Thursday, April 7, 2011

McCleod Ganj and Amritsar Photos

It was cloudy most days but didn't rain much.  There were all sorts of trails in the mountains that were fun to follow.
Dumpster monkeys!
The villages had a little character too.  Much appreciated after the concrete blocks throughout most of India.
Monks getting schooled.
This kid starts a conversation in the bathroom then hijacks his family for a photo op.  Shoes weren't allowed and you needed to cover your head to go into the compound itself.
The Golden Temple, holiest shrine in Sikhism.  It was gorgeous, you can keep walking around and around to find different viewpoints.  The only temple in India that blew me away.
Another view.

Another thing about Sikhs, amazing hospitality.  These people are the volunteer dishwashers they help keep the free meals coming.  Gotta keep the dhal flowing.

Thursday, March 31, 2011

From Mountain Lamas To Golden Gurdwaras

Or in other words, from the exiled community of Tibetan Buddhists in Dharamsala to the Sikh Golden Temple in Amritsar.  Both were amazing and a great way to see the cultural diversity of India.  Sikhs and Tibetans also happen to be really, really friendly so that helps matters as well.

I'm currently sitting in a bar in Pokhara, Nepal enjoying an afternoon White Russian.  Nepal has been great so far, especially Tansen which is a small mountain town between the border and Pokhara.  I'll write all about it soon.  Pokhara is really touristy, with a surprising amount of Chinese tourists as well.  That said it's also fairly laid back and scenic with a lot of trees around town and a beautiful lake under the wooded foothills of the Annapurna Range.  My plan is to go trekking in a few days, probably the whole Annapurna circuit which takes about 3 weeks!

Now back to the trip...  I ended up going from Rishikesh to Mussoorie, an old British hill station that is still well known for its private schools and relative coolness.  Mussoorie was beautiful, and my first glimpse of snow-capped peaks, but like many hill stations it was over-touristy and I didn't have much to do other than walk around.  That and the Indian school kids, even the ones in private school uniforms, were all asking me for money.  That got annoying, especially when one 13 year old threw a rock at me after I lectured him a bit on why he shouldn't be begging from random strangers.  When the first words out of a kids mouth when they see you are "Ten rupees?" it gets old fast.  On a positive note, not a single Nepali child has asked me for money but instead have all been full of smiles and Namastes.  Yeah, Nepal is nice.

I was in Mussoorie for just a few nights then took a night train to Amritsar, the home of the Golden Temple (holiest place in Sikhism).  I was originally planning on staying there for a night or two but something inspired me to head straight to Dharamsalla.  That something was probably the heat.  And it was a great fortune that I did, because on the bus I learned from some German tourists that the Dalai Lama was giving a teaching in 2 days!  So all of a sudden I was a man with a plan.  Granted I didn't expect it to take 9 hours to reach McCleod Ganj (the town in the mountains above Dharamsalla) but I got there just before dusk and was able to settle into a nice guesthouse.

I toured the main Tibetan temple which was full of chanting monks and worshipers praying in various ways.  Tibetan chanting sounds like someone speaking through a didgeridoo and is all kinds of awesome.  There's also an informative museum there about Tibet and the exodus of so many fleeing China's colonization of the region.  Sadly Tibetans have no say in the matter, even today there's a total of about 6 million ethnic Tibetans in the world and increased immigration from eastern China into Tibet has meant that Tibetans are becoming a minority in the cities of Tibet.  And since Tibet is around 30% of China's land area and is rich in water and mineral resources it isn't going to be getting independence anytime soon.

Spin a prayer wheel, get good karma
The scenery around McCleod Ganj is gorgeous as well.  Lots of beautifully forested mountains with snow-capped peaks way in the background.  The people are really friendly and there are tons of small handicraft shops selling some of the nicest souvenirs I've seen in India.  Tibetan food happens to be delicious with Momos (like Chinese dumplings but better) and noodle soups.  I didn't find anywhere to eat Tsampa, the Tibetan barley-paste that is the staple diet in rural Tibet.  I've heard it's an acquired taste but wanted to give it a go regardless.

The best day of my entire trip happened here as well.  I woke up early at 6 AM and began the hike into town to see the Dalai Lama at 7.  On the way I grabbed some Tibetan flat bread on the street so I wasn't starving and made my way through the security checks.  I was really early since the teaching starts with a ceremony for the monks upstairs before they come down and the Dalai Lama teaches in front of everyone around 8:30.  But the early bird gets the best seat so I was comfortable through the whole thing and had a great view of His Holiness who gets animated and is a great public speaker even if I didn't understand a word he was saying without my headphones.  He does the teachings in Tibetan and there's a translation on FM radio that I took advantage of.  I was amazed at the amount of tourists who didn't do the 30 seconds of research it takes to find out you need an FM radio for translations though, a lot left halfway through the 2 hour long teaching.

He started by talking a lot about the need to study the philosophy behind Buddhism and not just follow the religious rituals of chanting mantras or turning prayer wheels.  He went on to explain about the interdependent nature of things and how clinging to material objects leads nowhere.  Next he addressed the new Tibetan refugees in the audience who had just come from Chinese-controlled Tibet.  It was a big moment for the entire community as the next day they were having their first elections to replace him as the spiritual leader.  He spoke to them about the need to abandon anger and how we can't live in fear and hate and expect to lead compassionate lives.  Eventually that lead to a reading of a story from the Jatakas and an explanation of its meaning, that one must strive to remove suffering and live an altruistic life.

It was a real honor to be able to see the Dalai Lama speak and was a great experience.  He has a real presence when he speaks and his teachings of compassion and the need for rational thought ring true.  I wish I could have gotten a few photos but no luck, cameras aren't allowed.

To continue the great day it was Holi and I got smeared with colored dyes as I walked back to my guesthouse.  Being an ethnically Tibetan community the celebration was pretty laid back but people still got into the spirit and were having fun.  And later in the afternoon, when all the alcohol and bhang kicked in, you could see people becoming argumentative drunks as they got themselves into trouble.  I decided to go on a quest for a bhang lassi myself but couldn't find one for the life of me.  The quest did lead me on a hike to the village of Dharamkot up in the hills though and I say THREE wild mongooses on the way!  I had left my camera back in my room though so only have the mental snapshots.

The rest of my time there was spent doing more wandering and enjoying of the sights.  I got a little sick off of a street-side falafel shack run by a one-eyed dude.  It was delicious and recommended by other traveler's but the next morning saw it pass through me like a rocket ship and delayed my trip by a day.  After recovery I was off on a bus to Amritsar to actually see the Golden Temple this time.  Getting sick meant I only had one night and morning but since you can sleep in the temple compound for free it made life easy.  The shortness of time also meant I couldn't go to the Indo-Pakistani border to watch the closing of the border ceremony but that's all good.  I'm pretty sure my mom would have freaked out if I told her I actually went to the border even though it's actually become a big tourist attraction with goose-stepping guards and lots of flag waving on both sides.

The Golden Temple itself is amazing.  There's an entire compound made of white stone all around it and in the center of a water basin stands this golden building with throngs of pilgrims entering it to pray almost 24 hours a day.  It's the home of the original copy of the Sikh holy book, the Guru Granth Sahib, and therefore is a 100% no shoes zone.  I even got requested to remove shoes from my bag because the luggage room was in the outer part of the compound and shoes needed to be kept in the special shoe basement across the plaza.  Sikhs are extremely hospitable as well, as a rule the Sikh temples host communal dinners and welcome strangers to stay overnight.  And since the Golden Temple is the grandest of Sikhdom they offer a special room for foreigners and have 24 hour kitchens churning out chapatis, tasty dhal and some sort of milk drink.  All for free!  I donated a little of course but the hospitality was excellent and the Sikh pilgrims were great as I wandered around their holiest landmark making dozens of faux pas.

The next morning it was another daytime circumambulation around the temple and a wait in the long line to see the inside.  Then off to the train station to catch my 12 o'clock train to Gorakhpur, a whopping 26 hours!

So my India journey was almost over and in the next big post I'll try to sum it all up if that's possible.  It ended up being just shy of 4 months and it seems like it passed by so fast.  But when I think back to the beginning of my trip it seems like ages have past.  I'll need to put up photos when I find a good connection, upload speeds here are dreadful.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

If I Ever Reach Enlightenment I Want It In Technicolor

My opinion of Hindu Yogis in Rishikesh isn't very high

So I should have been in Amritsar right now getting some rest after an 8 hour bus ride.  But waking up with explosive diarrhea (thanks one-eyed falafel guy) meant a quick rethink.  I could take some loperamide to stop up my system but the general advice with this stuff is to let it run its course and get out.  Luckily I feel fine otherwise so it's just an inconvenience and will limit my itinerary in Amritsar.  I'm really glad I brought that netbook though, a day of TV and video games is what I need when I'm sick.  Anyways, on to the blog.

My journey into the Himalayas started with a 20 hour train ride from Varanasi to Haridwar.  The timings were terrible too, it left at 8 in the morning and arrived at 4 AM the next day.  I tried to be sneaky and stay on the train to Dehra Dun (an hour north of Rishikesh instead of an hour south) so I could sleep a few more hours and have some sunlight.  But no, fates weren't smiling on me that day and they disconnected my train compartment before continuing.  So there I am, barely awake and stumbling out of the train in the dark of night.  It wasn't even left at the station platform so I had to wander around the tracks and follow Indian people's leads of ducking under the no crossings barriers to find a road.

I persevered though and found an open restaurant where I could get some chai to warm up.  As a change of pace the owner spoke almost no English so I actually had to use my pathetic Hindi to get some food.  Which then took an hour to get but good daal takes awhile to make I suppose.  For those of you that heard me talk a big game about studying Hindi before coming here...yeah that didn't happen.  For a few reasons actually:

1) I started in the South where more people speak English than Hindi anyways
2) Since I promised my girlfriend Jess I'll be back in Taiwan sooner rather than later it meant taking classes would have meant a lot less travel time
3) it isn't a very useful language unless your living in North India
4) My plans to go to graduate school in history evaporated once I found out what the life of Adjunct Professors is like and finally
5) I'm lazy.  Yeah, it's probably #5.  Whatever, I've learned to speak a fair amount of Chinese so that's good enough for me.

Once dawn came along I found the bus station and asked around to find the bus to Rishikesh.  Pretty uneventful, your usual smelly bus station with people peeing on the outer wall and a bunch of stray dogs hanging around.  On the bus itself someone dropped a bottle of water and broke it.  So in true Indian fashion they pass it up to me (I was next to the door) and ask me very politely to throw it out the open door.  I had one of those moments of indecisiveness.  I HATE the cavalier attitude Indians have towards litter and the way it ruins the countryside here.  But the guy was also asking in the most polite way possible and I didn't have the heart to say no and then insult his culture by telling him he was doing it wrong.  And it is part of the culture here, it's just that they didn't modify things after plastics were invented so the whole place gets covered in non-biodegradable rubbish.  The worst are these little packets of chewing tobacco with a scorpion on them, people will just dump them into their mouths and drop the packet on the ground in one smooth motion.

I should explain myself when I saw littering is part of the culture.  Even today in more traditional or rural settings you can still find things like cups and bowls made out of natural materials.  Chai gets served in clay cups that are thrown on the ground to dissolve afterwards.  Dust to dust you know.  And several times I've gotten samosas or other street food served in a bowl made out of tree leaves that are sewn (?) together.  There's no problem tossing out that sort of stuff.  But the fact that there are very few places with a garbage disposal service (most of it gets burnt) and a sort of "not my problem" attitude towards litter in public space means that pretty much anywhere you go in India you're going to see a lot of litter on the street that isn't going anywhere.

On the bus I double-checked the Rishikesh section of my Lonely Planet and decided to head to High Bank as it looked to be quieter and away from the main tourist area, which is actually away from the main city of Rishikesh proper if you're that interested.  I arrived in Rishikesh and had to do some quick haggling as I got out of the bus.   Immediately a young guy approaches me saying some nonsense like 150.  I counter with 50.  Now sense should dictate that you meet somewhere in the middle and should work towards a compromise.  That's the stupid way.  I learned from watching Jess haggle for something she didn't really want is that the best way is just pick a price that sounds fair and stick to that price til the bitter end.  It meant the young guy trying to rip me off was getting all excited, then a second rickshaw driver tried to rip me off for a slightly better price (80) until finally a third rickshaw driver came over and agreed to 60.  Happy that I got a decent price we start driving and I get dropped off at the base of the hill to High Bank.

Now at 7 AM everything is closed anyways and in High Bank the guesthouses are all called "Swiss Cottage" or "Swiss Villa" or crap like that.  It sounded a little too pricey for me so I kept walking and stumbled upon Mama's Cottage.  I had to call out a few times and was about to leave but just then Mama herself walks out and in her own unique form of English ushers me in for a chai while they clean my very nice double room with attached bathroom and actual hot water, all for under $5 a night.  It was a little strange at first because Mama calls all her male guests son and all her female guests daughter but the sheer novelty of it boosted my spirits.  Mama also made me realize what the word wizened really means.  You know how people say dog owners begin to look like their pets?  Mama owned a pug named Booju.  I'll leave the rest to your imagination.

High Bank was a blessing too.  The areas around the bridges, Laxman Jhula and Ram Jhula, are both insanely busy and filled with new-agey types in orange pants with Om-printed scarves and shawls.  I went down there for food, shopping and to go on walks but it didn't have the peace or laid back feel of High Bank.  Granted the 3 "Swiss" restaurants in High Bank all had identical menus that weren't so great but such is life.  Mama's thali (a set combo meal) was awesome every night I had it, with a pumpkin curry that really blew my socks off the first time I tried it.  I also tried banoufie pie there and loved it in all its diabetes-inducing glory.

I don't have too many photos of Rishikesh because for 3 weeks I mostly just relaxed and went on daily hikes through the forest.  It's at the start of the mountains so the views were nice but not spectacular.  The wildlife was really cool though, with two species of monkey to be found everywhere.  I dubbed them the cool black faces and the angry red butts.


 Another big attraction in Rishikesh is to go see the Maharishi ashram where The Beatles stayed in the late 60's and wrote parts of the White Album and Abbey Road.  There's a whole history to the encounter with the Beatles eventually leaving in disgust, though George Harrison and Paul McCartney later reconciled a bit ( ) .  The ashram itself is kind of spooky, it was abandoned about a decade ago and is a fascinating example of urban decay.  It's supposed to be closed off but there's a guy who you can bribe to open the gates for you.  Apparently he gets harrassed by the police sometimes but in true Indian style I'm sure he just pays them off and all gets smoothed over.

The entrance.  Lots of buildings had this kind of egg-shaped room and walls made of inlaid stones
The buildings were literally falling apart.  This South African girl followed me for awhile and was really friendly.  There's only so much an adult can talk about with a 12 year old girl though
These look like prison cells and were the living chambers of people.  It was pitch black in there, really spooky stuff.  I was glad some other people were around at the time

Well, that's about it for Rishikesh.  The best part, and why I stayed 3 weeks, was definitely the mix of people at Mama's.  I already talked about Steve who I got to know the best.  There were also some college students from Luxemburg there, a couple of german girls, plenty of Israelis (nice people, they get a bad rep), and a Scottish guy who was great just because his opinion was often the exact opposite of everyone else's.  As I said in an earlier post, people count and Rishikesh was by far the best mix I've found in India.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Varanasi Photos

 Kids flying plastic bags along the ghats.  They were a pleasant bunch and too busy having fun to bother me about rupees or chocolates.

 Preparations for the aarti that started just after dusk.

 Yes that's cow shit.  Yes it's used for fires inside people's homes, even for cooking.  And yes I'm very very thankful it isn't my job to collect and mold it into patties.

 Dawn is a crowded time on the Ganges with locals and pilgrims doing their bathing and tourists of all colors going out on the boats to watch it all.

This is a Shiva temple that's sunk pretty low.  Note that the river is also at one of its lowest points since it's currently the dry winter season.  I imagine during the monsoons it gets completely submerged.

Look close in the middle here.  Your eyes aren't fooling you, there's a TV on that boat.  This guy is out there every morning trying to sell religious DVDs to pilgrims and tourists.  There are also plenty of other "floating markets" out there to harass you a bit as you try to enjoy the dawn scenery.

A view of the burning ghats.  Selling wood, especially the much prized sandalwood, is big business in Varanasi and to my understanding there's a whole sub-caste whose job is to sell the wood and calculate exactly how much it will take to burn up your loved ones.  You're able to walk around and see it up close but photography is forbidden up there.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Holiest City in India

That title might be wrong but it's pretty close to the truth.  Varanasi is located at the confluence of the Ganges and Assi rivers which for some reason I'm not quite sure about makes it one of the holiest places to go.  Apparently a dip in the water can remove all sin and it's one of the most preferred places to be cremated in all of India  From what I've heard, water from the River Ganga is a crucial part of Hindu last rites no matter where you are.  So the banks are crowded with religious tourists, foreign onlookers, religious ascetics and lots and lots of Hindu ceremonies.

The downside to all this is that it's also one of the dirtiest rivers on the planet with a bacteria count that's out of this world.  I dipped my finger in it just to say I did but wasn't nearly brave enough to attempt bathing there.  Now some people think it's so dirty because of the cremation sites on the river and the fact that some bodies (those of children, pregnant women, sadhus and snake bite victims) are put into the waters without being burnt first.  I even saw a dead body floating down the river while eating lunch one day.  The truth of the matter, however, is that the 200 million people living upstream from Varanasi are dumping untold amounts of mostly untreated sewage into the water.  And if you think that's bad you should consider that Bangladesh is even further downstream and relies on the Ganges as an important water source.  Yeah, South Asia for all it's beauty and cultural diversity has PLENTY of problems.

My own trip actually began better than expected.  Lots of people had warned me about the touts, hash sellers and boatmen all hassling you at once your entire stay there.  Maybe it was losing my cool in Agra and getting it back, or maybe it was just mentally preparing myself for it due to warnings, but overall it wasn't that bad.  At the train station I was able to easily book onward travel (20 hour train to Haridwar, woohoo) and find a rickshaw driver to take me to a guesthouse someone had recommended.  Finding that place full I agreed to have the rickshaw driver show me another place and after a brief bit of haggling got a room with a balcony for 250.  That first night I wandered up the river to see the Aarti worshiping the river Ganga as a goddess.  On the way I was suckered into getting a massage on the ghats (the steps leading down to the river) by an old guy.  About halfway through a second guy joins in so there I am in the middle of the crowded ghats getting an admittedly great massage by two old men.  When they started being pushy about price (wanting something like 600 each) it became much less relaxing and after 5 or 10 minutes of protesting they finally stopped.  I ended up giving them 2 or 3 hundred because despite trying to con me they did do a good job.  Then I watched the ceremony which was filled with lots of chanting and clanging bells.  Lots and lots of bells.

I spent a lot of time wandering the streets over the next few days and, like in many Indian cities, that's one of the best parts.  Cows, goats, beggars, rickshaws, stray dogs and pedestrians all crowded onto narrow alleys.  I saw kids who couldn't afford kites flying plastic bags on strings.  People working to make patties out of cow shit to use for burning.  Public cremations at the burning ghats were an eerily calm sight.  Monkeys (which are revered due to Hanuman being Rama's helper) were about and there was a dead one on the sidewalk laid out on a sheet with some coins around it.  I'm just wondering if that monkey died of natural causes or was helped along since he seemed to be a money maker.

On the second day I set out to see Benaras Hindu University (BHU) since I heard it was a nice walk.  The first strike against it was the young man who as I walked in struck up a conversation.  Considering I wasn't in an overtly tourist area I figured he might be genuine so we chatted for awhile.  Then comes the talk of showing me the temples for a fee.  Then after that was declined he mentioned having cheap sundries in his backpack that he could sell me.  And having failed all that he began talking about how hungry he was and how he needed money.  Maybe I'm a cold-hearted bastard but you get this treatment all the time in India and when it comes from a young guy with two arms and two legs it just doesn't move me.  The second strike was the litter everywhere and the acceptance of it by the students and faculty.  The third strike was the park in the middle which has the potential to be beautiful, having nice trees, sculptures and ponds, if it wasn't for the garbage, broken irrigation flooding what little green grass there was and inch or two of sludge on the pond's surface.  All wasn't lots though, there was a nice temple compound there and I did have a pleasant chat with a French major as I was leaving the campus.

Later that day I ran into Jay and Sacha who were on the camel trek with me.  We chatted for a bit and arranged a time to go see sunrise on the Ganges together.  It definitely worked for me as it meant I'd be paying a third of what I would otherwise and have some company to boot.  I was pretty bleary eyed waking up before dawn the next day but we managed to find each other and had a nice boat trip with a polite and informative boatman.  After getting breakfast together and swapping stories we once more parted ways and I resumed my wanderings.

It's a fascinating city just to walk around, especially in the area along the ghats (the steps leading down to the river).  Everything seems to happen there from wedding ceremonies to cricket games to the burning of the dead.  The touts do get a little annoying with boatmen offering rides every few steps.  The drug dealers, some as young as 7 or 8, also get old so I began saying "Drugs are bad!" really loudly anytime they approached me.  Jay got a kick out of that since I was the one offering people (legal) bhang cookies on our camel trek.

So no pictures tonight as there's a problem uploading them on this connection.  I should also say that my experience of an easy time in Varanasi may not be typical.  Jay and Sacha were kicked out of their rickshaw from the train station halfway to their destination.  And since it was a prepaid rickshaw they couldn't do much about it.  Ahh India, so welcoming to tourists sometimes ;)

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Alabama, Crazy Ukranian and Steve the Buddhist Fireman

Travel.  As an experience it can bring out the best and the worst in someone.  It also tends to be defined more by the people around you than the place you're in.  If there's anything that I've learned this trip it's that people matter and can totally change your perception of the world around you.  The locals matter, a surly tout getting in your face can spoil an otherwise nice tourist attraction or a friendly guesthouse owner can make an otherwise ho-hum place feel like home.  Yet for various reasons (language barrier, common culture and experiences, lifestyle) it tends to be the fellow traveler's that you get to know the best when you're backpacking.  Here are three I don't think I'll be forgetting.

Alabama:  I think the name says it all.  He told me his real name at one point but then said to just call him Alabama (pronounced Aaa-la-baaa-meh) like everyone else does.  Usually in phrases like "Alabama, you're drunk" or "Settle down Alabama, you smoke too many drugs".  And drink and smoke he did.  After confirming that I was American his first question was, "So why you come to India?"  I started to talk about an interest in the culture and history from university but he cut me off right there.  "Don't shit around with me, you came for wake and bake and the parties".  Well, there was that too even if India isn't exactly a party nation.

I met this guy at my guest house's rooftop restaurant in Varanasi.  He's been coming to India for 20 years and apparently always stays at that guest house when he's in Varanasi, one of his favorite spots.  He was pleasant and we chatted quite a bit but due to substance abuse he usually forgot everything I told him so we'd have the same conversation the next night as well.  I have no clue how he made his money, he said he was trying to sell machined parts in India but that wasn't going anywhere this year.

Ilia the Crazy Ukranian:  I wrote a note on facebook about this guy.  He's the one I met down by the Ganges in Rishikesh when he was getting water.  He invited me back to meet the sadhu (Indian holy man) he was staying with in their tent/shack compound.  While smoking a few chillums I heard most of his life story as a drug addict before he began getting a little too enthusiastic about chakras and the horrors of the American military.  That's when I made my exit as my tolerance for weirdness was at its limit.

Ilia is from the Ukraine and near as I can figure doesn't come from money.  He got into drugs early and eventually got addicted to heroin.  A few years ago he moved to the Czech Republic illegally to work there and got even deeper into drugs.  Since his living situation was in a shared bedroom with a bunch of alcoholic Ukranians he said he would do uppers all night so he wouldn't need to sleep and then take another set of drugs during the day to keep him going at a more normal pace.  At some point I'm sure the 24/7 drug binge messed with his brain.

That's where India comes in.  Ilia is one of those guys who was "saved" by India.  He first went there with little or no money.  Being addicted to heroin he started getting into the drug game in Goa, India's premiere trance party/drug scene.  As an aside, no Mom I didn't go to Goa and haven't taken up a heroin habit.  Was offered opium a few times but turned it down ;)  Anyways, Ilia said that there he got addicted to street methadone which according to him is way worse than heroin on several levels.  Eventually he got off the stuff and being absolutely broke began living with sadhus in Goa and later Rishikesh.  Every so often the sadhu he's living with kicks him out though, I have a feeling even mystics have a threshold of crazy that they can handle.

Now, in case you weren't aware, sadhus smoke a lot of ganja.  It's a holy herb here in India and a special plant for Lord Shiva.  And to celebrate all that sadhus are pretty much stoned 24/7.  So despite this Ilia guy talking about cleaning up he really just switched his drug of choice.  Granted weed isn't so bad but I'm pretty sure "Move in with Indian ascetic, smoke lots of pot" isn't one of the 12 steps.  But his beliefs in the holiness of the Ganges and its power to cleanse sins were holding him up so more power to him.

Steve:  Now Steve is a Buddhist.  And was a fireman.  And is also the coolest cat I've met in India so far.  He was also staying at Mama's Guest House in Rishikesh.  And since I was there for 3 weeks we got to know each other over late night chai and I learned his story.

Steve was your typical cockney Londoner who grew up learning to drink and fight.  He lived close to Little India as well so he got bit early by a fascination with the culture.  At 16 he joined the Army (you can do that in Britain) and got shipped off to West Germany.  After 5 years of service he'd had enough, moved back and did the wife and career thing as a fireman.  Then many years later a burning house fell on him, broke his leg and ended his career.  He got a decent pension so with too much time on his hands he turned to the drink even more, lost his family, house, etc.

Now Steve took up traveling but mostly of the drink and party variety.  After a bout with malaria in Thailand he lost his stomach for drinking though and has never been able to pick it back up.  He did however find a purpose through Buddhism in his travels and was able to reform his life.  These days Steve will only read books on the practice and philosophy of Buddhism and can speak on it for hours at a time.  And even if he has a narrow focus in life he was pretty fascinating.  His belief in reincarnation, the pursuit of enlightenment to toss of the needs and suffering of the body and iron faith that he can remove himself from the cycle of death and rebirth were all intriguing.  It's so rare to find someone who can speak with conviction about that stuff and not give off weird vibes.

My attempts to capture these three individuals in a few paragraphs has certainly been lacking.  I'm pretty positive none will see this blog but apologies for any inaccuracies contained within and I especially hope Steve wouldn't mind me talking about him.  Out of all the people I've met in India, Steve is the only one I'd say I got to know really well and would call a friend even if chances are we'll never see each other again.  So wishing the best to these three, they've really planted deep impressions in my mind 

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Agra - Touts and Scams

I'm not to big on the must-see locations.  They tend to be overcrowded, tout-filled and in some cases more of a hassle than they're worth.  And to be sure 90% of my Agra experience was just that.  What made the difference between one of my worst stops in India and a worthwhile experience?  The Taj Mahal of course.

It really is a beautiful place and despite its popularity the area inside the gates is reasonably peaceful.  Sadly the tourist gate before you go in is Extreme India of beggars, child touts, pushy rickshaw drivers and all sorts of smells.  Yet Shah Jahan's masterpiece lives up to it's fame.  It's just the sheer size of the bugger that gets you, when I saw photos I knew it was big but not that big.

My visit to the Taj was actually my second full day in Agra and I was in a good mood after rebounding from my arrival and day 1 horror stories.  I suppose I was still missing that shanti feel from Jaisalmer.  Since Jaipur was a noisy headache I was a little on edge.  Then I arrive in Agra at 11 in the evening and am in for a rude awakening about levels of annoyance. 

First the rickshaw drivers near the train station were a surly lot unwilling to bargain and only too willing to try to guilt trip me into overpaying.  I ignored them and walked into town a bit to catch another rickshaw that I was able to get a fair price for.  Then I get to the hotel I want to check out and they're demanding twice the price they're listed as having in Lonely Planet.  Annoyed I march straight out to go room hunting sometime around midnight.  This is when I began to lose it as two rickshaw drivers I had never even seen before begin to follow me down the dark street.  I turn on them and tell them both to fuck off before I need to get the cops involved.  The older one backs off but the younger one tells me he's going home and just walking in that direction.  I tell him fine, walk a little further and stop by a lighted shop.  The bastard soon realizes I'm not moving and stops to wait for me.  I tell him to fuck off again and head into the next hotel.  While I barter for room prices the idiot rickshaw driver sits down waiting for a commission.  I explained the situation to the guy at reception to make sure the proto-stalker doesn't get money for harassing tourists.

Then the next day I headed to Fatehpur Sikri which is 45 minutes outside of Agra and home to a massive mosque and abandoned royal compound of one of the Mughal Emperors (Akbar maybe).  I was really hoping that it being outside the city would mean it was a little more chilled out and enjoyable but no such luck.  Older guys would follow and hassle you about giving you a tour.  Kids were everywhere begging or asking for your ticket stub as there must have been some sort of scam going on.  And on top of all that the sights weren't all that great.  This was the day that led to my post of frustration on the blog.  Luckily, I think that venting did me some good because the next day was a great success.

I was left with one day to see the sights in Agra itself and had to make the most of it.  I stumbled awake early-ish in the morning to see the Taj but the sound of rain lulled me back into sleep.  Getting up at a more reasonable hour I went to get breakfast (food was surprisingly cheap in tourist restaurants near the Taj) and set about waiting out the storm.  After it ended it was a mad race to see the Taj, Agra Fort and the Baby Taj all in one afternoon.  I saw them all and it was definitely a worthwhile experience.  Just to get into the Taj was 750 rupees and 250 each for the other spots.  For a little perspective, 250 rupees is a reasonable price to pay for a decent hotel room.  I wish I could put up more photos but the internet connection I'm on now is extremely slow.  You'll have to settle for this one of the cycle rickshaw I took to the Baby Taj.  A great way to see Agra even though I felt pretty bad for the old guy doing the pedaling!  He was nice, we chatted and had some samosas and chai together at our destination.

Then at 10 in the evening I was off to the train station, ticket in hand.  Sadly I was on an RAC ticket (reserved against cancellation) so had to sort through loads of papers to find my name.  It took me ages because I didn't realize they had a section for names written in Hindi and names written in English for each passenger.  After about 10 minutes I realized they had just written my name using the Devanagari alphabet and that my English name was blocked by a bunch of other papers.

Feeling frazzled but relieved I sort of had it figured out I headed to the platform to get a chai, water and some cookies as I wait for the train.  There are two guys, the guy working there and another guy chatting with him.  As I come up they help me out and then quote me the price 90 rupees.  I'm taken aback and check to clarify and they then say 80.  I'm really confused at this point but more interested in getting on my train then worrying about that so pay and move on.  As I find evidence I'm on the right track, and see the list of prices for chai, etc. at another stand I start to get pissed off.  They overcharged me by 50 rupees and since I had some time I decided to take a friend's advice and get angry to solve this situation.  Some loud confrontational words in front of the Indian customers and threats to get the station manager soon got me my correct change and I contentedly waited for my train.   I'm positive these guys are able to scam countless tourists who have just arrived in India just as they nearly got me.  Things here are confusing enough without people actively trying to make it harder on you.  That said, I didn't lose my positive mood and was able to confront the intensity of Varanasi head-on.  Til next time.