JOURNAL ENTRY 13: India
The traveler planning a trip to India must possess one essential quality -- PATIENCE!
Mine was first put to the test by the Indian High Commission located in Birmingham, England, where I lived. The office informed me that I could not receive a visa for India in Birmingham. Instead, I was required to go to the Indian High Commission in London. Why? Because my parents were from Pakistan. In fact, both of my parents were born in what today is India. My father moved to Pakistan as a child before partition and my mother at the time of partition in 1947.
I immediately telephoned the Commission in London to find out how long a wait to expect until the visa would be ready. A quite perky woman assured me that, because I hold a British passport, the visa would be issued to me on the very day of my visit. Once I arrived at the Commission in London, I was suddenly told that it would take at least a full week. I was due to leave in 5 days! She was not sympathetic.
I remembered a story I'd heard about a man who cried hysterically upon being refused a visa for travel to India. They took pity on him and turned things around. So out came the crocodile tears and, bingo, I was told to phone back in three days. When I did, I received the auspicious news that my visa would be ready the following day. The next day, I once again left Birnimgham for London and arrived at the Commission, only to learn -- surprise, surprise -- that there was no visa awaiting me. My protests to the staff fell on deaf and dismissive ears. Impossible that I was told it would be ready today! I pleaded, explaining that my flight was due to leave early the next morning. Finally I got some sympathy -- they told me that it would be ready in five minutes. Half an hour later, minutes from the High Commission's closing time, I remained empty-handed and on the verge of an anxiety attack. I politely reminded the receptionist that I was still waiting. She disappeared up a flight of steps and returned several minutes later. I had my visa.
The next morning on arrival at the airport I learned that my 6:30 am flight for Amsterdam would be delayed for a couple of hours due to high winds. I would now possibly miss my connection and hence end up on a different plane from the one my friend and travel companion Nicolet was taking. I ended up in a small plane on the worst flight that I have ever taken. The high winds tossed the plane all over the place. Anyone who has ever been on the pirate ship at an amusement park will know how I felt on that flight. The only difference being that this flight lasted more than a few minutes. Once we landed, the flight attendants gathered with the pilots to share in a collective sigh of relief. Then they remembered us passengers and made sure that everyone was doing okay. One flight attendant told me that it had been a very, very long time since she'd been on a flight as turbulent as this one.
Sure enough I had missed my scheduled Amsterdam departure flight time. Leaving the airplane, I heard someone call my name. It was Rose, Nicolet's flight attendant friend, telling me to run. Having sprinted across Schiphol airport with Rose I now appreciate how big it is. When we got to the gate it was already closed but they let me get on the plane anyway. Nicolet had heard that my flight had been delayed. We were lucky that Rose had accompanied Nicolet to see her off at the airport, as Rose used her privileges to get me to the plane on time. I would have never made it without her. The only bad thing was that my bags did not make it on the same flight and, instead, arrived on the next flight -- three days later.
I was happy to be in Mumbai (Bombay), surrounded by the crazy Indians of my memories. I was immediately familiar with the sounds, the smells, the colors and the life. I was also immediately reminded of the downside -- the poverty. Mumbai has lots and lots of people living on the streets or in slums. It's as bad, if not worse, than Calcutta. You see many disabled adults and children; it's not difficult to see the desperation in their faces. A lot of them are actually professionals who belong to some form of organized racket but, of course, some of them are really in need. Like most people, I was most disturbed seeing the street children. One thing about Mumbai is that you sure do feel alive there. It's hard not to be grateful for what you have when so much poverty surrounds you.
Goa is legendary in India. Goa is a former Portuguese colony, which has seen westerners flocking to it since the 1960's. Yes, this is the place where you went to do the things that you'd be arrested for back in your own country. Every self-respecting hippie headed for Goa.
The place where psychedelic hell broke loose and the beach was littered with more budding rock stars than most people have had hot dinners. You could break away from the traditional western religions and take part in mass poojas, with their endless half-baked discussions about "when the revolution comes" and "the vibes maaan". You could frolic around naked, share free love and other diseases with everybody else, be ever so cool and liberated and not give a shit about the local Indians, some of whom I'm sure were cashing in on the spirit of things. You could get totally out of your head every minute of the day or night on every type of grass known to man, exhibit the most bizarre behavior, babble an endless stream of drivel and bore everybody shitless.
Fortunately things have calmed down a lot now and the police are now very strict about drugs and nudity is banned. The hippies have either moved on to other lands or moved to more remote parts of Goa. I was pleasantly surprised to see that despite its chaotic past, Goa has managed to retain most of its charm. The palm fringed beaches were great. In fact the whole area with its Portuguese heritage and beautiful green vegetation is great…its fame is justified. That's not to say that the weirdoes have disappeared. Die-hard veteran hippies still roam about on their motorbikes, some looking like they're going to take part in a ZZ Top look alike competition, maybe with a few more bald spots on top. Anjuna, the Wednesday flea market was really touristy. It seems to be the place tourists from all around Goa congregate - it was far more interesting watching the tourists.
If the people in Goa go to the market every Wednesday it's not surprising that they only ever wear their freaky clothes in order to make a sale in the market. Western fashion in third world countries really is a different ball game. Strangely enough, the locals push hard to sell it but wouldn't be caught dead wearing it.
In Arambol, Goa, Nicolet and I took a walk through some pretty thick vegetation and saw brightly colored sarongs hanging from the trees. We went up to find a covered area under a big tree. There were Hindu-god pictures and lots of young people plus even some more die-hard hippies smoking away on all sorts of things. It was all peace and love plus, of course, a few obligatory Indians selling pineapples, melons and coconuts. We sat down and tried to look cool and hip and passed around the joint or whatever it was they were smoking, quickly handing it to the next person without taking any ourselves. It was quite an experience, a touch of old Goa.
You really can't do anything in peace in Arambol. The mud at the bottom of the freshwater lagoon is meant to be good for your skin. I covered Nicolet in it and before long a big crowd of Indian men had arrived and surrounded her. Indians really do like to have their photo taken, especially when there's a western woman available. It must be considered cool and I'm sure that they'll proudly show the photo to all their friends.
Goa's full moon party was a real disappointment. Goa has it's own version of techno called 'Goa Trance'. The bar we went to was full of spaced out people once again smoking all sorts of shit. It's really hard having a conversation with somebody who's spaced out…lots of uncomfortable gaps and lack of recognised conversational structure… a bit like a Friday night out with my mates in Bermuda. I remember one Indian guy 'dancing' away next to me contorting his body in spasms rather than fluid movements, frequently shouting, "James Brown is dead." It was quite a night but it ended early. Nicolet and I decided to head for the Baskin Robbins ice cream stand and go straight home.
On the subject of drugs, it really is a shame to see how many tourists do nothing else but get stoned in India. I travel to meet people, see places and experience new cultures. Many people I encountered travel to get wasted and that's about it. They are not at all interested in the local people and the environment and give backpackers a bad name. The day before I arrived in Hampi an Australian girl was found dead in her bed by another traveler. Some say she'd caught malaria or meningitis, others say heroin was involved…who knows. And in India who really cares? There are a lot of missing travelers in India. You often see posters of them with rewards offered for any information on them. I met the mother of one lost traveler as she was searching for her son. It must be so desperate for the parents not knowing if their child is alive or dead. I'm sure that most, if not all, are drug related. Once again it amazes me how people who would never take drugs at home seem happy to experiment in a country like India.
Hampi was a strange place. The Australian girl died the day before we arrived. In addition, part of the center was closed because some tourists had been robbed. On our last day an Irish guy almost drowned as he went tubing down a waterfall into a cave. Drowning, he passed out for 20 minutes in the cave and was rescued by a brave Dutch guy who heard the Irishman's girlfriend's cry for help. Earlier we had been tubing on the same river but some other travelers warned us about the waterfall and cave. Other than that, Hampi really was a cool place to hang out and see the remains of some of India's great heritage.
India is such a strange country. Most people are Hindu and for Hindus, the cow is considered to be a holy animal. In a country with lots of starving people, cows walk around freely in the cities and people won't eat them. You have to see it to really appreciate it. Imagine a hot, dusty Indian city with loads of crazy people running around everywhere in every form of transport imaginable and lots and lots of noise from people shouting, noisy engines, lots of car horns etc.. The streets are packed and the traffic is blocked up because there's a cow who had decided to cross the street. Cows are everywhere. Varanasi in particular stands out in my mind for having the most cows. As expected there's shit everywhere and you really have to look carefully where you are walking. Nicolet walked into cow shit twice during our visit to the holy city. Cow shit isn't the easiest thing to clean off your shoes.
The Hindu religion is definitely difficult to appreciate as an outsider. It has great concepts but it is the gods and the legends behind them that make it tough to grasp. One of the gods is a monkey. Another has the face of an elephant. I know you shouldn't judge a book by its cover but the gods appear to be so ugly! They have lots of multi-colored bodies, often several pairs of arms, up to five heads and sometimes big fat bodies. It's as though Hindus have come up with the ugliest mythical figure possible and then decided to call it a god. The exception and my favorites are some of the female gods who have footballs for breasts… Pamela Anderson would be very proud.
A good example is Meenakshi, the legendary daughter of a Pandyan king who was born with three breasts. The king was told that the extra breast would disappear when Meenakshi met the man she was to marry. One day, she met the god Siva and discovered that he was who she would marry. A temple complex has been built in Madurai around this legend in which each night a statue of Siva is taken from the Siva temple to the Meenakshi temple so that Siva can spend the night with her. In the morning he is returned to his own temple.
The great thing about having different gods is the fabulous variety in Hindu temples. The temples are generally very colorful and far more interesting than other religious buildings. My big tip for anybody interested in visiting Indian temples is to take a pair of socks. You almost always have to take your shoes off when entering the temples and the Indian sun really does heat up the ground. A few times Nicolet and I found ourselves running from place to place to avoid burning our feet. Sometimes the distance was too great and we would stop, put our guide books on the floor and stand on them to give our feet a break from the heat.
Together with temples, palaces and forts are the other big Indian physical attractions. It continues to amaze me how beautiful the palaces and forts are. It's really fairytale stuff. I visited the Taj Mahal again and still believe it to be the greatest man-made construction on the planet. Ahhhh, maybe I'm just too much of a romantic!
Indians are generally very colorful people. The sari-donned women really lighten up the place, particularly in the south where they have really beautiful dark skin. Women wear flowers in their hair which adds to their overall beauty. Color is important for Indians and some of the locals in their traditional outfits look like dolls dressed up, especially the young children.
I still haven't really worked out why Indians always move their heads when they talk. This is not an exaggeration. It's really confusing when they say 'yes' but move their head in a horizontal manner implying to a westerner, 'no'. If you want to practice, speak English with an Indian accent and then move your head from side to side.
India is full of good smells and bad smells. The bad smells are the open sewage systems which you see in many places and, of course, the cow shit. The good smells are the spices and the sweet flowers. It's amazing how one second, things smell so beautiful and then the next, all you can smell is pollution and shit!
Back on the subject of heat. We started our travels in early March and left India in the later part of June. We were there for the hottest time of the year (May and June). India recorded the hottest temperatures in the last 50 years and the second hottest day this century when we were in Delhi. It was close to 50 degrees centigrade! That's the hottest temperature I have ever experienced and I hope I never have to again. I was in India at the time of both India's and Pakistan's stupid underground nuclear testing and, typically, the locals were blaming that for being one of the causes of the heat wave. By the time I had left India it was estimated that about 3,000 had died from heatstroke.
One of the funniest things about Indian men is their ability to take a piss anywhere. They really don't care who is watching. Some places even have open public urinals and still, they sometimes insist on pissing next to them and not in them. These urinals are another major contributory factor to India's awful smell. They aren't as bad as the Chinese but they sure do come a close second at times.
Indian men are in generally sex maniacs. They are responsible for the fact that Indian women are locked up in their homes. Whenever you go out all you see is men. Even if the men did meet girls their culture does not allow them to have girlfriends and so they're extremely frustrated sexually. Unfortunately the downside of this is that Indian men see western women as easy and cheap. They treat western women in a way they would never treat Indian women. I met many women travelers who complained about this. Often they just talk to them or ignore them in a degrading way but sometimes they also deliberately try to touch them! Usually when Indians talked to Nicolet and me they spoke only to me. They would even ask me questions about Nicolet and not ask her directly. Maybe it's shyness or maybe it's just their culture. Whatever it is, it is definitely very frustrating for women. Wherever I have traveled, local men always try to pick-up women travelers. Some are more successful than others. Indians are definitely the least successful. I think their attitude towards women says it all. I'm not saying that I am a master at this but Indian men really haven't got a clue. Indian men are as good looking as anybody else but some have strange ways of altering their appearance. For instance some wear nail varnish, almost all have moustaches and many have terrible reddish teeth as a result of eating something called paans.
There are a couple of advantages in being a female in India: most buses have rows of seats for women only and when it comes to queuing there are often special queues for women. If there isn't a special queue for women then women can go to the front of any queue they choose and get served first. Naturally, Nicolet found herself buying a lot of tickets. In Hyderabad there's even a special queue for 'freedom fighters'… explain that one! Indians are terrible at queuing. They all push and shove and huddle around the ticket seller. It's as though the tickets are about to sell out and there won't be anymore this century. It's pretty aggressive at times. We once went to see an Indian movie (part of Nicolet's education on India) and even though everyone had tickets, the Indians refused to form an orderly line before entering the cinema. The man at the door ended up hitting them violently with a stick to make them form a queue. It was a real panic as everybody started screaming and running away from the angry man hitting everybody with his stick.
Another time the Indians go crazy is when they are trying to get on a bus or train. They fight each other to get on and off. One time I remember seeing a woman with a baby trying to get off a train. There were so many people trying to get on that they just pushed her and her baby on the ground and walked on her. I have to say that Indians are generally very selfish and only think about themselves their needs. They have no concern for anything that doesn't directly involve them. They often don't think about their fellow man. It's strange because there are also a lot of times when there appears to be a lot of comradeship but then later you see the dark side of their behavior.
No greater comradeship was shown than the day we went to see a one day cricket international between India and Australia. Indians are crazy about cricket the way Brazilians are about football. In the relatively cooler hours of the day Indians can be seen everywhere playing cricket. Fortunately the game we saw was a very successful one for India and the crowd went crazy. It was a real carnival atmosphere, lots of noise and dancing. What a great day.
Before the match, Nicolet didn't even know the rules to cricket and after, she really enjoyed the game. For the Indian innings we sat in the general seating area and she was, of course, the only girl surrounded by about 70,000 men. Later we moved to a small 'women's only' section where I managed to sit next to the men at the edge of the section.
Do you have any Indian friends? In India many people will try to make friends with you. Of course, there were some great Indians who really were hospitable towards us but in general my view is that there are no Indian friends only Indian businessmen who want to share your wealth. Traveler bewares!
Food is one of my favorite subjects. In India I decided to go vegetarian due to unpredictable meat quality. I managed three and a half months without any meat apart from fish a few times. It was great. India is a vegetarian's paradise as most Indians are vegetarian. I didn't miss meat at all. The only problem is that now, as I am in Pakistan, when I eat meat (at my families') I seem to have problems digesting it. It all comes straight back out in a not so pleasant way.
I got robbed again in India! It's still the only country in which I have been robbed. It was in Varanasi. Before we got to the train station I had warned Nicolet about being on guard. We boarded a train and I put my daypack down for a couple of seconds so that I could take off my larger backpack. In those couple of seconds, my daypack, with my camera and sunglasses, was gone. I reported the incident to the police and they asked me what I expected them to do as 95% of Indians are thieves. I found the statement to be very insulting to Indian people but couldn't argue as I had just been robbed and needed that report for my insurance.
On my previous visit to India I went to Kanha National Park but unfortunately I didn't see a tiger. This time, I finally saw one. It was a great experience. The park uses elephants to track tigers and once a tiger has been found everybody knows about it and you must pay to sit on top of an elephant and get a close look. I was really happy. My only regret was that my best friend Lisa wasn't there to see it too. We tried so hard to see a tiger when we were here together in January 1996.
No, I didn't come to India to find myself as so many others do. India is truly a great spiritual center. It's the home of yoga and meditation and since the Beatles came here in the 1960's it seems to be the place to find yourself. I wanted to do a meditation course there but the one I wanted to do was heavily booked up so I never got the chance. I also wanted to do yoga but ended up leaving for Pakistan a week early so that I could spend more time with my family there. Nicolet stayed on longer in India and studied yoga and taught English to Tibetan refugees. She loved it.
Have you ever seen Sai Baba? He's the guru with the frizzy hair…looks a bit like a much older Michael Jackson from the early seventies. He's also the guy behind the Hard Rock Café's sometimes spiritual theme. I went to his summer ashram. It was a pretty bad show I have to say. I was not at all impressed. This dude has a big following. Every now and then he shook his hand and apparently made holy ash materialize which he put on his disciples foreheads. Didn't look too much into his teachings but what I did read seemed to be pretty good. Sai Baba is well known for producing diamond rings etc. Many people believe he's just a good magician.
I went to Sri Aurobindo and The Mother's ashram. The people here were really friendly and I found myself having a lot of respect for their teachings. The teachings claim not to be another religion but I found this hard to accept as The Mother is seen as a god.
In McLeod Ganj, Dharamsala I saw the Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of the Tibetan government-in-exile. Now he has a great smile! Didn't really learn too much about his detailed beliefs but I am a big fan of his overall philosophy on life. I can't help but to feel for the poor Tibetan people. Good luck to them.
On a fantastic backwaters boat trip in Kerala we went past the ashram of a lady they call the hugging guru. The ashram looked like an ugly high rise hotel complex. Apparently this guru gives great hugs that have great powers. I spoke to a few people who went there and they didn't seem to be impressed.
My overall opinion on the so called gurus is that people must be desperate to cling onto something for all of these gurus to be able to sustain a following. People will believe anything. Make up your own mind.
India really does have a great heritage. It's probably the oldest culture on the planet. Despite several attempts to destroy this heritage, the most notable being the British, it's this heritage that makes India one of the most special places on Earth. I can't honestly say if I love India or hate it but I can say that I am really glad I came here. It's not for everyone but those who come here with the right attitude will definitely benefit from their esperience here. It's dirt cheap too. Although I have made many generalizations in this newsletter about the character of many of the Indians, we met many many wonderful people, especially in the south.
I am currently in Pakistan about to tackle the Karakoram Highway to China. It's Marco Polo's famous silk route. I am looking forward to my continued journey.
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