#42 - India
Willner - 30 May 2002
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.
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).
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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
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."
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.