In case I ever said anything about Mumbai being polluted and having bad air, I take everything back. Now that we’ve spent five days in Rajasthan, we can proudly announce Bikaner to be the most unbreathable place we’ve been to in India so far.
But let’s start at the start. Our flight to Jaipur was uneventful enough. Deepak insisted on driving us to the airport, and we survived the usual shenanigans of chaotic security checks, travelers cutting in line and middle aged men picking their noses with gusto in public. We arrived at our hotel (the Umaid Bhawan) quite early in the morning, and the place was very nice with a lovely rooftop.
We took off in a car to the City Palace, which wasn’t all that great, followed by the very nice Amber Fort, where we spent a long time wandering around. There was plenty of Western tourists and the appropriate number of touts and hawkers to match, but overall, it was a lot less hassle than we had anticipated. The weather was quite cool in the morning, but it got pretty warm later in the day. Jaipur really is quite nice, thanks to one of its founder, Jai Singh II (1688-1743), who according to our travel book was a bit of an urban planner and introduced some revolutionary ideas, namely hygiene, beauty and commerce. Of these, only the last one seems to have survived into the 21st century, but at least the wide roads of the old city are still pretty wide, the town is still mostly pink, making it almost possible to walk around relatively unscathed, at least in the morning.
Unfortunately, hygiene standards don’t seem to have been upgraded in the last 200 years, so there are plenty of open sewage canals, everybody is spitting and snotting everywhere (just like Mumbai, only more so), and an abundance of camel and cow shit takes care of the rest, not to mention the autorickshaws, which are (thankfully, slowly) replacing the bicycle rickshaws. Some of the sidestreets really are an incredible sight of disgusting filth. Nevertheless, Jaipur is a shopping heaven, at least in terms of quantity and curiosity; quality not so much, but we are almost used to that caveat by now. Even the hawkers and touts we could deal with, or maybe that’s because we had feared the worst and therefore immediately shut up anyone who got on our nerves too much too quickly.
We left for Bikaner by late afternoon the next day. We’ve know by now that train stations in India tend to be the cleaner parts of town, and at least when we are leaving a town, there’s less of a chance of getting hassled by some rickshaw driver about which country we are from, where we want to go, and that he will drive us anywhere we like. Of course, there’s still always someone who will try to lure us into his rickshaw back into town, even as he sees us walking fast and straight towards the station entrance. The train arrived 90mins late in Bikaner, but on the upside, we only had to stand in line for half an hour to fill out the application for seat reservations, which as usual required vital information such as our gender, age and address. Since the clerk was unusually slow even by local standards, the crowd got proportionally more pushy, as if rubbing belly against backpack could speed things up and as if ruthlessly cutting in line were a matter of spiritual pride and honor. When we told someone to back off, the helpfully happy and proud explanation was this is the system here.
Late as it was when we finally made it to Bikaner, the town came as a bit of a shock even to us jaded expats. The rickshaw ride from the train station to the hotel was like cruising through a garbage can in a desert, which incidentally describes Bikaner quite well. The town is dusty as dusty can be and the rickshaw fumes eat at your eyes like little ants. Someone said traveling India is like traveling for Graduates (Thailand I guess being for amateurs), but at this point we are wondering whether it maybe isn’t more for the demented. Then again, as we now look at our pictures, the explanation is clear: all pictures lie, because they are never able to show the dust, and the stink, or record the cancerous coughing and yacking all around you. All the Rajasthan travel books show gorgeous colors, graceful women, majestic forts and beautiful landscapes, but the predominant impressions, at least this evening and most of the next day in Bikaner, are incredible dirt and filth, unbreathable air, and enormous pollution. If I had to go here in the summer, when it gets as hot as a frying pan, I’d shoot myself, even though there were a lot of gorgeous empty houses in Bikaner’s old city.
On the other hand, our hotel in Bikaner (Bhairon Vilas) was the best we’ve stayed at so far in India. The owner is a descendant of the Maharajas and of the Prime Minister of Bikaner, a young guy who decided that he likes restoring old furniture and stuff, so his hotel has a lot of character and is quite lovely. Maybe we should have stayed in the hotel all day, because there was a film crew doing some shoots of a traditional Rajasthani music and dance troupe, but we went to the fort instead, which was rather shabby.
We also went to a camel farm, which was a bit sad looking (although the two minute camel ride was surprisingly comfortable), and to the Karni Mata Temple in Doshnoke, where hundreds of unhealthy looking rats live in and run around in filth, enjoying being worshipped as the reincarnated relatives of the local villagers. There were a few equally scrubby looking Western tourists around, who may have thought this temple was the greatest thing since sliced bread, but we kind of thought that it was … well, interesting, and sheer insanity.
Back in the hotel, the film shoot continued as we were having dinner. There was a British guy who had spent five days at the temple shooting a documentary and a female Spanish dope head who we speculated was doing the hotel owner. As they were finishing off a bottle of rum at the bar, three middle aged Germans talked loudly and waltzed right into the film set, twice. We briefly considered joining the bar, but then thought better of it, so we could get up in time the next day for our train to Jodhpur.
The train ride to our last stop was another 7 hour affair, but the 3AC class is comfortable enough and you get a pillow to sleep on. Our hotel wasn’t exactly nice or beautiful; in fact, it seemed to have on offer a large number of small imperfections. Some call that charming, we find it inexplicable, whether it’s the layer of oil swimming on top of the coffee, the curtain rods being installed in all manners crooked, the curtains being of wildly varying length, the hot shower being cold, the bed sheets missing, the paint being applied rather liberally at the wrong places (i.e. on the windows and lamps), etc. etc. In an effort to save electricity, the city shuts it down from 8am to 11am every morning, but at least it wasn’t as cold as Jaipur, and the roof top restaurant was actually quite nice (well, not the rooftop, nor the restaurant, but the view was). In terms of air quality, Jodhpur was only a marginal improvement over Bikaner, but the fort is high enough above the rest of the city that it was ok.
That fort was actually quite nice, even though one would have to be a real nut for armor and weaponry to appreciate a lot of the exhibition in these Rajasthani forts. It was the first such place that offered an audio tour (more expensive than a live guide; I guess they know how annoying those guides can be), and it was pretty well restored and preserved, with money from both the Getty Foundation and the UN. The tour was well done, although at the end they lost it a bit, when two female descendents of the Maharaja were asked to talk about their lives now. One was shamelessly promoting her publishing house, while the other was blubbering incoherently about how looking at the fort to her is like looking at a computer window and how she’s crying thinking about it and how it’s all for her family god.
Anyways, at that point my camera battery was empty and we were pretty exhausted after all this, so we just made a quick stop at the very decent Jaswant Thada memorial to Jaswant Singh II, and then took off to the airport. Arriving back in Mumbai, we had to yell at some tout as soon as we left the terminal, since he wouldn’t take our ignoring him at first and then saying no twice for an answer. Soon after that we took in some fresh Mumbai air, realizing that maybe this place isn’t so bad after all; there’s always worse, apparently.
We are still a bit puzzled about the great allure of Rajasthan to Western tourists. The British guy in Bikaner had told us about Peru, and slowly walking up the Andes or floating down the Amazon river sounds so much nicer right about now. We are also wondering whether we could possibly be the only Westerners prepared to tell the endless touts and hawkers and scammers to fuck off, because they obviously keep trying and sometimes seem genuinely surprised when we respond unkindly. Could we possibly be the only Westerners who are wondering what people must be smoking when they talk about spirituality here? We see a lot of in-your-face religiosity and a lot of praying and talk about god, yes. Everything seems religious here, but spiritual? Not so much. We can’t see much spirituality in driving like an ass, talking out of your ass, cutting in line like an ass, or feeding plastic garbage to your holy cow. Another one is warmth and hospitality. Getting asked literally fifty times a day which country we are from stops feeling warm and fuzzy real quick, as does getting stared at like a two-headed Martian in the zoo. The usual mix of having people bend over backwards to crawl up our ass on the one hand and getting scammed and taken for a ride on the other doesn’t help much either.
Anyways, enough of that. Not sure where we’ll go on our next trip, maybe Orissa, maybe Gujarat, and maybe we’ll have a little less to whine about then.
Our trip to Kerala started at 3am in the morning with the riksha driver making a big detour via the international airport to get us to the domestic airport. I suppose he was assuming that we must be wanting to get out of India, even though we repeatedly told him domestic airport. Or maybe he just wanted to take us for a ride and a little early morning scam. Either way, we were passing hundreds of parked rikshas, most of them with the driver sleeping under a blanket on the back bench. Even Mumbai gets a bit cooler at night at this time of the year.
We landed in Kochi at 8am, and the air was noticeably nicer than Mumbai, even while walking from the aircraft to the terminal, which looked like a repurposed train station. Most men were wearing white lungis, which look very comfortable. It would be nice if one could wear those in NYC, but then again, seeing that all the men in Kerala are constantly playing with their lungi, tucking them in and out, lifting them up or down and adjusting them, maybe not.
The can ride to the ferry for Fort Kochi was a bit of a ride from hell. The roads are much better than in Mumbai, but the drivers are even more suicidal. There was a disturbingly large amount of huge advertising posters everywhere along the 20 miles road, but eventually, we got dropped off at the ferry. Of course it was the wrong ferry, the ones for the tourist, so we got immediately harassed left and right, as we must have been the day’s first prey. But we successfully dodged this second scam of the day and rather than paying Rs400 for the tourist boat, we walked a bit further down to catch the Rs2.5 regular ferry, which had the added bonus of watching the security guy lock up all the passengers behind a steel gate as they were waiting for the boat to come in. Which it did, 15mins late, with another ferry in tow, whose engine had apparently given up.
In Fort Kochi, we had our first of many encounters with riksha drivers who simply refused to turn on the meter. At first, we were rather annoyed, but over the days it dawned on us that maybe this is one of the features of Kerala’s long history of communist governments. Maybe you can’t have the highest literacy rate and lowest infant mortality rate in India, a noticeably more equitable distribution of wealth and a school in literally every village, and still expect the riksha drivers to use the meter. Of course, the rikshas were still pretty cheap, but at two or three times the going rate in Mumbai, one had to wonder whether this was the tourist rate or whether the locals really pay Rs2000 or so a month just for their daily commute.
Kochi is quite nice, but the some of the aggressive sales tactics got a bit on our nerves quite quickly, and almost every riksha driver made the same joke about wanting to give us a ride in his Ferrari, which also got a bit old. One driver tried to tell us that petrol is much more expensive in Kerala than in Mumbai (it is not, as the central government sets the price). A waiter ordered us to sit and relax. And we tried a ayurvedic massage, which Ksenia loved and I found a bit too up close and personal for comfort (I take a Thai massage any time over that).
Somehow the nicest part was to sit in a tea house just a bit away from the main drag. But in the evening we saw a Kathakali performance, and that was great. Yes, there were virtually no Indians in the audience, and it was more an exhibition than the real thing, but it was very interesting and beautiful. We finished the evening with a pretty bad dinner and the next day we had a cold shower and decidedly horrible breakfast in our overpriced hotel – white toast and jam consisting of 50% sugar and 50% gelatin. What the hell happened to idli, we wondered).
After that, we took a two hour bus ride to Alleppey. Ksenia got a seat and observed a very suave guy quietly and slowly slipping a piece of paper into a female passenger’s hands, who took it after fifteen minutes with a coy smile, while I was standing the whole time, watching the communist flags go by. In Alleppey, we got picked up by the cook for the houseboat that we had rented in Kochi, and then we argued with the riksha driver, who also refused to turn on the meter. The cook got quite annoyed with us and said come on, sit down, everything is ready to go, which of course it wasn’t. But eventually our houseboat got moving and we got some food, which was actually quite nice.
We spent 24 hours on the boat, which is about enough for our taste. It’s nice and relaxing at all, but looking at rice fields isn’t really all that thrilling, nevermind the fact that one basically takes the boat through other people’s back yards, where the women wash their clothes, bathe, and brush their teeth, and some children (much better dressed than in Mumbai) ask the tourists for money.
Ksenia and I entered a lengthy discussion about possible explanations for the size of the paddles that the locals use with their little wooden boats. These paddles are basically teaspoon size: they are very small and look almost fragile, with an undersized surface for effective paddling, and they are only one-sided, i.e. they have to change their grip, if they’d like to paddle on the other side of the boat. If they had better paddles, let alone contraptions for actually rowing instead of paddling, they’d be quite a bit faster. After pondering many theories ranging from lack of materials or engineering expertise or rowing muscles, to they aren’t in a rush to get anywhere, to maybe they had never thought about it, we settled on the explanation that maybe they used to use these little boats to go on tiny canals into the rice fields, where rowing would have been impossible and paddling with teaspoons offered the best balance of moving forward and protecting the rice fields.
Anyways, somehow the engine of our own boat gave up pretty much in time for sunset, so we got towed for a bit by another boat, and the next morning we woke up to the smell of diesel exhaust as the cook and the two other crew members tried to repair the engine. Eventually, we got back to Alleppey, where we found a number of touts who didn’t understand the meaning of the word no, but also a bus station attendant with badly deformed legs who pointed us very helpfully towards the right bus to Thiruvalla, our next stop.
Thiruvalla has the only temple in Kerala where Kathakali is performed daily as part of the religious ceremony, and it also has a number of temples in the surrounding villages, so that’s where we wanted to go. But first Ksenia needed another ayurvedic massage, so we went to a place that was listed in our Kerala travel book, but that place really looked more a hospital than anything else. They didn’t seem to have any patients, because the owner/doctor pretty much spent his whole afternoon with us, embarrassingly eager to please us, to make us want to come back tomorrow, and to tell all our fiends. He even reserved a room and drove us to a hotel that he insisted we stay in, even though we had told him a few times that we don’t know how long and where we want to stay and that we might actually leave town altogether.
So instead, we just had lunch at the hotel, pondered our options and called a place outside of town, which sounded much nicer than this hotel in the middle of Thiruvalla. Of course, the receptionist followed us onto the street wondering where we are going, but ah well. We took one of the many HM Ambassador taxi cabs, and even the cab drivers that were immediately surrounding us were laughing with me when I laughed about the price the driver wanted for the 2km ride.
But at least we got there, and we were quite happy with our choice this time, the Vanjipuzha Palace in Chengannur, where it was quiet and green, the food was great and the staff was very helpful. Maybe a bit too helpful, because, since it is more a homestay than a hotel, the staff had no problem asking us all kinds of private questions, insisted on watching us eat while they served us very yummy food, and tried to walk into our room for our wake up call at 7am. Like many in Kerala, they are also Christians, which got a bit annoying when they started preaching about it or acted as if that were a special accomplishment, and downright embarrassing when one of them gave us a tour to a number of Hindu temples while going on about how Christianity is the opposite of Hinduism’s idol worship, as he called it. Strangely, he also was a devout anti-communist, the main reason seemingly being that the communist government was to blame for labor costs being too high and so many rice fields were no longer economical.
Either way, he was quite knowledgeable about the area, and he showed us a lot of things that we wouldn’t have seen otherwise. In the evening, we went to the Kathakali temple and apparently he was able to tell us what the story was all about just from reading the hand gestures. Amazingly, the Kathakali performance is almost every night from 10pm to 5am. Not there were many people there apart from us, but it was quite impressive. Later on, there was a bit of a cat fight amongst the staff, because he hadn’t told the others where we were going or when we would come back, so they got all worried and showed up at 2am at the temple to find us and take us back to the hotel. Sadly, both staff members were strongly hinting that they would like to help us get themselves or their children a work visa for the US, again emphasizing that they are Christians.
Anyways, we left after three hours of sleep to catch a 6am train to Trivandrum. We only had time for a quick stop at the Sri Padmanabhaswamy temple, whose inner square was closed for non-Hindus anyways, as is the case in a number of temples, and then it was back to Mumbai, Ksenia’s backpack enriched with a number of fabrics and a hand-made metal mirror she had bought and me already looking where should we go onto our next little trip.
My internet connection at home was down for three days, because apparently there had been some thunder and lightening last weekend, putting my ISP (and others) out of service. I have no idea how that is actually possible, but I guess it is. On the plus side, I had missed the thunder and lightening, because I spend the weekend recruiting in a very small college town, a village really, in Rajastan. We flew into Delhi and then went on a 4 hour drive over solidly potholed roads across the border to Rajastan. Well, Rajastan is of course still India, but for some reason or other our driver had to stop at the border to Rajastan to pay some taxes in a little hut of a control post.
This college village is really more like a little gated community with a bit of an army barracks flair. The whole village seems to live off the students, but if you picture lots of college gear shops, book stores, movie theaters, let alone regular theaters, then you would be utterly wrong. In fact, we went out to the central student meeting area, which has a large number of good and cheap eateries, and there were hundreds of students late in the evening hanging around having dinner outside under the stars. Kind of nice, but two things were notably missing: beer and women.
There was not a single bottle of beer to be found and our attempts to buy some were met with apologies. I didn’t quite get whether alcohol is actually illegal, or whether there is simply no demand. Among the hundreds of students there were maybe 20 women. Not that there aren’t any female students in the college, but the girls’ housing complexes (of course, no coed here) are actually closed at 11pm. Boys can roam around all night, but the girls get locked up behind the Berlin walls that surround their dormitories.
The campus does look a bit like a nice and pleasant peaceful army compound, and so basically students spend four years of their lives here, in complete isolation, with no distractions whatsoever, under blistering heat in the summer (it was a good 40 Celsius), and chilly cold in the winter (when it gets below freezing). What a life! The college campus temple was very beautiful though, and there’s a bunch of peacocks running around (and away from my camera), so I guess you win some you lose some as a college student in Rajastan.
Before our trip to Rajastan, I had gotten a call from my car dealer who asked me whether she can give my number to the Hindustan Times, because they were writing an article about the HM Ambassador. I said, sure, why not, so the newspaper called me. They actually wanted to do a photo shoot the next morning, so I told them to come early, since I had to go bring my car for service and then go to the airport. When they didn’t show up at the agreed upon time, I called them, and they told me, ah, well, sorry, we don’t have time for a shoot. So they interviewed me on the phone, I e-mailed them a picture of my silver machine and apparently there was a half page article in the Mumbai section of the Hindustan Times last Saturday.
I still haven’t seen the article, because I was out of town, but apparently it praises the HM Ambassador and then used my quotes (plus the Italian embassy employees who bought two Avigos) as solid proof that Made in India stands for style and quality in the world. Of course, I had expressed my utmost satisfaction with the most beautiful car gracing the Indian roads, so everybody was happy. So happy, in fact, that both my car dealer and some guy from the Hindustan Motors company called me to express their thanks for my valuable input. I guess it was at that point that I realized I should have tried to make deal with them – maybe become their official HM Ambassador ambassador in news, print, and media, in exchange for a minor donation, of course. Anyways, it was all very amusing and now I am famous for being that crazy Westerner driving around in an Amby – by himself, no less.
The trip to the HM service center was also quite an experience. So this car needs the first service stop after 1000km – not 10000 miles, or even 5000 miles, but 1000km, which took me all but three weeks to rack up. That’s the first joke. Then it took me forever to find the place, because the address was useless as usual, and when I called them, they basically refused to give me precise directions, but just told me to ask around, as it would be so much easier.
So I asked a cop, who actually spoke English (a premiere), and he swore on his mother’s grave that he knows exactly where the FortPoint service center is, except, he couldn’t for the life of him explain it to me (it turned out to be a few hundred meters down the road on the right). Eventually, I found the place, in a tiny lane under a bridge next to the Mumbai race tracks, and was greeted by a very disgruntled guy who took my service book, filled it out, and asked my to sign it, right were it says something like Customer Signature. I hereby certify that all work has been completed in a timely manner to my fullest satisfaction. – Of course, at that point, nobody had even driven the car into the completely overcrowded workshop, let alone told me how long it would take or how much it would cost.
Of course, being the narrow-minded Westerner that I am, I refused to sign squat and just asked him how he can possibly expect me to sign this when they haven’t even touched the car yet. The guy wasn’t in much of a mood for minor details like that and just shot back: Sir, we cannot start the work without your signature. So that really cracked me up, but then his boss came around and just told him to start the work and make the customer happy. Yup, that’s right!
They said it would take 90 minutes to do whatever it says in the service book, and after a number of reminders that I have to be at the airport pretty soon, they were done two hours and fourteen hundred Rupees later. I am sure they didn’t do everything they were supposed to do, but then again, what do I know? I really regretted not having brought my camera, because the workshop crew was quite a troupe. I guess they couldn’t believe that I had actually bought an Amby and even drove it there myself, so there was a lot of laughter and hellos, and good spirits all around. Not that many of them were actually working, and they took a half-hour tea break while I was sweating about making it to the airport in time, but I will definitely bring my camera to the next service stop, which is due at 5000km or probably in less than three months.