A Travellerspoint blog

February 2011

Incredible India

sunny 23 °C

We made it - we saved the best to last....The Taj Mahal at dawn.

We named this blog “Incredible India” because it’s the marketing slogan of the Indian Tourist Board. Now, having called India home for the past four months, we can honestly say that it is incredible – that is… a place beyond credibility. India is a land of paradox, populated by ethnically, culturally and religiously diverse peoples, which hangs together by a single thread of nationality. It is a country which, on paper, should not work – yet it is thriving. We’ve seen far more of India than most Indians will ever see and we’ve done our best to capture the essence of the country but, in truth, we have barely scratched the surface.
We’ve travelled nearly twelve thousand kilometeres to the four corners of this vast country by plane, train and car, (with only a couple of minor mishaps), and are grateful to the many drivers who’ve been conscious of our western sensibilities and have babied us around.
We have seen the sights, enjoyed the views and experienced the culture, but it is the people who will remain most in our memories: the gangs of smiling children who wanted their photos taken; the older students keen to practice their English; the polite and helpful hotel workers; the city folks who would stop to offer us directions or guide us across an impossibly busy road; and the many rural people who, despite their inability to understand English, would go to extreme lengths to assist us. We will always have particularly warm memories of the homestay owners who shared their lovely houses and delightful families with us.
We have been very pleasantly surprised by the relative lack of hassle and, although we know that we have sometimes paid a little over the odds, we have never felt ripped off. Neither have we at any time felt threatened or in any danger. We have, however, been saddened at the sight of the multitudes living in unbelievable squalor throughout the country, and we have felt totally powerless to do anything that might have a meaningful effect on their lives.

Now we are saying goodbye to India, and these lovely kids, we want to offer a heartfelt ‘thank you’ to the thousands of people who made our trip both possible and pleasant. We also want to thank you, dear blog reader, for taking this journey with us. As a reward, you are invited to Gabriola Island this summer to an “Experience India” party, (date to be announced).
Throughout India, in coffee shops, countless restaurants and nearly fifty hotels, we’ve been persistently asked to complete customer satisfaction questionnaires – and we have generally complied. So, now it’s our turn to ask. We would really like to know what you think of our blog, so please, please add a comment and please tell us of any way we might improve it .
You can add a blog comment without being a subscriber, but it costs nothing to subscribe and you won't be bugged by spam. (just click on “subscribe” in the top right hand corner and enter your email address). As a subscriber, you will receive a party invite and, best of all, you will be notified the next time we unroll our magic carpet and set off on our next adventure to ...Turkey

Posted by Hawkson 12:24 Archived in India Comments (20)

Indian Footnotes

semi-overcast 22 °C

We've sifted through thousands of our photos of India and come up with a few to amuse you...

The Thinker ..."Now let me see... Should I send the next lot the right way or the wrong way...?"

"Can I have the brown one in the middle at the bottom, please."

"Help! Call an ambulance - My camel just bit off my ear."

"Just hang on tight and don't look down."

"7UP is O.K., but I'd rather have a Coke."

"I've got my hat for the royal wedding!"

"I bet mine's bigger than yours."

One of these is a holy sadhu who will bless you - the other is just a scheming beggar in costume who'll try to rip you off for ten dollars if you take his photo. You choose!

"Has anyone seen my camel?"

Indian head-on collision.

Indian back seat driver.

"One step closer and I'll spit!"

Posted by Hawkson 17:40 Archived in India Comments (3)

Only in India...?

overcast 23 °C

India is a country with a long tradition of the rule of law. There are laws governing even the most mundane activities and we read signs everywhere declaring that this or that is an offence. But, without enforcement, laws aren't worth the parchment they're printed on. At least 60% of Indian bureaucrats are known to be corrupt, (together with many policemen, politicians and judges), and the other 40% are suspect. Everyone accepts bribery as the normal way of doing business - so who needs laws? We've previously mentioned the hundreds, (probably thousands), of illegally built condominium towers, and the 137,000 cellphone towers thrown up without approvals. But many existing buildings should be condemned as structurally unsound, (at least two have collapsed while we've been here). This building in Mumbai was condemned two years ago, yet is still fully occupied...
and all construction workers should be off the job immediately for total lack of safety equipment and for working in dangerous conditions. We see bare-headed workers in flip-flops everywhere...
Most roads should be declared unsuitable for motor vehicles and all sidewalks should have signs warning pedestrians to use them at their own peril.
Almost every vehicle is a contestant for the Guinness Book of Records, (current records observed by us shown in brackets) i.e.: How many people can you ...a) Cram into a tuk-tuk (14)... b) Get on a motorbike (6)... c) Carry on the roof of a bus (25)... d)Pile into a farm trailer (55)...e) Pull behind a camel (20)...f)Pedal in a tricycle rickshaw (4 adults or 6 kids).
Trucks and trailers are usually absurdly overloaded - often to the point of breaking the suspension, axles or gearbox, (all we can say is that you would never believe it without seeing it yourself), while horses, camels, donkeys, oxen, elephants, and even men and women, are forced to carry loads well beyond the point of cruelty.
Trains and planes have special categories. Sixty-thousand job applicants recently went to a town in north India to apply for a handful of civil service jobs. When they were turned away they swarmed onto the tops and sides of the trains. Amazingly - only 23 were killed. As for planes...fifty nine thousand people were denied boarding last year because of overbooking, while hundreds of people were flown home as standing passengers on overcrowded flights returning from the Haj.

Anarchy rules the roads here: Lane markings, stop lines and pedestrian crossings are a complete waste of paint; traffic lights are only obeyed if backed up by a policeman; roundabouts are navigated either clockwise or anticlockwise dependent upon the fastest route to the driver's desired exit; on dual carriageways slow vehicles always hog the centre lane, while faster vehicles overtake on the inside or simply barrel down the opposite carriageway into the path of oncoming vehicles. Few cars, even ones licensed for carrying tourists, have seat belts for passengers, while drivers quickly put their's on if they spot a police check. It is common to see families of five and even six on a single motorbike, and, even though roadside vendors sell crash helmets for as little as two dollars, very few people wear them - and then only the driver. Many vehicles, especially buses and tuk-tuks, have no rear lights. More than 125,000 people die in Indian road accidents each year, but this figure doesn't include the great majority of casualties who die of their injuries later at home or in hospital.

As for electrical wiring... take a look...
In 1999 while touring a factory in Edinburgh, Prince Philip spotted a badly installed electrical box and got a lot of flack for saying, "It must have been put in by an Indian." Having seen the dire state of Indian electrical installations we can honestly say that Phil knew of what he spoke.

Posted by Hawkson 23:12 Archived in India Comments (5)

Jaipur - Just Another National Geographic Day!

sunny 25 °C

As we near the end of our Indian circumnavigation we have reached Jaipur, the Rajasthani capital, where a clash of civilizations is taking place on the city’s streets. The cluttered bazaars and roadside stalls of artisans, tradesmen and craftsmen have changed little over the centuries in the ‘old walled city’ of pink sandstone. And, while horn-blaring cars, motorbikes and tuk-tuks may own the narrow streets today, camels, donkeys and horses still deliver the goods...
And working elephants are a common sight…
But Jaipur is not old in European terms. Its foundations were laid in 1727 when Maharaja Jai Singh’s sprawling conglomeration of hilltop forts, bastions and curtain walls a few miles away became uninhabitable due to lack of water. This is the abandoned Amer fort, built in the late 16th century…
This is his ‘new’ joint in the centre of Jaipur where the current Maharaja lives…
And this is the photogenic front of the pink palace the Maharajah built for his wives and concubines…
However, outside the old city’s gates is a new world where westernized stores, uppity hotels and flashy shopping malls line wide treed boulevards. Since independence in 1947, India has been reluctant to allow foreign companies to compete here, but the ritzy mall stores are as cosmopolitan and almost as expensive as any in north America. Times are quickly changing; India’s well-educated, internet savvy, 'Jean Generation' with their iPhones and MacBooks are demanding the lifestyle long enjoyed by the fat cats of the west: they drink Coke or Pepsi, yearn for BMWs and Mercs, and watch endless repeats of 'Friends." International chains such as McDonalds, KFC, Pizza Hut and Costa Coffee are rushing to snap up the youngsters' new found wealth…
Today’s Jaipur has fancy apartment towers that look a million bucks, (though not even close to the one billion dollars a businessman recently paid for a multi-floored pad in Mumbai). There are also plenty of posh houses with razor-wire topped walls and ferocious dogs. But just beyond their security cameras, outside their closely guarded gates, the excrement covered, potholed pavements are still home to some of the most desperate beggars that we’ve encountered. Being down and out here in India means you’ve hit bottom and there’s nowhere else to go but the street. For Canadian and U.K. citizens complaining about government cutbacks to state benefits, you might not want to believe that the Indian government boasted last week that old-age pensions are now an eye-watering four dollars a month.

Posted by Hawkson 23:59 Archived in India Comments (2)

A Walk to Mandawa

sunny 27 °C

It is 3pm and the midday heat is starting to fade to a pleasant warmth. We leave our sprawling up-market, (though sadly deserted), resort behind us and set off on foot along the tarmac road to Mandawa. Spindly trees and sparse bushes cling to a precarious life in the surrounding desert, and the afternoon breeze tears the sand from their roots and skips it across the road to form drifts that passing trucks and buses whip into choking clouds.A couple of slender young women in bright red sarees stand out in sharp contrast to the dusty landscape as they walk along with great bundles of firewood balanced on their heads. They quickly outpace us, seemingly unconscious of their hefty loads and harsh existence, and they chatter excitedly as they head home with fuel to cook the evening meal.
As we near the town a camel cart carries a family back from a day working in the desert; the man is as proud as his beast as he coaxes the loping animal along with encouraging whoops. His wife and children huddle behind him, apparently oblivious to the familiar dun landscape, until one child spots a couple of strange white people walking along the roadside. The child smiles and waves, but his mother, from an older and more conservative generation, quickly wraps her scarf across her face and pretends not to see us. We wonder if the open-faced cheeky little urchins of today will be part of a new and progressive society or whether India, like some other deeply religious countries in this region, will one day slip back into ultra-conservatism.
Small stores, little more than huts selling penny items, are replaced by larger, more modern, shops as we walk deeper into the town. But the past is all around us. This aging dhobi-wallah still uses an iron filled with burning charcoal to press the clothes…
And donkeys are still the beast of burden of choice in this town…
But we have come to Mandawa to visit the famed havelis. These two to three hundred-year-old mansions overshadow the hovels and meagre homes of more recent years. They were built by successful local merchants as testaments to their wealth – a wealth that was generally earned in more fertile and prosperous regions of India – and they are a reminder of a rich and colourful past. However, the numerous havelis of Mandawa have, in all respects, seen better days…
The neglect of these once fine buildings is criminal, yet, without an enormous injection of capital and enthusiasm, seems likely to continue. This haveli, the Shekhawati, is renowned for its wonderful gilt frescoes that are reputed to contain two kilograms of gold…

But, despite its cultural and historical significance, it is a total shambles. The main hall has been turned into a grubby gift store, and people inhabit the rest of the ramshackle building in squalid conditions...
This haveli, and the others of Mandawa, are rundown hovels in comparison to these wonderfully restored and beautifully maintained mansions that we visited in Jaisalmer…
As we walk the main street of Mandawa we are reminded of Luang Prabang in Laos, a remote and seemingly insignificant town on the banks of the Mekong, which has tarted itself up, put on a bit of make-up, and become a ‘must see.’ We hope that Mandawa will similarly flourish again one day.

Posted by Hawkson 01:53 Archived in India Comments (1)

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