woensdag 27 november 2013

Intermezzo: Operation Cannot Possibly Fail (A Second Time)

Among the thousands of tourists that visit India every year, more than just a handful return home disillusioned with the infamous 'Never Do It Again'-phrase forever stuck in their mind.

This entry is not about me being one of those disillusioned people, because I will do it again, I will come back here. I will not however, not ever again take a bus to somewhere 'near' the place where I intend to go only to find out that the conductor who should've put me on another bus from the place near the place I wanted to go to the place I wanted time go, has failed to fulfill this pretty simple task. Don't worry, this story has a happy end. Maybe it's more end than happy, but you can't eat the cake and... Never mind.

It started out with a very a straightforward plan. My hosts - they are not to blame, but may the monkey god eat their dinner every Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday - were so kind to help me figure out how to get from Allahabad to Khajuraho by bus by sending one of their staff to the bus station for inquiries. Speaking Hindi and being local, chances were good he would have more success getting a honest answer, possibly also for a better price. That plan worked, as their cook came back with a fairly simple itinerary. Just take the six hour bus to Banda and change buses there to cover the last fifty kilometers to Khajuraho. Plain, simple, sounds good. He even would take me to the bus station, explain to the conductor where I needed to go and tell him to help me find the right bus in Banda. So easy. Cannot possibly fail, at least not in theory.

However, in India theoretical matters are held in the same regard as the traffic regulations; they may exist but in the real world, who cares?

In theory the plan worked flawlessly. In Banda the conductor asked around and brought me to a bus, after which I double checked with some other people by asking in the most straightforward way known to men: pointing at the bus and saying "Khajuraho-Khajuraho-Khajuraho?". After getting a clear "yes-yes", I felt reasonably sure this bus would be going to Khajuraho. Reasonably sure. Being pretty tired after the what turned out be be an eight hour trip to Banda, I didn't feel keep asking around and settled for reasonably sure. In India - especially somewhere between the middle and nowhere - that's like asking for trouble. And I got it.

Why the conductor on the second bus gave no warning when I told him I wanted to Khajuraho and just sold me a ticket to a place called Mahoba is still a bit of a mystery to me. Other than some shopkeepers, conductors- although sometimes a bit reluctant to help and not the most intelligent people - generally are trustworthy and do not tell you what you want to hear just to get you on a bus. So there I was on a crowded bus, jammed in between a bunch of Indians having loud (what else?) conversations, feeling tired but glad that I was on my way. Sweet, blissful ignorance.

After a while, when we were supposed to get close, I started asking around whether we were indeed near to Khajuraho. Usually, this tactic works very well, as people around me then know where this lone foreigner wants to get off and there would always be somebody who would warn me my stop was coming up. This time, the people around me gave some vague replies, initially responding positively to the word 'Khajuraho' but they couldn't give me a very convincing answer regarding how long it would take until we would get there. That was when the first doubt started to rise whether this bus was indeed going to Khajuraho. But I checked. I double checked, right? This is cannot possibly fail.

When the time came that - if this bus was indeed heading for Khajuraho, - we would be within twenty minutes of the town, I made a second attempt to figure out when my stop was coming up. Again, their lack of English and me not speaking Hindi made the conversation difficult, but the fact that a conversation was needed for them to explain where Khajuraho was, did not seem very reassuring. What I did make out is that they kept making a connection between the words 'Khajuraho' and 'train'. That's when it started to dawn on me that wherever this bus was going, Khajuraho wasn't part of the itinerary. It was already pitch black outside and I had no idea where I was going. Happy-happy, joy-joy.

This is where my former hosts in Allahabad came to the rescue. Since nobody could explain to me in English what was going on, I called my home away from home to act as my interpreters. They confirmed that the conductor said that this bus was not going to Khajuraho but Mahoba, another fifty kilometer from my destination, from where there probably were no buses to Khajuraho anymore. That was not good news. Even though there were some trains, I had no idea whether - if I would get to the station and if I would be on time - I would be able to get a seat for those. My best bet was to sit it out till Mahoba and from there try to get a cab to Khajuraho. Expensive, but as long as I would get there, I was more willing to pay whatever they asked.

Though someone could've made good money that evening in Mahoba, it turned out that there were no taxis anywhere it this semi-God forsaken, somewhere around nothing, middle of nowhere town. It was even a pain to find anyone who spoke literally spoke more than two words of English in order to figure out what was my best chance of getting to Khajuraho at this hour. Staying the night at Mahoba was not part of the plan and also the few hotels that this town did have, did not look very tempting. My last hope to get out of this town, was to get down to the train station and try my luck, knowing only that in a few hours there was a train stopping there and that it was supposed to go to Khajuraho. And even then I still had to get from the train station to the hotel, where I hoped they hadn't given my room to someone else.

The train station was small in size, but chaotic nonetheless. After a few "tickets-tickets?" most people pointed me to a long line in front of a small office that did indeed seemed to be still selling tickets. Good, I was making progress. However, after battling my way to the front, the only response I got to my "Khajuraho-Khajuraho-Khajuraho?" was a undefined head wobble and a hand pointing to the platform. This apparently meant that I had to buy tickets on the platform. At the platform however, people told me to go back to the ticket office. Yeah... Well... Really...?

Thus far, progress had been slow, but my fortunes began to change when a train pulled into the station. It turned out that not only was this train going to Khajuraho, it was also behind schedule, which for once was a good thing. This meant that I was assured of a train going to Khajudaro and I didn't have to wait for two or three hours for the next one, which may also have had delays. Nice. Lady Luck was smiling and - for the first time today - I could smile back.

I still didn't have a ticket though, but even that issue was resolved fairly easily. It turned out this train was at the end of a long journey, which meant it was almost abandoned but for a handful of locals and a backpacking French couple on their way to Khajuraho. The French couple subsequently told me the conductors had already made their rounds and even if, that the fine you got was just peanuts. Knowing full well that this was going to cost me karma points, I just sat down without making any further attempt to buy a ticket. Finally I could close my eyes, knowing for sure that this time I was going to Khajuraho.

On arrival in Khajuraho it turned out that at this hour, there still were more than enough riksha's who were more than willing to bring me to town. Fifteen minutes later I arrived in the hotel, where they were still expecting me. Fiiiiiinaaaaaaaallllly!

I guess all is well, that ends well, even if you gained a handful of gray hairs...

vrijdag 22 november 2013

Varanasi or Where Death Is Most Alive

It started with a ten minute delay. Then it became thirty. Forty. Fortyfive. In the end we left fifty minutes later than we were supposed to and arrived in Varanasi Junction with a three hour delay. While trains are ideal for travelling (no bad roads, no crazy drivers and the option of reserved seating in the higher classes), once delayed things are only getting worse. A trip that would've taken me three hours by bus, now took me over six hours by train. Got some extra sleep though! Luckily my pre-arranged pick-up had not given up on me, though he was looking quite bored a bit grumpy. It was only the next day that I learned that was his natural way of looking at people and the world in general. 

A little inside cultural lesson about Diwali from - quite literally - a man on the streets: 
"Yehees friehend, everybody smokes on Diwali, everyone gets high."

Right. Guess that solves curious case of 'The Popularity of Diwali'. However, in India once source of information is sometimes worse than no information at all, so you may want to verify this story... (Half of this blog is made up anyway, the other half being an inaccurate description of what actually happened).

I'm not sure whether he was appealing to my cultural sensitivity or the desire many tourist apparently have to get high here, but either way he promised to have the "very best, sooo good, you never had this." He wasn't the only one. Especially when wandering the ghats or 'The Maze' there are dozens of (semi-)shady figures, who promise you the best trip you ever had. Most start with offering something else (boat rides & massages are popular icebreakers) and after you declined they switch to the less legal option B. Others just get to the point with their "Hashies-Hashies?", with opium and coke as options B and C. My favourite however, was this "Come smoke, no money" fellow who initially took my chuckle as a good sign, then got slightly annoyed when he realized I was laughing at him. Come smoke-no money, yeah sure, why not just ask for my camera, money and credit card directly..

So, what is really going on during Diwali? Again, Wikipedia is your best friend, but maybe the fact that it's known as the 'Festival of Lights' gives an indication of what it is about. On a non-spiritual, visible level it's a combination of Christmas (lots of - often colored - lights, countless candles and small oil lamps everywhere) and New Year's Eve celebrations (fireworks Gandalf!). There are even those just-some-background-noise-so-things-don't-get-too-awkward-when-the- conversation-stalls-comedy shows on most tv channels.

Not so visible and a little more religious is the story of the return of the god Rama and guiding him back home. It's a bit too complicated and I probably got everything wrong, so for a more elaborate version check the world wide web!

The festivities are spread over multiple days (providing Indians the opportunity to visit some of their countless relatives), though it reaches its peak on the last day. During the daytime it's very quiet. People either have the day off and do some last minute shopping or they just take things easy, as only the shops selling flowers, fireworks and sweets are really busy. However, the "boom-boom" (as fireworks are called here) begins at sunset, gathers pace after nine and then it doesn't stop until next morning.

Though my initial plan was to venture out into the old city, the fireworks that were lit everywhere without any regard for safety and the fact that Varanasi does not have the best reputation when it comes to wandering off at night on your own as a foreigner, made staying in the area of my hotel the wiser choice. Still got to shake the hands of a lot of strangers, exchanging dozens of 'Happy Diwali Frieeeend!'.

Though I intended to go back to Allahabad, one and a half day is just not enough time for a city like Varanasi. I had to stay for at least one more day in order to get a true sense of this amazing, almost magical place.

You get lost easily, but getting your bearings again is almost just as simple. It's like this: if the maze of tiny alleys doesn't end when you keep going straight, go either left or right and you'll end up either at one of the ghats or the main road. Even if you only have a rudimentary idea of what is where, the basic organization of the city is fairly simple. There is the Ganges (pretty big, brown body of rather filthy yet holy water; really, you can't miss it) with on its left bank (building on the right side is inauspicious) the ghats, which have both names and signs, a rarity here. So if you can figure out where a certain ghat is located relative to other ghats, you roughly know where you are. Also, since the river (followed by the city) makes a bend to the right, you have a good oversight of the have far along in the bend you are. Between the ghats and the road that runs parallel to the river is maze of tiny alleys overflowing with life. Like mentioned earlier, if you walk straight you should end up either at a ghat, at a road leading to one of the (main) ghats or at the main road that runs parallel to the river. Just keep walking and you end up somewhere, simple right? It really is. You have to be me to still get truly lost again and again.

'The Maze' is an ideal place for people who enjoy wandering aimlessly through the city streets. These tiny alleys are alive, there's something happening everywhere and while every city has its busy bazaars not one has that special vibe you have in Varanasi. You never get bored here. Whether it's a motorcycle on a collision course, someone trying to sell you a boat tour or hashies or a cow blocking the road, there's always something demanding your attention. Maybe that's why I like it so much. Not just the people are alive here, the itself almost seems like a living being made up out of numerous smaller parts. 

Out of all the thousands and thousands of faces I saw when I saw wandering in 'The Maze', there was one which seemed familiar. Sitting near the place where we met him two years there was this guy who back then gave us a 'tour' and subsequently let us to his uncle's tea shop. He had a bit of a creepy face, which was emphasized by his use of eyeliner, which made his face stand out among the crowds. His looks hadn't improved and judging by the fact he was still sitting there, his career hadn't taken off either. I think I'll look for him next time I visit Benares, make it a little tradition.

Sacred (Hindu) places are dotted all over India, but a city as religiously significant as Varanasi is a rarity even in this country of three million gods. Countless pilgrims come from all over India to wash away their sins in the Ganges and - at the end of their lives - attain liberation from the continuous cycle of death and rebirth. Dying here is extremely auspicious, being cremated here is very auspicious, being burned elsewhere but have your ashes spread out is auspicious (exemptions apply). However, if your family cannot afford the cremation (wood is expensive and you need more than just a few sticks), it's also not inauspicious to entrust the body of the deceased to the sacred waters. That means that, similar to Allahabad, decaying bodies floating in the river or even 'ashore' at one of the ghats are not unheard of. It's so not unheard of, that it's even part of this blog. As mentioned earlier the floating corpse in Allahabad was in a bag; clearly dead, clearly human, but in a bag. Its former countryman in Varanasi however, had washed ashore without a cover and face up. Yellow eyes popping out and stuff. Not so pretty. It's a part of everyday life in Varanasi though, as just twenty meters away young boys were playing cricket.

There's so much more to write about Benares, but since long post discourage people from reading and this one is taking too long to write I'll end this post with a simple, yet straight forward recommendation: if you're ever in India, include Varanasi in your trip. Maybe you'll hate it, maybe you'll love it, there's a lot to say for both. One thing is quite certain though, there truly cannot be another place like this. Not in India and not anywhere else.

A little warning: neither this story nor the pictures do the city justice. 

The little Diwali oil lamps. They were everywhere on the streets, near the river, on walls, rooftops, everywhere.

Insects celebrating the return of Rama together. Funny guys.

Fireworks are not really visible on the picture, but from the rooftop the view of the city lighting up was really nice. And a lot safer then the streets.  

There's a good chance there are more places of worship than there are people in Benares. This was particularly nice one I came across when I was on a stroll.

This past summer, major floods of the Ganges took many lives and destroyed part of the infrastructure in Uttarakhand, a state north of Uttar Pradesh. The floods have also left their traces in Varanasi, as there is still a lot of mud and - of course - trash on some parts of the less important ghats. In the second picture they are washing the mud away. Didn't seem very effective, but it employed like six or seven people.

A number of ghats. Some parts were obstructed by mud and trash, but generally you could just walk along the 'coastline', seeing people take a dip, wash their clothes, spread the ashes of their loved ones, fishing, playing cricket, selling their wares and the occasional floating corpse. Never a dull moment!

Definitely, definitely, definitely not a problem of just Varanasi, but rather everywhere in India where there are people, the trash. I just happened to remember to take pictures of it this time, since it has become so common for me. You really begin to take it for granted after a while, the only thing you can do is not to make things worse.

zaterdag 16 november 2013

Almighty Allahabad or There And Back Again, A Tale Of Food, Fire And Friendship

What can I say?

India has the ability to surprise you at each and every turn you take. And the Indians play a vital role in that. Sometimes it's not just where you are, it's also who you're with.

Maybe it all sounds a bit melodramatic, but my time in Allahabad was distinctly different from that in other cities. And it was the Sethi family that made all the difference.

Since the the hotels in Allahabad didn't really appeal to me, I opted for a slightly more risky option: a homestay. It may very well turn out to be one of the best decisions I made on this trip. I'm pretty sure that I would never have backtracked back from Varanasi to Allahabad if it wasn't for this lovely and extremely hospitable family, who ran their homestay better than any hotel I've been to. They genuinely love having guests and as a guest, you could tell.

As I have an more than average interest in Indian cooking, the lady of the house was more than willing to explain the dishes, show the ingredients and even give a cooking class. The food served by their cook (s) was among the best I've had and during my stay I haven't been even remotely hungry for a minute. I could even look forward to breakfast, usually my least favourite meal of the day. I wonder if they still serve the 'Justin Omelette Surprise', which was their eatible answer to my 'you-can-serve-me-any-Indian-breakfast-surprise-me'.

The Sethi's were even so nice to set a part of the enclosure on fire on the third night, something which turned out to be not quite intentional. Luckily the 'wall' of burning creeper was separated from the house by a few meters of not so easily inflameable grass and stone, which served as a barrier for as long as three fire didn't get worse. Also, they were not unprepared as they managed to kill most of the fire with the gardenhose before the firemen finally - and somewhat reluctantly - made their appearance. It ended well, which meant that except for the sleep deprivation, all was well.

As a city Allahabad was different from what one might expect from a name that has such a non-subtle reference to the god of a certain religion. I wasn't necessarily picturing minarets everywhere, but at first sight Allahabad seemed more influenced by Christianity than Islam or Hinduism. This was - of course - due to the Britishers, who despite their limited numbers apparently felt the need to build cathedrals, which are to this day are in use by the Indian Christian community here. Unlike many other colonial buildings, the churches have survived the ongoing expansion of Allahabad and seem to be in relatively good state.

In contrast to these landmarks in the city centre, there is the nearby Kyushu Bagh Park, home to four large Mughal tombs. As usual, these - except one - Muslim monuments showcase both their might the Mughals had as rulers and their role as patrons of the arts. I can definitely imagine worse places to have a picnic.
Despite the Christian and Muslim buildings, Allahabad has much more spiritual significance for Hindus as near the city the most holy rivers (Ganges and Yamuna) of Hinduism meet and merge with the Saraswati. When we were on the river to see the meeting point (dirt green mixes with dirt brown water), it was pretty quiet, but during the Magh Mela (annual), Ardh Mela (every six years) and Kumbh Mela (every twelve) as many was 32 million pilgrims visit this place on the main bathing day. A whole city is apparently built during the main festivities to accommodate all the visitors, which even for Indian standards is insane.

What's more normal is that there was a dead body floating in the river, which is not an uncommon sight in a holy spot by a holy river. Glad to see that some things never change.

More dead people in holy rivers at holy places in the next entry! Varanasi awaits!

woensdag 13 november 2013

Life In Lucknow: A Legacy Of Tombs And Terror

So far I've become pretty accustomed to getting around on foot and just wandering around aimlessly. For Lucknow that doesn't work too well. Unlike the places I've been before this is a fairly large city (3 million inhabitants), which means that things that are remotely interesting are strung out over bigger distances, making the aimless wandering pretty boring. Also, more people means more traffic, which doesn't make getting on foot that much safer or easier, since as a pedestrian you're pretty low on the food chain.

However, travelling by riksha isn't that simple either. There are more than enough (cycle)riksha's and they are more than willing to bring you to places (sometimes too willing), however I have yet to meet one who actually knows his way around. And that's after I got him to understand where I want to go and for what price, which constitutes a challenge in itself. What helps is a slip of paper with the name of the places and the 'address' (which at best is a streetname and a 'near place X'), which he can give to people along the way to ask for directions. You get there in the end, but just makes sure you're not in too much of a hurry.

Prices vary according to who you meet. Some start at 150 and won't go lower, not even when you walk away (which occasionally results into them following around, terribly annoying). While for the same distance others start at eighty and even drop the price to sixty rupee after your first counteroffer. Usually I give the ones who start at a fair price something extra - especially the cycle riksha's - in a feeble attempt to encourage them to charge reasonable prices.

Despite its not so overwhelming appearance and the logistical issues, the city of Lucknow has its tales to tell, some dating back to semi-ancient times, while the more recent ones are mostly related to First War of Independence (1857). Both the Bara Imambara and the Chota Imambara showcase the exquisite architectural taste of the city's former Muslim rulers and their ability to built impressive tombs to keep their names from passing into oblivion. In contrast to these majestic buildings, the battered and ruined Residence exemplifies just how bitter the fighting must have been during the 'Siege of Lucknow', a battle that killed thousands, Indians as well as 'Britishers'.

Now, for something completely different: Cockroaches. After a month in India I just saw the first two, which is a pretty decent score for a country which doesn't have the best reputation when it comes down to anything related to the words 'clean', 'hygenic' or 'spotless'. Send them down the drain. They may survive a nuclear war, but it's highly unlikely these guys survived the steady stream of hot water that hit them. 2-0.
While the other staff at the hotel are really nice, the people at the reception are not the greatest communicators. They call to tell you that "We need money. Immediately.", which is their way of asking for a deposit. It didn't make that much sense since I would be leaving the next morning anyway, but yeah sure. However, this hotel has one thing I've had nowhere else so far: they slip a newspaper under your door in the morning. Ah, the little things! I'm ready to forgive.

After experiencing of what terrorizes an Indian's hearing on a daily basis, I'm not surprised many here suffer from hearing damage. Some, in order to have a decent conversation even in a relatively calm environment have to put their phones on speaker (full sound) and subsequently hold close to the ear. Of course, shouting a reply is not optional but an absolute necessity in order have the other side understand what you're desperately trying to say. If the other person wasn't deaf yet, he'll be one step closer after this phonecall...

I never learn. When it comes to leaving on time to get somewhere on time, I simply never learn. This time I couldn't blame anyone else that with a 7:30 departure time (and actual departure 7:31), I got the train in sight no earlier than 7:26. If I hadn't been late I wouldn't have been in a rush and I might have noticed that I was running up the stairs for tracks two till seven and that track eight was not on that sign. And for good reason. Track eight it turned out, was not next to track seven, but at the far end of track one. Because that makes like total sense.

Another train leaves and I'm on it, but this is getting too close to call. In three days time I'll know whether this was enough of a warning... For now, Allahabad awaits me.

The complimentary newspaper. Absolute win.

The colonial buildings that are still standing add a little charm to the city. Now they either house stores or government agencies.

Traffic is a non-stop flow of semi-suicidal drivers & pedestrians.

The marks left behind on the Residency by the ' Siege of Lucknow' .

This memorial as still intact though. Makes sense since it was added later. 

That the Residency wasn't built by the British becomes pretty clear once you see this mosque. Also one of the few buildings that was relatively unharmed. 

Bara Imambara. Bury me there anytime. 

Chota Imambara. Nevermind the previous comment, bury me here please!

zaterdag 9 november 2013

Intermezzo: Past, Present And Future Patience

Somehow, this whole experience deserved a separate entry. Just when I felt perfectly relaxed after four days in the best hotel so far, the Gods decided it was time for some stress.

'So I leave at eight thirty, right? Eight thirty the taxi is here. Eight thirty.' You imagine that repeating that line four or five times to your hotel manager would do the trick. Taxi, eight thirty. That's it. I even tried to say it with an Indian accent.

It was no use. Eight thirty, no taxi.

What can I say, I tried.

Usually I have no issues with some delays, but this time I had to catch the night train to Lucknow. While Haridwar train station was only 30km, this would be my first travel by train this trip so I wanted to be early to figure things out. Also, I was pretty lucky to get a decent class bed, so missing this train would constitute a setback (one of non-epic proportions, but still).

Apparently I (silly, silly me) made the mistake of answering truthfully when the manager asked the departure time of my train. That part he got. The part that I wanted to leave early to be early, either he missed it (unlikely) or he didn't think it made much sense and therefore arranged things as he figured was best (likely). He promised the taxi would be here by nine though, which would leave me with less but still sufficient time to find my way at the station. Nothing to worry about, the taxi is on its way.

Yihaahaa right. Nine o'clock, no taxi. Nine five, no taxi. Nine ten, no taxi. Patience is a virtue, but this is slightly pushing it. Haridwar may not be that far, but with the traffic here you really never know whether "you be there in forty minutes, no whoarry sir" really means you'll be there in forty (with or without the 'whoarry').

Nine fifteen. By this time I'm getting a bit concerned. Forget about being early, how about arriving there on time? The fact that the manager seems to get a bit nervous as well isn't very reassuring. Time is running out and other people are getting nervous as well, oh my. In the words of Princess Lea (for the non-believers: Star Wars): I don't know about you, but I have a bad feeling about this.

Nine twenty. There are lights, movements.... Finally, the taxi I would have preffered to see fifty minutes earlier was there. Nice car, not a very talkative guy, but who cares. Run Shadowfax, show us the meaning of haste!

This guy was in no rush though. After five minutes (I was just beginning to get more at ease, at least we were driving) he pulled over, got out and got engaged in one extensively spitting session. Not sure whether he was sick or what, but it was not a good sign.

Hundred meters, and again, the spitting. For fuck's sake, get it out and drive.

Luckily, things got better after the second session. Relatively speaking.

Just when I needed a crazy taxi driver who overtakes everyone like a maniac with a death wish, I get the one who drives like a gentleman (Indian standards). Warning others for dangers (major potholes), only relatively safe takeovers and even giving other drivers the opportunity to take over our car. He didn't even attempt to drive at max speed. Madness. Absolute madness.

Lady Luck hadn't abandoned me completely however. Only one of the three train crossings we passed was closed (for a seriously long train though) and there was little traffic in Haridwar. So, fifteen minutes before the train would depart we arrived at the station. Luckily, the train was just straight ahead and even finding the right coach (they have paper lists with the names on them on the outside) and my 'bed' was quite easy.

Finally. The train has left for Lucknow and I'm on it.

donderdag 7 november 2013

What Actually Happened In Rishikesh

Like Shimla, Rishikesh wasn't too high on the wishlist initially. This self-styled 'Yoga Capital of the World' seemed more like a place for estranged Westerners seeking redemption by twisting their limbs, hum some mantra's or take some vow of silence, neither of which is really my cup of chai. However, as so many other times, my preconceptions were only half right. Yes, the estranged Westerners were there doing all those things and even the long haired, backpack wearing, wearing-Indian-clothes-ridiculous-looking Westerner in search of spiritual enlightenment I wrote about in the Amritsar entry where there, smoking pot and chilling out. The fact that there are so many Western people (also counting the dozens of Israelis as Westerners) also meant that hotels, shops and rickshaws are more catered towards the wishes of tourists, even those who were non-long haired, non-pot smoking and fairly rational thinking. The fact that most people speak decent English helps a lot.

Another advantage of a great number of (non-Indian) tourist that come to Rishikesh is the choice in accommodation. I paid only rs1000 for a very clean room that was double or even three times the size of the rooms I had before this and it even had AC (didn't use it though as the temperatures in this area are really comfortable). Apparently the room was usually more expensive but the fact that I called to make a reservation helped somehow. Oh well, I won't complain. And they serve excellent banana-chocolate pancakes, which I think is the ideal breakfast and a very safe choice as  well. The coffee however, is terrible, even if you drink it 'Indianized' (milk, lots and lots of sugar).

The fact that the hotel is located on the High Bank, a good twenty minute walk away from the town itself makes it an ideal place to do some reading and just enjoy the scenery. There is the occasional screeching of the monkeys and some dogs having long distance conversations, but other than that it's pretty quiet. After the chaos and never-ending assault on the senses you deal with on a daily basis in this country, you really start to appreciate the serenity of a world without honking, without shouting, without vehicles and people that are coming your way and are not intend on changing their course. However, unless you want to spend your days in a hotel room, you can't escape it. And to be quite honest, you start to miss it after a while. It's like a drug putting all your senses on alert, making you feel really alive and very aware of your surroundings. How can you get homesick when you barely have time to remember what home is like?

As is not uncommon in the more popular places in India, especially the spiritual or holy ones, you have a good chance of being approached by a priest who - without asking - starts to give you something like a tour (for 'no money-no money' of course). It didn't take them long to find me, a lone wanderer who was just walked aimlessly in various directions. My 'priest' wasn't too pushy though and he even had some mildly interesting things to tell, which would help me find my way around the next day. However, knowing full well that he was going to ask for a 'donation' at the end, it didn't want to keep him around for too long. Also I was keen on getting back to just walking around without anyone trying to explain things to me in Indian English, which takes a lot effort to translate. I kindly refused the 'puja' or blessing for the river he offered to give me and then - when the unavoidable question finally came - gave him a donation of hundred rupees, which was fair considering that it wasn't that long nor interesting and the fact that I never asked for this 'tour'. The priest agreed that hundred rupees was more than enough saying over ten times that it was up to me to give what I wanted to give and that he wasn't asking for five hundred or thousand rupees, he did not ask for more, I didn't have to give more if I didn't want to, he was poor but he wasn't asking for more, he lived of donations, but if that is what I wanted to give then that was fine, no need to give five hundred or more, five hundred would be nice, but it was up to me, no need to give more than just hundred, that was alright. I was just nodding, glad he was so understanding. When it dawned on him that he wasn't going to get more he left, smiling, but probably only outwardly.

Back at the hotel, I discovered that they didn't just serve good banana-chocolate pancakes, but very decent Indian curry's as well. The first day they were still a bit surprised that I ordered two different curries with rice and two chapati's, but the second day they already used to the fact that I have a good appetite when it comes to Indian food. And really, the portions aren't that big.

The next day I decided to stay away from Swarg Ashram to avoid any more 'no money'-priests and explore the other  part of (uptown) Rishikesh, in the vicinity of the Lakshman Jhula hanging bridge. Here you have the Swarg Niwas and the Shri Trayanbakshwar two temples which the Lonely Planet describes as a ' huge thirteen story wedding cake temple' which resembles a ' fairyland castles'. Sometimes the Planet is spot-on, other times I can understand why they wrote something, but this time I think the respective writer was in a higher state of mind when he looked at these fairly ugly, not so fairyland-like temples, which in a way resembled wedding cakes but a rather poor attempt at that. Inside, they were some interesting deities and a lot of bells to ring and also a number of the donation-hungry-priests, the ones I was trying to avoid. Some of them wanted me to take part in some ritual ('sir-sir-come-sir-you-must-do-ritual-pray-Shiva-sir-very-good-for-you-sir-sir-sir', followed by more 'sir-sir-come-sir' as I walked on) while others just came up to me, pointed to a statue and mumbled the names of the deities and then expected some generous donation, which would boil down to 20 rupees per spoken word. My dear holy man, I don't think so.

Monkeys can be a real menace at times. Generally they more or less ignore you when you ignore them, but when they descent from the  roof and try to steal your ketchup bottle (the nerves!), that's when things get serious and you really want them to go. Usually it's not so hard to scare them, just pretending you want to throw something and most of the time they back off. This monkey which was interested in the ketchup bottle on my table wasn't too impressed by my I'm-gonna-throw-this-thing-at-you movements and instead of backing off, it started screeching, showing it didn't only have nerves but also the teeth to go with it. Luckily by that time the staff of the place was already coming with sticks and slingshots, making the monkey realize it was both outnumbered and outgunned, and it retreated into a nearby tree. Next time I'll make sure that if I threaten a monkey, I'll be able to carry out the threat as well.

Ram Jhula, the bridge that leads to Swarg Ashram, where you can meet nice priests that will be satisfied with whatever you want to give as a donation.

Lakhsman Jhula, the bridge to the 'wedding cake temple' which resembles a 'fairyland castle'. Judge for yourself... 

The view from the bridge. Pretty, isn't it? Did I mention already that the weather is really nice in this part of the world right now?

This monkey figured out a way to drink coke from the bottom of the bottle. Smart creature. This was after it just finished its Big Mac. Globalization is everywhere...

Again, the 'wedding cake temple' which resembles a 'fairyland castle'. I mean you can either agree with me or be wrong, because this is not a wedding cake and I can't imagine any fairy coming close to this place.

Picture of one of the deities which you find in the 'wedding cake temple' which resembles a 'fairyland castle', in this case Ganesha. First picture in the blog is Kali. For some reason I've taken a liking to both of them; a bloodthirsty god of destruction and the serene god of knowledge. I guess it's a part of becoming Indianized, you start to love the extremes. 

At the Swarg Ashram side of town, near the place where the Ganga Aarti of Rishikesh (a ceremony which is more for show compared to the Haridwar one) takes place, there is this statue of the monkey god Hanuman eating his hart out. Or having it eaten out. Or just put something else completely cultural insensitive here. 

Pretty sunset picture. 



Next up, an exciting Intermezzo... The first time there was a genuine chance things were not going to end well.

zondag 3 november 2013

Holy As In Haridwar

Haridwar is one of the holy cities, the place where Mother Ganga - like me - leaves the Himalayas and heads for the plains of India. You can tell that it's holy just by looking around. Not only are there more robed people, more beards and more people that desperately need a bath, there are also more beggars and especially more beggars with missing/deformed limbs. The reason? When people come to Haridwar to wash away their sins, while they're at it they might as well earn some karma points by tossing a few coins at an invalid. That's my guess.

In order to live up to the name of a Holy city, you need a lot of temples. And Haridwar lives up to it, oh yes.  Some are nice, most are average and the others one are absolutely horrible. The last category is the sort of 'temple'  that's more like a mini-theme park of Hindu mythology, including moving statues of the Gods and Goddesses. You can even crawl through the fakest cave you've ever seen to get from one side to the other. However, no matter how cheeky, they still make you take of your shoes.

Taking a bath in the river at Haridwar is popular, but as they travelled for many even more people are interested in taking some of some this (spiritually) refreshing water home. To cater to that need there are dozens of improvised stores selling all kinds of canisters from 500ml to ones that would hold a few liters. Joining the crowd at the ghats I got some as well (in a spare lense box). If a few hundred million people regard it as holy, it can't hurt to take some water home, can it?

When a holy city meets a holy river, there's bound to be an aarti, a river worshiping ceremony. Once you dodge the uniformed collectors asking for a donation (I fell for it the first day, as you're not that sharp after a day in a cab), join the hundreds of devotees and the handful of tourists for a moment of chanting, bell-ringing and burning torch swinging. From the opposite side of the water it seems pretty hyped though, at least when you have no spiritual connection to the river. It's more interesting when you get to the side where the priests are and you feel the warm of the flames and the religious energy. The best part it to see how other people experience the ceremony and the cultural and spiritual importance it has for Indians.

Unlike in some other countries, in India the swastika is regarded as a common symbol which stands for good luck, fortune and so on. You'll see it everywhere (clockwise and counterclockwise), on buildings, cars and even Diwali decoration. After a while you don't notice it anymore. That is until you see a bunch of trucks with little swastika's on the back heading for a place called Nazibabad. That's when that little voice inside your head says 'Waaaaaiit a sec' and you have to convince yourself it's all just a coincidence... Swastika's heading for Nazibabad, that's not that strange. Not here. Not in India.

Haridwar at sunset. With the almost empty banks of the Ganga below, as the river is diverted into multiple streams at the city, making it that much safer for pilgrims to take a bath. Also, the river needs this space once the monsoon hits.

Pictures of the Ganga Aarti, the river worship ceremony. A time of fire, chanting and the sound of drums & bells as daylight dies and the evening starts. First is from the opposite side, second one is taken from near the priests during the ceremony, third is devotees asking for a blessing from the fire.

Glass Palace, Haridwar.

The theme park like ' temple'.