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BATIK ART BY JONATHAN S. EVANS
Confessions of an Itinerant Batik Artist

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7. INDIA


Two things happened at the Airport which prepared us a little for what lay ahead. After clearing Customs and Immigration, I went to the Airport Bank to change some pounds into rupees. I was amused, then amazed and finally exasperated by the process which took at least half an hour. I was passed from bank teller to bank teller, had to fill in at least six forms giving details like the names and ages of my father and mother and finally ended up at the end of the line in front of the cashier. He gave me my thousands and thousands of rupees from a huge wad of notes that were stapled together with dozens of staples. He had a lot of trouble detaching my notes which were riddled with holes when I got them. The whole experience of changing money would have been rather funny had it not been so terribly time consuming. I had been told stories about Indian bureaucracy. This was one of the legacies of the British Raj and I had heard that India was a nation of clerks. But to see it in action was another matter. I supposed that all the notes were stapled together to prevent theft but I couldn't imagine what my father's place of birth had to do with anything. I couldn't even remember where he had been born actually and had to make that up on the forms. Privately I decided that I would try changing money on the Black Market next time.


Phil, Catherine and I decided to skip the bus and to take a taxi into town from the Airport. So we bought a taxi ticket from the official bureau by the Airport exit and walked out into the bright light of the street pushing our bags ahead of us on carts. As we got outside, two smiling Indians appeared, one on either side of us, took our ticket and steered us to the left, across the road and to a parked car. They took our bags from us, threw them into the trunk of the car and helped us into the back of the car. Suddenly two or three more men appeared and started to get into the car on either side of us. At that point, we all finally reacted and forced our way out of the car, pushed the men aside, grabbed our bags and were suddenly free again. This had obviously been a scam and the real taxis were waiting on the other side of the road. These guys were trying to take advantage of us in our tired and confused state. We didn't have any real sensation of physical danger for we were probably stronger than they were and I doubt that they would have tried to do anything but pressure us for money. But the experience was a great lesson and I was glad that we had had it right at the start of our travels. This was a world where anything could happen and we had to stay alert and on our toes. As relatively rich Westerners in an incredibly poor country, we would be constant targets. We had to learn to be ready to deal with these kind of situations at any time.


None of which prepared us for the taxi ride into the old city of New Delhi. For a start, our young taxi driver had to push-start his ancient vehicle to get it going. He had no idea how to get to Paharganj or Main Street, which was surely one of the oldest and best known parts of the city, situated right next to the main train station. So we directed him, using the map that we found in the "Lonely Planet Guide to India" book that we'd bought at Foyle's in London. We had been advised to stay at a medium priced hotel at Connaught Place in the center of the city when we first arrived. But somewhere along the way, perhaps encouraged by Phil, the mysterious veteran Indian traveler, we decided to jump right into it all straight away and to stay at the Vishal Hotel which a couple of people had mentioned to us. At first our ride from the airport was slow but interesting. The question was merely whether the taxi would break down or not. Soon we were driving down densely crowded back streets, dodging around other cars, three wheeled rickshaws, bicycles, indolent cows, thousands upon thousands of people and a whole series of apparently insurmountable obstacles. I had the sensation that we were descending into a spiraling labyrinth in which all the streets became smaller and narrower as we continued. Our journey seemed to become more and more finite as we persisted onwards. It seemed inevitable that we would eventually run into an obstacle of some kind and would not be able to get through. All that happened in reality is that we had to jump out of the taxi and jump-start it again periodically. The noise from the streets was intense and the smells of spicy foods, cow dung, incense and something else indefinable attacked my nose, throat and eyes. It was a breathtaking experience and an incredible introduction to India, especially for Catherine who had never left the relatively familiar terrain of America or Europe before.


Somehow, against all odds, we arrived at the Vishal Hotel which was terribly dirty and ramshackled with a mixture of crumbling Sixties' tack and Oriental rabbit warren decor and ambiance. At first we were given a temporary room with access to a communal squat toilet and a non-functioning shower. It was incredibly filthy with stained sheets on a lumpy bed. I suppose that we were both a little dismayed. But later that day, another room became vacant. I awoke poor Catherine, who was desperately trying to catch up on her sleep and we moved up to the top floor. The room here was pretty dirty too but marginally nicer and had windows opening out onto the Main Bazaar below and access to a roof balcony.


The next morning, I finally saw my Himalayan Snow peaks close up. That incredible view has stayed in my mind ever since. In spite of a terrible mattress and the fear of killer bedbugs, we had slept well. With a packed lunch of parathas provided by Mrs. Shah and a vague feeling that we were being ripped-off somehow, we walked out of the town and up the long steep road that lead to Kasar Devi. This was the small community around the Shiva temple that was built up on the ridge above.


The Nanda Devi mountain range was right in front of us, perhaps thirty miles away, set in an azure blue sky. Between the ridge that we were standing on which was seven thousand feet high and the mountains on the Tibetan border which were about twenty-six thousand feet high, there was a deep valley filled with blue-gray mist. The snow peaks seemed to float untethered in a deep blue void. As we watched, the only clouds in the sky began to form around the mountains. By noon they were wreathed in white clouds, condensation from the snow up there I supposed. It was truly magical sight and an inspiring experience. I realized why Kasar Devi had a reputation for being a special, sacred place.


On first sight, the Shiva temple on the ridge was disappointing. It somehow reminded me of one of our West Virginian Native American sweat lodges. One approached it by two series of impressive curved steps and there was a lower temple half way up. At the top there was a tiny building which looked rather like a large dog kennel. It was dark and funky and the ceiling was so low that one couldn't stand up in it. The smell in there was of sweat and smoke and incense and there was a small altar with a lump of hashish and an empty whisky bottle sitting on it. There was a small window in one wall through which I caught a glimpse of those snow peaks and I realized again that the Himalayas were the focus of this whole place. The mountains were an ever-changing backdrop to all experience up here on the Kasar Devi ridge. That view was what had attracted D.H. Lawrence, Aldous Huxley, Timothy Leary and the Scandinavian mystic Arthur Sorenson to this spot at different times. Up here, the intense splendour of the view helped put the human condition into a meaningful perspective. Once again we were reminded that we were all only ants crawling around on the edge of a world which was way beyond our comprehension. I found that view and realization both awesome and comforting. This was a beauty that I could really worship


I found Nepal a lot more relaxing than India for the Nepalese were genuinely friendly and were trying to build up their tourist trade. Ultimately I preferred India with its fiercely uncompromising nature and the challenge that traveling there presented. But it certainly was pleasant to sit on the balcony of our terra-cotta house on a sunny afternoon in December and look down on that stunning landscape, the blue water of the shimmering lake with those big waterlilies growing around the shore and the asymmetrical rice paddies coming down to the water's edge. The day before we had watched hangliders swooping down like great birds from the hills above the lake and the next afternoon, saw hawks wheeling around below us, playfully diving at the ducks on the lake and frightening the poor birds. There were tiny figures all over the landscape, women carrying huge bundles winding their way across the rice paddies, children down there playing soccer as they do all over the world and water buffaloes idling along being passed by impatient young men on bicycles. The long road into Pokhara wound away from us. Far along it, I could see our beautiful but sullen landlady dressed in her bright red, gold and turquoise sari as she walked into town to do her food shopping. The air was warm and balmy, smelt faintly of jasmine and was filled with the sound of many voices.

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