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karuna

My First Trip To India

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Hi,

I first went to India last December. I've been back twice since (yup, it got right under my skin!), but I've only written about that first trip to Rajasthan. I thought maybe some first-timers might like to see what it's like. This is just the first couple of days in Delhi. If I get any kind of positive reaction I could post some more, but I don't want to bore people.

Names have been changed to protect the guilty, and since writing this and going back to India, Rohit has become a dear friend, so it's kind of weird to look back at this! Anyway:

India: A First Timer's Story

I am sleepless and restless. My body and brain are five hours behind, with the damp and the wind and strained Christmas cheer. I twist and turn the thin cotton sheets into a thick rope and back out again. I stare at the ceiling fan, useless in the cool of a Delhi winter. I stare at the sliver of light under the hotel room door. I stare and stare, tired and wide awake. The market area of Karol Bagh has finally become still. The constant day time cacophany of horns, hooters, tuk tuks, taxis, chai-wallahs and chatter had slowly disappeared as midnight approached. There has been silence for some time.

In an instant, every dog in Delhi starts to bark. I hear footsteps on the stairs, and loud male voices talking in Hindi in the hotel corridor. They do not stop. The dogs do not stop. I am not annoyed- I am so far from sleep it makes no difference to me. Mark snores and stretches. The men seem to be holding a conference outside our bedroom door. I wonder what time it is.

Picking my way as quietly as possible to the window, I notice the chill in the air. The window has no lock or clasp and remains permanently one half-inch open. I push it further and lean out. The street, which during the day sounds like the M25 at rush hour, is little more than a lane. A small scrubby park sits opposite, surrounded by shops and hotels. On its far side I see the green neon sign of the “Panicker’s Guesthouseâ€Â. A last resort? An old woman in a sari and with a walking stick appears at the end of the road and walks slowly past our hotel and on into the darkness. A cycle-rickshaw passes by. Then all is still. I lock myself in the en-suite bathroom and begin to write, in a half-legible scrawl:

Delhi airport is worryingly reminiscent of an Indian restaurant. The walls are clad in marble, and the carpet patterned red. Human-sized wooden statues of gods are dotted around the place, and oddly cheerful piano muzak accompanies your wait at immigration.

I had read the guidebooks.

"Prepare yourself" I warned Mark solemnly. "It’ll be bureaucratic and slow, and then we have to wait for our baggage, fill in forms and queue to change money, and clear customs. Expect two hour’s wait at least".

Twenty minutes later our driver was greeting us in the arrivals hall.

Five minutes out of the airport and we’ve seen our first corrugated tin shack house, clothes strung out behind it to catch the dust and fumes. Delhi’s environs have a provisional look; the city is half-built. We pass a giant statue of Hanuman encased in rickety wooden scaffolding. Uncompleted in ten years, our driver says. In the meantime they have built the Metro line which towers over the street, and Hanuman’s simian face, far from dominating the intersection, now peers a few metres down at commuters on a flyover.

It all slides past- the dust, the trees, the stalls, the men ., the occasional cow. The car weaves and dodges and somehow it all keeps going.

My eyelids feel heavy and I tiptoe my way back to bed, and drift in and out of dreams.

"This is India"

The cool marble clad airport, the sudden heat.

"This is India"

The beggar smiles and tap-tap-taps on the car window with his crutches.

"This is India"

We laugh and laugh as a cycle-cart heads towards us, the wrong way down the outside lane of the dual carriageway from the airport to Delhi. Our driver eyes us in the rearview mirror.

"Sir," he shrugs, "This is India"

The next morning the roasted-peanut-wallah sings outside as I step into our black tiled ensuite, scene of last night’s furtive scribblings, to wash the long flight out of me. The set up is a hybrid, with a large bucket and taps for the traditional Asian scoop and slosh wash, as well as the more familiar shower head. I opt for the unimaginative shower. The welcome gush of hot, chlorinated Delhi water sprays itself across the bathroom. Instead of disappearing down the nearby drain, the water level continues to rise, and a puddle becomes a tide and begins to head under the door to the bedroom. I slip and slide around, grabbing on to the toilet and basin, frantically pawing at the taps trying to stanch the flow.

I crouch and use the scoop jug to wash my hair and body. India won that one.

Later that morning we leave the hotel for our day tour of the city. Mark hands the receptionist our room key; he takes it without a word. Receptionists and hotel managers will provide daily entertainment for me over the next three weeks. They are all men, usually surrounded by a group of at least four other men of indeterminate function. They look worryingly like hired goons. Nobody smiles. In each new place Mark completes exhaustive forms with his name, age, country of origin, passport number, Visa number, where we have come from in India, where we will be going next, and how long our total visit is. Then he signs in. It takes at least two men to watch this process, a third to input the details into a computer (if there is one), and a fourth to hand over the keys. The indeterminate goons look on impassively.

In most hotels, I do absolutely nothing. It is of no importance whether I am there or not. It’s as if I am a piece of Mark’s luggage, except no-one offers to carry me to the room. As we leave the goons barely glance at us, this Sahib and his baggage. Later I will be grateful for this indifference.

It’s not easy to have your own driver. It kind of p*sses on all your quasi-socialist Guardian-reader pretensions. See, I can’t even bring myself to say "chauffeur", but that’s what he was. What he is. I take comfort in the knowledge that Indians treat their drivers like servants. We guilt-ridden post-colonial British are at least beyond that. He tells us his name- Rohit- and we promptly forget it. It’s not until the last day, within minutes of his leaving, when we see it on our tour company's "tour evaluation sheet", that we learn it. He instantly forgets our names too, but since we are always "Sir" (both of us, collectively and singly), it doesn’t matter much. Between ourselves we call him "the driver". After a week of Indian-English, we drop the definite article.

We ask Rohit where we can buy water. He pulls over at a roadside shack, jumps out and buys us two bottles of mineral water. Mark and I look at each other, bemused.

"Um, how much was that?" Mark asks him

"Twenty rupees" Rohit replies, and we give him the cash. Is this normal? Do most tourists expect their drivers to shop for them? Surely that’s not his job? I am not sure this is going to work. I can hardly bear Rohit’s servile behaviour. As he effortlessly guides the car through the chaos of Delhi streets, I wonder just how we’ll manage being Sahib and Memsahib for three weeks.

Delhi traffic has to be seen to be understood. If one doubts the existence of god, the continued survival of the city’s travelling population should be proof enough. The streets are green and yellow with tuk tuks. Thousands of them. Some are plain, some have tinsel streaming from their mirrors. Some don’t seem to have mirrors. They are everywhere, all the time. Gliding in between the tuk tuks are motorcycles. Usually with two people on them, sometimes up to four, motorcycles do well out of the chaos. Women sit side-saddle, sometimes clutching small children. All are helmetless. One bike is ridden by a turbaned Sikh. His girlfriend, wife, or sister (it’s impossible to tell) is side-saddle behind him. She has just had henna on her hands and is holding them out to dry on either side of his face, blocking his view to the left and right. I watch them for several blocks.

Rohit is taking us to the temple.

"You are interested in the god?" he had asked, smiling.

"Not really," Mark replied. I gave him a sharp dig in the ribs.

"Of course we are," I told Rohit, picturing the trauma of a lengthy explanation of atheism in pidgin English."Today is Shatuthday" Rohit tells us, and then in case we didn’t get it, "Shaturthday". We nod. We have already lost track of the days.

"It is holy day and many go to temple. I take you to temple".

So we go.

It is busy and already I am feeling nervous. We follow Rohit through a crowd of people. Some call out "Madam!" and "Sir!" and a child half-heartedly asks for money. They all give up quickly. I begin to relax. We enter a walled compound containing several buildings. Rohit is moving at a rate and I can’t take it all in. We approach a hut, where a man will keep our shoes for us. There’s a loud bang on the hut’s corrugated tin roof: a family of monkeys. Less than ten feet away. I am nervous all over again. They’re bound to have rabies.

Rohit buys us little bowls containing oil and a small offering encased in netting. We join a queue. There are a series of lingas and a statue of a god under a tree. As we reach the head of the queue, we copy Rohit. We douse the offering in the oil, and then pour the remaining oil over the linga and statue. We light the netted offering in the bowl. Then we stop. We are supposed to wave the bowl in a clockwise motion in front of the god. It feels utterly daft. We wiggle the bowls half-heartedly. Mark tells me later he feels like a total fraud.

There’s a lot of superstition involved in Hindu worship. Following Rohit’s lead we touch the top step of the temple as we enter. I see others touch every single one. We walk clockwise round the central shrine. Suresh touches the latticed windows that obscure the statues inside. Others touch their heads to it. A man gives us a handful of lucky sugar on the way out.

We go into the Hanuman temple next door. That explains the presence of the cheeky monkeys, then. This temple is bigger and more packed; I think Rohit’s god is more obscure. The temple is beautifully painted throughout, and contains silver statues. Rohit touches his head to the marble counter in front of a statue of Shiva, and rings the bell as he leaves. Round the corner is whgat looks like a paddling pool with several god statues in water. Rohit fills a pot and pours the water over the statues. Some people merely touch them. It doesn’t seem to matter what you do, or how much or little time you spend there.

None of it feels in the slightest bit sacred, but I like it all the same. It seems an egalitarian religion. You don’t have to commit yourself to an hour-long ceremony, repeating phrases, standing and sitting at the prescribed times. You don’t have to go every day or week, though you can if you want to. You can touch every step on the way in, or none. You can go if there’s something bothering you, and assuage your fears with an offering to an appropriate god. Or you can dress in saffron and live in a cave practising yoga for the rest of your life. It can be as simple as a superstition, or a complete way of life. I leave no closer to god, but with a respect for this open, egalitarian religion.

Later, Rohit tells us that many Hindu temples refuse entry to non-Hindus, and some to the Dalits.

------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Notes: the Hanuman temple has since been completed!

The tree at the Shani temple has now been felled :(

You can get water for Rs10 per bottle. Rs20 is either driver's commission or someone's clocked you're a tourist :(

Edited by karuna

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In poetry singing there is a tradition, the author will not continue unless the listner says Wah Wah!

:indiaflag: :indiaflag:

Wah, Wah... Wah, wah...

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Aww, bless you all.

And dammit dammit dammit I left his real name in there at one point! Oh well. There's probably several thousand drivers called that in Delhi alone....

A bit more....

Part 2

It becomes abundantly clear that we will not be subjected to the reality of life in India on this trip. As we head out of Delhi, we pass green fields, dirty towns, schools, and people. We do not stop. We pass hotels, tyre shops, temples, chai stalls. We do not stop. India is on the other side of the car window, constantly moving away from and towards us. More and more India, all at arm's length.

It's flat. It's a steam-ironed Norfolk. I am oddly disappointed. I remember that photographer's saying: "India is terrible for landscapes, great for faces". Then, through what will prove to be the permanent haze, rocky hills erupt, apropos of nothing, and just as quickly recede into the flatness again. There are strange, stumpy trees and a heat-haze over the fields. We stop in a hellhole of a town to buy bananas. Markets consist of a long strip, or sometimes roundabout, of wheeled carts, always meticulously divided into "fruit" and "veg" sections. In Delhi we had seen piles of yellow/green coconuts on the side of the road; not out here. Most fruit sellers sell bananas, apples, and some odd things that for a long time I thought were new potatoes, or perhaps some form of kiwi. Then we had one in a basket in a hotel and it was an unpleasant fig-like thing with brown seeds.

The town is bustling and frenetic. Six bananas and two oranges the richer, we put India back behind glass and drive on.

Why had we chosen to do things this way? As we speed along in our sunglasses I feel an overpowering guilt. Small children in knitted hats smile and wave from the village well and I wave back and feel like the worst kind of voy...eur [the forum keeps editing this word out!]

"Raj, British Raj" I keep thinking, as our driver turns to address "Sir and Ma'am".

"You stop now?"

We have reached an outcrop of those sudden hills. A sign reads "Midway Hotel". With sore bums and yawning mouths we nod. We have watched a 3 hour film of Rajasthan go past at 50 miles an hour and we need a break. God knows how Rohit feels.

"You must need to stop too," we say, "You have just done all that driving!"

He gives that enigmatic half-shake of the head that can mean yes, no, maybe, I don't understand or I don't wish to respond. It has subtle gradations and we slowly, almost imperceptibly, grow to read them, just like we slowly grow to learn when yes eally means no. Rohit never admits to being tired.

The guilt isn't going to stop here. Midway Hotels appear to be a chain of service stations all across Rajasthan- maybe all of India, I don't know- specifically catering for tourists. I see more white faces in Midways than in any other place. We step out of our car, stretch and walk through the yellow dust, eyeing the yellow, dusty hills through the dusty yellow air. We walk into the cool building and out the back into the lush, green garden restaurant with embroidered canopy, tablecloths and shining cutlery. Our driver is nowhere to be seen.

It's a manufactured haven of tranquillity, impeccably clean toilets and inoffensive food and I hate that I appreciate it. They sell drastically expensive Oreos, Chewits, KitKats and Dairy Milk. It is inauthentic and should reek of it, but the scent of jasmine and roses from the garden is too powerful. It's like this because tourists like this, and we like it.

Our driver reappears from a different area to us when we head back to the car. Later we will find out more than we want to know about this segregation. Right now we are refreshed and rejuvenated and ready for the next 3 hour slide show.

We head into Jhunjhunu, which has several beautiful havelis- merchant's houses. The light is fading. Cars are not allowed in the main part of the town. Rohit will meet us in half an hour. Within 30 seconds we realise our mistake. There are no other tourists in this relatively untouristed place at this time of day. We are surrounded, talked about, laughed at, greeted, followed. We keep walking, not knowing where the hell we are going. A cyclist keeps pace beside me, staring intently, wobbling. We get out of the bazaar area down quieter streets. A gang of young men greets us, and we "hello" back. They begin to follow us, talking and laughing amongst themselves, gaining in number. We quicken our pace. At the end of the road they leave us, shouting in Hindi. The shops have petered out. We are in a dimly lit residential area and the sun has set. We stop outside a crumbling old haveli, totally lost. A young girl carrying water stops and says hello.

"Hello" I reply

"What is your name?" she asks. I assume she is going to beg, or sell us something, and ignore her.

"What is your name?" she repeats, and waits. I feel uncomfortable.

Mark finally answers her.

"Her name's Rachel".

The girl walks away. She was just curious, and I brushed her off. She turns to have one last look at us, and smiles. There's the guilt again. I can't get India right.

We choose a path and keep walking.

"Well, it didn't look that big, we can't get too lost" Mark reasons.

I'm not having that. "It says in the guidebook it's a sprawling city of 100,000 people!" I say, triumphantly. We're going to die here, of course we are.

Eventually we ask an old bearded man for directions. He says nothing. He just stares, and it becomes clear he simply doesn't have the English to respond. We are about to walk away when a motorcyclist passes. The bearded man flags him down and begins talking in Hindi. He establishes that the biker speaks English.

"Where is place with big light and cars?" Mark asks him in that hideous baby-English that we've begun to adopt when talking to Rohit, and makes "big" gestures to signify the floodlights. The biker tells us to carry on down the road and turn right.

I press my palms together in thanks to both men, who utterly ignore me, and we continue walking.

Our biker friend isn't wrong, and soon we are back where we started. Rohit isn't there. We will have to wait out in the open in this scary town. A group of men have a stare and a giggle at us. Then a little girl spies us and comes over. She is perhaps four, with cropped hair and a diamond-like bindi. She is wearing a pink jumper and holding her hand out.

"Hello"

"Hello" Mark and I say.

"Chocolate?"

I shake my head "No chocolate, sorry"

"Chocolate?"

"Sorry"

She stays put. An older boy joins her, munching on candyfloss. She tries again: "One chocolate?"

I point to the boy's candyfloss

"He has candyfloss! You can have some of that!"

They both laugh. Neither one moves. There is a pause. Mark and I discuss whether we are in the right place. It looks the same, and there's that potato cart....but we can't be sure.

"Hello" says the little girl again

"Hello" I say, and both kids laugh.

"Hello" they say.

I bend down and say "Hello hello hello!" testily. They look taken aback for a second, but quickly recover.

"Hello!" they retort. I can't help but laugh. There is a sweet shop very close by, and I think about buying them some. I don't know what stops me. I am nervous about interacting with the shopkeeper. I am nervous about the kids' parents perhaps seeing me, or what that group of men might think. That group of men who, naturally, are standing staring at us. I just stand stupidly and look at the kids until eventually they wander off. Rohit arrives in the car and as we clamber in the kids come running back, waving and shouting " Hello! hello!"

"Bye! Bye!" I wave. They catch on immediately.

"Bye! Bye! Bye!" they scream as we drive away. I already know that I won't forget that little girl, and I wish I could have left myself a better memory of her than that. I feel like a mean old cow. If I could go back and buy her those sweets, I would.

I wonder why we felt so scared in Jhunjhunu. Those people we did interact with were friendly and helpful enough. If someone had wanted to rob us they could easily have done so; but they didn't. We were just novel. What cowards we are.

The hotel in Bikaner is good. There's a TV, and a mini-bar, and biscuits and crisps. In the light well is a pigeon's nest with two chirping babies in it. A window pane is missing, replaced by a plywood board, and we have a trickle of lukewarm water in the shower.

We have been on the road all day, are terribly tired, still plagued with jet lag and incapable of complaining. We giggle insanely at the hotel's menu, which promises such delights as "Klideney beans", "Brown gravy with white gravy" and "Red gravy milk cream tomato". The ludicrousness of Klideney beans alone brings both of us close to asphyxiation. We badly need sleep, but can't succumb if we are to beat the jet lag. Once or twice I doze off and start violently as Mark pokes me in the side.

I had thought Bikaner would be not much more than a pit stop for the road tourist of Rajasthan, but it turns out to have one of the most impressive forts we see. From the outside it's nothing special, but inside the carvings and gemstone-encrusted rooms are stunning. At times it feels like every lurid tale of the decadence and opulence of the East. The Maharaja had a cooling system involving water cascading down a wall onto tuned strings which created ambient music. He owned a chair, Krishna's swing, covered with little gold dolls forming the frame. When someone sat in the swing and rocked back and forth, every doll moved up and down in time. The bedrooms are a headache of coloured tiles and intricate paintwork.

We are in a guided tour of about 20 people, half-Westerners, half-Indian. The guide asks us where we come from. To save the embarrassed confusion we get when we say Wales, we say England. The guide looks delighted

"England! Ahh, British! Very good, very good sir, yes" he beams, his impressive moustache lifting upwards at the ends. Very soon he has learned Mark's name. There's no escape now.

"Mark! Look at this!"

"And here is King George....Mark! You come look King George!"

"Mark you know the Oxford palace?" He points at some Delft tiles, "Here, is England, Oxford palace".

He is clearly utterly, utterly smitten. The group huddles round a painting.

"This Maharaja. He 365 wifes. 365 wifes."

The group moves on down the hall. Mark lags behind.

"Here is Mark," says the guide as we reach him, "Mark is great. Only one wife for Mark".

I can't concentrate on a thing from then on. The giggles keep resurfacing. I peer at some guns with ridiculously long barrels and play the scene over in my head again.

"Come on, Mark-is-great" I say every two minutes for the next hour.

Our love-struck Raj-ophile guide is not done yet. As we leave he walks ahead of us.

"Mark not come back to Bikaner, he break my heart".

Rohit doesn't understand when we try to explain later. He thinks we are unhappy with the guide and looks worried.

Edited by karuna

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It skips a bit now, to Jodhpur. The bits in between weren't very entertaining. WARNING: lots of talk of intestinal troubles in this section. Nothing graphic, but you might not want to be snacking when you read it.

Part 3

Mark is having a nightmare. The tide of consciousness comes in from somewhere deep behind my eyes and begins to register his shaking and shivering next to me. I reach out to touch and calm him, but he does not stop. I push my mind up and out of blissful sleep, forcing my eyes open into the beige 3 star hotel room in Jodhpur. Mark is wide awake and shivering. He looks at me glassy-eyed.

“I’ve got food poisoning.â€

The restaurant had been empty; most Indians order room service. The menu said “Chicken Chowmineâ€.

I sit up in bed, a spotlight of hindsight growing in intensity around me. Meat? In a non-Indian dish? In a restaurant not recommended in the guidebook? It’s all so excruciatingly obvious in the cold, harsh light of a reflective Rajasthani dawn.

Duh.

“I’ve been up all night, back and forth to the toilet,†he says, “I get alternate shivers and stomach pains. Either I’m shivering, or..†he winces “...my stomach hurtsâ€.

“Have you been sick?†I ask.

“No,â€

There is a brief hiatus before he explodes out of the bed and into the bathroom and vomits violently.

When he comes back, the shivers cease and the pain is less. I have my sensible head on. Water is at the ready and I mix the rehydration salts.

“We won’t bother with Jodhpur fort,†I announce, “Do you think you can travel? We can always stay an extra night here while you recover.â€

Decisions are beyond him.

“We need more water and to change some more money into rupees. Is there anything else you’d like?â€

“Bananasâ€

For the first time, I go out alone. As far as the car, where Rohit meets me with his customary Namaste and smile.

“Mark is not well,†I tell him, wondering if he knows Mark’s name is Mark. Rohit looks shocked.

“He has food poisoning,â€

“Oh my god. Is sick?â€

“Yes, sick and pain and toilet toiletâ€. The repetition is remarkably descriptive.

“Oh my god,†Rohit looks panicked. His tip is ailing in a hotel room.

“I think eating in hotel no good†he says, accurately, if redundantly.

I recall the previous evening. Mark had been feeling a little off after the long drive and oily breakfast.

“I will meet you tonight for dinner?†Rohit had smiled as we flopped in our room.

“No, we eat here and see you tomorrow morning,†Mark had said rather abruptly.

“He just doesn’t get it, does he?†Mark had said after Rohit left “We’re not feeling well, we don’t want to hang out with him.â€

I agreed.

Hindsight flares and flushes my cheeks once more. He would have taken us to a safe restaurant and we rudely dismissed him. I feel like knocking my head against the car window. Thus is my new mantra born: always listen to your driver. Learn when no is yes and yes is no, learn when a suggestion is an imperative, ask his opinion, and listen to it. If you have any ideas where to eat or go, check them with him. So he makes a little commission and blags a couple of free meals- he is also relying on your tip. It's in his interests to keep you safe and healthy. Always listen to your driver.

Jodhpur is an unremarkable city and I watch it slide by with little interest. I change the money and Rohit buys water and bananas. I return to the patient and Rohit insists on coming too. Mark is feeling better.

“Do you want to stay another night here?†I ask.

“No. I feel like I’ve spent an eternity in this room.â€

“Condemned to a slow beige death?â€

“Sort of,â€

“Sir,†Rohit says, “I think eating in hotel no goodâ€

“No,†Mark sighs, “Not at allâ€

-------------------

There are hills on the horizon and I drift out of my reverie and blink in the sun. We left Jodhpur ages ago and this is the first different thing for several hours. I lean to the right as we take a rare bend. There are trees here. Rohit pulls off the road in a valley with a stream and lots of shade. This is supposed to be a lunch break but Mark is nowhere near being able to eat. We are once more surrounded by white faces in this Indian version of a Little Chef. I tuck in to the buffet with relish; chapati, baby aubergine, aloo gobi, rice and a hefty dollop of my beloved lime pickle. Yum yum. Mark sips his mineral water serenely as I trough.

It's a few hours later, and I'm terrribly thirsty. I drink and drink, and cannot get rid of the dryness in my throat. The landscape is lush and verdant, and somehow the people seem happier. The hills are fertile, irrigated, beautiful. We are driving through some of the loveliest scenery yet, and all I can think about are the strange rumblings coming from my intestines. I think about that scrumptious buffet lunch at Ranakpur and my guts growl quietly. The baby aubergines are getting their revenge. I drink more and more water and get thirstier and thirstier. I know that I need the rehydration salts- the ones packed in my rucksack in the boot of the car; the ones that need 200ml of water and something to stir with. I can hold out to Udaipur, it can’t be that far. It’s not going to be pretty when I get there.

I was wrong about the distance- or perhaps it just felt like hours- but dead right otherwise. Udaipur is supposed to be the most romantic Rajasthani city. That’s what the guidebook says. I look out of the window and resolve to write a stern letter to Lonely Planet. It’s by no means the worst place we’ve seen, but not the paradise I’d been expecting. We pass a small park with a huge, three-tiered fountain at its centre- that’s nice. We drive through interminable streets lined with shops- that’s par for the course. We pull up at a hotel in a street with no pavement and nowhere to park- that’s quite normal. Maybe it's the rumbling in my guts and the incessant thirst, but Udaipur doesn’t look that special to me.

We check into our hotel and the owner keeps our passports to complete the convoluted formalities. Once we have got to our room, tipped the boy for carrying our luggage, shut the door, gone back to reception to ask for water, come back, opened the door to the boy carrying the water, asked for glasses, shut the door, opened the door and paid for the water, tipped the boy, closed the door, opened it to take our passports back from the boy and then closed it again, I get acquainted with the toilet that would be my best friend and worst nightmare for much of the next two days. Sitting and cursing that Ranakpur buffet, I look up, and gawp. It’s difficult to say now which was the more fascinating: the shrivelled, grey vest and pair of blue men’s briefs hanging from the back of the bathroom door, or the fact that there was a window in front and to the right of the toilet, allowing a wonderful view into the bathroom from the hotel corridor. I look from one to the other, pants round my ankles, in not inconsiderable pain.

Afterward, sitting on the bed, I fight of a surge of near-hysterical laughter as I clean our water glasses with a disinfectant wipe and inspect the walls for blood spots- signs of bedbugs. I don’t see any blood, but there are some indeterminate stains both on the wall and the end of the bedsheet.

Mixing and drinking the rehydration salts finally quenches my raging thirst, and purged of that damned lunch I am able to relax for the first time in hours. The room has a view of a back alley, and no TV. I manage to read five novels during our three weeks in India, and most of it is done in that room- or more accurately, in its en-suite bathroom. Mark is still fasting after his fun-with-chicken episode so neither of us eat that night. He sits and reads, and I sit and go to the toilet and read. I nearly rub my hands raw from washing because I’m dashing to the toilet every half an hour. Then I feel the rather obsessive-compulsive desire to wash the bar of soap that I’m using to wash my hands, because Mark and I are sharing it and I might leave germs on it. I’ve no idea how rational this is and I don’t care, I just don’t want him to suffer this too. I even try not to have any bodily contact with him when we go to sleep. I wonder whether I can breathe diarrhoea germs into him?

The next day we take it easy. We forgo breakfast; the thought is too painful for both of us. I sheepishly ask reception for extra toilet paper to be brought to the room, and then we head out to Udaipur palace. Which, rather appropriately, is crap. It’s packed with tourists, more than anywhere we’ve yet seen, and much of it is in a poor state of repair. It’s neither as opulent as Bikaner nor as majestic as Jaisalmer. We roll our eyes at each other, jaded seen-it-all travellers that we are.

At least the lake is full; it’s been a mosquito-infested bog in previous years, we’re told. But Jaisalmer’s had romantic sunken trees in it, and silhouetted hand-paddled boats. Unimpressed, we head to a guidebook-recommended café for lunch, which is soup and water. Rohit joins us and pours half a pot of pepper onto his vegetable soup. The service is slow. We go back to our hotel and do nothing for two hours.

As the shadows begin to lengthen, Rohit picks us up and drives us to the edge of the lake where we catch a boat. The sky is a lovely hazy pink and the water laps gently at the prow, and I decide Udaipur's not so bad.

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More, please!!!!!!!!!

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