. . . LAND ROVER OVERLAND EXPEDITION

. . . AROUND THE WORLD 2001/02
     
Home
Africa 1999
Around-the-World 2001/02
 

The Team

Jeff Willner
1. Start: Recipe for Adventure
2. Zimbabwe: Hyperinflation
3. Namibia: Southern Circuit
4. South Africa: Circuit 2
5. Zambia/Malawi: Sketches
7. Kenya: Bandit Country
8. Ethiopia: Diary
9. Ethiopia: Border Run
10. Sudan: Across the Sahara
11. Egypt: Cape to Cairo
12. Jordan/Syria: Sept. 11th
13. Turkey: Hospitality
14. Bulgaria/Romania/ Hungary
15. Slovakia/Austria/Poland
16. The Baltics & Russia
17. Scandinavia
18. Western Europe
19. Brazil: Clearning Customs
20. Argentina: Revolution
21. Argentina: To Ushuaia
22. Patagonia Disaster
23. Buenos Aires Beautiful
24. Uruguay: Beaches
25. Chile: Expedition Life
26. Bolivia: Atacama
27. Peru: Transit
28. Galapagos: Gorgeous
29. Ecuador: Jungle Run
30. Knifepoint
31. Dubai: Lay over
32. Singapore/Malaysia
33. Thailand: Hospitality
34. Cambodia: Ankor Wat
35. Vietnam: Hanoi & Halong
36. Laos: Back to Basics
37. China: Beijing Tour
38. China: Shanxi
39. China: Western Province
40. China: Tibet
41: Nepal: Mountains
42. India: Driving Struggle
43. Pakistan: Dodging War
44. Iran: Overcharging
45. End: One Last Laugh

Sally DeFina
1. Cape Town: Robben Island
2. Zanzibar: Mike & I
3. Kenya: African Driving School
4. Sudan: Mud Crossing
5. Patagonia: Goodbye Max
6. Malaysia: Mike Update
7. Thailand: Ko Phangan
8. Cambodia: Phnom Penh
9. Vietnam: By Train
10. Laos: Vang Vieng
11. China: Meet Mr. Chen

Jody Finver
1. Start: Surreal Solipse
2. Great Zimbabwe
3. Brokedown in Kenyan Desert
4. Egypt: So Should I Hyphenate
5. Poland: Home is Where the Truck Is

Gulin Akoz
1. Start: Bits and Pieces
2. Zambia: Diaries
3. Egypt: Africa Memories
4. Turkey: For Your Information
5. The Team and The Bean
6. Somebody Else's Child
7. On My Own
8. Long Lost Memories of Childhood
9. The Tree and the Boy
10. Jealous
11. The Aftermath

 

Panamerican 2003
Various Trips
Planning an Expedition

 

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#42 - India
Jeff Willner - 30 May 2002

(Amritsar, INDIA) – In retrospect, I think we did India backward. It would have been much better to ease into the sub-continent via Delhi, see some more accessible sights and work up to the hard core stuff. But we came south from Nepal and it made the most sense to see Varanasi first. Varanasi. Holy city of the river Ganges, the mother river, most pure, of pilgrims bathing on temple steps... and bodies burning on the shore right beside them. 

We covered over three hundred kilometers in about four hours on our way to the border of Nepal. There were another three hundred left to drive after we crossed the border into India. We had lunch. No worry, plenty of time. But I hadn't expected the humanity, the sheer mass of humanity. On our map the road to Varanasi was a major highway. Evidently in the province of Uttar Pradesh a major highway was a two lane road teeming with cars, trucks, cows, goats, dogs, pedestrians, scooters, rickshaws, bicyclists, beggars, farmers, families, playing children and ox carts - all packed within the margins of the narrow lane. Our speed slowed from 100 to 80, then 60, until we could barely make 40 kph. The 300 km had become an eight hour epic drive. 

Never in the course of the entire expedition had I ever experienced anything like Indian driving. Everyone is so used to the congestion that they only offer a few inches of clearance which forces drivers to squeeze between oncoming cars and pedestrian traffic with almost no margin for error. My gut cramped up from the tension of coming so close to people. My gosh, two inches closer and they would be smashed flat by several tons of Land Rover. To make any kind of decent progress, the slow-moving trucks had to be passed. But of course the roads were too crowded to have any kind of reasonable space to do it. I had to just pull out gun it as hard as possible, and crowd the oncoming vehicle onto the shoulder. I figured out the process after we were forced off the road several times. Like an intense 3D video game, the action was unrelenting and we dodged disaster again and again. There was so much adrenaline in my stomach that I felt ill. And after five hours I was exhausted, slumped over the wheel with glazed eyes. Fortunately Stacey had brought some supplies and after a power bar and Pepsi I perked up enough to press on for another three hours.

We limped into Varanasi after ten, in the dark, dusty night. It was so hot that we had to turn off the a/c to keep the truck from overheating, the windows were down and we were covered in filthy air. Pilgrims packed the streets, storefronts blazed with fluorescent light, and we all fought fatigue as we tried to make sense of our crude guidebook map. Kathryn got us oriented and going toward what we hoped would be a pretty decent hostel. But after several turns down progressively narrower and narrower roads we found ourselves going down a pedestrian only alley wedged into a mass of humanity. I had barely edged by some shopfront displays when Sal announced that I'd clipped some scooters on the other side of the truck and knocked down a whole row of them. Sweet mother of exhaustion! It took ten long minutes to move another dozen meters through the teeming horde and I finally snapped. "That's it! Forget the stupid hostel. We are going back to that nice hotel we passed on the way in - and no arguments!" It was after midnight before we had finally collapsed on our beds.

4:40am. Not enough sleep. Not enough by far! We woke up for a sunrise boat tour of the Ganges, met our guide downstairs and numbly climbed onto a moto rickshaw. Ironically we went back down the same streets and pedestrian alley as the day before and by the time we reached the river the street was only four feet wide. "We could have made it" I said to Kathryn, jokingly, to cheer her up after our squabble over the expensive hotel. "Yeah, right!" Kathryn always felt better when she could knock me around a little bit.

Almost immediately after pushing off onto the river, we came across the first funeral pyre. Pious Hindus who want their bodies to be purified after death are burned on the shores of the Ganges, ideally next to one of the more important temples, and their ashes are scattered in the water nearby. "Would you like to get a better view of the burning?" asked our guide. Allrighty. He said a few words to our boatman who proceeded to row us right up on the shore, only a few meters away from the fires. A gentle scent of barbeque wafted over and Stacey had to look away. Are they really burning bodies on there I wondered. It seemed so completely out of context, so far from reality that it was hard to grasp. I looked closely at the stack of logs. Yep, there are the feet. That is definitely a body!  (if you look in the picture at the man on the left, look down, just on top of the pile of wood... those are dead body feet).

Dead Baby and the Sock Man
Still reeling from the surreal image of burning bodies, we were rowed up the river toward more temple steps. A white cloth bundle floated past the boat. I looked at the guide. Is that a....? "It is a dead baby" he said matter of factly. Oh nausea, take me now. "Oh, oh, another dead person" Sally pointed. Sure enough, a man was floating in the water, only his knees and head sticking out. It was like he had died while sitting on an easy chair, stiffened up, and just got heaved into the river. "Let's go closer and see," the indomitable Sally said brightly. 
"I don't think that's a good idea!" 
"Why not," she turned to me, "he has socks on." 
"Sal, that's not socks. He has been in the water for awhile and the skin has peeled off his shins" I explained. "Off his head too" I added helpfully.
Even Sally got grossed out by that. 

Squatting on the shore only a few meters away from sock man was a guy calmly brushing his teeth in the river. 'This can't be. It's just... not normal.' The combination of driving fatigue and three hours of sleep had already dazed me, and made the tour of the Ganges seemed that much more bizarre. Continuing up the river our guide boasted about the purity of the river water (evidently scientists are amazed). People drink it, bathe in it, wash clothes in it, and quite clearly also die in it, yet the river continues to flow perfectly pure. Maybe the river is indeed a goddess that can never be dirtied, or it could be the high sulphur content that neutralizes the impurities and protects the local people - or maybe it's polluted as heck but they have superhuman immune systems (after two cases of food poisoning I stopped eating local food). We finished our tour and were climbing the steps into the old city when I stopped, rooted by the single most nauseating sight of the day. Up ahead, Stacey heard me say very slowly, almost under my breath, "Oh... that's... not... right."
"What is it?" Stacey and Sally turned as I slowly rejoined them.
"There was a body, the upper half wrapped in a cloth cover, lodged on the riverbank... and a dog was eating the toes." 

It took two days, driving six hours per day, to cover the 600km from Varanasi to Agra. Clenched teeth and suicidal passes straight into oncoming traffic, one long game of chicken. Halfway through one town on the first day of driving I didn't quite get my two inches of clearance from a passing tuk tuk and the Land Rover bumper put a gouge into it's side. I'm not sure how bad it was, there was a bump as we passed and I just kept on going. We had been cautioned not to stop if we were in an accident. Demands for money could turn violent. Though as night fell it was the weather that turned violent. Dust blew fiercely across the road then bursts of rain pelted down. Tree branches whipped past us. Most of the traffic had pulled off or been blown off the road. 'Jeff pull over!' 'What? Just when there is no traffic on the road?!!' Women can be so illogical - especially a truck full of three women.

Blown Down Trees and Detours
We made good time till we ran into a line of stopped cars. Up ahead a huge tree had blown down across the road. I got out into the gale to see if I could help move the tree but no luck, it was a massive eucalyptus, thigh-sized branches tangled round the trunk in a one story mass of impenetrable vegetation. To the left of the road there was a farmer's field and I wondered if we could possibly go around. Stumbling around in the dark I figured there was an easy way to enter and exit the road, but a three foot drop-off between two fields looked like a substantial barrier. Still, what the heck, that's what having a 4x4 is all about. 'Hang on!' I wheeled off the road and onto the field, slowed a bit for the drop and then nudged over. Thud. Crap. With front wheels dangling off the edge we were stuck on the edge of the bank. 

Driving Africa's terrible roads was going to come in handy. We all piled out, jacked up the front of the truck with the hi-lift jack, slid a pile of boards underneath the wheels so that the undercarriage wasn't lodged on the dirt bank anymore, unjacked the truck and reversed right off. Cake! The whole thing took about ten minutes. "Ok Jeff, let's go back over and just get in line and wait for the tree to be moved." What? I drove along the bank, found a slightly shallower section and just powered over (to a chorus of No! NO! Oh my gosh!), bounced across the field, bulled through a roadside shrubbery and voila - we were back on the highway again! I felt like an intrepid explorer, unstoppable, until we hit the second tree.

There is a certain amount of heroic respect you can win by being a man's man, getting into the teeth of the elements and proving your stuff. However, I can tell you from experience that there's a fine line between "manly" and "moron". After scouting a detour around the second tree I squeezed past a sapling, went down a steep bank into a hollow, and proceeded to get almost impossibly lodged trying to climb the steep incline back onto the road. I dug, the women got soaked in the rain, I heaved sand from under the truck, the women were covered in dust, 'sorry', I dug and they helped push boards under the wheels for traction. I reversed off the hill. "Stand back!" Again I ploughed into the slope at full throttle and... almost made it - but not quite. Reversed off. Wham. Reversed. Dirt was flying around, a crowd had gathered, the women had private thoughts of committing me. Ka-wham! The Land Rover finally clawed up and over the bank and onto the road. We piled inside, wet, filthy, and behind us a crowd of men managed to pull the tree off the road and open a hole for traffic. "Do you think it would have killed you to wait in line?" Sally asked. From hero to zero in the space of two fallen trees. 

Sterling Service
At an average speed of 30kph there was no way we were going to do; a morning boat tour, eat lunch, leave in the early afternoon and still cover the 600km from Varanasi to Agra in a single day. And our accommodation options were pretty limited. Though I pretend to be an intrepid adventurer, after ten months of hard living I was getting to the point that I just didn't want to sweat in a hot airless room, use a sewage encrusted common toilet hole, and shower under a rusty spigot of water. Especially after driving the equivalent of an ultra-marathon. Mark me down for a tourist hotel with a sit down toilet, a/c, and dependable water. But those hotels are only in big cities or on the tourist trail. I had pushed past the downed shrubbery to get to one of the few big cities on the road to Agra that was profiled in our Lonely Planet guide where we hoped to find one of the most elusive creatures in India - a clean, inexpensive hostel. 

Guidebook maps tend to be oriented from the train or bus station so navigating a new city is almost always an intensely frustrating experience. Add to that the particular exhaustion that comes from enduring a spectacle of dead bodies, death match driving in Uttar Pradesh, bush barging around road blocks, and sitting inside a skin full of road grime until late into the night. Hotel cost starts fading in importance. We had evolved a system for hotel shopping, I would drive and keep my mouth shut (mostly) and the women would consult the book, steer me around town, and jump out to check prices. Investing thirty or fourty minutes to check out two or three hotels was about par for the course. But any more than that and I'd start getting crotchety. Kathryn and Sally however had this disturbing throwback training from their backpacking days. They were willing to trade off hours to save a few dollars - it was important to get the "best deal" in town. 

That meant circling around unfamiliar darkened streets, stop and ask, drive, stop and ask and get directed in the opposite direction, trying to read Hindi signs, finding a nice hotel right away but the prices are too high, discovering a road on the map but blocked by a huge constriction pit, backtracking, running into highly questionable hostelries, Kathryn becoming irate at devious night clerks who inflated the prices, yelling that we could get a much better deal, navigating past street construction and wandering bums down a dripping alley to someplace else, checking out the rooms, realizing there was no safe place to park the truck, telling the touts who flock to tourists like mosquitoes and are just as persistent that 'NO' we don't want any help, go away, 'How much?', ok follow that guy in the rickshaw for ten minutes, 'NO this is NOT the hotel you said you were going to take us to! I don't care if it's just as good!', forcibly driving through the crowd of touts, stopping at another hotel, laying shattered on the steering wheel (now an hour into the search and nearing midnight), Sally inside lecturing the clerk on his bad business practices, 'they have no rooms for white women only Indians', drive, wrong road, turn around, drive, power is off to the town and generators pound in alleys powering occasional lights, the train station is still humming, 'there is another hotel near here', circle, drive, it is pedestrian only, parking is out of the question, drive, windows are down and sweat trickles down my forehead between my eyes creasing a greasy trail around the stubbled span of my cheek to my chin, drip, drive, drip, steer, manoeuvre, direct, squeeze, decelerate, force, pass, just miss, scan for neon signs with worn-out gritty eyes, and... snap. "Please, guys, is it ok if we just go back and stay in that expensive hotel." Ok. Thank God.

Four of us tossed our daypacks into a room and asked if they could possibly deliver some post-midnight room service. Yes, we will keep the kitchen open for you! We ordered, rotated through the showers, and up came gorgeous, delicious Indian food (well-cooked Indian food rivals China for title of 'best in the world'). Bringing in the order the busboys goggled at the room, three women in boxer shorts and t-shirts ready for bed. Common in some countries, scandalously underdressed in India. Word must have raced through the night staff because within minutes the manager was up to open the sodas and make sure everything was ok. The floor manager came down to make sure we had enough napkins. A cook accompanied the busboy up to make sure the food was cooked right. Ten minutes later a bell hop popped in to see if he could clear the dishes. It was the best room service we'd ever had. Well, there are some definite advantages to traveling with three women! 

One of the more memorable moments of the trip happened at that hotel. Stacey had a tray of dishes and popped open the door to place them outside in the hall. As the door cracked open two heads popped out of the service station at the far end of the hall. "Remember that movie where there is that one scene, two people run around the corner in super slow motion, you see every muscle straining, then the film speeds up and they accelerate straight at you? It was like that," she said laughing. Before she had time to set the tray down they were there, big smiles, popping inside to look around to make sure there aren't any other dishes that need to be taken. Kathryn, Sally, and Stacey. Legendary in Kanpur. We had planned to sleep in but were woken up at 8am the next morning by a knock, the day shift manager poked his head around the door hopefully scanning the room, "Would you like some breakfast tea?" with a big smile. I bet they talk about us still.

Gentle Moments
India turned kinder and gentler in Agra. Impossibly hyped and almost a complete cliché, the Taj Mahal still impressed. Breezy weather with a light rain to cool the air, it was a great day to wander and go picture happy. Dazzlingly white in the warm morning light and every bit a wonder of the world, the Taj Mahal deserves its billing. Outside of town we stopped at Fatepur Sikri, a deserted town that was built as the perfect city by a powerful Raj, it was deserted shortly after his death because of a chronic shortage of water. Left alone for centuries, today it is a preserved window into history, and another of the amazing stops of the trip. Crossing into the province of Rajasthan the weather turned hot and the landscape melted into desert. Inhospitable terrain meant less traffic and we made good time to Jaipur.

Between a light brush with food poisoning, some needed truck repairs, obtaining our Iranian visas, and desperately seeking an easy stint of cushy living, the rest of our stay in India was pretty unremarkable. It's odd. The worst experiences make the best stories. But I would hate to leave you with the wrong impression of India. From Jaipur to Delhi and north from there to Amritsar on the border of Pakistan we travelled on nice four lane highways, and even stopped in at a roadside McDonalds for coffee and pie. Pizza Hut and dessert at Baskin Robbins in Jaipur was an indulgent touch of home. An incredibly accommodating manager at our restaurant negotiated a hefty discount for us at a nearby posh hotel in relaxed and urbane downtown Delhi. The Land Rover dealership squeezed us into their crowded shop and fixed our broken a/c for free. There are no Big Macs at McDonalds in Delhi (I tried a Chicken Maharajah instead) but the service is still with a smile. When we were lost, directions were always given with polite concern. And the never ending search for good hostels uncovered one of the true gems of the entire trip in Amritsar - Mrs. Bhandari's Guesthouse. 

India's religious traditions are exotic and sometimes difficult to absorb, and I blame the government for the roads. It isn't the fault of the local folks that they have to squeeze within the margins of two lanes in Uttar Pradesh. There are just some realities of life that completely change when population density combines with poverty. But the people are dear. When I go next time I will pay a little more attention to the warnings and not push myself quite so hard. India is excellent when sampled lightly.

Driving from Delhi up to Amritsar we ran into a bit of excitement. Literally. Despite the four lane road the traffic was still unpredictable. Blaring the horn when passing, going through town, or even when you suspect that a pedestrian doesn't see you is critical. Unfortunately we had a weenie horn, not like the destroyer klaxon's mounted on the trucks. So even through I was leaning on the horn as I passed a transport truck some luckless fellow on a scooter decided to swerve out into my lane at the last minute to make a slow speed pass. Squealing brakes leaving rubber on the pavement wasn't enough, a Land Rover Defender weighs in at several tons and can't be stopped on a dime. In slow-mo we pushed into the back of the scooter. He wobbled desperately, bounced off the motorcycle beside him, and then tumbled over the handlebars. Ahh crap! Fortunately he popped right up and walked jerkily back to the truck, I opened the door and asked if he was ok. He was shaken but fine aside from a skinned knee. A crowd started to gather. 'Pull the scooter off the road, you are blocking the whole highway', a man yelled at scooter guy. The transport revved up and pulled away, the scooter was wheeled off, I dropped into first gear and we got out of there. Callous huh. But that's the way it is, big crowds mean big scenes, requests for money or worse. Sally and Stacey understood. I was quiet for awhile, then kind of upset. "Damn it. I knew something was going to happen. You can't come that close to disaster that many times and not have some disaster. But... jeez. Crap. That poor guy. This poor country. Blast."

Mrs. Bhandari offered us dinner on the immaculate lawn, cooled by three fans, a slow laid-back four course meal on spotless linen. 'Free meals for all travelers' proclaimed the sign at the Golden Temple the next morning where thousands of people are fed daily at no charge. Impassive Sikh guards at the outside entrances looked stern and foreboding, then one motioned me over and retied my head covering in a more manly way (even guys have to cover their head). I thanked him and he beamed courteously. 'Welcome Sir.' India. Land of contrast. Desperate and nice, dirty yet delicious, odd. Intriguing. Definitely unforgettable.

 

Copyright January 1999-2011
All rights reserved - Jeff Willner
Contact: jeffwillner@yahoo.com