Tuesday, 13 March 2018

...Head for the Mountains

Time moves astonishingly slowly when you stop. Caught in our own little version of Groundhog Day, we’d lay in bed until the desire for coffee grew too strong to ignore, at which point we’d head upstairs to the terrace of our guesthouse for breakfast. This would be either eggs/toast/beans and thin cut potato fries or eggs and an Asian version of hash browns with a large pot of tea. The food was passable, mediocre at best, but it was a hassle-free place to sit and lose an hour and talk about what we were going to do that day. We, of course knew it’d be pretty much what we did every day, periods of sitting at the coffee shop and napping until it was dinner time, at which point we’d head back to Dagley’s.

One evening we were joined there by a group of ten Koreans. If ever there was a nationality that generally fits its stereotype then it’s Koreans. Extremely friendly people on the whole, they do have certain traits that they just don’t seem to come without, the main ones being their obsession with the internet and Korean food. This particular evening they filed in, sat down at the tables along one side of the rooftop and immediately, one by one, each began staring at their mobile phones, flicking furiously through their day’s photos to find exactly the right one to post on facebook, never once making eye contact with each other or anyone else.

When presented with menus, the leader of the group asked if it was possible that they could have fried eggs? A little bemused, the waiter agreed that this was certainly possible. When asked how many they would like, a bag of fresh eggs was produced from someone’s bag and handed to the waiter. What proceeded was worthy of a Monty Python comedy sketch. Firstly, the group leader said they would like the whole bag of eggs fried please, in fact they were happy to do it themselves if they could be allowed to use the kitchen. This request was politely declined. They then produced more bags of ingredients from beneath the table, one by one – greens, noodles - explaining exactly how each should be cooked. For a second waiter who was following all this with some amusement, it was all too much and he had to almost run indoors, his hand stuffed in his mouth to stop himself laughing. We considered ordering dessert just as an excuse to be able to stay and witness the outcome, but we knew already the dessert offerings were poor and reluctantly left the group to their meal.

Realising that we were slowly going stir crazy following this routine, and with Evan’s eyesight improved enough for him to be able to walk unaided, we started to talk about our next move. It would clearly be some time before it would safe to continue riding, but sitting doing nothing was doing us no good at all. After talking to the owners of the guesthouse we were staying at, they kindly agreed to store our bikes for us for the next few weeks to allow us to go and see some other places by train and bus. Knowing that we had to soon leave India and renew our visa’s if we were to continue our trip there, we figured it would make sense to head for Nepal. Neither of us had been there before and it wouldn’t cost a fortune to get there and back.

Buying train tickets proved to be a challenge, but then we really should have expected that. We negotiated an overpriced tuk tuk ride to the station, making a deal with the driver to wait whilst we bought our tickets. After wandering around for a while we discovered that you don’t actually buy tickets at the station (silly us!), you have to buy them at the reservation centre a few hundred metres away. Returning to our tuk tuk, we found ourselves suddenly surrounded by three other drivers who blocked us in and aggressively negotiated a rate for our original driver to take us to the reservation centre (which was on our way back) and then return us to the square, demanding three times the price we had agreed originally. Not listening to reason, we pushed them aside, told them where they could go and threw 50 rupees to our driver for the journey there. In all of this he hadn’t said a word so I have no sympathy that he lost the rest of his ride. Like so many tuk tuk drivers he decided to chance an attempt at a rip off and on this occasion he lost. These people make my blood boil. I get it, it’s a shitty paid job, but demanding 20 times what locals would pay because you think we’re dumb westerners who don’t deserve your respect just doesn’t sit well with me.

At the reservation centre we met a friendly European woman and her Indian friend who took pity on us and asked if we were familiar with the process of buying tickets. We weren’t, so they helped us fill in the forms we needed to request our tickets, before warning us that they’d been told the cheapest sleeper seats were horrendous. As it turned out we had no choice, the only option we had was sleeper class for a train that left the following evening for Delhi, so that’s what we bought, deciding we could chalk it up to experience if it really was that bad.

Arriving at the station the following evening, we were pleased to find that our carriage was clean enough and the beds serviceable at least with decent, thick bed pads. There are 8 bunks to a compartment, six in the main space and two side bunks. We had a middle bunk in the main compartment and a top side bunk. During the daytime and until around 8pm the middle bunk remains folded flat against the wall to allow everyone to sit on the bottom bunks. I suppose this must be frustrating for some people with middle bunks, but I was more than happy to sit up until the bottom bunk inhabitant, a friendly furniture quality control inspector from Delhi, wanted to go to sleep. I chatted with him a while about his life in India, our trip, his family and work whilst he ate his dinner. The rest of our compartments inhabitants were male and surprisingly either kept themselves to themselves or smiled warmly when they caught my eye. No staring, no aggression or unfriendliness from any of them. Having expected to have to lay there with six pairs of eyes boring holes in me, it was a pleasant surprise.

The night spent on the train was perfectly fine and we both slept far longer than we expected to. At less than $5 each for a 12 hour ride and the cost of a night in a guesthouse saved, I’d be happy to travel sleeper class again. We arrived at 5.30am, checked into our room in the backpacker friendly Paharganj district of Delhi and promptly fell asleep until early afternoon.

It was good to be out of Jodhpur at last and with a new place to explore. On first impressions, Delhi wasn’t as I expected it to be. I had visualised a busy, bustling city with crazy traffic and aggression on a whole new level having seen enough accounts of Delhi from other people before. What was most noticeable though was just how quiet it was. The incessant horn blasting of further south was at least halved and whilst the traffic was heavy, it didn’t feel like we were taking our lives into our hands each time we stepped outside our door. After some lunch, we bought metro passes and headed for the markets, keen to find the craziness that everyone talks about.

Whilst we didn’t find what we were looking for exactly, simply busier streets and narrower lanes, we did soon realise that we were trying to move in leaps and bounds rather than taking baby steps. The metro system is world class, clean, efficient and well managed, but out on the streets the traffic, pushing and shoving and lack of any pavements soon proved too stressful for Evan as we wandered around. Whilst his vision was improving a little, it really wasn’t up to the standard required to deal with somewhere like Delhi and we soon realised that a rethink was required. There really was a lot of unnecessary pushing and shoving in some areas of the city and I quickly started to lose patience with it. Usually no more bothersome than persistent flies that can easily be swiped away, hawkers and touts refused to take no for an answer and would hound us if we stopped even for a second to check a map. Rickshaws would follow us doing the same. At one point a young teenage lad ran towards me along the edge of the road and launched himself at me, deliberately head-butting my breast. Evan reached out to grab hold of him but he needn’t have worried, the smile was soon wiped off his face as he bounced off, lost his footing and landed sprawled on his back in the road. 

Back at our room we spent some time looking to see where we might be able to go in the city to escape the crowds and stress of wandering the streets. Neither of us have ever been that interested in the places the guidebooks claim you ‘simply can’t miss’ and in Delhi that’s just as well, because it’s fairly pricey to visit more than one or two of them. We’ve found that many countries have two-tier pricing when it comes to entry for residents as opposed to foreign tourists, but India, as in so many other ways, takes the prize. Prices for visiting historical attractions are frequently 20 times the cost as a foreigner than they are for a local and honestly, if that’s the case then I really don’t care much about visiting those places. Can you imagine if at home we turned around and said that an English person can ride the London Eye for £20 but wait, you’re Indian? That’ll be £400 please! We soon came up with three places that looked interesting and didn’t break the bank – the National Railway Museum, the Lotus Temple and Gurudwara Bangka Sahib, a Sikh Temple not far from where we were staying.

Getting to the National Railway Museum involved a tuk tuk ride through foreign embassy land, an area of the city devoted almost entirely to embassy buildings. Upon arriving at the museum we were charged 50 rupees entry, exactly the same as locals pay, and spent a pleasant morning wandering amongst a quite astonishing collection of trains from all over the world. We’ve been to a few train museums and this one was easily the best and most comprehensive we’ve seen anywhere in the world. We decided to skip the ridiculously overpriced noodles in the cafeteria and the kitsch train ride loop on the miniature train, but otherwise it was a world class collection of trains and railway related memorabilia in remarkably good condition, clearly restored and maintained with no expense spared.

I see they got their road planners involved in the model making...

Mmm some poetic licence here me thinks!


The Lotus Temple was our next stop. Set in parkland to the south east of the city, I was surprised at the volume of people making their way through the gates as we arrived late on a Tuesday afternoon. We followed the flow and soon arrived at the entrance to the temple, a beautiful and unusual building built in the shape of a lotus flower, hence its name. It really is a stunning building, a concrete structure surrounded by nine turquoise blue pools. As we climbed the steps we were herded into queues, given bags in which to place our shoes and then asked to wait a short while until the doors were opened to allow us inside. 

There was something quite remarkable about the place, the fact that they successfully enforced queuing upon people for whom queues are a thing to be ignored and scorned was the first thing that struck us. As we entered the building they also insisted on complete silence, with ushers very quick to jump on anyone who spoke. We had been advised we were welcome to sit as long as we wished and we did for a fair while, enjoying the quiet, something that we suddenly realized we had not experienced for a very, very long time.

Our last stop of the day was perhaps my favourite. Having been to mosques, Buddhist and Hindu temples, churches and many other religious buildings, I had never visited a Sikh temple and so didn’t really know what to expect. As we arrived, I was struck by the sense of calm about the place. I didn’t feel uncomfortable being there, like I was a voyeur imposing upon someone else’s worship. Another refreshing change was that there was no request for an entry fee, no warnings that photos were not allowed and no charge for watching our shoes while we were inside. I’m not a religious person at all and I have a fundamental issue with being charged to go into religious buildings. At the shoe counter an elderly Sikh man smiled warmly and beckoned us over. He welcomed us to the temple, took our shoes and suggested, as we had not been there before, that we should start by reading the history of how the temple came to be which was carved into large stone tablets at the entrance. One of the only rules at the temple is that everyone must cover their head whilst inside, so I pulled up my scarf that I’d bought a couple of days earlier in an attempt to ward off the obsession Indian men seem to have with staring my chest and Evan borrowed a bandana from a pile made available for the purpose.

The temple building itself is beautiful with its white walls and golden domes and sits adjacent to a large pool of water, believed to have healing properties. We walked a lap of the pool, watching the sun slowly slipping down lower in the sky. In many Sikh temples Langar is offered, a free meal available to anyone who would like to partake, believers and non-believers alike. It is cooked by volunteers and visitors are encouraged to join in and help prepare and cook the food also if they wish. We had not long had lunch so we declined the offer of food when we reached the relevant area, but I like the concept, the inclusiveness. It was the first temple I’ve ever been in where I felt truly and unconditionally welcome.  

Realising that Evan’s recovery was going to take a little longer than anticipated, and feeling as though we had seen what we wanted to see in Delhi, we decided it was time to escape this crazy country for a bit and head for Nepal. We hadn’t really considered too seriously at this point how we were going to get there, but after discovering that it wasn’t easy or cheap to book a train ticket for the next day, we allowed ourselves to be talked into taking a bus, without a toilet or any mod-cons, from Delhi to Kathmandu the following day for about $15 each. I mean, how bad could it be?

Bright and early the following day at around 5am we found a tuk tuk who agreed to take us to the office of the bus operator some 40 mins away for 200 rupees. Upon reaching the office we were met by a man who looked at us like we each had two heads, firing questions about where we’d bought the tickets, where we were going, etc, as though he had no idea that his company was in the business of providing buses that run to Nepal every single morning at this time. After telling us to sit and wait awhile he motioned for us to go with a guy in an electric tuk tuk parked outside which we duly did. 

No more than 100 metres along the road he deposited us next to a rather old, sad looking bus and then sat with his hand held out expectantly. Laughing at the cheek of him, we tried to walk away but he came after us shouting at us ‘You must pay! You must pay!’ Astounded by his nerve but not really wanting to argue, Evan handed him 20 rupees which produced only a look of disgust from him and a reply of ‘FIFTY rupees!’ At this point we both laughed and told him he could take it or leave it. He roughly shoved the 20 rupee note back into Evan’s hand, repeating his demand for 50. Angry now, Evan turned to a little old lady who had been tugging on his sleeve asking for money and gave her the 20 rupees instead, telling him he could forget it now and we walked away. He immediately came roaring towards us in his tuk tuk through the middle of the crowd, shouting and creating, but we simply walked away and told him to take it up with the office.

In a final burst of fury, he spun around and took off in a cloud of dust. Thinking that would be the end of it, we were a bit surprised when he returned a few minutes later with our unhelpful friend from the office. ‘Give him some money’ he demanded. Again, we told him to forget it, that it was a scam and we had already paid our bus fare and arrived as requested where we had been told to meet the bus. What happened next I think sums up our feelings about India. The tuk tuk driver continued to whine to the office guy about not being paid and complained to him that Evan had given the 20 rupees to the elderly beggar lady. The pair of them then proceeded to track down the old lady and wrestle the 20 rupee note from her, claiming it as theirs. It’s a sight that will always stick in my mind when I think about this country and perfectly sums up just how little regard people here have for each other.

As we boarded the bus and settled in for what was to become an epic journey we discussed our feelings about India and how, with much regret, we were actually looking forward to leaving all this behind. A little sad that we had little from the last couple of months to remember fondly, but relieved too to be breaking our recent monotony and moving on to somewhere new.

1 comment:

  1. There are some lovely pictures here of the temple you visited. It's such a shame that the natives are so horrid though. I'm glad to hear Evan has improved a little, I hope he continues to improve too. In between the lines I can detect a huge amount of disappointment which is really sad. Take care Caroline. I'm thinking of you all of the time xx