Monday, December 29, 2008

Christmas at Castle Bijaipur

Continuing with the tourism theme, I made my way to Rajasthan for Christmas. As I chugged my way from Delhi to Chittaurgarh on the train, I was joined by two Canadians who had never been to India before and I felt like an old-hand as I explained that it was quite normal for a family of 5 to occupy the one spare bed in our curtained pod and that the army of cockroaches crawling up the wall really wouldn’t kill them. Castle Bijaipur – owned and inhabited by the local maharajah - was everything you imagine a Raj palace in Rajasthan would be. Over 800 miles from Orissa, it felt like another country. The Castle was set in a very fertile valley parts of which reminded me of East Yorkshire (or was I just homesick?), the vegetation was different in both type and colour, the men wore turbans which you don’t see in Orissa and whilst the women wore saris they were tied in a completely different way to those of their Eastern cousins. Most of the people who were part of our group had come from the UK to avoid Christmas but fortunately for me there were some injections of the festive season. On Christmas Eve we were treated to a display of fireworks around a tree lit with fairy lights and decorated with blobs of cotton wool to represent snow and when I retired to bed I was thrilled to see that Santa had found his way to India and left me a Christmas stocking. During the four days I stayed at the castle, I cycled the surrounding hills, went riding on Marwari horses - indigenous thoroughbreds who sport rather strange ears that are turned inside out and meet in middle - and sat by the pool sipping the G&Ts I’d been dreaming about. We also visited an opium growing area. Supposedly strictly controlled by the government, there seemed to be enough floating around for us to be offered an opium-cocktail made from water filtered through the crushed seeds– which, as I’m sure you’re dying to know, tastes metallic, doesn’t give you a high (or at least not in the quantity we consumed) but does make your lips a bit tingly. I probably wouldn’t rush back for seconds but, as they say, you should try everything, except incest and Morris dancing, at least once. I finished my stay sitting round a camp fire in the jungle sipping whisky and singing Christmas carols. All in all a fabulous way to spend Christmas in India – a great mixture of the exotic and the traditional. Click here to see where Castle Bijaipur is. Click here for more pictures.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Jharkhand jolly

Ranchi, as expected, is nothing to write home about but Jharkhand, of which it is the capital, was really beautiful. The scenery is quite different from where I am living - wide open spaces, lakes, pretty waterfalls etc. You also saw people riding on the tops of the buses which you don’t get down our way – probably because the roads are so bumpy they’d bounce off. The VSO team in Ranchi treated us to a two-day tour of the area prior to the conference and I started to feel like a tourist again which I really enjoyed. We climbed down to a spectacular waterfall and, as I huffed and puffed my way back up, I made a mental note to try to do a little more exercise. The night was spent in a convent and, on arrival, we watched some carol singers set off on their rounds. Everyone was wearing woolly hats and scarves but there the similarity ended – tuneful Indian ditties were sung but nothing that remotely resembled Away in a Manger. We had supper round a camp-fire - the feathers from our recently-slaughtered meat course wafting round our heads - and then we joined in some tribal dancing. It was quite easy to follow but it went on for hours. As I whirled my way round in a never-ending circle, each arm firmly grasped by my neighbours, I realised that ducking out wasn’t going to be an option but also that I didn’t need to go jogging to keep myself fit, I just needed to be a tourist a little more often – much more fun. The next day we visited a rehabilitation centre for trafficked children who put on a show for us. It was all rather sweet and uplifting until you remembered why they were there in the first place and that the toddlers amongst them were the result of systematic rape by their mothers’ former “employers”. We ended the tour with drinks on the roof-top of our hotel in Ranchi after which I re-acquainted myself with the delights of a shower that delivers hot water. Whilst, I wouldn’t put Jharkhand amongst my top-10 places to visit in India, in its own unassuming way it was rather charming. Click here to see where Ranchi is. Click here to see more pictures

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Christmas drinks

Orissa isn't a dry state but drinking is very much frowned upon in Bhawanipatna. I've never hidden the fact that in the UK I drink alcohol saying that most people do - including women. I have also said that part of the pleasure is meeting with friends and drinking with them – it's not the same drinking on your own – and I wasn't really interested in locating the local bottle shop. People here are very concerned that I miss my lifestyle in England and at times I dreaded someone buying some for me and then watching me consume it whilst they sipped their water - I couldn't think of anything worse. I have also been asked a lot of questions, recently, about what Christmas is like in England and in amongst describing a Christmas tree, introducing them to the concept of Santa Claus and trying to explain exactly what a mince pie is, I have mentioned that there a lot of parties which involve standing around, eating peanuts and drinking. So I really shouldn't have been quite so surprised when I opened my door this evening to find two very sheepish-looking Indian friends asking if they could come in. As the first withdrew a bottle of whisky from under his jumper, the other explained that, as I was leaving for my holidays on Monday, they thought we should have a Christmas party before I left. The door was bolted, the shutters locked and, while I rustled up a bowl of Bombay mix, the bottle was ceremoniously opened and we sat down round my formica table. They thought they should stand but I explained that for a small party it was perfectly acceptable to sit. A very small shot was then poured into each glass which was filled to the top with water and we toasted Christmas, England and whisky. They were not impressed with my taste in music – but then not many people are - so I switched it off and we listened to the Indian music blaring out from the garden next door. Once I'd recovered from the shock, the whisky kicked in and I started to relax and feel very touched by their gesture. The only problem now is how to get rid of the evidence. I think I'm going to have to pack it in my suitcase and take it to Ranchi where a stray whisky bottle will, hopefully, cause less of a stir.