India is not for everybody, and when I told people I was going there, people were either on the “fantastic, that will be awesome” side, or on the “why on earth would you go there?” team. While India may not hold much appeal as a travel destination for a lot of people, for me it was about the rich tapestry of history, traditions and cultures that are so different in Australia. That and also I really like curry.
Traveling to places like Europe is very different, the beauty is presented to you in the form of polished up Coliseums and pristine Greek beaches. The challenge in India is to scratch beneath the poor and malnourished surface of the country, in order to find the beauty for yourself. Being the sole white man amongst a sea of dark skinned Indians', each with curiosity filled eyes fixated on you, is as creepy as it is an adrenalin rush. It is part of the thrill of being in these types of countries. How often are you the center of attention amongst hundreds of people, without it being because you have toilet paper stuck to your shoe?
The trip to India covered three and a half weeks. It was diverse, chaotic, eye-opening and methane scented (it was the cows, I promise, it was the cows). It all started in the capital, Delhi.
I arrived in Delhi on the back of an interesting Indian flight. Those who have never flown on a flight populated with Indians are missing out! The flight is basically one big game of musical chairs, no one sits still, regardless of the seat-belt sign. I had no fewer than twenty different people sit down next to me, alternating the Hindi discussions and head waggling, with long periods of staring at my non-Indian head.
Once at the airport, I had planned to catch the Metro into town. This is the very same Metro that was scheduled to be finished just in time for the 2010 Commonwealth Games. It is still being built!
Instead, my hotel had arranged for a driver to pick me up. I was feeling pretty upmarket, in the knowledge that I had my own personal driver waiting for me. I had installed a pompous smile on my face, ready to flash at my fellow travelers from the plane. I was soon put back in my place, confronted with the site of about two hundred screaming Indians, holding up signs! After spending ten minutes looking at each sign, I finally found mine, creatively spelled “Amso Rjotre”, and we were off into Delhi!
My first experience of Indian roads soon followed. Lesson One - the markings on the road are for decoration only! It would seem in India, the prerequisite for gaining a drivers license (if such a thing exists), is to possess an ability to drive one handed, whilst tooting the horn at a machine-gun-like rhythm.
We only had one full day in Delhi, so we hit the streets hard to see as much as we could, but not before hooking into our free breakfast. The hotel presented us with a bowl of cornflakes. It was stock standard, you had your Cornflakes, your milk, and as an added bonus, you had about fifty bugs swimming some laps of the bowl! We left the bugs to their fitness campaign and hit the streets. It is with great regret that we never made it to the Museum of Toilets, although I am unsure how many ways a hole in the ground can possibly evolve.
Next up we visited the Red Fort. While in the line to get in, we were approached by a group of Indian university students. They were from rural India, and seeing foreigners was rare for them. They obviously saw us as “movie stars” (eh, why not hey?), and came up pleading to have their photos taken with us. The girls quickly stood next to me and my friend Shannon, exclaiming to us “oh so smart and so handsome”! A couple of their male friends also tried to get in the photo, but the girls promptly pushed them away. It's hard work being a "movie star", I don't know how John Stamos does it.
I didn’t know too much about Varanasi, and my first real challenge in the city was deciding on our accommodation. The options ranged from a twin room without a window for $2.58 per night, a twin room WITH a window for $2.78, or a room with a window, bathroom and heater for $3.10 a night.
Our arrival into the hotel foyer was greeted by the sight of five men huddled around a fire. A bonfire in the hotel foyer, and no fire escape to be seen! All I can say is lucky we splashed out on the room with a window.
The lifeblood of Varanasi is the Ganges River. It is an eerie site seeing a river with temples hugging the banks, and hundreds of wooden canoes tied to the sides. We took a walk down and admired one of the many fires the locals had burning on edge of the water. I didn't know a whole lot about the history of Varanasi. As I watched one fire, a strange smell filled the air. I quite quickly learned the exact purpose of what the fires were for, particularly when my gaze was directed to a human foot hanging out from the flames!
The Ganges river is quite simply filthy. Human remains (from the burning ghats) are thrown in it daily, sewerage runs straight into flowing water, urine, laundry detergent, you name it, it is in there! It should have come as more of a surprise then when we saw people swimming in it the next day, let alone seeing people dipping their toothbrushes into the river during their morning brush! Debatable if the daily laundry routine each day in the Ganges River results in cleaner clothes really, although I now understand why the hotel charged per item for their laundry.
The balance of power in Varanasi is very much held with the cows. They run this city. One cold morning, I saw a group of men huddled around a fire, trying to keep warm. They were soon joined by a few stray dogs. After returning an hour later from breakfast, I observed the following; the men were gone, two dogs remained, and six cows were had replaced the men, and were now huddled around the hot coals. I can only hope this isn’t a crystal ball into the evolution of the world.
My first experience on the India rail system involved an overnight ride from Varanasi to Agra. A little known fact, Indian Rail can magically transform 12 hours into 18 hours…amazing! It all started with boarding our train and making our beds. We had the top bunks, and with ladders not having been invented in India as yet, getting to bed involved some proper Tarzan manoeuvrings. Complimentary with our beds, was a lack of head room. I lay approximately half a foot from the ceiling…my breath bouncing off the roof and back into my face.
Four middle-aged Indian men were our roommates, though none of them spoke English. Over the journey, we had nothing better to do, than observe each of our Indian cabin-mates. They simply sat, staring into space, whilst Hindi music blared out of their mobile phones. The only movement these men made was a slight head waggle to the beat of their phone. Eighteen hours of Hindi music with poor sound quality, and constantly breathing onto myself, contributed to our arrival time being a champagne popping event.
We were only in Agra for twelve hours, and after quickly checking into our hotel, we descended onto a tuk-tuk, pointing and shouting “TO THE TAJ MAHAL!!!”. He obligingly put the foot on the gas…which had a great effect for two metres, until we were stuck in traffic.
Once we arrived, touts flocked onto us, trying to entice us to give them money! One persistent bugger would not leave us alone, and when I told him he was wasting his time, the cheeky kid exclaimed “my friend, it is my job to waste your time”. I pointed him in the direction of an elderly American tourist, told him it was a sure thing, and he was off.
I have a vast experience of waiting in queues, ranging from Banks, to Centrelink, to football grounds and Airports. Being in a queue in India is a whole new ball game. Having come from a culture in which we join the queue AT THE END, we soon realised Indians' join the queue right in front of the ‘gullible’ Westerner. Unfortunately for them, after eighteen hours on a train, we were not in any mood for these shenanigans, and soon most of the queue understood some new words to add to their English vocabulary!
The Taj Mahal is an amazing sight up close, but with everyone required to remove their shoes at the base of the Taj, the exquisite sights and surroundings are compromised with the fragrance of cheesy feet.
We joined the line to enter the interior of the Taj Mahal, and a local started talking to us. After learning that we were both from Australia, he quickly entered into a furious discussion with us about Ricky Ponting. Then came the standard types of questions, such as “what percentage of male adults play cricket?”, and “what percentage of brain power is required to be an engineer in Australia?” as well as “what percentage of men are married in Australia”. If only I had a calculator, I may have been able to answer him.
While the outside of the Taj Mahal is picturesque, the inside of it is possibly the biggest anticlimax in the universe. It is not only pitch black inside, but you get pushed through in a sea of five-hundred people. If you have ever caught the London tube in peak hour, then cross the interior of the Taj Mahal off your list, you’ve been already.
Jaipur is known as the Pink City. Jaipur marked a distinct change in the trip; it introduced us to the phenomenon known as “hot water” at our hotel.
Jaipur also marked the first time I had seen an alternative to the Donkey Powered Cart. The Camel Powered Cart! I can only relate this to Australian conditions, and assume that the Donkey cart is equivalent to the Holden Commodore, and the Camel cart an V8 SS Ute?
As we walked down one of the main streets, a boy on a motorbike said hello. We nodded and kept walking. He rode up beside up and said “why do tourists never talk to the locals?” We apologised, and explained to him that we had been hassled a lot, and it had made us a little guarded. We got chatting to him, and he said “I would like to practice my English, and learn about your culture, can we meet for a cup of tea later on”. As we already had plans, we had to decline, spoke to him some more and bid him farewell. Back at the hotel, as we looked on Wiki Travel online, we read something very interesting:
"Beware of young college students on motorbikes, who will complain to you about tourists ignoring locals and not speaking to them. They will get talking to you, and invite you to have tea with them"
Word for word, to the script! This was part of a gem scam, one of the many scams in India that was impressively followed to the letter!
As we headed back for the day, we soon realised a little girl was following us. She started trying to talk to us and holding out her hand. We thought she wanted money, and kept walking. She persisted, until we had found a bin and were about to throw out a soft drink bottle bottle. She rushed to us, speaking in Hindi and pointing at the bottle. All she wanted was the empty bottle! She took it, smiled at us and walked off. Happiness in its simplest form.
Jodhpur is called the Blue City, due to the fact that the local paint shop only stocks blue paint. To get to Jodhpur, we had to board a 10am train from Jaipur, which of course had been cancelled! The next train was not till 5pm, and not wanting to soak up the beggar filled atmosphere for too long, we asked some staff on the platform what was happening, showing them our printed ticket. One guy passed it to another guy, who passed it to three more guys (who at this point were just bystanders), then they had formed a huddle, had a little team meeting, then one of them brought back the ticket and said exactly what the board said, “Cancelled”.
Having been warned NOT to travel by bus in India, we headed to the bus stop (a setting straight from the 1970's), and found one leaving straight away. Air Conditioning, Reclining Seats, free bottles of water, and complimentary motion sickness, due to the drivers ability to cut through traffic at high speed in a bus!
Upon arrival into Jodhpur, we decided to walk into town, almost solely to spite the fifty off taxi drivers hassling us. One had spotted us alongside the bus a hundred metres from the station, and ran by the side of the bus eyeballing me, only for me to say “no thanks” as I stepped off the coach!
Jodhpur was one of the favourite stops. It had colourful markets, good food and a blond American tourist swanning around the city wearing a turban to ‘fit in’. American tourists, always a good laugh! The locals were noticeably more laid back here. Sure, they still have a friend who has a cousin who has a shop, and sure, they end the conversation by trying to get you into that shop, but that is the in-your-face corruption that India works on, it is all harmless in the end.
We went up to the big Fort that overlooks the city. After asking several Auto-Rickshaw drivers for prices, and spending five minutes haggling over twenty cents, we were off up the hill. He soon pulled over, he had a flat tyre. He was livid, as that was his day's earning done, but he stopped another Tuk-Tuk, gave him half the cash we had paid, and waved us on our way. The system works!
The highlight of Jodhpur, was going into a fabric shop for a friend, to purchase cashmere scarves. You may find this hard to believe, but I have absolutely no idea about cashmere. When the man at the shop showed me twenty different types, getting me to feel each fabric, he seemed a little disappointed I didn't react with a more enthusiastic "Oohhhh" as I felt each type. I then began the negotiation, in which he responded "we don't negotiate, if you want to negotiate, go to the tourist market". BANG! Luckily my negotiating skills improved somewhat in Udaipur, which is where we went next.
Udaipur was a late choice for a destination to hit, and was the surprise packet of the trip. The nicest Indians we had met were from here, just pipping Jodhpur. The town was super relaxed, and not under strain from the chaos that exists in the other cities.
Walk down the streets in Udaipur, and you will see monkeys playing on the power lines (do not try this at home), and men directing a school of donkeys through the High Streets! Like the other cities, Udaipur also manufactured some interesting tales for us.
Whilst window shopping, a man insisted that we must buy Camel Leather. His reasoning was as simple as it was logical. “Camels do not die that often, so you must take this incredible opportunity to buy Camel leather”. It worked, Camel Leather was purchased, the man is a sales genuis!
A brief wonder through a bookshop, and I had spotted (of all things) a book. I began the bidding process, despite my low confidence in negotiating, after the Cashmere scarf incident of Jodhpur.
Me: “How much my good man” (I said inquisitively)
Man: “400 Rupees” (said the no-nonsense Indian)
Me: “I’ll give you 300 rupees” (in my most business like tone)
Man: “No” (he said defiantly, whilst getting back on the ladder to put the book away….then he turned around…)
Man: “How about 200 rupees” (he said, undercutting my last offer)
Me: “Uhhh, oookay, yeah deal” (I said, slightly confused, but still basking in a negotiating win)
If there is on thing Indians do well, it is a wedding. Two weddings on the trip have been right near our hostels. They go all day and night, for two days. I tried valiantly to get to sleep, but wafts of Hindi music kept piercing my ears, fused with laughing and chatter. A string of Bollywood Sitar classics were belted out, one song blending into the next, until Dido came on. DIDO! The one Western song they decided to play was Dido!. I wired in the iPod until the Hindi tunes returned.
A flock of taxi drivers greeted us in Mumbai, each insisting they were the best qualified to take us to our hotel. We showed our address to an older driver, and he nodded and took us to his car. Drivers in India are very proud of their cars, and they personalise them. They have their shrines to the Gods set up, and they clean their vehicles and present them like it is their shop window.
As we made our way to the hotel, we stopped at a red light. A street peddler came to the car window, carrying a tower of the latest best-seller novels. If the book had been on the Oprah Winfrey Show, it was in this man's pile of books. I waved him off and looked out the other window, before looking back out my side. Another man was now at the window, complete with a severely deformed left arm, and an outstretched right arm. I decided it was about time I wound up the window.
Once in the hotel, we cruised down to Chowpatty beach. The “Beach” was a mix of families, couples courting each other, boys playing cricket, and in the far corner, families and wild chickens, living as one in upside-down canoes! The Lonely Planet describes the water at this beach as “toxic”. There were twenty odd locals we saw out there practicing their backstroke, who obviously need to purchase a Lonely Planet from a street vendor pronto.
No trip to India is complete without experiencing the local train system. Sure, we had taken an overnight train, but not an intercity one! We casually slipped onto a north-bound train, which basically was the a goods carriage with wooden benches for seats. It was hardly full. Phew! Then came the next station….BOOOOM! Hundreds of men, complete with masses of groceries balanced on their heads, swarmed into the carriages, pinning us against the walls! When our stop came, I tried to barge through the masses, monkey-barring myself on the handrails, stepping on peoples shopping, but just has I got to the exit, another wall of people got in. The trains don’t even stop, they just slow down enough for people to jump on and off, and I missed my chance of escape! I looked back to a see a variety of scornful Indian faces cursing me in Hindi, complimenting their words with the shaking of their fists. We got off at the next train stop, and doubled back.
We met up with a local guide once finally off the train. We had decided to take a tour of Dharavi, the largest slum in Asia. Having read Shantoram and Slumdog Millionaire, I was quite curious to see how locals live in these shanty-towns. Sure, it is not a glamorous, picturesque thing to see, but it puts things into perspective, and if anything, highlights how good we really have it at home. I doubt I will ever complain about a the washing machine breaking down again!
The way they live is, as a Westerner, deplorable. Up to twelve people will live in a two metre square room. There are only six toilet blocks servicing many thousands of residents, and there is a smell that would melt the West Gate Bridge! There is also a lot of smiling faces, a sense of family, community and most importantly, belonging (by the locals, not me). Some residents here have good jobs in the middle of Mumbai, but still choose to live here; it is their community, their home.
After the Slums, we cruised down to Colaba, and the ‘Gateway to India’, where we had another experience with a scammer. An Indian man went straight for my mates ear, saying “what’s this?”. I quickly said there was nothing there, and we quickly moved on. Upon reading up on it later, we found out that he was going to put a beetle on the ear, and claim it was poisonous, and he was the only one with a cure! On six more occasions during my time in India, they tried this scam on me, and on each occasion they were given a swift “Jog On!”.
As much as I love Indian food, eating it every night gets tiring. Curry is a novelty at home, something you eat once or twice a month. After eating it everyday, we at times craved some Western food, something without spice! The taste-buds needed a rest! We pulled into Subway on the first night in Mumbai, and judging by the reaction of the staff, we were the first Westerners ever to set foot in their store. They were honoured we had chosen their restaurant (a reminder, it was a ‘Subway’). My ‘sandwich artist’, Ramesh, was so careful not to disappoint me, that it took him ten minutes to “create” my sandwich. Each ingredient was carefully placed, in a strict line with the other ingredients. It was painful to watch, I was starving and started eyeing off the cow that had just wondered past the shop. I finally got my sandwich, praised him on his ability of avoiding intersecting the capsicum with the tomato, and proceeded to the table for consumption.
Goa was the last stop of the Indian adventures. I had set aside a full week in Goa to chill out, after the hectic two weeks in the north. First stop was a plush hotel, complete with a pool, a cheap bar and Air Conditioning! The catch was that we brought down the average age of the cliental there to about 72. It was full of elderly British couples praising us for having sun in Australia. In the end, they all left to hit the clubs, and we crashed out. Roll reversal!
The plan for day two in Goa was simple. Hire Motorbikes and burn around Goa. Two Royal Enfields were our weapons of choice. We soon realised we were the only ones wearing helmets, which I guess back home is the equivalent to seeing a grown man ride past on a Cannondale Road Bike with training wheels attached, in other words, Lame! Being that the helmet kept falling off my head, I soon dispensed off it, and let the wind ruffle my luscious hair at 100km/h. It was clear that the only people, who wore helmets here, were those elderly British tourists who had hair plugs to consider. After a full days riding, along amazing coastal roads and through remote tropical countryside, we threw in the towel and took the bikes back.
I moved the next day up to a town called Anjuna. I was now travelling solo for the first time in the trip. The new hotel had no pool, no bar, no hot water, no internet, but it did have a hammock, and a strange Irish dude who hated Indian food. To get around having to eat curry, he ate all his meals at McDonalds instead, where he picked up food poisoning and was out of action for a week. ‘Irony’ is a fantastic word, I must use it sometime.
It was at this hotel I met up with a couple of fellow travellers, Ash, Jase and Kurt. We formed our own bikie gang…but on scooters, and the daily routine for the rest of the week consisted of waking up (no easy task really!), having breakfast, firing up the scooter (not vroom vroom, but vriiiiiiim vriiiiim) and riding to the beach.
A day at a Goan beach would consist of waving away Indian women trying to sell you a pedicure/t-shirt/sunglasses/massage, having a swim, eating a curry, having another swim, realising you should have waiting an hour after eating the curry before swimming, then cruising back to the hotel, ready to hit up the bar!
The Indian adventures were quickly drawing to an unwanted close. After a night on the whiskey with Ash and Jase, I set off for the airport at midnight. It was a tad bit disconcerting when I arrived to find the airport locked up, and with an armed policeman telling me I could not wait outside, I had to go and sit under a tree in the with an Indian family. They stared at me, and I stared at the tree. It was a system that worked.
I arrived into Mumbai at 5am. Easy, check my bags in and head to town, what could possibly go wrong? Well of course, Mumbai have a policy where you cannot enter the airport more than three hours before your flight! With a mighty heavy bag on my back, tackling the hectic streets of Mumbai was out, so they directed me to a small waiting room to ride out the 14 hours!
Following a two hour sleep on my luggage, I was woken up by four policeman telling me to get out. The waiting room was now closed, as the Police chief had a function booked in the room!! They pointed me toward a patch of concrete outside, and I plonked myself there for the next six hours, hating the world, and hating the Indian police, and especially hating their moustaches!
Forty hours later, I was home, swearing I would never fly Air Asia again, swearing I would buy a Royal Enfield and ride again, swearing I had to go back to work again next week, and swearing that I had finally been struck down with Delhi Belly after three weeks staying clear of it!
Game Over, Job Done!