A travel-story by Rick Vermunt (with a couple of pics)
My diary was rather long so I'll sustain by taking the more interesting bits from my diary. I hope it will make you consider about going to India and Nepal.
Hindu readers are bound to find errors in my explanations of India. I do not pretend to be accurate. Many of the things I tell are personal impressions, facts from my travel guides, my tour guide and some of what I remember from conversations with Indians. I ask them not to feel offended.
India, land of a great old civilization. A country also, still much under the influence of the colonial period. A country in which religion claims a prominent position in daily life, whether it's Hindus or Muslims. Land of extremes: dire poverty next to filthy wealth, hand in hand with a magnificent cultural heritage. Not like an old monument, but as the center of social life.
India, a country in which its inhabitants are reluctant to let go of the old views and values in exchange for modern western life on the road to the 21st. century.
The first day.
The moment we left the airport the humid heat struck us in the face. Over thirty degrees Celsius, and it was not later than seven in the morning. That promised something for the rest of the journey. After settling in our hotel (Imperial Hotel) my travel mate Andre and I decided to check out the city. Much time to do so wasn't there anyway, we had to leave for Jaipur the next morning. Our guide gave us some tips for the rest of the holiday: "You don't h a v e to get sick if you take the proper precautions."
Barely we had left our hotel or a little boy asked us if we needed a rikshaw. Why, yes of course. What other possibility was there in this huge, strange city? He lead us to some stubby, unsavory looking man. He smiled at us to show he was trustworthy revealing two rows of bloody red teeth. "It's a good price. Trust me. 300 rupee for the whole day. I take you to Red Fort and Jami Masjid (a mosque) and also to Khasba, if you want." Every couple of seconds he spat on the ground. Apparently he was having a chew.
According to western standards it was a bargain indeed, but according to the wage-averages in India he was making loads of money this day. What we had to learn is to think in rupees as in dollars, and a reasonable price for a ride into town would have been 20 rupees.
Traffic in Delhi cannot easily be described. Like in England traffic keeps left, but that was about the only traffic regulation I could distinguish. Smog hovers over the city in such enormous concentrations that traffic at night appears to be moving through thick fog. I'm not sure about what will prove to be more hazardous to people, smoking or living in Delhi. First of all, there was the omnipresent flavor of the city. All kinds of smells I wasn't used to struggled to make their introduction to my unaccustomed olfactory system.
Traffic itself seemed to be one big chaos. Without minding any fellow trafficers cars, rikshaws, mopeds, trucks, bicycles, pedestrians, an occasional bus, and taxi cabs swarmed amongst one another. Even animals like cows, and water buffaloes were claiming their place amongst the traffic. Apparently there was one main rule to be obeyed: the largest participants were having the most rights, pushing their way through the crawling mass of moving objects. The only exception are the rikshaw-drivers: they are the often cursed trafficers, recklessly ignoring any signal, or size of fellow trafficer.
The heat was incredible. I can't recall sweating as much as I did in India (well maybe playing an indoor soccer game) but certainly not while I was just sitting in the back of this rikshaw as it rushed through the slowly moving traffic.
That was our first rip off (but as we were told: the first days you're bound to get harassed by the vendors and ripped off if you're tricked into some bargain).
Andre and I went to do some shopping in the surroundings of the hotel in order to get some drinks and food for the trip to Jaipur. We were struggling our way through the crowd-filled sidewalks pushing off beggars and vendors.
The thing is: there are only so many tourists visiting India each year, and there is almost a billion people living in India and most of them are poor beyond imagination. Can you blame them for trying to make little money? In their view any western is rich. (As a matter of fact we are, being capable of buying a holiday-ticket to India).
Getting angry at them for tugging your shirt, and asking for your attention and asking an outrageous price for some junk you don't really want, makes no use. They simply don't understand that. They are investing their precious time in you, so why get angry? Ignoring them is best ways to handle it, and any tourist in India will learn in time. By then it'll be a lot easier to select the items you want to take home.
He pointed me to the flocks of birds of prey high above us that appeared to search the city below for bits of food.
"There seem to be as much of them as are sparrows in Amsterdam" we decided. A shoeshine man stopped me.
"Excuse me sahib."
"I don't want a shoe polish," I said and was about to walk on.
"There is big bird dropping on your shoe."
He was quite right about that. A big slab of some greenish, yucky shit covered most of my left shoe.
"Shit!" I exclaimed and looked frantically around for a scrap of paper in order to remove it.
"I clean shoe for you sahib," the shoeshine man said.
What a coincidence.
Admitted, he made a rather thorough job of it.
Since people working in the shoe business mostly belong to the lower casts, and certainly shoe shiners (I guess they are what one calls the so-called untouchables) because the human foot is considered one of the most unclean body parts, I expected this wasn't going to cost me too much. How naive I proved to be.
Later I learned that shoe shiners are known to swindle tourist by putting shit of any kind on their shoes (tourists are easy prey, aren't they?) and then ripping them off by asking way too much for a shoeshine job.
The next morning we took the train to Jaipur.
Poverty in India is that severe that many people are living on the streets often owning not more than the clothes they wear and maybe a stretcher to sleep on (the streets are littered with them).
Going to the toilet results therefore in some folklore of its own. Leaving the station we noticed hundreds of Indians squatting at the railroad tracks with a bottle of water next to them to clean their buttocks. They do so with their left hand, which is considered unclean. Whether the left hand is unclean because they wipe their ass with it, or because it is unclean they wipe their ass with it I don't know.
But food has to be taken with your right hand, and handing over money as well, or else they might refuse to accept it.
Left-handed people like me are, I guess, frowned upon (even though I wipe mine with my right hand). It was hard getting used to for me.
In Jaipur we stayed in hotel Bissau, a former palace of one of the Maharadjas (rumor went that this man still lived in the palace and tried to make some money on the wealthy tourist).
Photographs of 19th century Prince of Wales, Edward, showed that the great of this earth had preceded us in staying in this palace. As far as our damp, dark tiny room was concerned I knew that this romanticism had since long passed. Jaipur, also called the Pink City, because the walls of the inner city were painted pink to enlighten the visit of this same prince. If we had thought Delhi was a dirty city, Jaipur proved us very wrong. Looking around the city we noticed that only a rather small part of the city was connected to some basic sewerage. The rest of the city's sewerage consisted of nothing more than a gutter in which the people's excrement floated in a grayish kind of water. It was a bit of a shock to me to witness Jaipur's inhabitants doing their needs squatting over the gutter and a couple meters ahead a woman carefully taking water from it. Scrawny little pigs sharing their meals with dogs and holy cows from various garbage heaps that flank the streets, packed with people.
Next to the doors of the houses lay patches of camel dung drying in the sun later to be used as fuel for home-cooking.
Women don't dominate this color locale, but if they are outside at all, they immediately strike the eye: compared to the men (the western tourists easily included) they are a graciously walking feast of colors.
The next day, as we were planning to hire a rikshaw that would bring us to the inner city, we were greeted by a man that asked us whether we were from Holland. Well, yes. In answer he claimed to have been in the Netherlands. "Yeah, Right.."
To prove it he showed us a couple of pictures of him posing at the Amsterdam canals, and one of him holding a huge lump of snow.
"Holland is cold."
He turned out to be a Foster Parents Plan child, now grown up, but still in a close contact with his Foster father.
He introduced himself as Tuveer, which was to be pronounced as Two beer. "Call me Heineken," he laughed.
The next couple of days he persisted in refusing the fares we had to pay him, but finally we convinced him that his boss would appreciate to receive some money in the end. That we tipped him quite generously may be clear.
One of the places we visited was the deserted, ruined city of Amber, known for the splendor of the Amber fortress.
Situated next to a stinking green lake the Amber fortress overlooked this ruined city. We took an elephant ride up hill to the entrance.
Our guide told us about the average daily wages of the Indians, which is 30 rupees (remember our rikshaw driver?), so 900 Rs. a month, which estimates a small $ 25,--!
The Amber fortress was enormous, and to my joy I saw the first monkeys (impudent rascals, ever on the prowl for snatching food from unwary tourists). Surrounded by miles of walls, it appeared that when this palace was built by the great Akhbar, the third mughal sovereign (1556-1605), they certainly didn't cut back on building budgets. (Probably these palaces and fortresses were built with the involuntary help of slaves, but I'm not sure about that).
In order to keep up our role of tourists, we went the next day on a camel safari. A small bus took us to the countryside. The highway consisted of a two lane road. The same traffic regulations seemed be to neglected on these roads as well. Passing slower vehicles was usually accompanied by continually honking their horns and keeping the other lane forcing oncoming traffic to step on the brakes and take the verge of the road. The camels were of the usual arrogant looking kind, blandly bearing the people riding their backs. Our route took us to a country village where we could meet the peasants. To put it mildly, I could sustain with saying their housing is adapted to the warm weather conditions of India. On the other hand, the houses are constructed of loam and the plastering outside has to be renewed every year after the monsoon because the heavy rains tend to wash away the walls. These farmhouses are made up of three walls, there's no front (and no front door). The farmers were of a different kind than the city people. They were a tiny bit more curious than shy, but they kept their distance.
The children however knew from previous visits that tourists are likely to have ball points, pencils and little toys for them. In their enthusiasm they were prepared to take a black eye for it, because it was survival of the fittest in obtaining these treasures. The only toy they didn't understand was a ship toy (of course not, they'd probably never seen the sea).
Later that day we left the camels and went for a hike into the hills to pay a visit to a holy man. This holy man, a so-called sadhou, lived the life of a hermit. Supported by a couple of apprentices he lived in sobriety in a little cave abstained from all life's luxuries. At least, that was what I'd expected. In fact, however, his cave was supplied with a television set, a refrigerator, air conditioning and, most astonishing of all, an antenna for receiving satellite television.
It cost me a little amount of money to receive my ticca (a red dot of red pigment on my forehead to show the world that I was blessed by a holy man). Not bad for this guy eh?
That night Tuveer brought us to the Raj Mandir, the largest cinema in Jaipur.
Man, if I say large, I mean large. The room in which our particular movie was shown could easily inhabit 3000 spectators. Birds nested under the roof, and according to the cast system the cinema had three entrances. We took the middle entrance, which again was frowned upon, because western people are, because they are mostly white, automatically considered part of the higher casts. Ok, sorry, I greet the God in you.
The movie we saw was success movie Hum Aap ke hain kaun, starring Madhuri Dixit, and if I say Madhuri, the hearts of Hindu men start to skip. I can say, if you visit India at all, at least try to see a movie. Not understanding the language makes no problem, the plot is easy enough to follow. And besides, these movies are quite spectacular with lots of sing and dance and, admitted, often very violent.
Agra is the city of the Taj Mahal, and an obligation for any tourist visiting India. This was also, the city where I was struck by a severe case of diarrhea, burning like hell because of the spicy food I'm so fond of. The gates of the Taj Mahal open at six. This means that hordes of tourists swarm inside to witness the in all the travel guides oh so recommended famous sunrise: the light is oh so beautiful on the white marble of this mausoleum (the same guides are jubilant about the sunset as well). If only that one cloud....
The Taj is magnificent indeed. When walking towards it I was approached by a man who pointed me the best spots for taking photographs (for a fee of course, that is). Sjah Jahan was struck with grieve when his wife Mumtaz Mahal died in 1631. So he had the Taj Mahal built as a memorial grave for his diseased wife. It took 20.000 laborers 22 years to complete it. Their son Aurangzeb had his father put next to Mumtaz when Sjah Jahan died himself.
Later that day I learned that one guy in our travel company (Jan) had been willing to pay one thousand rupees for the same service!
That guide, certainly wasn't going to show his face for the next couple of days. Enough money to buy food for some time to come.
Our next destination was Khajuraho, a little village in Madhya Pradesh. But first we had to travel through, what our guide Rene called, barrier land. This meant that every so much miles the bus driver had to stop to pay a little toll and have the passenger list checked. Rumor went that the roads were that bad that the police wanted to have knowledge of the travelers on the road, so if a vehicle wouldn't show up at the next barrier something must have gone wrong. Certainly a much cheaper way than a thorough road construction job, for the roads are bad, I can tell you. Illustrative may be the average speed the bus made: 20 - 40 miles an hour. The next day we got up early, well sleeping in this holiday meant getting up at eight. Getting up early meant four o'clock in the morning.
The programme for the day was visiting the temples of Khajuraho. We rented bikes for the day. Traffic in this village was that sparse that us Dutchies, all of us used to biking (on a population of 15 million Holland has got 15 million bikes, that's almost the same amount) were glad to use our stiffened legs for a change.
The temples of Khajuraho, constructed in the period 950 - 1050 are worth a visit for their statues.
The entire body of each temple is covered with the most magnificent carvings. As our guide explained illustrating all aspects of life as it is from earthly at the outside to spiritual inside a temple, which is a shrine for some Hindu deity.
How surprised I was to notice a Buddha inside such a Hindu temple.
Earthly, means the most detailed erotic carvings, picturing all kinds of positions from the Kama Sutra. The philosophy in the past behind this kind of lucid attitude towards sexuality was as practical as simple: most Hindu marriages were arranged and very often predestined and planned according to astrology. "Love will grow with the years." Since sexuality would be an inevitability, people considered that one might as well make it as pleasant as possible. For both spouses, that is.
The road to Varanasi was long and exhausting. Heavy showers accompanying us along the way. Hours behind schedule we finally reached Varanasi and we learned a new aspect of Indian cities. As far as I could see such a city doesn't really have city lights. The streets were packed with people and vehicles, and all these participants moved in utter darkness, only illuminated by the headlights of the cars and trucks. Eerie.
Varanasi is the most holy Hindu city of India and many old people, if they can afford it, go to that city to die and be cremated at the banks of the Gangha (Ganges). Varanasi is therefore also reputed as a place of pilgrimage where people come to pray, meditate and have a purifying bath in the Ganges.
The old people that come to die often have dismissed all their earthly belongings and lead a marginal existence until the moment arrives. As Hindu philosophy tells: "Hey, they came to die anyway."
We decided to have our meal in the hotel (Pallavi) restaurant. As soon as we left our room heat slapped us in the face. It seemed that humidity in Varanasi was worse than any other place in India we'd been so far. Clouds of insects circled the lamps at the ceiling while we walked towards the restaurant.
Inside we were greeted upon by some fellow travelers from Limburg. Again it struck me how many servants were busily walking around the customers. It never failed to make me feel a little bit ashamed for being a rich white European. When we got our menus we saw to our shock that we were staying in a Muslim hotel. No alcoholic drinks.
"There is a solution," the waiter whispered.
"Yes, sahib, you must order a special tea."
That special tea turned out to be beer served in a teapot and you were obliged to drink it from a cup. That sacrifice was easily made of course. As a matter fact, large parts of India have prohibition these days.
It made us feel like mean old gangsters from Chicago in the twenties.
Andre and I decided the next afternoon to go the banks of the Ganges and see how much is true of all these stories. We took a stroll dismissing the rikshaw riders that offered us their services.
At the banks we ran into some of our friends from Limburg and together we went to the burning ghats. (Where the dead are being cremated).
Strange, one moment we were walking down a narrow alley stacked with silk vendors and the next we knew we were standing at the edge of the main burning ghat of Varanasi.
An Indian guided us into a temple to take us for a better view from the roof. Inside the temple we ran into a funeral service, so our Indian told us. A Brahman was leading the service. Funny thing was nobody appeared to be grieving very much. They laughed and clapped hands, suddenly changing into wails of despair.
Our guide told us that dying at the banks of the Ganges is a happy occasion. Cremation here means that the cycle of reincarnation was broken and the soul of the expired would go to heaven? Walhalla? (Here I didn't understand my guide too well). Strange, here I was talking with an Indian about the rituals of cremation and less than forty feet away untouchables were cremating the dead. (My guide told me that seven categories are saved from the necessity of cremation: sadhous, pregnant women, children under twelve, lepers, people died of snakebite, pox victims, and animals). They are wrapped in cloth and thrown in the Ganges. Women are wrapped in red and men in white. The oldest son has to fast and shave his head in order to purify himself, for he has to light the stake. After the cremation the fire has to be extinguished with five jars of water from the Ganges.
The ashes and what's left of the dead is dumped in the Ganges. To prove that one man's meat is another man's poison, is the fact I saw a so-called corpse sifter right underneath the spot where the ashes is thrown in the water, in search for rings and the like. (The story my guide told me was rather complicated and I reckon parts of it will be wrong).
What does one know about Nepal at all? Yes, the Mt. Everest lies on the border between Nepal and Tibet, so it must be a mountainous country. Sherpa's live there that love to run uphill carrying hundred kilograms on their heads. What most people don't know is that it is the only Hindu monarchy in the world.
That in a range of barely 200 kilometers the land rises from 200 meters above sealevel up to more than 8000 meters.
This implies that Nepal's climate varies by the kilometer.
The funniest thing however was, that many Nepali people told me when I said I was from Holland that the highest mountain in Holland was 321 meters high. (How can they know...)
Chitwan National Park
Near Chitwan we said goodbye to our bus drivers and switched over to jeeps that'd take us across river to Chitwan National Park. Anyone visiting Nepal is more or less obliged to visit this National Park. I never noticed any luxury accommodations, which explained names like Safari Lodge and in our case Jungle Lodge. Yes, Chitwan is rain forest. Not in the sense of tropical rain forest, but moderate rain forest. But rain forest anyway. Various parts of Nepal take an amount of rain that measures a good three meters a year in the period June till September. Chitwan is famous for its rhinos, but next to these animals one can run into Benghal tigers, leopards, civetcats, jackals, otters, martens, bears, various monkeys, pythons, king's cobra, craits, the ganges dolphin and a fish eating crocodile. Our lodge was a very confined damp and dark little room with a bathroom next to it. Worn down mosquito-nets hung down from makeshift frames above our beds.
Chitwan is also one of the Malaria areas of Nepal. With some cello tape I fixed mine a bit. The owner told us there would only be four hours of electricity a day: between 6 p.m. and 10 p.m.
Time to have a shave and take a shower.
After that time the night would be pitch dark. No need to tell all of us went to bed quite early that first night. Certainly after that eighteen hour drive from Varanasi.
The next day there was an elephant safari on the programm. Nobody wanted to miss that for sure. The elephants took us into Chitwan National Park after a stroll through elephant grass. A kind of sharp leaved man high grass. Said to be a favorite niche for tigers on the hunt.
Our main goal of course was the chance to witness rhinos in the wild. Riding an elephant was a pleasant experience. The animal walked in a relaxed trod that made the passengers waver in all possible directions. The driver uttered one-syllable commands, and if the elephant didn't listen too well, he smashed it on the head with a bamboo rod. Which sometimes made the animal trumpet violently.
After awhile we reached a pond where eight rhinos were taking a bath minding their own business when this horde of tourists suddenly disturbed their peace.
Apparently this early was the time for rhinos to take a bath and therefore we had to get up this early. Rhinos aren't the most friendly type of animal. Since they are big they don't bother trampling passers by, and the jungle walks organized in Chitwan take some casualties every now and then. A couple of days before a guide was trampled by a rhino while he was trying to save the members of his group. Questions were raised whether to stop these safaris at all. No need to tell the outcome of this affair. A couple of days later we all went on a walking safari (and didn't spot anything but one snake and a couple of monkeys shouting insults at us). Sitting on my elephant gave me a save feeling. Elephants are much bigger than the not in the least small rhinos, and they make way for any elephant. Rhinos are that shortsighted that they only see the huge masses of the elephants and not those little passengers it is carrying. Speaking of camera food.
In our town zoo there was always this pitiful single rhino scraping its one horn against the metal door of its den, and here they were in all their glory. This is the way animals should be able to live without the threat of being hunted because of some stupid folk-tale going around that ground rhino horn would be an aphrodisiac.
That afternoon I went for a ride with an oxen wagon to visit a country village. One who travels by oxen wagon mustn't be in a hurry. The wagon moves at a leisurely pace while being overtaken left and right by pedestrians. Believe it or not, this pace was enough to escape a severe monsoon shower which we saw passing by at a few hundred meters distance. The village was crawling with children varying from toddlers to adolescents. Our guide was telling a story how people used to avoid contamination with malaria. Their houses consist of one single space that don't have any windows save some slits in the walls. The women are cooking on smoky wood fires which reaches any spot inside the houses. It keeps the insects away, and so the mosquitoes. Next to this they are used to eating very spicy food and the men drinking home brew containing over 70% alcohol.
Some programs have started to decrease the illiteracy of the population by installing compulsory education, but that for schooling money is too tight to mention. The reason for having that many children in the village was simple. On the first hand the birth rate's still very high in Nepal, and on the other hand life expectancy in Nepal is 55! Which causes that 50% of the country's population is younger than 20.
For the first time this holiday I had the impression I was in a tourist trap. The center of the small town merely consisted of vendors, restaurants and hotels. Maybe it was because this town was the since tourism came up in Nepal the traditional starting point for mountain trekking in the Himalayas. Unfortunately there was no time for us to go on a mountain trekking, so we decided to have a little alternative of our own. The next day we went for a climb uphill from the valley to the top of the Sarangkot, as was said the view on the peak of the Anapurna massive would be magnificent. The threatening overcast we saw around the top would disappear in time we were certain. Being amateurs from Holland, and therefore not used to climbing hills, none of us had thought of taking along fresh and warm clothing, and I can tell you it was very, very cold at the summit.
As for the notorious view at the Anapurna massive, we were glad to see fifteen foot ahead of us at all, so at least we could see where we were placing our feet during our descent. That afternoon most of the participants of this climb were struck by food poisoning, but I'd rather see it as a case of exhaustion. The tight regime of rising each day appeared to be taking its toll.
This day is the start of the Durga Puja, an important religious Hindu festival. What it really is about I didn't come to know, but it was much easier to witness how they celebrated it. This celebrating is done by sacrificing animals and than having the blood poured from the animal's head by a priest over all kinds of objects like cars, bicycles, whatever for blessing by walking around it a couple of times. In our western eyes maybe a rather gruesome ritual, but I think it has to be viewed for what it symbolizes. Durga Puja is a very religious festival, and the Hindus taking part in it take it very seriously.
Kathmandu is a truly wonderful city. One could call it an open air museum indeed. The Durbar Square for instance is littered with all kinds of temples which are built in their typical multi-roofed style. Which means that a temple has several roofs on top of each other.
Durbar Square also inhabits the house of Kumari the living godess. Kumari is a little girl that's been selected from a broad choice of girls. As far as I understood it, the girl has no saying in her selection, and she stays Kumari until she has her first period. From that time she's considered unclean and another Kumari has to be selected. The worst of this is that almost not any man is prepared to marry a former Kumari, since legend goes that any man marrying a former Kumari will die within half a year. I don't dare to imagine the terrible fate that awaits any Kumari.
The Kathmandu valley is rather compact, and the surroundings of the city are worth a visit for their Buddhist temples like Bodnath (the largest stupa of Nepal, with a little temple next to it containing a gold Buddha), or Swayambunath (which is more beautiful, and has to be reached by climbing a long and steep stairway flanked by all kinds of colorful statues and beggars). Other places worth visiting are Pashupathinath, the most holy Hindu city of Nepal, where one can find burning ghats, which are just as good a spot to be cremated because the river banks they take place are a tributary to the Ganges. Or one might go to Bakhtapur, a city so beautiful that the German government has taken it as her duty to maintain and restore the city.
One last thing: the rich and the jet set go to new York for shopping and having them ripped off by all these overrated designers. Kathmandu is an alternative shoppers paradise, but the main difference is that the goods that can be purchased are cheap beyond imagination. Another last thing: It should never be the main reason to go to this magnificent and beautiful city.
If going at all best ways to go to India and Nepal is to take a deep dive into the fascinating culture of these countries.
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