Friday, 19 January 2018

#37 The ending

The next week was all a bit of a blur. I met my New Zealand Friend at a hotel in Delhi, had a very short sleep, and next thing we were up early with a very hastily made plan to go to Jaipur.

When we headed downstairs I was surprised to see the circus couple I had met in Vietnam a month or so earlier at the same hostel so we had breakfast together. After a brief catch up about what they had been doing and what we were doing, NZF wanted to get moving, so we were off in an Uber to a bus station to find a bus to take us to Jaipur.

We really had no clue if it was the right station but there were lots of drivers standing around yelling “Jaipur, Jaipur!” so we figured it must be. There were no signs or even a ticket booth. They were all very local - looking buses which would have been fine if I had been by myself but because there were two of us we wanted to take a slightly more comfortable one.

It was at this bus station that we met the friendliest guy. His name was Arun and he was also going to Jaipur. So we stuck by him and he showed us which bus to take when it arrived. We spent the next five hours talking to Arun and asking him all kinds of questions about India. The bus journey passed really quickly and before we knew it, it was getting dark and we were almost in Jaipur.

Arun invited us to his house the next day which we happily accepted and we said our farewells. This was one of the best parts about travelling with a guy I decided. I could finally accept these kind offers of hospitality and not have to worry that it was going to get weird.

We discovered a great travel hack that I wish I learnt about months earlier as it would have saved so much money. We downloaded an app called Ola which allows you to type in your destination and it calculates a fair price for taxis and autos. Even if we chose not to book the ride through the app, it gave us a lot more confidence when negotiating the price with drivers. Brilliant!

That evening the lack of sleep caught up with us. We made it through a very heavy, very typical Rajasthani thali with dal roti and then went for a little wander down the street before collapsing into bed.

The next morning I remembered that you can get a concession ticket for all the sights in Jaipur. So after a big breakfast I suggested we head to the town centre to get one of these tickets. I spent the rest of the day wandering around slightly behind NZF seeing all the sights of Jaipur that I had already seen earlier this year.  It was all a bit of a rush because we were aware lovely Arun was waiting patiently for us.

Eventually we caught an auto to his house (or what we thought was his house) and that’s when the fun began, starting as it always does, with my phone running out of battery. Luckily I had scribbled down his address when I saw my battery was getting low. Our auto driver had apparently dropped us at the wrong apartments and we spent a good few hours wandering around asking what seemed like hundreds of people for directions and getting sent around in circles.

We decided to go into a CafĂ© Coffee Day in the hope they would have free wifi so we could use google maps on NZF’s phone or at least contact Arun but alas they didn’t have wifi. So plan B was ask for a Samsung charger to charge my phone as I was the only one with an Indian SIM. This was more successful and I managed to get hold of Arun and let him know where we were.

A few minutes later he arrived on his motorbike to rescue us. In the meantime NZF had been having a chat with another very friendly Indian man who was setting up his own start up NGO. India is full of these incredibly talented, socially conscious, highly educated people.

So after all that drama we made it to Arun’s lovely home and met his sweet girlfriend who had prepared all kinds of delicious dishes for us. We chatted, ate, shared stories and then went up to the rooftop to fly a kite that I had bought along the way.

I hadn’t realised it was actually kite flying season and all Arun’s neighbours were also out on their rooftops flying kites as well. It was quite a sight! We all had a go at flying it which was much harder than it looked.

Sadly Arun had to go to work that evening and we had already planned to go to a cultural centre (the very same one I had already been to with SCMG). Arun was so sweet. He rode his motorbike right next to our auto for as long as he possibly could until he had to go a different way.

We arrived at the cultural centre and spent the rest of the evening wandering around. I got some terrible henna and NZF got a very ferocious massage. Then it was time to go. I was getting a bit bored since it really hadn’t been that long since I had been there. We argued with the auto driver about how much it should cost us to get home and once we finally agreed on the price a whole lot of auto drivers crowded around and showed us a youtube video about how autos are Indian helicopters.

They were wetting themselves with laughter and NZF and I were laughing at them laughing and the whole situation. Once we finally made it back to the hostel we were exhausted and fell asleep pretty fast.

The next morning we headed to Amber Fort. Again I had already been earlier that year in March so the memories were still pretty fresh. NZF was pretty busy taking photos and soaking up the atmosphere.  I wandered around people watching because this was more interesting. Then we auto'd back to the hostel to grab our bags and make a beeline for the bus station.

When we got there I realised it was again the same one that I’d been to with SCMG. This meant I could confidently ignore all the drivers trying to get us on their buses for higher prices. We found the ticket booth and avoided several small, very bedraggled, beggar children who were tugging on my shirt. I tried to get them to go away without getting grumpy. I had to practise being assertive and saying no in Hindi. This seemed to work. We had a really cheap meal of samosa’s and other Indian snack food along with a cup of chai and before long our bus was leaving. I was reminded why I love India so much. The hustle and the chaos gave me such a high and I felt like NZF was maybe starting to feel the same.

We wedged ourselves and our bags on the bus and under the seats because there are never any proper storage spaces on Indian buses it seems. After a while I opened a sweet that I’d bought at the bus station. Out of the corner of my eye I could see a man watching me so I thought I’d be friendly and offer him some. He took this as an invitation to come and sit next to me. Unfortunately it wasn’t long before I realised I’d made a bad call and he started to get very creepy even though NZF was sitting right next to me.

He made a very inappropriate comment and it was then that NZF leaned over and asked him “what did you just say?” 

The man got very embarrassed and went quiet. I felt incredibly uncomfortable so I asked him to please move back to his seat in front and he obliged. It wasn’t long before he decided he would get off at the next stop. A few people were turning around to look at us so I knew they had heard what he said as well.

I hope he felt worse than I did because I felt pretty gross. After a while of sitting there feeling very miserable I turned it around in my mind and started to feel very sorry for him. He was quite deluded and probably deprived of love. That made me feel better and I tried to shake off the awful dirty feeling he had left me with knowing that it would go away with time. 'Annicca!'

After a while we arrived in Pushkar without any more awkward encounters. We discovered the bus dropped us off not too far from the ghats and the lake the town is built around. So we wandered through the narrow streets with our backpacks on looking for the lake so I could get my bearings. I knew as soon as we found the lake I would know where to go.

I wanted to go to U-Turn, the hostel that had the amazing roof top restaurant I went to with the Australian guy and later SCMG. I had that same weird feeling of being in a place that was both familiar and strange at the same time. It made me feel very sad for some inexplicable reason.

The hostel was full so the manager, who was a lovely American guy, took us to another place which was equally nice and promised hot water and wifi for a fraction of the price. We were sold. It later turned out the hot water part wasn’t true but never mind. When in India one has to adapt.

On the way to our hotel I bumped into a friend of a friend from New Zealand. I’d already been in contact with him so it wasn’t a huge surprise to see him. He was with some other friends so we said a quick hello and planned to meet up later. Pushkar is pretty small so it wasn’t going to be difficult.

NZF and I later headed out for dinner. As Pushkar is a holy city alcohol is frowned upon. Yet, because there are so many western tourists and the economy relies on them, alcohol can be found everywhere. It’s just never on the menu. We ordered a beer and it arrived in some mugs. The bottle was quickly taken away as soon as it had been poured.

NZF and I had a nice meal before we decided it was time to head back to the hotel. Before we got back we met the other New Zealander and had a wander around the lake with him. He’d been all over the place in the last year and it was really nice to hear another kiwi accent. The whole situation still felt very strange. I’d been here before and had such a great experience and now here I was again in this somewhat magical place with two people I knew from back home that, when I first met them, never would have imagined we would hang out in India of all places. It really messed with my head.

During the course of the night we learnt that the American guy who helped us find our new accommodation also ran tours to see Aloo Baba - the man who only ate potatoes that I went to see with the Mumbai friends earlier this year. I’d told NZF about this of course and had suggested we go on a scooter ride to visit him so this worked out perfectly.

The next morning we were up, breakfasted and ready to go. We met the American guy and went to go hire our bikes. At the bike hire place we met two Dutch girls and a Spanish guy and invited them to come along with us.

It was at this point that it became apparent NZF had zero experience driving a scooter and was about to dive straight into the deep end in a country notorious for its crazy roads! He didn’t seem too phased. I got talking to one of the girls and missed the hilarious event that happened next but we were all filled in later.

Apparently just as we were about to get going, NZF decided he was too hot with his jacket on, so stopped to remove it. Once he’d done that and was about to drive off he blanked on how to steer the scooter and ended up falling sideways. This would have been fine except that next to him was a sleepy holy cow. Luckily both cow and man were unharmed and it was only the scooter that suffered a small scratch.

Once we did finally get going NZF was fine and we had a smooth ride all the way out to see Aloo Baba. He looked just as I remembered. He sat on a stool and packed his weird little pipe with weed. It turned out he could speak English (last time he just spoke Hindi since I was with the Mumbai friends).

He told us he only ate potatoes because “many choices, many problems.” He explained that if you complicate life things just end up more difficult. That’s why he has no woman, no family and no friends.

He pointed to the sky and said “One love – god, no problems.” You can’t really fault that logic however I don’t think society would function very well if everyone lived that kind of life. And he did seem to have a lot of friends who would sit and smoke with him. It seemed a very chilled lifestyle.

We had a wander around his ashram and I sat in the little meditation cave for a bit. I still felt a bit weird going to all these places that I’d already been to. It was almost as if it were diluting my original memories. But obviously I was supposed to come back with NZF for some reason that will become apparent later on.

That evening NZF and I wandered around the shops and sat listening to some world music down by the lake for a while. I was still feeling pretty weird so I headed back to the hotel on my own to try and meditate my way back to happy. I self-diagnosed the bad mood as premature post-holiday blues. I was worrying about the transition back to real life that I was about to make.

The next morning we arranged to get a bus to Jodhpur. This would be the first new place for me that NZF and I travelled to and I was pretty excited. We took a very local bus again and squished ourselves in next to our bags. This time there were no creepy men. Just a really friendly woman who was a teacher and invited us to her wedding within 15 minutes of meeting us. Unfortunately it was in February and neither of us would still be in the country.

We arrived in Jodhpur in the evening, bargained ourselves an auto and headed to our hostel. It was the cheapest hostel I had ever seen in India on and I was a bit suspicious about what it would be like. But we were in luck! It was adorable. The walls were painted appropriately in blue (Jodhpur in known as the Blue City) and our room looked out onto the street and straight into our neighbour's house.

There was no glass in the window so I stuck my head right out and had a good look around. I feel like the people who lived opposite probably were used to foreigners doing this every other day. The hostel was in the perfect location and we could walk to all the main attractions. We wandered about trying to find an affordable place to have dinner. Eventually we found a cute little restaurant with a roof top and a beautiful view of the giant fort that overlooks Jodhpur.

We ordered some local dishes and a beer. There was only regular Kingfisher on the menu but when we asked if we could have a strong one the waiter was super obliging and said he could get some if we didn’t mind waiting. Obviously someone was sent down to the store to pick some up. It was then chilled and brought to us within about 20 minutes. Seriously, India understands customer service like no other country I’ve ever been to. It’s true what they say. In India, anything is possible.

This was reiterated to the extreme as we sat waiting for our food. There were another foreign couple at the table next to us. I overheard the man asking if the waiter could get him something to smoke because it was his birthday. The waiter’s response was: “Yes it is possible!” In a few minutes the waiter was bringing over the fattest joint I’ve ever seen in my life! 

The following day started with breakfast on the rooftop of the hostel which we discovered had hosted director Wes Anderson when he was filming The Darjeeling Limited. Then we made our way to the fort that loomed over the city in a slightly foreboding manner. On the way we stopped to photograph some goats in coats. I still remain adamant that this was the highlight of my last week in India. I mean, goats in coats, how can you not love that? In fact we were both so in love with them that we made a special trip the next day to see them again. They were bloody adorable.

After the fort we went to another beautiful structure that was built in memory of a Maharaja’s father. Jodhpur was the kind of place that you could easily imagine Maharaja’s and incredibly wealthy Indians riding around on elephants in all their finery. We also visited the King of Jodhpurs’ palace the next day before catching a night train back to Delhi.

I was feeling pretty emotional as we pulled into Delhi. The end of the crazy 10 months was drawing to a close and I didn’t feel ready to go back to reality just yet. But I had to. My money was almost finished.

I really thought I’d seen so much in the last 10 months that nothing would surprise me but Mother India will never cease amaze me. She sure saved the best for last.

As we drew closer to Delhi, the air became thick with smog, and the slums crept closer to the train tracks. People in these houses have no sanitation systems so they had no choice but to take their morning constitutional on the tracks.

It’s an image I will never forget. Men walking in pairs sometimes with a bottle of water each along the tracks and squatting down in full view of everyone. The train tracks were littered with little brown piles. Sometimes we saw two men sitting side by side having a cigarette and a chat whilst they did their business. NZF and I had been joking over the last 10 days that public defecation was the national sport but this really was no joke.

We pulled into our station and it hit me that this was it - my last day in India until who knows when. I had to hold back tears as I said goodbye to NZF and found an auto to take me to the airport. I had the whole day to kill so I found a rather expensive hotel to wait in until my flight at 3am the next morning.

I was pretty miserable. I’m not going to lie. It felt awful to be leaving India and I didn’t know how to process the flurry of emotions I was experiencing. So I did what any 25-year-old woman would do. Had a good cry and called my mother. I knew that the feelings were only temporary though. Annicca – impermanence, impermanence! After a nap, a hot shower (first proper hot shower in forever) and some food I felt a bit stronger and got myself an Uber to the airport.

I slept for most of the flight except for when the food came around. I had a nice chat to the man sitting next to me as we touched down in Beijing. He suggested a few things to see as I had a very long stop over. As I slept so well on the plane I decided to get a temporary visa so I could leave the airport. After waiting in line for what seemed like hours I finally got the stamp in my passport.

Whilst I was waiting I met two extremely lovely Italian girls who had also just come from India. They were also going to explore Beijing and their flight was at 1am whilst mine was at 12.30am so they invited me to come with them. I was very grateful for the company and all the sadness evaporated. Nothing like an adventure with wonderful strangers to cheer a soul up!

So we found ourselves in Beijing without a clue about where to go or the currency conversion rate or even how to say hello in Mandarin. Between the three of us we had done zero research since it was a rather spontaneous decision to leave the airport. It was as if we’d just been dropped onto another planet.

We didn’t even know how to cross the road. It turned out that you were supposed to use the underground crossings. Our taxi driver dropped us near Tiananmen Square and we wandered around trying to figure everything out. A strange little vehicle stopped and offered us a ride. One of the Italian girls asked how much it was and it sounded like the driver said three Yuan. We didn’t want to go far so we all squished in. Then the driver’s friend came along and told two of us to jump in his one so we were more comfortable. They drove us around the corner and down a dark lane near the square. Here we realised we had been well and truly ripped off.

One of the drivers pulled out a card which said, in English of course, that that short little journey would cost us 300 Yuan! We had, by this stage, figured out that 300 Yuan was about $60 NZD!! There was no way we were paying that to drive around the corner so we put up a fight. We ended up giving him 100 Yuan instead. He was not very happy and there was a lot of shouting from both sides but there wasn’t much he could do. He was definitely ripping us off since it only cost 100 Yuan to travel for two hours from the airport to the square.

It was freezing cold and one of my new friends was desperate to use the bathroom. We went from shop to shop asking for a toilet and getting very unhelpful responses. Probably because we were speaking English and trying to mime out ‘toilet’ by crossing our legs and jumping up and down. Now I wished we were back in India where we could have just peed anywhere!

We found the square but we weren’t allowed to go in. There were men in soldier’s uniforms with rifles marching across it and barriers all around. We decided to find some dinner instead. Time was getting on. It had taken a long time to get the visa and then get to the centre of Beijing and we were aware we needed to leave plenty of time to get back to the airport.

We found a mall and even then we still had trouble finding food. It was about four degrees by this stage and very dark. One of the girls was wearing sandals. She insisted she wasn’t too cold but I was freezing even in jeans, shoes and my warmest jacket. The air hurt my face.

We ordered a huge meal to share between the three of us. The menu was quite extensive and there were lots of delicious looking things to try. However when it arrived I realised it would be the first meat I had eaten in a long time and my stomach squirmed at the thought of it. I lost my appetite a bit but didn’t want to miss out on trying Beijing food so forced some down.

We then got a taxi back to the airport with no stress and arrived nice and early for our flights. We found a place to sit and chill for a while. I was so glad I had met these girls as it really broke up the travel and we’d had a weird adventure in a very weird and confusing country to boot.

As we sat waiting for our flight, they overheard some other Italians talking about New Zealand, so asked them where they were going. It turned out they were on my flight so we all had a nice little chat for the last 20 minutes of our wait and then I left my first two Italian buddies with my new Italian flight buddies. I fell asleep pretty quickly on the plane and it wasn’t long before we were touching down in Auckland.

It was over.

After ten months, six countries (if you include Beijing), 37 blogs, several different jobs, countless new friends, and an appreciation for hot showers, I was back in the land of the long white cloud.

Tiananmen Square - Beijing

The Blue city of Jodhpur

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