Saturday, 16 July 2011

India - Delhi - Varanasi

What an adventure the past 24 hours have been. We left our hotel in Delhi at 9.30 after breakfast and squeezing everything into the case.

First stop was to Red Fort Gate. The drive to RedFort was more interesting than the place itself. On the way we past the daily lives of people living in Old Delhi. There were the usual juice stalls and olive bowls and people sitting crouched arms outstretched watching the world go by.

There were, as usual, five people doing a job that would take one person at home, for instance repairing a puncture at a " by the side of the road bicycle repair shop/ shack" was a man holding the tyre, a man fixing the tyre and two men watching. This is normal - everybody is busy busy doing nothing. They are fruitlessly hacking away at areas of soil near the road side with pick axes creating nothing but mess. They are often to be found urinating or sleeping. In fact the air hangs heavy with the scent of urine,sometimes worse than other times but it is all pervading and always there.

There were also a few by the side of the road barbershops. When not cutting hair or shaving the barbers would crouch down by their mats with neatly laid out shining cutting instruments, scissors and knives and combs glinting beside them. When administering to a customer the barbers would be stood cutting or shaving, barefoot, under a tree or canopy but literally on the pavement with the traffic rushing past. It would not be unusual to have someone asleep on a rickshaw inches away or someone asleep on a mat under the other side of a tree.

There were also people mending and making shoes, giving foot massage and reflexology and selling chai in little terracotta pots. There were also a larger amount of children on the pavements than in New Delhi. They were begging, sleeping, some girls were in a field making garlands for the temple. It was heartbreaking to see them, often being encouraged to beg from car windows by their mothers who would usually have another baby in their arms. We saw a whole family, two older daughters playing drums while their impossibly cute but filthy, (the dirtiest most unkempt children I had seen,) younger brother and sister performed all kinds of back flips and contortionist positions just to try and coax a few rupees out of the traffic jam of cars that were in the road. They were shouting up to the windows of the bus crying for money. We had been advised not to give anything to any beggars by our guide through fear of an onslaught and in any case we were locked in an air conditioned tourist bus so their cries were in vain, but I wanted desperately to give them something, anything, I would have gladly taken them home! This time the mother was a little further up the road another sibling running along the pavement with her. She looked rather sheepish about begging and although still beautifully dressed in a Pink Sari she was obviously under strain and her hair was dirty, I would have loved to have helped her too. There is something very disturbing about seeing all these children poor and hungry on the streets when you have the knowledge and power of birth control and the education to realise that if you have lots of children it is very expensive to keep them. It is most oftenest the womens fault that she has got pregnant repeatedly but she is the one who ends up responsible and forcing her children into begging.

After a quick look at the Red Fort, which was being cleaned, using a very flimsy method of scaffold, a construction of ladders of bamboo poles tied together with string, we bravely took rickshaws through the narrow streets of Chandhi Chowk.

Chandi Chowk means midnight Market and was once upon a time the sole preserve of women only. The "Market" is actually a street which is crammed full of shops and perfumeries. The street smelled heavily of incense as the shop keepers light a joss stick upon opening up at around 11 a.m. The shops are then open until late in the evening. Each shops also has a lemon and chilli hanging from the front window or door. This is to ward off evil or bad luck fro their shop. To see the electricity wires are worth the trip alone. They are hanging in immense bundles all tangled together and twisted up. There are hundreds of wires all going in every direction and often just ending in a tangle hanging down from a building. The cables are at times fed through huge thick yellow tubes but really this is ineffectual as the unfed wires just loop and twist around them. People seem very happy to simply chop into a supply and divert it to their needs at any juncture so the whole thing is completely chaotic and looks very dangerous. I was in the rickshaw with our guide and he was explaining to me that the only dangerous time for the possibility of electrical fires is during the monsoon season. Just what we are entering now.......

We arrived at the Mosque, the largest in India. It was predominantly open air although there was an inside main prayer area which had marble prayer mats lined up on the floor. I hadn't realised quite how much a mosque plays such a daily part in people's lives. The mosque, like everywhere else, was full of people sleeping, sitting, obviously praying and carrying out the rituals of washing their hands, feet and mouths. We ladies all had to wear huge floral overcoats to completely cover our arms and legs and bodies and everyone took off their shoes outside.

We ran the gauntlet of the beggars and hawkers to get back on the bus. One little girl was heartbreakingly bold at begging and I thought she might actually wheedle her way onto the bus.

From here we went to a Sikh temple. First passing India Gate and some of the most expensive houses in Delhi. The houses which are residences of the government officials, and which our guide ,( who has never been out of India) exclaimed as very smart and expensive, looked a lot tome like the sort of semi detached 1930's suburbs houses but these were White and without bay windows. One of the striking differences between these houses and many of the houses we had seen already was that these houses did have windows!

On arrival at the beautiful Sikh temple which was all made in White marble we had to go first to a special office to remove our shoes and don headscarves. Even the men as Sikh men wear turbans and so their heads are covered at all times. The office was very friendly and we had a rare treat of using a western style loo. No paper though but by now we are wise to this and carry our own!! As well as antiseptic hand wash and wipes which are whipped out at any moment.

The Sikh temple was built on this site around a special lake which is now encased in marble and has fish swimming in it. The lake is said to contain the cure for smallpox which is why the temple was created here. It was certainly cooling to dip our toes in.

We went into the temple and sat on the carpet among the people who were praying. There was loud Indian music blaring out from a speaker and the whole room smelled strongly of feet. This made a different change from wee but was not altogether much improvement. People were trailing in all the time, in silence but the music was so loud it wouldnt have made much difference. It was quite hypnotic sitting there listening and watching everyone having items, flowers, jewellery etc dipped in to Holy water by volunteer priests who were situated in a real gold cage with the holy book in the centre. The book is what the Sikh religion believes in, no gods or idolatry. The book even has it's own room which it is placed into at night. There were a great many people praying to this room also.

The Sikhs are very charitable people. On the way to the temple we had passed a Sikh man sitting on a platform with a huge copper kettle at his side. He was a volunteer and was there to provide clean, purified drinking water to anyone who needed it. People were often coming up and he would tip the kettle up and pour some water into their mouths.

At the Sikh temple we saw another way in which the Sikh community helps to provide sustenance for free to people. This is in the form of three meals a day. On the right hand side of the temple there was a huge room. Outside the room people sat in orderly lines chanting along to a priests words. These people were waiting for their lunch. Behind some glass doors and once again in orderly rows were hundreds of men, women and children all eating lunch from metal trays. All for free.

We were then allowed into the kitchens to see the huge vats of vegetarian curry being made. We were then invited to join a group of Sikh elders who were all sat about making chapatti at a long low table. In the centre of the table were hundreds of balls of dough. A boy was liberally sprinkling them with flour so that they did not become too sticky. There were also little round wooden boards and rolling pins. You took some flour, floured the board, took a piece of dough, rolled it flat and floured it again before adding it to the enormous pile of unbaked chapatti.

Henry particularly enjoyed this, in fact he told me his aim one day was to drive to India in a camper van and to pitch up at the Sikh temple to offer to help in the kitchen.

After we had returned our headscarves and said thank you and goodbye we headed back to the bus and proceeded to a restaurant for lunch. Again there was a western style loo so we were all happy!

Following lunch we went quickly to a government approved cottage industries Market which was in an office block. The goods were not that inspiring unfortunately, I think a few people bought some souvenirs but on the whole the most difficult part of that bit was getting on the bus again as a crowd of children had gathered around the bus and were grabbing everyone who tried to board begging for money. It's so distressing, and confusing as we had just left the Sikh temple which was only a short walk from here where they are handing out three square meals a day for free so why do the mothers not take the children there? The whole reason for the Sikhs food give away is to unite people of every race creed, class, or colour in sharing food together, so these mothers would not be turned away but welcomed with open arms. All very confusing and upsetting. It made me think of my three I has left at home and how unimaginably lucky they were staying in warm houses with plenty of food, clothes, their own rooms, windows, warmth and people who love and protect them at every turn. I do miss them a lot as I'm experiencing all of this but I think my life and understanding of other cultures will be richer for this experience. It also seems to have had a deep effect on Henry, the one child I have bought with me.

Our final port of call was to visit the Ghandi memorial museum and to see where he spent his final 144 days before being assassinated at 5pm on the 145th as he walked to take evening prayers. The museum was fascinating and very well presented. I hope the photos which I am going to add explain the story and show you a little of how he was living. He was shot by a hindu man who didn't agree with Ghandi about the relaxing of the movement between Muslims and hindus between India and Pakistan.

Following this very interesting and moving place we were driven around all of the embassy buildings of Delhi including the enormous Government buildings.

We then began to head for the station where on the way Peter informed me that I would be in a bunk on my own away from all of the others as I was an adult but not a teacher. Now the only stage of this epic adventure which I had been slightly apprehensive about had been the train journeys. Having travelled by train in Europe I was already aware of the cramped conditions that awaited us and I accepted the toilets were going to be horrendous. However I had not bargained for sharing an area with one other person who was most likely to be an Indian man. All night. I burst into tears. I was tired, stressed, confused, had all sorts of terrible memories and scenarios rushing through my head and sobbed uncontrollably. Then I felt guilty that I hadn't even asked where Henry would be, more sobbing. Peter had looked stressed beyond belief all day about the train situation and looked as if he might break down also. I swore. I said point blank. I am not doing that.

He went away and returned saying that he had moved things around and that I could now share with him and his girlfriend, Romana, as well as five other interchangeable Indian men. We were also assured by Neeraj, our guide again and again that we people are always helpful on these trains and it would be no problem for people to swap seats about once we were all on board.

We were then instructed to put our rucksacks on our fronts. Keep tight hold of them all of the time and to follow in a close packed group to the platform. We stood on the platform to witness the impressive sight of the porters all carrying our suitcases two high on their heads coming down the stairs. I was still too shaken to get out my camera but it was a wonderful sight to witness.

Whilst we were watching this someone dropped a box near us wrapped in a blanket. It stank and presently urine leaked out and ran down the platform. this was disgusting, as usual but luckily we didn't have time to worry about what the box actually contained or whose it was as we were ushered on to the train by the ever helpful porters.

We found our seats and also found that the actual layout was not as bad as we had first imagined. We were all in one tightly packed carriage at least. I was still pleased though that I had opted to stay with Peter and Ramona, even though the bed size I had turned down was considerably bigger. Knowing that Peter would be asleep directly below, Ramona directly at my feet and Phil diagonally a bit down the corridor was a comfort. The kids were all interspersed around the carriage with all the girls together and the boys in twos but spread about. Henry as usual was having a whale of a time.

We were sat in very close quarters with, initially four men. The man sitting next to me was to sleep on the bunk we were sat on which was below Ramonas bed. He spoke no English, had one eye which kept swivelling out of focus and was incessantly on the phone or listening to really loud Indian music from his phone with no headphones so the whole part of our carriage was subjected to this noise as well. The men sitting near where Peter and Ramona sat were probably about 35-45
And were chatting amicably to each other. They did stare at us quite a lot when we first sat down but by then I was such a complete state of running makeup, sweat and tears and greasy sweaty hair I probably would have stared too.

After a few conflabs with Neeraj it became clear that people were not friendly or willing to move. In fact they were adamant they were staying put. There were two men in the girls compartment who were clearly delighted that they were going to spend the night with some young European girls. As our other guide ( the one who looks like he should be in films, or at least Eastenders!) said. "It's a once in a lifetime opportunity for them so they are not going to move. Nice.

One interesting observation I did make in Delhi was the affection of men with other men. Now I dont know if there are a lot of openly gay men in Delhi, I doubt it somehow given the religious views and the way men regard women, but I have noticed a lot of men who seem very effeminate holding hands or with their arms round each other. I wonder if this is seen as a more acceptable way of releasing the urges bought on by testosterone or whether these men are gay or whether they are simply friends and that is the way they show it in much the same way French men kiss.

None of the men in our carriage looked as if they wanted to hold hands. We had had a new arrival now, a man with a red Mark on his forehead such as we received when we arrived at yesterday's hotel. He was very smily and happy and like the man next to me constantly on his blackberry texting. He also produced a computer and proceeded to delight the other men with extremely violent shooting games reminiscent of call of duty. He was harmless though and after we had had our quaint picnic tea bought to us by Neeraj we chatted until about 8.30 pm and then having said goodnight to Henry who was entertaining the troops, Romana and I braved going to bed.

I foolishly decided to climb into my bunk to sort out the sheets and pillows before going to the loo or brushing my teeth. Once I was up there I was kind of stuck so I just made a pillow out of my bag and read my book. I fell asleep to the sounds of gunfire from the computer. Bursts of Indian music coming from phones and the incessant chatter from my fellow travellers.

I awoke at about 10.30 desperate for the loo and would have loved to have brushed my teeth. Romona woke up too so we decided to brave to the loo together fearing it would be highly pungent by now. We also observed the Indian men having a fine old time below me. Quite a party was going on and the saving grace of it all was that nobody drinks alcohol so at least they weren't drunk. Peter had vanished but we soon found him curtains tightly drawn and tucked in under the bunk where Ramona was. I momentarily panicked as I swiftly deduced that as he was there then the only people left in my compartment were five Indian men. By now, whilst I was sleeping one man had departed and been replaced by two men who seemed fine but who I hadn't had time to observe and get the measure of. I felt decidedly uneasy.

Ramona and I went to the loo and were met by two men from our compartment who were smoking. They repeatedly offered us cigarettes which we politely refused although I must say the smell of tobacco was such a welcome change from the urine in the loo and the stale sweat building up in the carriage that I was tempted to have one just for the smell. They asked us what we were doing on the train and where we were from and then inexplicably asked me if I was from Scotland. I went back to bed chuckling to myself. When I got back Neeraj was there and he said that the man on the bunk next to mine had offered to swap as on my bunk the adder was missing so getting up and down was quite a feat. I declined though as I had made quite a nest up there and so I struggled back up into my turret and once again read "Maxwell Sim" by Jonathan Coe until I fell asleep. This took ages as at about 11.30 the party below me decided to buy another full curry meal from the buffet car and noisely eat it whilst entertaining themselves with a little light Bangra music. Then they made a great noise with lots of laughing about getting their beds out and then the guy with the computer lay diagonally below me playing his shooting game under the covers while the other guy next to me was constantly texting, the blue light from the screen illuminating his face. by now the curtain was closed and I was in a compartment with five Indian men all in close proximity and I was supposed to go to sleep ???!!

The next time I was properly woken was at 2.30 am when a new arrival came into The carriage. The guy with the computer had alighted and the new occupant for his bed had arrived, turned on the light and was making a great fuss about settling a huge bag of mangoes onto the shelf next to me, while the porter fetched him clean sheets and blankets. He looked in curious horror at me, at White western woman apparently travelling alone in a carriage of men and then proceeded to strip his portly frame down to his boxer shorts and Hoike his hefty frame into the middle bunk. There were annoyed cries of "turn out the light" and then silence and everyone went back to sleep. I must have dropped off again at some point but had a fitfull nights sleep before finally waking at 7.

I climbed down and sat with Ramona looking out over the countryside. There were people washing their clothes in the rivers, children running along side the train on the tracks. The houses were very simple with iron doors on the gates but then no further doors or windows. There were a great deal of cows wandering about and people cycling to work. It was a lot greener than Deli with lush green crops growing in tiny fields. But it was hot and the sun was already blazing down. This was at 7.30. Heaven knows how hot it will get later on.....

Finally we alighted the train at Varanasi station. There was the usual hustle and bustle of station life but this time in a much more rural setting. Again the porters bustled up our cases and walked to the coach with them piled high on their heads. We made our way up and over the footbridge only to come face to face with lots of monkeys. Some with young but all sat on the steps and the iron railings. It suddenly caught me by surprise that these animals less than an arms reach away are usually in our country kept behind bars. We moved on down the steps and I noticed the beggars here are more old women and disabled men, their limbs contorted and twisted. At least that was who was begging at the station. It was still hard to walk by though. Eventually we got on our bus. This time with cool air conditioning and to Peters joy seat belts. ( as it turned out SOME seat belts ) but enough to go round. We drove through Varanasi which is smaller, hotter and more rural than Delhi, obviously, but still with it's unique points of interest. Fewer cars and more bicycles and tuk tuks. Still the incessant sound of horns.

We arrived at our hotel which on the first impression is very palatial and then you use the loos and even though the are western they still stink of wee. Have wee all over the floor and no toilet roll. We are still very very much in India.

This blog post has taken me all of my rest time to write. From 10-1. I wanted to get it all down though as the past 24 hours has been extremely memorable and certainly an experience I will never forget. I can't say I don't want to experience the train again because we are going on one tomorrow night but it's always easier when you know the ropes.

I am going to try and post this now. Excuse the lack of photos at present they will follow on once I am home.

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