Saturday, 14 May 2011

India (Part 1)

Celebrating India’s World Cup victory In Amritsar.
Louis Malle, the French Film director, described his time in India as “dreaming with my eyes open”. My experiences lurched between dreams and nightmares, but all are equally unforgettable.

I arrived in New Delhi after some three short hours by plane from Kazakhstan, but the difference was massive, a huge climate shock (Almaty was around freezing when I left but Delhi was already 35 C) and culture shock. Although I’ve travelled in India before and indeed much of southern Asia, there’s still a certain wave of confusion and I-shouldn’t-be-here feeling that washes over me during the first few hours. First there’s the familiar smell of Asia as you walk off the plane: it’s a not unpleasant, sickly-sweet damp smell, like the aroma coming from the bathroom after a particularly long and hot shower. Then the pressure and hassle hits you like a sledge hammer.

Delhi international airport is not a place for the fainthearted or the first-timer to tackle on one’s own. There are no buses to the centre and the new metro closes at a rather inconvenient 9pm. Unless you’ve booked an airport transfer, you’ll be at the mercy of the taxi mafia who may or may not take you to your hotel, only after they’ve conjured up all kinds of stories about it being full, closed or non-existent, and how they know a travel agency that might help. On my second visit to the airport two weeks later, the transfer I’d booked was actually there, but I was still somehow duped into going with the wrong guy. It was only whilst waiting for him at the taxi rank that it dawned on me what was happening and that I hadn’t checked that he really was my driver.

Fortunately on the first occasion things went smoothly and I was dropped at my hotel in the middle of the Old Bazaar, next to a large pile of cow dung. This is not uncommon: cows roam the streets quite freely in India, content in the knowledge that steak houses are few and far between. Whilst it is interesting to watch life go by in the streets of Delhi from the safety of a rooftop café, the constant hassle from the shopkeepers, street vendors, rickshaw drivers (both the motorised and cycle versions) and sneaky tourist touts quickly becomes tiresome and I escaped for Amritsar, a Punjabi city in the very north, bordering Pakistan.

The Golden Temple, Amritsar
Amritsar is perhaps most famous for its Golden Temple, an important Sikh pilgrimage site. It’s also extremely beautiful, with its pristine white buildings surrounding blue water with, naturally, a golden temple in its centre. Thousands walk bare foot around the marble pathway, lining up to visit the temple and then take advantage of the free kitchen. Yes, free food all day at the Golden Temple! No wonder it’s so popular. It was here, against the backdrop of colourfully clad worshippers, hot sunlight and the hunger-inducing aroma of spicy food that I met a man who helped to run a school for the blind. He kindly invited me along to the school to watch the cricket World Cup final, India versus Sri Lanka.

And what a spectacle it was. Many of the children are partially sighted, some completely blind, but nothing deterred the kids from immersing themselves in the spirit of the occasion as indeed the whole of India was doing. With kids holding on to me, desperate for human contact, the dark room erupted with a deafening roar as India won. Outside everyone was on the streets, cheering uncontrollably and dancing atop cars and statues. I couldn’t move for people grabbing me and begging me to dance with them to the beat of drums. On the way home my taxi was stopped over and over again as insanely happy people insisted I get out and jump around in the middle of the throngs. Well, why not? The taxi driver was a bit annoyed though. Perhaps he was Sri Lankan.

I stayed several nights with a local Sikh man who owns a huge house on the outskirts of the city. It’s his ancestral home and he’s converted it into ten separate bedrooms and a large dining area situated around an open-air courtyard and swimming pool. He lets a Nepali family stay there for free as long as they clean after his guests, and they also run a kind of restaurant there, catering to those who come and stay. But here’s the thing: he never charges guests a penny. He simply loves to welcome people to his city, and what a welcome it was! It was the perfect respite from the bustling city, spending the hot mornings in the pool, exploring the lush green countryside then coming back in the evenings to meet with locals who were enjoying the cool evening and warm atmosphere.

The view from my host’s home on the outskirts of Amritsar.
Near to Amritsar is the Pakistani border and one of the weirdest spectacles the countries have to offer. Known as the Wagga border, the daily flag-lowering ceremony has evolved into a complex competition between the two sides, where the guards who can look the meanest, shout the loudest and swing their legs the highest are the best. It’s become such a sight that every day thousands of spectators come from both sides to cheers their guards on. The build-up is like a party, with loud music being played and people dancing in the street and standing on their chairs. But when the ritual begins an air of intensity descends over the expectant crowds. The guards wait patiently, lavishly dressed in uniforms comprising Mohican-style feather caps. First, a man in a white tracksuit whips up the spectators into a frenzy, then holds a microphone to one of the guards’ mouths, who subsequently begins a long growl – the longer the better, it would seem. This guard then marches off towards the border gate and confronts his Pakistani counterpart. Face to face, they fiercely stomp their legs in front of one another, swinging them to head height and down again in angry yet synchronised swoops. They turn away from one another and the process begins again with two more opposing guards. All the while the audiences cheer with patriotic delight. I have no idea who won.

The Wagga border ceremony, Punjab. Pakistanis in Black.
I took a bumpy bus to the hilltop town and former colonial outpost of Dharamsala, Himachal Pradesh. It’s actually divided into two halves, the upper part being McLeod Ganj and the famous home of the Dalai Lama and his Tibetan government-in-exile. It’s the perfect retreat from the hot climate below, and here the people are much more laidback and less serious. The vast majority of the locals are Tibetan refugees, having followed their leader and government here after the Dalai Lama fled Tibet in 1959. The town consists of several small lanes lined with Tibetan craft shops and tastefully decorated cafés. The scent of sweet Tibetan bread hangs in the air, drawing you in as you climb breathlessly up the steep alleys. Above the rooftops are white peaks, and it wasn’t long before I was climbing to the top of Triund (2800m) to get at the snow again. It was certainly a strangely familiar feeling to be freezing on the top of a mountain again so soon after having arrived in the boiling subcontinent!

McLeod Ganj, Himachal Pradesh
I took a cooking course and learnt how to make momos. Pronounced ‘moe-moes’, these are small packets of dough stuffed with various ingredients such as spinach and cheese, or cabbage and chilli, or just chocolate (a modern variation) and then steamed or fried. Although they are Chinese, we were informed, every country in fact has their own version. Stuffed dumplings in Russia, ravioli in Italy, and even England has one: the Cornish pasty. Yes, the dough is the same but we oven cook them instead.

Making momos with a Tibetan refugee.
The most interesting thing about the course was not the cooking, however; it was the fact that it was run by a Tibetan exile, Syange, who had no qualms in talking to us about his homeland and his experiences. He escaped Tibet more than fifteen years ago, climbing for a month over the Himalyas, and had no contact with his family since then. Then, a few years ago, two travellers offered to smuggle a letter into Tibet for him and take it to his family. They searched for his family and found his uncle. His uncle reciprocated and the two travellers brought a letter back for Syange; it was through this letter that he learnt that his father had died. I am still undecided on the issue of Tibetan independence (it is very hard to get both sides of the story whilst in a massively pro-Tibetan location such as this) and I don’t want to go into the politics here, but when one hears stories such as his it is obvious that something is going wrong. Similar stories abound in McLeod Ganj.

Monks inside the temple outside the Dalai Lama’s residence, McLeod Ganj.
I took the overnight bus back to Delhi. When I entered the bus a lady was sitting in my allocated seat next to the window. She reluctantly agreed to move, citing her gender as reason to sit wherever she liked. I asked her what the booking system was for. She turned and looked at me with menace in her eyes and asked, “Do you get sick?” I said no, and she just stared forward as we twisted our way down the mountain. Twenty minutes later she turned to me again, mouth full of vomit and eyes full of pleading. I’ve never thrown a woman over my lap so quickly before. I let her spend the rest of the journey in my seat, her head hanging out the window.

And here I’ll leave this half of India – I’ll save the sights of the Taj Mahal and others for the next instalment.

1 comment:

  1. Ugh... night time, coming down a mountain... At least you weren't asleep when she *really* had to get to the window! (rude awakening!!)

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