India: Elephants with Swords

In the morning I had breakfast on the terrace, sitting alone with my laptop to write. I’ve been smoking a lot in India purely because there’s a large amount of sitting around in the sun or gazing out at majestic views, and they go together nicely. I asked an Indian guy a few across for a cig, and he handed me one smiling. A few moments later he came over to me and introduced himself, and asked to join me. He told me his name was far too long for a western tongue to pronounce, and told me everybody called him Prax.

I liked Prax immediately; he never seemed to stop smiling, and his toothy grin would light up the terrace every time he entered. He told me he was from Mumbai, and that he had left his job in a call centre there to develop an app called LocalHi, which would provide real-time assistance for travellers from local Indians; thereby helping tourists to integrate with real Indian people and avoid the tourist traps and scammers. In certain cases, in-person assistance could be offered; travellers could meet up and hang out with local people who would show them around in safety. I told him I thought it was a wonderful idea, and I filled out a survey he had created about travelling in India.

I wasn’t just being polite either; as with when I visited Cuba or Vietnam, and found the countries reasonably uncorrupted by tourism, I feel scared that the wonderful things I’ve experienced in India will be cheapened in the next couple of decades by pan-faced camera-flash tourism. It’s already too late for Agra; everywhere within a mile of the Taj Mahal is jam packed with men yelling at you to buy their shit. But elsewhere hasn’t been quite so ravaged yet, and an app like LocalHi could ensure that the wealth tourists bring to the country is distributed a little more evenly, while also helping to make sure that India retains its achingly gorgeous culture in the face of a monsoon of sight-seers.

Prax is a middle class Indian; a reasonably new emerging class. He told me he made enough money to quit his job by investing in bitcoin when it was selling for a few rupees. By the sounds of it, he has enough money behind him now to hire some developers and programmers and set up LocalHi all by himself. He’s travelling around India making deals with hostels and local attractions, finding out the best places to stay and visit so he can recommend them to travellers through his app.

He asked me if I wanted to check out the Udaipur city palace. I had no plans for the day – or any idea what there actually was in the city – so I agreed to explore with him. James joined us, and in the early afternoon we headed up the small hill to the palace, with lovely Prax insisting on paying for a tour guide for us. The tour guide called me James Bond, which I chose to believe was said in earnest, and he had my approval thereafter.

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Our guide led us through the palace, and only had to bollock me for not listening once. I did my best to look attentive from there onward. He showed us ancient murals of battles long past, and I was amazed to learn that the elephants used to carry swords into war with their trunks. Plus, the soldiers used to attach fake elephant noses to their horses; this makes the older elephants think the horses are baby ellies, and they don’t attack. Such creative ways of disembowelling one another; the mind boggles.

We admired beautiful frescos of ancient India royalty, we gazed at the lake from the tall towers, and we peered inside the fuck room. Yeah, the palace has a fuck room. Glass floor, mirrored ceiling and walls, you know. I mean come on, if you were royalty, you’d definitely have a fuck room. I totally get it. Beyond that, it was all just a lot of trinkets and glass-cased weaponry and whatnot, which is cool but I’ve seen a dozen times in a dozen temples in the past week, and it’s hard to maintain a high level of astonishment while repeatedly staring at what is essentially the same thing.

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We trudged back to the hostel after, baking in the oppressive heat. I’ve been in India two weeks, and I don’t know whether it’s because I’m travelling towards the desert or the seasons are changing, but it’s hotter every day. It’s at the point now where I can’t quite believe humans can actually live anywhere this hot – and, as Prax delighted in telling me, it’s still winter.

I hung out at the hostel in the shade for a few hours and met a chipper Canadian with a bushy beard. His name was Lee, and he joined James and I for Thali at a spot we’d heard of just down the road; 99 rupees (a quid) for all you can eat Thali. The restaurant didn’t look like much, but then none of them ever do. You definitely get what you pay for, and you pay next to nothing.

I’m 14 days into my trip as I write this, and you’ll be pleased to know (assuming you don’t secretly loathe me and wish me ill) that I haven’t shit myself yet. I don’t know if it’s blind luck or a strong immune system, but I’ve dodged food poisoning entirely so far. I’ve avoided the street food and been picky with my restaurants, and most days I skip lunch because it’s one less potentially dodgy meal to scoff. And I’ve still healthy. My only worry is, however, that it’s hanging over me now. The other guys have had their Delhi belly, suffered and recovered, and I feel I’m next. If it happens it happens; my only request to Shiva is that it doesn’t happen during transit. I refuse to shit myself on a night bus. Time will tell.

Prax joined us after an hour and we drank a bunch of beers together. It’s so great chatting to him, the conversations are amazing. I loved hearing his thoughts and insights on the country and its politics. It was odd – despite James, Lee, Prax and I coming from four different continents, our world views and beliefs were all equally young, optimistic and progressive. Each country has its own problems, some small some huge, but I truly believe the young people of today will right the wrongs. I loved the conversation. It made me really happy.

Back at the hostel I met a Dutch girl called Maria who had been on the same flight from Helsinki as me; she told me she actually remembers seeing Dave and I in the airport prior to boarding, because we were both being idiots and wondering aloud if we’d brought the wrong visa documents. Small world. We drank free chai as we watched the sunset from the terrace, and amassed a nice little gang of Indians and Aussies and Yanks, Kiwis and Danes and Germans. We boozed into the night.

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