A Year Away From Home (Part Three)
Added over 10 years ago
Journal entry – 11th May 2002
As you will recall, we are in Guwahati, gateway to Assam and the far northeast of India. The city begins to heat up and we find out that the only reason it was a mild 35 C on our first day is because a cyclone had hit the day before. The monsoon is early by one month and everyone is blaming global warming and/or the Government. I personally feel that Bollywood has something to do with it but I cannot prove this (I’ve become obsessed by the thousands of Bollywood channels that are available on our various hotel room TVs since we arrived in Asia. Ian hates it and makes me turn it off. I MUST have some of their jewellery for my shop). We search for tribal handicrafts but find nothing: all the interesting stuff is taken straight out to Nepal and Thailand via Burma. We are unable to travel further into Assam and Naga land because of insurrection - two businessmen were killed the day before in northern Assam and there are over 100 separate guerrilla groups operating in the region. The country is rich in resources but the poorest region of India. Young men have no hope of employment and take up guns instead. Still we meet a very interesting man, in fact the most interesting man in town. He sells sari fabrics, and in the course of the day, three PhDs, the head of Assam's Women’s' Union, the chairman of the regional NGO and a former Indian Minister's wife pass through his shop. I talk to all about the economic and environmental state of Assam, the environmental work carried out in Australia under programs like Land care which help unite communities, and examples of work done in other countries to stabilise troubled regions. By the end of the day Bashkar wants to introduce me to the entire Assamese Government. I am embarrassed and tell him that we have no time, but promise to return to this amazing place, hopefully armed with compost bins, solar panels, water tanks and community aid programs one day in the future.
Bashkar takes us to a village called Hijo 100km south of Guwahati. The speciality of the town is brass work, and over the next three hours every brass pot in the entire town is brought out for our inspection. We visit the temple complex where Hindus, Buddhists and Muslims worship side by side and throw rice to the giant softshell turtles that inhabit the sacred lake. They are a sister species to a turtle I did my doctoral studies on in Australia and I fondly pat one monster on the head as it tries to take my hand off. We stop in the centre of town to see yet more brass pots and watch brassware being cast in dirt moulds. A crowd of about 100 people gathers around us and Bashkar tells us that we are the first westerners these people have EVER seen, except on Baywatch which is really really popular here. I take off my headscarf and sunglasses and shake out my hair, and they all murmur in awe: I realise I am acting like an idiot. I smile and wave at one little girl and she starts to cry. I suggest that perhaps it is time we were off back to Guwahati.
In the end we take away with us the most amazing local product - a kind of raw un-dyed silk called muga, which is naturally a bright gold in colour, machine washable and (they say) wearable for 50 years of continuous wear without any diminishing of quality. Formerly too rare and expensive to worn by anyone except Bengali royalty and the upper class of nobles, some muga silk has now found its way onto the international market, usually in the form of expensive French designer products.
Journal entry – 13th May 2002
Our hotel is so unbearable that we decide to leave the place after two nights, and in order to save money we decide to take the train. Taking a train in India is not like catching one in the real world: you can't just walk up to a counter (or machine) and buy a ticket. The booking office is a building distinct from the station, and inside there are up to 15 separate counters, each of which caters to a single type of person: women, freedom fighters (!!), army personnel, locals, non locals, the list is endless. Many stations have a foreigners-only line, but this one does not. And a ticket is not guaranteed when you get to the head of the queue: a form must be filled out stating your full name, age, nationality, passport and visa number, father’s name and nationality and many other incomprehensible details. Ian and I join the enquiry queue behind about 20 people but my father has done this before and knows better - he finds the Station Master who organises everything, including a pensioner’s discount for dad (A$12 off). While we wait in his office sipping tea about 15 people come to stare at us through the open door. I wave my fan regally back and forth and ignore them. The Station Master returns, we chat for a few civilised moments about Shane Warne, shake hands and the deal is done. At 8pm that night, we will be on our way.
Date: Friday, 17 May 2002 2:01 AM
Subject: Anyone for tea?
When I left you last we were about to board the express train to Darjeeling.
The platform is pure insanity, thousands of people pushing, shoving, shouting and sitting, and amazingly in all this madness, sleeping. We make our way to Platform 6, shoving our way with our heavy bags and running over people's feet as required. The train arrives, we panic as we realise that we have no idea which carriage is ours and we start running from one end of the platform to the other as one thousand Indians watch us in amazement. Finally Ian and I stay to watch the bags while my father continues running backwards and forwards on his own. I am engaged in a surreal but polite conversation about cricket batting averages with a young Indian man who is waiting for a friend. The carriage is found, our bags are lifted up and we find our compartment.
When we had bought our tickets, gentle reader, we had asked for the best available on the train: after all, it is a ten-hour overnight journey and the outside temperature is 40 C. We have been working hard finding new lines to sell and sleeping little because of the dreadful state of our Guwahati hotel. To top it all off I have the flu and my right eye is irritated and weeping from the constant blowing dust. I had hoped for something a little like the Orient Express - not that civilised, perhaps, but certainly a comfortable bunk, air conditioning and an attentive waiter with perhaps a nice drinks menu…oh horror, gentle reader, can you imagine what this train looked like? Imagine a smelly, dirty shithole on wheels, a filth encrusted, stinking boghole, a ...words fail me, but I now think of the hotel in Guwahati as paradise by comparison. There are four bunks to a “compartment”, and we have to share with a strange man. The "compartment" is partitioned off with a filthy ragged curtain and Indian men peer through the holes at the novelty of the evening - a foreign woman on the brink of hysteria. We have forgotten to bring toilet paper, not that that matters as the “bathroom” consists of an aluminium-lined hole in the floor of the train - the smell is so bad that I gag repeatedly while peeing. Dinner consists of vegetarian or non-vegetarian curry, slopped into a dish from a tray - I order the non vegetarian, then get into an argument with the "waiter" over the fact that non vegetarian means two boiled eggs. Ian and I tie up the curtain with safety pins as best we can, and we lie on our separate bunks in the dark with our bags under our heads and between us to prevent them from being stolen – a real problem on these trains. The "express" train stops every 30 minutes to pick up new passengers, most of who stop to peer in at me - I lash out with my foot at the most persistent ones. I am tired, filthy beyond belief, constipated and hungry. My fan cannot help me. I want to cry but I can't even manage that. I think of home and suddenly my friends are there in the carriage with me! It is very crowded, but in my mind we open cold bottles of beer and make humorous but disparaging remarks about the state of India's railways, somebody farts, we all laugh. I am happy and contented and drift off to sleep on top of my luggage, at least for a little while...
Journal entry – 19th May 2002
We arrive at Bagdogra at 5:30 the next morning and then comes the next surprise - a three hour trip to Darjeeling town. We negotiate the fare with a small van driver and climb 7000 ft during the drive, past small and large tea plantations. Some of these very estates produce what is consistently considered to be the finest black tea in the world. The temperature drops from 40 C to 14 C in one hour and the view is amazing but I don't care – now I'm really tired. After two hours we get a flat tyre, luckily just outside a small roadside restaurant. The owners let us use their outside squat toilet and give us tea while we wait for the driver to replace it, then refuse all offers of payment, which is odd considering refreshment is their business. The town of Darjeeling lies in the foothills of the Himalayas, just between Nepal and Bhutan. Built on the side of a mountain, all the roads are switchbacks. For such a small town there are a multitude of vehicles and because the locals are apparently unable to drive in a straight line every switchback is the scene of a traffic jam. This makes getting through the town a very long process but gives us plenty of time to look around. There is a REALLY strong military presence here and most of the people that we see are of Tibetan descent. They are very unlike the average Indian in temperament and appearance. The sari is only seen on Indian tourists: women local to here favour woven wrap skirts and striped aprons teamed with cardigans. The women are beautiful, with cheekbones you could cut paper on. The tea is very, very good. I decide I am going to like this place...
Journal entry – 20th May 2002
At last, tea served properly, in a pot, with milk on the side! The food here is a mixture of Indian, Nepalese and Tibetan dishes, a favoured dish being thumka, or chicken soup. We take breakfast in the hotel dining room, and every morning the three of us order the same standard combination breakfast from the menu: fruit juice, pot of tea, porridge, omelette and toast. Every day the order comes out back to front or with something missing or it is delayed by three quarters of an hour. What is it about Indians and western style breakfasts?
(As I write this sitting in a small café drinking tea, a man in military uniform is standing right behind me reading as I go. He has a HUGE Ghurkha knife strapped to his belt and a sub machine gun slung over one shoulder. I decide not to chase him away as I did earlier an entire group of curious Indian tourists...)
It is wet here all the time – either the mountain is enveloped in cloud or it is gently drizzling rain. The unpaved streets are a lovely mix of churned mud and cow dung. What is really amazing is that the locals suffer constantly from water shortages and 40% of infant mortality here is caused by water-borne disease. Most of Nepal’s water supply is sold to India and Darjeeling’s water seems to be diverted away as well. Why don’t these people have water tanks?
Date: Tuesday, 21 May 2002 8:16 PM
As I settle in to write this latest instalment, gentle reader, I notice the same Ghurkha soldier who was reading over my shoulder yesterday night. This time he is outside peering at me through the internet shop window. I wave and smile, but he is frightened and runs away...
When I last left you we were in Darjeeling. It is very very cold. My fan is put away, and I feel its loss greatly. There are a few interesting shops here but the prices are aimed at the American market so we do little buying and instead force the bemused shop owners to look at pictures of our shops as revenge, while telling them how much we have spent elsewhere. There are many tea plantations, owned by very wealth Indian families. I think of Bashkar in Assam imitating the plantation aristocrats - they speak in English to each other and in pidgin Hindi to their servants. And that reminds me:
Yesterday's horoscope for Geminis: Avoid conflicts with your servants!
Today's horoscope for Geminis: If you are sad and depressed, you have only yourself to blame!
Where was I? I have bought myself a rabbit skin cap with side and front flaps - it is called a Snow Cap and I wear it everywhere. Small children point and scream with laughter, but I don't care. Deep down inside I know it is a substitute for my fan.
We have had enough of Darjeeling and decide it's time to move on. The subject of our transport now becomes a major issue, as I refuse point blank to consider another 33 hour train trip. Instead we must fly at a cost of almost $2000, and a certain senior partner of Kashgar (ie my dad) is not happy.??We are up at 5am the next morning, ready for our driver who will pick us up at 5:30am for our three hour drive to the airport. He does not arrive until 6:10am as apparently he has slept in. I am furious and immediately begin shouting at him, and he smiles in response. This is a trait that apparently denotes nervousness in Indian men (and I apparently make a lot of them nervous), but this only serves to make me angrier. We are caught in a massive traffic jam on the outskirts of town, as thousands of Indian tourists return from Tiger Hill where they have watched the sun rise over the Himalayas. I glare murderously at the back of the driver's head and decide to punch him, then kick in his side panels when we reach our destination; Ian however does not approve of my plan. My backup plan, which is to squash a banana peel under the rear left hand floor mat of the car, is also thwarted by Ian: he firmly removes the banana peel from under my foot and disposes of it into a plastic bag. I childishly decide that I have had enough of Ian as well.
We finally arrive at the airport on time but our plane does not - it is two hours late, and we sit for a further two hours on the tarmac while we wait to take off, but at least we are fed while we wait. We barely make our connecting flight to Jaipur, an ancient 737 that looks like a hallway with chairs: chandeliers hanging at intervals from the ceiling would not look out of place. Our meal consists of cucumber sandwiches and chicken nuggets. I sample the "dessert" and gag: it tastes like a paste of flour and sugar mixed with spit that has been moulded between the bum cheeks of an itinerant Bengali railroad labourer. I discreetly wash the flavour out of my mouth with ketchup from a plastic sachet and long for MacDonald’s. As I read the Times of India, I see one very disquieting piece of news. The Shilagari Express has been derailed, killing 19 people and injuring a further 49. We would have been on that train (or to be honest, possibly the next one) had we not flown. I pass over the newspaper for all to read, and thank God there is no more talk of train trips.
When we finally arrive in Jaipur it is 42 C. Jaipur is real India, on the edge of the desert and filled with camels, sacred cows, beggars and ruffians. The local people are called Ragputs and are extremely proud and warrior-like, the men with massive coloured turbans twice the size of their heads and huge handlebar mustachios and the women in bright saris in primary colours, as if to make up for the bleakness of the surrounding landscape. My father's favourite hotel, the Arya Niwas, has no air-conditioned rooms left. The following night, when we are moved to an air-conditioned room and begin to regain some sense of sanity, Ian and I decide to strike out and find an internet cafe and something to eat. What happens to us next defies all reason: some would argue that it could ONLY happen to us. We are captured by a Hindu wedding party and forced to dance for them for two hours.
Hindu weddings are amazing. There is a row of hired men and women in traditional dress holding massive sets of lights on their shoulders, a brass band, additional musicians with horns and drums, 50 close family members consisting of very drunk men and gaily dressed women and children, the groom himself up on a horse, and a bloody huge generator which follows behind the group on a truck in order to power the whole thing up. Soldiers line the street to keep the traffic moving and beggars run in and out of the crowd to snatch up any money that is thrown around. The crowd lining the party consists of guests and onlookers, the whole thing must involve two hundred people at this point alone. We have innocently stopped to watch the procession for a moment as we walk to find our Internet cafe, when one of the ladies in the party implores me to join in for a dance. Apparently our dancing so impresses them that we are not allowed to leave - we are filmed by numerous video cameras dancing at a furious pace with almost every man and woman in the wedding party (except for the groom who is still up on his horse), while money is waved over and over our heads and then thrown to the crowd. I am hugged by horrible Indian men over and over, and my fan is stolen by one drunken idiot. I tell him to give it back or I will break his arm, but he does not hear me. During this time we attempt to escape twice: once we actually get over two hundred meters away before we are forcibly returned to the party to dance again. It is 44 C and I am about to faint - then I think that after all I attend big dance parties in these sorts of conditions all the time at home: what sort of a wimp am I? At the entrance to the wedding hall I narrowly miss being pelted with small coins, but Ian is hit hard in the back of the head. We enter the reception area where another 500 guests wait. The groom and bride meet for the first time, we are introduced to the entire wedding party as though we are the most honoured guests present (many of whom we have already danced with), and we are finally allowed to sneak away...
Date: Wednsday, 22 May 2002 8:16 PM
Last night we went out to that new Indian restaurant on Crown Street, had a lovely meal, stopped in at the Beauchamp Hotel for a couple of quite drinks, then walked home. I don’t know what your problem is. James xxx
Journal entry - 22nd May 2002
The next day as we are buying jewellery and textiles at the nearby market we tell the locals about our misadventure and even they laugh. Apparently these are the two most auspicious days of the year to get married on and the city is alive with weddings. Tonight we do not dare leave the hotel grounds and decide to use the in-house computer in spite of the fact that it is four times the going rate...
Journal entry - 23rd May 2002
We leave Jaipur by car and drive for 6 hours to Jodhpur, where many Indian furniture and handicraft suppliers have their warehouses. The temperature is unbearable - at least 45 C and the air is heated like the inside of a furnace. I have mutinied and insist on a decent hotel and so we check into a four star paradise, the Ajit Bahwan, with a beautiful swimming pool, bungalows and trees and staff in HUGE red turbans. Our Indian part of the journey is coming to an end and I think to myself that there will be little more to write: nothing exciting happens in four star hotels, after all. How wrong I am, gentle reader...
On the first night, while Ian and dad are off having a beer, I receive an obscene phone call in my room. An Indian voice with a strong English accent breathes heavily, then tells me that he loves me: I slam down the phone, and make a complaint to the General Manager the following morning. The hotel is owned by the present Maharaja's brother and he lives in part of the complex. I picture him sitting in the tower, lonely and decrepit, making nuisance calls to female guests late at night. The next night at 11pm the air conditioner breaks down in our room and we are upgraded to the "royal" suite, which is so big it takes two hours to chill to 30C. I return at least three meals to the restaurant as uneatable and shout at the waiting staff on regular occasions for their ineptitude. Last night my favourite pair of Kathmandu hiking socks go missing from the laundry: the GM is again called in for an interview while I slap my fan loudly against the palm of my hand and threaten to bring in the police: the hotel is in an uproar and I am sure that they are all going to take turns to spit in my food tonight, but I don't care: it simply isn't cricket, is it?
Journal Entry Date – 24th May 2002
Tomorrow we leave Jaipur by car for Delhi, which will take 11 hours. We have organised the vehicle through the hotel –the negotiations have taken approximately three hours and I am exhausted, so I'm off to the pool for a couple of hours. Once we get to Delhi we have a wait of about six hours and then the long haul to Spain via Frankfurt. We don't have so much as a hotel room booked in Barcelona, which is apparently all part of the adventure...I think...
Journal Entry Date - 24th May 2002
One last note about our adventures at the Ajit Bahwan. As I pack, I discover the missing pair of socks, which have shoved down the inside of my hiking boots. We decide discretion is the better part of valour and do not mention the discovery to anyone, including my dad…
Date: Thu, 23 May 2002 19:14:42 +1000
Subject: READ ME
Just a note to let you guys know that the Australian Government has just issued several warnings saying that there is a real threat of NUCLEAR WAR between India and Pakistan and is urging people to cancel planned trips. It is all over the news and has been all day - they mention Kashmir a lot but say that all of India is under threat of nuclear warfare from Pakistan.
I do not want to put a damper on your trip but just thought you should know that the rest of the world is expecting and preparing for war any day now. And as we all know, one nuclear bomb can really ruin your day.
Andrei and Jim
Date: Friday, 24 May 2002 11:20 PM
RE: READ ME
No need to worry about our imminent destruction, we’ve just left India by way of a gruelling 39 hour trip, travelling first by car to Delhi then plane to Barcelona via Frankfurt. We flew Lufthansa, very civilised, lots of cheese. After India, Frankfurt airport was a shock to the system, never mind about Barcelona. We can't find a hotel here for love or money - everywhere is booked out, and this is not high season. Tourist numbers are absolutely astounding and hotel prices start at 50 Euros a night for the most basic of accommodation. And when I say basic, I’m talking about rooms I wouldn’t let my dog sleep in (a poodle after all). Still, its great to be back in civilization. Tomorrow is my birthday, hopefully we will have found at least a basic hotel to stay by then!
Ps. As promised, here is my ode to my fan, which I have entitled Ode to a Fan. One day the nuances and significance of this poem will be pondered over in schools and universities around the world. But for the moment, it is just for you...
ODE TO A FAN
My fan is drab and brown and dark
It’s leaves are made from palm tree bark
I bought it off a little girl
At Angkor Wat, that precious pearl.
Oh gracious fan! Oh trusty friend!
One US Dollar I had to spend
To have you here close by my side
Behind whose fronds I love to hide.
My fan won’t win the Nobel Prize
But it can give a big surprise
When I lash out it leaves a weal
And often raises quite a squeal.
I snap it open! I snap it shut!
I wave it at an angry mutt
Behind it’s leaves I burp and smile
And wave it back and forth with style.
I know that soon will come a day
When I will put my fan away
Until I venture forth once more
To some exotic, distant shore.
We have arrived in Spain. Stay tuned for further adventures...
Previous: A Year Away From Home (Part Two)