A Travellerspoint blog

November 2010

The Dark Side of India

semi-overcast 30 °C

The mere mention of Madras, (founded by the British in 1639 and now called Chennai), conjured colourful images of exotic spices, scented tropical airs and memorable curries, but we saw the warning signs long before we hit the city itself. Smoke-belching steelworks, flame-throwing oil refineries, and acres of slums ringing stagnant, garbage filled swamps, greeted us as we arrived by train from Vijayawada. Judging by the magnificent Victorian railway station, and a few other colonial-era buildings, Madras used to be a gem of a city, but there is little that is colourful, sweetly scented or memorable here now. This is the Muruga Hindu Temple…
Impressive from a distance, it is garish and grubby up close. And it is girdled by streets of abandoned cars and garbage like this…
We think the sun is shining, but it could just be one of the yellowy flares from the oil refinery glowing through the morning smog. However, on the bright side, we are staying at a very interesting hotel where even the elevators are disguised as Hindu temples, and the marble-floored lobby is the size of an airport terminal…
We had planned to go to the sea today, until we learned from Sunday’s edition of ‘The Hindu’ that a survey by students had found 20,000 pieces of trash on the city’s beaches. This country is awash in garbage and the nearest riverbank or railway embankment seems to be the preferred dumping ground for most. It is, therefore, inevitable that most of it eventually winds its way to the ocean and washes up on someone’s shore. But there is a much darker side to India than the pollution and the trash – it is political and corporate corruption. Newspapers and TV news channels report daily on the latest scams and scandals – and they seem endless. The Commonwealth Games was a complete fiasco because most of the money was stolen by bent politicians and contractors and now, surprise-surprise, all the paperwork has been mysteriously ‘lost’ by the bureaucrats involved; a State premier gave huge amounts of government land to his relatives and friends and can’t be touched because he threatens to go public about other officials; twenty-six bank officials colluded to defraud the government of millions; a cadre of senior military officers built a luxury condo tower for themselves on land earmarked for widows of dead soldiers; the Telecom Minister gave sweetheart deals to his paymasters when divvying up the airwaves … and that’s just this week’s revelations. Arrests have been made, but don’t hold your breath for a quick resolution. The justice system here is so corrupt and moribund that it is estimated that it could take five-thousand years to clear the backlog of cases.

Posted by Hawkson 07:19 Archived in India Comments (1)

May I Touch Your Feet Please?

sunny 32 °C

With northern India behind us we’re keeping up with the sun and heading south to India’s ancient coastal city, Chennai, (previously called Madras). According to our guide book, Chennai is a big smoky, chaotic city – so what’s new? This is India; at least one thousand two hundred million people live here -forty times the population of Canada – so everywhere is terribly polluted and chaotic. But, despite all the frenzy, we’ve been very pleasantly surprised at the kindness, generosity and courtesy shown by the locals. Here’s just a few of them…
Before we came we read horror stories of taxi drivers claiming that the hotel you booked has just closed, burnt down or collapsed, so they can take you to another where they will get commission. We heard of shoeshine boys’ accomplices throwing shit on your shoes to drum up trade, and we were assured that everybody would be out to rip us off or beg the pants off us. None of this has been true. If we have been ripped off we’ve not noticed it and we’ve often paid more than requested because they’ve asked so little. People have offered help and advice wherever we have been without trying to sell us anything or get a tip, and beggars have generally been less aggressive and persistent than those in Vancouver.

Life can be very hard here but people seem happy – imagine carrying a load like this...
And this lovely lady just sat by the roadside and explained to us in perfect Hindi that her knees were giving her grief. We didn’t understand a word but knew exactly what she was saying...
So, despite the aggravations of foul air, garbage littered streets, potholed roads and late trains, our journey so far has been made pleasant because of the kindness of the Indian people. Reverence for elders may have played a part in the way we have been treated, and we were particularly surprised, if not a little embarrassed, when a group of students asked if they might touch our feet in respect, as is their custom. This is a custom that the students on the Gabriola ferry might want to emulate!

Posted by Hawkson 05:03 Archived in India Comments (3)

Hyderabad's Many Faces

sunny 30 °C

Following our dismal failure to discover Calcutta’s attractions it occurred to us that the whole of India might be slipping further into the gutter. But then - Wow! What a shock when we touched down at Hyderabad’s glisteningly clean new airport and found ourselves catapaulted into the 21st. Century. This place is a wealthy hypochondriac techie’s dream; half the buildings are hospitals, the other half are digital emporiums, while most of the others are pearl purveyors. Add the fact that Hyderabad has the biggest film studio in the world, and a world class Hi Tech city, and it’s easy to see the future here. But this is no Vancouver or Silicon Valley; the roads are still clogged with smoke-spewing tuk-tuks, (called auto-rickshaws here), and ancient buses; many of the pavements are just pot-holed parking lots for motorbikes, and the city has a liberal sprinkling of litter. Here’s a view of the city's chaotic roads from the top of the 16th century Charminar tower…
See the tiny yellow and black tuk-tuks that buzz about the city like thousands of demented smelly wasps? They are only licensed to carry four adults or six children, not the ten or so they often cram in, and the police have been cracking down. So a tuk-tuk strike is on the horizon – that’s bound to clear the air. However, for a breath of fresh air we took a trip to the massive 12th. Century Golconda Fort on the city’s western edge.
This huge fortress was built in 1143 and eventually became one of the Moghuls' strongholds.
Today, Hyderabad is the world’s centre for pearl stringing, and it is also home to hundreds of English language call-centres, (which is why you can never understand the guy from the bank when he calls). However, if you feel like having a heart transplant or a hip-replacement, Hyderabad is the place for you. With more gleaming hospitals and medical centres catering to transplant tourists than you can shake a crutch at, this place is hopping along nicely. Just don’t try climbing the Galconda fort to get this spectacular view of the city until after the operation.

Posted by Hawkson 18:17 Archived in India Comments (2)

Seeking Calcutta

“You are wanting to see the Victoria Monument.”

sunny 30 °C

Calcutta, (Kolkata), is renowned for its ‘black hole,’ the slums, and Mother Theresa, but we came to see everything this city of 16 million had to offer. Most visitors to our posh hotel in the heart of Calcutta are whisked in and out by limousine or luxury coach and wouldn’t dream of fighting through the nightmarish traffic, or the throngs of locals, to see the sights. But the highly-sanitized city tour, with obligatory stops at upmarket shopping bazaars for the driver to get his cut, is never for us. We consider ourselves intrepid, so, armed only with a map and the relevant pages from the Lonely Planet, we sallied forth on foot in search of the real Calcutta. “You are wanting to see the Victoria Monument,” we had been told at least a dozen times, so that was our first stop.
This masterpiece of architecture was built by the British in the early 1900s as a memorial to Queen Victoria – Empress of India. Here’s another view…
The building with its soaring rotunda, reminiscent of the Capitol Building in Washington, was designed in 1904 to be a meeting place for all; where Indians could meet their British rulers on equal terms. Today, we seem to be the only ones with British heritage here, so it’s natural that the Indians all want to meet us and have their photos taken with us. Here’s just one of the groups …
Now, with the Victoria Monument under our belts we go in search of the rest of Calcutta. There’s the Howrah Bridge , (it’s big, not pretty and illegal to photograph); there’s the trams , (old and not pretty either); and then there’s St. John’s Cathedral, (oldish and prettyish but it’s hardly St.Peter’s in Rome or St.Paul’s in London). “Now where?”we ask, and everyone replies in unison, “You are wanting to see the Victoria Monument.”
There has to be more to India’s second largest city than the garbage strewn streets, the crumbling concrete buildings, the teeming bazaars, and the Victoria Monument … there just has to be!

Posted by Hawkson 19:48 Archived in India Comments (3)

Images of Varanasi at Dawn

Awaiting the Calcutta Express

sunny 32 °C

At 5am. our auto-rickshaw roars through Varanasi’s near deserted streets, horn blaring at shadows, waking only the day.

A thousand somnolent souls seeking cold comfort on the station forecourt, like tightly shrouded corpses awaiting the pyres, barely stir. Yet the platforms are a heaving mass of humanity as trains come and go.

The 5.38am. Poorva Express to Kolkata, (Calcutta), is an hour late, we are told, and we watch the day break as we wait.
Sharp-eyed rats and barefoot urchins scramble for scraps in the leftovers of the night, while a dog with an infected tail tries to bite it off.

At 6.38am. a weighty bull, dribbling urine, wanders the platform in search of scraps, and a squad of monkeys arrive like a team of attacking commandos; racing across the roofs and shimmying down a myriad of stanchions to the platforms.


An apple seller is instantly surrounded by the marauding apes and frantically fights them off with his antiquated brass scales. The monkeys eye us up and we gather our bags tightly, then a legless beggar drags himself to our feet and pleads.

By 7.38 the warming sun enlivens the sleepers and the platform becomes a communal toilet before our eyes. Privacy here is only for the rich.

Our train has dropped off the arrivals board. ‘God knows when it will arrive’, we are told, though no one else seems to know.

It is 8.38 and our world is bustling with travelers, porters, beggars, scavengers, monkeys, rats, dogs, cows and chai-wallahs, but all we want is the 5.38 Express to Kolkata.

Nine o’clock arrives and with it comes our train - three and half hours behind schedule, but no one is concerned; only a fool or a foreigner expects a train to be on time in India

And now, time for another puzzler ...
Here's a picture we took in the heart of Varanasi City - what are these wall decorations?

The winner will receive enough wood for their own funeral pyre on the banks of the Ganges, (coffin and airfare not included).

Congratulations to all of you who correctly identified the mystery objects as cow dung. The patties are stuck on the wall so that they will dry in the sun. When they are fully dried they fall off and are ready to be used for cooking - fuel that is! Heaps of dried cow dung can be seen everywhere here, (along with plenty of the wet stuff).
There were so many winners that you can all charter a plane and have a mass funeral pyre if you like!!

Posted by Hawkson 03:14 Archived in India Comments (6)

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