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.