Sunday, June 18, 2006

Blind, mentally Handicapped, Freedom Fighters and foreign Visitors

So says the sign over one of the ticket booths in Agra Fort railway station. I had visions of a turbaned man in a kaftan, Kalashnikov slung casually over one shoulder, being asked if he wanted an aircon carriage into Pakistan, but unfortunately there were no obvious freedom fighters around while I waited for my ticket.

India is a mad, mad place. It's a world of stark contrasts, grinding poverty and stark beauty, somewhere you cannot prepare yourself for you just have to experience.

Since changing my plans in Mumbai I have been following the footsteps of the Islamic Moghul Empire, taking in the forts and palaces they left behind dotted across Rajastan. As I've traveled across the country I've been plowing through the last two books of Neal Stephensons Barorque Cycle, a trilogy of Novels set in the late 17th and early 18th century, and in one of those bizarre synchronous events that occur when you're traveling I opened the book to find one of the characters entering Rajastan on horseback just as I was crossing the border on the train. What struck me as I compared the world conjured by this historical fiction to the one I was experiencing was how little had actually changed, sure there's electricity, combustion engines and the like but as you stand outside one of the immense sandstone forts or Mosques that signified the moguls rein and look at the Bazaars and hawkers crowding outside you are struck by the fact that a Shah standing on the battlements a few hundred years ago would have seen much the same thing.

Most towns outside cities consist of rude thrown together dwellings which acrete coral like into any available space, connected by dirt tracks that occasionally grow a thin strip of concrete chewed in at the sides like an apple core. Piles of rubbish abound and most days you'll run across several mounds of human shit (if you catch a train anywhere early in the morning you'll pass at least fifty people squatting on waste ground or perched on train tracks performing their morning constitutional). The Infrastructure in most places is pretty fucked, buses and trains are falling to pieces and filthy (though they still manage to run on time, British rail take note), power goes out regularly and large numbers still get their water from hand pumped wells. It's something I've always known about India, but until you actually see it (and in a lot of cases smell it) you really get an idea of how molly coddled and sanitized we've become in the UK.

But still there is plenty of happiness here and the people are, in most cases very friendly and proud of their country, though I've found that there is such a massive gulf between the respective wealth of our two cultures as to form an insurmountable barrier. In the end you have to accept that you will always be seen through the distorting lens of the exchange rate and in a country of 1,027,015,247 souls all trying to grab their little bit of the action then those who shout the loudest are the ones who survive.

My hair seems to be a big hit :-), I can't go three paces at any monument without someone running over shouting "Sir! Sir! Your hair!" and demanding to have their picture taken with me. My confused and smiling face must now appear in countless photo albums across India "And here's a random foreigner we met at the Taj Mahal, look at his hair!"

I'm finishing my journey in Delhi now, staying in the Pharagange, a narrow corridor packed to bursting with hastily stacked dwellings, shops, restaurants, guest houses and hostels. Every available space is filled with something and walking through it one is bombarded to sensory overload. I've been here a few days now and everytime I leave my guest house I have to spend at least 15mins trying to find it on my return (and the roads a bloody straight line so it's not as if I can take a wrong turn).

I like Delhi, more so than Mumbai. The hassle you get here is surprisingly less than everywhere else, possibly because there is more business to be had so rickshaw drivers tend to leave you alone after the 5th no (though not before trying to sell you some hash). I've had a few people try and run scams but once you give them back their spiel word for word before they say it they tend to leave you alone (there must be a training college for them somewhere because they all say the same thing).

Anyway the adventure is almost over, I fly home in a few days and then it's back to normality (well in my own relative sense that is). I'm looking forward to getting back seeing my family, my friends and my girl. I've already put in my request, the first thing I want when I get home is to go down the local cafe for a fry up, a fry up with brown sauce, mmmmm. Funny the little things you're mind latches onto when you're away from the familiarity of your own culture.

Friday, June 02, 2006

Welcome to India

So Malaysia is now far behind me and I've hit the home leg of my journey through India. Even after spending 3 months outside of England India is still a shock to the system, if Malaysia was a foriegn country then India is another planet.

I've began my journey in Mumbai (formally Bombay) the largest city on India's west coast. It's an insane place, a city of juxtaposistions, hastely constructed shanties vie with the stone edifces of the former Raj and overly dressed security guards sit with glassey stares outside plush department stores while a few feet away a beggers in flithy rags squat on bits of cardboard.

It's also not a city you can become anonymous in. As a 6ft 2in white bloke with shoulder length hair, when you're striding around the city you're like a black hole dragging every, merchant, begger, drug dealer and cab driver in the vacinity towards you with the inescapable attraction of the exchange rate. In the 3 days I've been here I've had 4 people ask me to be in a Bollywood movie, countless people try and sell me dope, kids and beggers follow me with for streets at a time, taxi drivers make up prices at the drop of a hat, and every stall holder under the sun try to entice me with their riches.

It is I admit quite draining walking around fending off the advances of all and sundry. But the people are generally friendly and cheerful, even when they're trying to rip you off, and as long as you keep a sense of humour about it it's not so bad but still it's nice to be able to retreat to a hotel room, shut out the hustle and bustle and recharge before another sortee.

My plans have changed again since I arrived, Monsoon has come early (in fact the day I arrived) and Mumbai is awash with a constant stream of water from the heavens. Checking around down south it seems the weather is just as bad down there, I had thought about going to Goa anyway to see what it was like but a string of bad luck around buying my train ticket (that cumulated in a frantic couple of hours where I thought I'd lost my passport) convinced me the universe didn't want me to go south.

Instead I've decided to head up north away from the rain, my train leaves tonight for Jaipur where there's a spectacular red sandstone hill fort perched above the city, from there I figure I'm going to head into the Thar desert for some camel treking then work my way to Delhi and check out the Taj Mahal and surrounding area.

So no beaches just plenty of sand, still that's what I love about traveling, everything can change at the drop of a hat and as long as you relax and follow the flow things generally turn out as they should.