Thursday, February 26, 2009

Es un burro, andando o no andando*

A man standing on a corner accosts me as I walk down the alley. "I've got quality, very good quality". I have no idea what he's selling, but his plea seems genuine. But what is genuine in Kathmandu? This is the real question. We are staying in Thamel, once described, fairly I think, by a well-travelled friend, as the biggest tourist ghetto in the world. This is not the real Kathmandu, merely a dense overcrowded quarter of hotels, restuarants, shops, cafes and bars for tourists. The shops are selling walking clothes and equipment, pashmina shawls and cashmere sweaters, cds and dvds, tibetan curios and buddhist paraphenalia, hand-knitted gloves and felt bags. *It's a donkey, walking or not walking. In English the idiom is 'never mind the quality, feel the width'. Most of the goods are cheap copies. There are some good bookshops here, but some are just shadow bookshops, full of coffee-table books and postcards and not much else. On the busy narrow streets tourists are approached by hawkers selling their wares: tiger balm, chess sets, hashish. Oddly you can always anticipate the chess-set sellers because they whiff of tiger balm. The tiger balm sellers all look stoned and the dope sellers sit on corners at miniature chess boards pondering their next move.

There were elections in Nepal last year after many years of civil conflict, uncivil war, between the army and the Maoists. But they are not real Maoists, only copies, and they proved willing to negotiate a peace deal that has led them to government in a new democracy. The king has gone, his palace is now a museum. It is still relatively early days though and the problems for the politicians are plentiful. There are water and electricity shortages - Kathmandu has 8 hours electricity in 24 hours. A very dry winter means that no winter crops can be grown and the pollution in Kathmandu valley increases. In the capital it is now quite common to see people wearing facemasks as they go about. Meanwhile there is no agreement with the army about what to do with the Maoist fighters, many of whom want to join forces, but are sat around in 'camps' waiting for the issue to be resolved. Corruption stifles daily life and development. Whilst the tourists are submerged in the unreal world of Thamel, the locals have a real world to contend with.
We spend a few days here sorting out visa extensions, Gayle needs a new passport, permits for trekking. Walking around the city can be tiresome in the new part of the city as the pavements are busy and the traffic ceaseless, but in the old part, where the streets are narrow and the constant flow of motorbikes is irritating, there are at least interesting things to stumble across: small Hindu shrines and temples on street corners; huge courtyards accessed by low doorways where locals live in overcrowded red brick buildings that make us think of Dickensian London; hawkers selling vegetables, pulses, stainlees steel kitchenware; small buddhist stupas and statues; cows and goats and dogs nosing around in the rubbish. What amazes us is the variety of faces and fashions. Nepal has such a large group of ethnicities for such a small country, and the older folk still wear their traditional clothes. The urban youngsters, in contrast to much of India, dress in mainly modern Western styles - hooded tops, drainpipe jeans, converse trainers, tinted hair cut short long assymetrically. Wandering around gives us a strange but pleasing sense of displacement.

One day we bump into Paulina, an American we last saw in Orchha, India. Another day we cross paths with an Englishman we last saw in Bishkek in July. Thamel is that kind of place. We also meet, by arrangement, Jules, who we last saw in Pakistan. Together we are off to trek in the Langtang region just north of Kathmandu.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Border #23

The train arrives late in Gorakpur - it's dark and we're tired. Ed, who we met on the platform in Varanasi, has booked a room at the Hotel Ellora. "They said they'd pick me up at the station", he tells us. But what they failed to tell him was that the Hotel Ellora is right opposite the station. We cross the road and take a grim-looking room on the same corridor. Everything is dingy and the bathroom is stained red with years of paan spittle. Ed has no running water. "I think this is the worst hotel I have ever stayed in". We make reassuring coments like "Oh well, it's just for one night" and "it could be worse" and head to the roof for a quick meal overlooking the street scene of rumbling trucks, dust, chaat stalls, rubbish. In other words the usual.

We're heading to the Nepalese border and get up earlyish, jumping onto a rackety bus going our way. We know we've arrived when we enter a town just full of trucks. The border crossing is very straightforward if you actually notice the Indian imigration office - just another shack in a street overcrowded with shacks. Luckily, they see us and call us over. On the Nepali side things look vaguely brighter and quieter. Here we say goodbye to Ed and book a ticket on a comfortable bus to Kathmandu. Or at least that's what we think we do. After a long wait we are hustled into a jeep, run down the road to a bus park and delivered to a typically rusty big bus. It's clear we've been ripped off and we act angry and outraged. Our shepherds act surprised and indifferent. After a bit more huff and puff we get some refund and "favoured seat" status, near the front.

The journey to the capital takes us through the lowlands of the Terai on smooth straight roads before eventually heading northwards into the hills on a winding broken road. The bus stops frequently and for long spells and it's clear we won't arrive before nightfall. At one stop, around midnight, another bus pulls up behind us and half the passengers jump ship. In the end we arrive at about 2am at the deserted bus station. We get off but no-one else does. This confuses us, but a man explains that most people will sleep on the bus until the morning. After dawdling a while we decide to get back on board and do the same. We are absolutely knackered and can't bear the thought of wandering around in the small hours trying to find a room. Gayle hums an old Cat Stevens song "Kathmandu, I'll soon be seeing you............"

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Holy Mother

Our destination is Varanasi, one of Hinduism's most holy sites. Here where the city lies beside the Ganges, the Holy Mother, pilgrims come to wash away their sins or are brought to be cremated and have their ashes cast into the murky slow moving waters. We are greeted outside the train station by the usual autorickshaw sharks. When they speak they show their sharpened teeth, red with blood or is it just paan juice? We reach the narrow streets of the old town by the river and start looking for a room. It takes us two hours and a kilometre or two before we find a decent available room. The hotel staff are friendly and courteous, the room is home to a clutch of mosquitoes. We awake each morning kippered by our mosquito coils. It turns out we have chosen the same hotel that John's sister stayed in about 15 years earlier. It has two extra storeys these days.

Along one length of the river are a series of stone ghats, steps, for bathing. At a couple of spots there are burning ghats - platforms where cremations take place. Across on the eastern bank there is surprisingly no building - the city only spreads along one bank. On the far side is sandy earth and then trees. We walk the length of the ghats daily and watch the comings and goings. It is fairly peaceful compared to the dirty, polluted and traffic-packed streets of the city. The river is low at this time of year - at monsoon it is not always possible to walk the whole length.

One day we sit and watch three cremations take place, all at various stages. Groups of men huddle around the pyres which are built up from a huge supply of wood stacked at the back of the ghat. There are large scales - the wood is paid for by weight and then carried to the river bank and stacked carefully into a platform for the body to be lain upon.
There are no women present. The body, lying wrapped in cloth on a bamboo stretcher is first dipped into the river. Then a young man, (the eldest son?),strips to his underpants and washes himself in the waters. He then wraps himself in clean white cloth. He has a clean-shaven head - with a small tuft left at the back. When the pyre is ready and wood shavings scattered, a sheaf of straw is lit. The young man rotates the flame over the head of the body and then circles the pyre several times before lighting the pyre. Slowly the body is consumed in the flames. The men stand around and watch. One of the young men is too upset to stay and watch and is led away by a friend. Amongst all the ritual this is the only overt display of grief we witness. The ceremony seems very natural, quite simple and normal.

At other ghats there are pilgrims stripped down and thigh-deep in the river cleansing themselves of sins. The locals who also come down to wash are distinguishable by their use of soap. Despite the warnings about the cleanliness of the water (it's estimated about 400 million people live by the river and its tributaries - imagine what goes into it) we even see a man brushing his teeth in the water. And despite the site being sacred, there is a fair amount of ordinary life going on here - water buffalo are brought down to wallow and be cleaned, boys are flying kites (some so far away that I cannot even see them - only the taut line held by the boy, possibly a modern form of the mythical Indian Rope Trick), women and men doing vast amounts of laundry, men urinating up the stone steps, young men playing cricket.
There are chai and chaat (snack) stalls. Small girls are selling jewellery and postcards to the tourists. Goats sunbathe. Sadhus clean their toenails. Dogs sleep. And in some spots boatmen offer to row you up and down the river.

Today we see a man coming from the ghats with a pair of brown underpants on his head. He'd obviously just been down for a wash and the underpants are drying off and keeping his head cool at the same time. Only an Indian man could carry this off.

Amongst the young men offering boatrides and "hash" (or is it "ash" for that authentic sadhu look?) we come across Lucky and Happy - at least that's who they say they are. For the sake of authenticity we become Ivan and Bjork from Iceland. Apart from a rhyming double act (eg. "No money no honey" and "No chicken no curry") they also offer to show John their silk saree shop. Evidently their sales training has not included Targetting Your Potential Market. John declines on sartorial grounds. Without missing a beat, and as we are passing a man making dung cakes on the ghats beside us, Happy declares "And this is my Cow Shit Company." "How much for a cake then?" "Ten rupees. We can ship them. Would you like a thousand?" This young man will go far.
Before we leave to head up to Nepal we meet up with Greg, an American we last saw in Buenos Aires in 2003. It's a real pleasure to meet up like this again. He persuades us to rise early and watch the sun come up above the Ganges. This is the time when people come to make their 'puja' or bathe or swim. And then it becomes so obvious why the city only lines one bank of the river, as the sun creeps up over the land opposite.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

No sex please, we're British

It's almost sunset when we arrive in Khajuraho and a cricket match is just finishing on the village maidan. Weary after a bumpy bus ride we shower and change and wander out. It's not a big place. In fact it's lovely and quiet with hardly any traffic. There's the usual evening scene on the main street of chai stalls and peanut vendors with kerosene lamps and not many tourists about. All the restaurants are empty, which makes it hard to choose. There doesn't seem to be a locals' place. In the morning things look a little different and there's a constant flow of small tour groups coming and going.

We have come here to see some of the remaining temples from an earlier day when a flurry of construction and carving over a period of about one hundred years created 85 wonderful temples. Only 25 survive but after 1000 years and a long period of Mughal rule, this is quite impressive. The temples are mainly sandstone and feature some fantastic detailed carving of gods, goddesses, kings and their consorts, armies and hunters, celestial nymphs, animals and pot-bellied dwarves. This alone would be enough to make them a tourist attraction, but some also feature what is described as 'erotic carvings'. For a country that still does not allow kissing to be screened in Bollywood movies it's quite amusing to find complicated sexual manouvres carved out in one metre-high detail on a holy temple wall. And not all of it could be described as erotic either, unless you consider sexual congress with a horse as such. Goodness knows what the groups of schoolkids going around made of it.......

For the benefit of us tourists the main street has pavements. There are even roundabouts - not the usual stuff of India. We wander away from the main site and down the dirt roads. The village is quite large, with a small market. We pass families at water pumps beside the road having a wash and they don't blink an eye. Neither do we. Only afterwards do we think how public lives many Indians lead - so much occurs outside the home. A young boy on a bike politely asks if he can practice his English. We ask him why he wants to learn. He wants to be a guide. There is a small airport outside the village which brings in tour groups. He tells us that in 4 years time it will be upgraded to receive international flights and then there'll be many more. The village has just been connected to the railway network too. Later on we spot Tony, an older Englishman we met in Gujarat back in November. Whilst we've travelled quite far he has slowly worked his way eastwards. We also bump into Trisha and Abel, young Americans last spotted in Mysore. We know we're back on the Tourist Trail after a few weeks in middle India.

Happily adjusted to the pace of village life we head to Orchha, another small place which is now on the Tourist Trail, being roughly halfway between Agra and Khajuraho. We see the familiar smart little white buses ferrying groups to the posh hotels. Guides shepherd them from hotel to fort. They stick close together and look nervous if a gap appears to separate the group. The village is little more than a crossroads, still surrounded by outer city walls. At its heart sits a palace complex from the 1600s looking a bit worse for wear, on an 'island' with fortress walls. The island is formed by a wide fast flowing river on one side and a moat on the other. All around is forest. Dotted around the village is a collection of other large buildings, some described as temples, although these look like palaces too, and mausoleums. Everything is a bit scruffy and untended but makes for good meanderings. On the island there are people growing wheat on the spare land and living/squatting in fragile shacks. It's possibly the most peaceful place we've found in India outside of Ladakh. Looking over fields of green we can see small shrines, gatehouses, towers and walls poking out, leftovers from another age when the local head honcho was a favourite of the Mughal Emperor and probably coining it. But easy come, easy go and Orchha's monuments were abandoned. Now we are able to wander through the undergrowth and onto the hilltops and try to imagine how this mini-kingdom once looked.
Back on the main road there are the familiar sights of paan sellers sat inside their little wooden shacks, only just big enough to sit in. Further along a tailor sits out in the sunshine working his machine with a foot pedal. There's a knife-sharpener who has put his bike up on its stand as he sits and pedals away to turn the whetstone fixed to the handlebars. Cows lumber past sniffing their way through the litter. Potato snacks are being fried in wide shallow pans. Women sit on the road with a small collection of vegetables for sale, displayed on a cloth. Meanwhile rusting buses pass through, horns blaring, faces peering out of windows, a man hanging out of the backdoor spitting a gob of red paan juice. In the evenings there are a series of wedding crowds gathered around one of the temples. It's wedding season. Families huddle around and the groom and bride are easily spotted as the most miserable-looking members. Sometimes there are drummers and one night a small procession with a band and a cart with an electric keyboard and arcs of lightbulbs. The groom sits looking rather embarrassed on a white horse at the centre and at the back a noisy generator is wheeled along.
Later there are fireworks.

We're taking our 6th night train in India from Jhansi Junction. It's our second time at this station and thankfully there is no repeat of the episode when we first passed through. Distracted by a rickshaw driver, Gayle had tripped over a blind man's stick and found herself headbutting the platform paving stones. Eye-watering stuff. Tonight there are delayed trains and a lot of people gathering on the platforms, although invariably less than half of these will actually be travelling anywhere. The rest are here to see them onto the train, see that packages and luggage are properly stowed, that the traveller has a seat, and to say fond farewells. The trick is for them to get off at the last moment as the train starts to move off. The journey is uneventful except for one point in the night when Gayle shouts out at the man lying in the berth below me and across from her "Stop that right now!" Everyone wakes up and looks at the man. Turns out he was engaged in a little 'self-exploration'. Not exactly realigning his chakras. Perhaps he'd been inspired by the carvings at Khajuraho.........

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Urban India

There was something we read about Hyderabad that encouraged us to visit. One of the great Mughal cities on the Deccan plateau. Home to India's largest population of Muslims after Partition. A collection of interesting old Mughal architecture. Well, whatever. These days the story is Hi-Tech. It's now competing with Bangalore to be at the heart of the IT industry here. This roughly translates to the visiting tourist as a large fast-growing city with a burgeoning upper middle class (i.e. relatively wealthy) population. Oh and all the shopping malls and fast food joints and cars that go with it. But we get over our disappointment quickly and spend a few days looking around different areas and enjoying the expresso coffee and ice cream in air-conditioned comfort. We are happy to make the most of it. One night we meet two fellas who'd lived in Britain for a while. They ask us what we think of India and for once we feel we can be totally honest. The street which our hotel is on is used as a toilet constantly, despite the fact that a public toilet (2 rupees) is at one end. The men laugh and say it's funny, in Britain it's okay to kiss in the street but not to piss in the street. But in India it's the other way round.
We also enjoy the chance to see Slumdog Millionaire - the film that has raised so many hackles in the Indian press despite or because of its Oscar nominations. The film might be flawed (the lead character, a slum kid, speaks English) but what drives the critics mad is that the film, with a big international profile, is not particularly nice about India. There has been no discussion or comment about why such conditions still exist here....(The UK's Foreign Secretary, Milliband, also caused everyone to get excited when he asked to see a rural village on a recent visit. He was slated for this "poverty tourism" (the same phrase used to describe
Slumdog's depiction of the Bombay slums), but what amazes us is that you can't escape it - it's there everywhere you look, day in and day out. So we assume these critics are blind to it. Milliband might not be the most diplomatic of politicians, but he might have wanted to see for what the UK has given over a billion pounds in aid to India in the last six years. This wasn't remarked upon in the press here.) Ironically, we watch the film in English along with many locals in a pricey multiplex cinema.
Our onward train journey is uneventful until the man opposite us lies down to sleep. He tosses and turns and can't get comfortable and eventually pulls out from under the covers what looks like a pocket hairdryer to me. He puts it under his pillow and goes straight to sleep. Gayle looks a little alarmed and mimes shooting a gun at me.
Sure enough, when he awakens, he fits the gun back on his waistband. He is a flour-mill owner. It must be a rough business.Bhopal is a charmless as we expect - but this is okay. We have come to visit the Buddhist stupas of nearby Sanchi. These were the first built by Ashoka, founder of India's first great empire, after his conversion and they sit atop a hill in the countryside. (Ashoka's children later took Buddhism to Sri Lanka.) The largest has great carved portals. Back in Bhopal our bus passes close to the Union Carbide plant that leaked the heavy gas that killed thousands here 25 years ago. The death toll at the time was more than 20,000 and hundreds of thousands have had related illnesses since. It puts 9/11 into perspective. The Indian Government has not pursued the outstanding damages claims, allegedly for fear of putting off foreign investors.
Our third big city on the trot is Gwalior. The noise and pollution is dreadful but the huge fort that overlooks the city is magnificent. We miraculously manage to walk around without getting run-over by the hundreds of vehicles that drive in both directions on both sides of the main road. We meet an old Italian man who has no idea where to go before his flight home from Mumbai in 3 weeks' time. He looks worn out by the city. I think that there are three phases to travelling in India. The first is the excitement at the thought of going to India. The second is the excitement of being here. The third is the excitement at the thought of leaving. I might be with the old man on this one, as I'm already thinking about the mountains of Nepal. This is an ongoing problem with travelling - always looking forward to the next country - but there are still a few more places to see first.