Welcome to another plannet called "India"
Trip Start Feb 20, 2002
26Trip End Nov 18, 2002
I'd been reading the guide books and had talked to a number of people about Delhi... I thought I was prepared for the assault on this new city.
I had it all figured out. One pre-paid taxi from the booth, then straight to my hotel in Neruh Bazaar. As soon as I marched into the arrivals hall of the Delhi Airport the touts started to hound. Yelling and whistling from every corner. "No fazing this backpacker!" I thought as I headed for a phone. Damn, no change.
"Can I get some change?" I asked a store keeper in the arrivals section.
"You make local call?",
"No problem use my phone!" the curiously kind man said
I called my hotel, "Any singles available, I'm at the airport?" "Yes we have, but if you are taking a taxi here, you'll never make it to the hotel. The drivers are all crooks!" he shouted.
"I'll make it don't you worry." I re-assured him.
I knew about the crooked taxis that would zip you off to a hotel of their choice where they collected a sweet commission, which was, of course, charged back to you, and I wasn't going to let that happen to me.
"Thanks for the phone" I said to the shop keeper as I threw my pack on and walked out the door.
He stopped me as I was leaving "5 rupees!". "What? I thought you said free." That's where the illusion faded. This was to be the first taste of the bitter tasting Delhi that I'd have to endure for the next 3 days.
I barked my way through the packs of aggressive touts and cabbies to finally collapse next to the pre-paid, official, taxi stand.
Walking over to the cab, a boy clawed my backpack away from me, something I was very unwilling to let him do, and threw it in the back seat.
"10 rupees!" the boy said.
"For what?", I protested.
"For the porter"
"What? I never asked you to rip my pack off my back! As a matter of fact I didn't even want you to... sorry no rupees for you.". I was getting frazzled and my patience was wearing thin. A nagging head ache started to settle in as I told the cab driver to start driving.
"Do you know where Nehru bazaar is?" I yelled over the incessant honking.
"I am new, no english, not know Nehru but we get information". Sensing something was amiss, I calmly pointed to the map tapping my finger on the street were I wanted to go. He kept driving, not saying a word. Before I knew it we were parked outside a "Tourist Information" office. Ahhh yes, the tourist information office! I'd read about these. This was where they called my hotel to find out it's location, then, with an accomplice on the other end of the line, they would tell me that my reservation was cancelled, the hotel had burned down or some other crazy story.
"Nonono, I don't need information. I have a guide book and a hotel." I impatiently shook my book in his face, refusing to exit the cab. He insisted I go into the shady info center. "Look, do you know where this hotel is?"
"Nay" he shook his head,
"Do you know where Nehru Bazaar is?"
"Nay, nay" he shook again
"Do you know where we are, rrriiiggghhttt now?" I started getting agitated
"No" he replied, with a straight face.
Feeling very vulnerable, in a dark Delhi alley with a belligerent cabby, I got snappy, "Then how the hell are you a cab driver? Listen, I payed you to take me here!" I had the map open and was now violently stabbing my finger at the heart of Neruh Bazaar.
"if you didn't know how to get there, why didn't you say so from the airport! I'll be honest, I don't understand the problem. You are a cab driver, I paid you to take me to my hotel. Now take me there or I am getting out right now." He could tell that I was starting to losing it.
"Ok, we try" he started the cab and drove away from the information center. I wasn't going for his ploy.
Within 5 minutes he magically found his way to the bazaar and dropped me in front of my hotel, no map or directions needed. "Funny how you now know where the bazaar is now." I sneered.
As I opened the door of the cab and stepped out, he turned and shouted "You give me tip."
"No, I don't think so." I said, once my pack was firmly fastened to my back and the cab door slammed shut.
'My god, the nerve.'
Ok, so I lost my cool but that was the start of what was to be a crazy, stressful, nerve-racking, nail-bitting, hair-raising experience in Delhi.
-- Dirty Delhi
Delhi was a full onslaught on all of my senses. Constant loud noises from horns and shouting merchants pierced my ears, unbreathable pollution filled my lungs, traffic that made Sri Lanka's roads look like DisneyLand and seemingly, utter general madness. As I walked down the street that night for my first taste of Delhi, I realized that staying smack in the center of a bazaar was probably not a good idea, especially not for "day one".
The Bazaar was just too much for my first dip into the Indian culture pool
Once I unpacked, I tucked my money belt deep down my pants and strutted off into the darkness of the bazaar for a first look. Clusters of cows squeezed me up against the wall as I tried to avoid a black cloud of flies feasting on a mound of fresh festering dung. Street sellers barked loudly and pulled me to their stalls. After 30 minutes, my head was a raging migraine, I slogged my way back to the safety of my room for what was promised to be a hot shower but ended up being a lukewarm trickle bath.
When I awoke the next morning and removed my much needed ear plugs from my ringing ears. The previously "white as snow" pellets of squishy foam were black as coal from the dirt.
-- The Kashmir Crusade
Early the next morning I took refuge in the only known remaining bastion, the Internet Cafe. A young Indian fellow sat next to me.
I peeked over the wall and introduced myself, "Hello, I'm Luc, you've got one hell of a crazy city here."
"Hehe, yeah it's nuts
"I'm heading to Varanassi tomorrow"
"Why do you want to go there? It's dangerous there now, you know with the temple in Ayodya"
I'd hear of the troubles north of Varanassi but had hoped that it hadn't spilled over into the city. "great, more danger" I thought, reliving the Jaffna trek in my head.
We talked for a bit and decided to go grab some toast and chai where he had a slightly more daring proposal for me. "You should come to Kashmir with me, I need to pick up some saffron and we can stay on a house boat on the lake."
Kashmir, hmmmm, that didn't sound safe at all. The disputed region of Kashmir had been trouble for years. I could hardly believe that it was safe but he mad a convincing case otherwise. After some grub we walked over to his shop. He was a guide and his journey to the north would cost me, although a small rate, the price of a tour
"I need to book the tickets within 2 hours, so I need to know now" he said.
The way he described it, it did sound safe. Written testimonials from other travellers who had gone were posted all over his wall. Pictures of German backpackers quaffing pints by the lake with a breathtaking mountainous backdrop.
"Listen... give me 2 hours, I'll decide and let you know." I said.
"Ok, but if you ask anyone about Kashmir they'll tell you it's not safe and don't ask your hotel either, they'll definitely tell you not to go!".. This was starting to sound shady. I ventured off onto the streets. The plan was this, I'd pounce on every visible foreign traveller and get "the word on the street" to see if it was now safe to go.
I rushed down the buzzing bazaar and went trolling for information.
"Excuse me, I was wondering if you knew wether Kashmir was safe" I asked
"I don't know, but if I was a backpacker, I'd go" the pasty thirty-something white male with 3 older women said.
"No, I don't think so, you know people get killed there all the time" the blond haired, flight attendant said.
"Yeah, my friend just left for Kashmir yesterday, it's safe" a Japanese backpacker with a bright orange tunic replied.
"It's not 100% safe, but if Kashmir is calling you, I think you should go to it." an Indian man said quietly
"Hummm, Unis, specifically told me not to ask the hotel. So, let's ask the hotel" I thought.
"Are you mad? It's full of terrorists up there! There are kidnappings all the time. Go if you want to be a target." The hotel manager said bluntly.
There was one more place to check. The one place where I could get the last word on it's safety, the Lonely Planet Thorntree web site.
An identical question had been posted 3 days prior. "Is it safe to go to Kashmir?"
Reply 1 - "Don't even go there!"
Reply 2 - "Don't go, no matter how safe the touts in Delhi tell you it is, they just want your money!"
Reply 3 - "Didn't you hear about the 4 tourists that went last year? One was found decapitated and the other 3 were never found."
That's all I needed to hear. After all, in Sri Lanka, the locals were all telling me it was safe to go to Jaffna, this was different. No matter how many other backpackers had survived the ordeal, I didn't want to be the headline on the front page of the post reading "Stupid tourist ignores good advice and gets head chopped off in Kashmir"
Kashmir wasn't calling me..
-- The road to Varanassi
I'd pass on Kashmir but I needed to get to Varanassi. It may have been a little dodgy with the recent killings but it was still a holy site, not a warzone. While trying to buy some train tickets, I fell pray to a nice young Indian man's offer to get myself a driver and car for the journey. It was expensive, but I had a driver in Sri Lanka and it was easy, safe and quick. Plus he would be driving the car, having spent half the day with Sohan, my rickshaw driver, and having built a respectable amount of trust between us, it felt like the right thing to do.
"I hope they let me drive the car tomorrow" he said as he dropped me at the hotel, after I had already payed a hefty amount for Sohan to drive me.
"Sohan, listen, if you're not driving the car tomorrow, I'm not getting into it, it's that simple." I said, not having a shred of trust for anyone else in Delhi.
He already knew he wouldn't be driving
-- The road to Varanassi
The funny thing, looking back, is that I thought I was taking the "easy way out" by getting a driver. It was quite the contrary. The 800km drive to Varanassi, a dizzying 28 hour rush through traffic, around overturned loris and through clouds of unbreathable billowing exhaust was a near death experience I'd never forget.
I was still very mad when we set off and Mukish could tell. He tried breaking the ice with a few stories.
"You know this road is very dangerous, I don't know why the office booked this for you. Most people take train."
"Really? What's so dangerous?"
"This whole area, Uttar Pradesh, is crazy. It's very poor and people have guns. One time I was driving to Nepal through this area, it was night time. Boys, you know, they hide on the sides of the streets and threw a pipe and hit my car
"Then when I stopped to see what happened and they run to the car! I had to get in and take off. You know they were all over the car but when I reached about 40KMs per hour, them fell off. Bastards!"
"Really? Shit, tell me more, are we gonna make it to Varanassi?" I was now getting worried as I realized that I didn't know where exactly I was, no one back home knew that I was going to Varanassi and it was just me and Mukish.
He continued "It's very dangerous after midnight here. One time I sleep in car with friend and I see other car in front, also sleeping. Men with guns come and take all they gold and money, very scary"
I looked at my watch. "Hey Mukish, when are we getting to Varanassi anyway? It's starting to get dark out"
"Ohh still 500km, we may need to sleep in the car" he said.
"You're kidding right? This is a joke, after telling me that it's not safe we have to sleep in the car?" understandably, I wasn't too keen on the idea.
"Well, do you have a gun at least?" I asked, searching for a shred of comfort.
"Yes, of course."
"Really, show me" 'Yes' wasn't an answer I was expecting.
He raised his 2 fists in the air and shook them like maracas. " I have 2 guns he said looking at his closed fists.
"Shit, not the kind I was thinking of but what the hell let's go along with it" I thought.
I raised my fists in the air and shook mine in sync with Mukish's "Well now we have 4 guns" I said as we both laughed a weird, half scarred, half joking laughter.
"You ok? " he said as he noticed that I was getting quiet.
"Well I'll be honest, you tell me how unsafe it is, then you tell me we have to sleep in the car with nothing but our fists"
"Sir, don't worry..
Mukish had been motioning a small puja, or prayer, every 30 minutes during our journey and now I knew why.
As the sun set, I saw a man with a rifle sitting on the side of the road. "Is that the police?" I asked "No, just a local man. I tell you, it's not safe here. I don't know why office book you on this."
The one thing that I had liked about Sri Lanka was that no matter where I was, or who I was with, if I smiled at someone, anyone, they would smile back and say hello. In Uttar Pradesh, no one smiled. When English failed, a smile was always a good way to get a message across, but in here, a smile, no matter how long I looked at someone begging for acknowledgement, wouldn't get me anywhere. This didn't do much to make me feel that I was in a safe place.
Mukish pulled a tape out of the glove box and pointed to an 8 armed Hindu god yielding 8 swords on the cover. The god matched the one on the dash board that he had been praying to for hours
"Mukish, play it all night!"
We kept driving into the night and my mind was racing. Hundreds of possibilities were being evaluated. Maybe Mukish was the bad guy, after all he *was* asking about my salary back home and my car... or maybe the agency, or maybe the nasty people hiding in the bushes. AAArrrggg... what to do. The plan was simple if Mukish was going to mug me, he couldn't do it alone, so where ever we stopped to sleep, I would insist he drive to another spot, one that I would pick. That way if others were to meet him they wouldn't know where we were.
I had a vivid picture in my mind of being found in a ditch clutching my Lonely Planet guide book in one hand and Mukish's good luck tape in the other. The situation got so dire at one point that I was consoling myself with "Luc, don't worry, they're likely to just want my stuff, they wouldn't kill me." That's when I knew I had to change my thoughts and build some trust with my driver.
"So tell me about your kids"
"Are you married, tell me about that..."
I had him talking for hours. You can tell alot about a person by the way they talk about certain topics, and after exhausting all of my questions I was starting to loosen up a bit with Mukish. Later we stopped to eat, drink some whiskey and after I explained to him what happened back at the office he was sympathetic
It was approaching midnight when Mukish suggested that we should find a "safe" place to park and sleep for a few hours. It was safer to risk a cat nap in the dark Indian country side, than to drive with a sleepy Mukish at the wheel I thought. We puttered over to a brightly lit food stand and parked for the night.
"Good night" Mukish said as he rolled over in the reclined driver's seat.
My initial plan to stay up for the 4 hour nap to keep guard didn't last very long. After about 15 minutes my eyelids were so heavy that I could barely keep my head from falling and smashing into the dashboard. I slept, on and off, in 15 minute spurts, constantly awaking to do a quick visual 360 around the car making sure that no one was gathering. When I opened my eyes at around 3am and looked out of the car window, a man was staring back at me. He ripped the door opened and dragged me out of the car. Mukish was dead asleep. The man tied me up to the tree. My heart racing, when I heard Mukish say "Wake up Luc". The whole scene faded white, and after 30 seconds of wondering what had just happened, I realized that it was just a dream.
It was time to start driving again, thank god!
The sunrise slowly came up over Uttar Pradesh in as a stunning red fireball. Unfortunately, it was also blinding and when Mukish lunged left to avoid a stalled Lori on the road, half of the car dropped over a ledge and into a ditch
Getting a clear side view of the car balancing precariously, half on the road and half suspended in air was enough to wake me up. I pushed the side of the car, and managed to pop the tiny white auto back onto the road. Mukish was back at the wheel and off we went into the red glow of the sunrise to Varanassi.
Having survived the 28 hour crusade complete with one unsettling midnight nap in one of the shadiest parts of northern India, one chaotic, hair-raising drive, one pot hole riddled road and a near fatal roll off the highway, I wasn't sure how safe things were but I was pretty sure that Mukish wasn't the "bad guy".
Just to be safe, when we stopped for breakfast, I snuck out of the restaurant to call back home. "You ok?" My folks could tell that I was a little shaken. "Yeah, everything's fine but I just wanted to let you guys know where I was just in case something happened, you know, just in case."
-- "What's that floating?" "That's just a dead body"
The Ganges is the holiest river in all of India. Varanassi, at it's base, is where Hindu pilgrims come to pray (puja), bath in the waters and also die. It's a great honor to be burned on a Ganges funeral pyre.
Floating down the river on my sunset, one-man boat ride down the Ganges to view the Ghats, a bag floated by the boat nearly hitting the paddle
"What's that bag?" I asked the man rowing the boat.
"Dead body" he said as if this was completely normal.
But it was normal, in Varanassi . Not all bodies are burned, I later learned. Small children and holy men are among a few that are wrapped up in bags and sunk to the bottom of the Ganges. As time passes, some float up to the top to eventually wade they're way to the dry side of the Ganges where Vultures do they're best to clean up the river side.
The smell of rotting fish filled the air as I realized that it wasn't fish that was rotting, it was time to go.
Once the sun had set, we headed back for an early night, to get ready for the morning sunrise boat ride, to see the holy men, local Hindus and pilgrims bathe, do their laundry, pray and chant in the Ganges.
The sunrise was spectacular, rivalling even Sri Pada's from a week before
-- Agra Bound
On the full day ride back, I saw enough fresh car recks to keep me awake the entire trip. Car wrecks so twisted and mangled that you wonder if anyone could survive. As we sped by one particularly devastating collision, involving two mammoth lorries, I could see the driver, dead I assumed, sprawled over the steering wheel.
Midway through the drive, we actually collided with a motorcycle crossing the street. The cyclist was fine, and we kept driving. I was later told that if we would have stayed there any longer, a lynch mob would have surely ripped us from the car. Something that my guide book would later confirm.
Mukish had been motioning pujas since we started the journey by first kissing his thumb then pressing it to his forehead, mouth and chest. With each near miss, Mukish would add a light touch to the brakes, his statue of a Hindu God on the dash or his lucky tape to his puja routine
By the time we reach Agra, I was tired, coming down with a cold and eager to get on a safer means of transportation, like the train. "Safer" was a relative way of looking at things as a train with 400 passengers had been set ablaze by Muslim extremists one month passed.
Reading my guide book later that day, one humorous Hindu quote, regarding driving in India, summed it all up.
"It's not so much the car that hit you that caused the accident but rather the events in your previous life that made it happen."
-- Time to move on
Agra, home of the Taj Mahal, was another big, nasty city. By the time I had been finished wandering the Taj Mahal complex I was sufficiently annoyed with India. Mukish turned out to be a horrible driver. Stopping only at expensive hotels and restaurants that would pay him commissions for bringing a tourist along with him
Mukish had the nerve to ask "If I don't show up tomorrow to drive you to the train station, where are you going to send my tip to?", "Mukish, if you stand me up tomorrow... you don't get a tip" I said, unbelieving at his question.
He never showed up to drive me to the train station.
-- Rajastan bound
Ditching Mukish was the best thing I could have done. Even though I was losing about 200$ by not using the extra 3 days, which, in India, is enough to feed and shelter yourself for 4 months.
I hopped an early morning train to Jaisalmer, a city in the province of Rajastan which is about 60 km from Pakistan and is famous for it's desert, colorful cities and camel safaris.
The train was full of Indian Military personnel who were glad to help dispel the illusion I was beginning to experience that all Indians were out to get me
"Chai?" The Indian commando from the North Indian region of Sikkim asked. He didn't speak very much english but we managed just fine. They were so kind, offering me their military rations of Puri and potato and flipping through my Lonely Planet to show me where they lived.
A little girl ran out from the back of the sleeper compartment we were in and jumped on my lap. Everyone started laughing as she jammed grape sized apples into my mouth until my cheeks were bloated like a squirrel with a jaw full of nuts. This was just what I needed. Kind locals that weren't out to rip me off. Despite a menacing cold, I could finally start to relax.
"26? Not married?" was the question, commandos, officers and grunts would constantly ask with a puzzled look on their faces. It was apparently quite incomprehensible that, at the ripe old age of 26 (grin), I wasn't married.
The Indian Army were very trusting, so much so that at one point they all rushed to the back of the train to have a chat and left me alone in the compartment with their rifles and machine guns strewn over my backpack
The military presence in Rajastan was fierce, due to it's close proximity to Pakistan I imagined.
Parting ways with my new friends, I scrambled for my night train to Jaisalmer from my midpoint connection in jodhpur.
"I think your name should be up on that board" VJ, an Iranian American fresh from a working stint in Afghanistan and now going to the same destination I was said as I fumbled to the night train.
VJ, Gin, a Korean film maker and myself spent the next 4 days in Jaisalmer relaxing on the rooftop at our guest house, trekking on camel back through the Thar Desert and enjoying the peaceful, cobblestoned, honey golden sandstone city.
As Vj and I were trotting through the city streets on our last day together in Jaisalmer, we turned a corner to be confronted by a pack of kids with purple Tikka powdered water bottles. Tikka powder, a fine, brightly colored sand, was fun to play with, but impossible to wash out of clothes. We froze, looking at them, threatening us with the purple slosh. "Shit, what do we do?" It didn't look good. It was Holi, the color festival, and we were in our best clothes, hardly feeling like ruining our threads we had to make a break for it. "RUN!" We started to run down the spiralling streets as the kids yelled and gave a frenzied chase
During Holi, the second largest festival in India that celebrates the end of the winter, it's tradition to douse every moving object in sight with psychedillic melanges of funky colored Tikka powder. Pradeep, the owner of the guest house and our kind host, bought me some old, disposable clothes and we all headed down to the temple for the Maharaja's appearance. Once a year he would let people into his palace, and we were lucky enough to be in Jaisalmer for the event.
Red Tikka was wildly tossed around as the Maharaja glided into the temple. In all of the madness, I looked up at one point to find the Maharaja standing facing me. I could only think of one thing to say "Happy Holi!" I shouted to him as I stuck my hand out. "Happy Holi" he smiled and launched a red Tikka missile striking my face.
For the rest of the day we marched in a pack of hundreds of Brahmins and painted everything and everyone with Tikka until we finally ended the day in the Maharaja's palace.
We spent the next few days spitting out red Tikka and dislodging hunks of color from every crevasse imaginable. A price well worth the experience.
-- Then there were 2
VJ Left the next morning, leaving Gin and myself to plan out the rest of our stint in Rajastan. My cold hadn't forfeited it's battle with my immune system and I was looking for relaxation. Pushkar, a hippy mecca surrounding a quiet lake, would be the best bet.
Gin was a tough as nails negotiator. Sensing that I bent far to easily of the price of goods in India, Gin would often kick in a stern "Too much!" when quote a price.
That afternoon I found the Hindu God statue I had been looking for, a silver Ganesha, the jolly, pot-bellied elephant-headed son of Shiva for a steep 1600 rupees. Ouch. It was pure silver and encrusted with orange paint, a sign that it had been used for Puja many times. I was assured that it was very old and had been used by pilgrims in the desert for years
We headed back to the roof top to sit and relax in the sun for the day when, Gin disappeared to take some photos for 3 hours to finally reappear with a black plastic bag.
As he fell to the floor to sit on a yellow pillow, he asked, "You still want Ganesh?"
"Yeah of course!" I was reminded of my failed bargain for the perfect Ganesh.
He took a little silver statue out of the bag and threw it onto my lap "300 rupees" he said with a sly smile.
I burst into a giant smile. "What? How did you? When? How? How!" I couldn't believe it, Gin had gone back and haggled the once 1600R statue that I desired, down to 300R. Thanks to Gin, I had my Ganesh...
-- Jodhpur and beyond
Jodhpur, the blue city, is, as you might have guessed, blue. We left Jaisalmer for an over night bus to Jodhpur and after spending a day in the soothing blue glow of the magnificently quaint blue city, we headed out for our must needed relaxation in Pushkar
The buses in India were trying at best and sleepless 2 nights, while on the over night buses, were taking their toll on us. During the last leg of our journey to Pushkar, I had someone's rather large buttocks jabbing my head, a stray hand tapping the back of my cranium, and, oddly enough, a man's sleepy head resting on my lap. When we reached Pushkar, we slept, slept, slept...
-- Kashmiry Headlines
Pushkar was a small lakeside city, swarming with young hippies and lazy-eyed travellers hopped up on bang lassis, a potent mixture of marijuana and yogurt.. For the first time since I had left Canada, taking the advice of a friend back home, I spent a wonderful 6 days doing yoga, eating, sleeping and shopping. Basically, doing nothing, I managed to finally flush some of the evils of sickness from my battered corpse.
The headlines on our last day in Pushkar read:
"BOMB BLAST IN KASHMIR, 4 DEAD"
I was glad I had taken a rain check on the journey north...
It was now time to say goodbye to Gin and head off alone again to Jaipur and Delhi where I would catch my flight to Burma.
Back to the twitch-inducing, frantic pace of the big cities.