En route to Jaipur, we stopped at Amber, to visit the rather splendid Amber Fort built in 1592 on a hill overlooking the town of Amber which was once the ancient capital of Jaipur State. We parked up and watched the elephant taxis arriving carrying their breakfast of dried grass in their trunks. The elephants were the main mode of transport carrying tourists up the steep hill to the fort. We went and bought our tickets from the booking office, which cost 400Rs (£5) and we were given elephant number 10. Her name was Powan and she was a sprightly 25 years old. I rather thought she looked fed up of the whole scene, having to ferry tourists up and down the steep hill many times a day. Her eyes looked sad. She was draped in a large piece of red floral material, on top of which perched our seats. The driver had the best seat, sitting astride her neck. We climbed aboard from an elephant stand and set off up the hill. John the photographer shouted,
‘One photo, 100Rs, ready for when you return.’ We agreed and he took our photo. It was a very steep climb and took about 20 minutes to complete. As we reached the top we were amazingly met by John, waiving our photo in his hand! Now that was what you called an express service. At the top and at the entrance to the fort, the doormen wanted too much money for allowing
us to take our cameras inside. If we didn’t pay we would have to leave them in what looked like a very unsafe place outside. We refused and they refused to let us in. It was stalemate. We climbed aboard Powan again and made our way back down the hill. Near the bottom Powan started swinging her trunk about, accidentally knocking my flip-flop from my foot. I called to an Indian passerby,
‘My flip-flop, I’ve dropped it.’ Pointing to where it lay. The Gandhi look alike just stood staring at the situation. I tapped the driver on the shoulder half expecting him to have to climb down from Powan to retrieve my flip-flop. With just one word from the driver Powan stopped, reversed until she was level with my shoe, then sort of pirouetted on the spot and picked up my flip-flop with her trunk and gave it to the driver.
Later whilst we sat in the our Sherpa deciding what to do next, a very scruffy, longhaired, bearded man came up to us, to say ‘Hello.’ He didn’t beg for money and I thought he was drunk as he reeked of alcohol. He walked away, only to return a few moments later. He had forgotten to tell us about the dancing ladies.
‘Very good dancing ladies.’ He told us, then walked off!
In India there are an unusually high number of roaming cows. They wonder at leisure all over the road eating any rubbish they can find. Newspapers, discarded vegetable matter and any other food, and cardboard. They are natures recycling plants on legs. I asked one Indian where did they all come from? He told us that people in India own cows, like Westerners own dogs. They keep them for their milk and that whilst they wonder around all day, they all know where they live and return home at night. They were ‘homing cows!’ A cow is a sacred animal in India and must not be harmed or killed and as a result is accommodated and respected by all Indians.
In Jaipur we decided to visit the Zoo. It was a large Zoo with a wide variety of animals. They had a rather large crocodile collection and we were lucky enough to see them getting fed. As we stood watching another visitor coolly told us that only two days ago, one of the big males had escaped and managed to break his way into the enclosure next door, where he attacked, killed and half ate one of the rare Blue Cows. The keeper found the gruesome remains the following morning. It was time to move on.
It was while in Jaipur that we met a rather special Hindu, whose philosophy on life was to have a profound effect on our lives. Cheetan was a tall and handsome Prison Governor, who we came to call our Guru. He told us that knowledge comes only from within, and not from books, which hold only information. It’s what you do with information, which makes it knowledge. He believed that everyone’s destiny was pre-ordained and that there was little point dwelling on the past, which cannot be changed, or the future, which has yet to happen. One should be concerned with the ‘now.’ He told us that everyone has a soul at different levels of awareness and that wrappings are shed as awareness grows. He said that people all over the world are fed garbage by governments and the media and waste so much time and money on petty pointless rules and regulations.
‘Wisdom is not taught in schools any more.’ He told us. ‘The children are just taught to regurgitate mostly false information.’ We had many deep conversations with Cheetan. His philosophy made such sense. Cheetan confirmed and strengthened what we knew deep within. He also gave us inner strength to stand up and be different and to make a stand against the West’s false and plastic throwaway society that was on the slippery slope to self-destruction.
It was December in Jaipur and the temperature was a humid 85°F. As we stood in the sweltering heat, we were looking for something that might cool us down. I saw a shop advertising ice cream, just what we needed, so I went to investigate. I was astounded by the shopkeeper’s reply.
‘Oh no ma’am. It is now winter. I am not selling ice-cream!’
‘Why don’t we get a tok-tok rickshaw to the main market?’ I said to Alan. We flagged one down. It was driven by an old wizened, toothless man, who when we asked how much, he promptly told us the right price of 30Rs. We climbed aboard his tok-tok, which must have been as old as him. It was rusty, full of holes and clattered, coughed and spluttered as we mingled with the Jaipur traffic. The extent of the rust was rather worrying. Whilst this guy was old, he wasn’t taking any nonsense from the other motorists. This became apparent when someone tried to cut him up, causing him to take evasive action. Gripped by road-rage, like someone possessed the old man clattered down a gear and lurched his tok-tok forward in hot pursuit, weaving and ducking a diving around any vehicle that dared to get in his way, whilst waiving and shouting at the accused. We had a most entertaining drive for 30Rs. At our destination he turned to us and asked with a wide toothless grin,
‘Good ride, you enjoy?’
‘Yes.’ We told him, glad that we were still in one piece.
‘I’m 65 years old and in good health. I’m strong.’ He added, squeezing his matchstick arms. He certainly had a strong will. No doubt of that.
Back in Delhi, it was the Sikh Tri-Centenary celebrations. Sikhs from all over the world came home to celebrate 300 years of their relatively new religion. It was a carnival atmosphere, with floats carrying the Sikh religious leaders, free food and refreshments, followed by dancing horses, camels, and elephants. One elephant led the procession and Alan was invited to sit on it through the streets of Delhi. As we stood and watched, we became engulfed by a sea of bright orange turbans. Everyone was very friendly and kept giving us food and milk shakes. A couple of elderly Sikhs became attached to us, inviting us to be part of the final celebrations. They showed us around a marquee, which was a flurry of activity. Huge vats of dhal and other vegetable dishes were being cooked and groups of women were making unleavened bread. For some reason unknown to us, we were guests of honor and were given seats on the stage where the holy Sikh book was carried on beside us in front of hundreds of people. One Sikh called Satnim even invited us to go and meet his friend Sonia Gandhi, but Alan declined adding later that he didn’t want to sit and listen to a load of old political drivel!
India was a fabulous place and we can’t wait to return. In India, people accepted you for what you were and not what they thought you should be. Unlike the West, you are not judged by your wealth or looks, but your wisdom. India encourages you to contemplate things that really matter and to accept that everyone can be different, yet the same. This helps us to understand who we are and to accept that none of us are better
than the next, but just different.