Baby Cadence – grandchild no 2.

Monday 21 November 2016 – Beenleigh, Queensland, Australia.

My eldest son, Dom, has lived in Australia for a couple or so years and his partner has recently given birth to their first child, and my second grand child and first granddaughter. Yay Smile Cadence was born on 10 October and was quite small at 5lbs, she is now five weeks old and has just hit 7lbs; the birth weight of my three children. Like her father Cadence was born with a cleft lip, though unlike her father she also has a hole in her soft palate. She and her parents are going to have to face a few rounds of surgery, and I very much feel for them. Though if the surgeons are as good as those that Dom had 25 years ago, in the not too distant future you would never know there was anything wrong.

Cadence’s birth was the reason for this trip, I did not visit Dom in Australia when El and I went to New Zealand earlier this year, so I promised to come over when the baby was born. Same as I did when my first grandchild, Mason, was born in New Zealand two and half years ago.

Much as I love Dom, Queensland, especially around the South East, is not really my sort of place; it is not a place I  rush to, and when I do go I do not stay for long, so this was a quick trip. I arrived at 1:00am on Saturday and left again late afternoon on Monday. My sister had a conference in Sydney on Monday so came out for the weekend from New Zealand to see Cadence as well. She arrived on Saturday morning so I picked her up from Brisbane Airport at the same time as I collected my rental car and we drove straight down to Beenleigh, on the southern outskirts of Brisbane.

We arrived just after lunch and I got to have my first cuddle with my new baby. She is very alert and gave me a few (probably windy) smiles. She is lovely and I was quite happy Smile

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On Sunday morning Dom and I dropped my sister back at the airport and then we drove into Brisbane to look at the building site he is working on. He is an apprentice plumber and was very enthused and engaged in showing me the work they are doing on a newly finished block of flats, and a new site next door. I learnt a lot about plumbing; and am very proud of him 🙂

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After lunch Dom, his partner, one of her other children and myself went up to the Daisy Hill Koala Sanctuary for a walk around and to look at the koalas. Unusually they were awake; they are fabulous looking creatures.

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There was also a very domestic looking kookaburra as well, I am assuming it was a live one !

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After a quick feed we went for a walk in the trees, though it was really hot and quite draining. Not good for Cadence to be outside too long !

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Dom had the day off on Monday, Cadence was having her first round of immunisation shots in the morning, so I went round there early so I could see; she was very upset by it all; and I do not blame her one little bit!

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Though she did settle down soon after. She is a very placid and calm baby; well she was when I was there…

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My quick trip was then over, I left at lunch time and drove back to the airport to return the rental car and catch my flight to New Zealand. Stupidly, very stupidly, I tried to carry a load of stuff from the front seat of the car to the boot; my cell phone slipped from my grasp and smashed on the ground. Shattered screen and dead…. I was very annoyed with myself! I had been planning on buying a new phone next year; once I was back in paid work. I really didn’t need this right now. So I ended up buying a very expensive phone in duty free in Brisbane airport. More expense I didn’t really want. I know I could have gotten a far cheaper model than I did, but I knew I would not be happy with it in the end. At least this new phone has a really good camera….

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This photo of a photo of Dom from the same age shows that Cadence’s cleft lip is quite similar to his, though a mirror image.

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Both beautiful babies.

Singapore

Friday 18 November 2016 – Singapore.

I arrived in Singapore at 7:00 am on Tuesday after a not too bad a flight from Delhi on Air India. I have booked myself into a good hotel, in Singapore’s East City where I am getting a whole lot more room for my pound than I would in the city centre. I also booked myself in for last night so I could check straight in and go to my room rather than having to hang about until mid-afternoon to check in. I had barely any sleep in the hotel in Delhi and after 14 hours in the airport, plus 5 half hours of flying I just wanted to lie down in peace. I didn’t leave the hotel until Wednesday. The view from my room was not the most exciting, residential Singapore. Cleaner than India though !

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I have been to Singapore twice before and have seen all the things I want to see. When I decided to leave Delhi I initially thought about other places to go for the three days, but I have a flight booked from Singapore to Brisbane on Friday so it seemed the logical choice. It gives me three days to relax, do a little sightseeing, and unwind from the last couple of days in India.

My first day was spent lounging about in my room, getting laundry done, contacting airlines to cancel flights and seek refunds, editing photos and writing some blog posts. I had dinner in the hotel bar, a nice big juicy burger and a glass of wine. I missed wine when was I was in India!

The following day I ventured out for a couple of hours. I had found the weather in India to be really good, I was in the drier north so there was not a huge amount of humidity and the temperature had been pretty moderate; it had been a lot cooler than I had expected anyway. Not so in Singapore; walking out of the hotel mid-morning was like walking into a sauna. I had forgotten how humid it is here. It was 91% according to my weather app, though only 27 degrees; it could have been a lot worse.

I caught a bus to as close as I could to the Marina, last time I was here I did not make it to the viewing deck on the ‘surfboard’ at the top of the Marina Bay Sands hotel.  I was going to go up but it poured with rain when I arrived and as it was almost closing time I decided not to go up. This time there was no such issue.

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It is quite a long way up!

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The view from the top is spectacular, sadly only one end of the platform is open to the public, so no 360 degree views, but still, it is pretty good. Next time I come to Singapore I will go and explore the botanical gardens below, I love those massive constructed ‘trees’.

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I was not planning on being out for long, I had a Skype call with El mid-afternoon my time, and before she went to work so my list of activities for today was very small, the next objective was to find the recently opened National Art Gallery. I walked around the small Harbour and quickly nipped between the tall blue towers of the finance centre.

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I seemed to have missed this little area of old buildings the last two times I was here, it is really nice, not quite surrounded by towers, though they are standing quietly on the horizon in all directions. The Victoria Theatre.

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The gallery is in two converted court houses.

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I spent quite a bit longer in there than I had planned, it was quite interesting, obviously the focus is on SE Asian art, and a lot of it was very modern, something I do not see much of, I enjoyed it. There was a good view from the roof deck of the Marina Bay sands and the Victoria , dwarfed by the towers in the background.

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I headed back out of the comfort of the air conditioned gallery and back out on to the sticky streets, I was looking for the road I got off the bus on, with the expectation that I could wait on the opposite side to get the bus back. I hadn’t noticed it was a one way street… I did find some street art though. There is not a lot in Singapore, it is strictly illegal unless permission has been granted by the wall owner.

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I ended up getting the metro back towards the hotel, and had to do a 2.5km sweaty power walk back. A lesson for tomorrow; make sure I know the return bus stops.

The following day, Thursday, I ventured back out again, but this time later in the day. I wanted to roam Little India and China Town and then head to the big shopping street of Orchard Rd to get myself a t-shirt and some jeans for Aussie and New Zealand.

I got to Little India OK, I could see a heavy cloud looming as I walked up from the bus stop on Orchard.

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I had just got to the Tekka Centre when the heavens opened and the heaviest rain I have seen in a very long time fell on Singapore; it was probably a small shower by local standards, I took a walk around what seemed like a mall full of saris. I guess it is Little India.

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The heaviest bit of the shower took 15 or so minutes to pass, and it was still raining when I finally left the shelter to continue to my walk through Little India and on to China Town. I was looking for shop houses, some of the old Singapore that has survived the bulldozers and modernisation that is modern Singapore. There are plenty about in this part of town, but there are also a lot of large vans and small trucks about. I did find a couple that I could take photos of, in between the rain drops that fell for the rest of the afternoon.

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I was also looking for some street art, I had read there was some around the north end of China Town. Street art and graf, are definitely not condoned in Singapore, so there is very little around, only on buildings where the owners have given permission, and that seems to be few and far between. Singapore is a very ordered society. I did find some, and I was specifically looking for this piece, though it has been commercialised by the building owner since it was originally painted by Lithuanian artist Earnest Zacharevic.

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I also found a piece on a graffiti wall by Alex Face who has painted in London in recent years.

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The rain started to get quite heavy again and most conveniently I just happened to be walking past one of the very few bars I have seen (naturally it was an Irish bar – name a country without one!) so I stopped in for a beer and to wait out the rain.

I was not far from Orchard Rd, the shopping mecca of Singapore, so headed up there to try and achieve my shopping aims of a t-shirt and a pair of jeans. These seem like quite simple tasks, but I can assure you that if I am not in a shopping ‘zone’ then any form of shopping is no easy task. It took me a while, but I did achieve my goal. I then fled…

But I take a quick detour to Emerald Hill, a small side street from Orchard Rd, which has some lovely old Singapore homes, well it did when I came here five years ago, now they just seem to all be bars – maybe I was in the wrong street, I hope so as I was disappointed in what was there.

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And then there was Christmas. Damn, I was really trying to avoid it so early in the year!

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I caught a very busy late rush hour bus back to the hotel, grabbed some food in the mall over the road and then headed back to my room to get ready for the flight to Australia tomorrow.

I like Singapore, when I first came here I was not that impressed, it seemed too nice, but I have seen a lot more of the world in the five years since. Maybe it was the total contrast to India that appealed to my Virgoan sense of order and tidiness. I did like the noise, chaos and cow shit on the street feel of India, but the order of Singapore sits more easily with me. When El and I next visit New Zealand I will suggest we come via Singapore, I suggested Hong Kong last time as I thought it more interesting than here, but I am not sure if that was really correct. El can be the judge of that!

India, sorry I give up!

Monday 14 November 2016 – Delhi Airport, India.

So, here I am at the airport, awaiting for a flight to Singapore. By now I should be in Mcleod Ganj in the far north of India, spending time with my daughter, Meliesha, but I am not. I am leaving the country, though hopefully not for good.

I had booked a flight via an online agent with SpiceJet to fly from Delhi to Dharamshala a few weeks ago and had a reservation on the 11:35 am flight this morning. I received an email yesterday from the agent reminding me of the flight so expected all would be well when I arrived at the airport this morning at 8:30; I always arrive really early. Once through the queue and at the checkout counter at 9:00 I was informed that my flight had left at 8:50 am. SpiceJet said I had been advised in October of the schedule change. I said I wasn’t and showed them the email I received yesterday showing a time of 11:35. They have refunded the agent the full amount of the flight, I will be pursuing them when I get to Singapore. Not much bloody use to me right now, cash would have been good.

My options were; to spend 100 pounds if I could get a seat on the later Air India flight or wait until tomorrow and fly with SpiceJet and use the refunded amount. Neither appealed. I was over India.

Wonderful as is India is, it is also a frustrating country, even the easy things can be frustrating. Adding in all the hassle with money that the country has experienced this week, and the fact I did not even have enough cash to leave the airport; and there is no cash in any ATM I have found so far,  I decided to just leave. It has finally gotten to me, I am just not enjoying this anymore.

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For just over 200 pounds I am off to Singapore, three days earlier than planned. Of course I will spend a whole load of money staying in Singapore, but at least I will be able to get money to spend !

I spent 14 hours in Delhi airport waiting for the 11pm flight to Singapore. It is not the worst airport in the world to spend time in, but the security is a pain, and getting anywhere within the airport is painfully slow. I met some other tourists leaving the country as well there were a few of us with long waits in the lounge.

So India, not sure what to say. Maddening, frustrating, smelly, dirty, corrupt, caste and class-ridden; but friendly, cheap, and even with all the crap it is an enjoyable place to visit. Hopefully I will come back one day.

An unplanned journey on a bus.

Sunday 13 November 2016 – Delhi, India – Part 2.

Back at the homestay I had a long conversation with the owner, Faiz, about my finances, the money I transferred from my NZ bank account into his had not yet arrived, which I had anticipated would be the case. In the end we swapped contact details and he will let me leave this afternoon even if the payment hasn’t arrived. This is a wonderful gesture that I very gratefully accepted. This was the cause of a bit of stress this morning as had no other way of paying him and no-one has any idea when the money situation would be resolved, weeks probably. At least I could move on. Thanks Faiz, you have reminded me there is good in this world!

My tuk tuk driver was as reliable as ever and picked me up as agreed at 11:00 and we went to see the ‘Baby’ Taj.

The ‘Baby Taj’s real name is the Tomb of I’timad-ud-Daulah and is regarded as a first copy draft of the Taj Mahal, being completed in 1628, four years before the Taj Mahal was started. It also marked the transmission between architectural styles; from the traditional red stone to the new cleaner white marble. I’timad-ud-Daulah was a Persian Emir in exile in India and was the grandfather of Mumtaz Mahal, who the Taj Mahal was built for. It too is on the bank of the River Yamuna.

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With my finances sorted, at least for the day, I am still broke, but not worrying about paying Faiz was a weight off my mind, I could enjoy my brief time here, it was also significantly more peaceful than its more youthful sibling up the road.

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It is a lovely looking building, essentially the same from all sides, inscribed white marble for the mausoleum and red stone for the out buildings.

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I also took a couple of photos up and down the river, the air had cleared a bit since the early morning, plus we are a bit further away from the centre of Agra where the air is at its worst. As in so many poverty riven countries the river, no matter how filthy it is, is used to do laundry, wash people and a public toilet.

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I enjoyed walking around and investigating the place, I would liked to have taken a guide as I was listening to some other tourists guides and it seemed like there are a few interesting stories to be heard. Finances dictated otherwise.

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A place worth visiting if you are in Agra.

I took my tuk tuk back to the guest house and had an early, final lunch before bidding farewell to Faiz and profusely thanking him yet again for his help, his loan and for letting me leave without the money hitting his account. (It has now and everyone is happy!).

And that was the end of Agra – and the rest of the day pretty much turned to shit after that.

I got to the station really early, I didn’t want to linger awkwardly at Faiz’s so I arrived at the station about 1:30 for my 2:20 train to Delhi. Except it was delayed by 4 ½ hours and was not due to arrive here until after 6:00pm. This was a potential issue, a potential big issue. I was relying on my train arriving at New Delhi station with enough time for me to be able to get the metro to the airport as my hotel was near there. I had barely enough money to get from the airport to the hotel as it was. There was no way I had enough to get from the station. Not knowing what time the metro finished on a Sunday and with a minimum 5 hour journey from Agra I started looking for alternatives.

Naturally in any train station in India, there is someone nearby with an alternative. A man suggested the bus, 6 hours to Delhi, 300 rupees for a non-AC and one leaving in 25 mins. I took it… He took me to the bus station, for a pretty good rate, I am sure he got a good kick back from the bus company, and I was sitting on the filthy 2:00pm bus to Delhi. It was full. It took six hours. Six, dusty, dirty, swaying, bouncing hours. I slowly got more and more stressed as the day went on, as the light disappeared and I had no idea how far away from anything the bus station was. It was not a pleasant trip. To be fair, it was far from the worst bus trip I have ever taken, and if it wasn’t for the money thing it would have been fine. It was never going to be fun though!

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We arrived at the bus station in Delhi about 8:00pm. Thankfully the pollution in Delhi was not at the levels it was when I arrived and it was merely bad. I was jumped on by tuk tuk drivers before I even left the bus and was quoted 400 rupees to the nearest metro station. I showed them the content of my wallet which had 280 rupees in it and got a 200 rupee ride…

I still had no idea what I was going to do, or how much the metro to the airport was going to be, or what I would do once I got to the airport. I knew that from New Delhi Station the ride to the airport would be 60 rupees, so I was praying the ride to that station would be 20 rupees or less. It was 12 ! Yes !! I could have kissed the ticket man!

The Delhi metro is fantastic, clean, efficient and fairly straightforward to work out, no worse than the one in Valencia anyway. I arrived in Delhi Station about 8:30 and was wandering around vacantly trying to find my platform. I spotted an ATM with a big queue at it, a queue was a good sign, most of the ones I had seen had no queue – meaning no cash. I walked up to the queue, and the policeman at the front waved me straight in, effectively queue jumping like at the banks. I hated doing it, but was utterly relieved. I could only get 1000 rupees, but 1000 Rupees !!! it was like magic. The stress just fell off, if I did not have a heavy backpack on my back and a heavy camera bag on my front I would have jumped for joy.

The ride to the airport was a breeze, as was the taxi ride to my hotel, which cost 500 rupees. I would have been stuffed if I had not seen that ATM. In the end I made the correct choice, the last metro to the airport was 11:00pm, I would never have got there in time if I caught the delayed train.

The Hotel Aura is the most expensive place I stayed in India at 22pounds a night. It was also the worst. Don’t stay there people! Noisy, dirty and there was no hot water. I was craving a hot shower. It was 9:30pm. I ordered a beer and then went to bed, no dinner.

It was one hell of a day, but I made it to the final destination, as always !

Tomorrow doesn’t get any better…..

The Taj Mahal.

Sunday 13 November 2016 – Agra, India – Part 1.

This post is all about the Taj Mahal, which I visited this morning before catching a train to Delhi, where I will stay the night near the airport before flying up to see my daughter, Meliesha in McLeod Ganj in the morning.

Well that was the plan when I wrote that sentence this morning in between visiting the Taj Mahal and the ‘Baby Taj’ and then leaving town. Though it did not turn out that way! More about the that in the next post…

It is a quiet day in Agra, I believe it is a holiday, but not sure what for. I was up earlyish after a pretty average night. I wanted to get to the Taj Mahal reasonably early. I selected this home stay because it is half way between Agra Fort and the Taj Mahal, the two main things I wanted to see in Agra, both are a walkable distance. The home stay owner, Faiz gave me a lift on his motorbike to the entrance which was nice, he is a good host!

The queue to get in was tiny, but quite maddening, lots of Indian men waiting by the foreigners queue asking foreigners to change their small notes for big ones, as the ticket counter was taking the big notes. There has been changes made to money this week which is causing chaos in India, this will feature a lot in my day today. I did swap 1000 rupees in small notes with one of the guys and used his 1000 rupee note to pay the entrance fee. This made him very happy. It took about 15 minutes to process the two people in front of me.

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Like yesterday at the fort Faiz had told me I would not be allowed to take a bag into the site, and they were a lot stricter here than at the fort. No-one had large bags, there is also a lot of armed security about as well. Again, I just took the small camera and a bottle of water. I have been looking forward to visiting here, it is one of those must see places that adorn the list of anyone who likes to travel.

The Taj Mahal was completed in 1653 and is the tomb of Mumtaz Mahal, the favourite wife of the Mhughal Emperor Shah Jahan. It took 10 years to build and is the centre building in a fairly large site that also includes a guest house and a mosque.

The Taj Mahal site is a lot bigger than I expected, and not quite as crowded as I expected it to be at 8:00 am – it opens at sunrise, which this morning was around 6:15. I had pondered arriving for sunrise but the air is so thick that from a light perspective there would be no point, so I stayed in bed. I suspect it was busier then than it was when I arrived. It got very busy later in the day.

The great gate from the outside.

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The first view of the building is pretty breathtaking, and everyone stops just inside the great gate to take their first picture – and a hell of a lot of selfies…

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I didn’t bother stopping, I knew I was going to take a lot of photos, I also knew I was going to try and take this one, the classic reflection shot. I was very lucky to grab one without anyone in the way.

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I was not really in the mood I must admit, so my roaming of the site was a bit listless. I am very worried about my finances, or complete lack thereof. Spending 1000 rupees on the entry fee alone seems to be a lot, when I am not sure if I can get to my next destination, however I am here to see things, and the Taj Mahal is THE thing. This place is the sort of place you need to visit with someone to share the experience with.

I spent a couple of hours walking around, I took a lot of photos as you would expect. There were some very helpful gentlemen there who pointed me to the exact spot to get reflections etc, for a tip of 10 rupees, I am quite surprised that others did not take up their offer. I was very happy with their recommendations. I would not have gotten the photos I did without them. I didn’t manage to get another one without people standing in the way !

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The great gate from the inside.

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The mosque.

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The view of the River Yamuna, overlooking a bit of where I was yesterday evening.

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The building is covered in inscriptions and motifs on the walls, though I did not capture any of the detail, part of my listlessness I guess. There is also renovation work going on on the sunrise side of the mausoleum.

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There were the ubiquitous monkeys everywhere, I think this is going to end badly!

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The crowds had really ramped up when I left, I think I picked the perfect time of day to visit… I enjoyed my time there, though I wish I had been in a better frame of mind as I would have appreciated this wonder of the world a lot more than I did. Glad I went though!

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I walked back to the homestay. I think to the bemusement of some of the locals, I had lots of hellos and waves from people on bikes and on tuk tuks, I don’t think they get many westerners walking the streets.

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Forts, frustrations and a first glimpse of the Taj.

Saturday 12 November 2016 – Agra, India.

The day did not start off brilliantly. My throat is really sore and the air is foul, I can taste the pollution, it is very unpleasant. I have no money, I have a head cold and the wifi is complete pants  I think I am the only person in this home stay as well, which this morning is compounding my misery. I hate travel mornings like this.

Over breakfast in the home stay, thankfully complementary due to my finances, I talked to Faiz, the owner. He was telling me how bad the past couple of days had been in his little part of Agra. The ATM has not been uploaded and as no-one is accepting the 500 and 1000 rupee bills all the small businesses are starting to suffer, and those who are willing to take the old money cannot give change as the change is all disappearing. The price of staples like sugar and salt are going up as the small shop owners need to get an income somehow. I am surprised at how calm it has all been.

There is an official tourist money changer at Agra Fort so Faiz is going to loan me 4000 rupees in now unusable, 1000 rupee bills (about 50 pounds), which I will need to change. I am then going to pay him for the board and lodgings and the 4000 via bank transfer from my NZ account. |The 4000 will be my living and touristing money. Like all small businesses, he does not have access to taking credit card payments. As it is I do not have enough money to pay him for the board and as there is no ATM and I cannot get any cash, this is a win/win for both us and a very nice gesture.

Faiz dropped me at the fort, it is about 1.5 kms away from his home stay, and at the craziest junction in Agra. The entry fee is 550 rupees. The fort accepted one 500 rupee note – for the 500 part, but would not accept a second for the 50 part. I had to use one of my few precious 100 rupee notes. I almost got into argument with the ticket man. Just one of the many ridiculous bureaucratic frustrations of this lovely but annoying country. There is no arguing with a government man.

I walked in to Agra Fort in a hump. Faiz had also told me I could not take my camera bag as large bags were not allowed in the fort or the Taj Mahal. I just took the G16 camera and a bottle of water. As I was going in I saw some people were allowed to take massive back packs in and others were told to leave them in a secure room. It seemed entirely inconsistent. Though not as futile as everyone walking through an airport scanner that beeped everybody,  though everyone was waived though regardless. More bureaucratic nonsense.

This did not help my early enjoyment of the place. There is not a lot to see when you first walk in, a big empty space with lots of people in it a large square surrounded by large red walls. I yawned. Definitely not as good as the fort in Jodhpur. I did see a squirrel that did not run away immediately. I took a photo.

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I walked about aimlessly for a while – should have taken that damn audio guide again, teach me to have the hump. I liked these arches.

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And this balcony, which I am assuming someone high and mighty spoke and waved to the peasants from.

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Eventually i found my way though a doorway into what I guess would have been the inner castle if this was in England, much better! Lots more things to see.

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The fort was built in stages throughout most of the 16th century, and under a variety of rulers. In the early 17th century the white marble sections were added under the rule of Shah Jahan, the Muslim Mughal ruler. He also oversaw the building of the Taj Mahal and some other sites in Agra. More on them later.

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The Taj Mhal is 2.5 kms away in a straight line, but I could hardly see it through the haze, this photo has been sharpened massively to get it to stand out at all. The air is so thick. You can barely see the River Yamuna which the Taj sits beside.

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I liked the buildings, there is not a lot to see in them, some detail in the structures, but no museum like at Jodhpur. I did like the mix of the original red stone and the later white marble. The marble allowed a lot more detail to be inlaid in the source material.

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There is still some renovation work to be done, and the way it has just sort of ended was sort of cool. There were two armed guards/policemen here, not really encouraging much exploration. Stick to the good bits Phil!

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I left at the right time as a lot of people were arriving as I walked out the door and got into the queue for the money changer. Quite bit of patience went into getting those photos, largely free of other tourists. I know I could have just included them, but hey !

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I almost got into an argument with an armed policeman in the money change queue. When I arrived there was no queue, and two windows open. A Spanish couple were being served in one window so I waited at the other, in the meantime a large melee/queue started to form and was eventually guided back alongside the Spanish couple. It turned out the guy behind my window didn’t actually serve people, he just sat there. When the Spanish couple finished and I went to stick my form and passport through the hole in the window, the policeman said I had to go to the back of the queue. I politely told him I had been there since before the queue, he knew this as he had been there as well. He put his hand on my shoulder and I refused to move. It was hot, this is India and serving the two Spanish customers seemed to take about 10 minutes and I was not willing to quit my position. It was a tense couple of seconds and eventually his attention was taken up by someone else and I got my way. Whew.

I had a grumpy, but financially happy walk back to the home stay, where I had a very nice lunch., food seems so much nicer when you know you can eat again the next day. Miraculously the internet was brilliant (for about 20 minutes) so I had a quick and pleasant Skype with El. Always makes me feel better.

Late afternoon I left the home stay with Faiz and he organised a decent price with a tuk tuk driver on the main road to take me to the Black Taj.

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The Black Taj does not actually exist, there are some foundation ruins left on the ground, but that is it. The Taj Mahal was built by Shah Jahan as a memorial to his favourite wife Mumtaz Mahal. As we all know the Taj is a glorious glowing white and is built on the banks of the River Yamuna. It is rumoured that he also built a jet black Taj on the opposite banks for himself. This has never been proven, though the foundations show something was built there.

It does have a great view of the Taj Mahal, and is supposed to be the place to go for sunset photos and a good reflection in the river; except you are not allowed near the river anymore due to security concerns, so it is all fenced off. The smog has not done the sunset any good either…

However, those things aside, it is a great place to see the Taj Mahal from. Though, naturally you have to pay to enter the site, I didn’t mind this as it meant I was left alone and no hawkers and beggars were there to follow me around. As I arrived about an hour and a half before sunset I was almost the only one there for quite a long time.

Peace, in India – a rare and beautiful thing.

As is the Taj Mahal, I know that we all know it well, too well probably, but that first sight is still utterly breathtaking. It is one of those places that you just have to see in the flesh. And viewed through a manicured lawn with virtually no-one else in sight; magnificent.

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Though even from this close it was still really hazy.  I was shooting with that wonderfully crisp Canon 70-200mm lens, and even that  had issues with the auto-focus grabbing on to anything.

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I had a bit of a walk around, there was quite a wait till sunset. This was the sort of scene I wanted to see in India, which I won’t see much of as I am staying for such a short time and just hitting the big tourist things. Ruins, disheveled, run down, surrounded by trees, animals about; waiting to be investigated, clambered around. The old romantic adventurer view. A fantasy world that is not my current reality sadly.

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But anyway, stop dreaming Phil. There is the Taj Manal – and its thousands of tourists, just next door, not something that most people will see, you are a lucky man.

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I was waiting for quite a while for the sunset, the air seemed to clear as the day disappeared, and birds…. quick, something interesting, take a photo.

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Back to waiting…. There was a brief moment of excitement when a couple of eagles started to dive bomb the crows nests in the trees behind me, there was a massive kerfuffle, screeching and fighting amongst the milling birds. I tried to take a photo but it was impossible, but it was good to watch the crows join together to fight the two massive eagles.

One of the victorious crows decided to pose for me and I took my last photo of the day. The sunset never happened so I left early as the crowds started to line my side of the river bank, the peace was finally over, a pleasant end to the day. (If I blank the chaotic and stinky tuk tuk ride out).

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Jodhpur to Agra, a no photo day.

Friday 11 November 2016 – Agra, India.

As expected the ATM’s were not open prior to the departure of my train to Agra. The tuk tuk driver who drove me around yesterday was (not) mysteriously waiting at the end of the alley way to my hotel and he gave me a ride to the station, he had to reduce his price by a few pennies as neither he nor I could get the money correct; and I was not going to over pay him, even by a few rupees as my cash is running quite low.

I felt a bit guilty about leaving the guest house without tipping the house boys, they were pretty useless, but they were friendly and meant well, and the food was always good and it was pretty clean and tidy. I also feel a bit bad about not doing any shopping, there is plenty of it in Jodhpur and I had promised El I would buy her something. Not having any money and worrying about the next few days had me very much not in the mood to do Indian style shopping.

This time I checked I got in the correct carriage before getting on!

The train journey from Jodhpur to Agra takes between 9 and 10 hours though today it took 12. I was hoping to doze, write and edit photos on the way and fortunately l managed a bit all three depending on how rough the tracks were. Like all my train journeys I am in a two-tier air conditioned carriage, an AC2. It is pretty full, but not madly so. My throat is still sore and my nose is only merely runny today, not streaming, though the constant dust is making me sneeze a lot.

I had one brief ‘moment’ on the train, or off it I suppose. Unlike both of my previous train rides, no-one had come round selling anything,  so at one of the stops I got off the train to buy some water and something light to eat – a bag of crisps in the end. I went to get back on the train and could not find my carriage, I had paid no attention to the door I got off from, and the carriages are unmarked. I tried a few doors, but none seemed right, I had to ask in the end, the heart was pumping a bit!

As an aside, I have found India to ‘feel’ quite safe, while I took my camera bag with me when I went to the loo on the trains – mainly as it had my passport and other important things, I was happy to leave my pack behind, and in the guest houses I left most of my possessions behind when I went out. I felt I didn’t need to worry – unlike some other countries I have been to. Nice.

I arrived in Agra hungry, tired and close to broke, finally making it to the home stay at 9:30pm. The city stinks, really bad, the worst air pollution I have had to face so far. The journey from the station to the home stay was foul, it stunk of sulphur as well, just to add a putrid tinge to the corrosiveness of the fumes. There was no food and no beer at the home stay either. I now wish I had stayed in a hotel. The home stay owner told me that the ATM is 1km away and had massive crowds today. I expect I am going to have to spend my one day in Agra not visiting the fort or the Taj Mahal, but queuing to get some money. I do not have enough to get to both those places via tuk tuk, let alone get into them.

The Red Palace and White Temple, Jodhpur.

Thursday 10 November 2016 – Jodhpur, India.

A very frustrating and largely wasteful day. In the end I did visit all the locations I wanted to visit, but I did not spend as much time in each as I would have liked, though one of them was a waste of time and a tuk tuk ride. More on that later.

Today was the day the banks would re-open after being closed yesterday and all would become well with the world again, I hoped. As we all know, hope is a cruel mistress, and while the banks did open, my issues were not really resolved. Just moved around a bit.

If you have not read yesterday’s post then a wee recap of the situation is required. The Indian government announced on Tuesday night, much to the surprise of pretty much everyone, that the 500 and 1000 rupee notes would not be legal tender from the end of the month. New 500 rupee notes would be issued and the 1000 scrapped and replaced with a 2000 rupee. This is an attempt to disrupt the massive black and grey economy in India. It is massive. The ATM’s here only provide 500 and 1000 rupees notes. Though they are supposed to be legal tender for a while yet, basically no-one is accepting them, including my hotel. It is all I and all the other tourists have. To make matters worse the ATM machines are all closed Wednesday and Thursday and the banks were shut yesterday as well.

As I am leaving the Jodhpur first thing tomorrow morning I had to get cash today, my bill is going to be 5800 rupees. I have 5000 in bills that they will now no longer accept and they do not take credit cards. Hmmm…

After fare welling Christina and Jorg after breakfast, Natalie and I went to the bank just after it opened at 10. We passed a small pre-wedding on the way.

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And this delightfully named, and closed hotel.  I cannot imagine why it was not a booming success, maybe it was the location on the buy main road?

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There was a massive queue as we expected, but as we had fairly straightforward transactions and are westerners, we were allowed to bypass the queue and go straight to see the manager He informed us we could only change 4000 each per day (the same as the locals) and that we needed a photocopy of our passports. He didn’t have a photocopier, so it was back out on to the streets to the photocopy shop, get copies and then back to the bank to get our money changed, 4 1000 rupee notes became 40 100 rupee notes.

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We met some other tourists who told us of another bank that did not require a photocopy of our passport so we sneakily went there as well, supposed to be only one transaction a day, this one had an even bigger queue which we again we told to bypass. I changed my last 1000 rupees.

I now had money I could use, but this still left me short of what I needed to pay for my room, and no-way of getting any more – I may as well keep spending and do a couple of tourist things, like see some of the other key sites of Jodhpur.

This took me till after 1:00 to get sorted so I had lunch with Natalie and the group she was heading off with before finally getting out the door to do something. I grabbed a tuk tuk and made an agreement with the driver to take me to the Red Palace, the White Temple and then back to the guest house. I think we were both happy with the outcome.

Built on top of Chittar Hill, Umaid Bhawan Palace, or the Red Palace as it is known is one of the largest private residences in the world, and is truly massive. Construction was started in 1927 and it was finished in 1943. It was initially built to help local farmers with employment and the end of a long and severe drought.

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I was very disappointed with the Red Palace. I knew that it was still the Maharajah’s home and that most of it had been converted into a luxury hotel, but I didn’t realise how much of it was. There is not a lot to see in there and I could not get a straight on, straight up the middle photo. It is a fabulous looking building…

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There is a small collection of very dusty classic cars as well.

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I was not there long and I think my tuk tuk driver knew I wouldn’t be as well, he was waiting at the gate when I exited and we took a slow and fumey ride across town to the White Temple.

Jaswant Thada, the White Temple, sits on the same ridge as the fort I visited yesterday, and is far more accessible than the palace; not being a private residence, but a cenotaph. It was built by Maharaja Sardar Singh in 1899 in memory of his father, Maharaja Jaswant Singh II, and serves as the cremation ground for the royal family.

The mausoleum is built out of intricately carved sheets of marble and is quite glorious.

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I am not too sure who this dude is, point to the fort, I am assuming he is not leading an invasion, the statue looks quite new and I expect one day someone will put up a sign with some information.

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I think you used to be able to get down to this small lake, and get a classic reflection photo, and also walk around the back of the temple, but it is all closed off now which is a shame, I would have liked to explored a bit more widely if I could have.

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I had to wait to try and get photos without other people in them, luckily the place was relatively quiet or I would not have bothered. Lovely building.

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The interior is bare, but glows almost as much as the exterior. The walls are lined with paintings of the family line, it goes back a long way.

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In the grounds of the building are a number of smaller mausoleums.

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After a relaxing explore in and around the temple I asked my tuk tuk driver to take me back down into the noisy, smelly and chaotic city below and drop me at the clock tower square.

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I wanted to see nearby Gulab Sagar lake, the small lake I saw from the fort last night, it took 8 years to build and was started in 1788 to provide water to the community by the then Maharajah, Vijay Singh. It smelt so bad of rubbish and sewage that I took one photo and left, my plan to walk round it was swiftly discarded, even though the light was perfect for it.

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I wanted to go back to the stepwell and see it in the daylight, it is a magnificent piece of construction, even better in daylight, and still pretty empty of both tourists and locals. The design is just so awesome, I loved the lines and angles, a huge amount of though must have gone into building something that was practical, functional and yet beautiful to look at.

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I went back up to the roof top bar we went to last night as I wanted to grab a couple more photos of the fort and the white palace – obviously I had to sacrifice some more of my hard earned money to buy a beer!

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And that was it, the end of my touring in Jodhpur, the sun was setting, and I am off tomorrow, there is still a lot more to see here, but I have so little time, and even less money!

In the end I was allowed to pay the remainder of my accommodation on my credit card at a local travel agent, it wasn’t ideal, but no-one had a choice. While I was there I also picked up some medicine at the local pharmacy, something to at least prevent my nose from streaming. I couldn’t, or didn’t want to get anything I didn’t recognise for my increasingly sore throat. Strepsils would have been perfect!

I never did see any Jodhpurs either…

Mehrangarh Fort in Jodhpur.

Wednesday 09 November 2016 – Jodhpur, India – Part 2.

The last post left myself and three people I met in the guest house heading up to Mehrangarh Fort, which looms over our guest house and completely dominates the northern skyline of the city.

Construction of the fort started around 1460 by Mahrajah Rao Jodha, when he decided to relocate the town of Mandore to the top of the hill. It was initially completed almost 200 years later, though a second phase of construction took place in the 18th century. I am not sure which bit is what though. It is a monster of a fort, the stones that make up the walls are absolutely massive and it is an absolute marvel of construction. The current head of the Rathore clan Maharajah Gaj Singh II is still the custodian of the fort.

From the outside the entrance is impressive enough! I have not seen such high walls on a castle before, it is truly monstrous.

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Regrettably I did not take an audio tour with me and make some notes as we walked around, we were a little pressed for time. I am struggling to find information to fill in some of the detail of the what I took photos of. I took a lot of photos…

I am assuming the works of art on either side of the entrance gate explain the retaking of Mandore from the Mewar by Rao Jodha.

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Getting inside was an issue, as I mentioned in my last post the Indian government changed the currency overnight and the fort were not accepting 500 or 1000 rupee notes, which everyone had, not just us, a number of other visitors were also struggling to pay. Fortunately, unlike all the other places I visit on this trip, they took credit cards so Jorg paid for us all and we gave him (useless) 500 rupee notes; 500 rupees was the entrance fee. These notes are exchangeable in a bank, so they retain value, they just cannot spent in many places, even though they are valid currency until the end of the month.

Once inside I was wow…

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And this was just getting inside the first level of walls. We arrived quite late in the day and a lot people were leaving, we intentionally arrived late as we wanted to be there for sunset.

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There was not a huge amount of detail outside of the museum and palace section, little bits here and there, all sort of built into the design of the building.

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There was some pretty cool doors and gates as well.

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The museum was impressive, linking a variety of buildings and multiple levels, it was not full of marvels, but the walk around the buildings was really interesting. 

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There were some interesting knick knacks to see.

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The view out of the windows on all sides over Jodhpur under a dropping sun was stunning.

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I will visit the White Palace tomorrow.

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I tried to sneak photos of the fort staff whenever I could, though they were quite accommodating and cheerful when I got busted.

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As the sun started to really drop we headed off to the far western side of the fort to the Chamunda Devi temple for the sunset. There was limited viewing so I walked back up the hill a bit and got the temple in the very unspectacular sunset.

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Amusingly, us westerners are the subject of some interest to the Indian tourists, even I have had my photo taken with individual and small groups of Indian men. However, unlike Christina, I am not a 6ft tall blonde woman, as we were heading out of the fort she became the focus of attention of a couple of groups and a melee of photo taking with Christina, Natalia and Jorg the centre of attention ensued.

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I slunk off to one side as soon as the madness started, attention is not my thing 🙂

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Though I did have my own fan. I think she was just avoiding the madness as well

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It was after dark before we finally extracted ourselves from the adoring fans and the fort. There was time for a couple more final photos before heading back down to the guest house.

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Natalie went off with some friends for dinner and I was invited by Jorg and Christina to join them for a meal in the Cafe Royale, a small cafe near the Clock Tower, which they discovered had really good coffee in earlier in the day. The food in the cafe was really good, but the best thing was the family that owned and ran the cafe, a really lovely couple and their two sons, who we spent the rest of the evening with.

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After we had eaten and chatted for a while the parents asked us if we wanted to see the stepwell, I had no idea what one was, but they said it was very close by and we should come and see it. It is not in the guide book, and there is almost no information about it on the internet, so I cannot find out when this one was made. There are quite a few around India and Pakistan.

Basically a stepwell is a well with steps that go down to what was at the time of building, the lowest level the water drops to. Stepwells date back as far as 600ad, but the most prolific era of building was the 12th to 17th century, so this is pretty old. And also stunning. Probably the highlight of my stay in Jodhpur. The fort is amazing, but this is amazing and beautiful as well.

Toor Ji Ki Bawari stepwell, at night. I will definitely go back here tomorrow and see it in the day time.

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On the recommendation of our new friends, Christina, Jorg and myself stopped at a nearby roof top bar for a couple of beers and the stunning view over the city; before heading back up to the guest house and sleep. Looking at a city from slightly higher than the street always introduces a whole new perspective – and a wealth of things that get missed at street level.

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Another good day – considering the US election result and we the fact we are all uncertain as to what the heck is going to happen when the money runs out.

Jodhpur – The Blue City

Wednesday 09 November 2016 – Jodhpur, India – Part one of two.

I was up pretty early this morning and took a few photos from my room with its view over the city, it is quite smoggy again today and my throat is not getting any better. I am not sure if it just the poisonous air, a cold coming on, or both. I suspect both. This is the Red Palace and I will visit it tomorrow.

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At breakfast time I was introduced to Natalie, an American travelling solo. We then had the sad discussion about the likely outcome of the US election and that Trump was looking like winning. (WTF America, did you not learn from the Brexit vote in the UK). One day people will be asking, ‘Where were you when the free and decent world ended ?’ I can say Jodhpur.

The restaurant is on the roof of the guest house, which sits some way up the hill between the flat of the city and the monstrous fort above. The view is spectacular, in all directions.

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As Natalie and I were discussing our day we were joined by a German couple, Christina and Jorg and we all agreed to meet this afternoon and visit the fort together.

There was some interesting news today, apart from the US election results. In an effort to stamp out the grey and black economy that is pervasive in India the government have declared that the existing 500 and 1000 rupee notes will no longer be legal tender. Everyone has till the end of the year to change them. This is a major issue as so many Indians do not have bank accounts and literally have cash under the mattress. For instance, the home stay owner in Agra where I am writing this update says he has over a million rupees in cash. The wrinkle in the plan is that no-one can change more than 4000 rupees a day, so for those with vast amounts of cash this is a major issue. They could stick it all in the bank of course, but that means declaring the income. I really don’t sympathise too much about tax dodging, but this is creating an epic drama here.

In an effort to make the transition all banks are closed for the day and all ATMs are closed for two days. This is a problem. I do not have enough money to pay for my accommodation, and that is before I spend any money today. Which I am going to do as I am here on holiday. I will at least pay for entry to the fort, and I need to eat. To complicate this, irrationally, no-one is now accepting the 500 and 1000 notes, the notes we get from the ATM, all tourists have them, along with many many local people. So, even though they remain legal tender until the end of the year our guest house has informed us all they will not accept the only money we have. They also do not take cards. Frankly a complete and utter pain in the arse, more on that as the days unfold.

My plan this morning was to find the Blue City and take a walk around for an hour or so and then come back for lunch and then go up to the fort mid-afternoon and stay for sunset.

Natalie left with me and pointed me in the general direction of the Blue City, though I never did find it… Jodhpur is the second largest city in Rajasthan, and the old central part around the base of the fort is named the Blue City as so any of the houses there are painted blue. Unlike Jaipur and its Pink City, the Blue City is not really confined to one geographic space, so while I never really found the core of it, I did pass a lot of old blue buildings.

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I walked for about an hour, it was warm but not overly so, and the streets, as such, are narrow and windy and ludicrously dangerous with speeding motorbikes. I cannot imagine the accident rate here. They are mostly too narrow for cars, though the odd tractor seems to make it through OK.

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You might think from my photos that there were no people about, there were plenty, but I am not a fan of poverty porn, nor asking people to take their photo, so I avoided accidentally, or deliberately pointing my camera at people. This kid did walk through my shot, which is one of my favourites from the morning.

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Except these guys who asked me to take their photo 🙂 I have no idea what they were making in those large wok looking things. I asked but had no idea what they said… [Edit] thanks to Arv, who commented below,  I know now that these fine gentlemen are making an Indian sweet called halwai…. [end edit]

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Even though I was pointed to and walked in the general direction of the Blue City, I never quite found it, I ducked up side streets and alleys, peered round corners, took a turn here and turn there, finally ending up not knowing where I was.  Not quite lost, though at one point I did a complete loop and passed by the shops I had walked by 10 minutes before. I ended up getting a tuk tuk back, and it took a lot longer than I thought!

There was plenty to see nearby as well, perhaps I should have just stayed local, but where would be the adventure in that!

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I arrived back at the guest house in time for lunch (I am eating way too much food, and it has all been great). I have stuck to eating local dishes, though all the places I have been to also serve pasta, pizza, something called ‘Maxican’ and quite often Chinese as well. I don’t see the point in coming to India to eat Italian food.

I met up with Natalie, Christina and Jorg mid-afternoon and we all headed up a small path near the guesthouse to the mighty edifice that dominates our skyline. More on that in the next post !!

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