Joining in in Jaipur, India

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After the maelstrom of Delhi, Scrubs and I were glad to escape to the relative serenity of Jaipur. The famously pink buildings seemed to glow a warm welcome in the sun as we dragged our battered and dusty bags through the streets of the city. We had finally arrived after a long train journey and, despite feeling a little rough around the edges, I was unspeakably relieved to be out of the capital. From the moment we set foot inside its walls, Jaipur felt utterly different. My shoulders lowered themselves from their protective position up around my ears and I relaxed for the first time in days. If Delhi had felt like a strangling, knotted tangle of a city, Jaipur felt like a long, fluttering length of ribbon. I had a long list of places I wanted to see – The Amer Fort, the Hawa Mahal, Jantar Mantar, Galtaji – and I kept the list clutched in my fist like a prayer.

The first couple of days flew by as we checked places off the list. The Taj Mahal – despite its fame – had left me cold, but I was moved by the intricate beauty, majesty, and ingenuity of the Amer Fort. It had spectacular views, carefully tended courtyards, a glittering hall of mirrors, and a stream of water designed to run through the palace to cool the rooms. Really it had everything you could want and more from a palace built in 1592. Jantar Mantar and the Hawa Mahal deserve posts all of their own, but I’ll have to write about those another day, because this piece is not about them; this is about Galtaji, or as it’s more commonly known to tourists, The Monkey Temple.

Now, I could call myself an animal lover, but that really doesn’t begin to cover it. If I said that, you might infer that I enjoy playing fetch with my dog and finding cat memes online. I mean, I do, don’t get me wrong… but my love of animals extends much further than Grumpy Cat, my black labrador Lia, and Lia’s deep and abiding passion for tennis balls. For lack of a better word, I am enthusiastic about animals. Not just cute animals, but all animals. Where others might recoil in disgust, I lean in with unabashed interest.

Maybe this lively preoccupation stems from the lack of exciting wildlife in Ireland; the glimpse of a red fox is about as exciting as it gets, and the damage they can do is more or less limited to tipping over wheelie bins in their search for food. In Ireland there are no bears, no wolves, and (allegedly thanks to St. Patrick), no snakes. Not only that, but unless you’re a masochist of the highest order, you’re unlikely to set foot in the sea. Even if you are a masochist and choose to embrace the feeling of icy water stripping you of every nerve ending you possess, you’re unlikely to catch a glimpse of anything too thrilling in the murky water.

A seal, maybe.

A confused seal wondering why there’s a human visiting their icy home.

Anyway, with this in mind, you can imagine how much I was enjoying Jaipur. There were camels and cows and elephants and donkeys and stray dogs on practically every street. Days exploring the city turned to evenings eating delicious dinners at the Peacock Rooftop Restaurant, and then we would roll home, stuffed to the gills, ready for a good night of sleep at the Vinayak Guesthouse.

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Even before we had left for India, Galtaji was high on my list of places to go. I had read articles describing it as an abandoned temple teeming with monkeys, and the reviews on Tripadvisor definitely seemed to back this up. People had written sentences like, ‘It reminded me of a lost city found in a clearing of a long lost jungle’ and, ‘Please be aware that not many people know about this place,’ and honestly, to me this sounded magical. In my mind, the temple was a deserted ruin with monkeys on every available surface, and I intended to spend an entire afternoon observing and photographing them in quiet tranquility.

Just me and the monkeys.

Well, just me and Scrubs and the monkeys, but I had a feeling he wouldn’t be as enthralled by the idea of monkey-mayhem for hours on end. Still, I was undeterred. In preparation for our visit I had bought a large hand of bananas. I felt well prepared. Jane Goodall would have nothing on me!

The day we had planned to visit the temple finally arrived. We hopped into an auto rickshaw and asked the driver in garbled, phrasebook Hindi to take us to Galtaji. Since neither of us actually speak Hindi, this was not at all helpful and our driver only understood where we wanted to go after a combined effort to find it on his trusty paper map. A mercifully short (but bracingly death-defying) hurtle through the streets later, he stopped the rickshaw in the middle of a side road and gestured roughly to the left.

“Up there?” I asked, dreading the answer.

He nodded.

We looked at each other. Scrubs’s eyebrows lifted so much they almost disappeared. We paid the man and hopped out. Clutching at the straps of my backpack, I examined the path that cut a sharp zig-zag up the side of an extremely large hill. It looked suspiciously busy for a path that supposedly led to an abandoned temple.

“Are we sure this is it?” Scrubs asked sceptically. “It’s very… populated.”

I shrugged. “I don’t know. We might as well go up and have a look,” I said, anxious to see what I had now come to think of as ‘my monkeys’.

Unsure but optimistic, we set off up the hill. We quickly overtook a group of women in traditional saris, laughing and chattering to each other. They smiled at us as we passed, and we nodded and smiled in reply. Our comparitively drab clothing made us stand out against their bright flowing fabrics, and as we caught up with more Indians walking the same way we began to feel self-conscious. Where were these people going?

The first surprise lay just around the bend.

Scarves of different shades and hues lined both sides of the path. I stared at them out of the corner of my eye, trying not to look fazed. There was something scattered on them – seeds, maybe? – and every so often people walking up the path would throw some more on the scarves as they walked by. Since I had only bananas in my backpack, we continued on, confused. I hadn’t thought to bring seeds.

Around the next bend, things only got more confusing.

On this stretch, a cow lay on one of the scarves. An extremely fancy blanket covered its rump, and its wet eyes gazed placidly at us with an air of resigned boredom. As we walked past, I noticed with some surprise that a fifth leg dangled uselessly from the cow’s back.

I say ‘some surprise’ but what I really mean is that I tugged on Scrubs’ sleeve and, practically bug-eyed with astonishment, hissed, “Look! Look! A fifth leg! Did you see that? That cow had a LEG coming out of its SPINE!”

We continued up the hill, and as we walked we met with more lavishly decorated, curiously configured cows. Cows with six legs, cows with seven legs, cows with two tails, or three ears. After a while it started to seem almost normal. It got to the point where it would have felt strange to see a four-legged, two-eared, one-tailed, regular cow. Not only that, but as we got closer to the top, we met more and more people all walking in the same direction.

We still hadn’t seen a single monkey.

I was starting to think we must be in the wrong place. Scrubs and I discussed theories about the sacred, slightly irregular cows as we traipsed along. We passed more scarves, more seeds, and more cows until, after what felt like a climb up the steep side of Kilimanjaro, we made it to the top of the hill. I was expecting to see the temple laid out before me, but instead there was just a small clearing with people milling about, taking a break. Then I looked over my shoulder and there, sitting in the shade of a tree, was a monkey.

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In a move so smooth you would think I’d practiced it, I swung my bag off my back and pulled out both my camera and a banana with one hand. The gimlet-eyed monkey approached me with a swagger befitting a thirteen year old boy with something to prove, and waited with an air of indulgence as I peeled it. I offered him half the banana and he eyed it with scorn, flicking a knowing glance at my bag. Slowly, as if he was doing me a favour, he took the piece of banana from my outstretched hand and began pulling it apart with his long, slender fingers. I walked around and found a few more monkeys. They indulged me by posing for some photos, and I paid them in banana pieces. It was a fair trade. I had almost forgotten about the temple by the time Scrubs tapped my elbow to get my attention.

“Will we keep going?” He asked.

“Oh. I suppose so,” I said, somewhat reluctantly.

“There’ll be more monkeys,” Scrubs said. “It’s called Monkey Temple for a reason.”

I nodded and we rejoined the string of people heading for the next stretch of the path. There were definitely more people now. Indians of all ages surrounded us as we started down the other side of the hill. On this side there were no cows, but the sunken pathway was narrower and it was easier to lose your footing in the fine gravel.

About twenty minutes later a bottleneck up ahead hindered progress, and in our attempts to see why we had stopped we finally got our first glimpse of where we were going. Nestled in snugly, looking like it had been there for at least as long as the hills themselves, sat the temple complex of Galtaji.

The temple did not look lost. It did not look abandoned. Instead, it was absolutely heaving with activity. As we approached, the path narrowed until it was only wide enough for two people to walk abreast. Steps appeared, carved deep into the hillside to ease the steep descent.  Hands pressed briefly on our backs and shoulders as people steadied themselves. An elderly woman placed a gnarled hand on Scrubs’ shoulder without so much as a word and used Scrubs as a crutch the whole way down the steps. I was hemmed in on all sides by women in beautiful clothes and shining nose piercings. They smiled at us as we pressed together, giggling and talking to each other as they flicked curious glances at us, the only two tourists for miles; conspicuous t-shirt wearers in a sea of saris and robes.

As we reached the bottom of the steps, the cause of the bottleneck was clear; a narrow stile led into the temple, just big enough for one person to squeeze through. The eagerness of the crowd around us waiting to get in led to impatient shoving that was less pragmatic than it was perilous, and as I shimmied between the stone blocks and jumped down to the courtyard on the far side, I recalled the news stories about deadly stampedes during festivals in India. ‘I’m not surprised,‘ I thought. ‘That stile is a health and safety officer’s worst nightmare.’

Once Scrubs had safely joined me on the stone slabs of the courtyard floor, we looked around us in awe. It felt like we had walked straight into a copy of National Geographic. The courtyards were a riot of colour. Hundreds of people milled around, laughing and singing and dancing. A square, sunken pool (kund) was filled with women pouring the alarmingly green water over their topless bodies. A smiling woman missing most of her teeth stopped in front of us and said something we couldn’t understand before dipping her finger in a copper bowl filled with vermilion powder and pressing a tilaka onto each of our foreheads with surprising force. She disappeared into the throng as quickly as she had appeared, and we looked at each other and laughed. A lady pressed a flower into my hand as she swept past in an emerald green sari embroidered with gold thread. We stood there for many minutes, just absorbing the mood around us.

It had been claustrophobically crowded at times in Delhi, and while the multicoloured masses at the temple were not dissimilar in density, the atmosphere was entirely different. In Delhi I had felt intimidated, threatened and sometimes downright scared. People – mostly men – had stared, stony-faced, until it felt like their pupils were scorching my soul. Some had used their phones to video or photograph us as we made our way down the street. A crawling dread had crept over me every time we moved through the crowded city, and it had coloured my opinion of it; instead of my usual keen interest in exploring a new place, I had become emotionally shuttered and focused solely on making myself as invisible as possible.

While the pavilions at this elaborately carved temple complex were packed with people, at no point did I feel intimidated or vulnerable. Nobody stared. Some people threw curious glances our way, but nobody took our photograph. Nobody videoed us. Nobody there was interested in us at all. The many, many people who had made the pilgrimage to Galtaji that day hadn’t made it to stand gawking at two ignorant tourists. They were there to celebrate, and meet with friends and family. They were there to scatter seeds, and bathe in the kunds. Their interaction with us was limited to fleeting moments of warm welcome. The old lady wordlessly leaning on Scrubs as a fellow pilgrim. The tilakas. The flower. The smiles.

Out of respect, I didn’t take a single photo at Galtaji. The time spent at the festival felt too precious and otherworldly to capture with a camera. The colours, the people, and the feeling of standing in that deep nook surrounded by hills will live on only in our memories. As we left to return to our guesthouse, our legs aching, I pulled a couple of the forgotten bananas from my bag and silently handed one to Scrubs, hoping the potassium boost would prevent muscle cramps.

I may not have seen my monkeys, but that no longer mattered. We had seen something better; we had stumbled on an unforgettable experience.

 

Freaks and Fried Butter in Florida, USA

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I am going to say something today that you might dismiss as ridiculous hyperbole, but I promise you that I say it with utmost sincerity:

There are few events in life as entertaining for a European as the Florida State Fair.

Six years ago, on a whim, Scrubs and I parked our rental car in front of the Tampa fairground and hopped out with entirely average levels of excitement. We bought our tickets, pushed open the gate, and ambled in. I was hoping for a small petting zoo and maybe a few stalls selling candy floss (or ‘cotton candy‘), while Scrubs was hoping for a speedy lap of the fairground and a quick getaway before I had a chance to kidnap a pygmy goat.

What we hadn’t even dreamed to hope for or expect were the hours of entertainment we managed to buy for a mere $12 each. From the moment we walked in and looked around at the first aisle of stalls, we knew that this would be one of the high points of our trip. In Europe, there is a common negative stereotype of Americans that is… unflattering, to say the least. You’ve probably come across it before; Americans are expected to be loud and not particularly bright, with a love for the star-spangled banner that borders on the fanatical, an enormous appetite for junk food and an enthusiasm for supersizing everything whenever possible.

Although on our travels we had periodically come across certain people or places that had tipped their hat to these stereotypes (the same as in any country, really), the Florida State Fair was the first and last place we visited that managed to fit all of these into a 300 acre space.

Food stalls with multiple options greeted us as we walked in. They offered everything – and I mean everything – on a stick. I am not sure why Floridians believe food is immediately made immeasurably better if it’s on a stick, all I can say is that they seem to believe it fervently.

We walked past these stalls with our mouths agape. Monstrosities that must have been conceived in the depths of hell screamed at us from brightly coloured billboards.

Everywhere we looked, people were eating indescribable (yet presumably edible) foodthings with great relish. Our eyes as wide as saucers, we eventually made it past the food stalls to the agricultural shed, where I found the pygmy goats, as expected… and cattle. Cattle with enormous horns that looked downright uncomfortable. I’m not sure these bulls were fully on board with the whole bigger-is-better mindset.

At least I understood why the cattle were there though. We passed the pygmy goats and cattle and pigs and sheep, and suddenly came across a kangaroo.

Kangaroos, as far as I can tell, are not native to Florida.

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We kept walking and came across a giraffe. A giraffe! Giraffes are definitely not endemic to Florida! He looked extremely out of place. I stopped to give him a carrot.

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As we left the menagerie and continued on our way, we stopped for some grilled corn on the cob (not on a stick) and discussed the peculiarity of seeing African and Australian land mammals at a fair that was supposed to celebrate the best of the state of Florida. Little did we know, however, that the most peculiar was yet to come. We rounded the corner only to find a collection of brightly coloured tents festooned with hand-painted signs that stopped us dead in our tracks.

I feel I should explain here that my only experience with side-show attractions is what I’ve read about in slightly-problematic children’s books. Up until I saw these tents, I honestly, truly, hand-on-heart believed them to be something that had died out with the arrival of political correctness. As far as I know, “freak shows*” are not a thing in Europe – certainly, they’re not a thing in Ireland – so I probably stood and stared for far longer than is strictly polite when I realised what exactly I was looking at.

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What.

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On.

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Earth.

I moved from tent to tent, astonished, as people queued up, paid, and wandered inside as if this were a perfectly normal activity for a sunny afternoon. The curiosity burned inside of me as I tried to decide whether it was ethically justifiable to pay to see “wild little aboriginies” or a “snake child” if you suspected they might only be animatronic dolls. They couldn’t possibly be real people… Right? In the end, my conscience won out of over my curiosity and I left the area of colourful tents feeling an uncomfortable mixture of intrigue and disgust.

We reached the rides (by far the least interesting part of the entire fair), cast an eye over the monster trucks (of course), and then I looked to my left and saw it, shining like a beacon of hope in this desolate land.

The holy grail. The most “American” thing I have ever seen in my entire life.

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Deep-Fried Butter.

Obviously, it had to be done.

After weighing up the pros and cons of the menu (Pro: curiosity would be satisfied. Con: swift and premature death from coronary artery disease), we queued up and ordered two deep-fried butters and two deep-fried oreos. A short but surprising conversation with the nice man at the window proved unexpectedly illuminating when he told us that deep-fried butter was his bestseller. In fact, his nephew had given up his high-paying job in IT to run a deep-fried butter stall because it was more profitable. Both impressed and appalled, we retreated to a quiet spot with our deep-fried cholesterol grenades and examined them closely. In my excitement, I didn’t bother to focus my camera and as a result the photos are a blurry mess, but this is what they looked like on the outside.

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I wolfed mine down in quick succession and then remembered I had meant to take a photo for posterity, so I asked Scrubs to take a bite out of each and then allow me to photograph them.

…Which he did, because he has the patience of a saint.

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The one on top is the deep-fried butter, while the other is the deep-fried oreo. If you’re shaking your head in disgust right now or making an extremely unimpressed face, I can only say that you know not what you do. Much as I would like to scoff at the very idea of deep-fried butter, the unfortunate and inconvenient truth is that it was absolutely delicious. As best I can tell, they roll a knob of butter in sugar and cinnamon before freezing it, and then deep-fry the frozen blob of unhealthiness to create something that looks truly rank but tastes like melted heaven.

The deep-fried oreo, by comparison, tasted dry and bland.

Tired out from feeling like time-travellers exploring a strange land, we stopped for some candy floss on our way back to the real world. We also stopped to marvel at sandcastles, sculptures made from butter, stitched fabric and wonderful quilts. We eyed the funnel cakes and corn dogs suspiciously, and finally made it back to the car. We left the car park feeling the aftereffects of profound culture shock.

If you have the opportunity to visit this wormhole in the fabric of time, please go. It is unlike anything else you will ever experience. Wave a tiny American flag. Marvel at the sideshow stalls. Eat some deep-fried butter.

… and then maybe get your cholesterol checked, because I did and it was sky high.

Some say I still have high cholesterol** to this day.

 

 

*Apparently the use of the word ‘freak’ is considered correct now?

**I actually do although I don’t think I can honestly still blame the deep-fried butter….