Monday, March 26, 2007

Chapter 42: The Motorcycle Diaries

You cannot exist in India with western views on safety. It isn't possible. In the west we work on the basis that an accident is going to happen, but over here the assumption is that it isn't, so why take any precautions? And if, by some weird tear in the fabric of the universe, an accident does happen, if it ain't completely ruined, its as good as new:

I saw this guy wake up and drive off with my own 2 eyes. MY EYES.

I think it's basically that there are more pressing things to worry about and, quite frankly, life isn't considered to be so precious here. There also isn't quite the culture of blaming, suing, etc.
Incidentally, India also bypasses all safety laws when it comes to scientific research. And it enables them to be world leaders in, for example, cloning:

laboratory conditions indeed...

So, having become so nearly Indian in my outlook on the world(!), it was only natural that I abandon all "reasonable caution," get myself a dangerous vehicle (ideally with some nationalistic symbolism thrown in), and go crazy...

Actually, before I begin, there are some factors I'd like to mention that might reprieve me from condemnation as a moron by those less able to read between the irony or trust in my judgment... In India, the vehicles are less powerful, the roads terrible, the traffic chaotic (officially, they drive on the left, although that shouldn't be taken for granted, even on partitioned highways, and especially not at roundabouts... why go all the way round if its quicker to go anti-clockwise?)! Wait, how's this helping? Oh yes, the traffic is much slower. I learned to ride on empty roads, taking advice from people with lots of experience, I have about 1 month's experience of scooters in India, I'm well used to cycling in busy cities, and have been driving long enough (9 years!) to have some road sense. It may sound obvious, but riding a motorbike is just a cross between riding a bike and driving a car. Once you're used to the clutch being in your hand, and changing gears with your foot, its really straightforward. I feel safer on motorbikes than scooters, as its much easier to connect with the bike - ie you use your whole body, not just your wrists and elbows - and having more power means you can get out of trouble faster.
Right, without further ado, here's trousers:

YYYEEEAAAHHH!!! On the small chance that you haven't already done so, might I suggest that, wherever you are, you stand up, whoop, cheer, and if you're in the mood for chanting, how about "U-S-A" or "go tricky?"

Um.Like.Whatever. I didn't really intend to take the yellow bike with the union jack seat, but as I got on to try it out, my (very thin cotton) trousers ripped, so I was left without many options! Unfortunately, trousers only lasted a couple of days as his speedo & milometer didn't work, the latter of which is quite important, so I swapped him for a more cruisy, less sporty bike.

Anyway, my reason for hiring a motorbike was that there's no other way to see Kutch - India's westernmost region, in the north of Gujarat. Kutch had come highly recommended from several people I'd met on the way, and seemed like a great place for my last proper stop. It's ancient, has a great capital city (Bhuj), is packed with traditional villages, and has some incredible landscapes...

This is the Rann of Kutch. Its an enormous salt pan caused by the monsoon (when it happens) raising sea levels and flooding the whole low-lying area. It's an incredible sight, quite distracting...

Now, if you'd asked me before what the 3 things I'd least like to happen on a motorbike are, I might well have said:
a) have an accident. well, been there, done that, obviously not going to happen again.
b) run out of fuel somewhere very remote and quite scary. well, thankfully that particular village didn't completely ignore me like I've never been ignored before, probably because I was wearing a T-shirt (that only happened a couple of times), and managed to rustle up a litre of fuel from someone else's bike, and
c) trespass in the military zone between India and Pakistan, get stopped by some angry soldiers without enough English (only Gujarati or Kutchi or something more local) to be charmed, and be taken back to barracks. That was not my best move, but fortunately the commanding officer spoke good English, and I was so charming that by the end he was apologizing for not being authorised to give me a guided tour of the Rann in an army vehicle. My excuse for being there in the first place? Distracted by a flamingo of course

Biking round Kutch was one of the best things I've done in India. Navigating the roads with a terrible map (because a good one doesn't exist), trying to figure out which of the squiggly words on the sign is my best bet... one minute booting along an empty road, wind in my hair, noise of the engine, singing "speed demon", "high & dry" and other biker's classics at the top of my voice, next minute slow down to a stop as the road is blocked with a herd of goats, camels, or buffalos, and all is tranquil: the only sound is the occasional soft clinking of a bell around the neck of an animal...

Now, you may be shocked to hear me admit that I'm no archaeologist, nor am I an historian. I'll go even further than that: I'm well aware that my understanding of cultural development, and the timing thereof, is dangerously uninformed, so I'm generally not surprised by ancient ruins. However, to find myself walking along the streets of a city built 4,900 years ago, blew me away.

Welcome to Dholavira. As I understand it, it was created on the 8th day. No, wait, that was the day He named gWb His chosen one wasn't it? Anyway, its old. Bronze age I think. The "Harappan," or "Indus Valley" civilization, wot built it, was the first in the subcontinent to do anything beyond nomading, and they made something really quite special. Dholavira is on Khadir, which is an "island" in the Rann, 250km from Bhuj (where I was staying), so i spent the night at a great guesthouse where I shared my room with loads of birds.

I was the only guest, and one night plus 3 meals cost me about 2 pounds 50p. In fact, because Gujarat is so un-touristy, I stayed under budget despite paying for 2 rooms, bike hire and fuel!

So, I drove around, trying not to get too burned by the sun (I think it was the hottest I've been in India), but putting on sun block, sweating and driving through dusty country ain't pretty. What else? Oh yes, here's the westernmost point in India:

Well, its the furthest west you can go without drowning in salt or being shot on sight.

There was a massive earthquake very near Bhuj in January 2001. Here's where it happened:

10% of the population was wiped out, along with a great deal of the infrastructure. Yet it's one of the most up-beat, friendly places I've been. I doubt they'll ever repair much of the damage, just build around it. But, this is India.

So, I must go. I've written this post over the last week or so, so sorry if its disjointed. I'm now in Udaipur, Rajasthan, which is also excellent. In fact, this month I've been from one amazing place to the next. Its been really nice to slow down, although now I'm in a rush to get back to Delhi for my flight in less than 48 hours! Shit! This hasn't sunk in whatsoever. I'll write about Udaipur when I'm back, and I'll see some of you very soon. Here's a palace that was almost destroyed by the earthquake and may fall down any time. If you look closely you'll see the cat that got the cream...

Monday, March 19, 2007

Dear Sir, I have a complaint...

... can't remember what it is. Perhaps something about songs I haven't heard in ages being stuck in my head. No, that wouldn't be a complaint. Nevermind...

Holi is the 3 day Hindu festival of colour. Or, more accurately, of throwing coloured tikka powder (which stains everything, including skin) at people, with special attention given to foreigners...

So it was with some trepidation that I decided to travel throughout the Holi weekend, on 3 trains and a bus, with an hour between each, from Amritsar to Diu. The prospect of being covered in pink powder when a shower was 2 days away made me extra vigilant though, and helped me to narrowly avoid 2 flying powder balls at new delhi station. It was just like the matrix, except that I was wearing 2 backpacks and a guitar!

(I talked to this porter for at least 10 minutes before someone told me he couldn't speak english)

Miraculously, Indian railways came through, & there was a bus just about to leave from Veraval (end of the train line) to Diu, so I probably had the smoothest journey in the history of Indian travel.

Gujerat then. My only knowledge of this state, prior to coming to India, was that the Patel caste (ie everyone with the surname "Patel") originated here, and (thanks to that annoying woman from Masterchef last year) that the food is pretty good!
Actually, the island of Diu isn't really part of Gujerat: like Goa, it was a Portugese colony, and retains a lot of Mediterranean flava. Its one of the most relaxing places I've been. Anywhere, let alone India. I stayed in a guesthouse on the side of this church:

Its the highest point on the island, so the views from the top are quite nice. Here's me pushing the boundaries of technology!

In case you don't know, click on the pic above...

So, I wrote some music, learned some french, drank too much (alcohol is the cheapest in India & is dangerously inexpensive), ate too much (Diu is a great place to come if, like me, you're dangerously underweight), marveled at the lack of mechanical noise, especially car horns, learned to ride a motorbike, & went to the beach

The guy on the left is an insane Scottish anarchist called Ed, who is probably the inspiration for Daffy in The Beach, and on the right is Uri from Tel Aviv, who is unlike any Israeli I've met over here. Unfortunately its very easy to stereotype as the vast majority have just come from military service, where they're taught how to behave like fucking morons. Uri's on his 4th trip to India, and was quite an inspiration to me. Meeting him coincided nicely with my end-of-trip reflections.

I only have 9 (NINE) days left in India, which is kinda scary. Not that I'm not looking forward to coming home, its just that this has been one of the best things I've ever done and its sad that it has to end. I wouldn't change anything about my trip: I couldn't hope for more from my first time in India. I really hope I remember what I've found here, & that I keep coming back (albeit for shorter stints). If (when) I do come back though, there are some things I'll do differently. There are many different ways you can spend time here, and I guess you could say that what I've done is effectively extensive sight-seeing: I've had small tasters of most of the beaten track in India. Which is great. I have impressions of many regions, and have some idea of what makes the "country" tick. However, it struck me as slightly perverse that (like most people), I've met (or rather, I've had meaningful conversations with) far more western travelers than I have Indians. I've rarely had to stray far from my comfort zone (although that's all relative), so I guess I haven't immersed myself as much as is possible. Again, no regrets, great for a first trip.

The biggest barrier is that I haven't learned more than the very basics of Hindi. Its easy to make excuses: English is the official second language in every state, Hindi isn't the official language anywhere, many people speak no Hindi, there are major regional variations in the way it's spoken etc. But, in reality, it would enhance traveling here enormously: Indians really appreciate it when someone's bothered to learn, its possible to go way off the beaten track and be much more "independent." Hindi is also, apparently, a relatively easy language to learn. So, next time, I hope I'll spend a month somewhere that pure Hindi is spoken, i.e. Varanasi.
Also, next time I hope I'll travel by motorbike. Its cool. Everyone knows it. Whilst I really like the trains, & can tolerate the buses, to have transport would open up so much more. Not that I'd want to travel too far too quickly: I reckon spending a couple of months in one state would be a great way to really know a place. After the time I spent teaching in Ghana, I'm dubious about the value of being involved in projects for less than a year. And I've actually spent less in total than the fees alone for such a project! Still, it seems that I will end up with a portable profession (in about 20 years) so there are options along that line.

I'm sure there was something else I wanted to say. Problem is, I have these thoughts, then get to the internet, ramble for a while, and miss half the points I wanted to make. Yes, there is an obvious solution! But still...

So, I stayed in Diu for 11 nights, which is the longest I've stayed anywhere in India. Something strange happens to time there. Breakfast lasts until lunchtime, and if you manage to go to the beach and do some washing, its been a really productive day! I eventually extracted myself though, & spent 16 hours on buses (arrgghh) to get myself to Bhuj, where I am now. Bhuj, and the Kutch region, are also excellent, but I'll save recounting my adventures with Trousers, my trusty companion, til next time...

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Postcards from the Punjab, Postures from Pakistan

Sometimes Indian railways is unbelievably efficient. The train from Delhi to Amritsar is one such example, and as I'd heard lots of good things about the place, I thought I'd visit. The bombings on the railway last month, which I imagine you heard more about outside India than I did inside, were on this route, and it seems that they're taking security pretty seriously: my whole rucksack was searched, and police dogs went throughout the train.

Amritsar is in the Punjab, right next to the Pakistan border, and is now one of my favourite places in India. Its most famous for the Golden Temple, which is the most holy site in the world for Sikhs. Yes, I'm doing quite well on the "most holy places" at the moment... Doubt I'll make it to Mecca, but you never know.

My uneducated and limited impressions lead me to consider Sikh culture to be closer to ours than most Indian cultures, in terms of mannerisms, gestures, niceties etc, and as a result it's easy to feel comfortable in Amritsar. There are still lots of people selling the same things, jostling for business, but somehow it feels friendlier. I don't know...

The Golden Temple is wonderful. Its so serene, relaxed, & has a genuinely spiritual atmosphere. Its also free to enter, there's a free kitchen , & nobody demands a donation. This makes a huge difference. The temple is in active use: thousands of pilgrims visit daily, but it doesn't feel crowded - people give each other space, don't feel the need to shout or use mobile 'phones! Unlike most Hindu temples, non-believers are allowed into the inner sanctum (no photos though), which is a genuine privilege. I sat transfixed inside for hours while people shuffled past, prayed, sang with the constant music that's played by 3 priests: one tabla, 2 harmoniums, all with incredible voices playing hypnotic cyclical stuff in keys that I couldn't understand. It was beautiful.

If you ever come to India, come here.

As I said already, Amritsar is very close to the Pakistan border. Every night at sunset is the border-closing ceremony, which is rather amusing... MC's on either side of the gates try to gee their crowds (seated in grandstands) into out-shouting/parting the other side. There's music, dancing, sudden silence, we hear "Pakistan" being chanted louder than "Hindustan," & raise our voices to match. It was close, but I'd have to give it to Pakistan (don't think he'd be happy about that though)...

Next, soldiers dressed like chickens perform elaborate mating rituals, stamping and scowling for their countries in synchrony with the other side. They stand still, then suddenly high-kick and start power-walking towards each other while the crowds roar them on. This goes on for a surprisingly long time.

I have no idea where this ritual came from, or why they choose to pursue it, but I don't think that really matters.
Fortunately, at the end of the dance, they decide to be friends and the flags are lowered for the night.

Everyone then tries to find their shared jeep back to Amritsar, and the festival is over. Driving back was like a computer game. Most of Amritsar is a grid without traffic lights, so motorbikes (lights off) just fly across our path, missing by a whisker. It didn't help that the most crucial part of any vehicle, the horn, was broken in our jeep. If I wasn't such a wishy-washy hippy, I'm sure I'd be able to use Indian traffic as a perfect example of the laws of entropy...

Amritsar, what else? Oh yes, the funniest place of worship in the world. Thanks Nye for recommending it...

This is Lal Devi. In her honour, this papier mache / marble fun house exists.

Apparently, its a temple, although I'd say its more a chamber-of-horrors-obstacle-course-glitter-ball-fairground-ride tacked precariously onto the side of a house.

You crawl through tunnels, splash through flithy water, check yourself in the mirrors, and worship!

So, that was Amritsar. I won't get any further north than it on this trip, although north-west India really appeals to me. I almost changed my mind while I was there, but I'd just sent all my cold weather clothing home with Mum, and didn't fancy freezing for my last month. I'll come back in the summer months one year and do it properly. It wasn't such a tough decision though, as I was on my way to Gujerat...

Monday, March 05, 2007

Rajasthan, rapidement

Firstly, sorry the map's such a mess! When paint is the only programme available, its not so easy. I'll do a better one when I get home...

Rajasthan is the most visited state in India, and deservedly so. Of course, this means that it has the highest concentration of idiot tourists, and of Indians who rely on tourism for their income. I'd been looking forward to seeing the sights, but had the impression I wouldn't want to hang about there - once you've seen how pleasant things can be, it's hard to tolerate constant hassle. So, when deciding where to go with Mum for a couple of weeks of speedy travelling, it seemed like a good place.

It rained and rained in Delhi the day before she arrived. Paharganj was literally flodded with shit, and when I failed to find a hotel in a nicer area to ease the introduction to India, I wasn't best pleased. But, the weather changed and it had pretty much dried up by the time she arrived. Still, I'd figured it'd be best to leave Delhi quickly and spend a couple of days there at the end of the fortnight. So, I booked an overnight train to Jodhpur on the 2nd night. The one redeeming feature of Paharganj is that its very close to New Delhi train station, where our train was from. Or so I thought...

Having walked the length of the main bazaar (backpacks on, bit of a gauntlet), we arrived at 4.20pm, the departure time being 4.45, but couldn't see any info about it on the boards. Fortunately, we asked an official who actually knew what he was talking about, and he told us the train was, infact, from Old Delhi station. Oh dear. Never done that before, thought I'd checked, obviously hadn't. The only way we could possibly get there in time was on the Metro which, until then, I'd suspected was a figment of someone's imagination.

So... Cross the bridge over NDLS, 4.25pm, find the metro, figure out how to use the metro, security checks, 4.30pm, wait for train, giving up hope rapidly, train arrives, delhi metro turns out to be the best underground system I've ever been on, arrive in Old Delhi, 4.40pm, run to train station (with backpacks), try to find the platform number, its platform 23 and 2/3 or something, where the f*ck is that, run around, see platform in distance, 4.45pm, sprint down the platform, train begins to pull away, we catch it up and jump on, 4.48pm, welcome to India Mum!
I'm not going to turn this into a spiel of "I'm so proud of my Mum for coming to India and coping better than lots of backpackers" but she did and I am.

So, first stop Jodhpur.

Blue city, awesome fort, somewhat photogenic. Here's the view at sunrise from the 500 year old haveli we stayed in:

And here's a view from that there fort:

Its called Meherangarh, the maharaja of Jodhpur still lives there, and there's too much to get written in this post that I'm not going to go into more detail. Here are some monkeys though:

1 day in Jodhpur was enough. Loadsa hassle. Onto Jaisalmer. Citadel in the desert. C'est vraiment magnifique:

An advantage of travelling with mummy bank is nicer hotels, and in Jaisalmer we stayed in a brilliant one on the fort wall chcheckcheckchcheckchcheckitout:
A room

with a view

I'm not a big fan of camels. They smell, spit, piss on their tail then flick it at you, make phenomenal gurgling noises, and there's something sinisterly reptilian about them. Still, when in India...

It was good fun, nice to see the Thar desert, and fortunately we decided against camping under the stars as it proceeded to rain all night.

Sorry I'm doing this so quickly but I figured its better than not writing it... Next to Jaipur.

Came here at the start of my trip with Will and Jonny, watched cricket and was ill so hadn't really seen it. Not my favourite place (sorry to those of you to whom its dear). Its the capital of Rajasthan but is (relatively) very new, and doesn't (for me) have much in the way of redeeming features to compensate for the grime... Its OK, and worth seeing on the way somewhere else. Its also part of the golden triangle (Delhi-Agra-Jaipur) which is the most popular tourist route, especially for uberposh chauffer-driven eurocrats who are very happy to compare prices to Mayfair. Nice sundial though!

Ok Ok, I'm sure I haven't seen the best of Jaipur but nevermind. Next we went to Bharatpur for the Keoladeo Ghana national park. I found my tolerance for bird watching to be higher than I'd imagined, I guess because Daddy was a twitcher! And as this post is really a slideshow, here be birds:

And check out the driver we hired for a day:

One of the funniest things I've seen in a long time involved him stopping the car and mock-chasing a small child who'd been running after us for about 3 miles, asking for empty water bottles which we didn't have. In his turban and jootis (camel-leather slippers), running bow-legged, really slowly, waving his fist in the air while the terrified child fled was hilarious. We found the kid on the way back and gave hime 2 bottles though.

(I don't blame him for being scared though - Rajasthanis are a fiery people. I've seen 4 physical fights in India, all of them in Rajasthan)!

We stayed in Bharatpur for a few days with a really nice family, and then made our way back to Delhi via...

This is the hall of private audiences at Fatephur Sikri. It was built by Akbar, the greatest Mughal, to be his capital. He was into tolerance, peace, common truths between religions, and built this beautiful city 50 miles from any water, so it was quickly abandoned and is now a ghost town.

Then a quick stop in Agro (again), where we saw this

which is effectively the predecessor to this

Then, as our train was delayed by 5 hours, we played the uberposh chauffer-driven eurocrat card and took a taxi back to Delhi.

2 weeks was about right, I think my Mum would agree!

Again, sorry for writing this so quick like, but who reads this rubbish anyway?