Like fish out of water. That’s us in India. Flip, flop, flap… gulp. Official sources on such matters (the Cambridge thesaurus) suggest that fish out of water feel awkward because they are in a situation that they have not experienced before or because they are very different from the people around them. One might have thought it was because they can’t breathe.
In any case, we landed in a nice comfortable goldfish bowl at Kolkata. The airport was modern and the immigration officials friendly, jovial even, as they processed our visas. Thanks to Emma’s intelligence gathering we even felt confident as we found the pre-paid taxi window and purchased our taxi voucher avoiding other touts and ‘helpers’.
Our taxi had character and I was initially enthused. It looked decidedly British which I guess makes sense given Kolkata is an East India Company town. It was battered and bruised and shook like an aftershock as it rumbled us off into the night.
Colours swirled, lights flashed, sounds blared and unfamiliar smells intruded through the open windows. We four fish had jumped out of our pond. I don’t think I can quite describe the sensation associated with this taxi journey. It was disarming. I felt like a babe in the woods as we rattled through the streets.
And then there was a really loud BANG! The front right hand side of the car dropped. Our driver said nothing, but pulled the steering wheel to the left as the car limped off to the side of the road. I jumped out with him to inspect the damage, hoping like mad that this clapped out old car had a spare.
It did and our driver silently got stuck into to affecting the fix. Nothing unusual here. Old tyre off, I inspected the cause of the ‘pop’. Tyres don’t usually just go ‘pop’. This tyre however had nowhere else to go. It was completely bald. Like someone had sanded the tread to make it smooth.
Tyre changed we dashed back off into the night. On and on we went. Amy and Oliver snuggled into Emma in the back seat for support as we swerved, dodged and scraped our way down roads and through tiny backstreets and lanes, the traffic governed by no discernable rules and therefore more chaotic than Hanoi’s river like flow. We could have been headed anywhere.
An hour and a quarter later and with a collective sigh of relief we turned a final disorienting corner and saw another goldfish bowl. Our hotel was serene and western looking. We hurried in, took a deep breath, ate dinner and quietly contemplated what on earth we were doing here (at least I did) before dropping off to sleep.
The next day started slowly. No one was rushing back onto the streets after the previous night’s taxi ride. India is a little bit different to Australia. Just a little. Early afternoon however we ventured forth – metaphorical aqua lungs on. Amy clung to my arm like she hadn’t since our first day back in Bangkok. Oliver appeared less phased. Emma summoned internal fortitude and moved bravely on although I got the sense she would have been just as happy to remain in the hotel. How wonderful I told myself that there are still places where just stepping outside is an adventure!
The scene was less chaotic than my imagination. Daylight has a way of slowing things down, or maybe the street just moves more slowly in the light. We gained some confidence, or at least I did, I’m not sure about the others. The streets of Kolkata bear no resemblance to home although it is quite beyond me to describe how. Urban India has a texture about it that is dirty, gritty, colourful and enthralling all at once. To our foreign eyes there is a constant abundance unfamiliar sights, and many more moving parts than we are accustomed to. The streetscape, for example, includes pigs, horses, cows and the occasional camel, all equally a part of the place along with the usual motorised vehicles.
We soon happened across an Indian ‘Thali’ restaurant that looked like the kind of place four Australian fish might take a breather. It’s a good thing we are all so good-looking because otherwise it could have been awkward when all eyes turned curiously towards us as we were shown to a table.
Thali involves a small sample of may different kinds of curries and breads and other bits and pieces and was a culinary treat. We may be fish out of water but we do like the food. After lunch, and with what air we had left in our lungs, we explored Kolkata. Strolling through parklands on our way to the Victoria Monument, we stumbled across dusty cricket games, kids flying kites high above the city, other kids doing head stands on bikes and locals racing up to us on horse back to offer us rides.
We flew to Jaipur the next day where we met Naresh, our driver for the next two and half weeks and undoubtedly the best decision we have made about travelling to India. Naresh’s white air-conditioned Toyota Innova is a like a goldfish bowl on wheels, moving us through the Indian landscape without quite being part of it. Naresh also knows where all the foreign fish like to eat and what we like to see. He says you need three things to drive in India. ‘Good luck, good brakes and a good horn’. Naresh has all three and in his capable hands we all started to relax into our Indian journey.
We were a little less like fish out of water at Jaipur’s highly trafficked tourist attractions, although on one occasion a group of cool looking twenty something’s sidled up to us phones out and snapping selfies by our side. On another, I flashed a smile at a group of ladies in brightly coloured saris sending them into a huddle of giggles. Nothing unusual here of course, I have that effect on all the ladies. On a couple of other occasions, we turned the tables on our Indian admirers requesting our own photos of them.
The truth be known, it is Amy and Oliver that are the stars. There are other ‘western fish’ here to be sure, but very few of them under the age of 30 and many more in the grey nomad age bracket. When Amy and Oliver decide they have had enough being the centre of attention and opt out of a photo shoot a look of disappointment invariably passes the face of their adoring fans. I dutifully offer myself up as a consolation prize but a consolation prize probably best describes how I am received.
Jaipur’s list of attractions was unexpectedly wonderful. The Amber Fort is perched halfway up a hill on the outskirts of the city. It was the main hangout for Raja Man Singh the first and his twelve wives. Man Singh was the Kacchwaha or King of Amber, a state later known as Jaipur and when he wasn’t off conquering other lands spent his time entertaining his twelve wives, and a bunch of mistresses by all accounts, all of whom seemed bound up within the strict limits of their status and gender.
One of Man Singh’s wives loved gazing at the stars but rules dictated that it was not appropriate for her to sleep in the open air. Humans are so random. Anyway, instead of changing the rules the Man Singh put in a mail order for the very finest glass tiles available which just happened to be from Belgium. Ten months later they arrived and Man Singh built the ‘Sheesh Mahal’; a stunning bedroom plastered with thousands of sparkling glass fragments. Just one candle is enough to make the whole hall sparkle like a starlit night.
Today, shining an iPhone torch on the ceiling of the Sheesh Mahal creates the same star-lit night effect, even in the middle of the day. Our guide showed us how to take some tricky photos with the mirrors that other tourists just couldn’t figure out.
At the Jaigarh Fort we played round two of a new game that is emerging for us as we travel. We call it, ‘How to ditch the dude’. Round one was played back at the Beng Mealea temple back at Angkor where we unwittingly picked up a local who appeared intent on inserting himself into our little party as a guide. It was a little awkward because we really weren’t looking for company on that occasion. Unsure quite how to avoid making a scene we sat quietly as he moved on ahead urging us to follow. As we sat we quietly discussed, ‘how to ditch the dude’.
At the Jaigarh Fort we turned a corner in the maze like interior corridors of the huge complex and were again picked up by an unsolicited helper. This may have been fine except that 15 minutes before yet another helper had already taken it upon himself to explain to us the history of the ‘worlds largest cannon on wheels’. This was great but when the unsolicited tour ended it became abundantly clear it was not free.
‘Tip, as you like it sir’, he indicated to me confidently. ‘Oh, oh ok’, I said as I fumbled through my wallet for some rupees to buy our freedom. The same thing had happened back at Kolkata airport with a guy who jumped in uninvited to load our bags into the taxi and when we were boarding the train to Bangkok back in Thailand. We still haven’t mastered the best way to approach the whole unsolicited help thing yet.
We followed our next helper along, quite unsure whether he worked for those charged with looking after the Fort or not and just what this bit of guiding was going to get us into. We all looked at each other and whispered something under our breath about another game of ‘how to ditch the dude’. It turned out to be easier than we expected when drums started beating elsewhere in the fort and he dumped us and ran off without a backward glance. We did an about turn and retreated the way we had come before he re-emerged. Another dude successfully ditched without diplomatic incident!
The Jaigarh and Amber fort’s are really part of the same complex despite being built some 500 years apart. Perched high on the hills above Jaipur, Jaigarh is around a thousand years old, Amber roughly 500. Even today they evoke the romantic image I have in my head about India of bygone times. Gorgeous archways frame magnificent views over the countryside and Great Wall of China style defences encircling the complex for 12 kilometres below. These were halls of royalty, wealth and privilege and visiting them even 500 or a thousand years later felt like taking a sneak peak into the goldfish bowl of the Indian elite from another time.
The Jaipur City Palace I found to be somewhat less impressive although there was a snake charmer at the front entrance. I couldn’t quite believe my eyes. Really, I thought. They actually do that? Apparently so, because there was a live cobra, hood extended and twirling away out of a little wicker basket as its master played his Indian thing-a-ma-jig. I couldn’t help but snap a photo although I’m not really sure I ought to have been encouraging the practice.
Four days in Jaipur done, on our next stop we will be further from the goldfish bowl than ever before. We’re off to Baran to meet Remlekha, a girl we have been sponsoring through World Vision for the last nine years. We will be the first World Vision sponsors to visit her villiage and I’m really excited to meet her.