nepali border. The drive is supposed to be 10 hours so we leave at 6 am. After a while we run into what seems like an accident and a bunch of people are having words. It never turns into a proper fight though and we’re soon on our way. The roads are really crappy here as well and at one time Ulrika actually hits her head on the ceiling on a particularly nasty bump.

Monto is getting more Swedish lessons from Monica and he tries to teach me some Hindi in return. I find the head band I bought in Ranthambore and put it on and for some reason Monto finds this absolutely hilarious! He can’t even look at me without bursting out into laughter. He tells me that I should say the phrase “Jai Ganesh, baba ki!” next time we get off the bus. He also draws a trident on my forehead since that is Ganesh’s weapon to complete the image. This is obviously very amusing to him so I play along.

The bad roads are making us late though and we have to skip lunch in order to get to the border on time. We do arrive in time though and it’s time to say goodbye to Monto, his father and the mechanic. Walking across the border I try the phrase Monto taught me and it’s met by cheering. I’m also offered some Marijuana on the mere 100 m we’re walking, that’s pretty fast! The visa procedure is not very onerous and we’re soon on our way again, this time in the smallest possible bus, exactly big enough to fit all of us. It has suspension and an actual motor though, so we’re happy.

A fifteen minute drive later we’re at Pawan hotel, we’re treated to some delicious Nepali food before we head out to explore the town. There isn’t much to see though but I manage to find a barber where I get a full shave and an upper body massage for a measly 200 Nepali rupees (20 sek)! Feeling like a new man I head back to our room, only to find that we’re having a nightcap with some domestic wine. Nurse Karlsson thought it was the worst wine she’d ever tasted, but it wasn’t quite that bad if you ask me.

The Varanasi Trifecta

Today we’re scheduled for a boat ride along the Ganga river at sunrise, but due to morning gridlock we don’t quite make it in time. Not a big problem though, the sunrise is still beautiful when we do get there and hop in the long row boat. Along is a little girl selling flower-filled floats with a little candle inside which you light and put in the river to commemorate loved ones recently passed. The girl deftly jumps off to another boat as we pull out from Dr. Rajendra Prasasa Ghat.

Morning is when most of the people are bathing in the river and we see a lot of them at the main Ghat. The light if beautiful and we we take lots of photos. We go all the way down to the burning Ghat we visited yesterday before turning around and going back. Our guide this morning is much worse than Raj though and we’re thankful that we’ve already been given a much better explanation of everything that is going on.

We hop off at the Manikarnika burning Ghat where an untouchable is giving us a short tour of the process. I knew most of it but still give a 50 rupee bill when he’s asking for donations to the hospice. This draws the attention of another one of the workers there and he demands a donation as well, I tell him no, why should I do that? He hasn’t show or told me anything. He then grabs my arm as I walk away, something that I haven’t seen so far. This is definitely over the line and shout at him while breaking loose. Nothing serious happens though, he just slinks away and I’m able to rejoin the group. Once again we navigate a labyrinth of alleys to reach the bus and I can’t stop being absolutely fascinated about them.

Nurse Karlsson has been on about a Yoga class she’s read about in Lonely Planet and Ulrika and I tag along after breakfast to find the place. The Yogi is supposedly giving lessons every other hour throughout the day. We’re a bit late and have to resort to one of those “I’ll show you the way and you look in my shop”-guys in order to get there in time. Unfortunately he shows us the wrong place, the Yogi has moved to Australia three years ago a guy says. Our “guide” says he knows this other place though and we agree to at least check it out. Turns out that the other place actually was the one we were looking for and we’re just in time for the class to start!

The Yogi suggests an hour’s class after quizzing us on our experience and we agree. Then he’s off to a flying start with a, very fast, sun salutation. After seeing that we have a hard time keeping up he takes it down a notch though and the rest of the class is really enjoyable. This guy is more of the real thing and keeps the mumbo jumbo stuff mostly to himself. We do get to recite some mantras though, but that’s really part of the experience. I’m sweating like a sinner in church and in the end we’ve all gotten a great workout.

The Yogi asks us what our plans are next and we tell him that we’re heading for the German Bakery (which Petra had also read about in Lonely Planet). He warns us not to try the hard bread, “it’s awful!” We pay the guy 300 rupees for the class and leave after signing the sizable guest book. Finding the bakery isn’t as easy as we’d hoped though, the alleys are really narrow and when asking for directions the answers are really vague. In the process I get headbutted by a cow as well, does that count as a religious experience? When we eventually find it we realize that we’ve passed it no less than three times already!

The German Bakery sure looks like a bona fide hippie place with rugs to sit on at low tables. We find the hard bread in the menu, only to see it described as “Knaeckebrod”. =P Sadly enough they don’t have any today and I order a capsicum omelet since I’m curious to find out exactly what capsicum is. Turns out that it’s regular green pepper, or paprika, depending on where you’re from.

The service is remarkably slow and forgetful but at least it’s a moment of peace and quiet, something you don’t get that often in India. Before going back to the hotel though I have one more thing to cross off my list, and that is a dip in the Ganga river.

So we head back down to the river at Dasaswamedh Ghat which is the main bathing Ghat with steps leading down into the river. On the way we’re pestered by yet another salesman, it seems like he wants to shake my hand and sometimes that’s enough to make them go away. So I take his hand and he proceeds to take me into some sort of police grip! …until I realize he’s massaging me. Petra and Ulrika don’t even try to contain their laughter while I’m being attack-massaged right there in the blistering sunshine! Fifteen minutes later and 100 rupees poorer we’re on our way again and it’s finally time to brave the Ganga river. I keep my fivefingers on since there’s no telling what’s down on the bottom and descend down the steps down into the river. It doesn’t smell bad or anything, it’s just the color that’s more or less like mud. Both Petra and Ulrika document the event so that the others will believe me.

I don’t stay in long, just enough to get wet all over before going back up and returning to the hotel for a serious shower. I add a dip in the pool to get some chlorine for good measure before hooking up with Sara to go check the movie schedule at the mall. Turns out that the movie Raj recommended isn’t showing there so we just grab the schedule and return to the hotel. We agree on a movie called Robot and agree to try the Indian specialties at McDonalds.

We get the most expensive seats, which are 150 rupees, and head over to McD. Just as in the US the prices are excluding VAT which is always a source of annoyance. They have the awesome-sounding Chicken Maharaja Mac on the menu, which I get. Elin, who’s a vegetarian, get the Paneer Wrap. Both are really nice, but we don’t really have time to enjoy them since we’re already late for the movie.

We head over to the theater where it’s showing. It’s closed though and the staff informs us that they’re still cleaning it. I decide that there’s still time to buy some popcorn and get the largest one they have (which is smaller than the smallest one in Swedish movie theaters). Eventually they let us in and the movie starts almost immediately without any commercial whatsoever. It’s freezing in the theater and I regret not bringing a sweater. The movie is great though, so much better than I could’ve ever hoped for! It’s sort of an sci-fi action Romcom, with all the elements Indian cinema is known for: Singing and dancing sequences, cheesy overacting and bad slapstick. The script isn’t half bad though, and you actually get something out of the movie. Towards the end I realize that I’ve actually seen a review about this movie from MovieBob! Seems like he liked it just as much as I did, and I would definitely recommend seeing it. The lack of subtitles never was an issue since the overacting made it really easy to follow the plot anyway.

One funny thing was in one of the sequences Monto throws his hands up in disgust saying “South Indian dance!” Apparently there’s something really wrong with that because he’s not very happy. The rest of the audience is also loudly participating in the movie, shouting, clapping and generally cheering when the hero does something good. Too bad the volume is turned up to eleven so that we can’t hear them half of the time.

A Smell of Burning

This is the first day we’re sleeping in, the bus leaves at 10 am for some sight seeing where Sarnath, the place of Buddhas first sermon is among the sights. First is the temple they built there and it is decorated with a lot of neat murals depicting the life of Buddha and his path to enlightenment. Petra buys a neat book with explanations of Buddhas teachings which I also end up getting: “What would Buddha do? 101 answers to life’s hard questions”.

Onwards to the monument Dhamek Stupa, raised over the place of the first sermon. The guide is very particular about pointing out that it really wasn’t a sermon at all, rather a conversation with people. Buddha really disliked the preaching going on elsewhere so he chose to converse with people instead. The monument itself is more or less a solid cylinder of bricks some fifty meters high! I’ve never seen anything like it and it was awesome. The way they know it was real is because the British dug a shaft down the center of the thing. They found that it was indeed solid and only at the very bottom did they find a stone tablet, naming the place Dhamek and marking it as the place of the initial sermon.

We also visit a museum with a lot of old statues, including the Lion Capital of Asoka, the national symbol of India, which is polished to a shine even though it’s only sandstone, a technique said to be lost today. I’m a bit of a skeptic myself, I mean, how hard could it be? It’s obviously been done before =)

On the way back we also stop at a silk factory. Varanasi is famous for its silks and here we get to see how the cloths are made. The thread arrives here after being extracted from the cocoons, the actual silk worms are cultivated down south. Here it’s woven, either using “modern” method which involves an awesome punch card-programmed loom. These are the cheapest ones to make, the other method involves people keeping patterns in their head where one controls the threads coming into the loom and the other is doing the actual weaving. The latter method produces approximately 2 cm of cloth per day, obviously making it somewhat expensive.

We’re then taken upstairs where we’re show some of the finished products. The largest thing they make are bedspreads which go up to 44000 rupees. Both Piff and Puff end up getting some silk and Nina realizes that she’s forgotten her credit card. Ricard saves her by letting her use his, something that the staff thinks nothing of. Seems to be the standard around here, the women buying and the men paying.

Back at the hotel we grab some lunch before Elin, Sara, Nina, Börje and I head back downtown to see some sort of ceremony down by the Ganga river. We’re not sure what to expect but get a rickshaw as close we can get (the area closest to the river is closed off from traffic) and start walking. Soon we meet a guy called Raj, speaking excellent English who wants to show us the ceremony in exchange for us coming to his store. Since none of us really know what the ceremony is about we decide that this is a good idea, especially since his English is so good. He then goes on to say that he can show us the burning ghat as well and if we hurry we’ll be able to see the ghat first and then go straight to the ceremony.

This sounds great and we set off at a brisk pace through winding alleys filled with cows, goats, dogs and people. It’s really cool to see these alleys, especially in the evening with all the commotion still going on there. After a while we arrive at Harishchandra ghat and he explains in great detail how the ceremony is performed. As a person dies, the family has 24 hours to bring the body to Varanasi and the Ganga river and burn it, if they fail the soul will not enter Moksha and instead be reborn. This goes for all of India, which obviously is problematic if you live far away, so there are also hospices where the old are cared for awaiting their demise.

Upon death the body is stripped, placed under open sky and rubbed with honey, yogurt, sandal powder, ghee and honey. The body is then wrapped in a white cloth if it’s a man and a red cloth if it’s a woman, a stretcher is fashioned from two bamboo sticks and the body is carried down to the river all the while the family is chanting a mantra. Women are forbidden to participate in this part of the ceremony as they are deemed overly emotional and not without cause; several times it has happened that women have jumped into the fire when their husband has been burning. They also tent to cry a lot, which makes the soul feel guilty about entering Moksha and instead staying with them. For the same reason the family must leave the fire and not turn around while doing so. After the three hours or so it takes to burn the body, the final step is taking a clay pot and filling it with Ganga water. This is used to douse the fire and the ashes are put into a large heap which is then sifted through during a couple of morning hours when no burning takes place searching for valuables such as rings and gold teeth.

The job of burning is for the untouchables, the very lowest caste, they also get to keep whatever valuables they find when sifting the ashes. I was surprised to see the young man tending the fire was very well dressed, I’d though that all the untouchables were really poor. Not the case says Raj, caste has nothing to do with money really, he is for instance brahmin, the highest caste, and if he where rich, he wouldn’t be here talking to us.

There are a few people who aren’t burned: Sadhus and children under five aren’t since they are already pure, lepers as they are they think that it would spread disease, people killed in accidents (unnatural deaths) are taken to the electrical crematorium, people bitten by cobras also get special treatment, I forget why.

We’re not allowed to linger too long, since the ceremony is about to start. Another brisk walk along the Ganga where we marvel at the fact that the river was about 10 meters higher just a month or so ago when it was monsoon season. It can be seen by the plentiful mud drying on the shore. We get a really good spot for the ceremony which really isn’t all that interesting but very good at setting the mood. It’s a lot of drumming and fire being passed around to honor the river.

It’s time to go visit Raj’s shop, and we all agree that he’s done a splendid job. Turns out that they have some very nice shawls and other doodahs so we end up shopping for a rather handsome amount. One of the guys working there are really happy about my cricket t-shirt since it’s his team, but he’s disappointed that I don’t really know anything about them.

On the way back to getting a rickshaw I ask Raj what movies he’d recommend seeing. He says that he doesn’t go to the movies because people are always shouting, cheering and clapping even making it hard to follow the movie. Since this is exactly what I’d been looking for I’m excited and he says that we’ll be able to catch a movie at the shopping mall right next to our hotel.

Back at the hotel the WiFi still isn’t okay, the guy tells me the technician is away buying antivirus to fix the connection. Good luck with that….

Varanasi Dance Club

Since the hotel lacks a restaurant we get toast and egg served at the room. The language is yet again a problem when an order of two black coffees and a tea turn into one coffee with milk and two tea. The others share similar stories as we load up on the bus to go to Varanasi.

This road is by far the crappiest one we’ve encountered. In 2 h we only get 60 km and at times it’s like being at sea as the bus is swerving so much. We also get a tire puncture, which is really interesting as we then get to see how you fix a tire, Indian style.

We stop at one of the many small shacks that has a pile of tires outside and a guy quickly removes the tire, dismantles it and finds the hole. It looks a lot like fixing a bike tire actually and pretty soon he has also located the nail stuck in the tire and removed it. He seems to be looking for additional holes for quite a while though and we’re sort of wondering why he doesn’t use regular soap water. His method of just listening and inspecting seems a lot more inefficient…

Among the onlookers there is an engineering student that I talk to, he can explain about the motor the tire guy is using to feed the compressor and also shows me his student literature. Turns out he’s studying to be a building engineer and his books are filled with different engineering drawings. All literature is in English as well, interesting.

The road to Varanasi is uneventful and we get there in the afternoon. We’re staying at the nice hotel Surya that has a really nice restaurant. Service is slow as we’re now used to getting the food in 20 minutes but tastes great! We move on to the bar for some drinks and I see that I can finally get a proper umbrella drink! After a really long wait the drinks arrive but even though we saw the guy putting liquor in them, they don’t taste like it. They’re so weak that we might as well be drinking juice.

We don’t let that stop us though and we get the waiter to bring us an entire bottle of rum and a bunch of cokes. That, some beer and maybe some tried and true “fjortisfylla” gets us going and we end the evening on the dance floor up on the roof where the DJ is playing some weird Dubstep/House music, Tommie would not approve. Elin is mesmerized by her shadow on the wall as there is a light down on the floor, I sprain my wrist and Thorstein gets upset with Lars for not dancing well enough. Good times! =D

Yoga Nutter

Once again I’m up early, this time it’s because of a yoga session that starts at 7 am. In spite of lots of enthusiastic reactions from the others when I’ve talked about it, I’m the only one there. After a while the Yogi shows up and we start by saluting pictures of Shiva and Ganesh while saying the “Oum” sound. Then it’s time for some breathing exercises and already my attention is fading. The guy keeps talking about all the mumbo jumbo aspects of yoga such as rubbing pressure points to remove belly ache, back pain, heart disorders and what have you. There’s one point that I shall rub and in 6 months I will no longer need glasses, another one and I will have long black hair in notime (I resist the urge of asking why he has almost exactly the same baldness pattern as I do and even some grey hair).

After a lot of useless yoga we finally get to some real exercising when we do a tree pose. We do a few more like that, and I realize that I have an audience in Piff, Puff and Petra who have awaken and are watching from the balcony. Many of the exercises we do he doesn’t even show properly, but as I have done a little bit of Ashtanga Yoga back home I know how the positions are supposed to look and do them right instead. The Yogi compliments me on my flexibility (which isn’t all that good, but his is much worse) and we move on to sleep yoga.

Sleep yoga is exactly what it sounds like, it’s positions good for sleeping in. Apparently you should lie flat on your back with your hand along the sides, or on the side with the hand under the head or if you are on your stomach you should keep your hands flat under your chest. Especially the last one is really uncomfortable and noone in their right mind would sleep like that.

The guy finishes up with something even weirder though: laugh yoga! This is how you should laugh: “Ha -ha ha ha ha!”, “Hi hi hi hi hi hi!”, “Ho, ho, ho, ho, ho, ho!” The guy is obviously nuts and I can’t help laughing at his antics. The lesson finishes up with me writing in his guest book and promising to send him a picture of us two.

After the lesson I go meet my guides for the day and get some breakfast samosas. Then we’re off to the first stop which is one of the guys uncles wood carving shop. Now to be fair I actually said I wanted some wood stamps so I actually wanted to see this. Too bad they’re almost all ugly! The material is nice and all, the guy collects wood that has been lying under water for long time and looks very nice. But most of the carvings themselves looks like something even I could do with some practice. I pick out a tiger stamp though that is among the least ugly pieces and buy it so that we can move on. I see it as a tour fee more or less…

Now it’s time for the village and we start off in the Brahmin caste, which is the priest caste and also the highest one. Caste does not equal financial status though and it’s apparent that this entire village is poor. At the side of the door, dates are painted, these are the dates when polio vaccination shots were given, interesting! We move on into another caste and it is separated by a well for the Brahmin area. The guys talk about the how you can clearly see the difference between the castes but to be honest I don’t see much difference. He also points out lots of those wardrobe sized temples which are placed here and there, talking about how beautiful they are. I can’t really see it though, since they’re all so shoddily made with paint all over the place and no attention to detail.

We move on to see a couple of the east temples also. These are more of the sandstone temples we saw yesterday and these are beautiful. What happened to Indian engineering a craftsmanship in the last 1000 years? Damned if I know, but they’ve lost it… If you’ve seen the western temples you don’t need to see these ones though, as they are basically the same, only smaller.

We move on to see more houses, I’m forced to look in another shop, but manages to avoid buying anything this time. After a while we come to the school and I get showed around by the headmaster. The kids don’t have class today but I get to see the rooms and some pictures. Finally I get to write in the guest book (and see that some of the others were just here) and make a donation. This is something I can fully support though so no problem!

Before dropping me off back at the hotel we make a final stop at the sandstone factory where they make sandstone sculptures of the same kind that are on the temples. Looks more like a workshop to me, but it’s interesting to see the process. This also means a shop of course, but I manage to dodge buying anything there as well. Upon parting I offer them some turkish pepper candy to which they react as violently as you’d expect =D

I find the others and we go to the Italian restaurant across the street which Maria recommended, Mediterrano. I order a pasta arrabiata, a favorite from when I was in Italy with garlic, tomato sauce and chili. Too bad it’s awful! Ricard is satisfied with his pizza though, even if it wasn’t top notch.

Time to board the bus again and go to Rewa. On the way out of town we stop and take pictures at the tree that they didn’t bother cutting down and just drew the lines around. The Indians must think we’re crazy! =P

Monto sits back with Monica learning Swedish phrases today. He’s actually really good and is learning really fast, soon he is using the phrases he’s learned with all of us. The roads are good and the 170 km only take 5 h this time. We pull into Rewa just after dark and go down a rather modern-looking main street. We go collectively and eat at another hotel since ours doesn’t have a restaurant. The place is nice but the staff speaks almost no English at all and get our orders wrong. They also forget to bring many of the things we’ve ordered. The prices make up for it though and the food we get is good so in the end we’re a happy bunch leaving.

Me, Ricard, Lars, Piff and Puff decide to explore some more of the town before going to bed and head for the main street. Not only are we mostly left alone when wandering around, the few times we are bothered it’s by people wanting to take a photo with the white people! We don’t mind that kind of attention and happily agree. One of the guys claim to be from the local paper, so I guess we should be on the lookout for those pictures! The main street mostly has clothing stores and I go into one of them in search for a uniquely Indian t-shirt. The language is a definite barrier but in the end I manage to convey what I want. Too bad Indians are really small, even the largest t-shirts are tight-fitting but I can’t resist buying two cricket t-shirts: one with the Mumbai Indians and another with Kings Punjab. Awesome souvenir!

Hindu Temples at Last

Monto is up with the rooster at 6 am and bounces over to Nina and Monicas tent to return the blankets we borrowed last night. They aren’t too pleased about having to answer the door at 6 am but what are you going to do?

I eat hurried breakfast in order to make it to the yoga class at 8, only to find out that there isn’t any… Noone is able to explain why, but there you go, this is probably not the last chance for yoga on this trip. So I sit in the lobby and surf until the bus is leaving at 9.

Khujaraho is 170 km away and is said to take 5-6 hours. Monto sits next to me, eager to see pictures from Sweden. So I show him some on my laptop and also plays him some Swedish music on my mp3-player. We also set a new record for spotting a rickshaw with the most amount of people in it, the new record being 11 where 7 are inside and 4 on the outside…

At a rest stop I try the local orange soda Mirindi which is chock full of coloring making my tongue just as orange as the soda. The roads are actually better than expected for once and we make good time to Khajuraho. As we close in on the place the we come upon a road only days old to which they are still adding lines. This is because the Prime Minister is in town discussing domestic policy future and such. Hilariously enough they have a tree standing 1 m into the road and instead of cutting it down they’ve decided to paint the lines around it. India in a nutshell…

We decide it best to see the famous hindu temples with the erotic carvings before sundown and head over there right away. We find a guide with decent English at the gate and pay him to come along. I’m required to put my little gorillapod in a locker at the door though, or I’m able to take too good pictures I guess. The guide seems to be a good decision as he tells us a lot about the symbolism in the carvings. Not all of them are erotic in nature, it’s actually a minority, most of them tells us about how to achieve moksha by proper training and state of mind. As an aside the whole western temple area used to be flooded back in the day so access was by boat only.

There are also little stories like the husband with the long beard that the wife pulled off if he was unfaithful, and therefore only faithful husbands dare have long beards! He tells us about the scorpion on the leg and in the stomach??? About the symbolism with the monkey, where a man teases a monkey with a stick so that the monkey will jump on the woman he’s holding and than she in turn will jump into his lap. The monkey symbolizes mischief. As we exit the park the sun is on it’s last legs and we get some absolutely gorgeous views of the temples against the setting sun.

We find Elin and Sara at café nearby and after eating a bite we try to walk back to the hotel. We then find out why Khajuraho is infamous for their annoying shopkeepers. More or less everyone is trying to guilt trip you into their shop filled with worthless trinkets. We finally escape though, even if it takes an hour or so and end up at one of the nicer shops in town. The owner calls himself “Super Mario” and simply that is reason enough to visit him. He has great selection of not only pashmina and silk, but also bags, rugs and pillow covers. He turns out to be a really good guy and almost the entire group end up shopping from him.

Leaving Mario’s I make a pit stop back at the hotel to drop off my shopping. I’m all tapped out now and need to refuel on cash. The ATM is a good walk a ways though and I’m dreading the gauntlet I’m sure will come. For some reason it doesn’t come though, maybe it’s my determined gait that’s doing the trick, I don’t know. I don’t get all the way there though, I’m offered a ride by two guys on a motorcycle, they’re students and seem alright so I go with them. Luckily this brand of ATM also works with my card, but I forget which kind it is.

The guys gives me a ride back and wants to chat over a cup of tea. I go along with it and it turns out that they are curious of what I make of India so far. I tell them about all the annoying scams and crazy littering and they seem apologetic but acknowledges the problem. We also talk about the caste system, the Bofors scandal (of which they haven’t heard), Sweden and Ravan (which was the topic of the festival in Jaipur). They also talk me into letting them show me around the next morning, showing the village with the houses separated according to caste, the school, some more of the temples and so on. As we don’t leave until lunch the next day I agree and also ask them if they know someone reliable selling bronze statuettes. Of course they do and I get a Hanuman figurine, but also find a nice handmade silver chain.

I get back to the hotel at around 10 pm and find the others in the restaurant, drunk as skunks (especially Helena)! Turns out they were shopping some more at Super Mario’s and they got their hands on some Old Monk rum which they were merrily consuming right there in the store. Now they’re just back at the hotel for a final nightcap where they also picked up this nice German girl, Sabrina, touring India with her mom. She’s a seasoned backpacker and has lots of great stories, we end up getting each others Facebook profiles in case we can hook up later in Varanasi, to which she’s also going.

The Place to Be

As always we’re up as early as possible and after breakfast Elin, Sara, Ulrika, Ricard and me walk downtown to see the palace. We pass by the beautiful Betwa river where the locals are bathing and doing their laundry. Soon there are a few kids running along with us and Elin is soon holding hands with three of them. They absolutely melt her heart and she stops to buy them chips which she carefully explains that they have to share.

The palace is the only thing in town that costs money to see but we decline the offer of a guide. The palace is really nice and you have a great view of Orchha from up there. The doorways are really low though and I bang my head so hard in one of them that I see stars. Ricard is having problems with his camera screen and tries to show Sara who just doesn’t get it. When Ricard is turning the camera sideways the screen goes dark he insists… I recognize the problem and as soon as I start laughing Ricard also realizes the problem, the screen is polarized and so are his sunglasses. And when he turns the screen they cancel out all light instead of only half of it! =D

We come across a couple of mangy puppies playing in the yard as well, it’s sad to see really, but what can you do? They sure are cute though. A police car pulls up on the courtyard and I seize the opportunity to ask what the little antenna in the middle of the hood is for. Apparently they put the flag there when on escort service. Moving on to the other palace we get an impromptu guide as the ticket man starts telling us about the different rooms in there. The thing about this palace are the bedrooms of the Maharani (Queens) which are covered with wall paintings and such. Except for one, which is where they ugly Maharani lived the guy explains, which has no decorations at all.

The gals are off to surf the Internets and Ricard and I end up at another barber. This time it’s not quite as good but definitely not bad, and when the shave is done they wonder if we want back massage as well! Of course we do and are given a very thorough head, back and arm massage right there in the barber chair. 250 rupees each we pay (~40 sek) and one of the guys is asking if we’ll come to his shop now. Now, if this weren’t Orchha we probably wouldn’t have come with him, but this town is different than the others and after a bit of walking we suddenly find ourselves in another barber shop! He asks us to sit and explains that now I am to be given another massage from a very famous man. Okay, I’m not one to say no to a massage and the guy starts kneading while Ricard takes the opportunity to write some diary notes. 40 minutes later the guy is finally done with more or less the same thing that I just got, and we get ready to leave. Asking what it costs lends the answer that since the shop isn’t open yet and because we are the very first customers we can pay whatever we like. So I pay the guy 100 rupees and we’re on our way again.

I want to squeeze in a dip in the river as well before going back to the hotel so we clamber out among the rocks in the middle of the river and I hop in after finding a relatively safe spot where the current isn’t so bad and where there are plenty of things to hold on to. The water is fabulous and probably somewhere around 25 degrees. I just lie there floating and when a dragonfly lands on the tip of my nose the bliss is complete.

We walk along the riverside to get to the hotel and come across a couple of fishermen, they haven’t gotten anything though and we continue on until we happen upon the temples that are right next to our hotel. There’s also a Sadhu there (holy man) and we go say hello to him, he’s not very talkative though so we head back to the hotel.

The others are found at the pool and I join them briefly after booking an hour of Ayurvedic massage. It starts almost right away so I lend my laptop to Ricard while I go indulge myself for the third time today. The massage is more or less just like Swedish massage as far as I can tell, the oils are probably different though. The guy does a decent job even though he clearly only has a very rudimentary understanding of where the different muscles are. He also pushes straight down at my spine rather hard at one point which is a definite no-no when massaging. We trade a few tricks though and in the end it’s a rather good massage.

Back out at the pool I take the opportunity to write some postcards. Lars has found a yoga class that takes place at 8 in the morning and me and Sister Karlsson decide to join. Done with the postcards I get the laptop back from Ricard and I push up some blogs before we gather to go downtown again for dinner.

A rumor has been going around that Sunil is fixing a dinner at a restaurant to which almost everyone else are going. So we find Sunil and end up at a rooftop where a couple of tables have been placed. The guy taking our orders is making a big deal of that they have chicken on the menu tonight and it’s not until next morning we realize why this is so as Maria tells us that the entire village is vegetarian and that a chicken being smuggled in is a rare event.

We all order vegetarian meals however and get a round of beers and chips while waiting for the others to join as we’ve come a bit early. The others show up and soon the dinner is in full swing. After a while Sunil comes up to me and wonders if I want some chillies with my food since I said I wanted it spicy. I agree and get five green chillies on a plate. That’s a challenge if I ever saw one and I actually manage to eat them all (well, actually Ricard eats one of them, but they’re all gone in the end).

Loose in mind and body we stumble back to the hotel for an afterparty out on the patio with turkish pepper shot and Swedish Djungelvrål for Monto to try (his name actually is Monto, Monty was just something he said so that we would remember it more easily). As the afterparty is winding down, Monto is nervous to go back to the bus as his father is probably already sleeping. So he gets to sleep on the floor of our tent.

The Taj

Up early again since the Taj Mahal opens at sunrise and the plan is to beat the crowd (and the heat). I experience the first sign of stomach problems and find it best to go for the antibiotics right away. Thorstein, Lars and Börje shared a room last night and they are still more or less drunk as we get on the bus, rumor has it that they were so drunk last night that Lars slept alone in the large double bed while Börje and Thorstein shared the small extra bed. But that is only hearsay, I haven’t gotten any confirmation =P

The Taj Mahal is very close to central Agra and as we walk up to the gate we’re mobbed by trinket-salesmen. A kid holds up a snow globe with a miniature Taj Mahal inside to Fredrik and asks if he wants it. “Yes, thank you” he says and grabs it. “Now you give me money” the kid says and Fredrik replies “No, you gave it to me, I don’t have to pay”. “800 rupees” the kid says, “10 rupees” Fredrik says and after weirdly small amount of haggling Fredrik gets the snow globe for 10 rupees (1.60 sek) …only to have it taken away at the security check five minutes later. This is the first real security check we’ve been through and they only allow wallet, cell phone, camera and water bottle inside. Lars vainly (and drunkenly) tries to save his snus from being taken but the guards are steadfast. The snow globe is taken care of by the brother of the guide and kept safe.

Coming through the portal you see the first glimpse of the Taj Mahal and it’s nothing short of magnificent! There are already a lot of people here but we manage to get a few nice shots of it. On each side of the Taj Mahal is a mosque, but only one of them is a real mosque, the other one is there for symmetry’s sake. When going up to the Taj Mahal you have to don shoe protectors or remove the shoes in order to protect the marble. We have an hour here and I more or less just mill around and enjoy the silence and absolute beauty of the thing.

As time comes to reassemble we discover that Thorstein is missing, but soon enough the guide gets a phone call telling us that Thorstein is outside buying t-shirts! Damned if I know how they knew that but it’s fascinating to see how well they did. Turns out while buying no less than six t-shirts Thorstein was pick pocketed of some money.

Next stop is a workshop where they make marble crafts such as tables and other trinkets. First we’re shown how the grinding process works and it’s nothing surprising there. We’re also shown the magic of the white marble that is translucent in nature and actually spreads the light. This is what happens with the Taj Mahal also and is part of the wonder. The owner makes a point of the fact that if we buy any large pieces they will be delivered to our door free of charge and we get a new one if it’s broken in any way. It’s nice to look around but I don’t buy anything, Börje however, buys a plaque for something like $5000.

Done with the store we go to Agra fort, in the center of town. I decide not to tag along this time and instead try to find some mosquito cream. I guess I should’ve asked first though, because there are no medecine shops within walking distance from the fort. There are plenty of really awful salesmen there though, quoting incredibly dishonest prices like 1500 rupees (250 sek) for a 2 GB SD card when they are less than 80 sek back in Sweden… And they hardly ever give up either, I have to escape into a cafe for a mango juice in order to get rid of them, only to be pestered by the owner repeatedly asking if I want anything more than the juice.

I find Maria after a while though and she says I should try the pakora??? if I wanted something spicy. So I sit down at one of those holes in the wall and ask for some really spicy pakora. The food I receive isn’t all that spicy though and I ask if I can get something more spicy. The chef throws up his hands a says “Too spicy!” and I reply “Yes, I want too spicy!” He goes back into his hole and cooks me up some too spicy food and this time it actually manages to make me sweat. I still feel that I’ve gotten far spicier food in Sweden.

The group that’ve been in the fort is back soon after I’ve finished my food and we are once again back on the road. The roads are yet again really bad and it’s an estimated 7-8 hours before we reach Orchha. On the way we are forced to make a stop in a village since a couple of cows thought it a good idea to lie down in front of the bus and not move. This is of course a photo opportunity for us and as we’re done photographing we turn around to find a crowd of 30 or so Indians staring at us, at this point we are the attraction!

We finally arrive in Orchha in the early evening to find out that we’re staying at a really fancy hotel where we get some sort of tent-bungalows in the garden with old hindu temples looming in the background. It’s absolutely fabulous and we just gawk at the scenery. Most of the others decide to eat in the hotel restaurant, but Ricard and I go downtown in hope of finding some street food. We end up at a restaurant we saw from the bus when pulling in, but decide that we don’t really like the menu. The owner just says “That’s okay” and leaves us be. Unsure if this is still India we move on down the road and come across a cheerful guy called Sunil. He asks us where we’re from and when we say Sweden he lights up and tells us that he has a friend there with the Pink Caravan: Maria. We tell him that she’s here now and he is really pleased and says he’ll go find her in the morning.

We eventually find a restaurant and order some cauliflower tikka, something we’ve never seen before. A few minutes later we see a man going by with, presumably, our cauliflower. This is the first time it’s taken more than 20 minutes to get our food in India, but once we get it, it’s really good. As company while we wait we have a couple of cows and a stray dog which turns into nine cows and five dogs before we pay and leave.

Coming back to the hotel we find some turkish pepper candy outside our tent, and having an idea of who put it there we bring the turkish pepper shot and some whiskey over to Piff and Puffs tent for a nightcap.

Close Shave

Ricard and I hurry through breakfast so that we have time to and get a shave at the barber shop before the bus leaves. The shop is actually full when we get there (at 8 o’clock) but they are eager to let us cut in line and Ricard gets to go first while I have to wait for the other barber to finish up his current customer. They start out by washing his face putting a tissue over it and then rubbing off the tissue (no, I don’t have any idea why either), then the rub in some primer oil. And by rub I mean thoroughly massage, this is looking to be more of a facial treatment than a simple shave! Then comes the lathing up with a shaving brush. This takes more or less forever, the guy actually spends more than a minute brushing the same exact spot! Oh well, he then demonstrates that he’s putting in a fresh blade and also sprays the knife with iodine, now that’s customer care!

The actual shaving doesn’t take long and by now I’m in the chair as well. After shaving is done, moisturizer is applied (two different kinds) followed by some more massage. And just when you think it’s over the guy pulls out what looks like a power drill! “Massage” he says and turns the hellish device to work, vibrating Ricards face to mush. The massage bit of the machine is too large to fit inside the ear but that is no problem, he just jams a finger in there and then puts the machine against the finger to transfer the vibration inside the ear! Odd to say the least, but veeery nice.

Ricard pays while they’re finishing up with me and it’s 300 rupees (50 sek) for the both of us, I fail to see a reason to shave on my own when it’s this cheap to get pampered for half an hour! In the end we’re fifteen minutes late for the bus, but since we’d let Maria know where we were it wasn’t that big a deal.

The roads leading to Agra are awesomely crappy and I’m almost thrown out of my seat several times. I sit next to Håkan today and it turns out we have a shared interest in all the Indian ingenuity when it comes to abusing technology. We’re constantly photographing trucks carrying three times the load they were designed for, repair shops, those awesome cars that are basically a bottenplatta with an engine block and a steering column. Håkan puts it best when saying “It’s like if you took all the technologies invented since ancient times and put them to work alongside each other”. As an example of this we pass a construction site where they’re building a temple and they are using a sort of pulley mechanism to get stuff up to the second floor, more or less just the way the Egyptians would’ve done it…

Since Håkan seems to know a thing or two about cars I ask him why the bus is so darn slow. He says that the engine is simply underpowered, which is why it’s so hard to get it started rolling in first gear and why it takes almost a kilometer of straight road before you’re up to 100 km/h (which hardly exists in India).

After a while large brick towers start popping up in the distance. Håkan asks me if I know what they are and goes on to explain that they are the chimneys of brick factories. The very large chimneys are needed to create the high temperatures required for making bricks. Another example of the technological melting pot of India since they look exactly as they would’ve in medieval times in Europe.

We pull into Agra in the late afternoon to Grand Hotel Agra, a somewhat fancy hotel actually. Me and Ricard tag along as the girls go to the market. We were prepared for the worst when it came to Agra because everyone says that Agra is among the worst places in all of India salesman-wise. But we were pleasantly surprised as the market wasn’t bad at all, I even bought some cloth. Later at dinner the fancy hotel doesn’t look all that fancy anymore as the power goes out about 10 times in short intervals. Indian tech at work! Sara also shows her morbid side by laughing hard at my story about when my cousin had to clean up after a woman placed herself in front of a train…

Tyger! Tyger!

We’re once again up for an early morning since tigers find it too hot for comfort during the day. So if we’re to see any we need to leave at sunrise. Börje and I start the day with a swim in the pool under the stars.

The safari vehicle is a small bus with no roof that seats exactly 20 people, that is, exactly all of us minus our tour leaders Maria and Fredrik who get to take another bus. We have a very likable guide with understandable English and some of the girls confess to looking at him when not looking at the scenery =P The scenery which is magnificent by the way! This is the actual place that served as inspiration for Kipling when he wrote that book with Baloo in it and it shows! The nature is more of what I would call forest than jungle though but immensely beautiful all the same.

We enter area 3 (there are 5 safari areas in the park) and race around while the guide points out spotted deer, wild boars, herons and other rare birds that I’ve forgotten the names of. We soon learn that both spotted deer and the boars are a dime a dozen as are the black-faced long-tail monkeys.

But tiger is obviously the main attraction and excitement rises when the guide spots some female tiger tracks on the road. He says they are fresh from this morning at least and that they’ve heard warning calls from other animals in this section. We turn off on a small road where normally only small jeeps drive, but as our driver is a competent one we do okay even there. Still no tiger in sight though and we start to resign our hopes.

Down by one of the three lakes in the area we’re lucky enough to spot a kingfisher. We’re also told that there are lots of sweet water crocs in the lakes but that they don’t come out this time of year. Not long after that though we happen upon a young crocodile basking in the sun on the beach. Suddenly a warning call is heard from a spotted deer and both guide and driver get really excited! Apparently it’s close and we go down the road to a patch of tiger grass. And there it is! Running along a dried out river bed and disappearing into the grass to fell what probably is a deer!

The guide is very excited, fist pumping and going on about how rare it actually is to see a tiger this time of year. If I were to be cynical I would think he’s more excited about the sizable tip he’ll be getting now that we’ve seen the king of the forest. He tells us that the name of the tiger is “Lady of the Lake” and we go back and forth a few times in case she comes back. She doesn’t however and the guide says she’s probably eating now and is unlikely to leave for a good while.

Our time is more or less up now but on the way back we also get to see a couple of spotted owls and a large lizard being picked on by a couple of birds from which it probably just had stolen eggs. Back at the hotel both guide and driver get obscene amounts of tips, but I guess they earned it, and besides they actually were really nice!

Back at the hotel it’s just a quick stop before going off to see Ranthambhore fort as well. This was also a large inspiration for Kipling and you can see why when you get there. It’s as if taken right out of the Disney version in the scene where King Louie sings with all his monkeys. First it’s a long zig-zag staircase going up the mountain side through several gates with various defensive features, the fort must’ve been virtually impenetrable in its time! Up top is a very impressive view of the reservation and you can see most of the places we were in the morning. The beauty of the scenery is somewhat ruined by the abundant trash however. The guide explains that each month throngs of pilgrims travel here since it’s a very holy place and that they are the ones littering. We ask why there aren’t any trash bins anywhere and he just says they get kicked over, apparently Indians don’t like to be told what to do… The guide says the solution would be armed guards, but that it’s too expensive. India is a weird country.

Our guide is curious about the tiger we saw this morning and wants to know which area we went to. We tell him that the name of the tiger was “Lady of the Lake” and he replies that it’s impossible since the one called “Lady of the Lake” is a very old tiger that has moved to another territory. The one we saw likely was T17 (not as poetic maybe, but a bit cool if you consider 17 terminator tigers roaming around) which is the daughter of the “Lady of the Lake”.

We walk past something that looks like gooseberries (krusbär) and we ask the guide about them. He cautions us that many of the plants here are poisonous and that we shouldn’t touch them but that the one we pointed at is delicious. So I take one of the gooseberry things and eat it. The taste is awfully bitter and I’m forced to spit it out, it probably wasn’t ripe yet.

Moving on we come to a courtyard overlooking a gorge where lots of monkeys live. A couple of cows also come walking and I photograph one of them who decides he doesn’t like me and charges! A quick sidestep is all it takes though and moments later he seems to have forgotten that he’s angry. The monkeys are also aggressive and hiss towards us if we get too close. When we reach the end of the turnaround point we see why the monkeys are so aggressive, the pilgrims feed the monkeys who I suppose are holy as well. So the monkeys are after the flower necklaces and sugar which you can buy in the many shops surrounding the temple. Håkan buys a necklace, only to have it instantly ripped off and eaten by one of the monkeys. I buy a headband adorned with the words “Ya Ganesh” and a couple of swastikas for good measure before we head back down for lunch.

At lunch we meet this nice brit who has been backpacking around India with his girlfriend, he not to keen on the Indian salesmen who he claims to be the worst con-men he’s ever encountered. He works for SAAB and has spent a lot of time in Jönköping so he knows a fair bit about Sweden. They’re also off on the safari this afternoon and they’re excited to hear that we’ve seen a tiger today. Let’s hope we have more of that kind of luck!

Our second safari doesn’t have as nice a guide as the first one, but we have our hopes up to see some sloth bears or maybe a leopard this time! This time we go into area 5 where Maria and Fredrik were this morning and also got to see a tiger. The scenery here is somewhat less inspiring and more or less looks like regular European leaf forest, that and the fact that we just had lunch makes me nod off a bit. Elin finds it great fun to take pictures of me sleeping so I eventually get my act together. We don’t see many animals this time and I spend some time contemplating the fact that driving on a crappy forest road is actually faster than highway driving in India – the mind boggles…

We hear some warning calls but no tiger, the guide thinks it has already made it’s kill and isn’t likely to move much, just like this morning. So we move on in hopes of seeing the other tiger that’s in this area. We don’t have much luck though and don’t see much animals at all actually. The scenery improves though though and we get some more breathtaking views instead of tigers.

On the way back I keep an eye out for the barber shop we saw earlier, only to see that it’s closed. Ricard and I resolve to get up early next morning in order to squeeze in a shave before we leave for Agra, gotta keep my increasingly ursine appearance in check!

Ricard, Sara and me go out for an evening stroll later to see what Ranthambhore has to offer, it isn’t much though but I manage to find a great cola knockoff called “Thums Up Cola” which actually is really good! I need to bring some back with me. Oddly enough the bottle says it’s brewed under license from Coca-Cola Company, I’m not sure how that works really (it turns out that it’s originally an Indian cola acquired by Coca-Cola in 1993, which explains the hilarious spelling)…

Later that evening a guy sits down at our table, opening with the line “Gäss which kanntri ajj äm from!”. Not too hard for us swedes to figure out that he’s Norwegian and we end up chatting about Opera (the browser) of course.

P.S. The title references a somewhat famous poem, look it up! D.S.