Tuesday, 27 January 2009

Memories of India

Is there another country in the world that's more memorable than India? Certainly, when it comes to just wandering around and soaking up the atmosphere (taking away the landscapes of somewhere like Canada and ancient monuments like Egypt's) the experience of being in India sticks in my head more than anywhere else. What about you? What the most memorable places - for good or ill - you've been to?

These are some of those Indian memories that are the strongest.

More than anything else, India is a land of opposites (Slumdog Millionaire really captures this). Roads filled with everything from SUVs to donkey carts, the filthy neighbourhood next to the Taj Mahal, women in gorgeous saris mixing concrete or sifting through rubbish.

I thought the whole sacred cow thing would be exaggerated. But no, they really do wander everywhere, like stray dogs. Interestingly, unlike New Zealand or European cows, Indian bovines have a big hump on their back - anyone got an idea why? While they're not destined for Burger King, I think I'd still rather be a Kiwi cow. At least they get to grow fat on farm grass rather than scavenge for scraps.

Wednesday, 21 January 2009

President Obama

You'd have to be living in a cave of some description or marooned on a desert island not to know that Obama was inaugurated yesterday. Given the time difference, Obama was inaugurated soon before I left work, I travelled home in the tube listening to fellow commuters saying "did you hear the speech?" and arrived at home back in front of the TV just in time to see Bush's plane flying off in the general direction of Texas. So, all in all, not very momentous at all. Tane watched the ceremony in his work cafeteria.

Dad and Gaylene, though, were there in D.C. watching as Obama was sworn in. They have a very interesting write-up of the event on their blog (click here) if you are interested in a more riveting description of the inauguration than mine!

Where were you? Did you feel impassioned or indifferent? Are you like Tane and reading opinion pieces on the event, or like the person I heard complaining today about how they are sick of hearing about it?

Sunday, 18 January 2009

Memories of Nepal

It's a bit sad how, now that we are back into the routine of life in grey, clean and cold London, the feeling of being amid the chaos and colour of Nepal and India is fading quickly. So while the memories are still fresh, here are some of the most vivid things about our trip - starting with Nepal.

Mad traffic
Nepali and Indian traffic is dreadful. Partly it's because there's no such thing as road courtesy and partly it's because there is such a huge variety of smaller vehicles on the roads, from motorbikes to rickshaws to horse carts, so people are always trying to squeeze past each other and into gaps. Two lane roads usually hold three lanes of traffic, or rather one big snarl of vehicles trying to shove past each other. Instead of using their rear vision mirrors, drivers toot to indicate that they're changing lanes or overtaking, in imminent danger of being hit by someone changing lanes or overtaking, or just because they feel like a good old honk.

It's particularly hairy in Nepal, when the general madness gets extra spice with narrow mountain roads and vehicles left to rust mid-lane. One particularly nerve-wracking moment involved our bus driver overtaking on a blind corner, with a massive drop off the hillside on our left and while talking on his cellphone.

One the bright side, for some reason Nepalis love musical horns and patterned ceilings on the buses.

The Himalayas
We only got to see them flying into and out of Kathmandu, and for one day near Pokhara. But they were unforgettable. No wonder they thought the gods lived up there.

Nepalis, particularly the men, like nothing more than a good snort, hoick and spit. Charming.

Having said that, the Nepalis are in general lovely, friendly people. Even if an alarming amount of them did want to sell me pot or hashish.

The drug dealing shouldn't be a surprise, given just how many young tourists come to Nepal looking for a good time. They come in two main types: the trekkers, with their polar fleece and pants of many pockets, and the hippies, all flowing clothes and hair. Kathmandu's Thamel area and the Lakeside section of Pokhara are magnets for travellers, crammed full of shops offering books, tramping gear, pashmenas, souvenirs or Ayurvedic medicine.


Stupas and temples
Hinduism and Buddhism (often mixed together) are huge in Nepal, as you can tell from the massive number of stupas and temples. Particularly memorable are the R18 carvings on some of the Hindu temples - the religion that brought us the Kama Sutra certainly isn't as prudish about sex as Christianity or Islam!

The stupa at Bodhnath, one of the world's biggest

Patan's temple-packed Durbar Square

And not just in the jungle of Chitwan National Park and the nearby town we stayed in, where elephants regularly wander down the main street. Animals, from wild dogs to hawks circling above the cities, are everywhere.

It's true that going to the Third World is a bit like stepping back into the West's past. Then there are the household animals - chickens, goats, pigs, buffaloes - kept for survival rather than cuteness. As an animal lover it's great, though it reminds you that Western animals are, like Western people, very well fed.

Carry that weight
Speaking of going back in time, you also see a lot more human labour in Nepal. People are often walking past with huge loads on their backs, held on by a strap around the forehead.

They're forever coming up to you, often for to harass you for money or gifts, but (and here's when it pays not to get too cynical and defensive) also to practice their English or talk to those strange tourists. I had some really nice chats with them.

Biggest disappointment
The constant haze in the valleys meant we could not see the Himalayas reflected in Pokhara's very pretty lake.

Best random moment
Playing guitar and singing along with some Nepali high school students on the bus from Kathmandu to Chitwan. They liked Nirvana, Guns N' Roses, Green Day and ... Bryan Adams (Everything I Do, I Do It For You must be the biggest song in the history of the universe), but were best at hammering out some cool Nepali tunes.

Friday, 16 January 2009

Slumdog Millionaire

It's been a long time since I've seen a movie that I loved as much as this. I don't really want to say anything about it in case I accidentally give something away, except that I thoroughly recommend it. Slumdog Millionaire was a fabulous movie to see so soon after being in India as well, and made me strengthen my resolve to go back there again some time. After its success at the Golden Globes I am interested in seeing how it fares at the Oscars, and hope that the Academy enjoyed it as much as me! Have you seen this movie yet? What did you think?

Not Mumbai, but some slums we saw in Delhi that I thought of when watching the movie.

Wednesday, 7 January 2009

When faced with poverty ...

One thing that I have wondered during this last trip to the Indian Subcontinent is this: what is the best course of action to take when faced with abject poverty, when you want to do something about it?
Some people in Delhi building a small police station. We watched them as we ate a meal that was probably worth more than they all earned in a day.

On one hand, many people argue that it's not a good idea to give to beggars , as it encourages the negative activity. Instead, they argue, one should donate money to an established charity, so the beggars may benefit indirectly from your money. Another course of action is to volunteer your services to help the poor, perhaps work in an orphanage for a while or build a school. On the other hand, some people argue that it's best just to give to the beggars. That way you are certain that the money goes to the person right in front of you. I haven't quite decided what I think yet.

A Tibetan refugee making handicrafts in Nepal.

Inside an auto-rickshaw in Agra. From what we understand the owners buy the rickshaw from the government and pay for a license then are able to pocket their earnings

In India, Tane and I decided not to give to beggars but to pour as much money into the local economy as we could afford. For example, once we knew we weren't going to blow our budget we decided not to haggle when all we stood to gain was an amount we'd spend without thinking in London. We tipped for good service, took local transport, and while we didn't want to be ripped off by locals, tried to keep in perspective what being ripped off meant. Sure, we paid 20 rupees too much for a rickshaw, but that's only 36p to me and unlike the rickshaw driver I don't have a high chance of contracting TB at a young age due to the nature of my work. I could lose 36p down the back of the sofa and probably not notice.

A rickshaw driver in Jaipur

What do you think when you are confronted with poverty? What do you do?

The Rajasthan Desert

India's Rajasthan province is famous for a few things of note. For example, men with long moustaches, chunks of black pepper in all the food, the Rajasthan desert, and camels. We were pestered by plenty of men with moustaches (who didn't seem to do much bar ask for money, for moustache maintenance perhaps?), and learnt very quickly to have some water handy at all meals should an excess of pepper find its way onto my fork. We also decided to do a camel safari through the desert, which proved an excellent way to see a different side of India.
There is no disputing the fact that five hours on the back of a camel is sore, especially when they run. It was worth the pain, however, as we saw Indians chilling in their front yards, goatherds chasing goats, and children that ran alongside our camels yelling "'hello! hello!" The desert is more Central North Island plateau than Sahara, but that made it all the more interesting. I loved getting out into the desert, and thoroughly recommend it to anyone else in the area - almost as much, in fact, as I would recommend avoiding the black pepper in the food!

Women digging a well

Friday, 2 January 2009

Pilgrimage to Pushkar

Tane and I are now one week into our time in this fabulous country, and India has continued to be a remarkable mix of the amazing and the disgusting. As a rule, at least one thing happens every day that is very unpleasant, but two or three things occur which make me never want to leave. On balance, I love it here.

An Indian street scene

At present we are in the beautiful Hindu pilgrimage town of Pushkar, a small town on a sacred lake where pilgrims bathe. Rumour has it that Gandhi's ashes are even scattered here. It's a lovely town, although as so many religiuous rituals are performed around and in the lake I am not comfortable getting too close, especially as people are cremated on the lake as well.
Nonetheless, I did take this photo which doesn't do the town justice but is my best attempt in a place where the sign "photography prohibited" is commonplace (it was OK to take a photo from this spot!). Seeing Pushkar at sunset was an amazing experience, and in true Indian form completely worth the long waits, hassling touts and bad bellies of the day before it.

Thursday, 1 January 2009

An Indian New Year's Eve

For us, New Year's Eve began before dawn. Looking like armadillos with our packs on both back and front, we walked past the Taj Mahal's East Gate where, for once, no one asked us if we wanted our money changed, postcards or a souvenir at a very good price. But we got a taste of hard-nosed Indian business practice when we got our auto-rickshaw (the ubiquitous three-wheeled Indian taxis). Being the only one there he charged us probably double the going rate.

It was a great ride though. The normally clogged streets of Agra were empty of almost everything except stray dogs and a handful of early risers pulling carts, so we raced towards the train station. We had a soundtrack too, as our driver blasted out some Indian pop. Narrowly avoiding a crash with another auto rickshaw on a roundabout, we got to the station in probably a quarter of the time it had taken us the day before. With visions of The Darjeeling Limited in our heads, we skirted around the people sleeping at the station and went to see what platform we were on.

Then the man at the enquiry counter said the Marudhar Express was going to be four hours late.

Not to worry, there was a very good bus leaving at 6.30am, another rickshaw driver told us. So we dashed off again, forgetting in our hurry to see if we could get a refund on the train ticket.

There was indeed a bus. Which left one and a quarter hours late.

Still, aside from that frustration and toilet facilities that consisted of the back wall of the bus station, it was a good trip. We snoozed for a while and chatted to a very well traveled pair of Aussies, who are doing what many do in this part of the world and are taking months to see the Subcontinent. I'm not sure what it is about India, but we've met some exceptionally cool people on this trip.

And of course, we could always watch scenery go by. Colour and chaos and industry and poverty and temples and trash - India is endlessly fascinating.

Indian street scenes

We struck gold in Jaipur, with The Explorer's Nest, possibly the best (certainly the friendliest) place we've stayed at. One of the highlights of our trip was sitting on the roof in the late afternoon and watching the sky come alive with kites. Anyone who has seen The Kite Runner can pictures the scene - boys and men all over the city standing on rooftops, floating kites in the breeze and trying to cut the cords of their rivals. The trees and power lines are littered with kites that were on the losing end of the duels.

Another highlight came a few hours later, when we, the owners, two Thai men and an American couple sat around a fire on the roof, drank spicy soup, had a few drinks, ate some delicious cake, talked about travel and life, and watched fireworks bloom in all directions as the clock hit midnight.

Best New Year ever.