We flew on United Air Emirates via
Dubai to New Delhi on November 14th.
I can honestly say that it was the most pleasant and luxurious flight
that I have ever taken. The service
was impeccable, everything was free and the food was Asian and excellent. We had a twenty four-hour stopover in
Dubai. We were driven in a Mercedes
car through a modern cinderblock town that seemed to have been built on top of
a desert, to our five star "Excelsior Hotel". We only got a fleeting look at modern Arabia and couldn't see
much of the old. The Excelsior was
comfortable and we managed to take full advantage of all of its
facilities. In the afternoon, we found
ourselves sitting out by a huge pool under a bright sun and a lot of curious
eyes. Catherine kept her clothes
firmly on. There was a bad cabaret
show to watch at night with music from an all-girl pop band from the
Philippines. The audience was made up
solely of Arabic men who were drinking heavily. We couldn't help but comment on the fact that the only women we
saw uncovered were Philippine waitresses and entertainers. All the local women wore what seemed to us
to be bizarre fitted leather masks with small openings to see and eat by. It made both of us feel rather uncomfortable. We were hanging out with a rather
mysterious English traveler called Phil by this time, whom I surmised was on a
quest of some kind. He was also on his
way to Delhi and seemed to know the ropes a little. Our flight left at two forty five in the morning and we finally
touched down in India in the early morning several meals later after a
Two things happened at the Airport
that 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 fathers 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 kinds 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.
We made one very spaced-out
expedition down onto the street and ran straight into a young Chinese-Canadian
guy called Tai. We had met him when we
had both bought the same Indian guide book in Foyle's and had chatted with him
for a couple of minutes back in London a few weeks before. For the next months on the trail in India,
we were to find ourselves meeting the same people over and over again. We walked down the street through the crush
of people and bikes and cows to the Railway Station and had a little look
around. This was a strange alien world
although perhaps not so different to souk markets that I had seen in Morocco. The street was narrow and both sides were
lined with tiny stalls and shops selling anything from silk to clothes to books
to food. People walked up and down on
both sides of the road with vehicles pushing through continually, honking their
horns wildly. There was an immediate
sensation that anything might happen and one had to abandon the concept of
private individual space at once.
Indeed, apart from the dirt and debris everywhere, that is the first
thing that the traveler has to deal with in India. For some people, India was a shocking experience. I had heard stories of westerners coming to
India for a holiday and turning round and flying out the following day. There were so many people per square foot
that jostling and continual physical contact with strangers was
inevitable. Jean Paul Sartre's phrase
"Hell is other people" came immediately to mind. We broke one of the cardinal rules that we
had made when we first arrived, which was never to drink an unboiled
drink. In our fatigued and disoriented
state, we bought fruit juice from a stand opposite the hotel. We'd read and heard about so many people
contracting dysentery from drinking unboiled water or contaminated juices. We were lucky that first time and never
broke the rule again on any of our travels.
I woke up later in the middle of the night in a panic realizing what we
had done and gulped down a bunch of wildly inappropriate medicines that I'd
just bought at a nearby Pharmacy.
Fortunately, the Gods of the Road were with us.
Phil had moved on that first night
after spending the day resting up in our room. A sweet, gentle man, he finally revealed what I had already
guessed, that he was a follower of Raj Neesh who was very unpopular in India by
then. Phil was on his way to the
ashram in Poona near Bombay. He had
slipped into the country through Delhi so as not to draw attention to his real
destination. We never saw him again
and hoped that he found what he was looking for out there.
Catherine went off to sleep early on
our first night in India but I went down again and bought candles, incense and
a map. Then I sat up late on the
balcony listening to new tapes that I'd bought in the duty-free shop in Dubai
and watched the scene down below me. I
was hypnotized by the apparent anarchy of the sight below, the packed streets,
the endless freaks, holy men and hustlers, beggars and children. People defecated in wide-open public
toilets, shops were doing business until late into the night, new vendors set
up their wares on the street continually.
I saw some of the most beautiful men and women I'd ever seen. I had to drag myself from my vantage point
on the roof to try and get some sleep for there was only so much new
information that the mind could deal with.
My initial fascination with India has stayed with me through further
travels and many more countries and I continue to marvel at both its beauty and
its alien culture.
I remember that I slept very badly
that first night at the Vishal. In
fact I seem to think that I slept badly every night that we spent at that
fleabag hotel. I was jet-lagged and
over-excited and that rock hard mattress covered with those mysterious stains
wasn't really conducive to any deep relaxation. Each day started early, as the sun rose over the city at the
same time as the cowdung fires started to spread their smoke like a veil across
the hazy skyline. That was the
mysterious smell that I noticed on our initial entry into the old part of the
city, I realized. The sacred cows,
which wandered freely through the streets, provided the fuel that heated a
million Delhi cooking pots every day.
The family living on the roof across from the hotel started to stir
themselves at the same time I did and sat huddled together in the same dazed
state that I found myself in. When
Catherine woke up a little later, we went down to the street to a little
restaurant and ate a breakfast of porridge sprinkled with some kind of spices
and drank cups of chai, sweet tea boiled with milk. Catherine was fascinated and horrified by the swarms of flies
all around the kitchen but screwed up her courage and ate her breakfast
anyway. As we sat there in the depths
of the cafe and looked out into the bright light of the street, an elephant
plodded slowly by. Yes, this was India
We had decided to leave India from
Bombay rather than Delhi and so walked along to Connaught Place where all the
airline offices were located. It was a
bit further than we had realized and walking around the crowded noisy streets
was pretty tiring. We resolved to use rickshaws
in the future. Connaught Place was a
huge multi-ringed circle in the center of the city with streets radiating out
from it. The area was a lot more
uptown than Main Bazaar and was full of banks and office buildings of all
kinds. By the time we had found the
Air Emirates office and changed our return flight tickets, we were both nearly
swooning from fatigue and stress. We
stopped at a restaurant and ate a really good hot curry and soon revived.
cruised the many clothes shops on Janpath Road and found one selling buffalo
hide sandals which we both liked a lot.
I stood outside on the street watching Catherine try on shoes when
suddenly I felt hands clutching at my legs.
I looked down and saw this really beautiful young man, clinging to me
with one hand and begging for money with the other. Both his feet were missing.
In that moment the gross inequality of our lives, Catherine and I here
in Delhi shopping for shoes while this poor cripple was begging for money, hit
me like a hammer on my head.
Actually, since then I've seen him many times begging outside that
sandal shop. He definitely knows what
he's up to and probably lives quite well off the tourists' guilt. But in that instant I found the situation
intolerable. I grabbed a surprised
Catherine and fled with her down the street with the beggar swinging along
behind us on his hands. We had to
almost literally run away to escape from that determined pursuer. Later I told Catherine how terribly upset I
had felt. She agreed with me that the
disparity between our lives and those of most Indians was hard to deal
with. But she also pointed out that
wealth and happiness weren't in anyway synonymous and that we had no way of
telling what kind of life the beggar had.
It was obviously a crippling loss to be without feet but perhaps he had
a fabulously loving and complete family life.
We couldn't begin to gauge the quality of his existence, which might in
fact be much better than ours. What
she said helped me. As we continued
to travel through India and saw more cripples, crushing poverty and disease
everywhere, it would have been impossible for me to continue our trip without
bearing this perspective in mind.
We spent the next couple of days
exploring our strange new world and swiftly got into the habit of leaping into
and out of the rickshaw taxis to get around the city. Of course we still did a lot of walking but had learnt not to
overdo it and to take refuge in the rickshaws from time to time. Catherine got her sandals finally and I
bought a fine leather money belt, our magic "talisman" belt in which
I carried our cash, passports and tickets.
I always wore it under my shirt out of sight. Without the contents of that belt we would have been truly lost
and so it seemed to take on powers of its own.
From then on, we both became very careful and never let the belt out of
our sight. So far we've never lost
anything in all our travels.
We discovered the vast Underground
Market at Connaught Place and explored it.
It was a good place to find cheap cassette tapes and music from all over
the world. It was shaped like
Connaught Place with concentric circular walkways packed with shops of every
description which were linked by radiating passages. On our third day in Delhi, we knew that it was time to plan our
next move. Following the advice that
an Ibiza friend had given us in London, we took a rickshaw uptown to the
Kashmir Gate Bus Station to find out about buses to NainiTal, an old hill
station northeast of Delhi. It was a
long ride and on that side of the city the traffic was really crazy. I wondered if the rickshaw driver was
deliberately taking us way out of our way as his meter whirred on. Catherine and I were both feeling a bit
faint from lack of food and water. She
reacted by becoming slow and passive while I became tense and manic which
didn't make for a good combination. We
drove up past the old Red Fort, a massively impressive building and got to the
bus station eventually where we staggered in to reserve seats on the bus to
NainiTal the following night. By now
we were both collapsing and had trouble finding a taxi to take us back to Main
Bazaar. But eventually we were
successful and clutching a bottle of water, dived back into the maelstrom of
the traffic which in the meantime seemed to have become even more
dangerous. We were actually rammed by
another rickshaw at one point and narrowly missed running down two pedestrians
who tried to cross in front of us. At
a traffic light a young child ran out into the traffic to grab poor Catherine's
foot and began kissing it and begging for money. She owned nothing and would have been content with anything we
gave her. Around us the cars and
rickshaws blew their horns as Catherine struggled to break free. For one awful moment, the full insanity of
India was almost too much for me. I
felt suddenly overwhelmed by the begging child, dirty and dressed in rags and
by the deafening noise and sensory bombardment of the city. I wished that I was far far away. And then Catherine thrust her half-empty
bottle of water at the child who grabbed it, radiantly happy with her
prize. The lights changed and we were
on the move again.
we sat out in the street at a little restaurant in front of the Vishal and ate
dal and rice and recovered gradually.
The afternoon's experience started to lose its almost hallucinatory
intensity and I reflected that we had to learn to pace ourselves better and to
eat and drink more regularly. Spending
so much time out on the street was like being put through an emotional
mangle. There seemed to be so little
personal breathing space.
As I sat there, relaxing and
breathing in the smells, sounds and sights of the bazaar on a pleasant winter
evening, I happened to glance over to the next table where an Indian gentleman
was busy writing a pile of letters.
Curious, I couldn't help but notice that he was addressing his envelopes
to the FBI, the Mounties, the CIA and the British Secret Service. Was he applying for a job or sending them
secret information? Was he a complete
lunatic? I found myself expecting the
bizarre in New Delhi where anything seemed possible.
The following night we took the bus
to NainiTal. We had paid ninety rupees
for seats on a "luxury, air-conditioned video coach". At first we were lead out to a tiny vehicle
with a sort of ledge running all around the rear which we were to sit on. Our hearts sank and Catherine said aloud
"What a rip-off!" But we
realized, to our own amusement, that this was only the bus to the bus. Soon we were on the real coach, speeding
through the night en route for NainiTal.
We had been given seats #1 and 2, right at the very front of the bus,
the "Honeymoon or Tourist" seats we learnt. I still hadn't really slept since we had
arrived in India and took half a Valium pill when we got on the bus, which
knocked me out straight away. I got my
best night's sleep in a week and didn't wake up till six the next morning in
spite of the fact that videos had been shown all night on the screen about
three feet in front of my face.
As the dawn broke, our bus climbed
an incredibly steep mountain road up to NainiTal and arrived there at seven
thirty am. We walked around the lake,
which is at six thousand feet and checked into a little room on the top floor
of the Evelyn Hotel. It was a bit
expensive but pleasant and clean. We
spent a busy day exploring the town, which was basically a tourist resort. It used to be the location of Rajah's summer
palace. It felt immediately wonderful
to have escaped the hassles and hustles of the city. First we took the cable car up to Snow Peak from where we had an
incredibly clear view across to the snow peaked Himalayas and a very distant
After a good thali meal, our first
in India, I was happy to sit in the sun and watch the two local cricket teams
play their Sunday game. It was
probably the first game of cricket that I'd watched in twenty-five years. I discovered that Indians were fanatical
fans of that very English sport and was amused to hear the running commentary
of the game, which was broadcast over loudspeakers. It was in Hindi language with English cricketing phrases like
silly mid-off" or "clean bowled" thrown in continually. Probably I enjoyed the match more than
Catherine who fell asleep immediately.
Later we climbed up a very steep path to the peak on the opposite side
of the lake called Tiffin Top. We sat
on a flat rock at the very top and looked out across the whole town and
lake. Back at the Evelyn Hotel, it was
cool at night, the shower didn't work and we went to bed early, to sleep
heavily once again.
We got up well before dawn the next
day to catch an incredibly crowded local bus up to Almora where we arrived by
ten in the morning. Almora seemed to
be a strangely featureless sort of little town. As we wandered around looking for a hotel, we were waylaid by a
funny fast-talking man called Mr. Shah who persuaded us to come back to his
guesthouse. We had a few misgivings,
for the whole scene was a bit funky but we were tired and hadn't spotted
anywhere else to stay. Catherine was
developing a cold and we couldn't see any alternative. Mr. Shah behaved like an archetypal Indian
guru, offering native wisdom at every opportunity. From our room, there was a nice view of the far mountains,
although they clouded up by noon each day.
Mr. Shah insisted that we read his guests' comment book but there seemed
to be as many complaints about the bedbugs and his dishonesty as there were
praises for his food and spirituality.
It didn't really matter for we'd look for somewhere new as soon as
possible. Catherine really needed to
stay horizontal for awhile. That night
I explored Almora on my own and found that it really was a one-horse town. But I heard an Indian marching jazz band
for the first time playing its weird, drunken-sounding boogie woogie
music. We had been in India for only
six days but it felt like six weeks. I
realized that it was time to find a nice spot to settle down for awhile.
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 DH
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.
Below us, terraced valleys fell away
from us on either side and we could see tiny figures working among the crops
growing on the terraces. We stayed up
there all day, walked on a bit further and found "Ram Singh's
Internationally Famous Chai House".
A bunch of European travelers were sitting around the dark little cafe,
mostly with heavy colds and running noses, drinking tea and smoking huge hashish
and tobacco chillums. Hemp, from which
a strong black hashish was made, was in fact the main cash crop in Kasar Devi
and nearly everybody, locals and visitors alike, smoked the drug. We'd felt a bit isolated for a few days and
it was good to meet some other travelers to talk to. A young Swiss guy, Sandro, took us for a walk further along the
ridge and showed us some other incredible views. When we finally got back down to Almora again at dusk, we both
felt tired but inspired. The mountains
exercised an almost hypnotic attraction over me. I couldn't get the view out of my head and couldn't wait to get
back up there the next day. We needed
to find a new hotel room nearer to Kasar Devi and further away from the
ubiquitous Mr. Shah whom I didn't trust further than I could carry. He brought a sick Catherine some medicinal
concoction of his wife's but it could have been opium and honey for all we knew
and I was afraid to see our bill at this point. Mysteriously, he was never around when I went to ask see our
account. Perhaps his Hotel Kailas was
like the Hotel California and you could check in but never check out. All I really knew was that this was my
best day in India so far. This was
what I had come to India for and I couldn't wait to get back up to Kasar Devi.
The next day was Full Moon in late
November and another brilliantly clear day with a piercingly blue sky. We finally got to see our bill, which was
enormous and definitely contained several items that we hadn't received. Shah wasn't around and I resolved to deal
with him later. We took a taxi back up
the hill and spent another magical day on the ridge, walking, drinking tea at
Ram Singh's and hanging out with the local community. I still found myself unable to stop thinking of the mountains
and continually went out to look at them, to refresh my memory of their
beauty. We walked down the hill back
to Almora rather late that night under a massive silver moon accompanied by a
young local Indian shopkeeper called Bubbli.
He started out in good shape but finished a bottle of rum on the way
down and was violently ill before we reached the town. More and more Indians were apparently
drinking heavily in spite of tight Government controls on alcohol. Alcoholism was beginning to be a major
problem in India for the first time.
passed a shop and guesthouse about halfway down and met Tara, the young owner,
who impressed me with his straightforward friendliness. We booked one of his rooms for the
We packed up and left the Shahs' on
a cloudy morning, argued over the bill and eventually paid most of it. Then we moved straight into the best room
at Tara's Guesthouse. The room was
large, clean and with plenty of light and a lovely view to the South West. It had an outside attached squat toilet and
shower stall. All our water had to be
brought in from the nearby well and there was a good little restaurant
downstairs run by Som, Tara's younger brother. Lalu, the youngest brother, ran the shop part of the family
business and the Tewari family lived below.
The atmosphere was relaxed and pleasant and we both felt instantly
comfortable and welcome there.
And so Catherine and I settled into
a routine at Tara's, eating our meals there or up at Ram Singh's and making a
daily pilgrimage up the hill to look at the mountains in all their regular
daily incarnations. Most days they
seemed to cloud up by the early afternoon but on a couple of occasions they
were still clear at sunset. Then we
watched them go from pale pink to shocking pink in the fading light. We got to know the local immigrant
population too. There was Bret, the
beautiful but decadent looking Cockney boy who managed to set his long hair
alight one night up at Ram Singh's while smoking a fire chillum. Doc, another Brit, was a rough looking
traveler who claimed to be a chiropractor but who seemed to be only interested
in achieving ever higher states of consciousness--or oblivion depending upon
which way you looked at it. Indeed,
the preoccupation of most of the foreigners up there on the ridge was to get as
high as possible. Several of them
spent all day every day in one of the dark little teashops up on the ridge with
only that aim in mind. We spent our
days walking, exploring and just looking, constantly amazed and fascinated by
the changing face of the mountains.
Those images have stayed with me and haunted me ever since.
After a couple of weeks in the
mountains, I realized that it was getting cooler and that a North wind was
blowing down on us. It was time to
move on again and to head for warmer climes.
Besides we wanted to see more of India. We had both formed a strong attachment to Kasar Devi and I knew
that we would be back there again some day.
On our last day there, we spent the
whole day high on the ridge feasting our eyes on the mountains as if to fix
their image upon our retinas forever.
For a change, the mountains stayed clear all day but subtly changed
colour as the light changed. From our
perch up by the temple, we watched eagles swooping backwards and forwards below
us in the valley. On the way down at
dusk, we rounded a corner on the hill and came upon a mother goat licking clean
her newly born baby kid, watched intently by a young goat herder. That night we packed up again, had
luke-warm showers and a final supper with Tara in the restaurant. He drove us down to Almora in his battered
Jeep the following day and feeling very emotional and sad, we caught the
overnight bus to Lucknow and new points East.
We had our first Indian train
experience when we caught the Express for Varanasi and traveled in the Second
Class part of the train. We enjoyed
the trip a lot until a plainclothes policeman came and sat next to us when the
train stopped in the city of Lucknow.
He was obviously amusing himself by interrogating me. We had nothing to hide from him but I
deeply resented being questioned in this way. The cop was a foxy-looking individual with teeth stained red by
chewing betel nut and very bad breath.
With a final last question and an accompanying sneer, he left the train
and let us continue our journey in peace.
I felt that he had been playing with us the whole time.
We got into Varanasi, India's oldest
and most sacred city, in the late afternoon and managed to evade the hustlers
at the train station. We caught a
rickshaw straight to the Old City by the Ganges River where we were dropped at
the Yogi Lodge Hotel. It was a
travelers' enclave lost in the old backstreets of the city, a world apart and
unto itself. It was amazing how quickly we recovered from that long and rather
unpleasant trip after some tea and pseudo-western food. Varanasi certainly seemed pretty
interesting but in my heart I was already missing the mountains and wondering
why we had come down to a city so quickly.
The first person we ran into at the
Yogi Lodge was Tai, the young Chinese-Canadian, whom we had first met in London
and then again in Delhi on our first day there. He had in the meantime been up to Kashmir and was as delighted to
see us as we were to see him. One of
the best things about budget traveling is that it's very easy to meet people on
the road. Often surprisingly intimate
relationships start up instantaneously as most travelers are emotionally
wide-open and looking for company while out on the road. Tai was traveling with a young woman from
Seattle called Erin and an English woman called Sally soon joined our
group. Within two days we all became
inseparable and were to go on to have adventures together.
Catherine and I took a large light
room together on the top floor of the hotel which had the same rock-hard beds
that we were to find all over India.
It was great to have such a place to escape to from the craziness of the
city whenever we needed to and to be able to rest up with fellow travelers
behind the heavy doors and security guards of the Hotel. We found a good place to have breakfast in
the mornings, a big open-air restaurant called Ace's New Deal Restaurant where
we were always sure to meet somebody new and interesting to hang out with. We spent several days exploring the
city. As well as being the most sacred
city in India, Varanasi is one of the oldest in the world, with a recorded
history of over five thousand years.
I felt every one of those years as I walked around the maze of back
streets that made up the old city.
I have a notoriously poor sense of
direction. If you turn me around a
couple of times I really have no idea which way is up. But it seemed impossible to get lost in the
old streets of Varanasi. All streets
seemed to somehow come out onto one of the main streets leading down to the
River. It was easy and fun to plunge
blindly down one of the little alleys, trusting that one would emerge
eventually at some familiar point. We
found one street that sold only yogurt, another that sold only brass metalwork,
one only with silk, another with only tea and so on. Varanasi was a fabulous market.
But the River Ganges and its banks,
the famous Ghats, held the most mystery and interest for us. This was India's sacred river and any body
laid to rest in its waters was guaranteed access to the Afterlife. Conversely, any body laid to rest on the
other side of the river which was flat, arid, sandy terrain was condemned to
wander for all eternity, never to find rest or peace. Consequently, relatives brought bodies from all over the
country to Varanasi, generally to be burnt in huge fires at the Burning Ghat. They then scattered the ashes in the
river. The Ghats themselves were
fascinating for every facet of Indian life could be seen there. They were divided into sections, one for
prayer, another for washing, another for weight-lifting and muscle building,
yet another for making speeches and so on.
All of the steps leading down to the river were packed with people all
day long. Cows roamed freely along the
ghats too. We made lots of trips in
rowboats up and down the river but kept coming back to look at the Burning
Ghats where six huge fires burned bodies all day long.
I remember being with a large group
from the Yogi Lodge one night. There were probably ten of us including a bunch
of rather drunk and noisy Australians who had attached themselves to us at
dinner. We had decided to try a
"Bhang Lassi", a famous Indian drink to be found in every city in the
country. It's a powerful mixture of
hemp and yogurt sweetened with honey and other herbs that has definite
mind-expanding qualities. We found a
street stall that sold the concoction and we all drank a large green glass of
the liquid. The Aussies got even
noisier as the drink took effect and we decided to hire a rowboat and to cruise
up the river. Actually the Aussies
were beginning to irritate me a little with their continual shouting and wisecracks
but as our boat approached the Burning Ghat, they all grew strangely
quiet. The bonfires were still
blazing brightly in the dark and the shapes of burning bodies, twisting and
even exploding in the flames could clearly be seen. All around, onlookers could be seen standing around in
groups. They resembled demons or
fiends with the fires of hell illuminating their faces harshly. There was a pungent sweet smell of burning
flesh in the air and the whole scene might have illustrated a passage out of
Dante's Purgatory or have been a painting by Hieronymous Bosch. As we swept by in our rowboat, the
Australians, one by one, became silent and didn't open their mouths again that
night. That almost medieval vision of
Hell on Earth was a powerful one and not that I would forget in a hurry either.
Varanasi was a fascinating place and
continually brought home the alien nature of India to me as a Westerner. One morning, walking along a little
backstreet on my way back to the Lodge, I stepped carefully around the piles of
cow dung that lay dotted up and down the road. I suddenly noticed that one pile of dung, then another, had
little pieces of coloured paper stuck in them. In fact, I realized, someone had carefully marked all the piles
of cow dung with different coloured scraps of paper. Then an old lady came out of the house in front of me and with
an unmistakable look of joy and even greed on her face, she bent down and
picked the still fresh and steaming dung up in both hands and tottered off with
it. All those cow pats belonged to
someone, I realized. Someone actually
watches where each cow wanders and later claims its droppings. Round another corner, we found a street in
which all the walls were neatly covered with beautifully rounded pats of cow
dung which had been stuck up there to dry and later to be used as fuel for
cooking fires. It wasn't at all
unpleasant and the street had a rich rather fragrant smell. Later I saw beautifully arranged and
stacked cow dung "palaces" all over India and realized that in the
West we don't really know the meaning of recycling. In such a poor country, everything and anything has a use and
then a second or third use. Once I
watched an old man at a garage making retread car tires by sewing pieces of old
tread onto an old tire and then scoring the tread with a knife to give it some
traction. Virtually nothing was
thrown away in India and the clever and resourceful Indians could repair almost
At the end of a week, Tai announced
that he and Erin were going up to Nepal for a couple of weeks. Sally, Catherine and I, now inseparable,
decided to go with them. We spent a
last day around the Yogi Lodge traipsing around the backstreets and were
carried off by a silk merchant with promises of a classical sitar concert at
his factory. We were amused and
entertained when the merchant himself sat down cross-legged and played us his
sitar for ten minutes before launching into the inevitable sales pitch. He did show us some wonderful silks and
brocades but lost interest in us when he realized that we weren't going to be
big customers. We walked around a
corner on our last evening there and bumped into another of those splendidly
uniformed Indian jazz bands playing a sort of polka with a back beat. The only way that I can describe that
priceless legacy of the Raj is as an amalgam of British martial music and
improvised jazz mixed with ten thousand years of Indian culture and
We made one last trip up the Ganges
at sunset past the Ghats and the new and the ancient buildings, past the
futuristic-looking temple, sunken and half-submerged in the river and past the
cows and the water buffaloes, the silent rulers of the city. Then it was time to get some sleep before
the morrow's journey north.