Northern India (Part 1)

Day 1: Delhi

August 28th

Saw a new type of bird from the walkway as I dismounted the plane. Small, brown, bobbing head. Couldn’t make out much more from the walkway. It was the only new thing I saw at the airport, which otherwise is that very standard airport design that someone seems to have decided is the best way of doing things back in the ’70s. All very familiar; even had a Costa.

I’ve been very nervous, all day. It hasn’t been helped by the fact that I immediately fell for a scam – one I’d been warned about, even. I approached the WTI counter when a man approached and asked for my name. When I gave it, he nodded and told me to follow him to my taxi. It felt wrong already but I still did it. Stupid decision. En route to the city, through many patches of halted traffic and roadworks, motorbikes nipping in and out of gaps, the driver told me the hotel I’d booked was closed and took me to an ‘official’ tourism office. Angrily declared I was going to walk to the hotel instead; he shrugged and basically said it was my funeral. Jumped in a tuktuk (which I was told – I think mistakenly – is called an ‘Indian helicopter’) whereupon the same thing happened, and after paying over the odds was deposited at a different office.

Rang the hotel to check, and they had no record of my booking. Panic started setting in and, despondent, I accepted the office’s ‘offer’ of a ride to a different hotel. Instead, the driver took me to yet another office where, exhausted, I explained my situation to the two men opposite me. One of them – Nayeem – sprang into action, and booked another hotel in my name. While I waited for the driver, feeling helpless, he asked about my travel plans and, after I explained my route, proceeded to book five trains for me. I paid the money without protesting and was told to come back tomorrow and collect the tickets. It looks so stupid when I write it down.

So my first experience of Delhi was tainted by those first few hours, all day. It wasn’t helped by the trip the guide they’d booked for my two days in the city – Bhupi – immediately collected me from the hotel and took me to Old Delhi on a sightseeing tour. He put me on a rickshaw, the driver of which took me through the old markets, crowded and with exposed wires dangling into the streets, and onto several ‘stops’, most of which were clearly just shops for which he gets commission for every tourist he brings, and which were fairly aggressive in their sales tactics. The Jain temple and the Red Fort – for which I was only allotted 10 minutes of time compared to 20 minutes or so per shop – were beautiful, but overall it was an unpleasant experience.

The Red Fort, from a coach park thick with would-be guides

There were some nice moments today. The rickshaw drivers are like the Red Arrows, with incredible spatial awareness that lets them wheel out into oncoming traffic like it’s nothing. I liked walking the back streets round the hotel in the evening to find a restaurant, when nobody was paying attention to me. I had a good Biryani and got some much needed smaller notes (my rickshaw driver tried to get me to pay him 5,000 rupees, instead of the 500 I’d been told to expect, but I only had a 1,000 note and he conveniently had no change). I didn’t give in and buy anything from the shops on the tour. These are some positives to build on tomorrow, and hopefully when I get out of Delhi.

Today I’ve felt like a waste of space, a pushover. I feel like I’ve been tossed around like a leaf and honestly I keep reminding myself I could cut my losses and just fly home. From tomorrow I’m going to try to be more assertive and proactive, and make sure that these mistakes don’t ruin what I want to be an amazing trip.

Day 2: Delhi

August 29th

Much better day today. Saw the more sanitised, touristy areas of Delhi during the day, albeit after a night of disturbed sleep and near-constant worry.

India Gate (a memorial to 70,000 soldiers in the British India Army), Parliament House and the more official areas of New Delhi are a world away from the cramped, aggressively mercantile Old Delhi. They feel more official but aren’t without ornament, an odd mix of veneration and impersonal. The Flame of the Immortal Soldier stands underneath the arch of India Gate, a rifle and a helmet stuck on top. From what I’ve seen so far, India is very keen to honour its soldiers.

The outside of Laxminaryan Temple

They weren’t the best things I saw today, though. First port of call was the Laxminaryan Temple. Built by the Birla family in 1933 and opened by Mahatma Ghandi, it’s a sprawling and asymmetrical complex of shrines and worship rooms. From the outside the tan and crimson masonry, with spires and open, glassless windows, looks opulent – fittingly, as Bhupi told me it’s a temple to wealth – but inside it’s sparser than I expected. Still lots of adornment, but the rooms are open, light and airy. Its grounds are full of pagodas and statues, and the dry water feature was still beautifully made.

Despite its beauty, I wasn’t nearly as thrilled by it as I was by the Himayun Tomb. The inspiration for the Taj Mahal (which I’m seeing on Monday if my train tickets turn out to be real…) it was built by Himayun’s grieving widow. Its nickname – ‘Dormitory of the Mughals’ – belies exactly how grand it is. It looms in the middle of vast green grounds, criss-crossed with irrigation channels and artificial streams that feed the fountains. It’s enormous and beautiful in its relative simplicity of deign, and it’s a measure of how much seeing it improved my mood that I played at avoiding the guards as I crept through its spartan interior. I’d learned my lesson earlier when a guard at the lesser, octagonal Isa Khan garden tomb nearby had demanded a tip for giving me an unprompted and unasked-for ‘tour’.

The astonishing Himayun Tomb, the ‘Baby Taj’

I was sorry to leave, and sorrier when Bhupi took me to another ‘market’ which is apparently a prerequisite for using any parking spaces. I sat through another 15 minutes of sales pitches, stalling for time by pretending to examine a scarf and, at one point, telling a long-winded and pointless story about a wedding me and Nollie went to, before I was reluctantly allowed to leave without a purchase. It’s cheerful duplicity at all turns and I wish I had someone else with me. The vast majority of the sales techniques seem to be appeals to the need to buy gifts for your girlfriend. I’ve heard the ‘how many girlfriends?’ line a few times already.

After picking up my hopefully legit train tickets and itinerary, Bhupi dropped me back at the hotel Delhi Pride and we parted on good terms, though I noticed he didn’t ask me to sign his guest book of past passengers, instead exhorting me to call him for a lift to the station in the morning.

In the evening, on Lonely Planet’s suggestion, I tried to find the Sumiyan restaurant. Opted to walk the 40 minutes rather than take a tuktuk. This was today’s low point. I had to hunch my shoulders and stare straight ahead to walk through crowds of sellers, past children begging with younger siblings in their arms, past families and thin silhouettes against braziers on roundabouts packed with garbage ready for collection. Upsetting and very uncomfortable. Hard to describe the urgency of it all, and the resignation in the faces of the children as I ignored them. At one point a great dark shape in the road, holding up traffic, turned out to be a bullock stood placidly in the face of hundreds of vehicles.

Ultimately the walk was for nothing, too, as the restaurant was impossible to find down a side street, unlit and lined with open staircases without labels or addresses. After two beers and a breather in Sam’s Bar – as exotic as the name suggests – I risked the Metro, which is raised above the streets, and was back at the hotel in 10 minutes at a cost of 20 rupees. Valuable lesson.

A band practices in an open tomb

I think it was my fault for trying to go as the crow flies, on the main thoroughfares and down the side streets. The vast, vast majority of Delhi can’t be like this, but I feel like today I saw both the best and worst of the city, with only Bhupi to talk to.

A better, less self-pitying day. Things are still unclear about the next few weeks (for instance, everything is unclear about the next few weeks) but right now – tired, stinking, and in my pants – I feel up to it.

Day 3: Delhi to Bharatpur

August 30th

Writing this on the station platform at H Nizamuddin. A very rushed and, at times, panicked morning. Had a breakfast of pasta and one slice of bread at the hotel, then left to take the Metro to Connaught Place to take some extra cash out, as it seemed the best place to find a Visa-enabled ATM. The backpack attracts attention, a lot of it unwanted. I was accosted by a man who told me two other men were following me, which panicked me even as I remembered from Lonely Planet this is another common ruse/

Couldn’t take cash out, as I’d had payments processed in the UK and Denmark this morning, and Barclays thought it was suspicious activity. Compounded my discomfort, and as I waited nervously for the bank to confirm I could actually take cash out counted up the rest of my money. A friendly Nepalese man – aghast at how little time I’m spending there later this trip – took me back to the place I’d bought my train tickets to get a map, which hopefully bodes well for the tickets’ authenticity.

Eventually the cash machines spat some notes out, and I hurriedly crammed them into the money belt Nollie [my girlfriend] had insisted I buy. As I went to H&M to buy a hat another man told me it was closed, and that I should go with him to a coffee shop. This is another scam, apparently, where they get commission for taking tourists to specific shops. I ignored him and his repeated assertions the shop was closed and took a nervous Metro station to the station to wait for my train.

The station itself is huge, and the non-passenger trains are hundreds of carriages long. I had to feed my huge backpack through airport-style security to get through to the platforms, where I gratefully bought some water and crisps. The info on my itinerary seems correct, which is a relief. We’ll see when I board in an hour or so. Until then I’m content to sit in the shade and read.

Completely elated. I walked most of the length of the train when it pulled in looking for coach C-2, only to double back reasoning it had to be closer to the engine. Ten minutes later I found it in the original direction. Two wobbles as I boarded – a man in the seat that my ‘ticket’ (a printout I’ve clutched all morning) said was mine, and a second enquiring if it was my seat after all – and I spent the next 20 minutes as it filled up expecting to be thrown off.

So when the conductor worked his way along the aisle, checking names against his list, and summarily addressed me as ‘Mr. Christopher’, I felt all the tension leave. Absolutely delighted at the moment, a far cry from my worry this morning. Porters walk constantly through the compartments selling water, ice cream, vegetarian meals, and tea. One offers “chaaiiii” in a long, low drone like a bumblebee.

A view of Bharatpur from the train

(At the end of our two days together Bhupi finally asked me my name. I was then informed that Chris is of Indian origin, which surprised me as it absolutely is Greek.)

I got lucky with my tickets, and that the third driver took me to a real tourism office instead of the hotel he was directed to. This evening I’m going to book more myself directly, so I’m 100% sure of my route and info.

Didn’t book any tickets. My room is just outside wifi range of the main house that comprises the hotel I’m staying in on the outskirts of Bharatpur. Excuses – will do it tomorrow or my first full evening in Agra.

Evening in Bharatpur

From the tuktuk to the hotel, Bharatpur looks pleasant enough – wide streets and bustling but not busy. I was met at the gate by the owner, then once he’d taken my passport unpacked in my room and took a few hours to wander and read. The room itself is a bit of a cell, with no air conditioning and a fan directly over the bed that is trying to shake itself loose, though I did have the offer of upgrading.

Regardless, it was more than made up for by the meal of okra, peppers, lentils, rice and ‘Indian bread’ that evening in the house’s living room, and the chat I had with Nripesh, the owner’s brother. He’s an avid cyclist – had ridden from Bharatpur to Jaipur with four friends, for which they got to meet the princess of Jaipur and got their pictures in the paper. He’s looking forward to a return trip to Europe and London next year. The last time he was in France he picked an apple from a farmer’s orchard and was shocked at the angry response from his guide; in India it’s accepted that you can pick fruit to eat if you’re hungry as long as you don’t pick more to take with you for later. Between him and the rest of the family, it was a nice antidote to the stress this morning.

Early night – got to be up to see the birds at dawn.

Day 4: Bharatpur to Agra

August 31st

Currently sitting at the furthest point of Keoladeo National Park that tourists can access. I’ve seen deer roaming the paths, softshell turtles, huge lizards, and so many species of bird. It’s amazing. Early on in the ride I pulled the (rusty) hire bike over in shock to gawp at trees rising from the wetlands, their branches full of painted storks. An amazing experience. This is what I want from the trip.

I startled two deer off the path and quietly sat down in the foliage and waited for them to return. It was a few minutes later I thought to check my location on the map. ‘Python Point’. Moved on.

Glad I refused the quite aggressive upsell of a guide. I’ve barely been alone so far outside of my hotel room, and these few hours of solitude and aching legs and the raucous calls of birds in breeding season is what I’ve needed.

On the way back, climbed a watchtower and saw a colony of bats in the trees, flapping their wings to cool themselves and chirping. No leopards yet, though.

As I was forcing the bike – now with a broken saddle – up to the exit, I passed a troupe of 20 or 30 monkeys. One, a tiny little thing completely unconcerned by my presence, hopped over to its mother for a hug. One of the cutest things I’ve ever seen, that simple desire for comfort, this tiny monkey wrapping its arms as wide as it could around its mum. I let out an involuntary coo, and the mother chuffed a warning at me.

A nice man on a motorbike stopped as I was resting and drinking what felt like my ninth litre of water this morning. I balked a bit, but it turned out he was asking where I was from and telling me to go to the tiger sanctuary where he used to work. He said I’d see up to ten tigers in a day, guaranteed – though only if I go later in the year. Wish I had time to go this leg of the trip. A man at Keoladeo Temple, a place of Shiva worship, had earlier told me to sit by him and I’d quite brusquely refused. I worry that the first day in Delhi has made me suspicious and unfriendly. I’ll try to be better from now on, while still being vigilant. Palin would have sat down.

Now back at the Royal Guest House, waiting for the insane heat to recede a little before I head to the town’s Iron Fort. Burnt the back of my legs in the park and I can tell it’s going to be bad, despite my plastering Factor 50 over myself.

The Keoladeo Temple

Once the temperature had fallen – though barely – took a tuktuk into the town. Little disappointed by the fort. From the outside it’s imposing (though the tarped-over parade floats on the bridge spoiled the effect a little) but inside it’s indistinguishable from the rest of the town. There’s a nice central building in the middle of the island, and the museum (closed) looks interesting from what I could see through the windows.

The view from the Iron Fort doesn’t scream ‘castle town’.

Went to get cash out from an ATM. A man in a yellow t-shirt followed me into the booth with the machine, which put my heckles up. As I got my cash, I pretended to pocket it but kept it in my fist. As I squeezed past, he tried to  unobtrusively get his hand in my pocket and, when that failed, followed me out of the booth without trying to take money out himself, and began walking behind me. I’d stupidly walked out in the opposite direction from which I’d approached the bank, and had no idea where I was going. I was shocked – this had all taken less than 20 seconds – and just kept walking towards what seemed like an empty street. Got my act together and turned to confront him, at which point he ran across to the other side of the road and down a path by the fort’s moat. An unpleasant experience that I somehow shook off quite quickly and, having the hypothetical-shower-argument equivalent of imagining how I’d have turned the tables on him somehow, walked back to the hotel through the bazaar.

Spent a few more hours at the Royal Guest House talking to the family before they ran me to the station. After a dull journey, with no view through the pitch black outside the windows, arrived at the grim Agra Fort station. My taxi driver Saleem gave me tons of advice for Agra, told me about the public’s opinion of news media in India, and showed me his three Bhupi-like guest books.

After a good meal of chicken curry, garlic naan and jeema rice on the rooftop overlooking the Taj Mahal – just visible against the glow of the horizon – settled in to write this up and sleep. Got to get up at 5am to watch the sunrise.

Day 5: Agra

September 1st

Didn’t get to sleep ‘til gone 2, so decided to take Saleem’s advice and go to the Taj Mahal early on Monday instead. Fewer crowds, apparently.

Instead, up at 9 – well-rested for the first time this trip – and out on the Taj Nature Walk. Nice, well-maintained pathways through valleys and small peaks, with the dome of the Taj always visible from the latter. Loved it. Reminded me of one of my favourite parts of visiting Hong Kong, setting off on treks with only a destination in mind and having to do some orienteering to find it. Somehow always ended up in a storm drain in HK though.

The Taj Mahal from the Taj Nature Walk

Was walking through Agra’s winding side streets when the tail end of this year’s relatively dry monsoon season caught up with me. Fat, heavy drops that all seemed individually visible as they fell and were certainly distinguishable when they hit me like a Smurf’s fist. Had to take shelter in a doorway for the 15-20 minutes it took to pass. The streets cleared immediately. Save for the odd pair of sodden, laughing stragglers, Agra became very quiet and still. I quite liked it.

The rain-soaked streets of Agra

Had brought my new raincoat and, as a man in the opposite doorway watched, proceeded to get the zip thoroughly stuck halfway up on the first go. By the time I’d pulled the fabric free, the rain had slowed to a dribble.

After a few detours round impassably flooded streets, I found the main road that the Vodafone shop was apparently on, as I need an Indian number to book train and coach tickets. The mood had turned – now tuktuk drivers were refusing to take no for an answer, with one following me for close to five minutes shouting potential destinations, and even turning round in traffic to continue when I doubled back to shake him.

Stallholders approached, offering everything from beer to ForEx to opium. Ended up hailing a tuktuk from the other side of the road just to get away, and left without a phone. It’s the last time I’ll try to write about this as it’s getting repetitive, but the combative way of selling to tourists is exhausting and easily my least favourite part of the journey so far. I know I need thicker skin and it’s just culture shock. It makes me feel very vulnerable.

Agra Fort is impressive. The colour combo of pink clay, green lawns and white marble is very striking. The marble work in particular is impressive, with almost mechanically exact columns stretching up to curving, floral patterns. Much of it is pitted and watermarked, which if the place was empty would make it feel more like a faded monument to historic splendour, but because of all the guides and touts makes it feel a bit like Thorpe Park in winter. Ridiculous comparison, but that’s what I thought of.

There’s an insane amount of history packed between its walls, though, from the original marble mosques to the drab concrete viewing platform, from which you can see the Taj Mahal in the distance, resting on a bend in the river.

The back of the Taj Mahal on the curve of the river

Left the Fort with a renewed determination to get a phone. After a few false starts, as I found shops with their shutters down, went into Parmar Mobile Communications, a typically tiny store that barely fit five people pressed against one another. After 90 minutes of repeated attempts, with endless miscommunications about the difference in format between postcodes and pincodes, what constitutes the ‘front’ and ‘back’ of a passport etc, and having had my photo taken repeatedly, left without any success. They tried their best, though, and used some of their own information as collateral on my behalf. Would have been academic anyway, as both major coach booking sites in India turn out to only accept payment in rupees. Worked out a solution with Pria [a friend]’s aunt Anita.

Over butter chicken, a man and his son approached me and played sitar and danced, despite me repeatedly saying I just wanted to be left alone for a while. He even turned my phone over when I tried watching some videos from today to dissuade them, and in the end I faked a call to get rid of them. Rahul [my friend from home] says I should be more strident next time, but it doesn’t come naturally to me. Will try harder tomorrow.

Before I left the rooftop, heard the familiar dirge of ‘Happy Birthday’ from somewhere out in the darkness. Like the Costa in the airport, it was a little burst of the familiar that cheered me up after a frustrating back half of the day.

Had a WhatsApp call with Noll and spoke to friends on chat. Made the world of difference to my mood. I’m now sat on the bed in my room (with its bizarre sexy mood lighting) ready for an early night and the Taj Mahal tomorrow.

Day Six: Agra – Jaipur

September 2nd

Laughed from sheer happiness when I saw the Taj Mahal up close. It genuinely is that amazing. Sat on a raised white marble dias above beautifully kept grounds, it’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen (except the Himayun Tomb, I suppose). The flat landscape and its position above the Yamuna does it the huge favour of ensuring it only ever has the sky as its backdrop, and even in overcast conditions it looks phenomenal. Completely awestruck by it, as was obviously the intention of the architects who ensured the reveal as you enter through the gate is spectacular.

Needs no introduction

Made from marble and 15 different precious stones from as far away as Iraq, it’s the greatest tribute to a deceased love one ever. Nollie has promised to probably wait a few weeks before moving on, which is nice, but this just edges that into second place.

Inside the mausoleum, its two tombs (Hers in the very centre, His slightly offset to the West) sit within a marble latticework. Rubies inlay the flower designs set into the lattice walls, and a guide attempted to replicate the effect of moonlight on the stones with a torch. It must be astonishing at night. The acoustics in there create a constant low rumble, reminiscent of distant chanting, and any loud sounds echo for many seconds. The guide shouted my name to demonstrate, causing some disapproving looks from the armed security. I could only shrug.

Shah Jahan’s offset tomb was the only asymmetry I could see in the entire central area. Everything is so perfectly mirrored that there’s an unofficial (and unenforceable) queue for the area that best replicates the most famous pictures of the Taj. I watched people get frustrated with the long stretches of groups posing – even flexing – in the perfect spot. The museum was good too, though small, and has a contemporary portrait of Mumtaz Mahal so you can see what all the fuss was about. So glad I visited it.

On the walk back to the Hotel Taj Plaza, bought some tat – a fridge magnet to add to the collection and a “marble” elephant that’s shonky enough to be cute. Conscious of my rich diet the past few days, sat in a good cafe and had my first cup of black tea of the trip and a cheese toastie that turned out to be incredible greasy and rich anyway. Got back to confirmation that Anita has booked my coach from Delhi to Dehradun/’Doon’. Overall an incredible morning.

I’ve liked sitting on the platforms waiting for trains. This time was the best so far. Hummed to myself as I watched baby monkeys play-fight and spar, leaping on and off a stationary train to the platform and clambering up the corrugated iron shelter. One stole a piece of tarp from its playmate and, trying to run, whirled it over its head until the fabric caught its feet and it went a purler.

Briefly spoke to an Aussie as we were boarding, though his seat was on another carriage. As Chair Car 1 filled up with travellers – all of them dressed more appropriately than me in my jeans and Laika t-shirt, two-toned with sweat across the stomach – I hoped I’d get one of them next to me. Instead, most are at the far end of the carriage and a group of six are chatting, having met on the platform. I feel very New Kid In Class. Suddenly, after days of wanting the comfort of a fellow traveller, that ten row gap feels too great and significant for me to join in.

Tuktuk ride from the station to the Hotel Arya Niwas, my only ‘luxury’ stop of this leg of the trip. The driver’s mate Rahul rode along, and offered his services as a guide and a testimonial video, one speaker on which was a girl from my old flatmate Heidi’s hometown in Australia. As he also had the name of our other old flatmate I took him up on his offer, because while destiny and fate are bullshit I’ll buy into coincidences like that all the time.

Day Seven: Jaipur

September 3rd

Jaipur seems much more my speed than Delhi and Agra, and I’ve been happier and felt more relaxed here than anywhere so far. Between last night’s bath, the laundry service, toilet paper – which none of the previous hotels have had – I woke early feeling ready for the city.

City Palace – home to royalty and a polo museum

I’d packed my trunks, and was chuffed to find out that a hotel two minutes down the road had a pool I could use. Had a good few hours there, floating on my back and looking at the leaves in the net strung above the pool, doing lengths for the first time in years, and reading Murder on the Orient Express. Back to the hotel for an Indian variation on beans on toast and a brew before Rahul arrived.

First stop on the tour was the City Palace, the centre of Jaipur and still the residence of the royal family. A series of nice and airy courtyards, with small residences and buildings – again with utter symmetry – converted into museums. The paintings and illustrations section had some amazing centuries-old maps of other buildings in Rajasthan, used  in Jaipur’s planning stages. It also had a floor-to-ceiling painting of Rajasthan’s local deity, which it turned out pulled double duty as a portable shrine when a permanent one wasn’t available.

It also had a section on polo. The Jaipur regional team turns out to be one of the most dominant sports teams ever, going from country to country destroying all comers without even trying. That section contains a reference to Friends from over a century before Friends existed – a polo ball that could be set on fire to play at night, and which was labelled ‘Fiery Ball’. The armoury contained the most ridiculous set of weapons I’ve ever seen, including a gunsword; an elephant gun longer than I am tall; a scimitar the size of a park bench; and a sabre that was more gemstone than metal.

The most impressive items were the Guinness-certified Largest Silver Objects in the World, two enormous jars made of 14000 silver coins. When Maharaja Sawai Madho Singh II travelled to Britain in 1902 for the coronation of Edward VII, he filled them with water from the Ganges so as to maintain his faith.

The world’s largest silver object (and reflection of incompetent tourist)

Rahul then took me to a garden full of huge astronomical equipment made of concrete, and a sequence of tombs that were insanely beautiful, nestled in a natural bowl between two huge rocky ridges. Today is a day dedicated to Ganesh, apparently, two who there is a shrine atop one of the ridges. I saw dozens of devotees slowly clambering up the hundreds of stone steps in the blazing heat.

Afterwards, Rahul asked if I wanted to see elephants, and I agreed instantly. I’d never seen Asian elephants, or even been close to any type of elephant before, and I’d always wanted to. Read so much about their intelligence and capacity for emotion, and it’s been a dream for a while and one of the reasons for the trip. We drove out of the city and pulled into a road that quickly led to a field with two elephants – both female, one noticeably smaller than the other – stood eating some long sheafs of the grass that grew everywhere around. Was introduced to the keeper, Babbu, who spoke to me about elephant physiology and psychology. Laxmi, the smaller elephant, had been rescued from a circus, he said, and was being fed up to a safe weight to bear a calf. That, he explained, would help both to increase dwindling elephant populations and prevent her focusing on her past, as elephants that have undergone trauma tend to do. I had to wipe away a tear or two, but didn’t feel embarrassed.

I was then introduced to the larger of the pair, Naina – “eyes” – and got to stroke her trunk for a few minutes. It’s hard to focus on any one aspect of them for long, given how enormous they are, but her eyes and the bristly hair on the powerful trunk got the majority of my attention. I was then asked to paint a message on her side – “it’s like giving them a massage” – and, faced with the reality of this huge, gentle creature, everything seemed too trite. I ended up writing ‘Be Kind’, which in her presence felt like an affirmation but now seems childish and naive.

Was then told to clamber onto her neck for a ride. Wish to god I hadn’t. It felt wrong and shameful to put her through that, and I deleted the pictures her handler took of me up there. At the end, fed her bananas – she ate like a machine – and thanked her before climbing back in the tuktuk. Asked to be taken back to the hotel as I was too confused and a little overcome. Doubt really set it on the way back. While Babbu seemed on the level – he’s in contact with a journalist I’ve briefly met in Leicester, and had volunteered that information even before he knew I’m a journalist too – some of the sanctuary’s reviews really make me doubt its provenance. If it turns out to be exploiting the elephants I’m going to be so, so ashamed. Not having mobile data to check things like that on the fly is proving to be a real issue. Need to get better at gut-checking everything. One thing I’m absolutely sure about is that I’m not riding an elephant at Amber Fort tomorrow, or ever again.

Went to a restaurant called Niro’s for supper, as I’d been told the rogan josh is excellent. It was alright, though the rest of the meal was extremely tasty. I’m learning – slowly – to walk away from tuktuk drivers who are clearly taking the mick with the prices they quote, even though it feels rude.          

Back for another bath. One of the travel lessons I’ve scrawled so far in the front of my notebook is ‘always take home comforts when they’re offered’ after the nice homecooked meal I had in Bharatpur, so at least I’ve learned that. Up at 6:30 to try some yoga that’s provided by the hotel.

Part two can be found here.

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