A Travellerspoint blog

By this Author: OmarInIndia

The final days (of Guru's and Gandhi)

25th-27th Jan

18 °C

The following are some of my favorite interactions with various people I've met throughout the trip...

After visiting the slums a guy at the hostel asks if I took a lot of pictures... I told him that I've never felt the urge to take pictures of anything less in my whole life. He asks why and I do an impression of a patronizing tourist. "Awww, look at all the poor people! Click click click click"

Tour guide at temple in Mumbai: Omar what are you doing?

Omar: Applying sunscreen. I've been burnt in the past

Guide: No no no this sun will not burn you

Omar: It looks very much like the sun that burnt me last time!

Trader: Hey you! You sir! Buy nice thing for your girlfriend! (Holds up knick-knack)

Omar: (looks confused) Parle vous Francais?

Trader gives up.

It's 7am and 8 of us from the hostel are off to a temple on the outskirts of Mumbai. Some of the others have volunteered to be extras in a Bollywood movie but the thought of spending a day waiting around doesn't appeal to me. Upon arrival we watch a ceremony with lots of drums and repetitive chanting. We all clap along but I have absolutely no idea what is happening. It is interesting none-the-less. We pass through the inner sanctum of the temple, a square 3 meter square room with idols adorning the walls. When we emerge the other side we are given a tika (red mark on the forehead) and a bracelet made of several different coloured threads. We are each given a blessing and it all seems very nice. The holy man then ruins it all somewhat by asking for money for the blessing. I politely refuse and he seems a little offended. He say's something to me in Hindi and I do what I always do in situations where I don't understand something... Make up my own interpretation. I decide that he said "If there is such a thing as reincarnation, you're coming back as a potato" which I thought was a bit harsh. Later, my friend Raf asks Raj (our guest house owner) the significance of the bracelets. Raj's replies that "the significance is you take them off before you go to bed; they will dirty my sheets".

Next we are introduced to a Baba (holy man) who barely eats, drinks only water, has sworn off women, alcohol etc and who's job it is to smoke copious amounts of marijuana and meditate all day. We sit in a circle with him and some other men and he welcomes us all, passing round nuts and the hash pipe. Some of our group smoke and after 10 minutes or so we leave the locals and the Baba to it. Must be pretty cool to be that guy!

We head down to the center of the little commune and are guests of honour for lunch. The whole commune (minus the Baba's who are not allowed to see women) sits on mats on the floor in 4 rows facing each other with us in the middle and we are given a huge amount of food. At least 7 dishes arrive with men walking round topping up your plate whenever it looks like you are beginning to make progress. The food is delicious. I was certain I would have to be rolled back to the van. On the way back to the hostel, the discussion turns to music and I experience my most multicultural moment of the trip when an Argentinian MBA student teaches me the words to the French version of "Anarchy in the UK" (by British punk legends the sex pistols)... "Moi je suis lo antechrist, Mo je suis lo anarchist!!!!"

That evening Raf and I go to South Mumbai with the intention of seeing the sites, but instead I buy a copy (I later realize that it is literally a copy and has been Xerox'd) of Steve Job's new biography for 150 rupees (2 pounds) from a man sitting in the street. I then ask how much it will be for all the books he has (approximately 500 of them) and he says "If you can carry them all you can have them free". I promptly hail a cab and he says "No no no, you must carry them yourself". Never one to turn down a challenge I start picking up books and ladening myself with them. Raf joins in, piling them in to my arms. We only manage half before I realize that I'm going to drop them and admit defeat.

The next day I catch my overnight train back to Delhi for the last leg of my journey. The family sharing my bay seem to have misunderstood my English attempts at small talk to mean "As a foreign tourist in an unfamiliar country, what would really make me feel at home is if you could all stare at me for the entire 17 hour journey and talk about me in Hindi.

The next morning (Thursday) I arrive in Delhi and discover that all the museums/monuments and most shops etc are closed for the national holiday, celebrating the anniversary of the writing of India's constitution. I acquire a room, a shared dorm for 150 rupees/2 pounds per night, which incidentally is less than I paid for a meal at KFC later that evening and head off to Logi Gardens (Delhi's equivalent of Regents Park). At least 40 separate family cricket matches are taking place and I do a circuit of the park, ice-cream in hand, taking in the scene. When this loses its appeal I head to the grand stretch of road connecting India Gate (like marble arch without the marble, they used it all on the Taj Mahal) war memorial and their parliament. The entire road is still closed to traffic and is packed with people and I banter with a group of Indian lads pretending to misunderstand the meaning of the parade and all the flags is to welcome me (the British ambassador) back to India after such a long absence. "I mean, we left on such great terms last time, I thought you'd love to have us back".

It's Friday morning and with less than 24 hours before I leave for home I set out to see Delhi's sites that I was unable to visit yesterday. I saw and did many things today, but they all pale in to insignificance in comparison to the place I started the day. The Mahatma Gandhi Memorial. In all honestly, the exhibits in the museum here are at best... weird. It is a multi-media museum, supposedly about Gandhi although most of the "exhibits" are little more than abstract pieces of art with very little to do with the Mahatma. The memorial does have one massively redeeming feature however. It contains the room where Gandhi spent the last 4 months of his life and shows his footsteps from the room to the prayer ground 30 meters away where on the 30th January 1948, at 5:17pm he was shot dead. Many people cite him as the closest thing to a saint the modern world has seen and Einstein said "Generations to come will scarce believe that such a one as this ever in flesh and blood walked upon this earth". I don't disagree. To see the place was a surreal experience and one of my favorites of the entire trip.

I'm very glad I came to India. It's been my first time out of the UK alone and in retrospect I could have picked an easier country to start travelling in. It was not always easy or enjoyable. The highs however, far outweigh the lows. If anyone wants to do the whole backpacking thing (even for a very short time like I did) I would definitely recommend it. I am happy because now I can look back without thinking "what if?" I shall remember this experience for the rest of my life. The only question remaining is, where to next?!


Posted by OmarInIndia 05:06 Archived in India Tagged temple train parliament mumbai delhi india_gate gandhi gandhi_memorial Comments (2)

Of Slumdogs And Sickness...

19th-21st January 2012

sunny 35 °C

And I've driven across deserts driven by the irony, that only being shackled to the road can ever I be free- Frank Turner

They say that a traveller "must possess the ability to make an extravagant fool of one's self". At the hostel in Varanasi I certainly accomplished this whilst ordering breakfast and in rapt conversation with my two fellow travellers at the next table. One was Nepalese, the other Swiss and they were both great guys. When our orders came, I promptly forgot what I had ordered and proceeded to eat the Nepalese guy's pancake, only realising my mistake upon I saw the surprised look on his face when he was presented with my porridge. Fortunately he was too polite too say anything!

After breakfast I visited the museum at Banaras Hindu University, the 2nd biggest university in the world at over 16.7 square kilometres! I enjoyed plenty of banter with students, who had come to visit the museum after completing their exams, telling them that after exams in the UK, students drink until they can't stand. Talk about a contrast in cultures!

Now, some people travel for the history of a place. Others travel for exotic beaches or interesting food. Some will go to explore family history and heritage. I wanted to visit Bhopal because it was the site of a 1984 gas disaster! Widely cited as the worlds worst industrial catastrophe, on 3 December 1984, a Union Carbide Corporation pesticide plant in Bhopal leaked around 32 tons of toxic gases, including methyl isocyanate gas which led to the worst corporate disaster to date. The official death toll was initially recorded around 5,000. Many figures suggest that 18,000 died within two weeks, and it is estimated that around 8,000 have died since then of gas-poisoning-related diseases. The horrible thing though is that the tragedy occurred because the volatile gas was not stored at the right temperature and was easily preventable. The reason for this negligence? To save $80 per day. Now a virtually compulsory topic on all university business programmes, Bhopal is a prime example of corporate greed taking precedence over human life.

Upon arrival in Bhopal I found a busy city with some really good food, some bustling market places and some impressive pollution. I say impressive because it's hard to believe a city could become that polluted if it actively tried. Please believe me when I say that visibility was as low as 50 metres in some places. On the plus side it did have some great unspoilt wildlife and I took full advantage of this by riding a bicycle I rented from a man in a loincloth round the 5km city zoo. A kid wanted to ride it and I told him that he could take it up the path and back again but not to go any further. He then cycled up the path and promptly disappeared from view and I became slightly irked and worried about what I was going to say to the loincloth man. "What happened to my bike?". "Err well a small Indian child stole it. Sorry!" Fortunately the child returned 25 minutes later and I scolded him although I don't think he understood anything I said.

The next day I was back on the train again, this time to Mumbai. On the train I met a very nice middle aged Frenchman by the name of Rafael. In the course of our conversation he told me he had been ill the day before and I boasted that I had not been ill once since arriving in India. An hour later I heard a voice in my head and our internal dialogue went a little like this...

Voice: Hello Omar.

Omar: Hello The Voice

Voice: Omar, Do you remember the last time I spoke to you?

Omar: No

Voice: Ah well, you know what I'm about to say now don't you Omar

Omar: Yeah, yeah I think I do...

Voice: I thought so... Well Omar, you have approximately 20 seconds to get to the bathroom at the end of the carriage before you project the contents of your stomach forcefully on to the man sleeping opposite you.

Omar: Thanks The Voice. (runs down the carriage).

Voice: Good luck Omar.

For the next 20 mins I vomited in to the sink accompanied by horrific and in some cases simultaneous bowel movements. I did not eat again for almost 24 hours.

The next morning (and mercifully feeling better) I headed for the hostel and Rafael came with me as he had nothing better to do. We shared a dorm with 4 other dudes and all get along great. That afternoon, a few of us went to see some 1900 year old caves just outside Mumbai, which were impressive as they were man-made and hollowed out of the hill with intricate sculptures of Hindu deities carved into the walls.

The next day, 7 of us lads from the hostel went on a tour of the Dharavi Slums, made famous/infamous (depending on your perspective) by the movie "Slum Dog Millionaire". The people of the slums that we spoke to, understandably aren't too thrilled at the name chosen for the movie and now I think about it, I can see why. They might as well have called it "Poverty Stricken Rich B****" although I don't think that name would have won 8 Oscars. The Millionaire aspect of it however is no joke. The slums generate over $650 million every year through collecting Mumbai's waste, recycling it and selling it back to the cities corporations. However, I don't know where this money goes as the people there are still clearly very poor. We had a short, lively match of street cricket with some local children and smashed them decisively. Who says Indians are good at cricket?! The thing that really struck me about the slum however was how happy all the people were. In the 2 hours we were there, I didn't see 1 miserable person. It makes me wonder if we really have any idea what life is about in the west. Now I'm not going on some "you think you got problems" rant, but when you see people living in metal shacks, with no electricity or running water, with 6 small, ill looking children and goats wondering into their straw filled "bedrooms" in the middle of the night, it does make you wonder, "what do I really have to be unhappy about?".

That night we head out for dinner to a local veg restaurant. Not knowing what anything is, 4 of our 5 boys order the same Paneer on the grounds that one of them thinks he had it once some place else. When the dishes come, they are huge and we all stare aghast at the task we are about to undertake. The other lads barely manage half of theirs each and sit and watch as I clear my plate. I feel like I'm in the circus. On the way home we go in to an ATM (they have physical rooms for machines here to give you more privacy) and discover that Stephen Hawking has a new job reading the options. (Stephen Hawking voice) "In which denominations would you like your currency"... "would you like a receipt for your transaction?". Oh how the mighty physicist has fallen. Poor Stephen...

Only 3.5 days left in India as I write this and I'm still having a great time, but am also craving a steak and a fry up when I get home (hint hint Dad) ;) I aim to do one more edition before leaving , summing up the last of my travels. Miss you all as always and thanks for reading...

Posted by OmarInIndia 04:33 Archived in India Tagged caves varanasi mumbai explosion slums bhopal sickness delhi_belly banaras_hindu_university slumdog_millionaire gas_disaster Comments (0)

Of TV crews and burning smells.

17th-18th Jan 2012

sunny 17 °C

I love TFL! I love National Rail! To most people this will sound odd. After all, the underground is dirty and overcrowded and National Rail trains are often late and in many ways soul destroying. If this is what you are thinking, try taking the Indian Railway! After the last blog in the town that time forgot I headed to the station (accompanied by more staring adults and shouting children) and discovered that the train was delayed by a few hours from 8pm until 1am. No problem. I met a Danish couple at the station waiting for the same train and we went to have dinner together in the town's only (and I do mean only) restaurant. Full of food and cheer we head back to the station at 11:30 and discover that the train is delayed a further 3 hours till 4am! Realizing that this time dynamic could continue indefinitely and that if it does the train will never arrive, we called our respective travel agents and complained relentlessly until they got fed up listening to the whining foreigners and booked us into the same hotel in my favorite city.... Agra! The Danish couple and I hung out for the day in Agra during which the lady who's name was Maria ended up on the national evening news! She went in to a fish foot spa while her boyfriend and I hung out outside when all of a sudden, a TV cameraman and reporter turned up complete with mic and camera, thrust both in to her face and proceeded to interview her about the treatment she was getting. That evening (second time lucky) we caught the train (which mercifully ran according to schedule) and a mere 15 hours later we arrived in Varanasi.

Varanasi is India's oldest town (even older than Bruce Forsyth). It's a town on the bank of the river Ganges where the elderly go to die.... Kind of like Bournemouth. People go to die in Varanasi because they believe that dying here remits sins and ensures a persons soul reaches Nirvana. I'd imagine people go to die in Bournemouth for the tea shops. No trip here (Varanasi not Bournemouth) would be complete without a boat trip down the river Ganges, so with this in mind I headed for the riverbank.

After a lot of back and forth bartering I secured a boat (and boatman) for 150 rupees (2 pounds; UK minimum wage be damned) for the hour. The trip up the river was pleasant. We rowed past the various ghats (steps down in to the river), decrepit buildings and innumerable cows. To most people, this would have peaceful and maybe rather beautiful but to me it was simply an opportunity to spout stereotypical pirate phrases in a hilarious accent at confused looking Chinese tourists. On some of the ghats, people were lighting fires, and crowding round in groups, shouting things. Soon after, we docked in a ghat with many more fires than the others and I got off thinking that the trip was over. However the boatman motioned me to go with a man who told me he would explain the culture and what was going on. As I walk through India in a near constant state of confusion, I agreed, eager to try and make sense of all the activity. The guy explained that the Ganges are sacred and then pointed to a crumbling building behind all the fires. "This" he said, indicating the building, "is where people from all over India come to await death". We walked in to the middle of several fires as he explained a little about India's caste system and pointed out the different groups of people standing around in groups and identified their caste for me. The fire was sweltering hot and ash was hitting me in the face the whole time. The man continued talking for sometime and then motioned to the fire. My heart stopped! Staring out of the fire back at me, partially concealed among the wood was a dead, naked woman. Half her face had seemingly melted off, her one unburnt eye staring blankly into mine. I watched transfixed as her skin slowly disappeared before my eyes and suddenly became very aware of the smell of burning flesh. I looked around at the other fires and could make out other bodies laying in them too. "The people around fire" said my guide, unphased by it all "are the male relatives". "Women no allowed at cremation because woman see her husband get cremated sometimes throw herself in to fire". Horrified by this startling news, I studied the people. None of them appeared at all upset at seeing Grandma get barbecued. The guide, noticing my focus, explained, "Yes no-one is sad because family member reach Nirvana now. Is very happy occasion". I wiped the dead body ash off of my face and vacantly nodded.

Posted by OmarInIndia 10:42 Archived in India Tagged trains ganges varanasi ghats cremation Comments (2)

Of Animals and Aliens

12th-14th January 2012

sunny 13 °C

As I type this I am currently in a cyber cafe in the town of Tundla that I don't think has seen a tourist since the 70's. There is a dead dog on the floor outside. Everyone stares at me like I am from outer-space. Some smile; others glare and children shout "Hello" in ridiculous sing-song voices as they crowd around me to shake my hand. One small child hit me several times on the arm, presumably to see if I was human. Another pointed to the headphones in my ears and then to his own. I put it to his ear so he could hear the music and he looked amazed and a little bit confused. Maybe he was wondering why, in the year 2012, anyone would still listen to Will Smith (hey I can't help being retro)! Of course then all the children wanted to listen so I stood there for 10 minutes while they all had a turn. Some older siblings in their mid-late teens stood back and regarded me with suspicion, presumably thinking I was some sort of international pedophile.

On the way here the driver missed the turn-off on India's equivalent of the M1 and instead of continuing on to the next junction and doubling back, he screeched to a halt, threw the car in to reverse and drove backwards 200m down the highway against the traffic to make the turn-off. He also nearly fell asleep at the wheel twice today, once nearly killing a motorcyclist and the second time narrowly avoiding swerving off the highway into the central reservation. At least this is the last day I have him and I'm on my own from now, which will ironically give me more scope to meet people.

Backtrack a few days and you would have found me in the town of Ranthambore, home of India's national park and the most tigers per square kilometer anywhere in the world. As far as I could work out, this place specialized in car mechanics and little else. We left for the safari around 7am and were in the park hunting for Tigers by 8. We saw a variety of birds, two different types of deer, yet more monkeys, a blue bull (exactly what it says on the tin) and a couple of crocodiles. Sadly no tigers but the whole experience was still pretty cool none-the-less.

On the next day we face the 6 hour drive to Agra across some roads that Colin McRae probably would have had second thoughts about tackling. We certainly could have done with the navigator rally drivers have, although his instructions may have sounded a little different. "COW!!!!! COW COW, WATCH OUT FOR THAT MOTORBIKE! OH S*** A MONKEY!!! PIGS, PIGS!!! AGGGHHH AGGGHHHH!!... or something like that. Even so, the long drives in India are quite fun and it's entertaining to see the huge variety of scenery and villages as we pass. Upon arrival in Agra that evening (13th Jan), I do what I do in every new town we arrive in. Immediately dump my bag in the hotel and take a walk outside to see what adventures I can make happen. I quickly discover that Agra is, to use a travelers term, "A bit of a dump". The pollution is off the charts, the streets are packed and deafening, and the rickshaw walla's (drivers of bicycles with small 2 seat carriages on the back) are notorious for being the pushiest in the whole country. I walked down Agra's main street and looked for a place to change my travelers cheques. One rickshaw driver refused to believe that any Westerner would want to simply "walk" anywhere and followed me for ten minutes trying to get me in to the rickshaw. I walked in and out of passing shoppers, crossed the street forcing him to ride on the wrong side of the road and occasionally doubled back on myself, but the guy would not leave me alone. Eventually I found a place to change money and went inside. There was a long queue and the transaction took a couple of minutes so by the time I came out I had pretty much forgotten about the rickshaw guy. However, as soon as I came out the shop he was on me again! "Hello sir, where you want to go, I take you anywhere, only ten rupees (12.5p). I'm slightly ashamed to admit at this point I lost it a little bit with this guy.

Omar (loudly enough for everyone within 10 meters of the already very loud street to hear): WHAT ARE YOU STILL DOING HERE!? YOU'VE BEEN FOLLOWING ME FOR 20 MINUTES! HAVE YOU NOTHING BETTER TO DO!? PLEASE URINATE IN THAT GENERAL DIRECTION (may not be an exact quotation)!

This morning in Agra however more than made up for the cities less desirable aspects. The driver came to collect me at 7am (although I had been so excited I was awake at 5:15). The reason for my excitement? I was about to see what I had come to Agra for. What I had come to India for! We were going to the Taj Mahal! One of the wonders of the world, the best encapsulation of this amazing monument I've heard was by Tagore (a famous Bengali poet) as being "a tear drop on the face of eternity". As beautiful as this statement is, it doesn't even begin to do the real thing justice.

The Taj Mahal was built by Mughal emperor Shah Jahan in memory of his wife and true love, Mumtaz Mahal. Grief-stricken when his wife died during the birth of their 14th child the emperor ordered the construction of a giant mausoleum to house her body. The Taj's gardens are based on the Qu'ran's description of the gardens of paradise. Construction began in 1632 and took 20,000 continuously working men 21 years to build, finally being completed in 1653 and costing approximately 32 million rupees, at a time when gold cost 1 rupee per gram! It is the greatest monument to love ever created and first sight of it brought tears to my eyes and the eyes of many people around me. This building alone has made the whole trip worth it...

Anyway, I have a train to catch. An overnight, 8 hour sleeper train, which the tour agency thoughtfully put me in first class for so it should be good. This will be first time I've legally been 1st class anything in my life so I'm off to make the most of it.

As always, miss you all and thanks for reading!

Omar x

Posted by OmarInIndia 03:13 Archived in India Tagged train safari mahal taj agra ranthambore driver rickshaw wallah tundla Comments (2)

Of Cons Mountains and Movies...

8th-11th Jan 2012

sunny 10 °C

Was planning to do this every day but it seems internet is quite hard to come by in the developing world. Who'd have thought it!?

Sunday 8th
In spite of what I said in my last post about the roads being haphazard at the best of times, I decided today that it would be a good idea to rent a motorbike in Pushkar (afore-mentioned holy city) and ride it through the mountains to the next town. You'd think this would be quite difficult for a foreigner, not to mention expensive and require a lot of paperwork. Turns out you'd be wrong. The guy asked to see my passport, wrote down my name and asked for 100 rupees for the bike (1 pound 25 pence) plus petrol. I then gave him a deposit of a 20 pound note which he seemed to think was very generous and he sent me on my way! Riding through the mountains was an amazing experience and gave me a chance to take in the beautiful scenery. This tranquility was rudely interrupted when 20 monkeys jumped out of a nearby tree and ran across the road as I passed. I tried to take a few out with the bike but sadly it wasn't to be, quick little creatures they are!

Monday 9th
Arrived in the city of Jaipur this morning (a ruthlessly busy metropolis) which is allegedly one of the fastest growing cities in the world. Upon arrival, some guy took it upon himself to "befriend" me and was soon telling me how we could go in to business together selling precious stones bought from Jaipur and sold in the UK. For a laugh, I asked how much the stones would cost and he told me the smallest order it would be worth placing would be for ten thousand pounds. Clearly my Adidas jacket and scruffy trainers exude a sense of grandeur and wealth. Or perhaps he thought that I looked like the person customs officers would least suspect to be a diamond smuggler!

Later on that day I thought I'd check out what India had to offer in terms of cinema as I'd seen an article in the paper promoting a film called "Players". Far from being a Bollywood epic about a notorious gang of underground pickup artists however, this movie was an Indian remake of The Italian Job. Apparently the name "The Indian Job" could be misconstrued. Sadly the 1500 seat, single screen cinema was showing a different movie, so I didn't get to see "Players" but I can only imagine that it features a daring heist, in which turbaned men in battered ford escorts, sit in endless New Delhi traffic, while Chai wallahs (tea sellers) swarm around them.

While I stood outside the cinema contemplating this however, a young Indian guy approached me. Immediately thinking he was trying to sell me something, I made to leave but he followed and we had an interesting conversation about the city. I suggested we get a drink and he took me to an almost empty underground bar where he insisted on buying me a drink. I wondered briefly if I had completely misread the situation and was about to pay the price for it. However the guy seemed genuine and we chatted for an hour or so until he suggested that we go to his family's puppet shop across the street. Not having any plans, I agreed and we went over to the shop where I met his uncle and we sat on the floor for the next few hours drinking coffee and chatting. Sirajj and his uncle Krishna then produced some double ended drums and a harmonium (similar to an accordion) and we played for another hour. Sirajj and his uncle sang the Indian version of do-ray-me and I responded by teaching them the full English version in my best (read terrible) singing voice.

Posted by OmarInIndia 04:07 Archived in India Tagged mountains india friends jaipur motorbike movies pushkar Comments (0)

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