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Published: March 7th 2009
I've read somewhere before that even the best laid stones eventually spoil and that analogy seems fit for the blogs I intended to write while on this trip. Now, if I remember correctly I left off with us arriving in India, and while I'd love to share all the details of Keith and Kylie's honeymoon adventure...I wont. Other than, of course, to state that we loved Pushkar - but that, of course, should be obvious.
So, we are leaving Udaipur for our separate journeys - albeit on the same train - Keith and Kylie to Delhi and yours truly to Mathura. Getting to the railway station was about as eventful as watching paint dry is fun...simple. I'd love to report on some happenings on the train but there were none. The casual reader may feel that this is an exaggeration, after all isn't India full of fun and amazing things to see, do, hear etc.? Especially on the trains! Well not this train. Although maybe the lack of any events is an event in itself, Ha!
Anyhow, I jumped off the train at Mathura Junction, saying good bye to Keith (and Kylie by proxy as she was sleeping) at around four am. Given the early time and that I hadn't slept on the train (I was, as I'm sure you would be too, a little concerned that I'd miss my stop) I allowed myself one of my daily rations of chai (at this time in the journey I think I was rationing around thirty cups per day!). Chai, for those who are unaware, is tea - but Indian style! One never knows what's going to be in one's chai; it could simply be tea, milk, sugar and water; or it could have spices such as ginger, cardamom, pepper etc. inside...as I said, one never really knows. Well the tea at Mathura was simple milk and sugar tea with ginger - delicious, and served in a freshly thrown clay cup.
That chai gave me the stamina to make my way over to the exit with my now lighter bag (I'd offloaded all the gifts in Udaipur) and tackle the ricksha drivers, attempting to get a good price to Vrindavana. Surprisingly, this was quite a simple task - a quick “Vrindavana ka kitne paise hai?” directed at the first ricksha (auto, that is) driver got a “ek sau pachas” in response. Happy with the 150inr price I hopped in the auto and zipped off to Vrindavana.
Now, other than the cold and the ricksha driver's incessant beedie smoking this was quite a pleasant journey. A beedie, for those India rookies out there, is quite a simple cigarette. It's really a cigar, being composed of a single, small, tobacco leaf rolled loosely to form a cigarette. Now while this may sound romantic to some it's really quite a disgusting invention, causing nausea in many (lucky the price tag is suitable - a thirty pack will set you back between three and five inr).
I was dropped off outside the Krishna-Balarama Mandir (Mandir = temple for the unaware) where I was to meet some friends to travel with for the rest of the journey. Well, since the bombings in Mumbai security has been stepped up all over this country, including at the temples. As a result of this new security conscious India I was unable to gain entry into this particular Mandir with my bag and had to sit outside the gate. For those who know me, and my inclination towards hypochondria, you will quite easily understand how daunting this prospect was - and if not then you will understand how I felt after sitting on the ground for three hours, the time it took 'till my friends met up with me. I would say uncomfortable but that isn't a strong enough term and today my vocabulary is apparently on holiday...the above description coupled with extremely uncomfortable will have to suffice for the present.
Vrindavana was as it always is...full of monkeys. I wont bore you with the mundane details of my goings on in this supra-mundane town other than a few little stories that, for some reason, have something to do with monkeys!
After meeting Julia and Suvilasa we headed back to where they were residing, a nice five minute walk from the Mandir and behind a Hanuman temple. If I remember correctly, and I know I'm prone to remember otherwise quite frequently, then the name of this establishment was Chitrakoot (or something along those lines). Quite a nice place to stay with large rooms and a price tag of 225 inr including tax. At around twelve (lunch time for the inexperienced) we decided to head down to Loi Bazaar for some shopping etc. On the way to the stairs of the guest house (we were on the third floor) we were accosted by monkeys! Well I say 'we' but Julia and I managed to escape unscathed, it was Suvi who got caught. She had her sari torn slightly and her leg scratched. Quite a little shock, really. After escaping the dangers of our guest house corridor we found safety in numbers walking to the bazaar.
Suvi's experience with the monkey reminded us that I shouldn't wear my glasses in Loi Bazaar, which is famous for, among other things I hope, the ability of the resident monkeys to steal glasses. I diligently placed my glasses into my beadbag and felt prepared for the onslaught - how wrong I was. We stopped off at one of the first shops in the bazaar for Julia and Suvi to look at some plates and whilst inside this shop I felt it safe enough to place my glasses back upon my nose. I don't think I was wrong in this assessment but my timing was seriously questionable. While leaving said shop I was preparing to remove my glasses. We were about two metres from the shop's exit and a monkey jumped in, up to my shoulders, and snatched my glasses. I don't even think Olympic table tennis players would have fast enough reflexes to compete with the monkeys of Loi Bazaar! I managed to get my glasses back, in slightly worse condition, but I won't embarrass myself by sharing how much this little escapade cost, after all, it wouldn't be civilised to do so.
After these two experiences with monkeys at our expense you'd think it safe that these little devils would focus their attention upon others...well not so (at least we got the rest of the day free from monkey trouble). Early the next morning I was heading off to the morning program at the Mandir and thought I'd missed all the monkeys. This would have looked quite amusing to the casual onlooker - I slowly opened my door being careful not to make a sound, peering my head around the slight crack I scanned the balcony for monkeys - none. I equally quietly locked the door behind me and slowly, silently, made my way towards the stairs. And then it happened. I weight on the back. I tugging at my dhoti. A pulling at my arm. I had three monkeys attacking me. I was terrified (but don't tell). The monkey on my back was hitting the top of my head. The monkey still on the ground was sinking its teeth into my dhoti and tearing it apart. The monkey on my arm was pulling and pulling. What was I to do? I simply ran (and was glad my glasses were in my bag!). The owner of the guest house saw the goings on and ran towards me with a stick, the monkeys fled, and, to let you all in on a little secret, so did I. I ran all the way to the Mandir with a shredded dhoti and took shelter inside. Of course I was a little embarrassed at the state of my dress, but I was so glad to be in the shelter of the Mandir that I didn't even care. I will say, however, that that night I slept very very well, but I won't say how.
Leaving Vrindavana was as simple as arriving. We got a ricksha for 150 inr to Mathura where we met our train to Delhi. The train was on time and we hopped off at H. Nizamuddin. Finding the pre-paid stand was just as simple and we got a ricksha to the Delhi ISKCON Mandir for around fifty inr. We were thinking of having lunch at Govinda's but the 275 inr price tag changed our minds pretty quick. Now I don't want to sound like a scrooge but that is some serious money over here...I wouldn't spend a night's accommodation on a single meal back home so why should I over here? Anyhow, there is a sweets and snack shop next door so we got some snacks (I think it was stuffed buns and pizza) and some sweets for about 50 inr.
While at ISKCON Delhi we met a Brazilian devotee who was scheduled to catch the same train as us to Kolkata that afternoon so we decided to car pool to the railway station. We got in about an hour early so we headed over to Parharganj to the ATM. It took twenty minutes to get to the ATM, another ten waiting in line, so we decided to get a cycle ricksha back to the station. For those who haven't been to Parharganj, or who have been away for a while, it is currently undergoing some slight renovations such as THE ROAD IS NOT THERE AT THE MOMENT. It's been ripped up so that a new sewerage system can be put in. This inspired the ricksha driver to take what he called a 'short cut' but really added another ten minutes to the trip. We paid him (with no tip of course) and made a mad run over to the railway station. To a mixture of delight and disgust we discovered that there are now two ATMs at the New Delhi Railway station, there was no need to make the trip to Parharganj at all! We met our train, found our seats, and departed Delhi no more than two minutes later. A very near miss.
The twenty seven hour train to Kolkata was as expected. Bad food (although the station vendor food was fine), general class passengers trying to take our seats, and great conversation. The journey through Bihar, India's poorest state, was made even more depressing as I had a local Bihar man as my seat neighbour. The fact that this man was my neighbour was not the depressing fact, I hope I'm not that shallow, but the stories he had to tell were very sad. I won't relay them here but I will say that this man has to work in Delhi in a steel plant for fifty inr per day as it's more than twice what he can earn working in Bihar. He was on our train heading home for his father's funeral.
Now such personal devastation makes any sort of segeway into our further problems seem at least heartless, perhaps even blatantly rude and inconsiderate, but this is a story that needs finishing and I'm not intending to leave it on a sour note. The train, being of the slower variety, was of course late. This meant that we'd missed the connection to Nabadwip Dham, at least the early connection. We shopped around for alternatives, from taxis - too expensive (2000inr) - to ISKCON Kolkata - not available - so we decided on getting the late train to Nabadwip Dham and thinking of the consequences later.
The late train was a general class only express for 20inr. We were delighted a the price, but we couldn't find the train. A coolie was therefore our only option. The coolie we found got us on our train and even got us seats, no small feat on these overcrowded general class trains. For this extra effort our coolie wanted a tip, and he was demanding 50inr! I gave him a ten, thinking this to be sufficient, or I should say knowing this to be sufficient, but he started having a tantrum right there on the carriage - he grabbed my arm and dragged me off to the train door and tried to get into my money bag. I had to give him a little smack across the upper arm to get him to stop, which seemed to work, and then let him know in no uncertain terms that a ten rupee tip was all he was getting from me. He seemed fine with this after all his cuffufle (spell check doesn't like this word for some reason) and left us to stew on the overcrowded train.
Now I say overcrowded but we were yet to know how overcrowded these trains actually get. Leaving Kolkata the train was actually quite spacious. We had four to a seat with perhaps twenty people standing in the aisle. After the next station, however, (and don't press a tired man for said station's name) there was an onslaught of people vying for a place on the carriage. I would estimate that there were no fewer than ten individuals coming through the train doors per second, and I've no idea how many people were left at the station but the platform was full! This was not like being packed like sardines in a tin, for in a tin there is room to spare around the pilchards for the oil - on this train there was barely room for oxygen let alone anything more viscous like oil!
Needless to say that when we saw the sign for Nabadwip Dham we launched ourselves into the maelstrom and attempted to sway the tide of passengers towards the exit door. The tide didn't sway and I was forced to extend the elbows and remind everyone of my superiority in height. We pushed, we pulled, we even squashed a few tootsies in the process, but we managed to free ourselves of the rip and emerge free and in full on the platform. What we didn't know, however, was that this particular train stops at Nabadwip Dham for fifteen minutes! There was no need to struggle at all, argh. Anyhow, next time we know (I'm pretty sure there'll be a next time as the journey was actually quite enjoyable).
Arriving at Nabadwip after midnight is quite nice - the temperature is pretty mild and there is no one around...except the constant cloud of mosquitoes. Now the mosquitoes are something we had planned for, all of us had repellent and the incense that I bought in Vrindavana seemed to keep them at bay. No, the real issue was that there was no one around, which meant that there was no way of getting to the ferry to Mayapur, and that the ferry itself was closed. We had to sleep at the station for the night, although none of us actually slept. On the station with us that night were two chai wallahs (tea sellers) who kept us awake with a decent dose of caffeine at regular intervals, a newspaper wallah, a watch wallah, a gumucha wallah (a gumucha is a type of cloth) and a transvestite. All pretty good company in spite of the fact that we couldn't speak any Bangla and they couldn't speak any English.
After the long evening at Nabadwip Dham train station we got a few rickshas to the ferry. This would have been a straight forward process, and we were all willing to just take the ricksha wallah's first price of 150inr each....except Julia. Even though we were all exhausted Julia just couldn't accept being ripped off. We just let her at them, being to tired ourselves, and she talked them down to 150inr for the four of us and our bags. We weren't complaining before and we certainly weren't complaining afterwards. We got the rickshas through the maze that is Nabadwip and arrived just in time for the first ferry.
The ferry across the Ganga is a wooden boat with a simple flat top that everyone just stands on. It costs one and a half rupees for the twenty minutes or so and has no sides, so one has to be very careful not to fall over. We didn't know it at the time but the early ferries over the Ganga are the best, and not because of the crowds, but because it's when the fisherman return. Now when I was young I ate fish but now being a vegetarian I no longer consume our watery friends. No, the reason that the fisherman's presence was so welcome is because the fisherman throw their by-catch into the river on their return which, in turn, encourages the magnificent Ganga-dolphins into an almost feeding frenzy.
The Ganga dolphins are an unusual animal to look at, being rather small, with small fins and a small snout. They are a dark colour and are very social. On the boat journey from Nabadwip to Mayapur we were accompanied by no fewer than ten of these magnificent creatures (there were perhaps fifteen or more but I'm trying to limit my daily exaggerations to a meager handful and I didn't think it necessary to have the number of dolphins here add to this tiny quota). I don't know the technical term for what these dolphins were doing, but if there is a term I'm sure it doesn't do the actions justice. This pack, if that's what it's called, of dolphins were breaking the water and rolling their dorsal fins into the open air in unison. They were ecstatic at the presence of the fisherman and I'm sure that they thought our small boat was going to offer up some by-catch. I'm considering heading back to the Ganga early one morning with the video camera so that I can relive this experience back home with my family.
This dolphin experience on the Ganga early in the morning was the perfect introduction to Sri Dham Mayapur. We were ecstatic while stepping off the boat and decided to walk the short distance to the gates of ISKCON Mayapur. The walk was easy in the cool of the early morning and it was surely excitement that we felt as we entered the huge front gates of ISKCON's Chandradoya Mandir.
(P.S. Vrindavana is not listed as a location on travelblog.org)
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