India, holy cow!
12.09.2010 - 02.10.2010 33 °C
India… Holy cow!
Where to start? India for me is rather indescribable… How do you describe a country where you go from smelling urine and (human) faeces to smelling the sweetest sandalwood incense, all within a span of 10 meters? How do you describe a country with extraordinarily beautiful temples and forts that are only a neighbourhood away from slums where people live in ramshackle tents? How do you describe a country where for the average tourist, the water can be source of extreme illness but where the food is so varied, tasty and delicious? How do you describe a country where there are some extremely beautiful people but also a high rate of deformities (particularly eyes and legs)? How do you describe a country where you can stay in a private room for anywhere between 3 and 600$ a night? How do you describe a country where cows are holy, but other animals that die in the middle of the street are not removed and left to rot?
For me, it is virtually impossible to describe the impressions I've been feeling. Really, to get an impression of India, more so than for any other place I have visited, you really have to visit it yourself.
So, unfortunately, there really isn't all that much of a way to avoid using the cliché of "India is a land of contrasts". It may be cliché, but it certainly is true!
I guess I could compare it to… Egypt. Many people I met on their first day in Delhi where overwhelmed. For me, after Cairo, it was not so much of a shock. Sure, it is poorer, it is overcrowded, polluted, chaotic, noisy… Just like Cairo. If anything, the traffic is way less chaotic in Delhi and Rajasthan than it is in Cairo… Though it moves slower.
(Usual disclaimer, I tend to post pictures of monuments and smiling people rather than slums and people in misery… Therefore don't assume that I'm giving a proper impression of India through my pictures… For something a little closer to reality, read the text, or better still, ask me questions!)
In a sense, I was lucky to have found the Mystique Moments hostel in Rani Bagh. Rani Bagh is close to the Kohat Enclave metro station and is an Indian neighbourhood with virtually no tourists. Sure, the hostel's dorm was rather "so-so" (and I was expecting to see mosquito nets, but haven't seen a single one in any of the places I have seen (finally did in Udaipur)), but Manu (Dr. C.M. Malik) was extremely helpful and insightful and loves to play travel agent, spending hours setting up my itinerary for Rajasthan without any cost, but simply because he wants his guests to have a good time. Anyhow, back to the neighbourhood. I will say that it was a posher than usual neighbourhood. By all standards it was the poorest neighbourhood I'd ever stayed in, but having seen other neighbourhoods from the subway (that is above ground in certain parts of the city), I realized that it was above average as neighbourhoods go.
As a whole, Delhi is overwhelming from the standpoint of pretty much everything, but underwhelming with respect to the things to see. There are some very nice temples, but the Red Fort ins't as impressive as pretty much every fort I've visited in Rajasthan. I do have a few more temples to check out that are supposed to be nice.
I had several first experiences in Delhi. My first hindu temple, for example. They welcome everyone in (which wasn't the case in islamic Cairo) and they have many shrines, all to the different hindu divinities, where you are supposed to give offerings to the divinity or divinities that you worship. It was quite interesting, really.
I also had my first cycle rickshaw experience. It was heading over to the Pitampura subway stop. Many indians don't speak English, so in many cases, negotiating for a cycle rickshaw is difficult, more so if you don't know the name of the neighbourhood you are staying in or a landmark nearby. Haggling is the order of the day. Though to be honest, I didn't accept the first price (100, for example) but didn't insist on the rate of 30 which would be a normal rate but accepted 50. The cycle rickshaw owners are so poor, many of which sleep on their rickshaws at night to make sure they don't get stolen. It isn't a particularly comfortable method of travel, but it is both economical and environmentally friendly.
The Delhi subway is way cleaner and modern than the one in Cairo. But this makes sense as it is only approx. 8 years old. What does take a lot of getting use to is the stares of the people. They will stare at you. They will also whip out their cameras or cell phones and take your picture or film you. Sometimes if they see you with a camera, they want you to take their picture (at no charge) or want your picture taken with them… I can only imagine how many Facebook profiles now have my picture next to a smiling Indian… Oh well!…
As a whole, the Indians seem to be fairly friendly and helpful. I made a point of traveling in local traditional clothes that are very discreet which is probably why I didn't get hassled much compared to some other stories I've been getting. There are scams though, as one of the residents of the hostel found out on his first day, getting his camera stolen by and Indian that "befriended" him.
So after a few days of rest in Delhi where a sore throat I'd had since Egypt developed into a full blown cold, I headed off to visit Rajasthan by car with a private driver.
Near India Gate
Bazaar and Red Fort
Rajasthan - Jaipur
The first destination was Jaipur, the Pink City. It is referred to as the Pink City as the walls of the old city are painted pink and a wall surrounds the entire old city. The old city doors are still closed every evening. Rajasthan dress differs from Delhi dress in that it is more colourful (for the women) and also, many of the men sport nice long curled moustaches. In certain areas, turbans are also "de rigueur".
On the first afternoon there, I got to visit the Laxmi Narayan temple which was beautiful and ornate. Lovely detail work!
I visited the Amber (pronounced Amer) fort in the morning with a ride up to the fort on the back of an elephant. It was on a sort of platform and with my legs to the left of the elephant. It wasn't a particularly comfortable ride, but it was an interesting experience. Amber fort is magnificent and is the nicest fort I've seen so far in India. There are several sections that are open that most of the visitors don't find, so you can walk around the fort for 15-30 minutes without seeing anyone. It is a great feeling and I can only imagine that it would be the perfect place to play hide-and-seek as a kid.
In the evening, I visited Chowky Dhany, a sort of carnival representative of traditional Rajasthan, where I had a wonderful thali followed by the opportunity to watch dances, magic shows and puppet shows.
Rajasthan being a desert state, fresh vegetables are rarer, so a lot of the dishes contains less vegetables, more cheese curds and meats (though I'm visiting India as a vegetarian… I can't think of a better place to go "vegetarian") and the food is invariably very spicy/hot. I had a really good thali, which is typically rice or bread accompanied with several small dishes containing, for example, a salad, a pannier (cottage cheese) dish, dal (lentils), raita (a yoghurt-vegetable mix that is cooling after the spices of the other dishes) and a sweet. One place had 12 different little dishes. They tend to be fairly reasonable price wise, with the prices between 85 and 120 rupees (2-3 dollars).
My driver was unhappy with me because I didn't buy anything at the carpet - sheet place he took me to and was asked not to go to anymore of those types of shops. Apparently the drivers get a 40% commission on the sales that these shops make (basically, you pay 40% more so that the driver gets his cut). Also, I commented to the driver that the meal places he would stop at on the way were too expensive. Food outside of Delhi (and Mumbai etc…) is supposed to be quite a bit cheaper and my experience in Jaipur and Jodhpur was that food was about 40% cheaper than in Delhi, so why is it that the places he would take me to, without being better, were about 30% more expensive than Delhi? It turns out that the drivers either get a commission or a free meal or both when he takes his passengers to one of those restaurants… Anyhow, I've now been eating light lunches (or snacking on a bag of chips) and heavier suppers as I don't really approve of the commission system. Anyhow… So now I'm stuck with a slightly rude driver… Oh well!
The roads here are entertaining in the sense that there are cows on the highways, there are people on the roofs of buses and the driver slows the car every time there is a pot hole. Admittedly some of them are pretty bad, but the main problem is that they drive the tires till they are completely worn here which explains why the potholes end up being dangerous as many of the tires end up tearing.
Laxmi Narayan Temple:
Jaipur City Palace:
Me having a thali at Chowky Dhany village:
Jodhpur, the Blue City, called the Blue City because of the blue walls and roofs of the houses of the people of the Brahmin (religious) caste. Today anyone can paint their walls or roofs blue and it is amusing to see these groupings of blue houses in the city. The fort over the city was very impressive like the Amber fort in Jaipur. In Jodhpur, it was a specific tour where you had to follow arrows and couldn't "get lost" intentionally, unlike in Jaipur. From the outside, though, it was also magnificent. For me, the best part of the stay in Jodhpur was my first quiet evening on the (blue) roof of the Amar Niwas Guesthouse, which had rooms for 3$ a night (cheapest place so far in my travels). The view from the roof was nice, it was in the old city and was very quiet. It was my first truly relaxing outdoor moment since I arrived in India.
Blue roofs of Jodhpur:
Following Jodhpur, was a visit to Ranakpur (the road between the two was pretty bad) to visit one of the largest Jain temples in the world. It has 500 pillars all of which are different. An interesting temple, you are not allowed to enter with any leather articles. A tour was given by the high priest. A group of Indian men wanted me to take their pictures. My understanding (as they didn't speak English) was that they were from another part of India and were visiting the temple. So I took their picture… Not sure what I will do with it other than post it here?
Jain Temple in Ranakpur:
The road from Ranakpur to Udaipur was also very relaxing. It was in a hilly and green area with lots of rural farming. Lots of very colourful saris and lots of nice bright red turbans and long moustaches. At Udaipur, I was staying at the Lake Shore Hotel which is a hostel on Lake Pichola, an old artificial lake that is really beautiful. The area as a whole (including the old city) is the most relaxing place I've found yet in India, such that I decided to stay an extra day to relax, ie, three nights. The city palace and local temple are very humdrum compared to those of Jaipur and Jodhpur, but it is a very romantic place with beautiful ghats surrounding the lake.
Following Udaipur, was a quick stop in Chittorgarh where there is a nice fort and temple complex. I got to take some good pictures of monkeys that were roaming around. They could also be spotted running and jumping along the rooftops in Jaipur but I wasn't able to take any pictures of them there.
Lake Pichola and the Palace, Udaipur
Lake Pichola and the Palace, Udaipur
On to Pushkar where I was able to negotiate a reasonable rate for my first ever camel ride. Riding a camel is an interesting feeling. You are perched way higher up than on a horse and the walking and trotting (I found the trotting more comfortable) of the camel has a different feel. The fun part is when a camel either stands up or sits down. Hold on! (and don't forget to lean backwards unless you want to tumble forward…). The area I was riding in, when not during monsoon, is a desert. Got to see a wonderful sunset! On the way back, I had a discussion with the camel driver (or however he should be called). He mentioned that he wasn't married but that he was getting several offers of dowries, but that he wanted more money of his own before getting married (he was 25). He'd also been told by his parents that they couldn't afford to keep in him school and that he needed to get a job after only 5 years of schooling and had been working ever since. His younger siblings were currently in school, though. What bothered me immensely, is that the tour is organized by the owner of the camels who takes 500 rupees (11$) or so for 2 hours (I paid 400 for 3) yet pays the camel driver that actually does the work 1800 rupees a month (40$). So basically, he makes 60 rupees a day (1.40$), can be called at anytime of the day by his employer to make tours and doesn't get any days off or vacation and can be sent on 12 day treks across the desert. There is such a wealth pyramid in who gets the money, such that the rich stay rich and the poor stay poor. On the bright side, he makes 3 times more than 40% (or was it 20%?) of the population (imagine living on 45 cents a day…). Anyhow, I gave him the difference between what I'd manage to negotiate and the going rate as at least that way, the person doing the work got some money…
Camel ride near the desert:
After Pushkar I left Rajasthan for Uttar Pradesh and the city of Agra. A quick stop at the Fatekpur Sikri (?) to see an old abandoned yet beautiful city ended up being a big pain as the hawkers and touts there were very aggressive. I guess part of the problem is that culturally, when you bargain, walking away is seen as a tool of negotiation, and they don't seem to know that as a foreigner, typically, when you say you aren't interested, you aren't interested, so they try and try and try and try… This was the first day that the hawkers and touts really really got on my nerves! But then, being close to Agra, Fatekpur Sikri gets buses of tourists that get the site added to the Taj Mahal, so there are lots of "targets" for the hawkers, and they're only trying to make a living. It is just a pain that they don't understand when a client really isn't interested and will follow you over a distance of 500m trying to sell you stuff you don't want.
After that, to the hotel in Agra to get ready for a sunrise visit of the Taj Mahal. So… How is the Taj Mahal? Well, some say it is the most beautiful building in the world. I don't really have an opinion on that, but I can certainly say that it is the nicest looking burial memorial I have ever seen. The detailed marble work, the colourful inset stones… It really is a wonderful place and it is relaxing, though once again, Agra is infested with touts and there are some "helpful" people that suggest places from which you can get "a better photo" and then expect some form of reward… But it certainly is worth the trip. I was also supposed to see the Agra fort, but by then, I was "forted out" as I had reached a certain level of saturation. You can only see so many forts and temples before they all sort of blend into one another… No surprise then that my favourite fort was the first I saw (though objectively, it is considered one of the better ones), Amber fort of Jaipur, and one of my favourite temples was also in Jaipur, the Laxmi Narayan temple.
And… back to Delhi and the comforts of Mystic Moments bed and breakfast and the familiar Rani Bagh neighbourhood! So nice not to get stared at and not to be targeted by hawkers and touts!
I got to Varanasi by flying with a low cost airline called Spice Jet. Varanasi is one of the holy city for the hindus. It is mostly seen as the best place to die and therefore many elderly and sick move to Varanasi and wait to die. It is considered auspicious to die here as it is said that it reduces the chances of coming back for another life (reincarnation) and increases the chances for self-realization. Varanasi is famous for its ghats where people bath and even drink the (highly polluted, mostly with faecal coliforms…) water from the Ganges. There are also the burning ghats where the dead get cremated before being placed (sometimes not completely cremated) into the Ganges.
Upon arriving there, I got my first very long auto-rickshaw ride where I got to filter about a pound of dust and dirt through my lungs… Really, if you come to India, bring breathing masks… :-) Anyhow, arriving late in the day, I decided to find the ghats, which I'd been inspired to visit from the time that I saw the movie Barraka (1992). I got lost in the dark alleys and ended up taking about 45 minutes of walking in dark (smelly) and dotted with cow patties alleys before finding a burning ghat that was really only 5 minutes from the hostel. Around the ghats, there are many "priests" that offer to let you get into a building for a better view in exchange for a "contribution". There are also "university students" that only want to talk to you to improve their English and offer to explain the ceremony, except when it is time to leave, they want you to visit their shop… Sigh!… Anyhow, it was eery and fascinating to see a cremation at the burning ghat in the darkness, surrounded by people, the sound of the Ganges, the boats on the Ganges and the smell of… um… burning.
I spent the next day zoning out in the various ghats. That evening, I went to watch the Ganga Aarti, a celebration with fire and dance in the main ghat. Next morning was a boat ride to see the ghats from the water, with people bathing and drinking the waters of the Ganges. All in all, I found Varanasi rather disappointing compared to other destinations, such that I decided to leave early and visit Sarnath, the place where Buddha gave his first speech. It was a peaceful place, though the auto-rickshaw driver wanted to make the ride appear long (from Sarnath to the airport) such that I would pay him more… He was saying that there was 20 minutes of ride left when I'd just seen a road sign saying the airport was 5 kilometres away. I mentioned this and he sped up and sure enough we were there a few minutes later… Honesty is not the strong point of rickshaw and taxi drivers in India...
Ghats and around Varanasi:
Sarnath where Buddha gave his first speech:
Rishikesh… I decided to visit Rishikesh as it is considered the world capitol of yoga. It is also where the guru of the person who founded the yoga organization I go to founded his ashram and where they met. The trip to Rishikesh was my first opportunity to take a train in India. I chose an easy class, AC Chair class where you get reserved seats that are fairly comfortable and where food is sold at non-tourist prices. Like a 30 cent pizza that was decent. I realized about an hour into the 4 hour or so trip that they didn't announce stops. Apparently, you look out the winder to see where you are and that is when you get out. That is all fine, except after sunset with the train station unlit, you don't see the signs… Anyhow, I somehow managed to get off the train, then tried to take a bus. The buses don't follow a specific schedule. When the bus from Delhi gets there, it then continues on to Rishikesh, whenever that is. I waited for a while and then figured out that it would be easier to take an auto-rickshaw. I negotiated a good price, but the driver kept stopping and talking to other people. It turns out that he accepted my fare without ever having the intention of taking me to Rishikesh as the road had flooded and he couldn't make it. He was hoping to pass me on to somebody else and make a commission. I told him rather sternly to take me back to the train station. On the way, he kept stopping to ask others to take me, so I got out and walked off… I ended up taking the bus. For the whole 40 minute trip (as I inhaled another pound of dust) a half dozen guys at the back of the bus were singing. It was quite fun, really. Then arriving into Rishikesh, I got a rickshaw, but the crook took me to the wrong bridge, such that I had to call the hotel to find out how to get there and walk 3 kilometres in the dark withoutany street lights, but dogs, cows, monkeys and people sleeping along it. I'm quite happy that my "cheap" Egyptian cell phone has a built in flashlight!
Rishikesh is nice and at the foot of the Himalayas, though you can't really see them from here (as it is surrounded by green hills with the Ganges flowing through it). It is a peaceful place, by Indian standards. I visited the Sivananda ashram and then walked to a waterfall but got lost on the way… This morning for breakfast, I had a yak cheese sandwich in a German bakery… It was nice to go to (sort of) western food (the bread, at least) for a change.
Butterflies, butterflies, butterflies… For a country with such awful air quality and pollution, I am constantly amazed at the number of butterflies. I've seen them nearly everywhere on the roads between cities and so many of them in Rishikesh. I haven't seen any in Delhi, though, but perhaps I wasn't looking for them or I was scratching dust out of my eyes as they flew by… :-)