Published: March 30th 2011March 21st 2011
(Day 1081 on the road)
Holi cow! I knew that the ecstatic Indian Holi festival was going to be great, but nobody could have prepared me for what we were about to experience. It was a simply mad, and we had a blast!
A little background: Holi is celebrated in India to welcome the spring and say goodbye to winter. Basically people take to the streets and throw bright colour powder called gulal at each other, while bonfires the night before are lit to symbolise the demise of the evil demoness Holika, who gives the festival its name. It is celebrated differently in different parts of India, with the north apparently being wilder than the south. But the celebrations here in Hyderabad proved plenty for us as it turned out, and we were very content.
It had all started rather slow. A wrong clock in our hotel saw us rushing to the centre of the city, fearing that we might have missed the whole celebrations, which start around ten o'clock and are typically over just after noon. When we got there, it seemed as if our fear had been confirmed – there were patches of colour on the street,
yes, but not really any people. A few sellers of colour powder however gave us a first taste of what Holi was about - they took great joy in colouring our faces in green, red and yellow, until our skin was completely coloured.
But where was every body? We asked around but nobody seemed to either speak English or understand us, so after a while we accepted defeat and got an auto rickshaw into the old (Muslim) quarter to get some breakfast. What a shame – the previous evening we had purchased two full kilogrammes of various colours, what were we to do with all that now? But then Jasmin spotted a clock and we realised that the clock in our hotel had been way off, it wasn't even eight o'clock yet. What a relief!
So we took it easy, didn't enjoy our terribly spicy food (but ate it anyway due to lack of alternatives at this hour) and then walked around a bit. We got coloured again by some lone family celebrating in the street - and gave them a good dose of colour as well - and after a while we got back to where we
had originally been. And sure enough, the streets were now getting fuller and fuller, with most people already drenched in all colours of the rainbow. We were right in the thick of it, and before long we were all having a blast. It was a great street party by any standard.
Especially Luc was having the time of his life: At first he was a little apprehensive and didn't like being coloured by strangers, but he soon got the hang of it and started throwing colour at random strangers. In that, he didn't quite understand the subtle difference of people taking part in the celebrations and those that didn't (there is a fairly large Muslim population in Hyderabad for instance who doesn't celebrate Holi). Luc made absolutely no distinction whom he drenched. He was merciless – cries of “No, not me!” by innocent passer bys were simply ignored, resulting in many a person who was still clean before stumbling about Luc now drenched in bright red, yellow or green colours. It was great fun. Talk about being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
But not all was well. We had been warned by strangers to be
very careful and not wander into the narrow side streets, for risk of being pick pocketed and our clothes being torn by the wild crowd. We thought it was a bit of an extreme warning, but after a very violent and unpleasant encounter with one of the bigger and very frantic groups of celebrators we understood why we had been given the warning.
A bit later things got even worse. It had all started very harmlessly: Some youth approached us and started colouring my face and neck. Normal, we had been doing the the same thing for an hour already. Then they started doing the same to Jasmin. Still nothing out of the ordinary. But the guys soon started using this opportunity as a very blatant way to feel Jasmin up, and distributed a suspiciously large amount of colour powder on her chest.
I didn't fully understand the situation until one of the guys blatantly squeezed Jasmin's breast. I instinctively pushed him away rather violently, and since we were standing on the side of the street he stumbled backwards into an oncoming rickshaw. Luckily (or unluckily, depending on the viewpoint I guess), it was only a slight sideways
collision; had I hit him a little harder the rickshaw would have hit him full-on. I was furious and would be lying if I wrote that I wish I hadn't pushed him harder.
We now also came to understood the heavy police presence everywhere. The youth also seemed to be aware of that and immediately retreated. We were very happy to have adhered to the warnings not to go into the more remote side streets; who knows how this incidence would have ended without the police and lots of other people around, especially with Luc by our side. Travelling with a little child one really does need to react very differently than if travelling alone, this episode taught me that much, and next time I would probably act differently and just walk away from the situation, lest it escalates as it could have very well done.
After that, we were more careful and very selective in whom we allowed to approach us, but we didn't let it spoil the otherwise great fun we were having. 99% of the people out and about just had a great time, and so, all in all, did we. Despite giving it his
best shot, Luc didn't manage to throw all of our 2kg colour powder at strangers and after a while the crowds began to disperse, and we also made our way home. What a day it had been!
Back at our hostel we tried to wash the colours off, but it was all in vain. Some did come off but a large part didn't. For days afterwards I would see people on the streets with suspiciously red fingers or hair. My red face, hair and clothes also made people stare at me even more than at other times ("over there mum, a red foreigner!"), but I could very well live with that. Much worse was the condition of my expensive glasses; so far I have unable to get rid of the distinctive red stain all over. I hope they are not ruined, that would make it a very expensive celebration indeed.
Speaking of our hostel and hotels in India in general: Just why is the quality of budget accommodation in this country so appallingly bad? India sees a lot of tourists each year, especially in the tourist hubs, but accommodation really tends to be grotty, more often than not
noisy, dirty, damp, and certainly without any attention to detail or services offered, let alone a hint of charm. Mosquito nets that had been intact maybe 10 years ago but nobody had bothered to repair, hardly ever hot water (sometimes provided in a bucket if asked for and charged extra), heavily stained sheets on the beds, rooms that hadn't been cleaned in months by the look of it, check-out times at seven o'clock in the mornings (as here in the hostel in Hyderabad) – the list goes on. Why?
Other Asian countries - I am thinking here of India's neighbour China for instance - have great budget options for backpackers all over the country, with amazing hostels featuring a wide range of amenities. Why is nobody here offering a similar thing? If you ran a half-decent hostel in India with a little understanding of what backpackers expect (clean and safe, a couple of PCs for Internet browsing, a working book exchange, beds with sheets and blankets if needed, showers, safe wiring that don't give you electric shocks when you touch a switch, no silly 9 o'clock curfew or eight o'clock checkout, secure luggage storage, a cosy common area to
meet fellow travellers or watch a movie, a notice board, maybe even a little cafe offering snacks and breakfast) - you could make a fortune here.
Also: Why has wireless Internet (wifi) not caught on in India? In three months of travelling we only once had a hotel offering wifi (in Varansai), although it needs to be said that there the Internet was only working about a third of the time due to constant connection problems and power cuts. We also never once found an unsecured and open (private) wireless network no matter where we went (I typically try at every new hotel we stay at), certainly something quite common in most parts of the world I have been to so far. I would be interested to read some studies into wifi-availability across different countries and put this into the bigger picture of these countries infrastructure policies and their level of development.
I have been to poorer countries than India on this trip and wifi had been available widely there, from remote islands in the Philippines
to the mostly uninhabited Darien Gap in southern Panama
, where the government even showered whole villages with free wifi in a bid
to beef up infrastructure. Strange that in an up- and coming country like India the situation is so different.
Anyway, I got distracted. Back to Hyderabad. The next day, after a morning visit to Golconda fort, it was, to all our great distress and dismay, time to say goodbye to each other. Jasmin had arranged to meet some people for her research in Delhi, I was heading east to spend my final week in India in Darjeeling, in the Himalayan highlands, before finally ending my trip on March 31st.
We had planned this day long ago and both knew it was coming, yet our parting seemed awfully sudden and rushed. Jasmin and Luc accompanied me to the station where I boarded my train, and before we knew it, our wonderful time together was over. After three months of living and travelling together, suddenly sitting alone on a train I felt awfully strange and alone.
But alone I wasn't – the numerous rats and cockroaches on the train kept me company. I am not sure why they live on the trains, but I have the feeling it might have something to do with people just throwing their rubbish,
food leftovers and used diapers on the floor, but one can't be sure. What I find puzzling in that respect is that in their own homes people are very keen on cleanliness and even take off their shoes before entering. They thus very well seem to have an understanding of good sanitary conditions. So why not in public areas? Why is the people's behaviour so different in a different environments? Why don't they use the rubbish bins, as one could reasonably expect when travelling with other people in a crowded environment? It's not like the people are terribly busy on these 24h train journeys. In fact, most people simply sit there for the whole journey, which I find really amazing. Why not even bring a book or a magazine? Incredible.
Also, since I am on the subject of trains, here is another curious thing: The Indian rail is the busiest in the world, transporting some 25 million passengers every day. Overall, it is a great system wonderful for longer journeys. Yet for some reason that is beyond me they do not have a system in place that allows you to check for connecting trains. If you are going between
two major cities, not a problem, they can easily provide you with the time table, the availability, or make a booking.
But if you are going anywhere that requires a change of trains somewhere along the way, the situation is hopeless. The Indian Rail reservation system simply cannot give you that information. What could be extremely easily accomplished with some simple computer programming (in place anywhere else in the world) suddenly becomes a laborious task:
First one has to check which route your first train takes, guessing where would be a good point to change trains. Once you got these, you need to check all these possibilities manually for connecting trains. Once you have the trains you would want to take, it is time to check for availability – certainly not an easy thing either given that a) trains in India are often booked out days if not weeks in advance and that b) the online reservation system simply does not work a lot of time, sometimes not for days at a time.
In the end, often the only option left is to go to the station and join the long queue of other people to purchase
a ticket. Of course they don't have a better system there either, so it is still the manual process I described earlier, but at least one can hope for a competent sales person who might just know where the best connection point might be (most often they don't either, especially if you are travelling into a different state).
All in all, booking train tickets for routes that are not direct connections (say popular routes like Mumbai to Delhi with lots of trains running) is an immensely frustrating process. And due to the high demand of the trains it is also not possible to travel spontaneously, as often you need to book days and weeks in advance to stand a chance of getting a ticket. If your plans change, maybe because you like a place and want to stay longer, well tough luck in getting a train seat at short notice. It really takes a lot of fun out of independent travel.
The only bright side, from a tourist point of view, is that there are a certain number of tourists quota tickets available for a few popular trains, meaning that a few seats on these trains are held
back from the general public and are available only to people with a foreign passports. And unfortunately long-distance buses are not really an alternative to trains given the notoriously bad roads and the horrendous way people drive here. Although local buses ("sweat boxes" the guidebook calls them) with their separate areas for men and women (which century do we live in again?) are good fun every now and then.
Finally, I apologise that this blog entry has become so long, but I had been wanting to write about the hotels and trains for a while now. And since my trip is nearing its end and this will be my second to last entry (safe for probably a highlights blog in a few month's time), I desperately needed to get these topics in.
Next stop: Darjeeling (West Bengal, India). Also have a look at my pictures at http://pictures.beiske.com