Around the world in 125 days
India is a country of extreme contrasts. For example, Mumbai (Bombay) is full of slums but it also has very high real-estate prices in other districts. Apparently, the prices in some areas are even higher than those in New York City. This has to do with the fact that Mumbai happens to be the financial and industrial capital of India but is physically located on an island that can not expand any more. Similar to Rio Janerio, often there is extreme wealth and poverty side by side.
Compared to poor Egyptians, those in India are even worse off. Streets at night are full of homeless people sleeping on sidewalks and in alleys. And these people also use the streets as commodes so the situation is pretty depressing. The scary part is, sleeping on streets is almost treated as an usual way of life, not an indication of one's failure. One story I heard is a store owner had a couple of employees working for him. At night, the employees left but not exactly by going home. They simply took out their mats and slept in front of the store. Looking at these homeless people, the folks living in slum cardboard houses must consider themselves very lucky indeed. Despise the poverty, there were only a few beggars. And amazingly at no time were we really worried about safety, even though we hardly noticed any police presence.
Another interesting thing about India is how much their religion dominates their lives. According to Hinduism, cows are sacred. Therefore they are allowed to roam at will any public area in the middle of a city. They stand and lie down anywhere they like, totally careless about whether they block traffic or not. It is certainly a unique culture. Another thing I noticed, because the cities are so over-populated, you always find a lot of people just staring at you whenever you are in the public areas. Just could not avoid this.
When we first arrived in India, we really enjoyed the food. The restaurant menus are all in English but the terms they use had absolutely no meaning to us. We eventually figured out which is which and then more or less knew what to order. They use spices you don't see elsewhere. The Western versions of the Indian food in North America are just not the same. In India, if you want meat, you have a choice of chicken or lamb. There is no pork, which is banned to the observant Muslim, nor any beef, which is avoided by Hindus. Yet another interesting thing is almost every restaurant also serves vegetarian food and 'Chinese' food. But the kind of 'Chinese food' they offer you will never find in China or Hong Kong. I guess you can call these 'Indian Chinese'. After a couple weeks of Indian food, we all were missing 'home cooking', like pizza, very much. Well in Agra, our hotel was right next to a Pizza Hut. So all of us were pretty happy. We even took a picture in front of it.
For transportation, you have a choice of taxis, which we never used, or the auto rickshaws which is a tricycle with a two-cycle lawn-mower engine (which we used quite a bit) or bicycle rickshaws which is a human-powered tricycle. The auto rickshaw can seat three people while the bicycle rickshaw can only seat two. We used bicycle rickshaw quite often too because our tour leaders said these are much more environmentally friendly and non-polluting. However the only problem is when you see the poor guy struggling and sweating buckets going up a hill, you just don't feel good any more. A couple of times we actually got off the bicycle and pretended to be shopping just to give the poor guy a break. It is a hard life to be a rickshaw driver. If you have seen the move City of Joy, you know what I mean.
We spent almost three weeks in India, visiting all the major northern cities, like Ahmedabad, Udaipur, Jodhpur, Jaipur, Pushkar, Jaisalmer, Agra, and Varanasi. Except for Agra, the rest were all off the beaten tourist track. Overall, you can visit India if you do not mind the poverty and the dirtiness. Before we went we found a book with a lot of photos and illustrations about India. Indian architecture shows a blend of Muslim and Hindu culture that is distinct from buildings found anywhere else in the world. No wonder that the Taj Mahal is so world famous.
Just like Egypt, India is very, very hot and yet nobody wears short pants. I mean guys. Except for the tourists, you will never find people in Egypt or India walking in shorts no matter how hot it is. So it is rather weird. My understanding is it is for different reasons. In Egypt, guys wear shorts as underwear and therefore nobody wants to walk around in underwear. In India, it is different story. Only the extremely poor wear shorts, those doing hard labour. So nobody wants to look poor even if he is.
Finally, like any Third World country, you should never drink the tap water. One rumour I heard about the water quality was they even advised you to cover your month with duct tape while showering, to avoid having even a drop of water accidentally get into your mouth. I am happy to report that this is not necessary and the bad water situation is exaggerated.
We arrived late at night, and the hotel's taxi picked us up at the airport. We had a few extra days here before the tour started. Mumbai is a business center of India so it has relatively less to offer to sightseers. We took a boat trip to an island to see some rock carvings of Hindu gods. The place was full of monkeys. But you had to very careful at this place if you carry food with you. I made a mistake of walking with a bag of potato chips. A big monkey ran toward me and suddenly snatched the bag from my hand. Luckily, I was not scratched. Otherwise I might end up in hospital taking rabies shots and have the whole trip ruined. Needless to say I was pretty shaken up. It was rather irresponsible that there were no signs warning about these very aggressive monkeys.
The other places that tourists go in Mumbai are the historic Gateway of India monument and a hanging garden. The Gateway of India, located along the seawall, was built in 1924 to commemorate the visit of King George V and Queen Mary to the city, which took place in December 1911. Then in February 1948, when the last British troops left India, the First Battalion of the Somerset Light Infantry marched thru the gate in a departure ceremony, going to the ship I guess. After the Gateway of India, we went to the hanging garden which turned out to be a rather ordinary looking garden.
But what we were looking for were the towers for aerial burial. Mumbai happens to have a sizeable population of Parsees that came from Persia (Iran) and Central South Asia. They practice a religion called Zoroastrianism. Basically fire worship. When a member dies, the family puts the body on a high platform or in an unroofed tower so the vultures can eat it. Such towers are often built inside a forest and of course you cannot really get to it. But we hoped maybe we can catch a glimpse of one even from a distance.
While we were walking around the forest's edge, we ran into a friendly local. So we talked to him a bit and learnt more about his religion. The vultures tend to do a good job but it is not unheard of that people living next to the forest would find a hand or other body part lying in their backyard. Parsees have their own compounds in Mumbai. We visited one with low-rise houses plus, of course, the temple for their religion and school as well. Like some other ethnic groups they have a deep commitment to live together with their own people. Unlike other religions, Zoroastrianism is in decline. That is one big concern they have.
Our hotel is located near a hospital and a cinema. Mumbai is famous for the 'Bollywood' movies so we were tempted to go to see one but at the end we decided not to go because the movie was in Hindi and there were no subtitles. Instead we went to see a Jackie Chan and Owen Wilson movie, "Shanghai Noon".
One day, we went to a high-tech convention sponsored by Oracle and Intel inside the Taj hotel. We even attended a presentation from Intel. We also attended a 'dunking festival' at the local Chowpatty Beach. Ganesh is the Hindu 'elephant god'. Local families would carry figurines of Ganesh made of clay, marching to the beach and all the way to the water and then dump the idols into it. It was a whole-day beach party for the locals.
Mumbai is near the sea, so one night we took a taxi to a nice seafood restaurant and had a meal there. Between the restaurant door, which was about 2 inches thick, it was literally like having heaven on one side and hell on the other. Inside the restaurant, people were enjoying delicious seafood on nice tables covered with white tablecloths, using shiny silverware and china. It was a beautiful setting with pleasant lighting and soft music. Smartly dressed waiters catered to your every wish. Then on the other side of that door, there was open sewage channels, dirty water flowing down the street, homeless people lying in the gutters begging for food. And piles of filthy garbage blowing everywhere, not to mention all kind of animal excretions. I did not before realize heaven and hell could ever be so close.
The day before we left Mumbai, we met other tour members and the leader. Our tour leader was Ian from South Africa and the rest of our group consisted of Damien from Ireland, Carol from Germany, Lindsay from UK, and Jodi from Australia. We also had a second tour leader Jane from Australia who would travel with us for a while. My brother Eddie also joined us for this part of the trip.
We took an early express train to Ahmedabad. The train station in Mumbai was just full of people. Ahmedabad is a major textile capital center of India. We visited the Calico textile museum, considered to be one of the finest textile museums in the world. This is the first time we have ever visited such a museum if my memory does not fail. The collection is very impressive. The museum is housed in a very nice old mansion. After the museum, we went to the Sabarmathi Ashram where Mahatma Gandhi began his famous Dandi March to the sea to protest against the Salt Tax imposed by the British.
This place has several palaces. One of them is the beautiful City Palace next to the vast Pichola Lake. In the middle of the lake, there is the Lake Palace Hotel. It is famous because the James Bond movie Octopussy was filmed there. The hotel is, of course, gorgeous and beautiful. We were tempted to stay there for one night so we can say we stayed in a Palace. Anyway one night we went there for a nice dinner and watched a traditional Rajastan dance performance.
Another night, we went to an outdoor restaurant across the lake facing the City Palace. As usual, we took rickshaws going thru massive amount of people and traffic. It was noisy and chaotic everywhere until suddenly we turned into a side street and into a compound. All a sudden, everything is quiet and peaceful with soft sitar music played by a couple of musicians sitting cross-legged to one side. The change was sudden and abrupt. The contrasts were so dramatic that I could never got over it. There we had a wonderful view of the Lake Palace all lit up at night while enjoying a beautiful meal.
Pushkar is a place so holy to Hindus that meat is banned from the whole town. The whole town is vegetarian so all restaurants serve only vegetarian dishes. There is a small holy lake in mid-town that Hindus go to for ceremonial bathing. For the first night's dinner, we went to a lakeside restaurant which was full of Western backpackers. Some of us tried a special drink call 'Bhang Lassi'. Lassi is a yogurt drink that is available in every Indian restaurant. What so special about Bhang Lassi is they say they add cannabis to it. From what I could tell, they just ground up some fresh marijuana leaves and dropped these on top of the drink. We ordered a couple of them to share. I tried a few sips. I never had marijuana before but instead of feeling good, I ended up having a big headache that night.
Pushkar is also famous for its camel fair which occurs once a year around November and is claimed the 'world largest camel fair'. Thousands of tourists come and join thousands of camels and locals for a few days of fun. The place is transformed into a place of frenzied activities and festivities. The locals are busy trading with each other the animals - camels, horses, cows, goats, etc. The women are all dressed in colorful saris. Even some camels are richly decorated. It is also an occasion when all the villagers from the surrounding areas would converge and treat themselves to a nice dip in the holy lake. Anyway if you are a camel admirer, you definitely do not want to miss this fair.
If Jaipur is called the Pink City, Jodphur is called the Blue City as most of the houses are painted blue. We went to see the massive Meherangarh Fort in the middle of town. There are many courtyards and palaces inside this fort. There is even a collection of elephant howdahs, used when the Maharajahs rode in processions, hunts, and wars. From the fort, one can see the beautiful scenery below.
In Jaisalmer, our bus pulled up next to a very nice hotel. Unfortunately it wasn't the hotel where we were staying. Instead, we ended up in a cheap one next door. Our hotel used to be a horse stable. All the rooms looked like horse stalls. Jaisalmer has an old massive fortress built very long ago by the maharajah Jaisal in 1156. Yet it is still inhabited. A quarter of the population live within the walls. Inside the fortress you find Jain temples. 'Jain' is a Hindu sect. Some of their believers cover their mouths with a piece of cloth to avoid accidentally swallowing insects. For true vegetarians, any meat is a big no no, even bug meat. The temples have many fine carvings and, of course, a few believers with mouths covered. Unfortunately no photography is allowed inside. Of course, there are also numerous shops located along all the narrow streets. For some reason, the place is not only full of cows but dogs as well. So it was rather dirty.
We also signed up for a camel safari because Jaisalmer is right next to the Thar Desert. Most of the desert here is a rocky type like Death Valley or the Outback in Australia, rather than the sand dune type you find in the Sahara. Except at one place called 'Sam's Sand Dune'. We rode camels for three hours to this sand dune and camped out one night there under the sky. Thar is fairly close to the Pakistani border. It is near this place that both countries conducted their nuclear tests according to rumours.
For this trip, all the tents, mattresses, blankets, and sheets were provided. Of course, they were all home-made, low-tech stuffs, not the fancy gear people use in the West for camping. The porters did all the work of setting up the tents and preparing meals. Each tent had a bucket of water for washing and some water for drinking at well. That night, we saw the Milky Way here again and had a candle-light dinner. Riding camels has one similarity to riding horses - it makes you walk funny after getting off. Of course the scary part of riding camels is the camel getting up. They tilt all the way forward to get the hind legs up. At the point, you get the feeling that you are being thrown forward over the head of the camel. Then the camel tilts back to get the front legs up. Now you feel thrown backward over the tail.
Interestingly, the tour operator asked us if we need entertainment at night. If yes, they could bus in some dancers and musicians to our camp and they would perform for us. We declined. Come to think of it, it could be a very cool experience to have someone entertain you in the middle of the desert like you were a sheik. On our way back, I showed the driver my GPS which told ow far we were away from town. He was quite impressed.
After Jaisalmer, we took a train and headed to the pink city of Jaipur. It is known as the Pink City because most of the buildings were made of red sandstone. The city was founded in 1727 by King Sawai Jai Singh who also happened to be an astronomer. With the city, we visited the City Palace and Jantar Mantar which is one of the five observatories built by the king. Most of the instruments are carved out of stone. Next to the City Palace is the Hawa Mahal or Palace of Winds which has an interesting front with many tiny windows. It was built in 1799 and in those days ladies of the court would use these windows to watch the street below without themselves being seen.
Just outside Jaipur is the massive and elaborate Amber Fort. The fort sits on top of a small hill with numerous beautiful buildings inside. These Maharajahs not only had money but also taste. I know they did not design the buildings but they at least they had the good taste to pick wonderful designs. The Fort entrance requires you to go up a ramp thru a gate and this is always done by elephant, as a tradition for tourists anyway. Ian went ahead of us and he was able to take some nice pictures of us going up the ramp, into the Fort. You pay for this service but you can also just walk up for free.
The architecture in this place is simply stunning, both inside and out. There are a lot of buildings and a great museum to visit. Needless to say I was truly impressed. From the top of the Fort, you also see a fantastic view of the countryside.
On our way to Agra, we stopped at an abandoned Moghul capital called Fatehpur Sikri. The Moghul emperor Akbar built a complex of palaces, forts, and mosques here. Unfortunately the place had to be deserted because there was an insufficient water supply to sustain the people. The place is not as colorful as others but you still could tell it is very grand.
India food is delicious and we really enjoyed it. Still, after so many Indian meals, we all started to miss Western food. Luckily, in Agra, our hotel was right next to a Pizza Hut. So all of us were pretty happy. We even took a picture in front.
Agra itself is probably not very well known but people go there because of the Taj Mahal, a famous mausoleum built by the Moghul Muslim emperor Shah Jehan in the middle of the 17th century, in memory of his favorite wife Mumtaz Mahal. It took 22 years and 20,000 workers to get it done. Since the emperor made such a big deal out of his second wife, I could not help but wondered how she looked like but during our entire trip there I did not come across any picture of her. Legend has it that she was a very nice person and was so beautiful that even the moon would not dare to shine when she went out at night. She died while giving birth to their fourteenth child. I guess even the best baby-making machine would break down at some point. On her death bed, as her last wish, she asked the Shah to build something simple as a reminder of their love. He just got really really carried away by his grief.
We arrived in the evening and went to see the sunset over the Taj Mahal. It was quite cloudy and so not much of a sunset. But we watched it from the back of the building across the river of Jamuna. Most of the tourists only go to the front and visit the garden and its two side buildings. In my opinion, from the back, without the garden, the building looks just as magnificent. Interestingly one ad by the Indian government promoting the Taj was also taken across the river but with a few camels wading in the river. Glad we were able to see both sides. In order to get to the other side of the river, we went through a couple of small villages, where we saw some of the most horrible living conditions I have ever seen. It was a rather depressing experience. Strangely enough the people all seemed to be pretty happy there. Most of the kids were waving and saying hello to us all the time.
One thing that really annoyed me was they had just increased the entrance fee to the tomb. A local paid 10 rupees while a visitor paid much more. Several Westerners protested this situation as totally unfair. We arrived early enough to take a few pictures in the garden in front of the pond with absolutely nobody around. The Taj Mahal is of course simply magnificent. The whole building is white marble with beautiful carvings and decorated with delicate inlaid designs of flowers and calligraphy. The main dome is surrounded by four smaller ones, and its corners have minarets. The grave itself is located in a lower chamber into which we could only peep. The mausoleum complex is located inside a big garden with a long reflecting pond in front. To the left of the garden is a mosque and to the right is a guest house. (Mostly mosques will not have graves inside, unlike European churches.) These two buildings would be major attractions themselves if they were anywhere else. But simply by being beside the Taj, they definitely become less significant.
While at the Taj Mahal, some guys took pictures of us and said we only had to pay if we decided to buy them. So we thought the pictures should be ready when we left. But we did not see them. Amazingly, the next day they tracked us down and delivered the photos to our hotel - even though we never gave our name nor the hotel's name. Maybe they have some sort of intelligence system for tracking tourists?
Outside our hotel, there seemed to be a bunch of people just hanging around all the time. That included taxi drivers, and bicycle and auto rickshaw drivers, in addition to all the street vendors. They would literally swarm us every time we stepped out, all wanting our business. One of the reasons was that we gave decent tips. Another reason was, we found out later, that if they took us to a restaurant, they would get a free meal from the restaurant and if they took us to store, they would get free goodies from the store. That was why some of them even said they would take us anywhere for free. One day, we stepped out of the hotel, the rickshaw guys all rushed over, with the taxi drivers joining in as well, fighting for us to get in their vehicles. There were 6 or 7 people squaring off in front of us, swearing and pushing each other. The cycle driver was ready to punch the auto rickshaw driver. A flight almost broke out because of us. It was always a very hard, emotional, and painful decision, as to whom we should give our business, knowing some of these people might go hungry that night. After a few times, we were almost too scared to go out.
Another thing I should mention is: at one time according to the Lonely Planet guide book some restaurants might actually poison customers so that they could generate business for doctor friends next door. Luckily nothing like this happened to us.
Our last stop in India was Varanasi. Varanasi is situated next to the Ganges River, which is holy to Hindus and is one of the most important pilgrimage sites in India. All Hindus believe that after a person dies, he or she will reincarnate into something or someone else back on Earth. That becomes an endless cycle unless that person manages to die beside the Ganges. If you die by that riverside, you go straight to Nirvana (a kind of Hindu heaven). That is why everyone in India wants to die by the Ganges or at least get their body cremated on the Ganges' bank.
The next day after we arrived, we took an early morning boat ride on the Ganges River, joining hundred of other tourists rowing along the river bank, watching bodies being burned and their ashes dumped into the river - while pilgrims took ritual baths in the same water. The cremations are done on ghats along the riverbanks. There are steps which lead down to the river from which pilgrims do their sin-cleansing dips. On the way to the river's edge we saw bodies all wrapped up ready to be cremated. With all these bathing and the dead body ashes in the water I thought nobody would really want to touch the water but to my surprise, some Japanese tourists seemed to dip their hands into water deliberately.
We decided not to take any picture of ourselves during this early morning boat trip because nobody would look good at 5:00 am in the morning. I guess also due to respect. In the afternoon, we visited some local bazaars which sell mostly brocaded silks and a lot of gold and silver threads.
From Varanasi, we took a two-day bus journey to Nepal. The day we left, there was a special event to promote tourism. So that morning, all bus passengers were treated to a free hotel breakfast. And everyone received a string of yellow flowers to hang around the neck plus a red dot at the forehead. So then we all looked as Indian as we will ever get.
While waiting for the bus to depart, there was this snake charmer that entertained us with his cobras. Unfortunately we all got on the bus and left before he got the chance to collect even one penny from the passengers.
© Dave Cheng 2000