India Blog: 10.07.09 - 31.07.09
Sonauli ~ Varanasi ~ Agra ~ Jaipur ~ Udaipur ~ Jodhpur ~ Jaisalmer ~ Delhi
We crossed the Nepali-Indian border at Sonauli in the early morning light, our cycle-rickshaw driver weaving his way past the long line of trade trucks snaking for miles up the road to get us through as the border opened. Leaving Nepal was no problem; we suprised the customs officials enjoying their morning chai and discussion of the morning's papers, but they seemed not to mind the unlikely intrusion and made the requisite stamps in our passports, ushering us across the dusty gateway to India.
It was like stepping over the threshold to a warxone. Don't get me wrong - no border towns are pleasant, and the Nepali side was no exception, with its beggars, dust and rubbish, but Sonauli, India was something else. Fires burned apprently for no good reason at the side of the "road", pouring plastic fumes into the air. Dust and dirt covered everything, obscuring even the bright advertising slogans over the shack shops (which were all closed at this time). And through this decrepitude stepped towards us, like Lucifer himself, the man who made our first Indian experience complete.
He ushered us onto some stools (the wooden kind) by the road for a chai, whipping out what was supposed to be an official-looking ticket book. "So you're going to Varanasi? By bus? I am bus park manager" he said, gesturing vaguely along the line of rubbish by our feet which led back to the border gate. "Oh yeah?" i countered, "where's your office?" He pointed over my shoulder to the other side of the street and a line of closed-up, grey tumbledown and deserted buildings. "Where?" "Oh, behind that white van, you can't see it." The trouble was, this laughable story could well have been true. We'd just had our passports stamped and visas checked by a tiny man sitting in a three-walled shed with a grey piece of tarpualin pulled across the opening in a futile attempt to quell the waves of dust pouring in. If India customs control could look like that, there's no telling where they'd station a bus park manager.
As he ran through his (grossly inflated) bus prices, we considered our options. Do we trust this man, with his obviously ridiculous claims for a deluxe, express bus that gets to Varanasi in a time that would defy even Lewis Hamilton's speed skills, or do we try our luck on the deserted road at hailing the right bus as it passed? There was, of course, no bus 'park', just lines of buses that spontaneously awake from slumber and judderingly set off. We decided to just give the man his way - we'd changed just enough for the bus ticket plus some water from our leftover Nepali rupees so figured we'd just get to Varanasi and start fresh. Rubbing his greasy palms from making 8 times the public bus (which of course it was) price, he stationed us by the side of the road and hailed the right (we hoped) bus. He hopped on first. We lugged on our bags and checked that the bus was indeed bound for Varanasi. Satisfied, we were stationed in 'our seats' at the back of the bus by Mr Park Manager and his officious-looking heavy mate, who had just appeared. Everyone else, about five people at the front of the bus, sat suddenly very still. "Thanks," I said, hoping they'd go away. "Luggage fees," said the heavy, "1000 rupees." THis was more than the 'manager' had even tried to make us pay for OUR ticket. Already scared at their threatening presence, and utterly money-less, we told him not to be ridiculous. His face darkened and both men stepped closer. "One thousand rupees or we throw you off."
By this time, the bus had already been going for ten minutes; we were in the middle of nowhere. "We gave you all our money for the tickets, you saw that we did, and you didn't mention anything abut luggage fees." "So give us US dollars." I had six dollars, about 300 rupees, but I wasn't ready to give them up. We argued some more and the men turned nasty, their faces twisting and their bodies crushing up to us. They stated to shout abuse at us, something I have never experienced and did now as though I were in a black comedy. But there was no time for reflections - the men had yelled at the bus diver to stop and we were slowing down, the men preparing to throw out our luggage and take our ticket, leaing us literally penniless and stranded a mile into India.
In a stroke of genius, Jess started frantically appealing to the other passengers, who up until now had not even turned around to see our obvious distress. Apparently chivalry really is dead. But now they couldn't ignore our cries for help and we managed to illicit a few agreements that no, we shouldn't pay a luggage charge. We asked how much they'd paid for their tickets and they cagily muttered figures we couldn't hear, afraid of the heavies themselves. Finally, the man by the door roused himself, I can only imagine suddenly bored by the scene and the delay to the bus, and showed himself to be the bus conductor. He told the heavies that it was enough, we obviously had nothing else (I had given up the dollars by now) and they left the bus, and our shaking forms.
Neither of us could speak for a while, and I rested my head against the besmirched window pane and tried to calm my heart. Was this how India was going to be? Three weeks of terrifying struggle, fighting for a level of justice we couldn't work out? I tried to take in the scenes outside the window to distract me, but the event had clouded my view and I could only see the dirt and struggle and noise of the towns outside.
We pulled into a bus station around lunchtime and Jess and I sat back, knowing it would be a long journey with no money for food or drink for seven hours. Still, that would stop me needing the loo again - and open tiled squat covered an inch thick in years of dried faeces and urine. India wasn't going up in my estimation.
Back on the bus, the two men in front of us dressed in Western boardies and T-shirts turned around and silently handed us a bag of samosas and two leag bowls of lentil dhaal. We looked at them in disbelief, but they pressed us to take them, so we did. It turned out that they were trainee Buddhist monks on their way back to the monastery outside Varanasi and had been ashamed by our border treatment. Maybe they wished they'd said something to help us, or maybe they were just good men remeding what they could now, but they kept us fed and watered at every stop all the way to Varanasi, merely shaking hands and speeding off, expecting nothing, when we arrived. I guess that contrast is India for you - it certainly went some way to restoring a balanced view in my head.
And you need a balanced view in Varanasi. It is India, concentrated. As Little Dorrit's Mr Meagles says, "One always begins to forgive a place as soon as it's left behind", and now that with three weeks' experience I have settled into India like giving in after a long day and collapsing into a comfy chair, I look back at Varanasi with a fascinated fondness, yet I still know that in those first few days, in that particular unique city, I was utterly daunted.
We rose at sunrise again from our Old City, ghat-side hotel (with shared bathroom so a steal) to watch the early morning rituals from a rowing boat on the Ganges, the river awash with floating lotus candles carrying prayers downstream (as well as the odd dead leper, child or pregnant woman of course!). The washing ghats were alive with activity, a violent spirited soapiness. Clothes were thrashed and baffingly laid out on the filthy steps with the cows to dry; pilgrims and locals bracingly flung themselves into the water, briskly doing a few strokes and throwing water over their heads. Women stepped gingerly, fully dressed in saris, into the water then retired to the steps for a morning natter. Boys welcomed the start of the Ashes series with a game of cricket on the ghat steps, dreams of Ponting and Freddie Flintoff filling their heads and lungs as they yelled to each other. And the colours, the colours were dazzling, the saris picked out against the fading (thus somehow heightened) grandeur of the Italian Renaissance-esque buildings at Ganga-side.
The colours were gone when we walked to the burning ghat later that day. A strictly male-mourners-only zone (women are too emotional in such situations; no crying allowed here), white figures walked around the burning bodies of their relatives against a timber pile and Ganges backdrop. Maybe it's the wood, maybe it's the wind, maybe it's the holy river, but the burning flesh really does give little smell here and instead the air is full of the sombre spirituality of this place of passing and letting go. We received blessings from the saddhu for all our family members in the 'hospital' by the riverside where poor, lonely Indians come for their last days before death and burning release, then made our way back through the maze of winding, cow-blocked, temple-strewn and faeces-and-fly-ridden streets to prepare ourselves for the evening's Ganges-side puja, and to share a thali meal.
The daily sun-down puja on the larget ghat attracts hundreds of all ages. As the line of men on the raised platform went through all the stages - bells, incense, fire - I reflected on this town's deep spirituality, the essence of entertainment which it provides. Here, security guards stand sentinel over the crowds crushing to entre the emples, not football matches or nightclubs. Most of the shops in the old town sell temple-related paraphernalia and more than once we have been pressed to the wallsides as a train of pilgrims shuffle their way in queues to give their offerings and prayers. Religion is palpable, and even for a priest's daughter, and a believer at that, it was core-shaking to see it such a part of everyday life and a society event, not just a personal faith.
Fittingly we left Varanasi fighting our way in a motor-rickshaw through a marching crowd, who were apparently marking some day of spiritual significance with a 70-km walk, barefoot. We could still hear the cheers and chants as we sped away, into the night and onward to Agra.
A note here on the sleeper trains. We took three overnight trains during my time in India and they are honestly the best way to travel. Reservations at the stations are easy, with a tourist quota which means you generally don't have to involve yourself in the complicated 'waiting list' system (which leaves some Indians setting up camp on the station floors for hours, or days even, to see if they can get on a train), nor do you get swindled or threatened with eviction, like our bus experience (although that was of course a one off and our other day-trip journeys were smooth enough, once we'd managed to find a public bus that went in vaguely the right direction and left, well, that day).
This journey to Agra was no exception to the others in the ease with which we boarded, stowed and locked up our bags, comfortably settling in with tea from the chai wallahs among the fans, but typically, being our first train journey here, it was the most intensely 'Indian' of the three trips. And we learnt fast. We were travelling with a family with four young children, who proceeded to defacate seat and floor with alarming regularity throughout the hours before we hit the bunks. At first I was surprised but felt for the poor mother that had to clean the poo from the seat with scraps of torn newspaper brought ready for the purpose, before being thrown out of the open window, but the surprise turned to wide-eyed amazement as the child weed all over the floor and not only was it left to dry but the mother's bed pillow, falling in the still wet liquid, was taken from my offering hand and placed, wet side upwards, back under her head. By now I was used to the open urinals on the street, the cow dung and smells and no longer thought of them, but this was new - and a bit unfathomable to me - so although it has never happened again on our train journeys, I have always slept on a sarong from then on!
I woke the next morning to a witch pointing a gun at my head. I blinked, and she was still there, but now the gun was replaced by a plastic rattle which she was trying to convince the loose-bowelled child to fall in love with so that its parents would feel obliged to buy. It worked, and the woman cackled off, once again pointing the gun and shooting off a distressing sound from the trigger, a bewildering sales technique. The Taj Mahal became visible from the train window, shimmering in the early morning light, and we pulled into Agra station.
Uttar Pradesh and the Golden Triangle of Rajasthan are full of Frenchies. There was one group of particularly chic girls (but, how?!) who ate only plain rice that we followed, and were followed by, into the same guesthouses until we lost them at Udaipur, but Agra was home to the mass tour group. A harrassed-looking waiter bustled us to a table for breakfast in the hotel, explaining that he'd already fed and watered two large tours that morning. It was 8,30am. It was lucky that the next morning saw us also up at 5.30am ready to make the dawn trip to that famous snowy dome, otherwise the yells to 'Tommy!' to 'Get the hell out of the shower or we'll miss it!' would have done the trick.
The "tear drop on the cheek of the Earth", a memorial from the Emperor Shahjahan to his dead wife Mumtaj Mahal (his second wife, I'd feel a bit hard done by if I were his first) and the nearby red sandstone Fort are both equally deserving of their fame and utterly impressive in their size and beauty. We'd arrived before most of the crowds (we'd passed the Frenchies at the gate as we let) and managed to get the obligatory "here i am in front of the Taj" shots in before the swarms hit. We weren't even too hassled by beggars or sellers (something i was expecting from seeing Slumdog Millionaire on the plane - a false representation as beggars and the like aren't actually allowed inside the complex) - they had been much MUCH worse at Fatephur Sikri, a world heritage site built by Emperor Akbar in 1564 and a day trip we had made the day before. There we had been followed by one man "not a guide but keen to practise (his) English" until I told him that I was MORE than happy to help him and that the only way to do so was to stop pointing out the sites to us, things he did in English everyday, and instead to discuss world politics. He wandered off.
Having ticked the Taj off the 'tourist things to do in India' list, we swiftly moved on by bus to Rajasthan, nimbly avoiding the bus strike of the day before (probably something to do with the drivers having to hold on to their doors as they take a corner to stop them swinging off). Bar a spot of sightseeing of some beautiful old buildings and managing to avoid the clutches of a couple of guys who having kindly taken us for chai attempted to 'kindly' take us by car off into the night to have "dinner at home with some other tourists, don't worry", the main highlight of first stop Jaipur was a night out at the famous Raj Mandir cinema. The building, which is simply huge, is described in the guidebook pretty accurately as "so ugly it's almost beautiful...the cream-puff exterior looks ready to orbit outer space or get gobbled up by a passing sweet-toothed ogre" - and it's marvellous. The cinema shows just one Hindi film, emblazoned across the front, and the crowds FLOCK in. The lobby, presided over by a serene Gandhi statue, sells 30 rupee coffee, 10R samosas, still hot, and cheap popcorn - that's if you can make it through the crowds to the kiosk. And the auditorium heaves. Not only is it full, but audience participation in the farce, cum-comedy, cum-romance hit such a peak that the walls seemed to move with the shrieks of delighted laughter or dancing reflected on screen. The film itself, although mainly in Hindi, was easily followed and it was interesting to see the lack of PDA on screen given the Clueless-esque bandage dresses of the Indian female stars, apparently in Hollywood. Sex was always, and never, present. Dancing out into the street in a bizarre conga with the family sitting next to us, we took our smiles with us on to Udaipur - another overnight train journey.
Udaipur marked the end of week one inIndia, our first three-night stay and time to breathe. We did so in true Indian style, waking early the first morning for a yoga and meditation session. We had the whole class to ourselves and although it was a gentle hatha session, the teacher took great delight in making us hold the more difficult poses "for five minutes, ha ha". These ones he missed out himself, clearly. Feeling far too wholesome for our own goods we decided to follow all this activity with an afternoon of eating - another cookery lesson, to try to get the hang of the amazing vegetable curries and breads that are the Rajasthani staple diet. The class - again just us, the Frenchies having disappeared - was held at the magnificently moustachio-d Vijay Singh's village home (at which we eventually arrived on the back of his motorbike which had the distressing tendency of cutting out mid-hill and splutteringly restarting). We cooked sat cross-legged on the floor while his little daughter ran around and rolled out some dough of her own with a mini rolling-pin and his father, a police guard in uniform, undressed and shaved in his vest in the corner after work. We learnt as much about Indian family customs as we did palak aloo that day.
Udaipur is famous for its stunning City and Lake Palaces (the latter now an expensive hotel) and both, and more, were visible from the rooftop of our psychadelically-painted but wonderful hotel in Lal Ghat (called Udai Newas Hotel, if you need a tip). We spent a glorious sunset evening with lassis watching the sun raise its golden crown in a last salute which cast a rosy glow over all the ancient architecture. We even managed a few moments with a candle in the newly spreading calm of darkness before the mozzies and muezzin (yes i know, odd) set in and the daily rerun of Octop**** /em> started up (it was filmed here and tourists can't escape the town's claim to hollywood fame) so we sauntered down to the lakeside to walk around the walls of the City Palace we'd visited during the day. (The Palace Museum is full of memorable things, but most memorable was that half the authentic Indian paintings were currently on loan to London's V&A for a special exhibition. Typical.) We watched with the gathering crowds in the darkness as the palace twinkled on its inky black lake, the air full of Eastern magic.
Next stop Jodhpur, the result of a six-hour bus journey from lush tree-lined hillscapes to arid sand flatlands, was always going to be 'just a stopover'. We were excited about getting to the desert proper at Jaisalmer but needed to break up the journey and this had seemed a good place to spend a couple of nights. We were not at all prepared for utterly loving the place. The eggshell blue town is straight out of Pollyanna, once it becomes the 'Glad Town' - children run to greet you in the street, shouting hello and shaking your hand; penny sweet vendors chat away to their customers; men sitting cross-legged playing cards and watching the world go by look up at you and waggle their heads in greeting. For the first time in India, it felt like the pace had slowed and we were being welcomed in. Don't get me wrong, there were no fewer cows, or traffice, just it seemed like there was less - struggling here somehow.
On our one day in Jodhpur (yes the trousers are named after here - apparently the current maharajah still plays polo with Prince Charles) we walked to the Mehrangarh fort on the top of the hill (a feat which left me literally shaking from the heat and I had to be left to cry by myself for a while before being forced to drink cold water by Jess). Guided aurally by the most impressively upper class English Indian accent we wandered around the gilded rooms - some complete with giant Christmas bauble decorations apparently brought with British rule (in what I can only think can have been a disco joke, but they've stayed). The views over the town and desert beyond were breathtaking and all the more so for the gathering storm clouds on the horizon. Huge waves of purple bruises stained the sky and we hurried back down the hill to town past villagers sat on rooftops, turning anticipating faces to the first fat rops of rain which signalled the subsequent monsoon.
Jaisalmer. Another world of glorious faded grandeur, the intricately-carved walls and balconies now house mountains of camel leather bags and fabric wall hangings, but through the clouds of dust sweeping in from the surrounding desert, the town's irrefutable beauty lurks. The fort may be sinking from poor drainage, but this just adds to the magic of being able to see it up close. Not that we got to spend too much time luxuriating in it. We booked up on arrival to head into the desert on our first morning for a two-day camel safari, a fact we lamented as soon as we walked out onto the streets and got blinded from the dust clouds and instantly burnt from the direct sun. But despite the fact that our promised group of three other English girls turned out to be two Chinese ones (who although lovely, didn't speak a word of English and as we couldn't speak Mandarin, made for some long hours), we had a great time.
Well, we had a great time in retrospect. To be really honest, the novelty of riding the camels wore off after a couple of hours, and when the beautifully sunny day suddenly turned grey and started to POUR down over lunch - the camel guides whooping and leaping around under tarpaulins trying to keep the fire alight - we began to wonder whether signing up for a night 'under the stars' with no shelter from rain and another day's bumpy riding might not have been quite such a good idea after all. But we plodded on and filled the long hours waiting for night to come with reading aloud from the one book I had brought with us. I do not know how they entertain themselves in the desert, I thing I would go quite mad. Madder.
But night did finally come, and having washed the dishes (with sand and dirty water) and put them away under tarpaulins to protect them and the camel blankets from another bout of imminent rain (never mind about us), we lay down to sleep. The sky was cloudy, but before long a break appeared and the heavens were alive with hundreds and thousands of pulsating stars, hypnotising us to sleep.
Sometime later our guide hauled us up and into a jeep, worried that the lighning flicking across the sky did not bode well. We were driven to his village and although we still slept under the stars, our snores were sounder in the knowledge that shelter was at least nearby.
We woke early (and stiffly!) to the sound of the female villagers collecting water and milking the goat, the men gently snoring inside. While we held and sipped glasses of chai the children went through our bags, holding up items covetously with an inquisitively raised eyebrow - "wanna donate this one?!"
We remounted our animals and turned their imperious heads, top lips quivering, towards the open desert and turned to wave goodbye to our hosts, still twirling their newly-acquired umbrellas and posing coyly in fresh t-shirts. Although after that day's trotting, my inner thighs may never be the same again (nor Jess' back for that matter), I wouldn't have not done the safari for the world.
And so with that, already the time had come for the last big journey of the trip and we celebrated it with training it up to Delhi in air conditioned deluxe style. The 17-hour journey flew by with cups of chai and bags of still-warm pakora, talking to a Tamil family up to see their son in the army (there's a big base in Jaisalmer, close to the Pakistan border), but the time passed largely uneventfully and we were soon coughed up into the crazy capital.
In true Jess and Sarah style, we brought the monsoon to Delhi. In what the national papers heralded the next day as 'chaotic', the downpour we saw brought people joyfully calling to the streets, singing in glee at the rain. And it was some rain. The open-fronted dhaba (cafe) we were eating dinner in began to flood and in the darkness we watched as cars struggled through the calf-deep water, cows floating off down the road, helpless. Flashes of light streaked the sky, and it looked set to never end.
But the next day, all evidence of the rain (bar the newspapers) had gone. The roads were dry and the skies clear. Confident in our few days-worth of time here, we relaxed into city mode, drinking coffee and wandering around the shops, really pottering for the first time in a while.
Our confidence was ill-founded: they don't call it Delhibelly for nothing. My time in India, indeed my six-month trip, culminated in a writhing last three days sweating furiously in a spinning hotel room. I'd love to be able to tell you all baout the Gandhi museums, the famous markets, anything - but the truth is, the only thing we managed to do in our time in Delhi was to take the metro to Connaught Place before I nearly fainted and we had to go home.
In a way it was a helpful end to my trip - although I was sad to leave Jess, who has another 3 months' travel around India ahead of her, being ill made me look forward more than ever to the prospect of home - my true heart, England.