So after a couple of days in Pushkar, we were back on the road again for another eight hours, this time for a bit of an excursion to Ranthambhore, home of the Tiger Safari. Or not… Here we had our first illness. Evan spent the whole day in a dark air-conditioned hotel room, throwing up. Bless him. Dez and Sam went on the Tiger Safari but no tigers were spotted. They were asleep right in front of them, apparently, in the long grass. Hmmm. Dez isn’t convinced.
Evan was well enough to get in the car to Agra the next day and we spent another five hours watching the Rajasthani world go by. Agra was described by Joni with the words “This is a mental city”, which is possibly the only full, grammatically correct sentence he used in the whole two weeks spent in the car. And I have to say he is right. The traffic is awesome. And mental on a different level to Rajasthan. Although he did miss the turning to our hotel once, in the dark, and just slammed on the brakes and reversed back down the busy dual carriage way, giggling. Not sure he can call anyone else “mental”. The Taj Mahal is as gobsmacking as I remember. I was afraid I would be disappointed but it is still easily the most beautiful and awe inspiring building that I have ever seen. I could stare at it for hours. The colour changes with the changing light and the marble inlaid with semiprecious stones becomes more intricate the further you delve into its depths. We could have spent the whole day wandering around in the grounds, but as usual for our pre-booked tour, we had only a couple of hours before we had to rush back to the hotel to check out. A quick lunch at another tourist restaurant and we were driven to Agra Fort with instructions to be back at the car in one hour. The fort has nineteen different palaces. One hour was not going to be enough, but we didn’t complain. Joni clearly wanted to go home and we wanted him to go home too, so we were happy for him to drop us at Agra train station several hours early. We wanted our independence back.
Getting into an Indian train station was hugely exciting. Not just because we were finally travelling again but because Indian train stations are hugely exciting. Not as exciting as in 2002 to be honest. Back then, rats scuttled across the platforms and homeless people slept in dark corners. Now it is cleaner and brighter, but still whole families lounge around waiting for their train, people scurry across tracks between platforms carrying boxes and bags and vendors sell all sorts of foods from their wheeled carts. We are travelling again though. This is fantastic! We are relieved and excited, all at the same time.
So was it worth it? Was our attempt to avoid the stress and frustration of Indian train booking worth all those hours in a car?
Well, the many, many hours spent in a cramped, sweaty car on often poor roads has been a challenge. The boys have listened to many hours of Harry Potter and at times there has been little to see out of the window. But even the big National Highways often have cows or goats wandering across them, and lorries often travel the wrong way up a dual carriage way, so there is never a dull moment.
Driving through villages and towns is just amazing. Life erupts onto the street in a melee of people, animals, vehicles, dust and noise. I can’t take my eyes off it. I have spent hours and hours staring out of the window at Rajasthan flying by me at 80km/h and it has been fantastic. I have caught glimpse after glimpse of Rajasthani life, often in split second flashes. Buffalo being washed by the water pump at the side of the road, roadside stalls selling guavas, chai, bicycle tyres and anything else you can think of. Men, women and children in the fields chopping wood, digging with hand tools. Countless sari clad ladies walking along the roads with bags, bundles of wood, water pots balanced on their heads. Men sitting around in groups, chatting and smoking. Old gentlemen on bikes with amazing beards and brightly coloured turbans. Families of five squashed onto a motorbike, one child on the handlebars, mum at the back. Herds of goats crossing the road, pushed along with sticks by dark skinned ladies in scruffy saris, small children running to keep up. Groups of dusty men breaking stones and building houses. Buffalos being milked outside mud huts. Herds of cows wandering aimlessly across roads. Tiny huts made of tree branches and tarpaulin, with piles of shaped cow manure drying in the dry desert heat. Jeeps and trucks with a dozen people sitting on the roof. Tents on the roadside housing whole families, eating, sleeping and playing by the road. Huge, overloaded but beautifully painted lorries belching out black smoke. And camels, lots of camels. Some pulling carts laden with bricks, wood, whole families. The odd tourist camel in the big cities, pulling blinged-up carts, adorned with reds and golds.
There are few tractors here. Joni tells us that only twenty years ago, camels were used for everything. There were no tractors or buffalo or oxen in the fields, and few cars and lorries on the roads. To be honest I haven’t seen many tractors in the fields and I have seen only a few oxen pulling farm machinery through the mud. Mostly I have seen people using hand tools. Ladies and men crouching Indian style in the fields, hacking away at the ground. The fields are mostly bare mud though, so it might just be the wrong time of year. The monsoon has finished and the next six months are rain free. So the crops have been harvested. Mustard oil crops are beginning to sprout but little else.
We have seen loads of amazing cities and towns, many forts and palaces, ridden camels and slept in the desert. But would we do it again? Not on a prebooked tour with a car and driver. It’s just not how we want to travel. We want to travel slowly and independently. We want to stop when WE want to stop, and start when WE want to start. We want to be able to book our own crap hotels. We want to decide how long to stay in each place and what to do in those places. Rajasthan is too big a place to scoot around in a fortnight. Yes, we saw lots of places, but only for a day each, followed by another long day in a cramped car. Of course, when we booked the tour, we were told the travelling would be three to five hours a day (actually five to eight hours), and we were told we had been booked into good hotels (well, three of them were nice). There is no easy way to travel around Rajasthan and whatever you choose will be frustrating and difficult at times, but that’s the way India rolls. Nowadays, Indian trains have to be booked several weeks in advance so we would still have had to prebook our train travel and decide on our route and timings in advance. We would definitely visit Rajasthan again though, but fewer places and at our own pace.