When you tour India with a beautiful Dutch blonde named after a Norse fertility goddess, it’s bound to be an adventure…
My adventure took place in November 2013 and lasted for two weeks, during which time I witnessed the best and worst of Delhi, saw two tigers and photographed the world’s most photographed building.
A Sikh motorcyclist in turban and battle fatigues carrying his daughter on the handlebars; more speed bumps, cyclists, pedestrians and car horns than in Kenya; the Hyundai, rickshaw and tuk tuk capital of the world; girlfriends riding sidesaddle on the back of motorbikes; a sign saying ‘Surgical emporium’; a 10-rupee note with the words “I love you. Marry me!”; an eagle perched on a wall; a snake charmer with two cobras; a cow walking on the tracks at a railway station; having my wallet stolen on a packed Metro carriage; and finding out that India has 2.3 million gods – these were a few of my first impressions of Delhi.
India’s capital city is certainly not for the faint-hearted. Everyone stares at you, beggars beg from you, street sellers sell to you – it takes a strong will to ignore the constant distractions and focus on the task in hand. For me, that was taking pictures. All life was here, and I wanted to capture that in images I could show to the world. Sadly, the need for model releases meant I couldn’t profit from any candid portraits, but that didn’t stop me taking them. I usually prefer taking pictures of landscapes and animals to people, but, if you’re not inspired by the colours, faces, clothes and habits of the Indian streets, you’re in the wrong place.
After 24 hours touring the capital, we left for the tiger sanctuary at Bandhavgarh, and most of us were happy at the prospect of a bit of peace and quiet. We were due to catch the overnight sleeper train, but we almost missed it when our ‘Chief Experience Officer’ arrived an hour late with our bags after his taxi got a flat tyre! His name was Harshvardhan Singh Rathore, but we called him Hersh. When we eventually arrived at the station, he warned us of all the dangers. It was dangerous to eat food from the snack bars, it was dangerous to leave bags unattended, it was dangerous to do pretty much anything! After a fearful wait of half an hour, as we huddled round our luggage like girls at a club dancing round their handbags, we gladly sought refuge on the train. My bunk was three doors down from the main group, so I was stranded for the evening. I couldn’t leave in case my bags were stolen, so I just edited photos on my laptop until Hersh came by and allowed me to take a toilet break. Sleep did not come easily with a baby crying next door and a man in my partition ‘snoring like a grampus’, as Chandler would say. I was reminded of the scene in Some Like It Hot when Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon end up having a midnight drinks party in the sleeping compartment with Marilyn Monroe. Sadly, no gorgeous blonde appeared with a bottle of spirits in her hand on this occasion. Sigh…
When we arrived at Katni, it was a case of ‘Hurry up and wait’ – not for the first time or the last! When the vans eventually arrived, we climbed aboard and set off. The drive to Bandhavgarh was two-and-a-half hours, and the last 25km took nearly an hour as the roads were so bad. The resort was nice enough, and I had my own room with a ready supply of hot water, which allowed me to shower for the first time in three days!
The following day, we went on our first game drive in Jeep-like vehicles called Gypsies. The title of the G Adventures trip was ‘Tigers, Temples & Wildlife’, so this was our chance to tick off the first item on the list. We had to get up at 0445, but it was worth it in the end – at least for half the party. I was sitting next to the Norse goddess when Hersh asked me to swap to the other Gypsy on the instructions of the park wardens – something about having to be in the same groups as our passports or some such nonsense. I was initially disappointed (for obvious reasons), but it turned out to be a blessing in disguise an hour later when the guide in my vehicle suddenly started shouting, “Tiger! Tiger!” The driver jammed the pedal to the metal, and we slewed off down the dirt track towards the sighting. Unfortunately, there was a 90-degree bend in the road coming up, so everyone had to hold on as we tore round the corner as fast as we could, hearts beating wildly. In another 300 yards, we reached a water hole where another couple of Gypsies had already parked up. A young tiger was drinking from the pond, and another one was lying in the grass nearby. Success!
We spent half an hour or so watching the two tigers, which was very exciting, but we couldn’t get hold of the other group on the mobile, so they missed out. The tigers were quite far away, though, and I struggled to zoom in close enough with my 50-500mm lens. Eventually, I fitted my 2x teleconverter and even set up my tripod to try and get a steady shot of the tigers as they lay in the grass or chased each other up the hillside. Unfortunately, I failed miserably. My camera just couldn’t seem to take well exposed, sharply focused images. Nothing to do with me, of course (!), but the shutter speed must have been too slow – only 1/125 rather than 1/500 or 1/1000 – so my pictures all came out blurred or, at best, far too soft. Too bad. I was only there for one reason – to bring home pictures of tigers – so it was very disappointing to have missed my chance. I thought we were going to get lucky again later when Hersh shouted, ‘Tiger, tiger!’, but it was only a monkey – cue much hilarity…
Hersh asked me to give a slideshow of all my photos after dinner, which went down well, but I still wasn’t happy. For the record, these were all the animals and birds we saw:
- Sambhar deer
- Barking deer
- Spotted deer
- Blue bull
- Rhesus macaque
- Hanuman langur
- Wild boar
- Paddle-tailed buzzard
- Green bee-eater
- Indian roller
- Black drongo
- Indian hawk
- Black-napped monarch
- Lesser Edgerton stork
- Crescent serpent eagle
- Red-wattled lapwing
We went for another game drive after lunch, but there was not much to see apart from blue bull, a few deer and a pair of mongeese (Really? Ed.). The people in the other Gypsy saw a leopard to make up for missing out on the tiger, so we all had chai on the street afterwards to celebrate. Hersh had swapped vehicles after lunch, so he was predictably and insufferably smug about being the only one to have seen both the tigers and the leopard!
The following day, we prepared to go to Ranthambore, the second tiger sanctuary on our trip. Sadly, that involved another sleeper train, so we guarded our bags on the platform again and watched cows feeding in the bins and walking on the tracks until our train arrived. Hersh eventually gave me a bed with people from our group, and we made friends with an 18-year-old Indian trainee doctor, who treated us to all his stash of home-made food. (Rhys took particular advantage, I seem to remember!) He’d just been home for Diwali, so he had a feast of dishes to share with us, including roti, various curried dishes, rice and marzipan sweets made from cashew nuts, all prepared by him and his family. He told us he lived with his mother, his father, seven male cousins and 14 female cousins, all packed in seven or eight to a house!
The transfer from the station was only 20 mins, so we were soon at the Ranthambore Safari Lodge. On our first safari, I managed to break the front seat in the big diesel-powered lorry we were using, and the door swung open by itself every now and again just to keep me on my toes! The game drive was a bust, and there was nothing to see in the area we’d been sent to. Whether you’re in London or Ranthambore, the message seems to be the same: don’t go near Zone 6!
The next morning, we had another game drive, and this time it was much better. We saw plenty of wildlife, including two sambar deer fighting, 12-15 langurs playing in the trees only a few feet away, a crocodile on an island in the lake and a sleepy owl nesting in a hole in a tree.
As well as the more familiar animals and birds we’d seen before, we also notched up a crocodile, a water snake and a turtle. The closest we came to a tiger was the treepie, nicknamed the ‘tiger bird’ because of the colours of its plumage.
When we got back to the lodge, we had breakfast and went on a trip to the market. I was looking for a cuddly tiger for my best friend’s daughter, but our driver took us to the wrong place, and we only found the right shop by accident when we were driving home. Fortunately, they had what I wanted, but that was the last tiger I saw on the trip.
If the first week of the trip was about tigers, the second was about temples. After a couple of days taking pictures of the local animals and humans in the village of Tordi Sagar, pursued by all the local kids shouting, ‘One photo! One photo!’ and capped by an impromptu Diwali fireworks display on the roof terrace and a dawn trip up to a local hill fort to see the sunrise, we left for Jaipur.
Nicknamed ‘The Pink City’, Jaipur is actually more of a reddish-brown colour, particularly since it was repainted for a visit by the Prince of Wales in 1876. Grand designs, Mughal-style…
Before we could see our first temple, we were taken to the Raj Mandir cinema to watch an action movie called Krrish – India’s version of Superman meets Iron Man meets Robocop meets X-Men meets Bollywood. Despite the hootin’ and the hollerin’ whenever the hero used his super powers or got intimate with his co-star, it wasn’t half bad – at least if you don’t mind absurd plots, melodramatic overacting and all the actors speaking in Hindi!
The following day, we took a private coach to the Palace of Winds (Hawa Mahal), Amber Fort and Jal Mahal. We spent most of our time at the Amber Fort, a sprawling hilltop palace overlooking a lake. The detail in some of the mosaics and tiled walls was exceptional, and the Hall of Mirrors must have taken years to decorate.
That evening, I heard a band playing outside the hotel, and I eventually found a wedding procession outside. The groom was riding a richly decorated horse, and a group of more than 20 people were dancing and playing drums. All part of life’s rich pageant here in India…
We dined at a vegetarian restaurant – which was a bit of a shock! – but at least I had one of my favourite lassis. We were charged 20 rupees (or 20p) for a bottle of water and 130 for the thali (including the lassi). Dinner and drinks for £1.50 – can’t say fairer than that!
The next day, we moved on to the ‘Monkey Temple’ (Galwar Bagh) for some good close-ups of the rhesus macaques and people ritually bathing and lighting candles to set afloat on the water. It was a dirty and decrepit place, but cleanliness is more symbolic than practical in India. As long as the water’s in some sort of temple, it must be ‘clean’!
Our next stop-off was the bird sanctuary at Keoladeo National Park. On the way, we saw a dog eating the carcass of a cow in the middle of the road! When we arrived, Hersh made sure I had a rickshaw to myself, and we saw:
- Rose-ringed parakeet
- Jungle burbler
- Yellow spotted green pigeon
- Laughing dove
- Painted stork
- Spotted owlet
- Snake bird
- Medium egret
- Indian moorhen
- Collared dove
- Water hen
- Black-headed ibis
- Open-billed stork
- White-throated kingfisher
- Black-shouldered kite
- Black drongo
We drove back to the Hotel Surya Bilas Palace. More arches. I’ve seen more arches in the last fortnight than a podiatrist sees in his whole career.
The following morning, I was woken by a buzzing mosquito. I flattened it against the wall and saw a bloodstain. Oops! I hoped it wasn’t my blood, or I might be coming home with malaria!
We drove to the Agra Fort and had a tour guide as we took pictures. It may be a World Heritage Site, but it’s not a beautiful place – very old and dilapidated. The only good thing about it was that we were able to see the Taj Mahal for the first time from the roof terrace.
Later, we drove to the ‘Baby Taj’ (Tomb of I’timād-ud-Daulah) and took pictures. I got in trouble with the guards three times for trying to take in a tripod and not taking off my shoes (twice). Next stop was the Moonlight Garden, from which we would be able to see the Taj Mahal across the river. We were running late, though, so we found ourselves literally running to get our pictures before the sun went down. In the end, the sun was in the wrong place, and the light wasn’t even that good. There is no ‘golden hour’ for taking pictures in India – only a grey one. All I could do was take the classic symmetrical shots across the river and experiment with framing the Taj in the barbed wire for an ‘Auschwitz shot’. Not a great success.
The following morning, we got up before dawn to queue for the Taj Mahal. This was what we were all here for! On the bus, Hersh told us the story of Shah Jahan, the man who built it. He saw a woman in a market, and it was love at first sight. Her name was Mumtaz Mahal. He asked her to marry him, but she refused. He took another wife, but he couldn’t put her out of his mind, so he went back to her and asked again. Finally, she agreed, but she asked him to make her three solemn promises. First, he should never remarry. Secondly, her son must become the heir to the kingdom. Finally, he would have to build something for her that would be remembered for ever. (And before you start checking on Wikipedia, I admit that this version of events doesn’t bear more than a passing resemblance to the truth, but it appeals to the romantic in me…!)
We took a battery-operated vehicle to the Taj, where the queue was only around 50 people, separated into four lines for men and women, split into tourists and local Indians. One woman passed out – from locking her knees like a soldier on parade, I imagine. Rhys made the mistake of bringing his Swiss Army knife for some reason, so that was confiscated!
I’d starting thinking about this day weeks earlier when reading a photographer’s guide to taking pictures of the Taj, and I was determined to get to the end of the reflecting pool as quickly as possible in order to get the ‘money shot’ that we all recognise from thousands of postcards and guidebooks. Sadly, Hersh insisted that I listen to a briefing from our guide for 25 minutes! Aaaaarrrrggghhh! That wasn’t in the plan at all. Sure enough, when I eventually escaped to take my pictures, the place was crawling with tourists. Not even Photoshop could cope with all those people. Grrrr! We spent a couple of hours walking round, and I did my best to get some unusual and interesting shots, but that’s a tall order when you’re dealing with such a familiar structure. It’s a powerful and imposing structure – much bigger than you imagine – but there is very little detail on the walls, floors or ceilings. This is no Amber Fort. As a result, it’s better seen from a distance than close-up, but it’s none the worse for that.
Finally, Hersh rounded us all up, and we left the building. In an interesting aside, he said that there never used to be any security barriers. They were only installed very recently. In the old days, anyone could just walk in on a whim. He even told stories of rickshaw drivers sleeping in the actual building itself! That all changed in 1998, sadly, when the Taj Mahal became a World Heritage Site. There’s progress for you…
That evening, we drank wine at the hotel and went out for another incredibly cheap dinner. Hersh arranged a free lift home for me afterwards from one of his taxi driver buddies, but the rest went out to a bar. It must have been a good night, because I later heard Rhys and Joe come in at 0344 in the morning. Joe said, “What a legendary trip!” and Rhys said something unintelligible in Welsh!
After a few goodbyes the following morning, Joe, Jodie, Rhys and I took a taxi to the airport. The driver spat out of the window, drove like a maniac, stopped the car to answer his mobile and actually got out of the cab at a junction! How appropriate. At least the fare was only £1.25 each!
India, India, India. What can we say about you? If you were a woman, you’d definitely be high maintenance, but I’m disappointed that you’ve lost your ability to surprise. Too many films, guidebooks and stories mean you no longer hold the mystery you once did. You’re not the veiled seducer of A Passage to India or the exotic native dancer of the Raj. Predictable, yes, but even predictable can still be dirty, sacred, noisy, colourful, crowded, dangerous, beautiful, remote and wild.