November 16, 2000

Indiaupdate II

Calcutta, amazingly, was exactly how I imagined India to be before I arrived. A huge sea of crumbling concrete blocks dotted by fading mausoleums of the Raj. Long rows of street stlls selling chapati-and-curry in banana-leaf plates, chai in disposable clay cups, pyramids of sweets and fruits, cigarettes and drinks. Lots of beggars but not the feeding-frenzy swarms that I'd feared. Dangerously lean men pulling bored housewives around on India's last fleet of hand-drawn rickshaws - I haven't seen a Westerner on one and don't expect to. Buddhist monks videotaping their visit to the Victoria Monument. OK, so I never imagined that last one.

Hammer-and-sickle signs spraypainted next to government slogans (to their credit, the Russians did give Calcutta a very impressive metro system, even if it's only one line.) Lean, feral dogs prowling the overgrown ruins of cemeteries and abandoned temples. Giggling hordes of schoolgirls in uniform pouring out of school. Men with bamboo clubs driving back the overzealous crowds clustering to see the latest Bollywood blockbuster. Goats and sheep patrolling the edge of the cricket field on the maidan (sorta like Central Park). The smog is just incredible, a poisonous grey-blue cloud that hangs over the city night and day, visible to the naked eye from dawn to dusk. You can see why, too, with snot-blackening soot billowing from every vehicle (along with a constant refrain of deafening horn blasts.) Cracked concrete, potholed roads, a thick dark gray patina on every exposed surface, enormous clouds of bugs buzzing around every bright light after dusk falls, filthy children huddling next to their equally-filthy parents on the street, a general air of ruin and decay occasionally leavened by a streak of smartly dressed middle-class types in the torrents of humanity.

But it's got character. And lots of it.

Lots of backpackers too. Way more than I expected. Mother Theresa's Mission of Charity has over a hundred foreign volunteers working for them at any given time, generally for a week or two each, and they often have to turn people away.

I mailed a package home. It took me an hour and a half (see previously comments on ruthless Indian efficiency.) I think the chance may be as great as 50% that it will eventually arrive at its destination.

From Calcutta I took the Rajdhani Express, a screamingly fast superdeluxe luxury train (while this is actually true by Indian standards, the reader is advised to ladle a few dollops of irony on those words) for an overnight trip back to New Delhi, where I alighted and promptly decided that my opinion of Delhi has not changed: it's
still a hole. Rather than spend five days there waiting for my flyaway date (ie today) I hopped on a train the next morning to Rishikesh. At least that was the plan. Between sleeping in and bleary-eyed misinterpretation of the platform signs, I missed my train, and had to hang around for a few hours to wait for the next, so I didn't get into Rishikesh until well after dark.

Rishikesh, where the Beatles met the Maharishi and wrote the White Album long time ago when we were fab, is actually a pretty nice place. The Ganga spills down between craggy hills here, and the river here is blue and rippling as opposed to the dark bloated stagnant monstrosity it becomes at Varanasi. Temples and ashrams line the riverside and the streets, everything from tiny little alcoves to huge courtyard-surrounding complexes to bizarre 13-story eyesores. It's fairly heavily touristed, and the streets are lined with shops selling silkwear and Internet access and rafting trips and New Age vedic philosophy books, filled with longhaired backpackers who stay here for weeks at a time taking meditation and yoga courses (not I - I'm staying away from yoga until I find a "Yoga For People Approximately As Flexible As A Brick" course, which wasn't on offer), but the overall effect is agreeable if not authentically mystical, kind of an Ayurvedic Disney. The same proportion of people here basically just want your money as in the rest of India (about 1/2) but they're much more wild-eyed and spiritual about it.

I supposed I've rambled enough for this instalment. In a few short hours I fly off to Bangkok, where I plan to spend a month beach-bumming around Thailand and Malaysia, maybe take a scuba diving course and have a Singapore Sling at the Raffles. I dunno, I'm not sure I have the inner strength required to ask that of the bartender. I'll keep you posted...

November 02, 2000

Nepalupdate II

I just returned from Nepal to India, and the latter country is beginning to grow on me. Like a cancer. I'm beginning to realize that if you treat India as a game where the object is to perform activities in the least efficient manner possible, it makes a lot more sense.

For example, changing money or buying a train ticket: go to wicket 1, push your way past the line, spend ten minutes with the man behind the wicket trying to understand one another, get form A, copy details from passport onto form A, get sent to wicket 2, find out that even though wicket 2 is open they're not dealing with your request for another half an hour, wait twenty minutes, discover long line at wicket 2 where requests are now being dealt with, push way into line (my size advantage over the locals is extremely helpful), produce form A and passport, watch man behind wicket 2 copy details from passport and discard form A unread, give money/check to man behind wicket 2, receive form B, get sent to wicket 3, find wicket 3, receive ticket/money.

Makes perfect sense if you treat it as a game...

I am presently in Darjeeling, which is quite a pleasant place, although clearly a sad faded relic of what it was during the Raj. This morning I woke up at 3:30 AM (yes, me, no, I haven't been brainwashed by North Korean suicide squads) to drive up to Tiger Hill to watch the sun rise. In the unlikely chance Tiger Hill was deserted, it would have simply been a fairly magnificent sunrise featuring 4 of the world's 5 highest mountains. OK, so Everest/Sagarmatha and Makalu and Lhotse were so far away that they weren't much more than small white triangular blobs peeking over a ridgetop, but the enormous Kanchenjunga massif more than made up for them.

However it was not deserted. Oh boy was it not. Every dawn at this time of year 300-500 Jeeps and minivans bring 500-2000 Indian tourists, and a handful of foreigners, to Tiger Hill. Depending on your point of view, the experience was either married, highlighted, or transformed into a wholly surreal experience. After the usual bureaucratic nightmares regarding entry tickets, which I won't go into the details of but must have earned someone a lot of points in the abovementioned game, all 1000+ of us clustered around an observation tower, on various levels depending on how much we had paid: ("General Lounge" for me, a step above "General Admission" but below "Deluxe" and "Superdeluxe." Everyone stood around looking very bored as the eastern sky reddened and the vast Bengal plains came into view. Then as the first glitter of sun crossed the horizon, chaos: shouting, bustling, crowds pushing back and forth, men screaming at one another and holding shoving matches in a battle for prime camera positions, babies passed back and forth above the jostling maelstrom. Everyone aimed cameras at the sun and clicked madly away, ignoring for my money the much more impressive spectacle of a crimson Kanchenjunga. Then the sun was up; the sight was over; and within five minutes the crowd began to disperse for the entertaining game of "find your jeep." Me, I decided to walk back.

Let me fill you in on my last two weeks in Nepal now. Not too much to report as I spent the first one in Kathmandu doing little other than eating, drinking, sleeping, reading, and watching UEFA Champions League games on satellite TV. It's a hard life, you know, but someone has to lead it. Roved around various temples and did a couple of one-day treks while I was at it, all very low-key.

I then spent a week whitewater rafting down the Sun Kosi river, a thoroughly enjoyable time spent with the usual United Nations of backpackers from Chile, South Africa, England, Australia, Austria, etc etc etc. A pretty tame river compared to my previous rafting experience on the Zambezi - a couple of Grade 5 rapids, but nothing serious. Camped on sandy beaches by the side of the river and our guides prepared us superb meals. It was nice to be away from the where-do-I-sleep-and-where-do-I-eat grind for a week.

Next up, Calcutta, which by all accounts left its "worst place in the world" status behind decades ago and is now a much more pleasant and livable place than Delhi. I'll keep you posted...