‘What country are we in?’ Oliver asked at dinner last night. A fair question. A bit like asking what day of the week it is once you’ve been on a really good holiday for a while. Nepal is the answer, Chitwan – Nepal. You know you’re in Chitwan when elephants wander through the garden of your accommodation as casually as kangaroos hopping through Emma’s old horse paddock back home – there is one going past as I am typing.
We’ve been here for two days so far and are yet to leave the confines of the Sapana Village Lodge. Oliver, Amy and I have finished reading the second half of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. Dumbledore died which was a bit sad, but Harry and Ginny Weasley got together which was a bit happy. Emma, I think, has read a number of books, or at least most of one really long one.
You might say we’ve been having another holiday from our holiday. There are a host of wonderful things on our doorstep, but they will wait. Playing badminton over a bamboo pole resting on a couple of deck chairs has been all the fun we need.
India, as you may have gathered, was jammed packed and from where we left off last time we still weren’t quite done. We did, for example, have an interesting arrival into Delhi. We had done well, by and large, with accommodation selections and were quietly confident with our choice of the Skyz Homestay in Delhi. Until we got there, climbed the narrow staircase to the top floor of the building and were shown our rooms.
They were filthy. Thick dust covered un-mopped floors, bed sheets clearly hadn’t been changed from the previous occupants, and the toilets reeked with thick dirt all over the floors and shower doors hanging off the hinges. Our host asked me if everything was ok and comfortable. ‘The toilets could do with cleaning’ I think I said. He seemed surprised. Perceptive man. We made up an excuse to go for a walk where a family conference ensued. Emma purchased some further data credit for her phone and was soon hunting for new digs.
She found one within a kilometre of where we were but we had no idea which way it was in the maze of streets without names. Some helpful locals, followed by a lovely bicycle rickshaw man, soon helped us track down the lovely Megha Homestay and after looking at the room we booked on the spot. The rickshaw man took us back to the original place with the man who saw no filth, my mind plotting what I would tell him and wondering how he might react. Fortunately, we were spared that because he wasn’t home. We grabbed our bags and piled four people and luggage onto the rickshaw built for two for the journey back to our new place.
The next evening, we went to watch South Africa play Sri-Lanka in the T20 Cricket World Cup. Attending the cricket in India is not the same as attending the cricket in Australia. The Delhi cricket stadium looks gorgeous under lights on television and indeed from the stands. The stands themselves however are ramshackle as you would expect in India. Emma and Amy went to the toilet. Once. See photo and I’ll say no more.
We started off seated on the second tier of the stadium which was… loud. Indian supporters are incredibly enthusiastic even when India is not playing. We met one fellow who had caught a two-day train from Chennai to watch AB de Villiers play. He said, ‘It was horrible’. The train that is, not AB. AB smacked a massive six to win the game which we watched from our relocated seats on the upper, outdoor, tier of the stadium. The upper tier provided a brilliant birds eye view of the game without the echoing rumble of the excitable crowd.
I counted six requests for photos with us from other spectators. I think we were more popular than AB. We did try to win the car using a sign like we had in Australia last year, but alas the cameras did not search the top tier. We all know Emma’s sign waving skills would otherwise have won it for us for sure.
No trip to India is complete without a visit to the Taj Mahal. It’s just one of those things, one of the most iconic structures in the world. What I love about going to places like this is the feeling of deja vu, or of stepping into the cover of a Lonely Planet book. It’s a little surreal to be in a place you’ve never been but which seems almost as familiar as your own front door.
We visited on a stormy day. Thick grey clouds provided a gorgeous back drop for the marble monolith. It was Easter Sunday and Amy and Oliver had Kit-Kats for breakfast at the entry gate at 6.46am because no food is allowed while I tried to work through in my mind whether or not India’s policy of charging foreigners 800% more than locals for the privilege of visiting such places is justified. I still haven’t worked out if I am ok with that or whether it seriously irks me. It is what it is, and I won’t dwell on it, but blanket policies which make assumptions about people based on skin colour are problematic.
We paid 800% more than the locals to get into Fatehpur Sikri as well. Never heard of it? Neither had we, but Naresh suggested it was worth a look on the way to Agra so we said, ‘sure, why not’. Fatehpur Sikri was the short lived capital of the Mughal Empire between 1571 and 1585. I can’t believe I didn’t know that. According to the Lonely Planet:
‘Emperor Akbar visited the village of Sikri to consult the Sufi saint Shaikh Salim Chishti, who predicted the birth of an heir to the Mughal throne. When the prophecy came true, Akbar built his new capital here, including a stunning mosque – still in use today – and three palaces for each of his favourite wives, one a Hindu, one a Muslim and one a Christian (though Hindu villagers in Sikri dispute these claims). The city was an Indo-Islamic masterpiece, but erected in an area that supposedly suffered from water shortages and so was abandoned shortly after Akbar’s death.’
Imagine spending the fortune of an Empire building a city of magnificence without the foresight to check if there was enough water to support it. Alas it is through such decisions that UNESCO world heritage sights are created. I suspect however you need to be an Emperor before it is possible to simply put no foot wrong. For everyone else it is no doubt a case of ‘off with their head!’. I wonder if the fruits of any of my labours will be celebrated like this in the future. A UNESCO world heritage listing perhaps for the most short-sighted of advice I have provided the environment minister?
The fact that Akbar’s three favourite wives were ardent believers in three separate religions also seems remarkable given they seemed to happily co-exist rather than run each other through with swords. There’s always a favourite though and his Hindi wife had the most magnificent palace because she gave him a son – couldn’t have just been chance could it? Nah. It would however be a mistake to think Akbar had just three wives too. There is another tiered building in the complex built with 176 columns – one for each member of Akbar’s harem. I so want to be an Emperor. For the buildings I could construct I mean. What were you thinking?
Just an aside Akbar was the grandfather of Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan (the builder of the Taj Mahal).
I think we better move on. Last story. A nice peaceful one. Of natural India and the wonderful wildlife it supports. Before the Taj and Fatehpur Sikri we stopped in at the Keoladeo Bird Sanctuary. On the back of a bicycle rickshaw we gently cruised this oasis of calm and serenity where we spotted no less than 41 different species of bird including kingfishers, black rumped woodpecker, Siberian ruby throat, painted stork, hornbills, and the aptly named yellow footed green pigeon.
But that’s it for India. We were done. We flew out to Nepal the day after the cricket match and spent two action packed days in Thamel, Kathmandu. Action packed because we were on a shopping mission to purchase the gear we would need to trek to the Annapurna Base Camp. Yep, in a little over a week from now we will be meeting up once again with the Canadian friends we first met in Cambodia before making the 10-12 day trek into the mountains.
In Thamel we purchased a bag full of trekking gear and about a dozen sizzling brownies. They were incredible! A sizzling hot plate supporting a rich moist chocolate syrup coated chocolate brownie topped with a ball of vanilla ice-cream. I don’t normally blog about food, but this was amazing. Dai – you’ve got to get over here. You’d love it!