Thursday, December 9, 2010

planes, trains, busses and omelettes

The day we left Kerela was my brother’s birthday. My brother has always had the misfortune of his birthday during exams or work (my birthday is on a public holiday) and it was a nice change that he would not have to study or work on his birthday. The day, however, would be spent travelling from Kochin to Delhi and then to Jodhpur and none of us relished the idea of spending anyone’s birthday on a plane or a train (especially not the train we were on a few days before). The plan was to fly to Delhi, spend a few hours there and have a celebratory birthday dinner before catching the over-night train to Jodhur. My brother insisted on an Indian buffet but we knew that he simply wanted Indian food and he wanted plenty of it and that was easy enough to arrange.

We arrived in Delhi around 17h00 and from the airport got a taxi straight to Old Delhi. If you want to experience the chaos of India in all its glory, Old Delhi is a good place to start. That’s exactly what we did and my brother and Mieke were plunged straight into the madness I experienced on my first night in India. Old Delhi is possibly more overcrowded, busy and noisy than a bee-hive and I watched the two of them with fascination and delight and wondered if I also looked as bewildered and amazed when I saw Old Delhi for the first time. There are a million things to see and everything you see is so extraordinary that you are always torn between wanting to take a photograph of it or just look and take it in. I understand that feeling very well, for the first few weeks in India my trigger finger itched uncontrollably.

We had dinner at a place called Karim’s in Old Delhi, situated right in the heart of the bee-hive. Karim’s is a very popular place among foreigners and locals because the food it great and the location fascinating. As an added treat, Shallu was also able to join us for the birthday dinner. It was great that I got the chance to introduce her to my brother and to Mieke and the dinner, although not a buffet, was just what we wanted. We ordered shahi paneer (a rich, tomato based cottage cheese curry and easily the tastiest dish in India), tandoori chicken, a spinach and potato curry and loads of naan. It was the perfect meal, my brother was a happy man and we would probably have stayed there all night but we had a train to catch. Earlier that day, Mieke pointed out that we had already taken a bus, a plane and a taxi and soon we would also be taking a train. All we needed was to take a cycle-rickshaw (surely then we’d be breaking some kind of record?). As it happened, we did take cycle-rickshaws to the train station because the tuck-tuck driver we approached asked a ridiculously expensive rate when he saw us (3 foreigners, plus luggage) and refused to be bargained down. The cycle-rickshaw wallah was much more reasonable. We quickly settled on a ridiculously inexpensive rate and got 2 rickshaws, one for me and the luggage and another for my brother and Mieke. The two of them immediately started taking photographs like Chinese tourists. It was a fun ride through the dark, bustling streets (it’s literally impossible to ride in a cycle-rickshaw and keep a straight face) and to top it off, a bird shat on my brother’s face en route to the station. It was hilarious and I felt deliriously grateful for the few crazy, delicious hours we got to spend in Delhi and suddenly, despite all the travelling, it felt like a birthday-day.

The train ride to Jodhpur was infinitely better than the one we took to Kochin. It’s amazing what a difference it makes if you’ve actually got a bed/bunk to sleep in as opposed to sharing a small floor space with dozens of strangers. We arrived in Jodhpur the next morning at 8h00 and were welcomed by my old friend Lucky who had a hard time hiding his excitement that Olga-the-girl-on-the-Yamaha was back and this time she brought friends. I knew he would be disappointed that I was back minus the Yamaha but he hid it well and I had to compliment Lucky, again, on his wonderful hospitality and on his exquisite little guesthouse. It really was a beautiful place and this time I had witnesses who agreed whole-heartedly. Our beautiful room-with-a-view however would only be ready after 10h00, when the guests occupying it checked out, so we strolled down to the market to have some breakfast.

There were many things I wanted to show my 2 companions and Jodhpur certainly was one of the places that I often wished I had someone to say ‘did you see that?’ to. I was deliriously happy that I could share this city with them and see it in a new light, through their eyes. During my first visit I ate mostly traditional Rajashtani food like kirchori (deep fried vetkoek-type thing filled with lentils and spices, served with a chickpea curry) and deep-fried jalapeno chillies filled with spiced potato. At the entrance to the market however there is an omelette shop (selling nothing but omelettes). Actually, there are 2 omelette shops right next to each other and, again, both claiming to be ‘the best’ or ‘the original’. I had a long chat with the omelette shop owner on the right on my first visit to Jodhpur and he assured me that his omelettes truly were the best and the original and that I shouldn’t be fooled by any other merchant making the same claim (especially not the one right next to him). I vaguely remembered that I promised to have an omelette but never did. This time, I had the ill fortune of running into him within an hour of my return to Jodhpur and had to re-confirm my promise to have an omelette. Later that day the 3 of us strolled over to the omelette shop for an omelette but we got more than we expected. Naturally I walked over to the omelette shop on the right but was intercepted by the omelette shop owner on the left who pointed an accusing finger at his competition and told me that his shop was the original. I looked at the guy who had made that very same claim (and had me convinced) but he avoided my eyes and I knew instantly that he had lied. The 2 shops were identical in almost every way but then I saw that above each shop was a banner. The one read ‘recommended by Lonely Planet Book’ and the other simply ‘recommended by Book’. Uh-hum. We went with the Lonely Planet-recommended shop and ordered the ‘famous’ masala omelette while the owner and his son shared their story with us. The owner had been making omelettes since the 70’s and a mention of his shop in the Lonely Planet had catapulted him into great fame and success. Eggs were his passion (fair enough, whatever makes you happy) and according to him and his slightly arrogant son he had perfected the art of omelette-making. I’ll be honest and say that the masala omelette I had was the best damn omelette I’ve ever had. The owner’s son should have just let the omelettes speak for themselves but he kept putting down their competition while we ate saying he was mentioned (not recommended) by an unknown Korean travel guide book and not the holiest of holies, the Lonely Planet, like they were thus implying that they were superior. Every now and then I’d glance over to the other shop and exchange a look with its owner that said ‘what was I supposed to do?’.

As with the lassis in Jaipur though, my custom was to try them all and decide for myself and so later that day I had another omelette, at the counterfeit omelette shop on the right, this time sharing uneasy glances with the Lonely Planet omelette shop owner’s son. I could see that he was eager, and a little anxious to hear my verdict. I finished the omelette, stood up, honestly declared that the 2nd omelette was better and left. No doubt the omelette debacle continues still but it felt good that I got to give an honest, objective opinion but in the end I realized that I was perhaps giving it too much thought and had to remind myself that it was, after all, only an omelette.

Later that day SAA (South African Airways) dropped a huge bomb on us (so to speak). In an email, they informed my brother that their return flight on the 21st of November had been cancelled. No explanation, simply cancelled. Two alternative dates were given, the 22nd or the 18th. Neither date suited them as both needed to be back in South Africa on the 22nd for work and should they fly on the 18th, our trip would have to be shortened by 3 days. After some angry phone-calls to the travel agent and a complaint/hate-mail to SAA we gave up, accepted defeat and set about changing our travel plans. On short notice like this all the trains were full and we had no option but to travel by bus to Udaipur and from Udaipur back to Mumbai, again by bus.

The only thing bumpier than a bus-ride through India would have to be a camel ride through India and I would not suggest either mode of transport to anyone planning to travel India. Not only was it uncomfortable but it was frighteningly dangerous (Indian bus drivers are terribly reckless) and much more expensive than the train. With every painful kilometre I grew less fond of SAA and by the time we made it to Udaipur we were completely spent. We were tired to the bone and semi-sleepwalking through Udaipur, shopping. We needed to sleep but, thanks to SAA, we had only a few hours in Udaipur and didn’t want to spend them sleeping.

Later that day we got on yet another bus and with heavy hearts settled into our sleeping seats for the long 18-hour haul down to Mumbai. It was now simply a race to make it to Mumbai by the 18th. We made it to Mumbai by the 18th but we were completely drained. We had no more energy, humour, excitement or tolerance and my two tired companions hit the hay within minutes of booking into our hotel. I was not that lucky. I needed to find Rikesh, the guy who was looking after the Yamaha and trying to find a buyer while I was gone. It was easy enough to find him but then he told me that he couldn’t find a buyer and I soon discovered that he had simply been using my bike as his own and probably had made no effort to find a buyer. I thanked him, a little irritated (he had not delivered on his promise and had not treated the Yamaha with the love and care he was supposed to) and immediately emailed Stephen. Stephen was a guy I met long ago In South Africa. He was coming to India and was interested in buying the Yamaha. He was planning to ride up North for 2 weeks and had lots of questions about bikes and the North of India. I answered his questions with my hard-earned knowledge and an eagerness to pass on what I’d learnt. I was very pleased that the Yamaha’s adventure was not yet over and it felt like the perfect end to my own biking adventure (passing it on to someone else). I couldn’t have planned it better myself.

That night my two, still-exhausted, companions climbed into a taxi and caught a flight back to South Africa (3 days earlier than planned). I was still furious with SAA and felt they were the cause of all the rushing, tiredness and frustration. They never did reply to our angry email. Bastards. Needless to say, the moment their taxi disappeared around the corner, I went to bed and slept like a dead person. In the end, I think my brother and Mieke did experience the India I was hoping they would, the exhilaration, wonder and frustration of it all in a compact, from the South to the North, 18-day nutshell. As for me, I had one more day with my beloved Yamaha before leaving for Delhi one last time. It turned out to be an unusual farewell, but that’s a story for another time.


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