20 May, India – ‘All Over The Place – Asia’
Felt strange waking up in my 7th floor hotel room at 5.30am this morning ready for my shower, pulling back the curtains and seeing crowds of children on the neighbouring dusty wasteland below crowding around a large water trough for their morning wash. I’m already starting to think that I’ve never visited a country of such extremes.
Pretty soon I was on the bus and getting ready for the first item of ‘All Over The Place – Asia’ 2016 – the Toilet Museum. As I’d already seen from our hotel window, basic sanitation is lacking for a lot of people in India, and as one of their former Prime Ministers said “Toilet first, temple later”. Nestled among the chaotic streets of downtown Delhi is a school to teach deprived people the basics of sewerage and toilet construction. They have a free public toilet with a kitchen that runs on gas produced from human waste (yum yum), and a small museum with real life (but thankfully not operational) reconstructions of different styles of Indian drop toilet.
Mr Cha was our guide, and was very proud to show us the more quirky pieces in their collection, such as a Victorian coffee table that flips up to reveal a toilet and a leather armchair toilet so that you don’t have to get up from the table whilst playing cards. Along the way he pointed out to us that Indians invented the first water based toilet and sewage system around 3000BC, and the English invented the first porcelain toilet, a revolution in cleanliness. So when it coms to toilets, India and the UK can hold their heads high.
Once we were finished the staff were most insistent that we attend a welcome ceremony. Not quite knowing that we were letting ourselves in for we were led into a school hall full of segregated male and female adults lined up in rows singing to us. We were ushered up on stage next to the band and stood in a line with awkward smiles on our faces while people read to us in Hindi and we eventually had our names called out scarves placed around our necks.
With an eye on the time we said a swift goodbye and hightailed it to the airport for our Air India flight to Udaipur. It was only an hour before we were coming in to land and then we loaded the minibus that had come to greet us and set off on our way to our destination – Mount Abu. It immediately became clear that things were more rural, with a lot more cows ambling about and half built dwellings dotted along the road with people scratching a living in the red dusty ground. What struck us all most was how colourful everything is. All the lorry cabs are decorated with bright patterns and fake flower garlands in honour of various Hindu gods, and even in the poorest households the women are wearing vibrant saris and head cloths.
We realised pretty soon that our bus wasn’t in the best of shape as the air conditioning was just blowing hot air onto us all and making the ride extremely sticky. It was actually a relief when we came shuddering to a halt in a valley on the dual carriageway and had to sit by the side of the road while our fixer Ashish phoned back for replacement cars (it was all the fault of a broken fan belt apparently).
The next couple of hours drive was the biggest culture shock I’ve had in over 15 years. Cows, goats (and on one occasion a camel) crossed the dual carriageway whenever they felt like it. Men in turbans crouched in the doorways of improvised housing and half built concrete structures, kids played in the dirt, up to four members of a family would pootle along next to us on their motorbike, with granny’s sari flapping away in the slipstream. The sun was beginning to set and looked more like the moon through the dusty air.
Eventually we reached a series of toll roads off the dual carriageway manned by men pushing up barriers balanced with brieze blocks and I started to wonder where on earth we were going to be spending the night. There didn’t seem to be many creature comforts around… Mount Abu began to loom out of the dust and we slowly climbed the twisting road, passing the odd grumpy looking monkey on a crash barrier. About halfway up we passed though a small rudimentary village with a coupe of temples perched on the rocky hillside and street vendors plying packaged snacks and fruit. It was quite clear we were the only Western people around and that the train of traffic making its way up the mountain for the weekend’s festival were either rural locals or homegrown tourists. Past the village it was slightly worrying to see a neon pink forest fire raging away in the darkness on the opposite mountainside, and I was becoming convinced that we were going to be spending the night in a shed somewhere, when suddenly we found ourselves at the gates of what appeared to be some sort of stately home – the Palace Hotel. I felt like I’d stepped back in time 100 years, and was slightly ashamed of myself that I was so relieved to slip under the linen sheets of my bed an hour or two later. Not that ashamed though.