Day 36: Calcutta Confidence Trickster

June 20th, 2001

Day 36. As planned I met up with Tammi outside the Indian Museum and we got the bus to the botanical gardens to see the world’s second biggest banyan tree which is a mere 200 years old.  For me this was really dull but it seemed to turn him on as he gave me such facts like “it was here Darjeeling tea was created!”  He then followed this with a bizarre guided trip of Calcutta where he took me to the Nehru Children’s Museum with its displays of other countries toys which must have been completely made up.  The British section had toys which were clearly from the 1960’s, kids don’t play with spinning tops anymore.  If people came here they would think the rest of the world was 20 years behind India whereas in reality they are 20 years behind most of the world!  But as with most museums I quickly became the major display and got ‘grabbed’ for questions by the man who made the models for the Ramayana and Mahabharata stories depicted around the rooms.  He did explain a little about these stories which are fundamental in Hinduism which I found useful although very bizarre.  After this we continued to the Netaji Bhawan museum, which is the house of the guy who sided with Germany against the British during the Second World War and when that didn’t work had a go with the Japanese.  You can’t blame him I suppose but his political views and the alliances with Nazis and other militarist dictatorships who were at war with the allies could be seen as a tad fascist.  Even if he were not, he was at the very least a collaborator with fascists to meet his own ends.  Sadly he never lived to see an independent India but Ghandi with whom he split, because he felt Gandhi’s tactics of non-violence wouldn’t work, did.  History remembers Gandhi more as he was above violence and a promoter of peace.

I’d had enough of Tammi’s company now as he was hard work to speak to and I was having difficulty in figuring out where he was coming from.  So I came back to the hotel for a little bit of a rest but agreed to meet him for dinner.  When I met Tammi for dinner I soon learned where he was coming from, he looked flustered and bedraggled and so I guessed that I was about to hear a sob story followed by a request for some money.  I assumed that he thought that he’d successfully managed to butter me up after our day together and so believed I would happily give him everything as I felt he was a friend.  Fat chance, first I’d guessed something was up from the first moment I met him, and secondly I’m a Yorkshire man, he was getting nowt!  However, I went along with him for a bit just to see what he would do, pretty much just for the ride.  We went to a restaurant where I ordered a Pepsi for myself but not him and casually drank it while I listened.

He said that he had been drugged while drinking tea from a roadside street hawker and that while drugged they stole everything he had which obviously included his money.  Quite a good story I suppose as this is a well known worry of backpackers and this plays on my mind, in fact I thought he was trying to do this to me yesterday.  His story went on to talk about his ‘big’ computer business in Nepal pretending he had lots of money which was said to make me trust him.  But his effort to befriend me over the past 24 hours and the way in which I ‘coincidently’ bumped into him when I was already concerned that he’d been following me had made me feel uneasy, not to mention his stupid question of where the Victoria Memorial was when he was stood right next to it!  How naive did this bloke think I was, he had targeted and followed me and he thought he’d got away with it.  How could he not pick up on my complete apathy towards him but he still continued.  I asked whether he had reported the incident to the police, he said yes but they were not interested so had to go to the Nepalese consulate to see about getting a loss report.  During his story he displayed the typical actions of someone who was not telling the truth, he would not look at me in the eyes at any point, fidgeting like a little kid.  He kept saying, “If only you were there this would never have happened but you had to go back to your hotel!”  Emotional blackmail?  Not for me!  I would need to feel emotional about the person and all he was doing was irritating me with every added comment.  He added that the Consulate would not help him as the staff had been called to Delhi due to the trouble in Nepal so he needed the money for the train to get there.  He then proceeded to show me a form the consulate had given him listing the things that he had stolen and with a photo of him stuck to it taken at the embassy today.  If at any point I was starting to believe his story this was the moment I had every doubt confirmed.  Call it my sceptical nature but I analysed everything he showed me, remembering a favourite quote I live by penned by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in ‘A Scandal in Bohemia’.  When Dr Watson commented that he could have deduced a situation given the little clues Sherlock Holmes had highlighted, Holmes replied, “You see, but you do not observe, that is the distinction.”  Firstly, the consulate was working perfectly normally as I’d been there yesterday to get my visa and they had told me that there were no issues back in Nepal.  Secondly, they would not turn him away without helping sort something out particularly if he was the big businessman he said he was.  Finally and most importantly, the photo he showed was a picture of him with a light blue shirt on.  He was sat in front of me wearing the same shirt he had on this morning which had been and still was green.

I think he guessed that he lost me at this point but he still tried it on saying that he was a rich businessman and was reliable and that he would pay the train fare back ‘though the post’.  I eventually finished my Pepsi and got up to leave, this triggered him into hyper-begging but I said that I only had a few notes on me but would meet up again tomorrow.  Yeah, right I would.  As he was begging for money I thought I’d give him a nominal amount so that he could make the call to the consulate in Delhi he so wanted.  He had asked for the class 2A train fare to Delhi which is about 1600 rupees (£25) but instead he just got 50 rupees (80 pence) but with a hitch.  I gave the telephone guy the money who then contacted the number and then sat back and enjoyed the experience of Tammi trying to get out of talking to the consulate while I was stood watching.  Sadly I couldn’t understand a word he was saying but I wasn’t entirely convinced that he could speak Nepalese.  Just before I walked off he gave me his telephone number “just in case I didn’t trust him.”  What, how dare he possibly think that I did not believe a single word he was saying!  I then asked for the country telephone code for Nepal, a simple question I thought for a business man from Nepal.  At this point he made his final mistake, he was flustered and came out with the random number thirty-three.  I knew this code, of all the numbers he could have chosen he had to choose the code for France.  What an arse, and possibly the worst confidence trickster I’ve ever come across.  After making my excuses I left him saying that I would meet him at 11am tomorrow outside the Indian Museum.

Day 35: Indian Logic

June 19th, 2001

Day 35. I woke in my smelly damp room actually looking forward to walking around and sightseeing.  But before I did I headed to the British Consulate to check up on the current situation in Nepal as I have a flight leaving from Kathmandu to Hong Kong early in July.  I know the situation is not great after the Crown Prince of Nepal decided to kill nine members of his family including his father, the King, and the Queen before killing himself.  The people in Nepal appear not to believe that this is true and think it’s a plot by the government to rid themselves of the Royal family and monarchy.  This thinking has been fuelled by the Mao rebels who were already causing trouble.  I was advised by the consulate not to go as some people had been killed in the disturbances but I still headed off to the Nepal Consulate to get a visa just in case things calmed down in the next twenty days or so.  Walking to the Nepalese embassy I duly got lost in an old part of town which seemed to be covered in red painted hammer and sickle signs.  It was a bit of surprise seeing this, but I suppose for someone having no money and no job, communism looks like quite a good option.  The Nepalese Embassy representative seemed to think everything would calm down soon in Kathmandu as the late King’s Brother would take over.  I gave him the benefit of the doubt and handed over my passport.

After this I visited the Dalhousie Square area which used to be the administrative centre when Calcutta was the capital of British India.  The buildings in this area would not look out of place in a British city.  On the North West side of the square lies the old post office which stands on the original site of the infamous Black Hole of Calcutta, this was a guard room (cellar) in the British Fort William.  After the fateful attack in 1756 the fort was moved to a more defensible position in what is a huge park now called the Maidan.  Since independence the memorial to the horrific deaths of the 123 people was moved and hidden but I managed to find it behind the decaying St John’s Church.  This monument sits next to the mausoleum of Job Charnock who was the founder of Calcutta.  This was of interest to me for no other reason than I was raised in a place called Charnock in Sheffield!

Black Hole of Calcutta Memorial

Later, walking around the grounds of the Victoria Memorial I met a bloke from Nepal called Tammi.  He seems quite sincere on the surface but something is odd as I was aware of him looking at me before he ‘bumped’ into me.  I’d actually hidden in the memorial building doorway at first as I thought he was following me and as I left he was still waiting.  I thought he might be a professional beggar but figured I’d give him the benefit of the doubt to see what will happen.  I had a good chat with him as we walked back into town.  He kept offering to buy me a cup of tea at one of the many chai stalls but as I didn’t know him and wasn’t 100% sure he was a beggar I thought it safer to decline particularly as drugging is known to be a big issue in India and tea being a major way of being drugged.  To see how sincere he is I’ve decided to meet up with him tomorrow on a trip to the Botanical Gardens where there’s meant to be a world famous Banyan tree!  Well he seemed to be excited about it at least!

Back in my hotel room I noticed a spider which lives in a hole in the wall behind the toilet.  Although it always hides when I get close, it’s quite big so I thought I’d ask the hotel manager if it’s poisonous.  I’ve now had my second experience of Indian logic.  After asking I got the response, “Yes sir, they are very poisonous.”  So I asked whether he had something to kill it but he replied “Why do you want to kill it sir, it won’t kill you.”  I responded, “But you just said that it’s poisonous?”  “Yes Sir, very poisonous” he replied.  I looked at him puzzled and asked how was that not dangerous to which he responded with a smile, “Of course they are not dangerous, they are only poisonous if you eat them.”  As if I was going to eat the bleedin’ thing!  Weird.

Days 37 to 38: The Healing Powers Of Horlicks

June 22nd, 2001

Day 37. Over breakfast I met Shaun, an Aussie bloke, I told him about yesterdays exploits which surprised him and so over pancakes we hatched a plan.  We sat and made a small poster from a piece of A4 to stick on the notice board outside the Indian Museum where I had arranged to meet Tammi.  The poster simply read,

‘Police Notice.

At 11am a gentleman Nepalese in appearance will appear here wearing a green shirt.  Beware, this man is armed and dangerous he has murdered five people.  Please call the Police immediately if seen.’

Underneath I made a rough sketch of his face but made sure the logo on his shirt matched the one he wore yesterday as I was sure he would be wearing the same one today to keep his story up.  We stuck the poster on a board, then crossed over the road and waited.  At 10:55 he was there, it took him a while before he saw the note and when he did he looked puzzled at first but I think the penny slowly dropped as he ripped it off the board and then legged it.  Ahh, it felt sooooooooo good.  Darren 1, manipulative beggars 0.  But my day for people asking for money was not over yet, there were two more people waiting to ask!  While walking near the British Consulate a boy who just happened to be walking my way asked a couple of questions but then just walked alongside me and wouldn’t leave.  I asked him where he was going and he replied “your way” adding that he just wanted to talk.  As usual he wanted money for a shoe shine box, but I was in control now, I was on a role!  As he was talking to me and giving me his entire life story he neglected to see what I was doing.  I let him walk slightly in front and then when out of his field of view I quickly doubled back, ran across the road and hid behind a car.  His reaction when he realised I was gone was absolutely fantastic, almost comical, with a big double take he could not figure out where his walking ATM had gone.  Ahh, today’s score, 2-0!  Yes it’s very childish but it makes you feel sooooooooooo good.

I headed out to the Kali temple which is said to be from where Calcutta gets its name.  It’s a horrible dirty place with many parts covered in blood due to the sacrificial rituals which clearly go on here.  Something to do with Siva’s consort demanding daily sacrifices but I won’t even pretend to understand.  Next door is Mother Teresa’s Hospital for the Dying and Destitute which couldn’t be more of a contrast to this place.  After this I headed back to the Victoria Memorial to actually go inside this time as I thought I’d pay the extortionate westerner’s price just this once.  It’s an amazingly beautiful building and had quite interesting displays giving a balanced view of the British in India and the troubles.

Victoria Memorial, Calcutta

After this I went on to the nearby Anglican St Paul’s Cathedral where I met an elderly gentleman who was hanging around outside.  He kept emphasising the fact that he was Christian as if it would make me think of him differently.  He then made a classic mistake saying that he always went to confession in the cathedral.  Errrr, as far as I’m aware Anglican Cathedrals do not have confessionals.  Then came a truly bizarre story that he needed Horlicks powder for his daughter to rid her of TB!  I don’t understand this at all, Horlicks a cure for TB, is this special eastern medicine?  I’m aware Horlicks is widely used in hospitals in India but due to its nutritional qualities.  I asked him for the name of the hospital but sadly he didn’t even know the name which all but told me that he was lying.  Sad thing is he could have made up the name of a hospital and I’d have been none the wiser.  I said that I had no money but would be visiting the cathedral again tomorrow.  He however was adamant that we had become friends and so kept asking for my home phone number, I eventually conceded and gave him an address, it was the usual 10 Downing street, London, UK.  I said if he did write please state that you would like some Horlicks powder to help fight TB in India.  A little cruel but hey, Tony Blair needs a laugh.  A good day, chocolate and 3-0 up!

Day 38. I visited the Indian museum which was quite interesting although people were blatantly taking pictures of me rather than the objects, I wanted to slap some of them, they could have asked first.  As with most museums in India there is always one section which stands out and here on the top floor were a large number of paintings by Constable.  Sadly visitors appear not that interested in this European art and the paintings were left to deteriorate in the hot and humid conditions.  Without any protection the paint was peeling and frames were rotting.  Back in the UK these pictures would command a high price, here they are just room fillers to cover up holes in the wall.

After this I walked down to Fort William in the Maidan but sadly it’s closed to visitors as it’s still very much in use, and then back via the old British Government House, now occupied by the Governor of West Bengal.  The house is an impressive copy of Kedlestone Hall in Derbyshire but sadly I could get no further than the gate to see it.

For dinner I headed out to a popular backpacker restaurant on Sudder Street and had a very nice meal, but it did seem to attract odd characters.  There was a really weird German guy here; he walked in extremely effeminately with a bright yellow plastic umbrella in his hand while making a series of bizarre and overstated actions with his arms.  He accompanied this by posing a series of bizarre questions to the waiter.  “Does your establishment have any spare tables so that I can eat”, said with an accent which tried to be ‘posh English’ but sadly came out like a Gestapo officer.  He could see there were four empty tables!  I guess he’d been in India far too long!  Something seems to happen to westerners in India and I hope whatever it is, it won’t happen to me!

Days 39 to 40: The Revenge Of Manmad

June 24th, 2001

Day 39. I Left the hotel just before midday and slowly walked to the ferry port near Eden Gardens where a Burmese pagoda stands looking strangely out of place in the shadows of the Calcutta cricket ground.  From here I got the rickety little passenger ferry across the river to Howrah railway station, which gave wonderful views of Howrah Bridge, and left my bag there.  I headed back into town on the ferry again, had lunch and wandered around town and the New Market area.  I had pizza and ice cream for dinner, typical Indian food!  Everything seemed to be going quite well but as they say you can’t have pleasure without pain and I’m starting to enjoy myself.  Everything is just too easy, I found Calcutta really relaxing, the architecture pleasing and quite enjoyed my last walk around the place before heading back to the train station for my 19:20 train.  This should hopefully arrive in Varanasi at 10:20 tomorrow morning, a mere 15 hours.  Lucky I’ve been given the top bunk which means I don’t have the hassle of having to get up early so people can sit down, however, this seems more than compensated for by the really big fat Indian bloke snoring below.  My lucky night!

Day 40. Then pain!  Just after 1am I woke with extremely painful stomach cramps, very similar to those I’d had in Hyderabad but this time excruciatingly so.  Then came the bowel early warning system, three minutes to get to the bathroom and counting!  I just managed to make it in time.  What can I say about a toilet on an Indian train what I haven’t said before, well the toilet is basically a small cupboard with absolutely no ventilation but for a hole cut into the floor through which you can see the track below.  Sadly this is not for ventilation but to carefully target you bottom over before releasing your load!  Even with such a simple design the passengers still manage to make a mess absolutely everywhere creating an unbelievable smell and making the colour scheme somewhat unique.  As such, before any long journey I had so far always made a point of eating very little so I would not have to use the toilet.  But my plan was foiled by the sudden effect of what I think is food poisoning.  I have to consider myself lucky that I’d packed toilet tissue in my hand luggage as food poisoning or not, there was no way I was going to use my left hand and a bucket of putrid water provided to wipe my arse, especially with my problem.  There was a water tap on the wall of course but the problem with these things is that your hands are dirty before you turn on so the tap and rather than the tap being shiny as I would have hoped, it was shitty!  I dosed myself up with the travellers’ friend Imodium for the rest of the journey thus limiting the number of visits, but the pain was still quite horrific.

I’ve been trying to figure out what’s caused it, maybe it was the ice cream.  I’d been warned never to buy it from street hawkers so I bought it from Dominos Pizza, so maybe not.  But thirteen or fourteen days ago I’d been quite ill in Hyderabad and thirteen or fourteen days before that I’d eaten food in Manmad which I thought at the time might not have been as fresh as it could have been, I’d also been badly bitten by mosquitoes in Manmad.  Is the cyclic pattern caused by Malaria?

One of the worst things about train travel in India is not the noise, the smell, the spit or even the slow speed.  The really annoying thing is that as trains rarely run to time you generally have no idea of where you are or where to get off, this is not helped as stations rarely have an easily visible sign showing you the place name.  You spend the time between when you expected to get off and when you actually do get off panicking that you've missed the stop.  It’s actually quite stressful but just this once I was lucky as only ten minutes late the train pulled into Varanasi.  All I wanted at this point was to get to a hotel, lie down and rest, I did not want any hassle as I was really very ill and feeling quite dizzy.  But as soon as I got off the train it all started, within seconds I was targeted by a rickshaw driver.  So far I’ve learned to deal with these, however my anger at being hassled was exacerbated by my illness.  The problem I had here with the rickshaw driver was caused by the really annoying habit of the Indian Railway system of putting up passenger lists on notice boards at each station.  This is done so you can find your carriage and seat but unfortunately rickshaw drivers use these lists to see how many westerners are on the train as these names stand out a mile as they are nearly always written in Latin script and not Hindi.  But just in case the rickshaw driver is particularly thick, each westerner has the letters FT for Foreign Tourist printed in bold right next to it just to make sure.  Apparently here, a posse of rickshaw drivers had got together and decided which foreign tourist they were each going to hassle and rip off in advance, however I like to choose my own driver, never the fat ones as they clearly have enough money to eat.  I also definitely avoid ones with bloodshot eyes looking like someone on crack who may cause me harm.  So as usual I waited in the station for a bit pretending to wait for the next train while every other tourist was picked off.

While I was sat waiting I noticed that a man was staring at me, following me about, he was the fat bloodshot eyed guy on crack I was so worried about, he asked if I wanted a rickshaw to which I said no, a response he was clearly unhappy about.  As I was still feeling a bit ill I just sat on the platform for a while before buying a ticket to Lucknow for travel in three days time.  After about an hour I started to feel a little better and could actually think about travelling to the centre of the old town which was still quite a long way.  To my surprise the guy was still waiting for me and kept hassling, even after the next train full of tourists had arrived.  I guess he wanted to get commission from whatever hotel he wanted to take me to, but I was really unwell and being followed like this in my predicament made me feel extremely vulnerable.

I kept walking up and down, between exit doors but he kept following me which made me feel very threatened.  As I finally left the station he got a little more aggressive trying to physically manhandle me into his rickshaw so I ran over to the police for help who then proceeded to hit him quite hard with one of the four foot wooden sticks they all seem to carry with them.  Great, along with feeling ill, I now felt guilty.  He proceeded to show proper ID to me and the police who made sure he was “not an evil man” as he kept saying.  So through guilt rather than want, I decided to go with him but at least the police made sure I was not overcharged!  Irritatingly after his efforts to get me as a passenger the first thing he had to do was pull into a petrol station to fill his little blue and white rickshaw up, the git!

Varanasi old town is a maze of small alleyways through which rickshaws are too big to get through so I actually seemed to end up walking further than I’d actually ridden, but at least after getting lost twice the driver guided me to where I wanted to go.  It was a complete maze and in parts quite dangerous with decaying old buildings and narrow alleyways.  At one point the rickshaw guy shouted at me to move and as he did a building which had workmen on it collapsed with a cloud of dust shooting out and engulfing us.  Hopefully it was a planned demolition but I’m not convinced.  As I arrived at the hotel I started to feel really ill again which was made worse through my exhaustion from the walk, I was really sweating hard.  My room was clean and cool and extremely conveniently I could rest my head on the sink while I was on the toilet.  Sounds a bizarre thing to do but by this time all control of my bodily functions had gone and I was leaking from both ends simultaneously.  I figure the hotel must have planned for sick tourists because the ergonomics of the bathroom are fantastic for diarrhoea oozing vomit projecting backpackers!

I woke up.  Somehow I was between the bathroom door and the bed.  I was disorientated for a second but I remembered thinking that I needed a lie down just as I got an extremely sharp pain in my abdomen.  I must have passed out.  I made it to the bed and tried to sleep to get rid of the pain.  When I woke my pain was gone but I was sweating hard, I was aching, confused and didn’t know what I was going to do.  I started to come up with bizarre conclusions about my illness which now with hindsight I can only put down to the stresses and worries caused by travelling alone and in a country where I don’t know how safe the health care is.  Although deep down I know something is really wrong, I’ve started to convince myself that whatever it is isn’t serious at all, just a bit of food poisoning which will wear off in a few days; anything other than considering what I might actually have.

Eventually I ventured up to the roof restaurant which has beautiful views over the city, Ghats and River Ganges.  I forced some soup down my throat to try and re-hydrate myself and also get some nutrition.  An irritating American girl sat on another table was going on about how she had done better things than everyone else, if you had been somewhere then she had been there first, if you had been ill then she’d had it worse!  Someone mentioned that they’d had all of their things stolen from the top of a bus on a journey a couple of weeks ago but instead of giving sympathetic words she went on to say, “I’ve never had anything stolen as I always look after my things properly by locking them up, if you lose anything it is your fault for being careless.”  She might as well have said, “You’re stupid, I’m not!”  But suddenly, as if the Hindu monkey god Hanuman had heard what she was saying, a monkey which are practically in street gangs in this town jumped down off the corrugated iron roof and onto her table.  She looked a little surprised but even more so when it grabbed her money belt which she had ‘carelessly’ left on the table in front of her and climbed back onto the roof.  It was absolutely fantastic, I couldn’t laugh too much for fear of releasing tension on my sphincter muscles but people were clearly amused as much as I was.  It really was as if the monkey had heard what she was saying and thought right, I’ll show you smart arse.  All she could say to people was “stop laughing, it’s not funny, my passport, my money.”

People didn’t stop sniggering but if you will give insults, you should be able to take them.  First time I’ve come across a monkey with irony though!  The waiter went up to the roof and collected the belt and handed it back to the girl.  As he did so he said with a straight face and a fantastically strong Indian accent, “Here you are, the monkey was never going to take your passport or money as they don’t like flying and they have no pockets to keep their money in.”  Excitement over I headed back to my room and I’ve spent the rest of the evening doubled in pain on the bed.  I’ve convinced myself that I’ll be able to sleep it off!

Day 41: The Hypocritical Oath

June 25th, 2001

Day 41. I woke at 7am feeling really quite rough but by midday I felt good enough to have some more soup before eventually building up the stamina to go out at 4pm.  The trouble was that by now what had been a nice bright sunny day was now cloudy and it had started to drizzle.  It’s all quite depressing because I am not able to visit all the things I want to see as I can’t risk walking too far in case I start to leak everywhere.  Walking along the Ganges the heavens opened, then as suddenly as the water rushed down the stone stepped terraces lining the river, thousands of little frogs appeared from nowhere.  There were so many that I could not take a step without standing on one, a truly unpleasant experience not to mention slippy!

Ganges at Varanasi

The rain did not stop the constant hassle from people trying to sell me silk and when they figured they couldn’t do this they then offered me drugs, a bizarre marketing policy, people who don’t want silk clearly want drugs?  All this was happening with the surreal backdrop of cremations taking place on a number of the Ghats.  The smells around Varanasi are a bizarre mix of pungent river water, cremating bodies, incense and mild narcotics, it’s definitely hard to describe, there is something about it all which doesn’t quite feel right.  Not surprisingly the strange combination of smells started to make me feel unwell again and so I had to head back to the hotel but having to stop on a number of occasions doubled in pain.

I remember shutting my hotel room door behind me and then the next thing it was 2 hours later, dark, and I was lying on my bed in the foetal position with every muscle in my body aching.  Backpacking is hard but few travellers who backpack as a couple or group truly realise how difficult it can be to travel alone.  This is the low point of my travelling so far, being ill, passing out on my own in a hotel room not knowing what’s happening and having no one to help me, no one to talk to, comfort me, no one to even ask how I was, no one to care.  Travelling alone in this situation leaves you fearful, vulnerable and here, an easy target for people to take advantage of you.

I asked the hotel manager for help to get a doctor but on the phone the doctor asked for a ridiculous amount of money before he would come out.  He asked for five thousand rupees, about £75, a colossal amount here and clearly one taking advantage of a sick westerner.  So in the end no one would help without taking advantage of the situation so I haven’t seen a doctor and I can’t say that I will ever respect any of them from now on.  I can’t help thinking that it’s not so much a Hippocratic Oath but a hypocritical one!

Day 42: Burning Ghats And Cow Pats

June 26th, 2001

Day 42. After spending practically two whole days in bed I decided that it was about time to head out to see a bit of the town so I loaded up with sugar, salt and Imodium and stretched my legs.  I did notice at the breakfast table that all of the Japanese tourists bought their own food with them, I’ve noticed this a lot but had assumed that it was because they were not willing to try Indian food.  Now being in the state I’m in, I’m sure it’s because of food poisoning but it’s still quite odd, you can’t live on pot noodles, tinned fish and toast!

It is easy to get lost in the Varanasi old town with its narrow winding cobbled streets twisting and turning in all directions, climbing up and down steep steps leaving your senses confused and disorientated.  Being a good boy scout I always carry a compass around with me so I always know roughly which way I should be heading but unfortunately a compass does not tell you whether you are walking up a blind alley!  As I also made a special effort not to look at a map when I was lost as people tend to hassle you if they see that you are lost, this actually made me more lost!  But people stopped me anyway to ask if I needed help and then would try to sell me something or take me to a shop.

I eventually found the Golden (Vishveswara) Temple in the middle of the old town market district, an area which is extremely claustrophobic as the shops jut out into the alleyways giving people very little space to pass.  The temple itself is extremely pretty however I could not catch this on camera as I was not allowed to take a picture of it.  Unfortunately due to the tensions between Muslims and Hindus the entire roof was covered in marksmen and they did not like having their pictures taken.  The tension seems to go back a few hundred years when the Muslim invaders destroyed the original Hindu temple and built a mosque on top, the current Golden Temple was then rebuilt across the road from the mosque but the tensions remain to this day.  I found a silk shop next door which I headed into and upstairs to get a better view of the temple, I had to buy ‘something for the view’ so decided on a present for my mum’s birthday, an expensive 65 rupee (£1) ‘silk’, yeah right, pillow case.

A little further on a shop owner who was selling everything from silk to marble stopped me and said that he had anything I wanted.  Well I like a challenge so I asked whether he had a tall blond Swiss girl whose father owns a chocolate factory to which he replied “yes, come see.”  I did and he didn’t, lying bugger!  However, I started to feel unwell again with stomach cramps, sweating more than I should be considering the heat so I headed back to the hotel for a rest.

After a short lie-down and a bit more soup for lunch I headed back out into town.  The one thing that will stick in my mind most about the narrow alleyways of Varanasi is not the children running about the place or the beautiful decaying buildings, the thing that will stick in my mind and on my shoes is the sheer volume of cow shit everywhere.  The cows are clearly suffering from the same stomach problems as myself!  Local people walk around in little sandals or flip-flops and step right in it.  Their feet become absolutely covered in it, but they just laugh.  Holy cow, clearly holy shit!  One man slipped on one of the pats and put his hand right in the middle of it as he fell, luckily he managed to steady himself before the rest of his body followed, he did all this while laughing.  I cringed as this happened and more so when he wiped the mess on his hand off onto the wall next to him.  I don’t know what I was cringing for, people here do use their bare left hand to wipe their arses so a bit of cow shit I suppose wasn’t going to make much more of a difference.  I carried on walking through the alleyways making sure I did not scrape the freshly deposited cow poo on the walls and met up with the producer of the offending sloppy article.  A cow was walking towards me with both horns practically scraping the walls on either side leaving me with very little option other than to double back.

There always seems to be something happening here and a little later while rounding a corner I saw a group of 6-10 men running towards me chanting.  As they got closer I could see that they were holding a rustic looking wooden stretcher above their heads with a body wrapped in white muslin and covered with a colourful green and yellow cloth.  I quickly moved out of the way while they made their way to the riverside Ghats for the departed person to finally make their journey to utopia, although this would be via the smelly Ganges.  Varanasi is the place most Indians want to go when they die as it’s alleged to be a direct path to heaven, so here you see a lot of really bizarre things.  Cars driving down the street with dead people strapped to the roof is something I’ve never seen anywhere else before and will probably never see again.  I was told people even send ashes through the post!  All these elements add to the truly unique atmosphere which is Varanasi, a truly holy place.

The shanty guest house where I’m stopping actually overlooks the burning Ghats and in particular Manikamika, which with a prevailing wind can smell, well, the smell is something I can’t easily describe but you instinctively know what it is.  Women are not allowed to attend the cremations although western women seem to be allowed.  I had thought that seeing a cremation would be a little ghoulish, however it was strangely mesmerising, relaxing, the way it was done without any outward show of emotion, just very straight forward as if people were placing wood on a camp fire.  People satisfied that they were just aiding another’s transition to a better life, no tears, safe in the knowledge that they were helping their loved ones to reach their peace.  Above all the experience makes you think more about life, gives you time to contemplate.  I strolled back down to the river for a last look at the Ganges only for my contemplation to be broken as a puffed up half burnt naked torso floated past.  Great!  Contemplation ruined!  As the torso went past I was told by a man stood near me that wood was expensive and if the family couldn’t afford all of the wood needed to completely burn the body it would the thrown in as it was.  I don’t know if it was the sight of this but my temperature was up again and I was sweating so I headed back to the hotel left wondering how people managed to wash clothes, bathe in, cook with and drink water from a river in which they put in half burned torsos, went to the toilet in and still managed to live!  They’re a hardy people in this town.

Days 43 to 44: Yes I’m Going To Lucknow!

June 28th, 2001

Day 43. After walking through the maze of alleyways I somehow happened upon the main road outside the old town and flagged down an old fella on a cycle rickshaw.  I always feel quite guilty about using these as I’m quite large as is my bag but there was really no other option so after arriving at the train station I gave him the same amount of money as I would have expected to give a motor rickshaw driver.  It’s meant to be about half the price if not less but I feel that for their effort they should get more and although I feel guilty saying this, the journey is far more enjoyable.  Sadly though, the man looked about seventy as the sun and exhaustion had taken its toll but I bet he was barely out of his late forties such is the harshness of the work.

The six and a half hour train journey was really annoying.  I was sat amongst a group of eight men who were gambling with cards.  They were very loud about it, slamming cards down and shouting except when their spy shouted “guard” or something to that effect.  This made me think that maybe gambling like this is illegal in India.  They were constantly devising ways of making me part with my money by inviting me to play.  I tried to explain that I was from Yorkshire and so they had no chance of parting me from my money but they didn’t seem to understand.  They gave in with this and started to ask why I was going to Lucknow as it wasn’t on the main tourist trail.  One guy kept saying, “Why Lucknow, do you have to go to Lucknow.”  I just gave him the cryptic response that, “Yes I’m going to Lucknow as I’ll be gone soon.”  Well it kept me amused for a few hours.  I’m stopping in Lucknow as I didn’t want to risk travelling overnight to Agra with such a painful stomach, but sadly by doing this it means that I’ll be hard pushed to visit the palaces and temples in Jaipur, Jodhpur and Pushkar as I planned as time is tight.

By the time the train eventually pulled into Lucknow it was dark and as I was still not feeling great I booked into an expensive hotel which was about 600 Rupees, around £9.  It has TV, room service, a mini-bar, free breakfast and more importantly air-conditioning to cool my temperature.  But having said that, the other contributing factor in getting this place was that all the nearby cheap places were full!

Day 44. The more money you pay for something the more you appear to get hassled.  It appears that everyone in posh hotels, gets up ridiculously early and so at 6:30am I was awoken by a knock on the door.  A man then unlocked and opened the door walked in handed me a newspaper and then walked out!  I was dazed, what just happened?  Someone woke me up at 6:30am to give me a newspaper in Hindi that I couldn’t even read!  I really need to get used to the ‘personal space’ thing in India, I must remember that it doesn’t actually exist.  Just as I was about to nod off again, the same thing happened at 7am.  A different man came in and handed me a cup of chai, so much for relaxation.  I could not believe it, why couldn’t they do what happens back home and leave the paper under the door and the drink outside for me to get, or even better leave a kettle in the room for me to make my own.  But I suppose at least this second entrance gave me the opportunity to ask for a paper in English.  Breakfast was typically Indian consisting of a lot of spicy things, practically a thali, not what I really wanted, but I ate the stuff anyway.  When I noticed some cornflakes my eyes opened, I poured a big bowl with lots of milk and then took a big mouthful.  Awwhh, it wasn’t nice, they had fried them in ghee, a clarified butter which is practically all saturated fat.  This is widely used in India and hasn’t got a particularly pleasant taste but with plenty of sugar they almost became bearable.  To compensate for the horrendously early start and the problems I’d had with my stomach over the past few days I spent most of the day in bed.  I did pop out briefly to book a ticket to Agra in two days time but as usual everything seemed pretty well booked up.  I was eventually given a ticket and told it would be ok, just check with the office before the train leaves.

By this evening I’d actually got my appetite back so much so I headed out for Dinner.  Most of the restaurants were full of men all turned facing TV screens watching the “Fashion TV” channel.  All the men in India seem to watch this channel as the programmes are full of European ladies prancing around in lingerie with various bits of flesh showing through see-through lace!  It seems to be the acceptable face of pornography for the Indian masses, however it's likely that this also adds to the negative image Indian men have of European ladies which makes them fair game to be poked and prodded.  That may explain what I saw on the Beach in Goa!  Continuing my search for food unfortunately all I could find were Indian restaurants, which I guess with hindsight I should have expected being in India and all, but this was the last thing I wanted so I came back to the hotel and got room service to get me a Chinese egg noodle thing!  It tasted absolutely fantastic.