Tuesday, 7 February 2017

This is India

The day didn't really get a started till 3pm. I mean, it actually started at 8am, but a series of frustrations and issues meant that we weren't properly out and about until 3pm. Mystic Gujarat, where we booked our tour, didn't open till eleven, so after we arrived at their door a little after ten we found we had an hour or so to kill; we walked along the Ashram Road and then along the river for a bit, surprised to find a modern promenade rather than old ghats. Tour finally booked we were on our way at three. First stop a snack as we hadn't eaten since our breakfast of aloo paratha. We make a beeline for a stall on the Asheram Road who had been so friendly every time we have passed; he lined a dish with news print and then ads four little brown fried balls with some red onion and baby chills. They are so good, we didn't find out what they were called, exactly, but they were a spicy, herby kind of bread. So good! And even nicer as he insisted we didn't pay.

We were thinking of using the public bus today, but we use the excuse of the late hour to take a rickshaw, first to Dada Hari Ni Vav, an 500 year old step well built of sandstone. It is pretty deserted as we descend the steps, apart from a young couple who are having some kind of romantic photo shoot. The photographer ushers us past, so we descend further, the stonework is incredible intricate, it's really beautiful, although Michael doesn't feel safe on some of the sandstone ledges. At the bottom the water has long since dried up and instead it is filled with litter and some broken rocks. Once outside Michael gets stopped for photographs by three young boys who then follow us round to the top of the main part of the well. More picture are taken, this time with me too, and they shake our hands before taking selfies with us in the background. Further back in the complex and we find a sandstone mosque and tomb which is the final resting place of Dhar Harir who built the stepwell, I also read that she was a household lady of Mamud Begada and superintendent of the royal harem

An older gentleman reminds us to take off our shoes and we are ushered into the tomb, where we are encouraged to make a donation at the foot of one of the burial mounds, then we are shown a stone set of stairs benind the tomb and encouraged to climb to see the view. Michael declined but I ascend, not an easy task when you are wearing a floor length skirt and the steps are each a foot high. Once at the top I do a circuit of the building but fail to find a view worthy of the climb. When I am safely on the ground again I find Michael exploring the mosque, and then we are both directed to go up a narrow stone flight of stairs. Thankfully this staircase has walls on both sides although the doorway we have to squeeze out of at the top is tiny. More stairs, this time a incredible narrow spiral staircase inside the remnants of the collapsed minaret. Feeling claustrophobic and frightened of falling down the stairs, or off the roof once we emerge, we make our way to the other side and descend on the stairs that mirrored the ones we went up on. Thanks and goodbyes to the gentleman and we walk the short distance to the bus stop where we can catch a city bus to our next destination. The walk takes down a quiet road where, thankfully, we find some shade from the burning sun. A joke that we are in "Mechanic Alley" as there are various out of action rickshaws and other vehicles being fixed. A few friendly hellos, which is what we have come to expect in this city. It is wonderfully free of Western tourists, and so the locals don't seem as eager to exploit you as they appear to be in so many other parts of India. Once at the bus stop a group surround us -- we must be an odd sight in this part of town -- through broken English we establish that we are in the right spot to catch the 34/5 bus before a rickshaw pulls up and offers to take us to the Jama Masjid for just 60 rupees. The bus would have been 4 rupees each, but we find ourselves climbing in for the ride anyway. More crazy Ahmedabad traffic, past a brahma bull that refuses to move for anyone, then we see a mother and calf stop in their tracks as soon as they see the bull approaching. We go down a street where at least 5 shops have giant circular grinding wheels running sharpening blades, knives and scissors. The roads and pavements are chockablock with people and scooters, the contents of each shop appearing to pour out onto the street, and the constant seemingly futile beeping of horns. All the while the driver grinning happily and chatting non-stop to us in Gujarati even though we can't understand a word. More gridlock and choking fumes and then we are deposited in a busy shopping street outside the mosque. We had long run out of water, and when we tried to buy some by the bus stop the shop keeper had kindly filled the bottle we had with water from some source in his shop, a lovely thought but I was not ready to risk drinking it. So into a restaurant and I couldn't resist a Mirinda (Indian Fanta) and we each had thali. Once outside Michael finally purchase the nail clippers he had been looking for while I posed for yet more pictures with a group of smiling young girls.

The mosque itself was as lovely as they always are, a peaceful haven away from the crazy outside, however this one wasn't at all used to tourists and I felt more than a little awkward as we entered, made worse by the fact that we had arrived at prayer time and there were hardly any woman around. After a short while I left Michael to continue looking around while I went outside to retrieve our shoes and sit on the steps and watch the world go by below.

Next we walked to Manek Chowk, which is a kind of extension of the busy shopping street that we were on. Stalls and shops selling everything, dishes of aromatic spices piled high, cinnamon, star anise, cardamom, cloves, peppers, mustard and the largest nutmegs I have ever seen, cumin, then nuts and candies and dried fruit. It smelt amazing, stalls selling kitchenware, stainless steel pots and pans and utensils, plastic wares, baskets and containers, cleaning products, clothes, underwear, a stall selling just rubber stoppers and one selling socks, towels, cloths, fruit, vegetables, a whole section of stalls selling jewellery. And all the while rickshaws and scooters beeping as they weaved down the middle. Then, stationary in the middle, a huge horned cow, happily chewing on something she had found or been given. We were given some dried sugared mango to taste at one stall; it was nice, but not nice enough for us to buy more. Considering how vast and busy this shopping area was it felt surprisingly easy to wander trough, so many hellos and enquiries as to where we were from. At one stall we stopped to admire all the spices and we turned back around and there was a cow hurtling towards us at full amble. Only in India!

Heading out of the market night is falling and we head back towards the hotel. There is many a crazy road to cross, so progress is slow and the traffic harder to see at night. We cross the wide Sabarmati River towards the pretty yet polluted sunset, past crowds at bus stops, monkeys in trees, and a lone skinny horse tied at the side of the road, all the while the crazy noisy traffic is whizzing by and my stomach is telling me that the need to get home is more urgent than previously thought. Night has now fallen, and we pass the usual children caked in the dirt from the street, some happy just to say hello, others more persistently asking for food or money, each equally heartbreaking.

Relieved to be back at the hotel but also feeling guilty for the privileges we have and wondering how we got so lucky in life's lottery when others get born into the streets.