One of the first things I noticed was the total and passionate commitment to religion. I always thought this was the case, but when you are in the centre of it you can really feel it. I feel like a haka is in order. The other thing is these people look happy despite living in a third world country with poverty and disease. One of the reasons I wanted to come to India was to check out the wonderful buildings, forts and temples. How could these little Indian fullas create these monuments so many years ago? It's still here and it doesn't leak. Truly amazing! One of my personal highlights was meeting a crazy tuktuk driver called Bula, maybe he was part Fijian. I was keen to have a go and like most things in India the customer always comes first. He, however, wasn't aware that us Maori can drive anything. He soon noticed the smooth gear changes and decided it was safe to ride with me.
My first close-up encounter with an elephant. I have done the whole Kashin thing but this was for real. The people here are quick to show off the elephant and you can't help but be impressed with these animals, but the living conditions of the people are another matter. And they are still bloody smiling. I'm not really into trains and my mate down the dairy told me that they were less than glamorous. I struggled just getting through the station -- the place stunk. It's the cheapest form of long distance travel and all these people had somewhere to go and I was going with them. I must admit I didn't feel all that safe. They were cramped, the seats/beds were hard as and I was at the mercy of some fulla up the front that has probably done a 12 hour shift. Ah!! My first encounter with a local style toilet, think about it, flying along at a great rate of knots and you have to do the business?? Accuracy and timing are of great importance. I decided to hold on until we got to another country.
The whole thing with the sacred cow is so cool. I mean, you can be driving along and get caught up in a traffic jam and nine times out of ten it is just a cow in the middle of the road. Apparently the pigs are only eaten by the lower casts. Everywhere you look you can see the different foods, stalls etc, everybody just trying to make a living. I was pretty exited about the boat trip down the Ganges, or as us locals call it, the Ganga. But my enthusiasm was somewhat dampened when I saw our mode of transport. The brochure said slowly down the Ganges, but I thought there would at least be an engine. I enjoyed just sitting back and floating past these wonderful old temples and ghats I was actually floating down the Ganga. If Deb and the boys could see me now... well they probably can.
Four: The Ganges
Well it wasn't the best night's sleep but that's OK. I'm getting used to it. It's good to get up first and soak up the atmosphere, but I think the locals were up long before I was. In India you can think that time has stood still. I am starting to fall in love with this place. This was bloody funny: I mean, there I was relaxing and enjoying the scenery, then something big and grey pops up out of the river Gave me the shits the first time. A long nose dolphin of course. I had seen them in the paintings and it is bound to be a god of something. Actually, these fullas have got gods for everything, they are worse than Maori. The food we had on the boat was just out of this world -- really good. The other good thing was it kept coming. I thought I would struggle with the fact that it was all vegetarian but it was just such good food it didn't matter. While on the cooking boat I noticed a very nervous looking chicken... the next day she was gone, not all our crew were veggies.
Being a man of the sea, and someone who likes to lend a hand, it wasn't long before I got a chance to show off a few of my rowing skills. They weren't impressed. But every time you mention NZ, they mention Richard Hadley. I was looking forward to Varanasi. I had done a bit of reading about the place and I was preparing myself for a bit of a culture shock. Dead f*cken body in the river, people shitting everywhere, I'm gonna like this place. There was an indescribable energy in the holy place, again those smells, but the colours and the people smacked your senses. This was a time where I really felt totally removed from NZ life. This is what people had talked about, the real travel experience, I was going to have to keep my wits about me.
I met this kid, Raj, who was not lacking in confidence. I had to watch him like a hawk. He told me of a house made of cow dung, or shit, as we call it back home. He made me walk all over the place and then finally there it was, a wall with cow shit all over it...great. But I really enjoyed walking around the back streets of Varanasi, the place is so ancient.
We got up early to do a little ritual of letting candles surrounded by flower petals float down the river. It is to give thanks. I had a secret little prayer for friends and family. The sunrise over the Ganga was really cool and it was a time to reflect and count ones blessings. I had heaps. As the sun rose, the locals started their bathing rituals. I actually felt a bit intrusive as we observed them going about their daily duties. There is no room for privacy here and I notice that these Indians are always washing themselves.
Eight: Train to Agra
Today is the hottest day so far. High 30s at least. The train station was really filthy, I thought this stuff would shock me but I'm getting more used to it. In fact, bring it on.
The train was chocker and it is an eleven hour trip to Agra lying face down on a bloody hard seat trying to sleep. You can tell when another town is coming up because you can smell it before the train starts slowing down. At one stage I just got the giggles because it just seemed so crazy. After a bit of a walk around, I decided to go back to my bed and just ride it out. I thought I would give myself a bit of a tidy up before we got into Agra and it was like having to shave on a surfboard, well not exactly, but if it wasn't for safety razors I would have been a dead man. The family back home are always in my thoughts and seeing this kid lying asleep on the floor made me think how lucky my kids are, I thought about giving him my seat... NA!
This place feels good to me and I am keen to see the Taj. The Taj is breathtaking. I mean this was a monument to a woman from her husband, now that's passion. I asked someone about its construction and they told me that elephants worked twenty-four hours a day bringing marble from 250 miles away to construct this place. When it was completed the craftsman's thumbs were cut off so the workmanship could not be duplicated. Instead of scaffolding they used sand so when they were finished they pulled all the sand away and there it was. I love that stuff. There was meant to be a black one built across the river, but it didn't happen. Maybe the thumb idea wasn't his best one.
Jaipur Amber Fort
The Amber Fort was just amazing -- what they achieved in those times was unreal. Got to ride an elephant up to the fort. It was huge (the fort and the elephant) and so full of history, but I was a bit distracted by my dicky tum. Yeap, after all the lack of action in that department I am off and racing like a fast camel. I asked for some advice on eating and tried some street food called parata -- a bread filled with sour curd which was very nice. Needed something to keep the strength up but did not have the guts (!!) to be too adventurous.
They are big on their turbans here and big handle bar moustaches. I never realised that the old turban was such a statement. They are all different because they are used for different occasions. The more formal one took my fancy and I think it was meant to be worn when you got married -- pretty flash. If you like shopping this place is awesome because everything is so cheap. You have to bargain hard or they rip you off a bit, but it is always a pleasant experience doing business.
You didn't get to see this bit on the telly. I got to spent a night at Roopangarh Fort which was this amazing 400-year-old mansion surrounded by crumbling walls with old canons still dotted around them. There was old armour and weaponry hung around the walls. Now the family who own it run it as a hotel as this is the only way they can afford the upkeep. Things are pretty tight here -- not too many tourists around. I tried to explain to some of the staff that a pair of Indian Ring Neck Parrots can cost you up to three hundred bucks in New Zealand but they thought that was just stupid.
Pushkar Enfield Ride
I fell in love with the old Royal Enfield motorbikes and had to pinch myself when I ended up riding one through the desert -- a bit of a highlight really. It was a bit self indulgent, but who cares? I was out there with the wind in my turban on the most stunning day in India. When I arrived in Pushkar my first impression of the place was that it was fantastic. I knew I would like it even though it was a touristy town. You can see they are finding it hard -- since 9/11 people are still reluctant to travel and you can really notice it in small towns like this that rely so heavily on the tourist dollar to get by.
Pushkar Camel Trek
I had been looking forward to the camel trek -- getting on was the first hurdle. As it turns out, it isn't that hard so long as you lean back and have reasonable balance. It is pretty cool being up on them but the novelty starts to wear off as the skin starts to wear from those sensitive spots. While we were travelling I talked to one of the camel owners and asked him how many kids he had. He told me he used to have four but three had died. He did not know why and I decided to change the subject. A sobering reminder that I am in the third world and a world away from home.
It was a beautiful night under the stars although I did not sleep very well... All those sounds. Was that a dog? Do they have wolves here? I'm sure the tigers are in the more southern parts of India! It dawned a fine day and I am sure I found tiger prints around my sleeping bag. My journey is at an end but I am so glad to have had this chance to see India, even though I only just scratched the surface. It is an ancient country that will surprise and challenge you at every opportunity and I really do believe that people make places -- the people here are fantastic.
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