by Pony Tale
My impressions of India 2010
| INSIDE INDIA 2010
If anyone were ever to ask me if I would consider going back to India again for another visit someday, I would say “Yes!” without hesitation. I would say it loudly and I would say it sincerely.
India is a living book where every store front, every face, every paw, hoof, claw, has a story to tell. Where every wheel, decaying chunk of brick, hole in the wall, has a voice and a history behind it. India is also a puzzle, in many ways, with a few misplaced jigs and missing saws.
It’s an audio collage of drums, horns and bells, and a kaleidoscope of swarthy people strapped in shawls and scarves and clad in colorful dresses. It’s a land poor in money, but rich in culture. It’s a country of run-down signs and worn-out streets and shanties where people gather in twos and threes to stand at tables to eat their meals.
India is a garden of wheels sprouting from the bowels of barren pot holes and out of the brown and dusty depths of poverty. It’s a table leg in a goggle of pants where dogs pool like fur puddles in the hot shade beside them. It’s a silent Brahman placidly pasted against a cacophonous street whose shoulders might be splashed on a certain lazy Thursday afternoon in early March with the yellows and greens of an over zealous HOLI enthusiast. It is a place for pigeons to come to roost forever in a lifetime of peace and everlasting bliss.
India is a country where traffic, like metal ducks and geese on broiling tires, honk and quack in various tones as they bounce along the crumbling highways elbow-to-elbow and tire-to-tire, where the bikes and tuk tuks and taxis and buses swarm their way around corners, bells jingling, horns squawking, engines mumbling while the air around them reeks with the smell of urine and other, less identifiable aromas.
It’s a place where every odor hitches a ride on one’s lips, and one’s mouth is a collage of smells that one can not only taste, but feel in the lungs where they sit in the throat with the dust and pollution and torture one’s every breath with their knives and swords. They cannot be dislodged permanently by drinking or coughing and one always feels as though she has a chronic cold coming on.
India is an embroidery of bright ornamental threads where the women weave themselves in and out of the otherwise grey elbows and tan-clad knees of their male counterparts, perambulating the streets like rays of polychrome sunbeams.
India is dusty babies sleeping in the middle of the noisy streets, making dust bunnies with their dreaming arms and legs. And what do they dream about, I wonder? They know nothing of clean streets upon which babies never lie, much less sleep, where nights are warm and quiet. They know only of smog-veiled stars and a world where cows are gods, where they share a bedroom with tiny monkeys, each tethered to its own rock, playing by their side, nearly being tread upon by passers-by, on a street surrounded by butchered goats and plucked chickens and cars whose horns never rest.
It is a country where commodes are hard to come by and bathrooms for women are even harder to find. It’s a place where traffic lights are called signals. It’s a country where cricket bats are carried around like baseball bats in New York, where crows sound like seagulls, where people in the country have their own camels as well as water buffaloes, where power failures occur on a daily basis, often over and over again, and three grown adults can sit and meow at each other, back and forth across a dusty lane, because a tourist had suddenly spotted a cat and called it to their attention.
India is a masala of ancient and modern, high tech and ignorance. Every hand holds a cell phone, while the other hand holds a butchered goat’s head in its grasp.
India is an artistic country rich in history and culture, where its people curiously tilt their heads to the side to nod. It’s a place where sunglasses are only worn by tourists, or by Indian men who are trying to make a fashion statement.
India is a country where there is a lot of male bonding. Boys and men in groups hold hands, or walk the streets with their arms around each other. India is a one lane highway, made of patched bitumen, where, once, we, and the vehicles we passed, had to drive with one wheel off the road so we could get by, as if we were in the back of Bourke in Australia. India is a country that whenever we asked for one serving of something, or one of anything, it was referred to as ‘one piece’.
Yes, India may very well be a puzzle full of misplaced jigs and missing saws, but, nevertheless, it is still, unabashedly, a very picturesque puzzle, and a very intriguing one.
February 26, 2010 PLANE TO INDIA VIA SINGAPORE
Instead of phoning a taxi to drive us to the railroad station, which would have taken us to the airport, Norm and I decided to do something different this trip and left our car at Andrew’s Car Storage. Part of their service offered a shuttle trip to the International airport in Brisbane. The cost was a bit more than the price of a taxi, but by leaving our car in a secured garage for the next month, we didn’t have to cart keys around with us, or worry about thieves. It was a cold and wet day, so we were not unhappy about the prospect of having to leave Australia behind that particular day.
We arrived at the airport at 8:00 am, an hour earlier than necessary. It wasn’t until we checked in that it was discovered my permanent resident visa had expired and I wouldn’t be allowed to enter Australia again upon my return from India until it had been renewed. We asked someone what that would entail and we were told it would probably be a long drawn-out affair, especially since we’d have to have it done in India, and not some other place such as the United States. I was reassured it would probably not take as long as a full month, however, but it was with that worry hovering over my head that I started my vacation.
At 6:30 I felt as though I had been stung all over, for the news about my visa shattered me from the inside out. I had been expecting, and preparing for, an uneventful experience. After all, I had just had my passport renewed, and had the foresight to carry my old one with me just in case I needed it, and I felt betrayed and let-down that all my preparations weren’t enough.
Fear swept through me like a cloud of dust kicked up in a stampede of a thousand hooves. Was I safe to leave the country when my return home was in jeopardy? Who would have thought to check the expiration date of my visa, for weren’t they meant to last forever? Now what? Could I trust the Australian consulate in India? How much time would I need to get the proper documents, if any? How much money would it cost? Should I view this as an adventure; just a glitch in an otherwise smooth journey? I wondered how I’d like living in India.
By 11:30 I was really stewing. Every wayward thought took me to doom’s door. I envisioned spending time in jail and what it would be like not to be able to go back to Australia and how all this would affect Norm’s experience in India.
On the plane trip to Singapore, a necessary stop-over on our journey to India, I chose to engulf myself in an array of movies and old TV shows I had missed, which were provided by the airlines. Every seat had its own screen and everyone was able to choose for her/himself what to watch in order to pass the time between countries. Norm chose to view the educational channel which provided him with information on India. It was through his education that I came to know a few things about the country enroute:
Thank you: dhanyawad
Help: sahayta kijiye
We also learned that a street vendor is called a wallah, that a small outdoor canteen that sells cheap delicious food is called an udipi, an indoor restaurant or café is called a dubha, and that pistachio and cardamom ice cream, a favorite of Indians, is called kulfi, and that a smooth and delicious yogurt-based drink is called lassi. I had no idea at that point how familiar each of these strange terms were to become to me in the next few weeks, nor how much I was going to become attached to each of them.
Our stopover in Singapore was a short one and before long we were in the air and on our way to India once again.
Once our plane touched down in India, we looked for our driver, whom we found standing with a sign he was holding up with our name printed on it. He was a small, skinny man who led us out of the airport through the throng of people that lingered there at a fast clip and we were on wings trying to keep up. Without a single glance over his shoulder to see how we were faring, it was all we could do to keep up. He drove us, very skilfully, through the crowded, noisy streets to the Astoria Hotel, located in Karol Bagh, New Delhi, which we had picked out for ourselves via the Internet before leaving Australia.
The hotel turned out to be a bomb. We had chosen this particular hotel, not only for its excellent location, but for the beautiful pictures it portrayed on the website. We immediately realized the photos had probably been taken when the hotel was new. The room we were given was hideous. Toe-curling old and dirty and without a working toilet! We asked to be moved and were disappointed, if not surprised, to be given another room similar to the first one, so on our first night, we made it a point to find new lodging the very next day.
February 27, 2010
We woke up early to start our search for a new hotel. The first place we stumbled upon was called Abyss Tours, where we met Sajad, a fellow who was not only the owner of this tour company, but who also owned a chain of hotels throughout India, and he became very important to us from that moment on. This man literally took us under his wing (for personal gain, of course, but a blessing to us, nevertheless). He lead us to one of his hotels, called HOTEL ROYAL HOLIDAYS, selected to meet our budget. This hotel became the heart of all our excursions; the hub upon which we returned again and again whenever we left and returned again to New Delhi.
Our room came equipped with a remote controlled television, including cable, a refrigerator, and air conditioning.
The first thing we had Sajad do for us, once we put a tour plan together for the next 30 days, was phone the Australian consulate so I could make an appointment with them and get the wheels turning for a new visa. We discovered the consulate was closed for HOLI, a very important holiday known as the “Festival of Colors”, and would not be open again for three days. (More about HOLI later). That meant I had three more days of worry ahead of me. I decided, upon that news, that I would make the most of those three days, and no matter what, I would not allow this impending problem to spoil my visit.
As soon as we were booked in, we hired Sajad’s driver, Tachinda, to take us to see the sites in the area. He drove us, first, to the big temple, then it was on to parliament house, and, eventually, Humayon’s tomb. The tomb is a complex of buildings built as the Mughal Emperor Humayon’s tomb, which was the first garden tomb on the Indian subcontinent.
We also saw the Isa Khan Tomb Enclosure, which was built in 1547, and the India Gate, which is the national monument of India, and one of the largest war memorials in the country. It is a prominent landmark which commemorates the 90,000 soldiers of the erstwhile British Indian Army who lost their lives fighting for the British army in India.
After our tour, we hired a bicycle rickshaw, whose driver took us to some local markets so we could do some personal shopping. Along with a pair of jeans, each, we bought some Indian outfits to wear for the HOLI celebrations that were coming up in a few days, both tops and matching bottoms. We discovered that men and women wear the same clothing and that the long tops men wear, either knee-length or ankle-length, are also called dresses.
It was upon this first excursion that I learned a few things about the men of India that never wavered throughout our trip. They were gentlemen; they stared, equally at Norm as they did me, but very politely, out of curiosity, if nothing else. They smiled and showed an interest in us as people, and, as I mentioned, they were gentle.
That night we watched the TV program, Indian Idol, and I must admit, I was not impressed by the contestants that were on the show that particular night.
February 28, 2010 HOLI EVE
When Norm wore his Indian dress for the first time in the streets around our hotel, he got so many compliments from the local men! Everyone had something to say! It was quite comical. He bought a white dress to wear during HOLI so the colors would show up.
During one of our walks down the side streets near our hotel, Norm and I stopped to buy some spitting tobacco, which turns the ground a bright red after it’s been chewed and discarded. Everyone we met seemed to be a fan of this product, as the information on the plane had described, so we just had to give it a go.
We bought a pack of it and took it to our room. After only a few minutes, we had to spit it out as fast as we could. The stuff tasted foul and we couldn’t figure out why it would be so popular other than the fact that tobacco is highly addictive, and the betelnut leaf adds a mild stimulant which is similar to the affects of drinking a cup of coffee.
The other explanation could be in the tradition behind the chewing. Although adding tobacco to the activity, chewing the mixture of areca nut and betel leaf is a custom or ritual dating back thousands of years from South Asia to the Pacific. I’m surprised we didn’t run across it in our travels to Indonesia and Vietnam years ago.
We got lost on our first walk around our new neighborhood, so we hired a tuk tuk driver to take us back to our hotel. He was totally confused as he took us in all directions trying to find the Royal Holiday Hotel. Getting lost was not hard to do, for the main streets in Karol Bagh, as they were throughout the country, were many, and most of them resembled lanes rather than streets, so it was easy to get them confused. He was angry when he finally found the place. I told him that now that he knows where the hotel is, he’ll never get lost again. He thought I was having a dig at him, but I was sincere.
On our ride back to the hotel, we noticed there were many stalls selling all colors of paint and powder for the HOLI festival, and we managed to get water bombed as we were toted down the streets. Throwing water on people the day prior to HOLI is a tradition, and bonfires are lit in memory of the miraculous escape that Prahlad accomplished when Demoness, Holika carried him into the fire.
March 1, 2010 HOLI
The first of every March the festival, HOLI, is celebrated in India. This is the famous Hindu ‘festival of colors’ which is celebrated by people throwing water, then colored powder at each other, which makes the colors adhere to cloth like paint. People also go around painting each other’s faces, and Norm and I could not avoid becoming victims of this tradition.
Early in the day, Norm and I slipped into our HOLI outfits. Norm put his stark white kurta pajamas on again (the name of the Indian dress he bought earlier) and I wore the flower pattern dress and pants I had bought for the occasion. We walked down the streets, living targets for those who waited in ambush, knowing full well what we were up against. Sure enough, it didn’t take long for the paint to fly. We got slam-basted from head to toe with every shade of red, blue, green, yellow, orange, etc, you can imagine! Norm saved his garment so he could show everyone when we got back to Australia.
I tried lassi for the first time and immediately fell in love with the tasty treat. As I sipped the flavorsome drink, I kept thinking about my issue with the expired visa. I could only hope that the consulate had an easy procedure for people like me, that this happened often enough, that the protocol would make the process swift and easy. I hoped to know for sure on the very next day, when the consulate would be open again, so we could get the wheels turning. We had already wasted one weekend and one holiday, which was, in my eyes, three days too many already.
Norm and I took a bus to the train station just for kicks, and caught one back to Karol Bagh again. We were appalled to pass places where urinals were set up right in public view. Men thought nothing of using them no matter how crowded the streets were. We also caught them using nothing at all, or just the sides of buildings or the corners of houses. No wonder the country smelled like urine no matter where we went!
While in India, more than once we witnessed the law at work. In one instance, a man was picked up for drunken fighting. He was clobbered with a stick again and again as he argued with the policeman. Crowds gathered as the noise grew louder and more aggressive. Drunkenness is not tolerated in India and the law is very strict about it.
March 2, 2010 THE AUSTRALIAN CONSULATE
On the way to the Australian consulate, we saw a huge ten-year-old child-sized macaque traveling down the highway on the back of a motorbike. Our driver assured us we would see plenty of monkeys on this trip and he proved to be right. The jungle grew right up to the curb and wild monkeys could be seen swinging, or just sitting in the branches of the forest trees from our car window. Some also climbed along the cement wall that separated the natural from the manmade world.
Once at the Australian consulate, we spent the entire day renewing my visa. Norm had to run to the bank to get a check for $300 to cover the cost. The consulate would not take cash. The bank employees made it a nightmare for him. He had to throw a fit to be served.
While Norm was gone, I stayed behind to work on the forms that had to be filled out before anyone could even begin to start the work necessary to process my visa.
Finally, after the money had been taken care of, and the forms had been filled out, we spent hours at the embassy waiting for the visa to be processed. When I finally went to the front desk to ask what was taking so long, a phone call was made. Moments later a young man finally appeared. He told me that he wasn’t told I was in the foyer waiting for the visa, so he didn’t see a need to hurry. We told him we’d be going to Agra and would be away for four days and that I’d need my passport. Even though the embassy was closing in ten minutes, the young man went straight to work and was able to produce my renewed visa in record time!
The sense of relief I felt having this chore finally put behind me was indescribable! I felt as though I had the whole world at my feet and I walked out of the building in the clouds with not only a renewed visa and the knowledge that I’d be welcomed back into Australia again at the end of our visit, but with a grateful heart as well.
When we left the consulate, we were driven to the Rajendra Palace to do some shopping. This ‘palace’ is a multi-storied, multi-building commercial complex. It’s surrounded by two posh New Delhi areas, and it hosts several restaurants and offices. I bought 3 Indian tops and a pair of tight black pants. I also bought a pair of shoes which I have never worn yet. I’m not even sure why I wanted them. Norm bought two new long sleeve button down shirts and a black belt.
That afternoon we tried aloo tikki from a street vendor, which was a snack made of boiled potatoes and various spices. Aloo means potato and tikki means a small cutlet or croquette. This particular vendor stuffed some bread with potato which fried up just like French toast. We also tried a McAloo Tikki at McDonald’s, which was not the same thing at all.
March 3, 2010 THE TAJ MAHAL
Early in the morning, a taxi driver from Abyss Tours picked us up from the hotel to drive us north to Agra to see the Taj Mahal. The ride there was very educational, and we were able to stop at famous tombs and temples along the way.
As we trundled along, between the city of New Delhi and Agra, once again we were amazed by the jungle greens that crept up to the busy thoroughfare with their many branches, clawing at the walls that fenced in the highway, seemingly trying to escape, while monkeys played in their shadows and scampered along the brims.
I must also mention the Fatidad police we passed who stood on platforms at each corner to direct the highway traffic, for this procedure was something we had never seen before.
We passed little brown huts that were constructed in clumps, not along streets as they are in neighborhoods we’re familiar with. Some were makeshift pop tents that were thrown together for shelter in clearings by the side of the highway.
There were piles and piles of cow dung that had been built and stacked by houses for fuel and shelter. Every house had a dung pile somewhere in the yard, and the fields were covered in them as they were lain out to dry in the hot sun.
We also saw huge vehicles on the road, pulling flat beds that appeared to be carrying tumors on their backs, or huge, overstuffed vacuum cleaner bags. These trucks were so swollen with ‘animal grass’, (grain), they could not be over-taken on the road. We were not surprised to see many blown tires where the vehicles had been broken down somewhere previously on the highway.
Beggars were everywhere and they came in both sexes of all ages. Some were handicapped, a few were emaciated, some were shoeless and dressed in rags, but the majority of the beggars we ran across actually looked well-dressed and well-fed. I gave five rupees to a little boy with his hand out and he was set afire with joy. I dropped the same amount into a woman’s proffered cup and she scoffed in distain, and the cup was already jammed with coins of all denominations.
Then there were the beggars on the highways who showed up from seemingly out of nowhere, like geckos, tapping fingers on rolled up, leave-me-alone windows, while our car idled on the countdown at corner traffic lights.
We eventually learned not to trust those who presented themselves as beggars. Most were not poor at all. They were wealthy women and children who either costumed themselves in rags, hoping to get some free handouts, or, as I mentioned, dressed very well.
A woman had approached us once with a baby in her arms, asking not for money, but for food to keep her baby alive. Although neither looked starved, we went into the store and started selecting items we thought the woman and the baby could use. The woman turned down the products we produced, and went along the shelves, selecting things for herself. She came back to us with an armload of goods. Although puzzled, we bought them for her, only to learn the truth much later when she had tried to hit us up for goods again a few days later.
Prior to that experience, we had bought some grapes for a man and his two young boys. We were going to purchase some bananas, but the man insisted he wanted grapes, instead. We believe to this day the man and his family truly were needy, but after the experience we had with that woman and her baby, and after learning the facts about those wealthy individuals who deceivingly dressed themselves as beggars, we never gave another handout ever again the entire time we were in India.
After much leg cramping miles, one of the first stops we made was to photograph the Hara Krishna Hindu temple, which is a gorgeous building blooming in all its glory right alongside the squalor and the filth of its poor. We had to pull our legs out of the car, like pretzels from a bag, so we could stretch them out. The walk around did us a world of good. Much later, we got out to photograph Akbar’s Tomb, which is an important Mughal architectural masterpiece, built in 1605-1613, set on 119 acres in the suburb of Sikandra.
Back on the road again we spotted a young boy hitching a ride on the back of the truck in front of us, and then jumping off again when it stopped. The driver never had a clue he had just given a young stowaway a short lift.
At lunchtime we stopped to have a meal at a street stall. We ordered a pile of food in a small bowl and was given a small wooden spoon to eat it with. The spoon was like the kind we used to get in the 1950’s with Dixie cup ice cream and I thought “How on earth am I going to manage this?” But I did and the food was great.
The meal consisted of deep fried potato batter with shredded coconut, vegetables, and two sauces. One was sweet and the other was spicy, but not flaming hot, and the combination was delicious! We enjoyed this tasty meal at a table set up right next to the busy highway. So as we dined, the traffic blew horns, revved engines, and spun tires at us, while people smiled and waved as they went by.
Once arriving in Agar, we booked a room at a hotel that was selected by Sajad, himself, and then a little later, we finally arrived at the Taj Mahal.
This famous building is not located on the main road, so our taxi driver dropped us off. We had to catch a small train-like bus, similar to a vehicle that would take one through a zoo grounds, which dropped us off in the town where the Taj Mahal was located. Since neither Norm nor I was interested in going inside the building, we opted to walk around the grounds outside. What we saw was mind-boggling. I know almost everyone in the world has seen photographs of the Taj Mahal. I’m sure one would agree that nearly every single person on the face of this earth would be able to recognize the structure. However, what Norm and I saw would knock all those people for a loop.
Alongside this gorgeous building, which was built in memory of Mughal emperor Shah Jahan’s favorite wife, Mumtaz Mahal, this masterpiece of marble and skilled craftsmanship, was surrounded, in all directions, by stark raving mad poverty. I mean poverty to the greatest propensity. It was a site where wild monkeys fought each other, and wild pigs rolled around in dirty streets. We saw donkeys and cows alike roaming among piles of garbage and crumbling walls, untold filth and broken-down villages where tainted water was discarded at one’s feet, and squalor ran rampant.
Every rock, corner, and open space was a toilet for both man and boy, so the air was poignant with the ubiquitous stench of hot urine mixed with other equally offensive smells. We stood stock-still, open-mouthed, as we watched a little boy collecting dung off the streets with his hands, just outside the fence that surrounded the gorgeous Taj Mahal!
We had the opportunity to speak with some of the poor folk that live at the foundation of the Taj Mahal and they assured us, one and all, that they had all been inside the building, and, for some, more than once. This seemed odd given the fact that hundreds of people from who knows how many different countries travel to this city to see the Taj Mahal every year and pay a great price just to step one foot inside its palatial doors and to walk upon its luxuriant floors. I wondered how many people would be shocked if they saw the things Norm and I saw while we were visiting the Taj Mahal, which was estimated to be worth 32 million rupees at the time it was first constructed.
We left the Taj Mahal by tuk tuk instead of waiting for the bus that had brought us there. The reason for this was because Norm managed to get a fair price from one of the drivers who kept pestering us. He wanted more than we knew the trip was worth, and since we had all the control, and since we didn’t really need him, and he knew it, we were able to wait him out. If he hadn’t changed his mind, we wouldn’t have been any the worse for it, for the bus would have come for us, eventually.
Once back in the car, our driver took us to a shop where we watched a demonstration on how marble inlay is done. The owner had hoped to sell us some of his wares. Although everything was breathtakingly gorgeous, we decided we didn’t need anything he was selling, so we left without buying anything.
Everywhere in India, no matter where we were, people were always coming up to us, trying to sell us something. While on the grounds of the Taj Mahal, for instance, we were approached by several different wallahs selling post cards. By the time we arrived at the parking lot and were waiting for the bus, I had had enough, so the next time I was bombarded by a postcard salesman, I told him, “Do you know how many people have tried to sell me postcards since I’ve been here to see the Taj Mahal? You’re a little late, buddy!” Sheepishly, he backed off.
I was a little dumbfounded by his behavior because up until then, my simple, “No thank you,” had never had any effect whatsoever on any previous wallahs. I guess when one tells it like it is, it’s so reasonable, how can one argue the point?
I had also used the line, “You can talk to me all you want, but it won’t make me want to buy,” which was affective quite a bit of the time.
Norm liked to use hand gestures to get his point across, which didn’t always work. He’d also take his sunglasses off and look the hopeful seller in the eye and say a firm, “No.” This worked particularly well on the younger boys who were trying to sell us hankies, or belt buckles.
March 4, 2010
Every now and then we’d meet travelers from other countries. We couldn’t get over how much white skin stood out in a nation full of dark-skinned people! Since white travelers were so far and in between, they always looked out-of-place, and for some strange reason, several times throughout our visit, we felt like telling these fellow travelers to get out of our territory, as though India were for us to investigate and only us, as though no other white person had the right to be there.
Seeing so much flesh in itself was odd, too, for the India people are very modest people, both in dress and behavior. I wondered how many of the local people were offended by the bare legs and the skimpy tank tops of the white tourists who came to visit them.
In the beer shop in Agra, Norm wanted a bourbon and coke. The store carried a bottle of both, but not in one product, which is what Norm was looking for, of course. When making his request, he used the word ‘mixed’, so one guy went back to the deepest recesses of his shop, pulled a bottle off the shelf, and made a show of wiping off the dust which had accumulated there before proudly presenting Norm with a bottle of, none other than, Bailey’s Irish Cream, stating reassuringly, pleased with himself, with a bright smile on his happy face, “Mixed!” Norm came out of the shop empty handed, and laughing his head off.
Both men and women wear scarves in India, for various reasons which became apparent to us the longer we stayed in India. A scarf is, actually, a much-needed garment. It is used to wipe one’s mouth from the dust that’s always and everywhere in the air, and to clean one’s self of perspiration. The scarf can be bought in conjunction with a dress and a pair of pants that make it a fashion statement, as well as a necessary accessory.
I noticed that there are about five different Indian facial structures that make those who have one, look exactly alike. I’ve noticed this is also true with Polynesians and those of other exotic nations as well. I wondered if Caucasians, too, have only so many facial characteristics that can be lumped together by the discriminating eye of a non-white beholder.
On this day, Mohan, our driver, came early in the morning to take us to the Ranthambore National Park. We stopped to see the Fatehpur Sikri Monument along the way. This palace and mosque is a tourist attraction as well as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. We were warned not to buy anything there, since everything was so expensive, and to watch out for beggars and wallahs. The mosque was free and we had to take off our shoes to walk on the grounds, not for religious reasons, but because, in the past, Indian visitors had tracked mud and dirt across the floors, so it’s become a rule now for all visitors to remove their shoes upon entering the premises.
When we came out again, we were concerned about finding our shoes. As it turned out, we needn’t have worried! As soon as we stepped out of the building, a man, a total stranger, suddenly appeared before us with our shoes in tow. Out of all the people who were visiting that day, he had not only remembered us, in particular, but he had also remembered exactly which shoes were ours, and exactly where our particular shoes were lying on the ground next to the thousands of other pairs of shoes that were already there, lined up against the wall. Of course he was expected to be paid for his good memory, but still we were amazed with his talent.
As we traveled around the country, from one city to another, Norm and I noticed how similar the flora and some of the fauna compared to those in Africa. Then, too, a lot of the trees and birds we encountered can also be found in Australia as well.
As we drove on to the park, we passed many large herds of either donkeys, goats, and/or sheep being escorted down the side of the road. We also spotted camels with shaved flowers and other designs on their rumps and necks, Brahman cows, goats, and sheep, in front yards next to the busy road as well. We also spotted people bathing along the highway right in front of their homes. A horse being ridden was decorated in bright, colorful dangles that hung over his eyes and swung as he walked.
Many trucks had the words “Horn Please” painted on the back so drivers behind them would blow their horns to let them know they were there. Some of the huge trucks had horns that pulsated between several different tones. The sound resembled the gobbling of turkeys.
We saved $15 by eating our meals with the street vendors. Mohan wanted to take us to the expensive tourist restaurants, but we would have none of that. The meals were better on the streets, for every cook was a master chef, and the meals, themselves, were more authentic than those served in the fancy restaurants. Plus, we liked to mingle with the local people, making friends and taking photos whenever we could. That’s why we went to India in the first place.
We must have seemed odd to Mohan, who was used to dealing with normal tourists who come to see what’s pretty and comfortable. A few times he was not happy, for doing the things we liked to do would take us away from those places where he would get commission just by showing us around. We learned early on that the “Underground Market” meant expensive shops with hard sellers where our drivers could make a little money on the side simply by dropping us off there.
Red carrots are popular in India and we ran across our first taste of the vegetable on the way to the national park. The carrots, although appearing odd in color, didn’t taste much different from the regular orange ones I feed Flossie every week.
We drove along the Marble Mountain Range in Dousa (pronounced Do-sa, with a long “o” sound) where the people stared at us because they didn’t see white skin very often, if at all. They smiled and pointed. Women dressed differently in this area with longer dresses without pants, and heads completely covered in scarves. The men’s turbans were more Arabic, too.
I spoke to a family while sitting in the taxi as Norm got out to take photos. They just stared with curiosity, not knowing my language, and listened and watched me with fascination. It was easy to befriend them.
The children who ran around the streets were particularly engrossed with us. They ran up to Norm with such excitement I just had to get out and join him. They took our hands and said, “Hello”, over and over, wide-eyed and otherwise speechless. They formed a tight circle around us, reluctant to let us go.
Although run-down, and in much need of repair, the tuk tuks were regal and more elegant-looking in this area. They were also much bigger than the vehicles in Delhi. The fare was cheaper, too, Mohan informed me. Men covered their heads with scarves just as the women did and the head covering for both men and women were to show they were to be respected.
As we navigated down the streets with palm trees riddling the countryside, and pot holes infesting the road, we took particular note of the Brahman cows that roamed freely there. Not only there, but in Delhi, as well, the Brahman cows were left to go wherever they wished. They are considered to be sacred gods and were treated accordingly. Some were kept just so people could show their respect for them by feeding them.
It wasn’t unusual to see a Brahman cow or two sleeping in the middle of the boulevard with their noses resting on the curb while horns tooted and engines screamed all around them only inches from their noses as their bodies lay limp and their necks relaxed in sleeping posture. Horses, too, could be seen this way, and the dogs! Oh my, the dogs! There was not a table, a doorway, a walkway, a street, or a car that didn’t have a sleeping dog curled up beside, beneath or on top of, oblivious to the world. Every time I saw one, I pointed it out to Norm, and said, “Sleeping dog!” I ended up saying it a lot.
Although the Brahman cattle were everywhere we turned, we very seldom saw any animals on leashes or ropes. A few monkeys, cows, maybe the occasional dog, but most of the animals were free to roam at will.
During my entire stay in India, I never got tired of seeing the Brahman cattle that were everywhere in the streets, for it’s not often I get to see such large animals from a car window, or at my elbow while strolling the streets! They were a novelty that never wore off.
We noticed that the dogs were not in any way, shape, or form, interested in the people around them, and the people, likewise, showed no interest in them. Like the cows on the streets, the dogs lie in the cold road and alleyways, under cars, or in doorways, oblivious to the noise and commotion around them. They did not approach people with wagging tails, lit-up eyes, or smiles around drooping tongues. Given such disinterest, it was astounding how healthy they looked.
Throughout India, coffee is made with boiled milk, not water. This made a huge difference in the way it tastes. I’m not a coffee drinker, but India coffee didn’t make me ill the way regular coffee does.
Sometimes it was served in small, clear handle-less glasses. These glasses could be too hot to handle and one often saw Indians pouring their hot drinks into a saucer and drinking them that way. Norm tried that once, in a restaurant, and found it very satisfactory. I just held the glasses by their tops. Once a bit of coffee had been consumed, the tops were cool enough to handle.
Sometimes the coffees and teas came flavoured with caramel, which made the drinks even more palpable. Almost as good as a cappuccino!
We booked a room in a hotel upon arriving at the national park, and before bed, Norm bought a pack of playing cards and performed some magic tricks for the local boys. I took photos of their delighted faces and their dark, wide-open eyes.
March 5, 2010 RANTHAMBORE and JAIPUR
We started our Bengal tiger safari early in the morning. We got a second row seat on the end of the jungle jeep which was to take us on a safari through the Bengal Jungle in the Ranthambore National Park. Our guide proudly introduced himself as Yogi.
Although we managed to see many animals, the closest we came to a tiger was a huge paw print in the dust. The experience reminded me of the trip we made through a national forest in Indonesia where we spotted one tiger after another. We also saw bears on that trip as well. All we saw in India, however, were red-headed woodpeckers, mongooses, wild pigs, vultures, both summer deer and spotted deer, black-faced monkeys, antelopes, fawn herons, a crocodile, a giant blue kingfisher, and hundreds of Indian peacocks.
The jungle was so overgrown that we had to duck and swerve to avoid the branches that poked out of the forest at us as we trundled by. At one point we stopped to hear some animals giving warning calls to each other. We thought we might spy the tiger that was preying on them, but we never did. We waited for quite some time before moving on again. I just know that if Norm had been given the reins, he would have led us right to the tiger that was causing the animals to make such a fuss. The Indian guides were amateurs and incompetent which was very disappointing.
On the drive to Jaipur, Norm stopped to buy a new shirt. The shop owner didn’t have his size, but when Norm told that to the man, he was offered a lower price as if that would make a difference! This happened many times throughout our stay in India and we got a chuckle out of it every time.
Jaipur is often referred to as ‘the pink city’ and it’s the capital of the Indian state of Rajasthan. The reason Jaipur is called the pink city is because the whole city was painted pink to welcome the Prince of Wales in the year 1853 during the regime of Sawai Ram Singh. Today, avenues remain painted in pink, which provide a distinctive appearance to the city. We were taught that the letters ‘jai’ mean pink and the letters ‘pur’ mean city.
We passed elephant after elephant being ridden down the streets. We got out of the taxi to touch an elephant before we arrived at our hotel. The man who was handling the elephant asked her to pose and we got some nice photos.
As soon as we were booked into our hotel room, we went out to explore the big pink city wall of the Amber Fort. Here we shared some space with the elephants that were being ridden by tourists through the famous structure.
One of the highlights of our visit to Jaipur was our hotel window. Just below it I could watch the elephants being ridden to work in twos and threes, or more, lumbering along their bulky way to the Amber Fort every morning.
There was a water trough located just below us, where one elephant after another would stop to get its morning drink. Often one would throw back its head and trumpet as if to say good morning to the world as its rider would dress it in decorative cloths and dangles, walking all over the huge animal’s head and neck to accomplish the chore.
One morning, one of the elephant handlers banged his stick on the ground to let his elephant know he wanted up. The elephant replied by lowering her trunk, putting a ‘crook’ in it near the tip so the man had a ‘step’, and then the man climbed up the trunk as the elephant raised it.
Alongside these giant pachyderms were the dromedaries that pulled small flatbed carts with drivers fulfilling tasks of their own. Seeing both these animals on one street was exciting to me, not only because they are such huge, exotic animals, but because I was able to see them under such an extraordinary circumstance!
What other window is there in the world where a woman can look out and see elephants wandering down the road below? I had never known such a window before in my life! I would have never guessed one even existed! Not only the elephants, but the camels and even the Brahman cows made this a very special, very exotic and adventurous window indeed!
Even though the ground, itself, no matter where we went in India, was considered a garbage can, it was so hard to throw our rubbish on the streets. It goes against the grain to toss an empty can or bottle, or a crumpled piece of paper or wrapper on the ground. We had to grit our teeth to do it. I wondered if the local thought I was crazy when I asked him one afternoon where the garbage can was. “A special place for garbage?” he might have thought, “Imagine that!”
The streets of Jaipur, as everywhere else we had visited so far in India, were always noisy even through the night. Dogs barked, music played, engines roared, wheels churned, and voices could be heard beneath closed windows. I was glad I had had the foresight of packing a pair of earplugs with me before leaving Australia.
Norm didn’t take a break from his exercising. At least not at first. he had brought 4 stretch ropes along and used them every day. In Jaipur he spent a half hour on the roof working-out his shoulders, arms, and back muscles, by using an ornate pillar for resistance while little boys played a game of cricket in the streets below, and their older brothers teased their dogs into a game of tag in the nearby park.
March 7, 2010 BACK TO DELHI
The days melt together once a vacation gets under way and before one knows it, a day has turned into a week and the month is a quarter gone. Time starts slowly for the first few days then suddenly takes off until one’s left wringing the last few minutes out like a sponge. That’s about how it was feeling after our first week in India.
Norm showed his magic tricks to the local kids upon more than one occasion. On our drive back to Delhi, after we had stopped for a cuppa, Norm brought out his pack of playing cards to the delight of a group of boys that were nearby. He gave me the empty boxes to hold and for some reason an older gentleman and a young boy had thought I had just given out a bunch of free cigarettes to the crowd that was now hanging around Norm for a free show. These two came up, asking me if I had one more they could have. It took me a while to figure out what they were asking. I had to assure them over and over that I was holding empty playing card boxes and that I didn’t have any cigarettes!
Many times during our trip, Norm stopped to have his shoes shined by a local boot polisher. If you’d like to see a photo of one of these men, click on the following link from Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shoeshiner The job was either done by an older gentleman, or a young child. The first time, Norm had an elderly gentleman do the job. This man sat with his back to a pillar, the soles of his feet flat together, and used his entire body as he rubbed on Norm’s shoes. Not only were his hands busy, but his back, his sides, elbows, even his head was in furious motion. He did such a magnificent job, the shoes looked brand new when he was finished.
Norm had his shoes shined many times while we were in India, for it was very affordable, and very necessary. Plus it was hard to not think of one’s shoes on a daily basis since the shoeshine boys would follow us around every day, promising to give the best shoe shine ever. We didn’t know it at this point in time, but, eventually, we ended up doing so much walking that by the time we left the country, we had both literally worn the tread right off our shoes.
The Indian women seemed to be worlds apart from their male counterparts. Most of them worked at home or in offices in white collar positions and only associated with the men to do business. I say most of them because every now and then I’d see women doing hard labor right alongside the men, such as digging up railroad tracks with a pick, breaking up cement with an axe, or carrying bricks on their heads at a building site. The two didn’t normally socialize much, though, as far as I could tell. Most of the men were quick to talk, to smile, to greet, whereas most of the women were standoffish, clannish, and less friendly, as though, perhaps, they felt themselves to be ‘above it all’.
Generally speaking, as I mentioned before, Indians are a gentle race of people who treat white visitors as special house guests, or even angels in disguise. However, we learned that Indians, both men and women, could be very rude at times. Some individuals would think nothing of putting themselves ahead of us while standing in line, for instance. They would often shove us on the bus when they wanted to move up. A woman did that to me once and I turned around and gave her a look that said, “Who do you think you are?” She took it well and did quit shoving, thankfully.
During one of our many shopping excursions, a store owner noticed Norm was going in and out of the buildings looking for a cloth painting of a tiger for his son, Mark, so he plagued us on his motorcycle as we went along, imploring us to come back to his place and take a look at his stock. He insisted he had a painting of a tiger that Norm would want to buy. Since we were in a hurry, he told us he’d go back to his store, pick it up, and bring it to us.
Time went by and we forgot all about him until he turned up suddenly with a plastic bag. Norm didn’t recognize him at first, but I did, and once I reminded Norm of who the man was, he allowed him to take us into a private area to see this luxurious painting. I almost died laughing when he took the cloth out of the bag to reveal a gorgeous painting of a pride of lions!
I found it entertaining to try and make sense out of the Indians when they didn’t speak English well. I didn’t learn as many facts about India from them, but it was a riot trying to string together their responses word-by-word like beads on a necklace. I’m sure they found it equally humorous trying to understand me.
For something different, I had a McDonald’s filet-o-fish, a small order of French fries, and a glass of iced tea for lunch one afternoon. How good they tasted after having nothing but Indian food for the past nine days!
McDonald’s offers home delivery in India. They also sell soft serve ice cream cones dipped in chocolate, and three different flavors of ‘twists’, which are vanilla soft serve ice cream cones twirled with fruit flavors; raspberry being one of them.
March 8-9, 2010 FLIGHT TO CALCUTTA
For the most part, Indian people are switched on people. If they come across as ignorant, they are either putting on, or they’re genuinely puzzled by the English language. Even the children are mentally alert. They are very people-oriented and know how to handle themselves with adults even at the youngest age, and are eager to interact and are polite in demeanor.
We waited for a full half hour before boarding our plane to Calcutta. The people standing in line behind us were getting antsy and, eventually, two men decided they had had enough and just shoved themselves forward. They walked right up to the boarding desk as if they owned the place. Of course the rest of the crowd followed. It didn’t do any good in the long run, for everyone still had to wait, anyway.
Once in Calcutta, it took an hour’s drive to get to the Royal Gardens Hotel where we booked into a room for seven nights. Before going to bed, as tired as we were, we had to phone room service over and over for several different reasons. First, we had to have our toilet fixed. That never happened. We also had to complain about the mattress, which was thin and hard as a board. We were given a double bed, but the sheets were twin-sized and too small to fit properly. We also had to ask again and again for towels, toilet paper, pillows, and a double-bed sheet.
All night long, just outside our window, we heard the banging of drums and the noise of bells and horns resounding through the neighborhood as the Muslims celebrated and worshiped while performing some religious ceremony until midnight.
In the morning we phoned in for breakfast. We couldn’t wake anyone up until 7:00 o’clock. They were sleeping on the couch by the check-in counter. We didn’t eat until nearly 8:00 o’clock.
Right after breakfast that morning we packed our bags and went down to the counter and demanded our money back. We let them know we were fed up and why and that we had had enough and wanted out. They didn’t like the idea of handing our money back over, so they complied with our wishes. We were given a much better room with sheets that fit the bed properly, one that had a working toilet and plenty of toilet paper. (Well, plenty of toilet paper is an anomaly in India because nowhere did we ever have a well and truly good supply of toilet paper. At one point we had to go out and purchase our own since the proprietor simply refused to supply it). As it was, we still had to fight for a refrigerator, extra pillows, and complain about electrical failures.
My first impressions of Calcutta were pretty much the same impressions I had had of India from the very beginning. Extreme rich and extreme on-the-ground, sleep-with-your-dog/monkey/chicken/goat poor all breathing the same dust-choked air side-by-side on the unclean cement.
The women were friendlier and quick to smile in Calcutta as opposed to the women in Delhi. There were lots of schools, hospitals, medical centers, and banks all stuffed together like clothes in a closet, corner-to-corner from one end of the street to the other.
There weren’t just pagan religions in Calcutta. We saw a lot of 7th Day Adventists, Assemblies of God, and Catholics as well. We also had our first experience with seeing men in skirts.
We didn’t see any Brahman cows wandering the streets in Calcutta because it is mainly a Muslim community.
We were stunned by the fact that people actually use drams (drums, or huge barrels) for garbage cans in Calcutta. Yes, an actual canister for garbage! Yet, unfortunately, the majority of the trash still ended up on the ground right next to the ubiquitous dogs that rolled into sleeping crescents and dreamed along the curbsides, while cattle snooped through the many piles of remains of human lunches and dinners that lined the streets, for one of their own.
We visited the New Market indoor shopping center while in Calcutta. Beautiful soft music played in the air as we strolled along the corridors. Audibly lulled and soothed, we turned a corner and suddenly came upon a beggar at our feet, sitting on the ground amongst filth and decay . . . and the band? Well, the “band” just played on. I remember wondering if it was only a coincidence that the man had chosen that spot to beg, or if he was actually taking advantage of the soothing music, hoping it would help his cause.
There were self-appointed guides who would suddenly come alongside us. Friendly and accommodating, they’d take us by the elbow, and show us where we wanted to go, which was, of course, ultimately, to their own shops where they wanted to sell us carpets or scarves or other types of handicrafts. Of course, everything we didn’t want.
We noticed that there were hair salons strictly for men and hair salons strictly for women. In fact, the salons were referred to as ‘beauty parlors’ whether for men or for women.
I had my hair shampooed and cut for $2.50 while I was in Calcutta. Norm strode in through the door behind me, but he was quickly shoved back out again. “Not allowed!” three women shouted at him. “He can wait next door, in the men’s’ beauty parlor” one woman explained to me. To this day I don’t know why men are not allowed inside the woman’s beauty parlor. Maybe it’s for the same reason men aren’t allowed inside a woman’s mosque.
Before the woman cut my hair, a young girl did the shampooing. She would reach over my face from time-to-time, and since she wasn’t using deodorant, I’d think, “Oh no!” and then quickly take in a breath of fresh air in defence of the dreaded armpit!
While we were out and about, we found an identity card (something all Indians have to carry with them at all times). I only mention it here because of the coincidence that occurred when we stopped someone to see what we should do with it and it happened to be the owner of the card!
It was in Calcutta that we met an amazing Indian man who spoke English as well as Norm and I did. His name was Deepak and he became a very good friend from the very moment we met him.
We were looking for a place to have our laundry cleaned and pressed when we stumbled upon Deepak. He was hanging out at a store run by his good friend, Rinku, and her husband Sankhal Dhal. After one Indian directed us one way, and another directed us another way, as Indians were inclined to do, we finally stumbled upon the corner where Rinku’s store was located, and it was Deepak who took us two doors down to a Chinese man who did laundry for a business.
Once that was done, after a couple of taxis and several false leads, we finally found the Thomas Cook building where a travel agency was located. We booked a tour of Calcutta which was to include the Ganges River, the Victoria Monument, the Indian Museum, the zoo, (pronounced Jew), a historical building site, and some temples and palaces. After all that time, however, it turned out to be a waste because Saikat, the man who was to be our agent, never came through for us.
Not knowing what else to do, but now having the knowledge of what there was to see in Calcutta, we decided to put together a tour of our own. We went straight to Deepak, who became our savior once again. He told us how to get the cheapest taxi fares (usually by meter), then went out of his way to catch a taxi for us that would take us to Babook Hut and the Ganges River, and then left us after handing us his phone number for future reference.
We had spoken with many Indians about the Ganges River, prior to our tour, and were amazed that the river is not known to the locals by that oh so historical name!
March 10, 2010 GANGES RIVER
Upon arrival, we took photos of people bathing in the Ganges River. We watched as some holy men got their hair cut, their under-arms shaved, and their finger and toe nails clipped. Women went down the steps that lead into the water on one side of a partition and men went down on the other side. We were able to observe both from the barrier located at the top of the stairs behind them.
A man, standing at the water’s edge, tossed, what looked like a brick of wood attached to a rope, over and over into the Ganges River. We never did find out what he was doing, but we thought maybe he was blessing the water while men and women, in special garments, or not, bathed along the edges where the steps met the water.
Norm took a photo of the famous O-glee-sat-oo bridge that crosses over the holy river. The bridge is longer than its name with wires coming out of posts like spider webs.
Old, original boats floated upon the river’s surface, tied to iron buoys. The river was wide and the rats that scurried around the rocks and the dry weeds nearby were the size of toaster boxes.
After making it a point to walk down to the edge and get photos of each other dipping our fingers into the water of the famous Ganges, we paid $7.00 to ride a boat for a half hour down the river. The boat was wooden with a roof and sides on one end and just planks on the bow which is where Norm and I sat. We even stretched out on our backs with the hot sun resting on our bodies.
The river is tidal and holds the ashes of those deceased individuals who had been cremated further upstream. The driver used a pole to steer and to propel the vessel and he stood in the stern in front of the roofed-in portion of the boat.
Every now and then I’d duck inside the boat to get out of the blaring sun while Norm stayed in the open to snap photos.
As the days went by they get hotter and hotter and I found myself using a cloth to wipe my face more and more. At times it would become soaking wet and I’d have to stretch it out across my knees to let it dry in the dusty air.
Once off the boat, we visited the old colonial buildings that had been constructed when the country was under British rule. Then we caught a bus to the Queen Victoria Memorial building.
A bus stop is called a bus fare stage in Calcutta. We were warned that riding the bus was dangerous because we’d be sure to get mugged or hit over the head sometime during the experience. Yet we opted to take the bus more than once while staying in India, just for the experience, and also because it was the cheapest form of transportation and something other tourists rarely do. We discovered it must have been the tuk tuk drivers who started this rumor about how dangerous buses can be since one such hungry driver told us it was literally impossible for tourists to travel by bus, and that we would be much safer taking a ride from him. How many times after that, while trundling safely along on the seat of a bus, did we roll our eyes at this impossible feat!
Many times we grabbed a bus to go to one place or another. The rides were the same price regardless of the destination. We would go to the end of the line, remember the number of the bus, then make sure we grabbed the right one when it was time to go back to our hotel again. A couple of times I jumped off a bus only to find myself wading in on-coming motorbikes, taxis, tuk tuks, and bicycle rickshaws. I kept forgetting there were no traffic rules for boarding and exiting buses in India.
Once I boarded a bus and quickly grabbed something to hang onto so I wouldn’t fall over when it started up. I was surprised when I realized I had grabbed a guy’s cane for support by mistake thinking it was a pole!
There were always two men running the buses; one driver and one conductor who went around collecting the fares. This second guy often stood by the door and called off the stops. He would also help people get on while they boarded even as the bus kept going in full swing.
On this particular bus trip, we noticed horses standing by the road inches from the passing traffic, seemingly unaware, never flinching. How easy it would have been to reach out and touch them as we went by!
On the bus, passengers passed their money one from another to the conductor who was standing either at the front or the back of the bus. After taking the money, he then passed their change and their ticket back the same way.
Women standing in the aisle would often give their purses, shopping bags, or whatever they were carrying, to a woman seated in a chair to mind for her. Some men placed their goods on the floor in the storage compartment beneath the seats until it was time for them to exit.
Catching and exiting buses could be seen as dangerous, or exciting depending upon one’s outlook. Perhaps it’s the danger that makes the experience so exhilarating to me. If one doesn’t catch the bus while it’s stopped, she, or he, has to catch it on the run. Exiting is also done on the fly when necessary. Often fool-hardy, it’s always hilarious, since it’s such a novelty and would be otherwise seen as foolish and dangerous in any of the countries I’ve ever lived in.
In the mornings, people shoved past us to get on the bus so they would be assured to have a seat. They got very aggressive. There were always more people than there ever were seats to go around.
Once we saw a black Police Bus go by and every seat was occupied by a police officer. Some were women.
We spotted a field near the Ganges River where pony rides were being offered for a price. I couldn’t pass that up! I ended up getting two rides by the time we left the park.
People could either have a boy lead them, or they could opt to ride the animal without any assistance. Well, without any assistance up to a point. If one chose to ride alone, then the handler ran beside and behind the horse with a stick to keep the animal going. The field was a large park, but riders weren’t allowed to take the animals outside of its boundaries.
I was given a black pony to ride bareback the first time. I learned the animal’s name much later, and, although I can’t remember it, for it was a very long one, I do remember it ended with the word ‘dada’.
This pony would not canter for the life of me. I tried everything under the sun, even going so far as to dig my heels into his sides and kick him for all I was worth. This was funny enough, but watching the poor guy with the stick behind me was too much. I had Norm rolling on the ground in stitches from laughing so hard.
The pony had a very choppy, but easy to ride trot, and I could tell it was trained to go for women and children and other people not used to riding horses. Norm said I looked like I belonged in the film, “Two Mules for Sister Sarah.” I could only imagine!
The second time I was given a larger horse. This one’s name was Raja, and he did canter for me. A lot, actually. He’d canter as far as I’d want him to go, but when it was time to change directions, he’d stop and back up. This would give the handler, and his stick, something to do.
The saddles were nothing like anything I’ve ever seen before. They were neither Western, nor English, although they were similar to the English saddle. They were surprisingly comfortable. The bits were simple large “o” rings with no shanks to speak of.
It always amazed me how crowded and noisy the streets were in India. By streets I also mean the sidewalks, which were either unpaved, or otherwise congested in some way, and one was forced more often than not to walk in the busy streets, meandering around the traffic with its ear-splitting horns, and the dust and the garbage. It was especially disconcerting during the afternoon when the sun was at is hottest and all the shade was on the sidewalks.
In the morning the air was cool and refreshing. There was no dust to speak of. The streets were quiet with minimal traffic. As the day warmed up, however, so did the crowds. Vendors appeared with their tables and stoves, carrying their stock in sheets either by foot or by some other form of transport. Then the hungry customers arrived and a day on the streets of India began in earnest. Usually this commotion began about 10:00 o’clock, because that’s when the shops were opened for business.
In the middle of the street people scrubbed their clothes, dogs slept, babies stretched out on their backs for a nap, eyes shut to the sights around. Monkeys played, cows meandered, and in some places, pigs either snooped around the garbage piles which lined the curbs on both sides, or entertained themselves in the sewers.
Before going to bed that night I enjoyed a bowl of sweet and sour chicken like I’ve never had it before. Yes, you can get Chinese meals in India. The sauce was prize-winning. The chicken was plump and huge, not tiny over-battered chunks of almost nothing. The taste was better than anything I’ve ever had before.
March 11, 2010 SOUTHERN CALCUTTA
We hired a taxi to take us to the Regency Indoor Market located in South Calcutta. This was a more opulent part of town where residents lived in apartments and homes off the streets. Even so, surprisingly enough, we noticed that the squalor still persisted.
People sat in the streets in front of their ‘homes’ and bathed in their clothes, soaping up in public. One man, probably in his 40’s, who had just poured a bucket of cold water all over his body, asked for a photo and he and his family had a good belly laugh when they were shown the results. People of all ages loved to have their photos taken and more than once Norm had been approached for a photo at various times throughout our stay in India.
The taxi driver charged us too much for our ride and Norm raised his voice and threatened to go to the police, so the guy gave in. He didn’t realize just who he was dealing with! After all, he wasn’t there when Norm had to deal with the bank manager in Delhi weeks ago! For tourists, meters are kept running when a taxi shuts down at a traffic light, but they stop the meter for Indians. Indians are charged less fare as well, so we had to fight for lower costs with every ride.
Sometimes when Norm, or some other customer, haggled over the price of something and the businessman they were dealing with felt it was not a fair price for his services, a crowd would gather around to see what all the fuss was about. Quietly I watched them work out what was what, come to a conclusion, judge what was fair, and pronounce an outcome. This worked like an on-the-spot court by people who were both judge and jury!
We took a walk down the neighborhood streets where there were, once again, sleeping dogs at every doorstep, stall, and street corner. Bitches ran from corner to corner with their swollen, or shriveled teats hanging down to the pavement, indicative of a lifetime of pregnancies.
At the market, we noticed the vendors would sit on the ground to sell their wares. Even if their stall was off the ground, they sat on the counter or table in the back of the stall in the middle of their goods. And their goods may be one item, or several from paper goods to vegetables. We saw men praying sotto volce (very quietly) with prayer books open as they sat at their stalls.
Norm stopped to enjoy a glass of fresh sugar cane juice. The woman who made it for him had to shuck the cane, first, and then crush it through a wringer. This took time, so I had a glass of chai (tea) while I waited.
Indian tea is made with boiling milk, just as the coffee is. This makes the drink that much tastier and I fell in love with both brews early on.
We stopped to take some photos of some boys playing Indian Monopoly and everyone suddenly wanted to shake our hands and say hello. They wanted to know where we came from, and some exchanged names with us. One boy was leprous and no one would let him shake my hand, although he had jokingly offered his. Rajo, with a long ‘o’ sound, and Tooki were two of the names I had written down so I wouldn’t forget them.
Whenever we showed an interest in buying something, or even when we were just looking around only to see what was available to us, without intentions of necessarily buying anything, shop keepers would pull one item after another off their shelves and open them up, then take the brand new items out of their bags to show us each one. The goods would pile up this way, one after the other, before our eyes, just so we could say no thank you in the end and walk away. We always felt bad about that, but, we reasoned, it was their own decision to do business that way. We always tried hard not to give the impression that we were going to purchase something without an intent to buy it, and we never once even pretended that we were interested in something unless we truly were.
Just as on the city buses, there were usually at least two people who ran a business together. There was one ‘head’, or boss, usually the owner or driver, and at least one assistant who was the ‘gopher’, or the extra hand. Sometimes this second person was the son or the nephew of the owner of the business.
Taxis in India, as they are in Indonesia, don’t have seat belts for the back seats, and most don’t have air conditioning. Driving is chaotic and seemingly without rules, although we’d see signs everywhere that said “Do not Over Speed” and “Obey the Law”.
Outdoor meals were consumed either at tall tables where the customer stood to eat, or benches without tables to sit down on as one enjoyed a meal. Indoor meals had tables and chairs. It was usually a dingy atmosphere, though, either way, unless we could find a dubha, of good quality that was kept clean and tidy.
Upon returning to our room at the hotel several times in Calcutta, even though we would often arrive late, our room was never done. We’d have to call room service to come change our beds and towels. Five people would show up and do the chore together. How fast it would go that way!`
March 12, 2010 ALIPUR ZOO
We took a taxi to the Alipur Zoo early in the morning and spent two hours roaming around the grounds, which were very old and dirty, and generally in need of much repair.
We were delighted to hear the Indian, or Asiatic, Lion roar while it was lying in its exhibit at the zoo! It was the highlight of our visit. In the wild, this lion can only be found in the Gir Forest of Gujarat, India. Although equally aggressive to the lions of Africa, this species is smaller and lighter than their African counterparts.
We also saw jaguars even though many of the displays insisted that what we were looking at were leopards. In the reptile house, we watched an Indian Cobra catch and devour a frog before our very eyes.
Although the zoo was old, surrounded by run-down streets as well as exhibits, the animals looked healthy and well-cared for. Some exhibits were huge with lots of land and trees. There were many, many Australian birds as well as other Australian animals. It seemed comical to have traveled so far just to see a cockatoo or a dingo!
After the zoo, we took a taxi to the Tanji Market in Khidder Pub, a suburb of Alipur. This market consisted of nice, neat hallways with indoor stalls similar to those we had seen in Asia years ago. We also took time to visit the New Market, this time by bus, for ten cents each. These tickets were printed out on the backs of old Government forms.
As Norm stopped to look at wrist watches, I watched four 13-year-old boys looking at girl’s watches. I asked the boy who seemed to be doing the buying, if the watch was meant for his girlfriend. The answer was yes so I assured the young buyer that his girlfriend would indeed love the watch he chose for her, for it was sparkly and pretty. When Norm learned the price the boy paid for his watch, he wouldn’t let the wallah charge him any more for the one he chose for himself, even though the stall holder initially asked for more.
We learned that residential houses are called bungalows. A small pinkish clay vessel, like a cup, is called a ‘bahr’. An egg is called an unda and a chapata is a bread-like food made of a roti-type dough. Horses are, surprisingly, called horses in India!
We never saw bare bosoms, legs, shoulders, or necks on any of the Indian people. The Indian women, especially, were respectable in attire and manner. Not because they had to be, but because it was the way they wanted it to be.
Whenever we ran across other tourists with fair skin who wore skimpy outfits that showed a lot of flesh, we were put off by the sight. We noticed young Indian boys scoffing at them as they passed, if not downright laughing out loud. I daresay their white skin, great height, and large bones alone made them appear out of place, but when they clothed themselves in such disrespectful attire, their outfits made them appear even more out of place than ever.
March 13, 2010 DIAMOND HARBOR
This morning we took a walk to the corner where Deepak could be found hanging out at Rinku’s store. Deepak had a driver waiting there for us with a discounted rate and an air conditioned car whom we had hired the day before to drive us to Diamond Harbor and, eventually, back to Delhi again. The harbor was in the southern suburbs of Calcutta, on the banks of the Hooghly River, near where the river meets the Bay of Bengal. We left Calcutta at 8:00 o’clock and arrived at the harbor at 10:00 o’clock.
Along the way we passed people who lived in a makeshift tent community located by the side of the highway. Once again, we took note of each and every shady, noisy, or dusty spot where we spied a curled up dog, somehow managing to sleep in the midst of chaos.
The harbor, with a thin line for trees to cut a horizon, was mainly a picture of water and sky, slightly blue above, slightly brown below, where barges sent their wakes to splash up on the shore at our feet, where the locals either pedaled or drove, or peregrinated without knowing or seeing or realizing where they were, or what they had right there at their very own doorstep.
Now and then Norm and I would stop our driver so we could get out and take a closer look at the harbor. If Norm, with his camera, or I, with my notebook, ever got separated from each other, there was always a local around to point him out to me so I never had to wonder where he was or worry that I was suddenly alone. Everyone was always watching out for us. I don’t know if it was because we stood out, being so different, or if these people actually worried over their visitors, but it was comforting to know I was always surrounded by a friendly fellow or woman who would help me out if I needed it.
At one point we asked our driver to stop so we could take a walk along some of the main streets, and it was this particular walk that turned out to be one of the greatest highlights of our entire stay in India.
As we strolled past the city shops, we suddenly came along a dirt path that led off the main road. We decided to go down it just to see where it would lead, and weren’t we surprised when we came upon a village, complete with neighborhoods and fields!
Suddenly, swarthy hands shot up in blurry waves to say hello as we passed one bungalow after another. Smiles exchanged. Photos snapped and were shared. Once the initial ice of ‘different’ and ‘strange’ was broken and discarded, hearts began to flow with enthusiasm and acceptance. This was true in all of India, with passers-by as well as with those we either did business with, or those with whom we briefly befriended, and with children as well as adults.
We passed those who wanted to know what we were photographing, because nothing looked unusual or picturesque to them, of course, as well as people who wanted to be photographed, or just wanted to talk and say hello or shake our hands. We also passed those individuals who were just wide-eyed with curiosity over our presence there. People sat by their wells, half dressed, dumping buckets of cold water on themselves, slippery with soap, while children dressed for play.
As we were wandering down one of such pathways, we were joined by a young teenager who told us his name was Rabadas. We introduced ourselves and before long we realized we had made ourselves a friend for the duration of our walk.
It wasn’t long before Rabadas was quickly accompanied by his inquisitive younger sisters, Suprudas, and Haldar, and then, suddenly, all the kids in the neighborhood, who had finally joined us by then, were introduced, each name spelled out for me so I’d get every letter correct. Before long we were escorted down the streets by a mob of chattering children, plus the family dog. Adults came out to see what all the commotion was about, and they soon followed behind the noisy crowd before them.
Rabadas took us to see the rice and lentil crops, called ‘grahn’, that were located behind the village where we were led over clumps of rubble made of hardened dirt, once mud, now dry, some with pretty sharp edges where the kids strolled with ease, in bare feet, never showing signs of pain.
We learned some words from the kids and laughed together at our mistakes and mispronunciations. They took us to see the temple that was located in the middle of the field and from there I scanned the open land and saw many people working their fields, with a few farm cows wandering about their legs.
Several of Rabada’s many uncles allowed us to visit and photograph their homes which were made of mud and reinforced with bamboo sticks. Floors were concrete, swept clean enough to eat off. Shoes were never worn indoors. It was very dark and small inside.
We felt like celebrities as we were led down one walk to the next, in one house after another. “Cathe, come!” I was instructed. “Cathe, sit!” I was told as I was quickly offered a glass of water and a bed to sit upon. One of the girls produced a fan and commenced to keep me cool the entire time I sat in the heat and visited in that home.
There was nothing but smiles as we met every member of the family, from mothers to fathers, and from aunts to uncles. I had never been made to feel so special or so welcome anywhere before in my life.
Photographs were taken of everything, from the land to the houses, to the people and their pets. We met Mongola, the pet calf, who was tied to a god for worshipping. When the animal made a sound, I quickly retorted, “Mongola went moo!” and everyone burst out laughing, even the adults.
The rooms inside the homes were few and were decorated with pictures of gods. One home had a television that must have been as old as my father’s deceased father’s father. I had never seen one so old before. The kitchen was located outdoors under a makeshift awning, and only one of the homes we visited had an upstairs.
All the girls befriended me like a sister and they all became very precious to me as they stole my heart. In a gesture of friendship, Norm gave Rabadas his sunglasses when we parted.
On the ride home, we stopped to have lunch at a dubha located in the market. It was an indoor sit-down makeshift restaurant and we were forced to eat the rice and vegetable dish we ordered with our fingers, for there was no silverware. It was a grand experience (don’t worry, we used hand sanitizer, as we did throughout our entire trip) and the meal gave me the time to put the people, especially the children, of Diamond Harbor into my mental pot and let them stew there so I would be able to taste the experience I had just had with them again and again throughout the day.
The children seated at the table across from us made this mental exercise an easy one, for their behavior reminded me of Rabadas and his sisters, for, every now and then, they would stop what they were doing just to stare over their shoulders at us. I would have bet we had been the only white people they had ever seen eating at their tables, and using their fingers the way we were. No wonder they were so curious!
When I needed a toilet, I was surprised when I was given a spot of ground around a corner to use when our driver stopped for me. I had been given many other less than satisfactory spots in which to do my business, but nothing quite as primitive as the ground, itself, without even a hole to aim at!
March 14, 2010
Even while on vacation, Norm talked about fitness to the Indians, for they were very curious about his muscular physique, and were anxious about their own scrawny bodies.
Our last day in Calcutta, Norm took Deepak to the gym and showed him how to work-out. This is something Deepak had taken an interest in as soon as he learned that Norm was a fitness instructor. Norm had bought some gym gloves for the two of them at the market a few days earlier, so they were prepared for the physical work ahead of them. Afterwards, Norm and I gave Deepak and Rinku a gift to show our appreciation of their kindness during our visit in Calcutta.
I bought a bottle of grape juice that had whole grapes in it and I fell in love with the drink. I wish this product was available everywhere. It reminded me of the Asian drinks one can get that have particles of chewy bits of things inside. Something like basil drinks and pearl milk tea, to mention a couple.
Whenever we purchased something from the street vendors, Norm and I worked together as a team. At the critical moment after Norm had tried everything to get the deal he was after and failed, I’d say something like, “We can get the same thing cheaper down the street.” Inevitably, that statement would clinch the deal for us nearly every time. If it didn’t work, we would just walk away because we knew we were right and could get the item cheaper somewhere else down the street.
I took a walk up the steps to the roof of our hotel once and caught the guys who work there asleep on the ground with nothing but a towel and a pillow beneath them. The ground was rundown, there were dead logs and rubble all around. Filth was everywhere. I noticed the washed hotel towels were being dried on a dead tree branch that stretched across the roof from end-to-end. The towels were washed on the ground with soap and water and were scrubbed clean with a brush. No matter how hard they were scrubbed, though, they always looked grey and dinghy.
Both Norm and I had caught a cold while in Calcutta and the last sweet and sour chicken at my favorite restaurant did not have the same magic as my first experience had because my taste buds were dulled from the cold and I was disappointed.
March 15-16, 2010 DELHI
Norm had already arranged for a taxi and a fare to take us to the airport in the morning, but as we got in, the driver upped the price on us, so we got out and took a taxi whose driver was more reasonable. We left 30 minutes later than planned because we couldn’t get breakfast served fast enough. Then Norm had a hard time with the hotel manager because he insisted we had consumed more than we had paid for. Norm finally convinced the man he had us confused with another couple.
Unlike our experience to Calcutta, our plane back to Delhi flew right on time. The same driver from Abyss tours that had taken us to the airport a week prior to our return, was there waiting for us with a sign with our name on it when we disembarked from the airport. He took us back to our hotel in Delhi, the Royal Holiday.
After a week in Calcutta, it had become so familiar, it started to feel as though we belonged there, and it was strange, at first, to be back in Delhi again.
We went to the nearest Medico and purchased a medicine similar to Sudafed and some cough medicine plus antibiotics for the colds both Norm and I had contracted. They all worked wonders, at least as well as the medicines we were used to taking back home.
We visited an all girls Catholic school and wanted to be guest speakers in the English class, but school was closing for the season and we were reluctantly turned down.
The small, knee-high girls wore packs on their backs to school and a water bottle around their necks. These were big bottles with long cumbersome ropes.
The playground was indoors complete with a swing set, sliding boards, teeter totters, a merry-go-round, and some monkey bars. I noticed there was no flying fox, though.
Cricket is the main sport in India, as it is in Australia and other commonwealth countries. Since Australia has the top team going this year, Indian men were keen to discuss cricket with me, as well as Norm, and especially their favorite players. Since I had no interest and knew nothing about the sport, these discussions were always one-sided and very brief.
In India, the rod is never spared. It’s not used often, but when it is, it’s harsh. On a few occasions, we had seen the police, some mothers, and a few animal handlers beat cows, children, and law breakers with a rod into submission. Except for the incident with the police, this activity was not unduly prolonged.
Plastic bags were banned in India. The only ones we ever saw were those that were brought into the country via tourists, or the occasional plastic bag hidden away behind a counter somewhere for safe keeping.
Just for something to do, we decided to hop on a bus on its way to south Delhi since we had never been there on a visit before. The vehicle was packed elbow-to-elbow. Two men, riding up front behind the driver, offered us seats where there were virtually no seats at all. It was hot and cramped, but it sure beat standing the 40 minutes it took to reach our destination!
Norm bought a scarf embroidered with elephants. He fashioned it into a turban and wore it to keep the sun off his balding head. On the streets, men would laugh, good-naturedly, at him and more than once he had to be shown how to wrap it the right way.
Once again, while walking along the streets in southern New Delhi, we passed sleeping dogs at every turn, curled up, ignored, as though they didn’t belong to anyone in the world.
While shopping in the stores, we found the shelves filled with Indian powders and creams designed to make the skin white, or, at the very least, lighter. We learned later that these products were damaging to the skin. It made us laugh that the people in our countries were always trying to darken their tans, while these Indian people were trying very hard to lighten theirs.
During our travels, Norm and I like to take every form of transport available to us, so we decided to take a ride on the Metro, an underground rapid transit train, to the air-conditioned shopping mall called Palika Bazaar, which was described to us as being modern and well-kept. We were astounded when, upon arriving, we found everything old and falling apart. Garbage was everywhere underfoot and it smelled strongly of, as everywhere else in India, urine, among a dozen other just as offensive odors. The picture in the travel book made it look inviting and attractive, very clean and brand-new. What a disappointment!
We had to go through an electronic security search before boarding the Metro, and, also, once again, before entering the gate at Central Park. We had to open our backpacks and let them be investigated as well. Women went on one side, behind a temporary wall set up just for that reason, while the men went on another side and were fully searched out in the open.
I had a veggie burger for lunch that day and when I was finished, the host gave me a square sheet of newspaper for a paper napkin!
March 17-18, 2010 TRAIN TO MUMBAI (Bombay)
Since I had always wanted to sleep on a train, Norm booked a train ride on a sleeper to Mumbai for us. He also booked one for our return trip, four days later, as well.
The trains were air-conditioned and in good condition all the way around. The berths ran one on top of the other with the head of the bed along one side of the train, and the foot of the bed at the aisle. Two more bunks lined the other side of the compartment, leaving a nice space between bunks. However, on the other side of the aisle were two more bunks, one on top of the other, and they ran parallel with the train. There was a huge window above the bottom bunk on both sides of the train.
Four people shared a compartment since there were two sets of bunk beds per each compartment, not counting the two odd bunks on the other side of the aisle. There was a curtain that separated the bunks from the aisle so four people seemed to be alone in a room together once the lights were out and it was time to sleep.
Norm and I shared a compartment with two men who were traveling alone. Mohamad Iqbal, who was an Indian salesman and had a wife and family in America, and a twenty-year-old African black man who was visiting his brother who was living in Mumbai. We had long chats with each of these passengers since we had so much time between meals and before nightfall. The trip took about 15 hours in total.
Norm showed Shawnik, an eight-year-old passenger on the train, how to do a couple of magic tricks, to pull on his parents, which kept them all entertained for a while.
We were provided with two snacks on two separate occasions, a huge meal, and plenty of water. I slept in the top bunk on both trips, but Norm had the bunk beneath mine on the way there.
The people in the berth at my feet, across the aisle, didn’t go to bed early enough and Shawnik, the eight-year-old boy Norm had been entertaining with magic earlier in the trip, had a voice my ear plugs couldn’t fight. Then, when he and his family finally went to bed and turned the lights out, his father snored against the failing plugs all night long.
The air brought unpleasant smells with it which would come and go all night long. I think I may have slept a couple of hours twice through the entire night. I had a coughing fit only about a half hour into the night and I had to climb off the bunk and shut myself away in the stinking water-swamped bathroom until it passed and the medicine I took finally started to work.
On the plus side, the blanket kept the air conditioner at bay, which was located directly above me, and the berth was comfortable. I hardly noticed the swaying, although it was apparent.
I woke up on the train to Mumbai when the steward turned the light on me at 6:00 o’clock the next morning.
Between bites of white buttered bread and jam and veggie patties we watched the sky grow from a pale rose to a bright red as the sun made its way to the top of the mountains, and morning came screaming down the other side like an avalanche. Below the sky we watched the scenery go by which showed us the slums that were located near the tracks, as well as the tents and the people who inhabited them. We had been promised pristine shopping malls and modern convenience-filled super markets, which were hard to envision in the midst of all that squalor.
It took hours to find a hotel room for the price we had budgeted for. Our driver, whom we had hired at the train station, kept taking us to hotels where he could make a commission. When we found one, called the Bismillah Hotel, which fit nicely into our budget, but was not to our driver’s benefit, he told us there were fights at that hotel every night and even occasional bombings. Luckily, we were wise to this foolishness and did not fall for his lie. Therefore, we ended up going back to the Bismillah which became our home for the next four nights. When we told the hotel owner what the taxi driver had told us, he assured us that his was a safe hotel and that we had no worries.
As soon as we booked in, we grabbed a taxi and went to Chaupati Beach which is located on the Arabian Sea. The name of the beach is pronounced “Chowpatty”. We made it a point to get photos of each other touching the water where it lapped the edge of the beach with lazy strokes. The sand was like dust and when Norm tasted the sea, he discovered it was not as salty as Pacific Ocean water is on the beaches we’re familiar with in Australia.
On our way to the beach we couldn’t help but notice the many goats that seemed to be everywhere we turned. They were huge, the size of ponies. If I had only seen one from mid-back to the tail, I would have thought I must be looking at a pony, or at least a Great Dane.
We went to the Antique Mall, but were disappointed when all we saw were one hardware stall after another swarming with mini five-year-old beggars.
That night, and every night thereafter, we had to tip-toe back into our hotel room through the throng of Muslims who were seated on the floor in the foyer with their prayer books, heads down, chanting into their laps.
March 19, 2010
Our room smelled of mildew and the stink was in our pillows and sheets so I had to use the shirt/dress I had bought for HOLI in Delhi for a pillow. Thankfully I didn’t take a Sudafed before bed so my nose was stuffed and the smell didn’t keep me awake. I slept well, consequently, which was good for my ill health in the long run especially since I hadn’t slept well on the train the night before.
The Bismillah Hotel did not offer a complimentary breakfast as the Royal Holiday in Delhi did, so Norm and I had a mandarine and a banana each for breakfast.
Norm and I discussed getting another room, or even finding another hotel, maybe in the country somewhere, since the poverty and the dilapidation of the area we were in was starting to get the best of us. Also, we discovered, more than anywhere else we had visited in India so far, in Mumbai, it was hard to get a breath of air that wasn’t tainted in some way. I’d have to take a tentative breath, first, to make sure it was not going to have some foul smell attached to it, before I could even consider taking it all in.
We caught a bus on an all-day ticket, for $1.50, to the Central City Shopping Mall. Once again we had to pass a security check to get into the mall. At the huge grocery store, our backpacks and camera were taken off us by the security staff and we were made to store them in a compartment. Our receipt was stamped on the way out so we could use it to pick them up again at the end of our visit.
This procedure was necessary only when entering from a certain door, however, for we later went back into the store through another door, thinking it was a different store altogether. This time a plastic strip was attached to the zippers on our backpacks so they couldn’t be opened. We were still able to take them into the store with us, though. Why the security was different for the separate entrances is still unclear to me.
Upon leaving the shopping mall, we took a walk around the city. On an impulse we left the main road and took a detour. This turned out to be very fortunate for us since it led to the famous monument, the Gateway of India, located on the Arabian Sea. This monument is not to be confused with the India Gate which we had already seen in New Delhi.
Just like everywhere else in India, pigeons filled the air, but in this area there were more pigeons than in any other, and particularly in one tree near the monument. Standing under it meant being bombarded with droppings. It wasn’t long before my hair and my shoulders could attest to that.
While in the city, we even saw a flock of pigeons riding on the top of a bus!
March 20-21, 2010
After much discussion, Norm and I both decided we’d stay at the Bismillah Hotel for the next three nights since the good night’s sleep we had refreshed our spirits. Plus we had clean sheets and pillow cases to sleep on.
We had perused a map earlier and had decided we wanted to see a beach called Beach Candy (not Candy Beach, sort of like the way the lake in Erie is called Lake Erie and not Erie Lake). We grabbed a taxi, then caught a bus and finally arrived at the beach just as the tide was on its way out. The bay looked like the rest of India, abandoned, as though it knew it was located on the shore of a decrepit country. Unsightly rocks, exposed along with the black mud and the small stranded wooden boats that were stuck in it, all looked terribly forlorn and worn-out.
When we had finally had our fill of the beach, we caught a train to Bollywood’s Film City. Film is pronounced ‘fill-um’ in India, and Bollywood is India’s answer to America’s famous Hollywood.
Bollywood is located at the end of the line in Northernmost Mumbai. The train took us to the bus station where we had to catch a few buses before reaching our destination. We arrived in the early afternoon just to find we needed permission to visit the sets. We went a long way to find that out, yet transportation was less than a dollar for the two of us, so, in the end, all we spent was time.
When we got back to the city, we visited a shopping mall where I had an iced tea at McDonald’s. We couldn’t find iced tea anywhere else in India.
The Hindi language is written with a line going across every word at the top and the letters dangle down from it in such a way they appear to be upside down and backwards. Numbers, however, are easier to discern, so we taught ourselves to read the numbers of the buses so we didn’t have to ask people if the approaching bus was the one we wanted or not.
It paid to have that information because the bus number was written on the front of the bus in Hindi, then in English on the left side, so if we didn’t know how to read the front number, we may have never known if it was our bus or not until it was time to get on. This was not a big problem when the buses came to a complete stop to let people board or get off, for we just asked the driver, while the bus was stopped, if he was heading towards our destination or not. However, the buses didn’t always offer us that luxury.
We got off the train on our way back to our hotel in time to watch the sun set over the Arabian Sea. Earlier, we had watched the sun rising over the sea on the other side. The Arabian Sea is one of the very few seas in the world that the sun both rises and sets upon.
We went to a dubha called Zaika’s for brekky one morning, and chose to have an omelette. Even though we pronounce the word the same way the Indians did, Norm couldn’t make himself understood, so he searched around until he found a long-handled spatula which he used to point out the word on the menu that was hanging high on the wall above our heads. Everyone got a kick out of that and we could hear laughter from every table in the dubha.
All through our stay in India I noted that the portion sizes we ordered for our meals were always just right, no matter what we ordered. We never got served a dish with a meal for five, meant for one person. Yet we always went away feeling satisfied, not stuffed to the gills and overfed.
March 22-23, 2010 TRAIN BACK TO NEW DELHI
Only one time did I purchase a meal that I didn’t like and that was in the train station in Mumbai as we were headed back to New Delhi. I tried a sandwich at a stall next to McDonald’s but it was less than desirable so I threw it out. I promptly walked into McDonald’s and had a pizza McPuff, which is made like a McDonald’s apple pie with the same pastry but filled with pizza sauce and vegetables.
When our train arrived, I took note that our names were written on the outside of our coach, so there was no question that we had the right one.
Norm and I both had a top bunk on this trip, so we were across from each other this time. We shared our compartment with two Indian sisters, Surjeet and Anil, who live in California and were in the country to visit their family. Surjeet’s husband, Rasik, was also onboard, but his bunk was in the compartment on the other side of the aisle.
These two female bunk mates turned out to be excellent travel companions. They complimented Norm right away on his grasp of the Indian language and accent. They were amazed at how quickly he had picked it up given the short time he had been in the country. But that’s my Norm! He’s always good at everything he puts his talented hand to. Or talented tongue, in this case.
I slept only one hour on the train ride back to Delhi. The train was quiet, and there weren’t any smells on this trip, but I just could not sleep.
Our train arrived in Delhi two hours late. Surjeet showed an interest in the piece I’m writing about India, and said she’d like to read it when I’m finished, so we exchanged email addresses upon our departure.
March 24, 2010 WAGGA, AMRITSAR, AND THE CLOSING OF THE GATE
We had to get up extremely early to catch the train that was to take us to the border of India and Pakistan so Norm and I could see the spectacular sight of the closing of the gate between the countries.
Sajad, from Abyss Tours, sent a driver to the Royal Holiday Hotel to pick us up. The train pulled up to the platform just as we were walking along it to board. I had an upset stomach all night and woke up sick. Because of this, and because the seats we were given were facing the back of the train, which always makes me ill, I had to keep my eyes closed the entire trip. I wasn’t able to eat a thing, either. Just the thought of food put me off. I couldn’t even write, so I just slept the whole time.
Six hours later we booked into a room at the Hotel Royal Inn, then had our driver take us to the Golden Temple. We had to cover our heads with an orange scarf, which we fished out of a barrel for the occasion. We also had to take our shoes and socks off at the temple so we could wade through the water to get to the other side. Norm took photos of the big fish that were swimming in the canal outside the building.
This temple, which is made entirely out of gold plates, attracts more visitors than the Taj Mahal in Agra and is the number one destination for non-resident Indians in the whole of India.
When it was time, our driver took us to the boarder so we could watch the closing of the gates between Pakistan and India. We arrived in time to get good seats not far from the front in one of the grandstands facing the main street. Festivities began an hour before the ceremony, itself, commenced. It was, actually, a rather long, drawn-out celebration complete with formalities and fanfare.
People ran back and forth, initially by twos, carrying the Indian flag between them. There was a lot of music and dancing in the street prior to the closing ceremony. Norm took a lot of photos, especially of the men in their ceremonial outfits. We were able to watch both sides of the action, so we didn’t miss anything as long as everyone in front of us stayed seated. Which they didn’t always do, so we were constantly asking people to sit down in front.
I enjoyed the first three weeks of our visit in India. Once I got sick, though, and my immune system was tested, I never did feel well again. It was because of this, on March 23, that the environment and my weakness got the best of me. I wouldn’t be surprised if it was because I didn’t get enough sleep on the train rides I had to and from Mumbai that contributed to my overall ill health.
March 25, 2010 TRAIN FROM WAGGA BACK TO DELHI
We had the opportunity to see some of Wagga before we boarded the train that would take us back to New Delhi. We noticed that Wagga, Amritsar, was a cleaner place than even Delhi. Although there was some garbage lying in the streets, it wasn’t much, and there were no unswept alleys. There were less disgusting smells, even though it was still just as dusty as anywhere else in India. The temperature was as hot and humid as ever, even though we were further north than Delhi.
We hired a tuk tuk and went to the big shopping mall, Hyper City, for a look around. We saw lots of horse-drawn carts on the road, as well as sleeping dogs, which were, I was sure by now, ubiquitous to the dusty, noisy streets everywhere no matter where one roamed in India. Cows wandered around, too, or stood passively as we passed.
Even though my stomach was still not itself, my cold was finally subsiding by this time. I still had a congested nose, and the congestion in my throat was still bad when I coughed, but luckily I didn’t have to cough often. I took note that everywhere I’d been, many people in India had the same cough.
We took the time to see the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre Memorial where hundreds of thousands of innocent Indians were shot and killed by British soldiers during their struggle for independence. We watched a movie on how the British slaughtered the Indians and put them in a concentration camp, similar to the way Hitler persecuted the Jews in World War II.
We noticed that any spelling of any word seemed to be acceptable in India. We were amazed at the many different ways we saw the word omelette spelled, for one. It made me wonder if they teach spelling in schools.
We also noticed that because there were so many tourists in Amritsar on any given day, the people were not as friendly and did not entertain the warmth towards us that we were accustomed to everywhere else we had been in India. They were also not as eager to serve, and we thought that it was probably because they were wealthier and not so much in need.
We tried a tasty treat while on the streets in Amritsar. It was like an ice cream and came on a bamboo stick. The man we bought them from dipped them into a liquid that tasted like custard. They were very tasty and I wouldn’t mind if I started to see them in Australia.
We caught a tuk tuk to a shopping center but the driver got lost so we had him take us back for a cheaper fare. He was not happy about that. Later, we met up with him again, this time he had his boss in tow with him. Norm refused to give the driver what he wanted, and once he explained to the driver’s boss what had happened, everything was soon forgotten.
On the train ride back to Delhi, we were given the very last two seats in our car, but at least they were facing in the direction we were traveling this time! Also, since we were in such close proximity to the serving kitchen, we were the first to be offered any extra portions of food there might have been leftover from mealtime.
Through the train window, I watched all the neighborhoods and wheat fields, lame dogs and naked babies go rattling by until the sun wiped them from view and they disappeared forever into the inky black darkness of night.
March 26, 2010 NEW DELHI
The driver from Abyss Tours that was supposed to be at the station with our name on a sign was not there to pick us up, as promised, so we billed the company and caught a taxi. It was 11:00 o’clock at night and we were tired and crabby and sick of running around from platform to platform looking for a stranger who had a sign with our name on it.
First thing in the morning we bought some tickets and wandered around the Purana Quila Fort near the Delhi Zoo, which is where we really wanted to go, but discovered the zoo was closed on Fridays. I had a hard time enjoying myself at the fort. Not being well, the extreme heat, the noise, and all the people and vehicles got to me. I think it was the heat, though, that made me most uncomfortable.
Norm bought me a bottle of cold water so I poured it down my clothes and all over my face to bring my body temperature down. When the woman security officer ran her hands down my body she probably thought I was ridiculously sweaty. Normally I would have been embarrassed, but at the time I felt too sick to care.
Later, when we got back to our hotel room, I spent some time on my back trying to remember what our bathroom and bedroom look like in Australia since we had seen so many different ones in the last month. I was amazed at how difficult it was to do.
March 27, 2010 THE DELHI ZOO
We woke up to no hot water and had to switch rooms so we could shower.
Right after breakfast we caught a bus and went to the Delhi Zoo. This zoo was much better than the one we visited in Calcutta even though it, too, had big, natural settings and the animals were gorgeous and in good physical condition.
Unlike the zoo in Calcutta, however, the grounds, themselves, in Delhi, were well-kept, neat and tidy. Bushes were trimmed and the lawns were pristine. Sidewalks were clear and not crumbling apart.
We chose to ride the bus through the park which stopped every so often so we could get out and get a closer look at all the animals. We saw two good-sized jaguars playing in their enclosure like housecats; one went in the water and even sat down as it teased the other cat and dared it to get wet. They were rollicking on their backs, making wild cat noises, and pouncing on each other with open mouths to show their intimidating teeth.
We also saw a white tiger, another Asiatic, or Indian lion, and two great one-horned rhinoceroses. In the wild, today, these rhinos live in the foothills of the Himalayas and they appear to be covered in plates of armor. We also saw some gaur which are beautifully marked cattle and the largest species of wild cattle in the world. They are even bigger than bison, African buffalo, and wild water buffalo.
The zoo was our final excursion of the month and signified the end of our stay in India.
India turned out not to be anything at all like what I was expecting. Instead of meeting up with thieves or muggers, we found that the people went out of their way to make sure we were safe. Norm had almost lost his money a few times when a stranger suddenly let him know his rupees were falling out of his pocket. I had lost track of my watch at one point, when, suddenly, the man who had been walking behind me held it out to me as I turned to retrace my steps in hopes of finding it somewhere on the ground where I had dropped it. We never felt threatened or unsafe no matter where we were, day or night.
Instead of the men being dominant and pushy, they were generally polite and friendly. The women were not subjugated, but rather powerful both politically and domestically.
Instead of finding the weather extremely hot, we found it humid, but no more so than either a mid-summer day in Ohio, or a notoriously sweltering Christmas Day in Queensland.
I was surprised to see so much wealth, education, and modern technology in such an otherwise poverty-stricken, backwards nation where mindless, tediously laborious tasks were performed over and over on a daily basis. And there was no discrimination. Men and women received the same wages for the same job.
Although the air was a collage of motley odors, the people, themselves, were clean and did not smell. They bathed daily and washed themselves after they ate, both hands as well as face. Their clothes were clean and pressed. The buses and trains, no matter how packed they became, never smelled.
Besides that, the food was neither mundane, nor extraordinarily hot.
March 28, 2010 PLANE BACK TO BRISBANE VIA SINGAPORE
I watched the movie, AVATAR, on the plane while flying out of India. It was a film consisting of outstanding special effects. All the people, the animals, and the scenery, complete with flowers and trees, in the main story, were animated, so there wasn’t a lot in the movie that was real. It wasn’t my kind of movie, but I was transfixed, nevertheless, and found it highly entertaining.
When we arrived in Singapore, we hired a taxi and took a quick tour of the city while we had the time. It was amazing to see how crystal clear the air was! Every leaf, every field, every rooftop looked as though it had been polished with a soft and loving cloth. There was no dust to speak of, no horns incessantly blowing, or animals roaming around on the streets. I took in deep breaths by the lungful. The only flaw was the way our driver kept touching and then releasing the gas pedal to the point of nausea. Norm told me Singaporean drivers are notorious for doing that. Great. I was already not feeling well.
We had the driver take us to the beach at the Strait of Malacca, so we could get out and admire the pure water. Then we had him take us to a famous temple, and then, finally, to Chinatown where we got out to do some shopping. Norm bought a vase to sell on EBay, and I bought a couple of pins, one with the flag of India on it, the other with the flag of Singapore, for my world pin collection. The India pin was the last one and I was glad to get it since no one in India sold any kind of pin and I had checked at every market and every shopping mall I visited.
March 29, 2010 BRISBANE
When we arrived at the Brisbane airport, we were put right through. It was the first time we had ever gotten off a plane from anywhere without being searched by customs first.
We had a very smooth and uneventful flight home. The hours went quickly even though they were spent overnight. It’s so hard to sleep in a sitting position in a hard chair for long, yet the hours flew by, nevertheless, and before long it was 7:00 o’clock and time to disembark.
A wet, cold Brisbane met us as we left the airport. It was the same wet, cold Brisbane that we had left a month before. However, the closer we got to Eagleby, the drier it became.
Home, halcyon home! Where the streets were so quiet the silence banged against our ear drums like trumpeting elephants. We couldn’t get over how loud it was. After hearing nothing but horns blowing, bells ringing, voices carrying through thick dusty air for the past thirty days, it was a blessing and a surprise to find ourselves in so much silence.
The quiet literally came up to meet us in the deserted streets, and as we opened our front door, and the solitude and stillness was actually breath-taking. It took hours for us to get used to. When I closed my eyes, I could hear it creeping around the backyard and sailing upon the small steady breeze that blew in from the open window. Only the cry of a distant bird could be heard now and then, but that was all. The silence was amazingly alarming, but oh so welcome!
Home was a sight for sore eyes. The blue interior looked grand in my eyes and the green, yellow, blue outside was as splendid as I have ever seen it.
Out of respect for the customs of the country, we had chosen to wear jeans the entire time we were in India, with the exception of the Indian dresses we wore for HOLI. As I had mentioned previously, white people stood out in India like albino walruses. We were so used to seeing dark skin that white flesh seemed odd to us. Especially legs and breasts.
In Brisbane, while we were shopping at the Eagleby Plaza on our first day back from our trip, we saw a white woman standing at a counter in the Eagleby Carvery, clothed in a dress that was knee-length. We couldn’t get over how out-of-place and exposed she looked. She was dressed decently, it’s just that we weren’t used to seeing so much flesh. We felt the urge to avert our eyes!
I know I said at the beginning of this piece that If anyone were ever to ask me if I would consider going back to India again for another visit someday, I would say “Yes!” without hesitation. My answer is still “Yes!” and I repeat it now just as loudly and just as sincerely.
THIS CONLUDES OUR TRIP INSIDE INDIA, 2010