The shoe question

Yesterday we went to Pushkar. It was quite a long taxi ride in the intense heat, and by the time we got there I was already felt rather tired and tetchy. Pushkar is a vibrant town popular with tourists and westerners.  There is a lake there sacred to Hindus.  Getting down to the lakeside,  though, proved rather difficult as there were only stairs down.

Getting there, we kept being asked to take off our shoes. I didn’t really want to do so, but I felt slightly guilty about that. That made me think, though, how much reverence should one show other faiths? As an atheist I hold religion to be an oppressive form of social control, used by the powerful to tell people what to think and how to behave. I have mostly thought this of Christianity, but it surely applies to all faiths. Taking my shoes off implied showing reverence to a particular religious discourse, submitting to its authority. I was very reluctant to do that. At the same time I didn’t want to cause any offence in such a beautiful place.
In the end my shoes stayed on, mainly for practical reasons, but I still wonder what I should have done.   Would taking my shoes off have been hypocritical, given my dislike of all organised religion? Or should I have done the politically correct, tolerant thing and respected the local customs? It’s a question which I must say has me quite puzzled.

Swimming at Neemrana

The photos have already appeared on Facebook, so I might as well confess that yesterday I went swimming using a child’s inflatable ring. It was offered to me by the staff, and the pool was rather deep, so I took it. We had driven to Neemrana, to an ancient fort now hotel, where the swimming pool overlooks the countryside below for miles and miles. It was an absolutely staggering view. Mind you getting to the pool was quite an experience in itself: the fort was riddled with stairs, so four guys had to carry me in a special chair. I felt like one of the old maharajahs. That was after a three hour car ride. It was definitely worth it, though, if just for the view. Sitting there, overlooking the pool and the country beyond after a good swim, as the sun set and the lights of the century began to shine, was absolutely magical.

Jaipur by tooktook

I’m getting better and better at getting in and out of tooktooks, the uniquely Indian three wheeled taxi. John and Anna have been to Jaipur before, so they know a very accommodating tooktook driver called Khalil. For the last three days he has been driving us all over this hot, dense city, taking us to all the sights. I am finding it fascinating, if increasingly hot.  Yesterday we went up to Tingetor, and today we saw the Monkey temple, where I had a great time being a climbing frame for primates.To be honest the bustle and heat can get too much at times- not to mention the grime and dust – but the mere thought that I am in a part of the world I thought I would never see, zooming around the streets of Jaipur in a tooktook, is enough for me to see well past that to the exotic awesomeness beyond.

Getting used to curry

I’ve never particularly liked hot, spicy food. Growing up I used to prefer baked beans to my mums curries. This holiday, then, I decided it was time to do something about that, and forced myself to eat hot things. After all, what’s the point of coming to India if you refuse to eat the local food? So far I’m pleased to report that it appears to be working: I don’t always eat the hottest stuff, but it’s been getting easier and easier to enjoy really spicy things. The samosas I had last night,for example, were particularly potent, but I still really enjoyed them. Mind you, I have to say, they also had quite a reaction when it came to going to the loo this morning.

The trip to Jaipur

Yesterday was quite a long, slow day. We are now in Jaipur, having come here by taxi from Agra yesterday afternoon. The trip took about six hours as we kept getting stuck behind pilgrims following vans playing loud indian music, presumably for a festival. We took the taxi because it’s safer and quicker than by train, but I had to feel sorry for our driver: I doubt when he got up yesterday morning, he thought he would end up in Jaipur, sat in a hotel car park at ten pm, having driven three tourists 300km. And on top of that, the bill I couldn’t get my head around was the fact he only wanted the equivalent of forty quid for it.

The Taj Mahal (and a shave)

It has been another of those days which I don’t think I’ll ever forget. Alongside seeing the Grand Canyon and visiting the Louvre, I can now say I have been to the Taj Mahal. Even before that, though, today was already rather special,  as this morning I had my first real shave with a cut throat razor. We drove to Agra from Delhi yesterday and, my face overdue for a trim, John suggested we visit a barbershop after breakfast.

It was quite amazing. I have always been shaved using an ordinary safety razor because I move my head too much to use anything else. The idea of using an old fashioned cut throat razor was almost suicidal. Today though, the heat of India meant I was relaxed enough for me to have a proper old fashioned shave, and for the first few cuts the barber was able to shave me comfortably. After that he got an assistant to hold my head still, but even so I was calm and relaxed enough to come out of the shop without spilling any blood.
That in itself would have been worthy of a blog entry, but this afternoon was even more special. The Taj Mahal is surely one of the wonders of the world. It is sublimely beautiful, although it must be said there were too many stairs so I could not get around in my chair. I had to climb a flight of extremely steep stairs, but it was well worth the effort: I have never seen a more beautiful building, and the view from the top terrace was staggering. What a monument for a man to build for his fourteenth wife.
Not a bad day at all, then. Yet perhaps the most touching moment for me was when, as John, Anna and me were walking up to the mighty building, we passed a family with a guy with severe cerebral palsy. He was about my age I guess,  but had no obvious way to communicate. I made a point of saying hi to him, and the look on his face when he realised I was addressing him directly was incredible. I don’t think he gets spoken to that very often, people with his level of disability being very rare here; I think being addressed as a normal human being was quite a novel experience for him, but one I was happy to facilitate.

Mistaking serenity for chaos

Late yesterday afternoon I realised something astonishing. We were walking along a bustling Delhi street: at first glance it seemed like total chaos, with cars, motorbikes and tooktooks hurtling here,  there and everywhere. Drivers seemed to just go wherever they pleased, and the idea that there were actually rules to obey seemed ridiculous. But then I realised, nobody was getting angry. In London, I would expect such a situation to be accompanied by intense fury, with drivers hurling all kinds of obscene abuse at each other; but here, everyone was totally calm. What at first I took to be chaos was in fact serenity: drivers waited patiently as people cut in front of them, as if they expected it, as if it was just part of driving. Horns were hooted liberally, not as a form of aggression but merely to alert other drivers of ones existence. That realisation was incredible to me, and it made my jaw drop. They may have been going all over the place, but nobody was getting hurt or injured or angry. It was utterly amazing, and it struck me that we could all learn from it.