Wednesday, 1 July 1998
Mumbai, Maharastra, India
As has been said before it is always difficult to say when a journey begins. For Anna it was yesterday on departing London to Amsterdam however for me it is today. Sitting in Amsterdam watching the defeat of England on penalties (a strong feeling of deja-vu) we could have almost been at home. You had to make allowances for the parties of joint-wielding young Americans "doing Europe" but essentially it was like being in London. You could accuse me of complacency, not getting into the Dutch culture etc., but it is a question of contrast. When your mind is focused on travelling to a culture so potentially alien the little differences between our European states, which have inspired many a good comedy sketch, seem to evaporate.
People at airports always exhibit a bizarre range of behaviours. There we were departing for nine months with two tiny rucksacks just hovering under the ten kilo hand luggage limit. However all around us were people wrestling with half of their worldly possessions safe in the knowledge that if they did need their dinner jacket or a socket wrench set on their weekend in Malta they would be prepared. My own feelings of freedom were only slightly marred by a violent loathing towards a party of ten Italians at the desk in front of us attempting to repack all forty pieces of their luggage in the vein hope that one configuration would yield a solution that wouldn't result in them paying excess. Now, sitting on the airplane, I am not quite sure what to feel. Half of me is excited, half scared... I guess we'll just see what happens after we land.
Things are pretty chaotic in Mumbai airport, but not more than you would expect. We opted to get ripped off at the hotel reservations desk at the airport rather than braving the 90min taxi ride into town. Waiting for our transport to arrive (a little luxurious but at 1am just off a plane we didn't want to argue too much) we sat down on a bench. Soon after this we met our first fellow traveller, a 19yr old guy sporting a backpack complete with Trailfinders luggage tag. To both of us he looked a little scared as he asked if we were English. Anyway pretty much in the same boat he took the same option as us, holding out for a slightly cheaper room if you ignored the fact that he was taking a single.
Afterwards he sat down and asked us how much we had paid. His response was that he had read that the Park View, where we were staying, was not quite as expensive as the rate we were being charged. My response was "well some of these rates in the books are quoted without luxury tax" to which he replied "what books, you mean the Lonely Planet?". In a way I think we both sympathised with the guy after all the only things to differentiate between us was a few more years and the fact that we were travelling as a couple. We had guide books, not the Lonely Planet but something just as all encompassing, we were a little terrified and not at all street wise. I hope that we don't stick out as much but I am sure we do, still there's plenty of time for change.
Thursday, 2 July 1998
Mumbai, Maharastra, India
The entire day was quite literally a confusion. It had rained all night and it was still raining relentlessly, which was pretty much what we expected at the start of monsoon season, so a tour of Mumbai was not highest on our list of priorities. Our only goal for that day was to get on the 1700hrs Rajasdhani Express Sleeper to eat up the 1300km to Delhi that night.
Mumbai Central station was like cyberpunk meets the English Post Office. Hundreds of people queuing in a cavernous hall lit by a couple of blue neon tubes, whilst water dripped (gushed) from the ceiling. We got to the front of one queue only to find that it was closing. We got to the front of the next queue only to find that it was tickets onwards from Delhi. Three more queues later and we were still more confused than ever, whether there were no tickets on the sleeper or we were queuing in the wrong place we weren't sure, however we were offered tickets on a 2100hrs train that would take us 24hrs to reach Delhi and deposit us there at an awkward time.
Anna and I had a bit of a fight about what to do and ended up getting a taxi to the tourist office at Churchgate which was supposed to have a quota of Express tickets. Mumbai traffic has to be seen to be believed. Taxis clog the street and alarmingly weave between tiffin-wallahs with their trays of lunches, carts drawn by both humans and oxen and starving beggars who tap relentlessly on the window as you are parked at the traffic lights. The etiquette for turning right across oncoming traffic seems to be to just pull out and hope, and rest assured that use of the horn is almost obligatory. If you add to this picture an endless drizzle, flooding and a backdrop of crumbling concrete apartments you have a pretty good idea of what Mumbai is like in July.
After negotiating our ticket at Churchgate, no easy task - the people in front of us had thrown away their foreign exchange receipt and so had forfeited the right to pay using their Rupees, we headed back to Mumbai Central on the Mumbai equivalent of the tube. Here you have to picture a wide bodied train crammed with people barely cooled by en caged ceiling mounted fans. It was a bit like the Northern line early in the morning except no-one thought to install fans in the tube and the tube does not offer you the possibility of hanging halfway out of the door, as the local do, to get the benefit of natural air conditioning. Once in the area we settled down to a late lunch and a couple of hours of reading watching the torrential rain. We intentionally choose one of the most expensive places we could find near the station in an attempt to postpone the inevitable Delhi Belly until after our over night train trip.
The sleeper was a similarly fascinating experience. I think that although we opted for the worst class on the train that it was still quite luxurious compared to most sleepers. All through the evening the attendants dished up tea, snacks and even a full meal. We shared our six berth "compartment" with four Sikhs who, as far as we could ascertain were visiting from Moscow. Sadly I did not get much sleep, it being my first time on a sleeper coupled with the almost drain like snoring of one of our new found companions.
Friday, 3 July 1998
New Delhi, Delhi, India
Delhi started off bad then ended good. I think slowly we were getting used to the Indian way of doing business. Straight off the train we were met by someone claiming to be an official representative of the tourist office, produced a semi-official card and started trying to lead us off to the "office". We were pretty wise to him, however his incessant attempts to show us to whatever travel agent he was working for did mean that we missed the tourist ticket office and instead jumped into an auto-rickshaw for Connaught Circus, the heart of New Delhi. Once here we spent a while trying to find the official tourist office, again plagued by someone's attempt to persuade us that in fact their rickety shack was the Govt of India's office using cards that they had somehow procured. The office was plunged into darkness for some unknown reason and although they were quick to offer us a map of Delhi it took a loan of my torch to find something similar for Agra. We then found a pretty grotty hotel around the back of Janpath, one of the radials, which at Rs300 was expensive in comparison to some of those in the main Bazaar but had the benefit of a little peace at night.
Having dumped the bags it was time to arrange train tickets. On the way we decided to do a circuit of Connaught Circus and it was here that I was treated to a most extraordinary display of "creating your own market". A shoe shiner came up to me and asked if I wanted my shoes cleaned - I pointed out that I had sandals on and they were clean. A minute later he tapped me on the shoulder and said "Now shoes need cleaning, covered in shit". And they were - the crafty salesman had somehow slopped some pretty disgusting stuff on the side of my sandal thus creating himself a market. Strangely I did not take him up on his offer and dealt with it myself....
Things got better as the day wore on. We became immune to the "Hello's", "Where do you want go?" and offers of mescaline. We also got a bit more adept at haggling with people, ignoring the 50 rupee first bid for a bottle of water for the more realistic 10 rupee second bid. Later we visited our first tourist sight, the Red Fort , got in free and struggled to be approached by any of the "Guides" rumoured to be hanging around. This left us free to roam in its amazingly post-rainfall green gardens and see some amazing screens carved in marble. Apparently the river Yamuna once flowed past it and several balconies on the river side had hexagonal grids carved out of marble offering the coolness of the river wind but protection from the sun. Sadly the river shifted course and has now been replaced by a motorway.
Dinner was found in the main bazaar, a labyrinth of narrow alleys pulsing with traffic, people and a large number of cows. Since it cost us a tenth of our lunch in Bombay I looked forward to seeing what affect it had on our stomachs.
Saturday, 4 July 1998
Amritsar, Punjab, India
An early start got us on the 0650 train bound for Amritsar. It was a bit of a shame to be leaving so soon but we only allowed a week to get to the start of the Karakoram Highway. Anyway during our trip Anna got chatting to several girls, a mother and daughter (Sonia), a dentist and a fine arts student. She had great fun and learnt a few phrases in Hindi including the multitude of different words for aunt and uncle which seemed to depend on which parent they were related to and whether it was an in-law relationship. The fact that we were not married caused a fair amount of giggling and we had a few questions about when we were going to have a baby. The 7hr train journey was much more an experience than the sleeper.
We had seats next to the window and the fact that there was no glass, just iron wires, meant that you could really smell the countryside and see what was going on. The progression from Delhi to Punjab was amazing. Punjab is a richer state and the agriculture seemingly a lot more organised. On the course of the trip we went from the slums and chaos of Delhi to the well tended rice fields outside Amritsar. As well as sharing the train with the girls we were also visited by an endless stream of food sellers, musicians, beggars, cripples on wheels and a group of begging transvestites (on quite what ground they deserved alms we never found out).
Having just come from Delhi Amritsar was a dream come true. The fat man at the taxi rank who tried to organise things so we would have to pay double for the ride to our hotel was easily side stepped and there were no Delhi style travel agents. We found a nice hotel, having decided to substitute staying in the Golden Temple's dormitories for a meal the next day at the communal kitchens. Finally after lunch and a siesta we hit the town.
Amritsar, like most Indian cities I imagine, comes to life in the evening. The markets, are open well into the night and the volume of traffic passing through the pavement less streets is unbelievable. We had decided to get to the city centre by cycle rickshaw and the hotel had advised us that it should cost no more than Rs20. The first one we found was powered by a man who must have been well into his sixties. We settled on the going rate with him but by the time we reached the area of the Golden Temple we realised that the poor man had done a lot for his money and we gave him some extra money.
We ate dinner at a Dhaba where a pile of Pahartas and some Dal Markahani set us back less than £1.50 for the two of us. Coming back the experience of a cycle rickshaw was a little more unnerving. In partial darkness (Amritsar seemed to be suffering from a series of power outages) we wove our way through pedestrians, cars, rickshaws and carts avoiding countless collisions. Finally we got back safely and unsuccessfully attempted to watch Argentina vs Holland on a small B&W television.
Sunday, 5 July 1998
Amritsar, Punjab, India
To someone coming from the west where religion has, to a certain extent, taken a back seat, visiting the Golden Temple of Amritsar is little short of magical. Sikhs from all over the world descend on its white marble courtyards in their hundreds to wash themselves in the waters of its vast tank, the Amrit Sarovar, and visit the gilded Hari Mandir shrine in its centre. We quickly donned our head scarves, took off our sandals, washed our feet and stepped into another world.
The pilgrims circle the courtyard around the tank in a clockwise direction and at any point on the perimeter can dunk themselves into the cool, but slightly murky waters, wearing only a simple loincloth. People of all ages come to do this but the funniest of all were the young children on whom the significance of the act is lost but the trial of bath time was still ever present. We also saw some very orthodox Sikh Warriors or Nihangs with their swords and pointy toed shoes. Here we had our first go at taking photos and I let Anna do the talking but realised after all the confusion that maybe taking the camera out would have gone a long way towards explaining.
After entering the Hari Mandir and seeing the sacred texts we then proceeded to have lunch at the communal canteen, the Guru-ka-Langar. The Sikhs believe in free hospitality to all and with thousands of pilgrims visiting every day this means mass catering. Basically a thousand or so people congregate outside the dining hall and when the previous sitting has finished the doors open and everyone rushes in to take their place on the rows of coir mats. Then you get given a tray into which is slopped from the bucket dahl, something else and a couple of chapatis. Before you start eating prayers are said and everyone eats, in theory, until they have had enough. Then its out to give your tray to the ranks of washer-uppers. After lunch we did another circuit of the water tank, sat for a while under the shade of the fertility enhancing Jubi tree and then returned to the hotel.
After avoiding the afternoon sun with a siesta we decided to explore the area around the hotel which was situated on the Mall. We took a walk through the cool Ram Bargh, a park where it seemed that half of Amritsar comes for its Sunday afternoon stroll. We then visited a coffee house and took in some more of the nightlife of Amritsar, this time sampling the lively scene near the crossroads where the town's youth come to hang-out in a string of ice-cream bars and roadside cafes.