A blog about writing, reading, travelling and great characters I meet in life. I love these things more than cheese-on-toast times trampolines times monkeys.

Tuesday, 29 November 2011

Anyone for a chocolate and Brussels sprout sandwich?

I was told to expect a 'Marmite country'. But for me, India isn't a love OR hate land. It's love AND hate, often in the very same experience.

It's a cherry cheesecake with oysters on top. Garlic naan with goat brain masala.

India is a chocolate and Brussels sprout sandwich.

Writer and traveller Paul Theroux talks about India as a land of confrontation - and that's been the experience for me as an India newbie. The daily surprises of India are causing whole sections of my brain to blow up. Old ideas and habits are being challenged. I'm proved wrong about most things.

I'm shown aspects of my character I'm proud of here (I can be adventurous, curious and caring). But I also display my twat side (I can be judgmental, suspicious and short-tempered).

There's always the option here - those precious seconds where I get to decide whether to take the Twat Road or the Comedy Road. More and more, I'm finding that laughter is the answer to everything here.

Laughter is the answer to a camel farting a cloud of dung gas in my face.

It's the answer to a lorry honking his earsplitting horn at me - (even when I'm nowhere near the road).

It's the answer to the attention from traders and rickshaw wallahs and beggars.

It's the answer when I find out my bed sheets and pillows have been washed in the not-very-clean river.

It's the answer when a man sits down next to me and burps. He reaches right down into his belly for a burp, gets ready, aims, then fires a burp-ball towards me with the force of a Wimbledon champion. Again and again, he aces burps IN MY FACE.

And laughter is definitely the answer when a pony-tailed, much older gentleman thinks that me smiling at him is a come-on.

In fact, I discover, I've just advertised myself as very very available to him!

HAHAHA - that's what I say to all of it.

(Until I take the Twat Road again - probably at about seven o' clock this evening).

Saturday, 19 November 2011

No, no, I said bloody NO!....(oh, go on then).

“You know in India, we do not let our wives travel alone.”

A Rajasthani man in his forties tells me this – aka The Father.

My heckles rise. I’ve spent years perfecting my ‘I-can-do-everything-by-myself’ belief system – so it’s still a shock for me in India when men say they don’t allow women to do certain things.

I meet The Father on the train to Jaipur, India's famous Pink City...

I’m heading there to celebrate Diwali. We are sitting at Sawai Modhpur station. The shade inside the carriage is welcome. There’s the smell of samosas and something like mint yoghurt.

The train fills until it’s a packed house in ‘sleeper class’ – ‘festival class’ would be a more fitting description. People squeeze past one another in the aisle with bags and boxes. Happy chatty Indian families sit on the lower seats.

Three ladies in red and gold saris are one berth along from me – their bare feet up on the opposite seat. They have brass toe rings and henna swirls on their hands and feet. Silver and red bangles jangle on their arms. They buy paper cups of chai through the bars of the train window. They sip, chat and laugh.

Children kick off their shoes, clamber to the upper seats. They swing their bare feet.

A mouse zooms past my feet.

Then The Father starts talking to me...

We share a few details about our home towns and where we are travelling.

The Father then asks me if I’m married. I tell him about fictional husband Adam and me – the story comes more naturally now. The Father looks across at a lady in a bright yellow sari and dark eyes – The Mother – she is talking to The Three Children, playfully tapping the youngest boy on the head with a rolled up newspaper.

The Mother finishes off a packet of Kurram Kurram spicy puffs. She pulls from her bag newspaper parcels and a plastic bag. She tips yellow vegetable rice into silver bowls, hands them round to The Father, The Children and an older man – I decide he’s The Grandfather. She gives out bread balls shaped like small muffins.

And that’s when The Father comments how strange it is that I’m a woman travelling alone.

A man comes along the carriage with dozens of long chains of metal zips. The conversation comes to an ends because the Father needs his bag fixed. Skilfully and quickly, the Zip Man makes the repair, 10 rupees his reward.

I watch The Family having their meal...

Three generations pinch rice between their fingertips. They tear off small chunks of bread. They dip their bread into light brown sauce with oil beads on top.

The Family’s meal I’m witnessing on the Jaipur train makes me think again about what Eva said to me in the Philippines – about the roles she had chosen of Wife, Home-maker and Mother – the principal reason, she said, why her 10 year relationship with Ivan worked so well.

This is what I can see in front of me here – another relationship where the roles are clearly divided up.

Outside the train window, Rajasthan countryside - pale greens and oranges and browns.

Workers on the land.

Goats and cows.

Stone houses offering glimpses into rural family lives.

And then patches of emptiness.

Just the slow reliable clatter of train on track. So so calming, I find.

And then I melt down at Jaipur Junction...

The train doors spill hundreds of people from the train at Jaipur.

There’s only one exit open from the platform up the stairs to the bridge.

We shuffle along in the heat. People push me towards the stairs. A woman prods me in the side. A rumble of irritation rises in my chest.

There are rickshaw drivers in the platform crowd – they say hello to me from different directions, they say they know a nice hotel for me, they offer me a tour. I say no thank you to them. My focus is on getting up the staircase.

The competing offers from rickshaw drivers continue to come.

‘Madam, come with me,’ one says.

‘Madam, you want guest house,’ another says.

‘Rickshaw Madam?’ a third one says.

‘No,’ I say. To all of them.

I just want to sit down when I’m out of this human swamp and figure out what I’m doing.

On the bridge, there are too many voices competing for my attention. My brain wants to shut out the sounds. I know I shouldn’t allow it to get to me – but ‘should’ is never a word that means much to me.

The fact is this: my nerves are getting scrambled by the headache-level heat, train horns, black dust, over 20 kilos of baggage on my back, questions coming at me from all directions, the rib-ticklers, the back-jabbers, the spitters.

‘Madam, come with me please,’ the most persistent rickshaw driver says as we go down the staircase.

I say nothing.

‘This way,’ he says. Firmly.

I want to swear. The internal censor manages to intervene just in time.

‘Go away.’

‘Madam, do not be suspicious,’ he says.

In my head I answer him back. ‘I’m not bloody suspicious, I just don't like being told what to do.’

Haha. There it is again – my anti-dependent streak. The fierce teenager in me has come out to play – and that always has interesting results.


Thankfully, the other side of my brain kicks in before I make more of a scene – I realise that I’m not handling the situation well. The instinct to walk away takes over. I find some shade outside Jaipur station, sit down, take a breath. Phew!

Three rickshaw drivers follow me – but they stand a little distance away from me now. They fold their arms and watch.

We eyeball each other.

No-one makes any move.

I scan the group of rickshaw drivers.

It’s a game of human chess...with teeth.

The Father’s words ring in my ears...

“You know in India, we do not let our wives travel alone.”

And I’m annoyed with The Father for having a point in this instance.

Outside Jaipur Junction, with the circle of rickshaw drivers around me, I think yes, it would be easier if Adam (aka lion, aka tall bloke who handles stuff!) was here with me.

Still the assembly of rickshaw drivers watch me. Finally, I climb down from my ‘get-out-of-my-space’ stance and agree a price with one of the rickshaw drivers, Raju.

He takes me to a string of guest houses he knows. First guest house is one step up from jail - no window, greasy sheets. Second one is full. Third one is much better – a large window, comfortable bed and the bathroom is clean.

I drop my bags. Breathe out. I always feel so much more human when I arrive at my next lodgings. A sense of home is restored and happiness follows.

I see now from the calm of my guest house that the rickshaw business is highly competitive in Jaipur and it’s not personal.

I go back down to reception to check in...

...and Raju’s still there!

He offers me a tour of the city.

‘Ok Raju,’ I say. I'm laughing now at his incredible persistence. ‘How about tomorrow?’

We agree a time and a price and Raju leaves.

Donald Trump or Alan Sugar could find hundreds of eager apprentices in Jaipur alone.

And I feel a kind of surrendering respect for Raju, for keeping his eye on making the sale, despite my potential to snap!

On my second day in Jaipur...

... the local Jaipur newspaper is counting down to Diwali. Time to get my karmic house in order.

My tour with Raju the rickshaw driver starts with a climb to the top of Isarlat tower.

I can see Jaipur’s colourful rooftops.

And Jaipur’s city gates that punctuate the dense clusters of Lego-shaped buildings.

I see mountains hugging Jaipur city, Nature’s strong sons and daughters that always give me a sense of protection.

I apologise to Raju on the tour. For getting angry with him and the other rickshaw drivers. In return, Raju says that he’s aware that some travellers in India find the attention from rickshaw drivers difficult – ‘but you have to understand Madam, we need to make a living.’

I do understand. In fact, I understand so much that I’m happy to accept Raju’s offer of visiting a jewellery shop and a textile shop as part of my tour of Jaipur. I know Raju’s on commission if I buy, but it doesn’t matter. I understand he needs to make a living and I am interested in looking at the products.

Life is so much easier like this. Accepting the world exactly as it is.

And yes, I do end up buying a gorgeous red bedspread with exquisite gold stitching and matching cushion covers – it is beautifully made and a fraction of the price of a similar item back home. Raju gets his cut on the deal from the shopkeeper.

Well, after three cups of very sweet chai, served to me in a pretty china cup by the shopkeeper, it’s a bloody miracle I don’t buy one in every colour!

Thursday, 10 November 2011

Tigers and ‘lions’ in Ranthambore - (ok, it's about men and relationships really)

Quieter streets. Hardly any horns. A couple of camels pull carts laden with boxes.

I arrive in Ranthambore and breathe out. It’s great to step away from the big cities of India and into the countryside. The air is fresher here, especially early in the morning.

I’m back to full health after food poisoning in Agra. And most importantly, curry is back on the menu – yippee!

The first thing I do in Ranthambore is find a pool. Aaaaah, the relief of jumping into cool water after the dusty sauna of Delhi and Agra. It's like drinking a cold glass of fizzy lemonade!


The main attractions of Ranthambore are the tigers.

An article in Sanctuary wildlife magazine says that for tigers, the time is now three minutes to midnight (where midnight = extinction).

Heading out for my sunrise tiger safari, the guest house manager says, ‘may you be lucky Madam and find a tiger.’

Now I am close to the wild tigers, I become very aware of their rarity.

On board our open-topped canter we come across lots of wildlife in Ranthambore National Park.

There are black-faced monkeys, hanging about on walls outside the entrance to the park.

A crocodile patrols the lake – just his eyes and nose are visible on the water’s surface. I shudder that I would never have noticed that croc in the gleaming water. They are stealthy beasts, that’s for sure! There’s a baby deer on a tiny islet in the middle of the lake – unaware of the approaching crocodile.

We see another croc later - he's hanging out on the bank, looking out for a bite!

There are antelope and samba deer munching on grass.

A pair of cheeky mongoose trot by searching for eggs to steal.

Loads of birds, including this Indian ruffus treepai – I watched this bird cleaning tics out of antelopes’ ears and bumholes – mutually beneficial symbiosis. How fantastic relationships are when Nature’s in charge!


There’s also a very attractive man in the canter. He’s the first guy to catch my eye in India. He’s taking photographs of wildlife at the front of the safari truck.

I think nothing more of it during the safari – but later on the man appears at the rooftop restaurant in my guest house. It takes me by surprise when he arrives – I really hadn’t expected to see him again. I’m reading a book behind sunglasses, so I glance in his direction.

He fits fictional husband Adam’s physical description (tall, smily, Michael McIntyre-ish). And I know he’s a keen photographer from the safari.

Adam’s come to town, I think! I smile at my thought process – but secretly I am hoping it's him. Bloody rom coms!

But then the man speaks really loudly on his phone for half an hour – nope, this isn’t Adam after all!

I finish my food and head out for a walk on Ranthambore Road. I recall a conversation I had with a bright and very beautiful Eastern European woman – Eva – when I was in the Philippines in May. I met Eva and her husband Ivan on Siquijor, an island renowned for magic and witchcraft.

As the sky was turning neon one evening, Eva shared with me why her relationship with Ivan worked so well after 10 years together. I had asked Eva lots of nosey questions, you see, having observed that they were so relaxed in each other’s company – I wondered what their secret might be.

Eva's 'lion'...

Eva had a successful career in banking before meeting Ivan – he is a professional sportsman and his job requires him to move country most years (as he gets contracts for each sporting season with different teams across Europe).

When their relationship became more serious, Eva took the decision to give up her career and focus on the roles of Wife and Home-maker, and later Mother, in her relationship with Ivan.

Eva knew that to be satisfied with her relationship, Ivan needed to demonstrate ‘traditional’ masculine qualities such as strength, leadership, the ability to provide for a family.

In Eva’s words, she was looking for her ‘lion’.

Eva also said that it is very important to their relationship that Ivan knows he is her ‘lion’ – so, Eva explained, she must allow Ivan to be her lion by stepping back from the roles he is fulfilling in their relationship.

Eva also said this – ‘to find a lion is really quite rare’ - and at the time, I thought yes, that's been my experience!

A lion? Really?

Isn’t this dumbing down?

I remember thinking when Eva said all this that I wouldn’t want to give up my identity in an intimate relationship – but through Eva’s explanation of her situation, I came to understand there is no subjugation in her relationship with Ivan.

Eva has chosen the roles of Wife, Home-maker and Mother and those roles do not conflict with Ivan’s roles of Security Provider / Main Breadwinner – and Eva says this is why their relationship works so well.

I’m sure House-husband and Female Provider works equally well for some people – but the main point is that the roles don’t conflict.

In Ranthambore, I think back over my previous relationships and I have to agree with Eva – the main points of conflict and ultimately why we split up arose from overlapping roles. And, I also have to admit, from me not trusting that my partner would be able to fulfil those ‘lion-like’ roles in our relationship.

The difference between being single and being in relationship...

Through talking to Eva and Ivan that night in the Philippines, I came to realise that the independent woman that I believe myself to be – well, this is who I am when I’m single. I earn my own money, fill my own fridge, run my own car etc – like all of my female peers. And right now, I am travelling solo in Asia.

I belong to the generation of women who have been brought up to believe there is nothing I cannot do. These days, even motherhood can be ‘achieved’ safely as a single female.

But within an intimate relationship, Eva’s words resonated with me – a ‘lion’ appeals to me. I love the idea of being Wife, Home-maker and Mother in partnership with the right man. And that doesn’t mean giving up my identity or personal interests.

Time to hand in my anti-dependence...

“I can do everything by myself!”...

I’ve had this attitude most of my life. Why ask for help when you can prove you can do everything all by yourself? Even if that means struggling through alone, feeling confused or frightened?

Well, I’m coming to realise that ‘I can do everything by myself’ is not INDEPENDENCE but rather ANTI-DEPENDENCE – and this is an unhealthy fear of asking others for help.

Travelling in Asia solo is teaching me that always going it alone – proving I can do it all by myself, dammit – well, it’s not always emotionally intelligent. It’s like the toddler showing her Mum how well she can eat, when in fact she is throwing food down her front.

Of course, trying new things and making mistakes are essential facets of learning. But I see that emotionally intelligent people can easily decipher when it’s better to depend on others for help, support, advice, encouragement, love, direction etc.

Emotional intelligence is in fact INTER-DEPENDENCE – helping others when I can but also admitting that I don’t know everything (haha!) and trusting other people to help me when necessary.

And the fact is, I am enjoying my new ‘relationship’ with fictional husband Adam...

Even as a notional figure in my life, Adam has already supported me in so many situations travelling solo in India. Especially with managing the amount of male attention you get here as a solo female traveller.

Yes, you could argue that Adam is my construct – in reality I am supporting myself – but at the same time, Adam is also something outside of my conscious awareness about myself. Adam brings qualities to my travelling experience which make me feel safer – he is, indeed, a lion!

A second attempt at tiger-spotting...

I go out again on tiger safari in Ranthambore National Park, hoping of course to spot a tiger or two.

We go through the Secret Garden entrance covered in tumbling tree roots.

An hour into the safari, we hear the alarm call of the samba deer which means there are tigers in the area. Our canter spins around A-Team style, heads full speed for the track that will take us around the lake to the location of the alarm call. We race over bumps, fly past tree branches.

‘Indian rollercoaster,’ the guide cries out as we career down tracks to get to the other side of the water. So much fun!

We arrive at the spot where the deers are calling their warning – we find paw prints – a tiger and her cub. We sit, we watch, we wait. I see in the distance the shadow of a beast prowling behind the trees – but in a moment, it has gone.

The search is thrilling. Everyone in the canter scans sections of forest. We all hope for glimpses of the enigmatic masters of Ranthambore National Park. I feel so much respect for the tigers, managing to outwit dozens of safari vehicles full of tourists, all of us with fingers ready to click camera buttons.

The deers are now quiet, munching calmly on grass.

The sun drops in the sky.

The tigers elude me once again.

Respect for rarity

Rarity makes anything seem more precious. Books, paintings, water, food, tigers, ‘lions’.

I think about the elusive tigers when I return to my guest house – even though I haven’t sighted them, I have had my Ranthambore experience with them.

My tiger safari experiences remind me of Eva’s comment about the rarity of finding a ‘lion’ in a relationship. I agree with Eva. Fictional husband Adam is indeed a rare breed – but just like the tigers of Ranthambore, I now do believe Adam’s out there somewhere, simple as that. That’s a big mind shift for me and I’m grateful for it.

And just like the tigers, the idea of meeting up with Adam is now exciting for me.

I’m welcoming him into my life on my travels in India...so I believe, anyway!

Monday, 7 November 2011

Camels versus monkeys - the search for India's funniest animal

On my travels through Rajasthan, there are two clear contenders for the title of India's funniest animal.

It's camels versus monkeys. Both are LAUGH OUT LOUD animals, but which is funnier?

The case for camels

Pushkar Camel Fair 2011 delivers funny sights by the camel-cart load. Walking around the festival camp at sunrise and sunset is particularly rewarding. This annual congregation of thousands of camels from all over Rajasthan has me laughing solidly for a week.

There's the camel beauty contest at Pushkar Camel Fair. Hennaed manes, eye-liner, decorative swirls.

Camels with pom poms and sequined dresses and bling bling bling.

Camels with pretty flowers on their noses. In the world of camel fashion and beauty, you just gotta look hot in Pushkar!

There are the droopy bottom lips.

The wide mouths and dopey smiles.

Their long eyelashes and lazy eyes.

The enormous gnashers and such an impressive portfolio of gurns.

Their long gangly legs and the knobbliest knees.

There's the way camels stand with their back legs wide apart - like tripods - this, I found out, is often the stance they adopt just before going for a piss. (Think waterfall).

And yes, there are the camel toes. I know it's childish - but it makes me giggle.

I love the snorts and groans they make - they sound half-elephant, half-donkey.

And the camels' obvious deep affection for their owners (they seem to want to kiss their owners quite a lot).

Camels are quite cute sometimes too!

And camel-racing - camels cantering is one of the funniest things I've seen in Rajasthan, teenage boys flying off their seats as they charge on camel-back around Pushkar fairground.

Wow, these beasts of the desert are comedy kings and queens.

The case for monkeys

I can sit and watch monkeys for hours. And in Jaipur, I do just that at the Monkey Temple (much to the annoyance of my rickshaw driver).

I find macaques and langurs. And they deliver on the laughs...

It's their inquisitive faces.

And the way they eat bugs from each other's bodies.

The way they play and scrap with each other.

The way they peel and eat bananas.

I love the concentration on their faces when they're eating.

Their surprise faces.

Their hairy faces.

Their old man grumpy faces.

The way they hang out together, doing nothing much except cuddling and playing. Here are some black-faced langurs chilling at the entrance to one of the holy bathing places (ghats) in Pushkar.

This punky monkey makes me laugh.

He finds a bag of sweetened puffs - and he fills his face with sweets, very quickly so he doesn't have to share.

I love their wrinkly and droopy bits.

And I LOVE the way they let it ALL HANG OUT.

God, monkeys are well funny!

But I can't decide which are funnier, so instead I'll end on this...

And you may be thinking how many photos of camels and monkeys does one person really need? And my answer to that is hundreds, dammit - if not thousands.