Published: September 30th 2008September 12th 2008
Living in a Toilet Bowl
Having travelled in India we now truly appreciate why it is a country that polarizes opinion. Surely no other country offers such vast social, religious and sensory extremes. On one hand
India is a vile, putrid and diseased cesspit. We saw a dead body in the street and there are millions more starving to death on every corner, under every bridge and in every train and bus station. At Varanasi station hundreds of people stepped over a dying woman as she lay motionless in a cloud of hungry flies. In a country with this much poverty those who have risen above it, or have never tasted it, are not keen share. Beggars would walk past fifty Indian people to target only us. When we raised this in conversation a number of Indian people said "of course...they know we
will not give them anything".
For those millions who sleep rough or live in the slums, the great outdoors is also their only bathroom. It was not uncommon to see men and woman having a poo, especially alongside the railway tracks. On one morning we sped past so many of them
Millions of Indians live like this - in rubbish filled slums
it felt like a toilet guard of honour. Then of course there is the cow dung. Revered as sacred and left to roam free, these dirty bovine garbage trucks amble about eating and re-depositing filth in equal volume. And what great pickings they have. Because most Indians dump their household litter in the street these cows have got it easy. New temporary roundabouts were formed whenever one of them fancied a sleep in the middle of the road, but it seems traffic chaos is preferred to moving them along - even the Traffic Police ignore them! On the other hand
India is a fascinating country. We met travellers who had spent more than a year there and were still enchanted by what was left to visit. For every beggar there were equal numbers of beaming locals who were excited we were there and desperately wanted to talk to us about anything their English would stretch too. In India it is common and not rude to ask a stranger lots of personal questions about your family or work, including how much you earn. This is a bit strange at the start but you soon relax into it.
A Street Corner Guru
These 'holy' men were everywhere living off donations from believers
While travelling on the wonderful trains, the people we met kindly shared their food and drink with us and bought us sugary milky teas from the on-board teapot men. We ate delicious food, drank cheap beer, stayed in clean budget hotels and travelled first class for no more than US$30 per day for both of us. Increase that budget a few dollars more and over here you can live like a King, or in this case, a Maharaja.
We entered India by pedal rickshaw overland from Nepal. This border was unlike any other we had crossed, in that, there really was no obvious border, just a continuous flow of shops, people and traffic. Indians and Nepalese don't need a passport to enter each other’s country so it fell to our rickshaw driver to point out the small garage with a sun-shield cloth hanging from roof to ground in front of it.
Welcome to Indian Immigration.
Thanks to the previous hassle of getting a visa these guys were fast and friendly and in no time we were on a bus south. With just 14 days in India we had settled on a
Every day was an eating pleasure. This meal cost just US$1
plan that combined major sights, religious learning and quite a bit of "nothing". In our experience "nothing" days often generate the most interesting something, but only if you create the space to let it happen.
With an upcoming flight to London we were feeling some time pressure, so for once we had organised ourselves well enough to book all our train tickets in advance through a travel agency in Nepal. Thanks to the colonial days India has an excellent rail network. The stations are mad, the website is baffling and very few people can help you, but once you get the hang of it, the trains are fast, punctual, and comfortable. The only train we hadn't booked was the one to Varanasi as we had planned to go by bus, but, by the time we finally got from the border to the dirty crossroads town of Gorakhpur we had had enough. After 11 months of buses our bums and bones had had it, so we attempted to buy a ticket for the first train in the morning. Purchasing this ticket was a serious test of communication and diplomacy. In India everybody says yes, whether the answer is yes or
More Tea Please Jeeves
On this train we got free tea, hot meals and five different newspapers. Pay attention British Rail!
not. The conversation goes something like this...
Us "Is there a train to Varanasi?"
Us "What time?"
Us “Where can I get a ticket?"
We think you get the picture. The other tactic is to either ignore you completely or to panic and direct you to another window or person in order to make you go away. When we were able to find someone who spoke English their explanation of where to go and what to do was often more confusing than hearing it in Hindi.
In the end we made two trips to the station, finally purchasing a ticket at 11pm for a train that was leaving sometime between 4 and 5 the next morning (Nobody was quite sure). That done, we warmed out mattress for a few hours before weaving our way back through the hundreds of sleeping bodies and onto our first train.
It was blissssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssss. Roomy, soft seated, air-conditioned bliss. Of course, this being India, there were lower classes of car with thousands of people fighting for seats, but this time that wasn't us.
Ancient Varanasi City
The smoke rising is a body being cremated
Varanasi is one of holiest cities in India and is famous for the rituals that take place every day on the river Ganges. It is also a wonderfully old city made up of thousands of little winding passageways, tunnels and stairs. It is through this maze that we found ourselves following the man from our hotel who had picked us up from the train station. We love travelling in low season as everybody is desperate for your business and the customer service can be outstanding. Our hotel was next to the Ganges, which in the dry season means about 20 metres and a dozen large steps away. But this was wet season and not only were the steps gone, but the river front path and most of the low buildings were totally submerged. So much for all the tourist advice that says in order to avoid getting lost in the old city, use the handy water front path to get about!
Luckily getting lost in this place was brilliant fun as every small dark bend revealed another temple, shop, restaurant or another small dark bend. In this place the cows were a real hassle as most of
Small passageways and fat cows, a challenging combination
them were as wide as the passageway and we feared getting a (holy) kicking. There was also so much dung and stinking rubbish that it was somewhat of a challenge to sightsee and keep a constant eye on where or what you were standing on at the same time.
Along the Ganges are 100 or so Ghats, which are steps that lead down into a walled bathing area that protects you from the current. Most of these are bathing Ghats, the others are for cremation. Hindus believe that bathing in the Ganges cleans you of your sins and that being cremated in it releases you from the cycle of reincarnation. This is handy. In theory you could be a right bastard all of your life and then, to avoid being reincarnated as an anal wart, simply kick the bucket in Varanasi and burn your way to a quiet eternity. That's our angle anyway. For a nation that is obsessed by strict religious practices this seems like a convenient loop hole.
More than a million pilgrims visit every year to wash or wait to die, which means cremation is a big industry and the fires burn 24 hours a
Does Dave Weigh More Alive?
The scales used to purchase wood for cremation
day. Families bring the bodies to an outdoor cremation area and then buy the wood from the dozens of sellers. Giant scales are used in order to have the right amount of wood needed in relation to the size of the body. What type of wood used depends on your status or how much money your family has. Sandalwood is the most expensive as it is the holiest. With around 800 million Hindus in India you can imagine what all this cremation is doing to their forests. Once a body is burned the ashes are then swept into the Ganges and the next body is prepared. Although we spent some time in the wood seller’s area we didn't stay to watch any of the burnings as it is actually somebody's funeral and we didn't want to disrespect the family.
The situation with the river Ganges sums up everything that is wonderful and stupid about India. It is the holiest body of water in the whole country. Every Hindu talks about it with pride. During an early morning boat ride we watched people bathe in it and even clean their teeth with the mud on the steps. YET, it is
Pass The Bacteria Please
Eartly morning bathing in the holy Ganges
also one of the most polluted waterways on the planet. Huge pipes pump raw sewage directly into it. Factories dump lethal toxins in it. People throw boxes of rubbish into it. The ashes and decomposing bits of dead bodies are washed into it. One guidebook we read says it is offically septic, meaning that no oxygen exists in it. You won't be surprised to read that we declined a chance to bath in this 'beauty' of water.
Other than our river front adventures we mostly just walked about eating lovely new foods and exploring the whole old city. On our second night we went back down to the river to see a fantastic ceremony that pays respect to Lord Shiva every night. We don't really know what they were doing, but basically a group of beautifully dressed men dance to music while also spinning flaming objects in the air and throwing a lot of oil and flower petals about. At the end of the ceremony anybody can release burning butter candles into the river for good luck. There is an industry of small children selling these to the tourists. Although there were quite a few western tourists watching, it
Did I Singe My Fringe?
The beautiful waterfront ceremony that happens every night
was nice to see that the majority of the crowd were locals or domestic tourists who seemed to understand what was going on and were really appreciating the significance of the event.
From Varanasi we boarded an overnight train to Agra in a six berth AC sleeping car. Once again this train journey was wonderful with enough room for even big Dave to stretch out and plenty of tasty on-board food. An elderly Indian couple were in our compartment and the man spoke excellent English while his wife keep plying us with food. The journey took 13 hours, so as well as saving on a night's accommodation we both slept through about 8 hours of travel boredom.
We went to Agra to see the Taj Mahal and to visit the Red Fort, the former ruling palace of India. Every hotel around the Taj offers some sort of roof top view so we got our first sight of it during lunch. It is stunning. There is great debate as to when is the best time to see the Taj. Sunrise vs. sunset is debated over in every guidebook and you can also see
The Money Shot
Even more beautiful in real life
it by moonlight on certain days. As you would expect tickets are expensive so a visitor needs to choose their preferred time carefully. Having just seen it from afar we decided to visit the Red Fort first and then come back for a late afternoon visit.
The Red Fort is HUGE and well worth a visit. Unfortunately on this day Tracey got hit with the first of four days of dodgy tummy and found herself mostly seeing the Red Fort's public toilet. With the amount of rooms available to explore we could easily have spent hours there but poor sick T was wilting in the baking heat so we caught a pedal rickshaw back to our hotel. At one stage on this journey as we came to a standstill on a long gradual hill David took over from the rickshaw driver who was struggling with the combined weight/heat combo. Although David enjoyed the experience and the strange looks from passing traffic he has decided to start and end his rickshaw career there!
After a sleep and a cold shower Tracey felt good enough to make it to the Taj so we stayed there from late afternoon until sunset.
Diversifying His CV
David opens up another career option
It's lovely, although smaller and not as bright white as we thought it would be. In our opinion it is not the most beautiful structure in India. That honour goes to another building that we visited later.
A Sikh Peek
After Agra we had one quiet uneventful night in Delhi before catching the train to Amritsar in the north west of India, almost on the border with Pakistan. Amritsar is in the Punjab region and it is home to the Golden Temple which is the spiritual and cultural centre of the Sikh religion. Sikhs wear turbans, which are often associated with all Indians, but Sikhs actually only make up 2% of the population. Although to date we had found India to be quite friendly, the Sikhs and the whole Punjab region are a cut above. Everybody here was so much more relaxed and they all carried a great big smile.
Like Buddhism, Sikhism was invented as a breakaway religion from the controlling caste (class) system of Hinduism. We had heard that not only is everybody welcome at their holiest temple, but for a small donation you can also sleep and eat there. We have
Sikhs Are Famous Warriors
This man was a guard at the temple
subsequently learned that this is the case at all Sikh temples. We decided not to stay in the temple dorms, but after getting a cheap hotel right next door we wasted no time in heading inside.
Out of respect men and woman have to cover their head and wash their feet before entering. To wash your feet every person walks through a small concrete trough. We were amused to once again see religious beliefs overruling hygiene. Every person who walked through what we called 'The Veruca Water’ would also scoop up a handful and drink it. We passed on that one too.
The Golden Temple is the nicest place we visited in India and more beautiful than the Taj Mahal. It was so wonderful we went back three times. The whole place feels spiritual, aided a lot by the live chanting that is broadcast around the complex all day. At all times pilgrims or resident holy men are either walking, praying or sleeping and as a visitor you can go everywhere. Having been in quite a few mosques and Hindu temples we kept expecting someone to tell us we couldn't go in here or climb up there, but
The Golden Temple
The most beautiful thing we saw in India
instead we were as free as everyone else to enjoy the whole place.
During the day the 'Holy Book', the original bible of Sikhism is on display. At night time we watched the ceremony to lock it safely away. We didn't know what was happening until a lovely Sikh man with a dreamy smile on his face grabbed David's arm and told him that "The Holy Book is sleeping". We followed the book into its bedroom and saw where it sits at night under guard. To see the utter devotion from every person there was quite touching. Then, when you go into the museum and read about the millions of people who have died horrifically fighting in "our religion is better than yours" arguments it reminds you of just how evil religious devotion can be. During the whole time we were in India the news was dominated by the daily destruction of churches and the murder of Christians at the hands of Hindu extremists. Many Christians were converting back to Hinduism or revoking Christ in an effort to stay alive. Meanwhile in the regions of Kashmir and Sikkim, Hindu and Muslim extremists were locked in battle and many cities
were under curfew. Sadly in India it has been the same old story for thousands of years, but now with the added complication of having a corrupt government, police force and army who all take a biased personal religious view. Having seen the way religion rules people's lives here it is difficult to even hope for a solution.
While we're taking about news it is worth noting a small article that appeared in the mid pages of a newspaper. Five women were buried alive by a local GOVERNMENT official because they didn't want to marry the men who were arranged for them. The government official told the press that there was no need for the police to get involved as what had happened was tribal tradition and none of the police's business. Most days there was at least one story involving the burying, burning alive, stoning or "forced suicide" of a number of women and these are only the tiny few reports that the press ever hear about. It's a tough life being a woman in India. The murder of female new born babies is still common nationwide which means every year the male/female population ratio is getting wider.
The Border Show
Thousands of people come to this every day
At least after you've murdered a few baby girls you can pop across to Varanasi and use that handy Ganges sin-cleansing loophole we mentioned.
The Game Show Border
Our other memorable experience in Amritsar was a visit to the India/Pakistan border. If you go to Amritsar you MUST do this. As we all know India and Pakistan dislike each other, with a frequent and continuing story of violence. This border is the only official land crossing between the two nations. In a quite bizarre spirit of friendship and aggression, both sides carry out an enormously over the top border closing ceremony every night. It's free to watch and thousands of Indians and Pakistanis fill the grandstands, yes, GRANDSTANDS every day.
The event starts off quite reservedly while important dignitaries take their seats and various soilders march about getting the crowd squashed into every space. Then, as the clock ticks closer to border closing time both sides start playing loud patriotic music while competing microphone carrying announcers whip their respective sides into a nationalistic frenzy. Our guy was doing some sort of chant that everyone in India seemed to know the words for and where
The Indian and Pakastani army square off across the border
therefore yelling back replies to whatever he was asking. Pretty soon a number of men were chosen from the crowd to march up and down with Indian flags while large groups of girls got up and started bhangra dancing. Tracey was invited up to dance with them. Finally, when the crowd are suitably pumped, the military take over. Soldiers from both sides goose-step march to the border and eyeball each other from inches away. This looks a lot like heavyweight boxers before a fight. One by one soldiers would advance aggresively towards the border and then try to outstare and outmuscle their opposite number. The finale to it all was an aggressive and energetic lowering of the flag ceremony and a closing of the border gates. Afterwards you could buy popcorn and beer while fending off hordes of kids selling you a film of the ceremony on DVD.
Some Rubbish Artwork
Our last regional stop was Chandigarh the capital of Punjab. Chandigarh is unlike any other Indian city. When the border of India and Pakistan was created it sliced right through the Punjab and left the old capital city on the Pakistan side. Wanting
Is the Art?
The wonderful rock garden in Chandigarh
to create something magnificent and new the first Prime Minister of India commissioned an American and then a Swiss architect to build a perfect new city from scratch in the 1950's. They did this by creating a city that is an easy series of grids with wide tree lined streets, parks, a lake and well laid out shops, schools and religious centres in every sector. It is, as it was planned to be, the most un-Indian place in India and it was also very expensive as befitting its upper-class status. Having written so much about the dirt, cows, crowding and craziness of India we found ourselves missing it so we cut our stay short here by a day.
Before we left we spent half a day at the attraction we had come here to visit, a world famous 'art' installation called the Rock Garden. It was begun by a man called Nek Chand who was working on the roads for the new city in the 1950's. At some point, for his own pleasure he started to recycle broken plates and bottles and other bit of industrial rubbish and turn them into art. As land was plentiful and he had
a good job Nek had purchased his own property which he slowly turned into his own fantasty world.
For years and years he did this in complete secret creating sculptures of humans and animals from recycled objects that by now included glass bangles, old oil drums, burnt bricks, electrical fittings and more. Then, one day, word of his work got out and people started to visit. Eventually the local government also got word of if and with the help of some funding and lots of volunteers, the Rock Garden is now promoted as the area's biggest tourist attraction.
For now the place is a 25 acre fantasy world with entirely man-made paths, bridges, tunnels, water features and even a huge waterfall all designed to lead you through a world of recycled art sculptures of people, animals and wonderful mosaics. We say "for now" as there are ambitious plans to make it even bigger. We had great fun mucking about in the new picnic area full of giant swings hanging from abstract concrete trees.
The Final Days
We spent the last three days of this amazing year doing very little in Delhi. To ease
Why Marry For Love?
These arranger services were everywhere
ourselves back into the modern world we also indulged in some important European re-orientation exercises, mainly reading newspapers in nice coffee shops and shopping for new (cheap) Levi jeans to fit our thinner fames in the cooler climates of home.
Our favourite part of the newspapers were the pages and pages of adverts from parents looking to arrange a marriage for their son or daughter. In every local, regional or national newspaper there were at least 4 pages given over to this. Amazingly parents were not only doing this for their unmarried children in India but also for children living in the UK, USA and others. Here is the text from one of our favourite ones that we ripped out. "High status Pharmaceutical, Business and Property family seeks alliance for their extremely beautiful, highly intelligent 1980 born MBA daughter who is slim, fair and graceful. Applicants must be tall, handsome, high caste, high status successful business man of wealthy reputable family. Details of income and horoscope mandatory. Service Classes should not apply. Lavish Wedding."
To balance the fact we were trying to eat at least one helping of every curry we had not yet tasted (and
Were These Out For Me?
David gets very patriotic in central Delhi
because it was free) we also did a lot of walking. Central Delhi has large parks and many beautiful old buildings and we spend two days walking around them all. David was surprised to see the capital's main street that leads to the Parliament decked out with hundreds of New Zealand flags. Further investigation revealed that the NZ Prime Minister was in town.
Our last major tourist attraction was a museum dedicated to the life and teachings of Mahatma Gandhi. The museum is inside the house where he lived and where we was assassinated by a Hindu radical (surprise, surprise). Gandhi is still revered as a national hero. His image is on all the banknotes and his birthday is a national holiday. As you would expect, people visit this place from all over India and entry was free to everyone. There is a nice memorial on the spot where he was killed and the museum uses stories, pictures and lots of archive film to cover his whole life. However the more you learn about Gandhi and his teachings the more hypocritical his shining reverence becomes, as most of things he hoped for - an end to the caste system,
We Hope The Light Is Not Hot
Wax work of Ghandi at his excellent memorial
freedom from poverty, religious tolerance and equality of the sexes - are no better now than they were 60 years ago for hundreds of millions of Indians. But, as the museum told us over and over again, he did help free India from the evil clutches of imperialistic Britain and for that reason alone he is loved by all. Thank goodness the evil overlords didn't take their lovely train sets back.
We spent our last night in India at a reasonably interesting sound and light show in the Red Fort learning about the history of Delhi and then packed our bags for an early morning start. In the morning we took some unwanted clothes and shoes into the street to give away to homeless people before catching a motorcycle rickshaw to the airport. A word to the wise here - don't do this - it's a bloody long way and the pollution on the motorway is horrible. Take one of those of nice, air-conditioned taxis that kept whizzing past us and filling our little chariot with tongue blackening soot.
And so it was on Friday September 12th, British Airways safely returned us to London after 335 days away.
Ground Control To Major Tom
Travelling in air-conditioned sleeper car luxury
We've now got 5 weeks at home to catch up with friends and family before we head off to South America on October 16th. There'll be no more blogs for a while which is probably just as well as this one seems rather long. As we were both ready to come home, hopefully after 5 weeks we'll be relaxed and refreshed and ready to hit the South American trail.
One Last Bit of India
Hello again. Unfortunately as soon as we got home we found out we had taken a little bit of India with us. We both developed major stomach upsets which in David's case turned out to be the water borne disease of Giardia. Then, in a twist which surprised even the Hospital For Tropical Diseases, it turned out that at some point recently David had picked-up Cholera, the terrible disease that kills so many people in 3rd world countries and refugee camps. He was informed in a doctor's phone call that started with the words..."Now don't panic but it seems you have a case of.... etc ". In typical David style he was actually quite chuffed to have had
and survived such an exotic sounding disease and now, after a series of kick-arse antibiotics we are both healthy and well and enjoying lots of disease free home cooking!! Although with one eye looking towards South America we are debating whether we should be licking at least one floor a day in order to start re-building some hardened travel stomachs!
There are more photos below