Last days in India

It was time to go back to Delhi, but I decided to make a stop in Haridwar, another holy city at the river Ganges. Not far from Rishikesh and convenient for a stop-over for what would be otherwise an uncomfortably long travel day.

Photo left: god
Photo right: more gods.

In the evening I walked along the fast flowing Ganges. There were beggars, sadhus and pilgrims. It looked much like I thought a leper colony would look like. Rags hung over bushes that could be makeshift tents or perhaps laundry or just rubbish. It was hard to tell. Families were eating in the midst of all the filth. While the sun was doing its evening wizardry, crows were circling in the air and a man was stirring something in a big cauldron that hung over a smoky wood fire.

Back at my hotel I found a small restaurant and had a vegetable curry for dinner. Holy cities in India only serve vegetarian food and even eggs are hard to find.
Rice?
No, I don’t eat rice.
This time I was lucky. I had finally found somebody in India who could make a palatable curry. It had a rich flavour and I scooped it up with the chapatis I had ordered.

Haridwar_temple

Temple in Haridwar

The bus from Haridwar to Delhi stopped somewhere half way because of protesters had gathered on the road. A man dressed in immaculate white dhoti and kurta with an oily hairdo, was addressing a circle of followers with a loudspeaker. They were sitting in the middle of the road. It took more than three hours before a representative of the local administration reached an agreement with the protesters and we could continue our journey. Back in the half empty bus a man asked me about the bottle of mineral water that was laying on the seat next to me. I said it belonged to the conductor of the bus. Oh, that’s all right then, the man said and took the water and used it to clean his shoe of some vomit. Some people had left the bus when we were waiting and as we suddenly hurled forward they came running for it. Nobody knew if we were complete.

In Delhi I took an auto-rickshaw to Paharganj where I found a room for 500 rupees. I must have got dehydrated because I had a headache and so I drank a bottle of mineral water and went to bed early. The next morning I woke refreshed and everything was wonderfully quiet. Except for the blaring television in the next room, someone shouting in his mobile phone outside my window and a man retching in the corridor.

canisdelhii

Canis familiaris delhii in its natural environment

Leaving my hotel on my way to the airport I found this dog [photo above] sleeping in a pile of rubbish.

At the corner sat a man who sold books and for a few hundred rupees I bought Stephen Hawkings The Grand Design – New answers to the ultimate questions of life.
It was just what I needed.

At the airport I waited in line for security. Two Indians stood before me. One asked: Which country you from?
Yugoslavia, I said.
We are going to Russia, he said. We fly to Astana in Kazakhstan.
Where in Russia, I asked.
To Astana and then to Russia, he said.
Yes, I said, but where in Russia.
We don’t know.
You don’t know?
It’s our first time to Russia, he said.

 

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Indian diary

In the morning I walk to the German Bakery. One of at least a dozen. The idea has caught on, but I mean the one next to the bridge. Here I have my americano and a sandwich of brown bread with tomato and cheese. If there is electricity. If there’s no electricity I have a filter coffee. Sometimes I love India and sometimes I hate it. The smells, the cows, the laughing children.

Bowie1

Yesterday I witnessed a ceremony as I was sitting in the sand, next to the river, reading Murakami. It was the end of Diwali and a family was piling up fruit and flowers. The father was fumbling with a candle. Then he stood back and started praying aloud. The women waded into the water, waist-deep, and stood in silent prayer. The incense smelt incredibly sweet. Another man came with a basket and the younger daughter of the family splashed water on the sand to purify it. The man, maybe her uncle, waited with the basket on his head. Then, with a wicked smile, she splashed some water at him while he set down his load. Dogs lay in the sand, not sure what to expect.

In the German Bakery  I overheard some girls sitting at the next table.
They don’t get the philosophy, one of them said, it’s so holistic.
Holistic, I thought. How can we know anything holistic?
Then they talked about their hair. It’s very beautiful. You have a lot of hair. Your hair is one colour. It is so thick…

When I moved into a building a bit further in the fields, Deepak had promised me that I would wake up to the sound of birds. Next morning a crow sat cawing on the balcony. After some time I grew tired of the monotonous sound. I wrapped a blanket around my waist and walked out to throw a flip-flop at the bird. It flew away. Kraa-kraa. I went downstairs to pick up my flip-flop. A peasant neighbour looked baffled.
Crow. I pointed up in the sky. Big crow. Big noise.

Today everything is wrong. Last night it rained. Now an all pervading sense of purposelessness. Is that a word, purposelessness?
Now what? The dogs keep barking, yelping. I walk along the Ganges for a while.

Next day is a much better day. Noise goes straight through me. Deepak helps me getting a good price for a haircut. The day before I had asked around and everywhere it was 150 rupees. Now I pay 70 rupees. Indians pay 50 rupees. After the haircut the barber massages my head vigorously, as if he wants to rub out the remaining hair.

A sachet of shampoo costs one rupee. A few dollars would be enough to wash all the beggars of Rishikesh…

poem1

Some of the Vedic knowledge is surprisingly practical:
– Meditating in the east or southeast zone of your house can make you more anxious.
– Doing your regular exercises of yoga in the south or southwest direction of your house will actually make you more sick/weak.
– Having a toilet in the north direction of your house can destroy your new opportunities and career.
– If you want to keep continuous cash flow in your life, remove water-body or blue colour from southeast direction of your house.
– If you place plants in southwest direction of your house, your relationships will always be at stake.

poem2

On my way to the German Bakery I walk past a wall with some posters that advertise
Astral Travel Courses –  Out of body experiences in 5 days. Travel regardless of time and space and achieve your most secret desires. Be out of your limits.
Alternatively, you could also spend your money on Reiki, levels 1 and 2, that will teach you self healing methods, how to heal others and, my favourite, the distance healing method. Other pursuits are: Ganga astrology, numerology, palmistry, tantra, rebirthing, hypnotherapy, music therapy, tai chi, ecstatic dance, sound baths and scream therapy.

In Kerala, in the south of India, there is a temple with no statues. Inside there are only mirrors. If you ask: where is the god? The answer is: look in the mirror.

Crazy India

 

The Valley of the Saints

Rafting on the Ganges has become a very popular activity in Rishikesh. For some time I watched Indian tourists in boats coming down the river. There seemed to be an endless supply of them. They were all waving, screaming with joy, shouting and paddling. Sometimes in the right direction.

The Ganges is the source of life on the North Indian plains and though it was much appreciated it has long been a mystery where it originated. Early man must have wondered where all this water was coming from. Bloody awful lot of water, they thought.

Millions of years ago the Indian subcontinent, which was until then a continent in itself, collided with the Eurasian continent. It caused the earth’s crust to ripple, much like a table cloth if you push it together. The sea in between the approaching continents rose and became the Himalayas. Some of the fish, mainly the older ones, couldn’t get away in time and died. Some fossilised, so that is how we know. Soon – in geological terms – the peaks of the mountains reached the cold upper layers of the atmosphere where they must have scared the shit out of the pterodactyls which were just then experimenting with how not to fall out of the sky. Water, evaporated from the tropical oceans, drifted towards these mountains, cooled down and formed layers of snow. Over time these layers thickened and became glaciers that, under their own weight, started to glide down the slopes. At a lower range the ice started to melt and the water formed a river that found its way south to the Indian plains. At first that must have been quite a spectacle. Imagine having tea with some friends in the garden and, quite unexpectedly, all this water was all over the place. Where did that come from? Must be one of those rivers that come down the mountains. Because of all the fossilised fish, the river was rich in minerals and its occasional floods formed fertile land where early civilisations could flourish because, all of a sudden, rice and papayas were growing everywhere. Then, much later, some of the more curious and adventurous men, travelled upstream in search of the origin of the river. For many days they followed its coarse until they reached the place where it came gushing out the mountains. They asked an old man who lived there if he knew where the river came from. No idea, the old man said, it just seems to come down from those rocks yonder. Been like that practically my whole life. No, haven’t been up there. I have no time for such foolishness. The cows need milking every morning.

In Hindu mythology the goddess Ganga came to personify the Ganges river. She was the goddess of Forgiveness and Purification. Her waters were thought to be caught in Shiva’s matted hair from where they flowed down in five rivers, the Ganges one of them. Bathing in her waters is believed to cause forgiveness of sins and to help the pious in attaining Moksha. Nobody knows exactly what Moksha is, but everybody seems to want it. Possibly some sort of ice cream.

God in Rishikesh:

krishna

When I first arrived in Rishikesh I found an ashram where I stayed for a while. It contained a music school and on Sundays they gave concerts. The sound reminded me of some Beatle songs from their psychedelic period. The Beatles came to Rishikesh in the sixties to meditate. Ringo Starr had brought two suitcases. One of them filled with Heinz beans cans. John Lennon said the food was lousy. They meditated and when the Heinz beans were finished, Ringo Starr went back to England. The rest followed some time later and soon the Beatles were back in the studio recording their famous White Album.
Near the ashram where I stayed was a big temple and it wasn’t long before I got fed up with the endless chanting and preaching from its loudspeakers. The prevailing opinion is apparently that god is nearly deaf. Longing for some peace and quiet I moved to a hotel in Tapovan at the other side of the Ganges.

Rishikesh attracts all kinds of mystics and it has become a magnet for the gullible. It is not uncommon to see young girls cuddling a flea-ridden street dog or hugging some beggar woman. Some of them go barefoot. Most of them wear Indian style clothes. They carry yoga mats under their arms and iPhones in their back pockets. It’s remarkable how a largely scientifically illiterate population makes extraordinary claims about the universe, its origin and its workings. Insights that came from babas, old men, who have arrived at their wisdom through many hours of meditation. Staring at a wall or chanting the name of God.

This is in stark contrast with modern science which built the Large Hadron Collider. Some say that without India’s contribution of the mathematical idea of zero, none of that would have been possible. And that is true. Try to build a Large Hadron Collider with Roman numerals. You wouldn’t get far. Still, they discovered the Higgs boson and are on track to unravel the mysteries of the early universe. Though, admittedly, they haven’t found the name of god yet.

In a small eatery I had ordered a dosa, a kind of pancake that is served folded as a newspaper. As I was waiting for my meal I watched a dog outside that was stretching itself after a nap. It had its eyes closed in an obvious state of bliss, front legs extended, knees bent… Maybe that’s how yoga was invented, I thought. Then my dosa arrived and it had my favourite coconut chutney on the side.
When I looked again, the dog was licking its balls.

ganges

Bathing my foot in the Ganges

Delhi belly

From the airport I took the metro to the city.

The first hotel I checked in was okay. Next to the door of my room was a small panel with at least ten switches. One was to switch on the light and one to switch on the fan. The others didn’t seem to have any purpose. Maybe they were designed to fire off nuclear missiles. I don’t know. Then I left to have some lunch. When I came back they had started renovations in the room next to mine. The noise was appalling and so I decided to go out for a walk through Old Delhi.

From my hotel I crossed the railway line and walked through Old Delhi to the Red Fort. It was built by the Moghuls with thick walls to keep most of the people out. Now most of the people are welcome provided they are willing to pay the entrance fee. Some foreign visitors find it galling that they have to pay 500 Rs whereas Indian nationals only pay 35 Rs.  That’s only fair, I thought, after all, it’s their fort.

The next day I checked into another hotel. The place was run by an older lady who was very particular. She hardly ever left her room where she was lounging on her bed amidst cushions and drapes. Every time I had a request or a question, I was invited to come in and sit down at the end of her bed. It felt not unlike having an audience with an oriental despot. Being from a Sikh family, she always wore a little dagger dangling from her hip. She was very outspoken in her opinions.

She had recommended a small dhaba around the corner where I had a chicken curry for dinner. When I left, the owner gave me a business card with on the back a small map with on it the location of his establishment. I studied it and decided it was the most inaccurate map I had ever seen.

Then I fell ill and I knew it was the chicken curry. For one whole day I felt abominable and just lay in bed. Why did I ever go to Delhi? Why couldn’t I have gone somewhere else and swim with dolphins or something?

After I had recovered, I drew a map of Delhi:

delhi_map_small

My map of Delhi

I think I should do more maps.

I read an article on the Bloomberg website: cities…. including New Delhi are set to run out of groundwater as early as 2020… Luckily well after the expiry date of my Indian visa …more than 27 million people live in or around New Delhi with about 700,000 more joining them each year. Since 2005, the government’s two main housing programs for the poor have built around 43,000 new homes in New Delhi. In the same time, the capital’s population has risen by as much as 10 million, in large part due to the arrival of poor rural immigrants. Many are above the official urban poverty line of 47 rupees a day, but are not quite middle class.
This last sentence easily qualified as the understatement of the year. These 47 rupees, I found, are from a report published in 2014 (according to a Times of India article from that year) and therefore not quite up to date given the depreciation of the rupee over the last couple of years. Still, even corrected for inflation, it is still a depressingly low number. Of course, the notion that Indians who earn more than 47 rupees per day should not consider themselves poor, is utterly ridiculous. It seems more indicative of the attempts of the Indian government to boast about the number of people lifted from (extreme) poverty.

My illness had made me grumpy.

– Where are you from?
– I am from Holland.
– What you think of Delhi?
– Terrible.
– Can I take picture?
– No.

And it was true. The traffic was appalling, the stench was overwhelming, the noise was inescapable, the people seemed rude, they were everywhere, and I couldn’t eat the food. I still had no appetite. Especially the rice with curry appeared to me as some substance regurgitated by a large animal.  In the streets all kinds of delicious vegetables were readily available but by the time the Indians had finished cooking them, they had  lost all texture and were transformed to a brownish, overcooked muck. For some time I survived on brown bread, peanuts and fruit. It is curious that so far, the best Indian food I have ever tasted was last year in England where I regularly bought chicken masala. They were the ready meals from Sainsbury’s and just needed warming up in the microwave. A good second must be the mouth watering chicken tandoori I used to eat in Penang, Malaysia. Both are proof that Indian food can be delicious. It’s just that I can’t seem to find any in India.

I thought a change of air would do me good and so I decided to travel to Rishikesh and for that I had to buy a train ticket to Haridwar. This was most easily done at the New Delhi railway station which had a ticket office for foreigners. The office was almost empty. The procedure was cumbersome. First you needed to fill out a form. It asked for the destination. That was easy: Haridwar. Train number. No idea. Train name. No idea. Time of departure. No idea. So I asked a clerk who looked at his computer screen where he could find the information I needed. My train would leave two days later from the Old Delhi railway station and it was called the Mussoorie Express. I love  it when train have names.

The day I had to travel I was still weak, and more worryingly, I had to run a few times to the toilet. Fortunately, during the day my condition improved. In the evening I took an auto-rickshaw to the Old Delhi railway station. It was a mess. Like most of Old Delhi it seemed to be built on a pile of putrefying waste which slowly oozes out of its pores. I didn’t dare to touch anything. Everything looked tired and derelict.

Then the train arrived. People stormed the first few carriages. Those were the ones with unreserved seats. I traveled sleeper class: open, airy, bare bunks, and cheap. After I had found my berth I took off my shoes, wrapped myself in a sheet and went to sleep. When I woke up we had arrived in Haridwar. It was raining.

Indian visa

September is a wonderful month to be in Europe. The weather was still beautiful, but the crowds were gone. After packing some gear on my bicycle I set out to visit friends and family. They lived everywhere.

Pencil and paper and renaissance examples.

At my father’s house I sat down to apply for my Indian e-visa. An e-visa, or electronic visa, is a visa that can be obtained over the internet. After the visa is granted it can be collected on arrival at the airport in India. It is much faster than the standard bureaucratic procedure. It took me most of the afternoon and I was still struggling with it after dinner. At first the questions were straightforward and even then there were many surprises. Gender had three options and the form also allowed for a name change. When it came to your country of birth the list to choose from was comprehensive. It contained Wallis and Futuna and even Pitcairn was featured which, according to Wikipedia has only 50 inhabitants. It also provided Tibet and Taiwan as options which I was sure would anger the Chinese but the Indian bureaucracy, apparently, is afraid of no-one. As to the choice of the level of my education I had to look up what the word matriculation meant,  though illiterate was an option too.  Then more challenging questions followed and you have to be careful, because once your application is refused you lose your money and you will have to try again. So I searched the internet to see what the right answers were on some of the tougher questions. For example the one as to what my profession was. Obviously telling them I was unemployed wasn’t a good idea and would invite other, more difficult, questions, like, if I thought being lazy and hanging around on the sofa all day was such a wonderful life, and maybe I should do something back for society. So I chose the option self employed / freelance and even then they wanted to have a name of a company as if they were doubtful anyone would ever hire somebody like me as a freelancer. So I had to come up with a name and after ample consideration I  gave them the name of this blog. Then my session expired and I could begin again. My father’s place of birth, my mother’s place of birth, their birthmarks, favourite toys and other stupid questions. The countries I had visited in the past ten years, complete itineraries, hotels I had stayed at, restaurants I had eaten at, travel agencies I had used, receipts of the above in US dollars and corrected for inflation. Unfortunately, the names of the countries I had visited in the past ten years didn’t fit in the box so I left out the ones that I thought might be looked upon unfavourably. My religion was asked and, yes, in India you must have one. It’s unthinkable not to have one. Who created you? You think you come from apes? Ha ha. Had I visited India before? All details must be given, dates of entry and dates of exit, visa numbers, all people I had met, their addresses and the addresses of their holiday cottages and so on, and so I decided I had never visited India before. Not ever. Inexplicably, my session had expired again. In the end came the really dumb questions: whether I had ever been caught trafficking Plutonium, did I know what it looked like, what it smelled like or where you could buy some? Whether I had ever worked for Pakistan’s Intelligence Service, if so, please provide a list of undercover names including all passport numbers and credit card numbers. Whether I had ever been operating an illegal drugs laboratory and was it really that easy to make a lot of money with that. And of course these are all trick questions and if you answer ‘yes’ your  visa will be refused. In the end you have to state that the answers you have provided are all to the best of your knowledge and well, um, let me think… Yes. Now please give me the visa.

MuchaDetail

Sketch after Mucha

After that I cycled around the country some more. Then my visa came through and I could fly to India.

 

Sukhothai

The journey by train from Bangkok to Phitsanulok in the north of Thailand was a cheap and thoroughly enjoyable experience. The day before my intended departure I went to Hua Lamphong station to book my ticket with all the important info I had collected online. It had to be Train 51, Chiang Mai bound, upper berth, no air conditioning, for the sum of 409 baht. Upper berth was fine. It is the cheapest category. It has no window and limited space but as I would travel at night that was of no concern. The booking was a breeze with a minimum of red tape and after that I had lunch at the air conditioned food court inside the station which did a fantastic pork noodle soup.

The next day I checked out and took the river taxi to Hua Lamphung. After boarding the train I found my berth and made myself comfortable. Not long after the train left, the conductor checked my ticket and it wasn’t before long that the monotonous noise that is typical of train travel sent me to sleep.

thai_nighttrain

The night train to Phitsanulok

I arrived in Phitsanulok very early in the morning and I waited at the station till it got light. From there I had to walk to the bus station where I took a bus to New Sukhothai. So far everything went according to plan.

Sukothai was formerly the capital of Thailand (1238 – 1438) and is famous for its architecture and classical Thai art. For less than a dollar I rented a bicycle that was really only fit for children, but with my knees all over the place, it got me around. The grounds were nicely kept and some shady trees made for a nice picnic area where I ate my lunch of deep fried chicken. It tasted awful.

Old Sukhothai photos. Another UNESCO world heritage site.

Life in Sukhothai proved to be cheap. Sticky rice with minced meat for 15 baht. Lunch and dinner averaged between 30 and 40 baht. Deliciously soft durian pieces for 100 baht. After the first day I moved to a cheap hotel where I paid 200 baht per night and it proved great value for money. It was clean, quiet and spacious. It even had a small coach and I was provided with towels, toilet paper and reasonable wifi. It was the kind of hotel that made me happy.

soursop

Custard apple or sweetsop

At a small roadside stall not far form my hotel I bought some fruit that I thought was soursop. But if you google it a lot of images turn up that look very different from the one above. I’ve eaten soursop before in Malaysia and Indonesia where it is known as durian belanda because is resembles a rather large and prickly fruit not unlike the true durian. The custard apples, which are related to the soursop, were smaller and had no soft spikes. The flesh was deliciously sweet and creamy. It was very soft. Something I only noticed when I got up and found out I had accidently sat on one and had squashed it.

ricefield

Cycling among the rice fields that surround Old Sukhothai.

From Sukhothai I took a night bus back to Bangkok’s Mo Chitt bus terminal. From there I took the subway to the city centre.

BangkokTransport

Old photograph in the MRT station showing a rickshaw in front of Hua Lamphung station

Some weeks before, I had bought a flight back to the Netherlands for a short sojourn to visit family and friends. I would fly with the budget carrier Norwegian Air. It was very cheap, but I kept receiving ominous, almost threatening, emails, warning me that I had not reserved a seat and in that case the airline would assign me a seat. The general gist was it wouldn’t be a nice one. Possibly in the middle of the aircraft, in between screaming children and fat people next to me, falling asleep, leaning over me and drooling in my lap… No meals were included so I had brought some chocolate bars and peanuts. To be on the safe side I had filled a water bottle in the transit area of Suvarnabhumi airport in Bangkok. In the end the flight was rather painless and even comfortable. I had a layover in Stockholm and from there it was cattle class to Amsterdam where I arrived tired but with a minimum loss of money.

Thai times

From Battambang in Cambodia I first travelled to Poipet with a sleeper bus. The bus was run by cowboys. They were raucous young men. They laughed and played loud music over the speakers. So loud that tremors ran through the whole bus that left everything and  everybody in it vibrating with the singsong of Cambodian celebrities who were jubilating their new found love. I asked them politely to turn it down as I wasn’t really ready to share the joy of Cambodian love making that early in the morning. After they had complied with my request, I lay down again and looked some more at the Cambodian countryside even though I’d seen a lot of Cambodian countryside by then.

Poipet is a Cambodian border town and synonymous with corrupt officials and an extortionate taxi mafia. But this is mainly a problem coming from the Thai side. Travelling from the Cambodian side, the border crossing was a painless affair with just the usual queueing, the filling out of forms and officials stamping documents. At the Cambodian side they wanted my fingerprints which I generously granted and at the other side the Thai wanted my photograph and so I tried to look my best. Welcome to Thailand.

From the border to Bangkok I travelled in a minibus but the driver was the worst ever. When we got closer to Bangkok the roads became more congested and our driver sped over the shoulder lane overtaking left and right. Several times he attempted shortcuts and once we drove over quiet country lanes until we came to a standstill before a lake. Then we turned around and drove back to the highway. In Bangkok we were unceremoniously dropped off far away from where I wanted to be. It was probably close to where the driver lived…

MySisterAndMe

Me and my sister

In Bangkok I met my sister and her family who were on holiday. They had a wonderful hotel with air conditioning, a swimming pool and rooms that contained more than one piece of furniture. Together we walked through the city and I bought a durian because I thought they wouldn’t like it so I could eat the whole delicious fruit by myself, but they did like it and that made me very proud. Most people wouldn’t even try it because of the smell. Then we had dinner and we had green curries and pad thai.

It was a great success.

tuktuk_paintjob_small

watercolour tuk tuk, digitally pimped with GIMP

 

Next: Sukhothai