Friday, December 25, 2009


Hey ho and away I go!



I am invited to coffee at the Indian Coffee House in town by two late middle aged advisers from the Ministry of Education, Delhi. I remark on the language handicap for a traveler trying to understand India to which one says, “We Indians are most complicated. We are friends for a thousand years, then in a moment we are all killing each other - killing each other for no reason – only because some politician is saying so.”
His companion assures me of the extraordinary advances over the past ten years. The quantity of cars, milions of mobile telephones.
“Even ther cast system,” he says. He himself knows Untouchables in high positions. The Minister of Justice is himself an Untouchable. “Now that they are in power they are the most corrupt. A hundred times worse. It is their turn that has come. Human nature is to use such opportunity.”
“You British were always more honourable,” his companion says. “And now look at you. Your Blair has destroyed all your reputation. Such a liar. It will be centuries before you are able to recover.”


Gwalior sprawls as do all Indian towns and cities. The fortress commands the town from high on a solitary plateau 3 Ks in length. Entry is barred by massive wooden gates that, open, would permit passage to an elephant with howdah.I duck through a small portal for pedestrians. A guide at the ticket office accompanies me back to my bike and lifts it in.
For facts on the fortress read the guidebooks or check the internet. I write impressions and my impressions here are of decay other than at the small museum that contains wonderful scuptures ranging from 1st century to the 17th
Of the palace, the top floor is closed and crumbling. Down a floor and you find typical rooms of the period of hewn stone and pillars opening to courtyards, small in scale and not impressive.
I remark to a probable English speaker, middle-aged, intellectual, on the difficulty of imagining how it once was.
He replies that it will be gone in fifty years, destroyed by neglect and coruption.
The truth of the palace lies below in unlit layers carved from the rock and connected through narrow twisting stairways and through dog leg doorways and corridors down which no man, however thin, could pass another. Such is the Man Sing Palace, surely a dark sinister creation of regal paranoia - or excavated as a cool retreat from the summer heat.
Or let the walls speak to you of prisoners incarcerated in pain and fear-filled misery.
As always, in India, make your choice.
Better scurry back down the hill to enjoy a later Maharaja's opulent fantasy caprice, the 19th century Jai Villas Palace.
Curse, it's closed on Wednesdays.

AGRA TO GWALIOR - Brrrrm Brmmm

Yes, I know. Dates are confusing. However I am attempting to get up to date.

From Agra south I ride an excellent highway through flat fields splodged with yellow rape. Traffic is sparse and I make good time between village. Millennium of monsoons have gouged twisting gulches between pinnacles of gray-red earth tufted with sparse scrub. Or did thousands of years of brick-making create this chaotic landscape, thousands of men and women endlessly picking at clay to feed the kilns?
Tumbled walls of a fortress cap a long ridge. What in this ghastly land was there to protect? Yet, suddenly, appears the magic of a bridge that once carried the trunk road and is now bypassed by the highway. Seven pointed Islamic arches of red brick span the river, delicate spires at each end, pepper pots in the middle – beautiful!


The hotel is a cloistered rectangle surrounding on the lower level a lawned garden divided into four quarters by low hedges – Persian in concept. And on an upper level, a charming swimming pool.
The walls are pale ocher while the pillars and Islamic arches of the cloister are a deep teracotta outlined in white. Red and white bougainvilleas and pale plumbago drape the arches while trees shade the lawned-surounds of the pool terrace and carpet the grass with deep pink blossom. Lapis domes on slender pillars rise above the roof line, perfect size for a single rotund but diminutive sentry.

A servant leads me across the lawn to my room and opens French shutters to display the river fifty meters down a sloping bank. The sun will rise directly across the river. I must be up by dawn. Now a hot shower in a vast marble bathroom, walls patternd in blue and white tiles and towels thick and big as a winter blanket. What delight...


Take the right fork out of janasi to Orcha (I took the left and had to backtrack fifteen Ks) so watch for the sign. Once on the side road the countryside changes to a gentle switchback with patches of woodland between small fields. Massive walls of dry-set rock breached by a gateway that has lost its gates announce the traveler's arrival on what was once the Maharaja of Orcha's domain. Drive a further kilometer and turn left beneath a high arch onto the driveway leading to the Maharaja's hunting lodge, now converted into a hotel.
I have ridden 160 Ks. I am whipped physically, continuing to cough and have the runs. The hotel manager is a miracle of welcome. Face him towards a winter cold-front back home and apple trees would glow with blossom.



A mile left of the road two massive palaces or temples dominate a small town. Should I investigate? Such is the traveler's dilema in India, a myriad magical buildings to explore yet only a few months to journey. I recall driving through Rajahstan all those years ago in convoy with Elizabeth Camus and stopping at everything. We camped at night, me with a foam rubber mattress on and under Afghan kilims, Elizabeth with a VW camper and an Orissa marriage tent. What was her boyfriend's name, Swiss Italian, who later studied the tabla at University in Varanassi. We were intent on reaching Goa for Christmas yet one day managed only twenty miles.
I was young then. Time seemed infinite and no, I don't stop to explore.''



Thank God for history graduates...I have had two hours of joyful conversation with Nagendra Singh Bayal, Front Office Manager at Usha Kiran Palace (Taj hotel in the grounds of Jai Villas). We begin with motorbikes, progress via religion in history to God as love, family and the insanity dictating much of the region's politics - splendid accompaniment to a fruit salad and black coffee breakfast.
A dual carriageway to Janasi is under construction. Trucks and construction machinery have ripped the surface of the old road. Not a fun why do I enjoy myself? Afterglow of the morning's conversation ripened by memories of Cuba and the warm humid scent of sugar cane in the fields and of over-loaded trailers swaying towards a sugar central.
Two men work on the top of an electricity pylon. Hard hats? Safety belts? Don't be ridiculous. Men are replaceable.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009


I have been ill most of the time since arriving. Now I am finally on the move. Here is a blog of today.I will catch up with past days after Christmas.

ORCHA - Hotel Bundelkhand Riverside
I have dysentery. I should be miserable. I have discovered Paradise. 8 a.m. and I have been sitting for the past hour on the balcony of my bedroom and watching dawn break across the river. A pale mist lies across the water and across the jungle on the far bank. Not a mist of carbon monoxide, a true natural morning mist. Water tumbling over a low weir and over boulders is the only sound. An Indian in black walks down to the river bank and washes his hands before facing the sun, I think in prayer. He turns, sees me and, hands together, Namastes. I return his greeting. His disappears up the steps to the courtyard garden only to return and, standing below my balcony, reaches up to offer me two saffron coloured flowers. My mobile buzzes – a happy message addressed to Grandpa from Nagandra Singh at the Taj in Gwalior. Yes, Paradise. So my bowls are loose – I can deal with that! I shall dress in a little while and sit in the garden and have fresh fruit and black coffee for breakfast. Then a wonderful day of exploration. Orcha, though no more than a medium sized village, boasts two magnificent though abandoned palaces and three superb temples. strike>

Monday, December 21, 2009


I am having tea in a large State emporium with the motherly manageress. Beautifully coiffed, beautifully dressed, she has adult children and must be in her early fifties. Her husband is an engineer and both their children are professionals. I mention the street children.
"Very clever," she tells me. "Yes, they are very clever. But nothing can be done with them. Such people do not like to work."
The children connect in my hostess's mind with her new servant girl. The servant girl is one of fourteen children. The father is a manual worker. "We are giving her soap. Now she is wanting shampoo. Can you imagine? Shampoo. This is what these people are spending their money on."


This is the bride's big day. The owners of a hotel beside the wedding tent give her shelter in the lobby where she cowers on a sofa surrounded by mother and aunts and siblings. She is tiny and thin and vulnerable and looks to be fourteen. Is she most terrified of her future husband or of damaging the scarlet and gold sari and head scarf or lose a piece of the gilt wedding jewelery, all hired for the occasion. The mother and aunts depart to add their screeches to the contradictory instructions at the marquee. A plump female German tourist in her mid fifties photographs the bride. Wanting closeups of the make up and jewelery, she holds the camera half a meter from the child's face.
The child bride remains immobile, a fear-frozen statuette. Oh that she were brought to life. Oh that she would spit in the German's lady's eye - or kick her future husband in the balls.
Enough, I am off to bed...


A five-man cornet and drum band heralds the groom. The bandsmen wear white uniforms and red and gold cockaded hats. The groom, also in white, and with plastic gold threaded through his wedding turban, sits a skeletal white horse. Four men, not in uniform, carry electric candelabra powerd by a small generator on a push cart. Male guests or family in ill-fitting dark suits shout contradictory instructions. They need to speed up the decision making before the horse founders.

Sunday, December 20, 2009


Lack of a common language has me scared. And that I contracted bronchitis with the first inhalation of what, in Delhi, passes for air. Add a broken camera and things look bad. Lack of language has seemed most catastrophic. Who should I talk to? My fellow foreigners? Then why travel?
I determine to conduct myself as I would in Hispanic America. Get out on the street...
It is a narrow street of down-market apartment buildings and down-market hotels. The Municipality had the road tarred some years ago, perhaps by mistake. The tar is mostly gone. My vantage point is a plastic chair outside a tailor's shop. I am one of a group of four men. One is a travel agent, good-looking, mid-thirties, one ear-ring. A second, Nepalese, has been in Delhi eighteen years and works as a packer for Sikh brothers in the export business. I learn nothing of the third. He may be the tailor's brother.
The street is being taken over by preparations for a wedding.
The arrangers of the wedding have erected a ridge marquee in the street. The marquee is thin washed-out saffron cotton that began life cheap and hasn't improved. The frame looks to be iron reinforcing rod. Twin gates stand open my end of the marquee to receive the wedding party. The gates have been draped with marginally less faded saffron cotton. A very old man squats in the dust and weaves bouquets. A younger man wires the bouquets to the gate.
The Nepalese dismisses the flowers as cheap plastic.The wedding is for a sweeper family. Bad people, they will get drunk and fight. Who would rent such people a hall?
Chairs, tables and a sort of altar arrive on three hand-drawn carts.
I ask whether a permit is required to close the street for a wedding.
Why would they require a permit?
The occasional cow strolls the street, sheep, sometimes a goat. Why not a wedding?


A large overweight bearded buffoon faces a class of diminutive Indian waifs. Were this Hispanic America I would sit on the floor with them. We would talk, mostly the children asking questions, and we would laugh together and perhaps learn from each other. Certainly there would be a sharing of emotions. Here the most that we can accomplish is to grin and giggle at each other. A grin seems insufficient when confronted by thirty ten-year-old ex-Typex addicts. Or should that be Typex addicts in recovery?
Meanwhile a young project manager has been giving the Trust's spiel while the University students take notes. The project manager is from North Carolina. She worked here as a volunteer whilst studying for her Sociology degree. Next step is her Masters - followed perhaps by a Phd and a career with NGOs or the State Department. She tells me that the street children are the victims of Multinationals who expropriated their families' land without compensation. Interesting...
The Salaam Baalak Trust is a worthy cause. Your contributions will be well spent. Clothes, money, whatever...
Right, that's enough on that subject. Let's move on.