Holy Cow! - - (India)
Trip Start Feb 18, 2004
80Trip End Dec 05, 2005
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My flight from Sydney to Mumbai was a long one - 12 hours. The hotel I booked in the city had a shuttle waiting for me so I wouldn't have to hassle with the taxis and bargaining. I was a bit surprised it wasn't as crazy when I stepped out of the arrivals hall as Cairo (touts didn't hassle me much). On the ride into town the first things that struck me are how many vehicles there are (and how crazy they drive) and the amount of rubbish everywhere. I saw a storm runoff filled with rubbish, a kid pooping on the side of the street and guy washing himself on the sidewalk. Got checked into my hotel then got a taxi down to the Colaba area where the main tourist area is. The taxi guys were honest! What the heck!?! In Cairo they'd do their best to rip you off every time. I wandered around the Gateway of India where there were lots of people trying to sell stuff or take your picture. They left me alone for the most part. ??? Hmmm, this doesn't sound like the India I heard about. There were people selling giant balloons - I wanted to ask them what the hell I'd do with one of those. Plenty of people who saunter along and whisper "hash, mareewhana". Mumbai was very hot and humid - clothes were gross most the time. I met up with an Aussie guy from the flight that evening at the traveller's bar, Leopold's. Just had a quick beer as we were both tired.
The next morning was spent figuring out how I was going to get to Udaipur. I went to the train station but it was chaotic. There's supposed to be a tourist counter but I didn't see it and people stared at me blankly when I asked about it. So I found the private bus companies and got myself a ticket on an A/C coach (at first there weren't any seats available, but an extra 200 rupees freed one up). Once that was taken care of, I went back down to Colaba and caught a ferry over to Elephanta Island. Along the way, people would just dump their rubbish over the side of the boat. !!! There are some cool carved temples at the island with statues, pillars and such. The temples were carved out sometime between AD 450 and 750 (they think). That evening I had drinks with Stacie who I met through Lonely Planet. Turns out she's from Portland too. Crazy that I go all the way to Mumbai to meet another Portlander.
I went to the bus company the next day for my trip to Udaipur. They sent me in a taxi to the main office where I got to wait about an hour and a half for the bus. Luckily, there was an English couple there with me so we were not knowing what was going on together. The bus went for a couple hours to the outskirts of town then we switched to another bus (after another long wait). The bus had a tv so the driver would play Bollywood movies at really high volume. Ugh. We'd stop every few hours for breaks and food...makes it hard to sleep. A couple younger Indian guys on the bus with us were asking what their generation can do to improve things in India. I didn't have a good answer for them - overpopulation and pollution are a couple of the main problems but those aren't easily solved. We made it into Udaipur around 5:30am - the Indian guys let us know it was our stop otherwise we wouldn't have had a clue. The lake in Udaipur was all dried up (it's hot season). There's a neat palace and several temples in the town. It didn't seem quite as chaotic with traffic and people as Mumbai, but there were plenty of people trying to get me in their shops or rickshaws. I went to a traditional dance show with the English couple, Daniel and Dana, that evening. The last lady to perform did all kinds of crazy stuff - she'd balance pots on her head then walk on glass or stand on swords. After the show we went to dinner at a place with a nice rooftop view.
Caught another bus to Mt Abu in the morning, though this one wasn't air conditioned. Trying to figure out where your stop is can be interesting. Mt Abu is a big tourist town for Indians as it's a bit cooler so they go there to escape the heat (though it's still hot). Mt Abu has a lake, palace and nearby temples that I visited. Some of the carving at the temples is amazing. I ran into a couple guys from the bus that turned out to be from L.A. They thought everything was "cool". We had dinner and wandered around the town a bit.
On to Jodhpur, by bus again. This bus seemed to pickup just about anybody who needed a lift along the way so we had quite a few people standing in the aisles. Jodhpur is a city of many narrow streets and lots of traffic...not a good combination. It's a crazy, busy city and very easy to get lost in. Jodhpur is known as the 'blue city' since many of the buildings in the city are painted blue (supposedly it helps repel mosquitoes). Looming over the city is Meherangarh, built in 1806.
I wandered around the city seeing the fort, Jaswant Thada, markets and getting lost in the little streets. The owner of the guest house I stayed at was very friendly. He contacted a friend of his to help me get train tickets. This guy seemed like untrustworthy slime from the moment he started talking. He insisted I come by his shop the next day to pickup the tickets. Of course, once there he just tried to sell me a bunch of stuff. I wasn't buying nothin' though (he didn't have any magnets) and got away with just the train tickets. The guest house owner proved himself to be dodgy as well by changing the price of the room upon checkout. There were some nice other travellers staying there. I met a French couple and an English couple there that I chatted with both nights.
Indian Railways is the largest employer in the world. Nearly every train is jam-packed with people. There are various levels of comfort you can choose from a plain seat to a bed in an a/c coach. I chose a bed in the a/c coach for my overnight ride from Jodhpur to Jaisalmer. Wasn't too bad...I was actually able to sleep. Arrived bright n' early again and got checked in at the guest house. I figured I'd wander around early before it got too hot and went out to Gadi Sagar, what used to be the city water supply, and around the fort. The fort area is cool with lots of little alleyways and cows (and their crap) all over. There were end of harvest celebrations going on at some of the temples and that also meant many people would be getting married. I saw a couple of the people in procession (men dressed up on horseback). In the evening I went out to an area with a great view of the fort at sunset.
One of the main tourist things to do while in Jaisalmer is to go on a camel trek in the desert. I opted for an overnight trek. Met up with the guides in the morning and the other travelers. Turns out the Canadian couple who were in my train compartment were going on the trek too. We were taken by jeep out a ways to the desert where our guides and camels were waiting. The main guide told us he'd been doing this for many years. He can't read and was married at 20 to a 15yo girl he'd never met before. The other guide was his apprentice - a 10yo kid learning the trade. They took us through the desert by a couple villages and for a lunch break in the shade. It was a looong lunch break. It was incredibly hot out there - well over 100F. All our water was hot within a couple hours so not too refreshing. We continued on and made it to some sand dunes where we camped for the night. Our guide sang us songs like "i'm a camel man" (set to the tune of "Barbie Girl") and "take me home country roads" (John Denver). That last one was quite funny to hear sung in an Indian accent. We just had blankets to sleep on on the sand dunes, and as the wind was blowing we woke up with sand all over us.
After breakfast, the group split since the Canadians were going for another day and I was heading back. Junior, the young guide, took us on a camel ride to meet up with another group where I'd get a lift back to town. Dan and Dana were part of that other group. Went back to town and I hung out with D&D for the day before getting on my way to Jaipur. The luck of Friday the 13th begins... I was pursued all over town by various shoe repair touts who wanted to fix my shoes. The shoes only have a little stitching coming undone and are fine so I'd tell them "no" or just ignore them. They wouldn't be deterred though and followed me all over the freakin' place. Going to the train station helped me lose the guys in town but then there was a new guy there. Ergh! My train from Jaisalmer to Jodhpur got cancelled and I was stuck on a packed bus with no air conditioning. Ugh! Now I was beginning to experience some of the travel problems of India I'd heard about. The bus got us to the Jodhpur train station and only had to wait an hour or so for the train to Jaipur. I had another overnight sleeper with a/c so was able to sleep alright.
Jaipur is known as the Pink City 'cuz in the old city area many of the buildings are painted kind of a pinkish color (I thought it looked a bit orange). That first day I went wandering to the old city, around the markets and into the city palace. Apparently you're supposed to pay to get in, but there was no one at the ticket booth or gate so I got in for free. I treated myself to some much needed western cuisine at Pizza Hut that evening (hey, I can only take so much Indian food day after day!).
I met up with Dan and Dana the next morning for breakfast and we took the bus out to Amber Fort. Construction of the fort began in 1592 with various maharajas adding to it. On the nearby mountains are walls and towers that reminded me of the Great Wall of China. Dan and Dana went on an elephant ride up to the fort then we explored it, getting a bit lost in all the various passages. D&D rode the elephant part way back down but got off early 'cuz they realized the Indians abuse the poor animals. (That's why I didn't go on it to begin with.) The camel trek guides weren't so nice to those animals either. You'd think the people would treat the animals that earn them their income with better care. We caught the bus back to the city and wandered all over looking for somewhere to have lunch. After lunch, we got a rickshaw out to Galta, the Monkey Temple. We were quite surprised with that - it was cool looking (and, yes, there were monkeys all over). Back to the hotel for dinner and bedtime.
I was up freakin' early the next morning to catch my train to Agra. I had a sleeper again so I could rest. The people in the compartment with me were nice and let me know when we were getting close to my stop and when we arrived (the friendliest Indians always seemed to be the ones sharing transport with you). I arrived in Agra in the early afternoon and made my way to the Taj Mahal area...it was a much longer walk than I thought. An entry ticket costs $20 (for foreigners) and they only let you in once, so I wasted some time 'til it was closer to sunset. There were people by all the entrance gates trying to sell stuff, get you in their rickshaw, wanting to be your guide at the Taj... One rickshaw driver kept following me around and wanted me to pay him to take me to a shop where I would be hassled to buy stuff so he could get 20rupees commission. He even told me he'd get a commission and kept asking why I didn't want to go. I'm not quite that stupid...not quite. Anyway, I didn't hang around there much. I eventually went into the Taj with the mass of tourists (mostly Indian). I was told to expect disappointment, but I thought it was cool. The inside doesn't have much, but the outside is great for pics. And our beloved hero, Spanky, got his picture with the Taj Mahal (my sole purpose in visiting India).
Back to the train station to catch an overnight ride to Varanasi. As the train arrived, I noticed I had a waiting list ticket (no confirmed seat). I got on anyways and luckily the conductor found me a spot...and I didn't even have to bribe him!
I woke up around 8am thinking we'd be arriving in Varanasi soon (book said 8-9:30am). I kept waiting and waiting... We didn't arrive 'til past 1pm. Oy! Varanasi is a holy city on the Ganges River. The river is sacred so people come here to bathe and be cremated. There's loads of pollution in the river though so it's quite gross that people bathe in it. Here's a factoid from LP - "Every day about 60,000 people go down to the ghats to take a holy dip along a 7km area of the river. Along this same stretch, 30 sewers are continuously discharging into the river. Samples from the river show the water has 1.5million faecal coliform bacteria per 100mL of water. In water that is safe for bathing this figure should be less than 500!" Nasty! I wandered along the ghats, resisting the temptation for a swim, and through the backalley markets before returning to my guest house for a break from the heat. In the evening, I went back down to the ghats where there was some kind of ceremony/festival going on. I stayed and watched that for a while before going back to the guest house for dinner. The tomato, cucumber and cheese sandwich I ate would come back to haunt me. A short while after settling in my stifling hot room with beds like wood and pillows like rocks, my stomach started to feel ill. I ended up sick all through the night and hardly slept at all. I just lay around all the next morning until it was checkout. By that time I was somewhat ok, but not great. Got a rickshaw out to the airport (the bumps hurt) and flew to Mumbai. I declined the food on the flight and had a little to eat once I reached the Mumbai airport. My flight to Bangkok wasn't 'til almost 5am so I had lots of time to sit around not feeling good. Here I was thinking I was going to get through India without any stomach problems, and India sends me away with a parting gift - "delhi belly".
It's hard having grown up in a western society, going someplace like India and not perceiving things as "wrong" or inappropriate. The country is sooooo overpopulated I think it's affected how people treat one another and their attitudes towards many things. With so many people, it's virtually impossible to not have high unemployment and therefore lots of poor. The caste system is still in place despite murmurs to the contrary. So if you're born poor, you have little hope of ever being better off.
Pollution is also a major problem, probably partly due to overpopulation. The government really needs to do more in terms of rubbish collection and disposal though. I saw very, very few rubbish bins in any of the cities I was in. I assume that's why most people just toss their garbage wherever. But people need to change their thinking that littering is ok. It seemed to me the people treated the earth like their own personal rubbish bin. Maybe if they took more pride in their cities and land there'd be less littering. And with a large and cheap work force available, why not have more people out cleaning the streets?
There are quite a few things that didn't seem "right" to me as a westerner. Child labor is the norm. Many restaurants and shops have kids working in them. People, both men and women, spit all over (the train station even has a sign that says 'no spitting'). Women definately don't have equal rights with men. I'd warn any woman going to India to expect sexual harassment and possible groping. A few of the internet cafes I went to had Indian men at the computers with several chat windows open and a couple pages of porn open at the same time. Ya, so those of you that frequent the chat forums should be a little more weary about who you're talking to. The main thing I would say is the general lack of respect for anyone or anything. That perspective is probably jaded as a tourist since being white gets you hassled extra.
BUT, that's not to say India doesn't have friendly people. Many, many people would walk or ride by and say "hello" and not ask for anything. Most the touts would leave you alone the first time you say "no" and would smile and laugh if you joked around with them. Families on trains were always nice and helpful. And, of course, one of the best things is that it's freakin' cheap! You can get a meal for $1 and a place to stay for $3. One of my favorite memories would have to be leaving the Jaswant Thada temple in Jodhpur and there was an Indian man playing an instrument with his two little kids dressed up dancing - the girl was trying to do Bollywood dance moves and the boy was just sliding his shoulders back and forth....I really wish I had made a video of that.
A couple weeks in India made me realize how much I miss the simplicity of life in the western world and home. Perhaps there is such thing as traveling for too long...
"Seeing things, going places
Living out of suitcases
Every day's like a dream
I find myself talking to shadows
Taking the train of youth
Back home again...
And I don't wanna sit here wasting time
I just want a place inside your mind
I wish that I could turn the clocks right back
It's easy to forget just what you've got"
- "turn" by Feeder