Saturday, 30 November 2013

Ah, that Taj thing

I was in the area, so I thought I might pop into Agra for a bit. Apparently they've got some famous monument there or something.

First: getting there.

That involved going to the big station at Jhansi, half an hour from Orchha.

How much for an auto? 200? Yeah, that'll do.

No, all the way to Jhansi please, I don't want dropping at Orchha. Yes, the train's on the platform, which means it'll leave before I make it there. Ah yes, I'm right. Jhansi please.

I suppose Orchha's allowed to try to hold on to me.

I made it into Jhansi and got past the staring masses to the unreserved ticket counter. Then I had a look at the timetable, which quite frankly just confused me. Luckily, there's always a helpful local who speaks English. Or will try to. 12:30 train will do it. The something-or-other Express.

Yeah, this is India. There's no such thing as an "Express", or even more laughable, the "Superfast Express".

As per usual, there was a massive scrum to get into the seating carriages, so I went for the disabled carriage on the basis that I could actually move around in there. Some of the Indians pushing and shoving their way on had even less reason to be in there than I did, but as soon as we were on the ticket collector came along and told us to go into cattle class.

Yeah, give me half an hour in there and I'll be disabled, believe me.

I was almost right. Please stop pushing me, no, there's no space, and no, I'm not leaving myself some space in front, I'm already basically half way on top of my pack as it is.

And if you punch me, then I will remind you who built your railways in the first place. Behave.

Thankfully, there was a laughing smiley Indian guy, who gave me a run for my money in that department, who helped me out. He shared my awful sense of humour too - the luggage rack is "first class comfortable seating". And he agreed with me that turning the fan on to wake up the guy sleeping up there was totally hilarious.

Eventually I got there, and to my surprise, I wasn't classed as disabled by the end of it.

But I realised something. It was Thursday evening. Tomorrow was Friday. The Taj would be closed, unless I could pretend to be Muslim. No, don't think that's going to work somehow. I'd have to stay another day.

Autorickshaw? Autorickshaw? No, I'm going to the prepaid desk, leave me alone.

Turned out to be a good move, as I got lucky. In Agra. My driver, Pradeep, realised that I was a bit sceptical and untrusting, and immediately took his pack of recommendations out - various cards in various languages saying thanks to him.

He even told me that I could pay what I felt like paying - if I'm happy, he's happy.

I was still a little sceptical, especially when he suggested a cheaper place that was right by the Taj Mahal, but when we couldn't find the place I'd booked (why would you put an address 5km away down?!) I went along with it.

Yes, 300 rupees for a room, and right opposite the Taj. He'd managed to get me a discount too. No commission, this man.

Oh, and I'll do you a full day tour if you like. Here, here, here, here. Places I hadn't actually heard of before. And you can go to Fatehpur Sikri on the bus, to save you money.

How much for?

Ah, up to you.

I must have gained his trust by this point because I asked him to take me to somewhere I should never go with an autorickshaw driver: a camera shop.

Oh, I know a local place, and it'll be a lot cheaper than anything locally.

And it was a local place. Cameras sold at MRP. In Agra.

Eventually I found what I was looking for: something that was more than the usual crap little camera, but not quite an SLR. 8000 rupees (£80) and it was a Canon. Sorted.

"Are you hungry?"

Yes, of course I'm hungry. I'm always hungry, and I've had 3 samosas since breakfast.

Veg or non-veg?


OK, so I wasn't quite that harsh - but he took me to a really good place, and decent prices too. He insisted on not coming in for some food, even though I offered. He's not the usual walk-in and get commission type. How I've managed to get this lucky in Agra is beyond me, but there you go. Autorickshaw drivers are bad at the best of times, and in Agra I expected to get messed around a lot.

I gave him 200 rupees for the trip (he asked me if I was sure several times, then thanked me profusely) and agreed to go on the day trip the next day.

5:30am. I must be crazy. But I'm going to see the sunrise over the Taj from the opposite side of the river. Might just be worth it.

Even if there's a festival going on, which means that they must play rubbish music far too loud all night.

5:30am was cold. Incredibly cold. So I sat down around a campfire drinking chai with some locals, and randomly using the 5 words of Hindi I'd learnt in Orchha. I watched a couple of tour buses come in, despaired that I'd have to share the riverside with them, then realised that they were missing out on the real experience.

Several cups of chai down and I was ready to go. So I paid the requisite 100 rupees (EVERYTHING is 100 rupees for us foreigners), wandered into the garden opposite, turned a corner, and there it was.

Yes, shrouded in mist so I could barely see it.

Maybe I should come in the monsoon season. Good view and no tour groups.

But for now, I had to share the view with tour groups. They invariably turn up in brand new sports shoes, and wonder why they get muddy. I have some dodgy sandals I bought in Varanasi. Not that I'm judging them or anything.

Then the sun came up.

This could be a sunrise anywhere, so I'm going to convince you that it's definitely Agra.
And there she was. Camera settings adjusted and I could actually pick the thing up.

Then I got shouted at by the army for walking somewhere I shouldn't have in an attempt to get a better shot.

Look, I'm a smelly backpacker with a camera. I'm not going to blow the thing up.

Eventually I got bored of staring at something that I could barely see, and taking a hundred identical photos, and went to jump in the auto to see what else Agra had to offer.

Number 1: the Baby Taj.

Dear man who puts shoe covers on: no, that does not warrant a tip, especially since you earn more than the average Indian for something I could do myself.

Number 2: some mosque that was falling apart. I wandered down the river and Pradeep insisted that I took this totally uncliched photo.
Because it's not obvious at all
Yes, gora is here. I now know what that word means, and no, please leave gora alone.

Number 3: Agra Fort.

Guides, touts, everyone else: please leave me alone. Ah, and I've got an excuse to shout "cello, cello" already. What a shame. No, I don't want your books or postcards, I bought them in Orchha where they're a lot cheaper. Also, who buys the big books of postcards? I don't need 20 postcards from everywhere I go. The "been there, got the postcard" approach I take involves a SINGULAR postcard.

I suppose it's one of the two things that everyone knows exists here. And to be fair, that I knew existed here.

And I attempted to look at the Taj.

Then a security guard took pity on the lonely foreigner, and eventually he gave in and let me have a photo in his beret. Which I failed to wear properly.

And I attempted to speak some Hindi to some Indians, who thought I was fluent but managed to get across that they wanted a photo taken...

I have a new camera, of course you can have a photo
Then I escaped, and informed the various guides that no, I'm leaving - and told the autorickshaw drivers to leave me alone, or they could experience the wrath of Pradeep. Like the wrath that was felt by a guy who tried to sell Duracells for 60 rupees rather than 50.

I wonder what he would have said to the guy who tried to get 150 out of me for them in Khajuraho.

The entry fees are nearly as bad as Nepal here as well: 100 for this, 250 for that, another 100 for that. Don't even let me complain again about the 750 rupees they charge for the Taj Mahal itself - versus 20 for Indians. Ridiculous.

In Orchha? 250 rupees total.

So we went off, via some Catholic cemetery and a Sikh temple, to Sikandra, where Akbar's tomb is.

100 rupees lighter and I headed towards it.

Actually, walking up to the gate of Sikandra was more striking for me than walking up to the Taj Mahal itself. Weird. And this being a bit further out and not really as well known, I was an object of amusement and bemusement again.

Are you hungry?

Yes, I am. Sightseeing is too tiring for me. How the grannies manage to get carted around sight after sight for 2 weeks is beyond me, but I have a newfound respect for them. Wandering is much more fun.

OK, so maybe not in Agra.

So Pradeep found me another local restaurant, where they were quite surprised that I just went for a biryani and not one of the expensive things.

White man is eating in my restaurant? MUST TAKE PHOTO OF WHITE MAN
Eventually though, 5:30am took its toll on me and we headed back.

I gave him 800 rupees, which I thought was fair based on what I'd paid last year for a similar day's sightseeing in an auto, which actually took us further - down to the beach from quite a way inland.

No, not OK. "Sir, the official prepaid rate is 1200, and it's been a long day. And my costs are X, Y and Z". Which added up to about 900 rupees.


Have 500 extra.

He seemed profusely grateful for that, so all was sorted.

So I went to have a look at the Taj again, this time from the rooftop.

No, change the batteries.

No, change the batteries again.

OK, third set might work.

So then I decided I'd try out my Hindi on the staff there, and they taught me the numbers. And laughed at my attempts to say 14, for reasons I'd find out a week later.

The next day I had a second 5am start in a row. All I know is that I am really not a 5am person. Or a 7am person. Or a 9am person for that matter. I'm just a lazy backpacker.

And it turned out that getting there for 5:30 was a little pointless as the ticket counter actually opened at 6:10am, and the gate at 6:30am. But ah well, I was third in the queue, and ready to split my 1000 rupee note that noone wants.

Oh no, you have to use your hard-earned change. We don't have any.


Didn't they think that if they charged 750 rupees, then people might just try and pay with 1000, and it might be a good idea to go to the bank ready?

Or maybe if you reduce the price to 500 for foreigners and make it 50 for Indians, as would be a whole lot more reasonable, then you might avoid the problem entirely?

Logic level: India.

But I made it in, eventually, after losing my torch, which apparently I should leave in a locker. But no, that would involve leaving the site and queueing again. And my ticket's already been stamped, which would probably make someone cry.

So I had the Taj to myself.

And there she was. And because of the mist, I could barely see the thing, but ah well.

If I'm honest, it was a bit of an anti-climax. The thing's a bit over-hyped if I'm honest, though it is pretty nice. I reckon that you actually need to go through a tunnel and walk out about 20m in front of it, and then it will have a more memorable and imposing effect. When you see it from this far it's not quite the same.

But I walked up to the thing, and oh wow it is massive.
Since I'd gone straight inside, and not wasted time taking pictures of nondescript entities or listening to a guide blabbering on about something trivial, I was alone in there. Now that was surreal.

The artwork is so intricate as well, really done well.

Unfortunately though, I don't think it'll stick in the memory like some other places have done. And once the crowds had started to pile in, take their stupid photos and say the stupid, stereotypical things that package tourists tend to, I was done, and was out of there.
I'm just far too rebellious lately, aren't I?
So off to Fatehpur Sikri it was, as I didn't quite have time for a nap to restore my body to normality. Ah well, I'm sure I'll get fed up of Jaipur pretty quickly.

Except that you have to say "Patehpur Sikri", as Indians can't pronounce the letter F.

It was all far too efficient for India. We got there, there was a restaurant with a left luggage facility right by the bus station (you clever, clever kids) and I could eat something too. Ah, pay when you leave, it's fine.

Then I walked up to the main old city, and the usual touristy India returned. No, stop trying to sell me your rubbish. I definitely told a guide that getting lost is quite fun, and that he should try it sometime. He seemed unimpressed.

That said, a guide might have been a good investment to stop people befriending me as a precursor to guilt-tripping me into going to their shop. No, that is not a good price, please don't pretend it is. Yes, I'm everyone's first customer of the day, which quite frankly says more about you than me. Yes, everyone's struggling to sell things and has cut their prices right now. Apart from the fact that everything is 50% more expensive than this time last year.

Eventually I got fed up with being treated as a human ATM and got out of there. Shame, because the place is really quite nice - a well-preserved Mughal town and deserving of its UNESCO status. And a nice place to use my new camera, which I was still far too excited about.

Lunch finished and I went to find a bus to Jaipur that I could flag down on the main road. There's meant be a (cheap) state bus every 30 minutes, but after well over an hour I got fed up of waiting and just flagged down any bus going to Jaipur. I got on a tourist bus that was actually quite comfortable, but unfortunately the creepy Indian guy who decided that I was his new best friend did too.

With two 5am starts in a row I wanted to sleep, but he just wanted to attempt to throw broken English at me and talk about nothing in particular. Or give me pan masala, that he didn't get that I just didn't like. "Blah blah blah blah NOT INJURIOUS TO HEALTH blah blah". They know some weird phrases here. I guess it's because "injurious to health" is their way of saying it here.

The English-language newspapers are a great read here too. They're written in a fairly Victorian style, and are a good laugh.

But to creepy Indian guy: no, I am not your friend. Please stop waking me up. Please stop opening the window every 5 seconds to spit out of it, it's not civilised and it's cold. And no, I am not going to stay at your house, I'd rather stay at my hotel.

Darkness came and Jaipur approached. Golden Trangle part 2. Avoiding the touts, part 4.

The real India stands up

I was in Indian cattle class, the unreserved 2nd class seating. Not too bad for the minute - just a couple of Indians who are attempting to speak English. Fair play to them. They wanted to see the photos on my camera. So I went through my trip so far. No, they want to see photos. So I showed them some more photos. No, they want to see pictures. So I showed them pictures.
Too British. Don't remind us of the Raj, they didn't say
Oh, pictures of people?

No, we don't tend to do the "stand in front of everything and take a photo with no facial expression at all" EVERYWHERE like the Indians do.

So I showed them all 4 pictures I had of people, and they seemed satisfied.

OK, camera away. Back in the bag, bag in the rack.

Turned out that would be the last time that that camera would work again, but who knows.

But on that note, fair play to them for actually speaking to me. It really got to me in the first couple of days: people staring, staring and staring, right in my face, and not stopping at all. Not getting the concept of discomfort or personal space at all. No, this is India, and when we are interested, it is intense interest - because everything about this country is intense.

Seriously, just talk to me. Make some attempt to communicate with me. Make me feel like I'm a human and not something that David Attenborough is whispering about.

The 4 hour journey turned into 6 hours, squashed into the corner of a train with a small child definitely trying to sleep under my armpit (not sure I'd recommend it) and people sat in the luggage racks. Oh, and of course large numbers of white cotton bags with who knows what inside.

Which get in your way when you try to get off with a pack on your back.

Jump, climb, no, don't step on the white bag.

OK, now get off on the non-platform side, because there are less people and packages to push out of the way and fall over.

I decided to walk around the front of the train to get to the platform, since I'm lazy and that was the shorter distance. Getting knocked over isn't an issue - they give a loud honk before they leave - which is great fun if you stay anywhere near a train station. Earplugs were made for this country.

So I walked to the front of the locomotive, which was a beast of a machine, and as I got to the front, of course the horn sounded.

OK, let's run across and try not to fall over.

In sandals.

On ballast.

Oh it's great fun.

The train didn't even move off for another couple of minutes.

Jumped into an autorickshaw and again white man subsidised the fare of a load of locals, even though I insisted that they pay the same as me before they get in. Of course not, this is India and every white man autorickshaw fare is 100 rupees. At least.

It got me to a hotel though, even if I wanted to go to the guesthouse of the same name because it was cheaper. Ah well, 500 a night won't kill me.

I wandered down the road into Orchha for a bit of food, and found a rooftop restaurant called Orchha Hut. I highly recommend the place - it's got a great view of the main temples, and the owner (and everyone else there) is incredibly friendly. Even if I couldn't really see anything because it was dark.

What a view. The detail, the intricacy.
So having seen the outline of the temples, I went into town to check them out.

50 metres down the road and I was accosted by an Indian girl called Puja. "Come into my home!"

After the last couple of cities I was a little sceptical, but went along with it. No, I'm genuinely being adopted by an Indian family. And they're feeding me again, even though I've just eaten. And my fingers and arms got attacked by the mum's jewellery. The mum, Mina, sold it on the market. Ah, now I understand.

It crossed my mind that maybe this was the plan all along, but what I realised was that this is India: everyone has a small business, and so they're always looking to make money. But in this case, unlike the uncle in Khajuraho, it was fine if I only spent 150 rupees. Or in fact, it was fine if I spent nothing at all.

"This one for your mama."

Ah, you're a good salesman. But my mum doesn't really do jewellery. But I'll buy her something, she'll appreciate it.

"Come back for lunch tomorrow? Promise? Promise? And celebrate the festival with us too."

Yes, definitely adopted by an Indian family.

So eventually I managed to leave and see the temples. I had a quick look, realised it was dark and that this is a slight obstacle to looking at temples, and turned around.
Doesn't quite look like this at night
Only to be accosted again. But the people here are genuinely friendly - they just want to talk, get to know me, understand me, and ALWAYS go for chai the next day.

Sorry Sachin, I'll go for chai next time I'm there. I also apologise for comparing you to Sachin Tendulkar, because that's basically blasphemy.

And his hotel did rooms for 300 rupees a night, like I was looking for in the first place. Dang.

2 hours spent in Orchha and I loved it already. It has the sights, the great architecture, and not too many tourists. Please don't tell the tour bus crowd. And people are genuinely friendly, as I learnt about India last time I came, and aren't just after my money. They're genuinely interested in me. Maybe this is the real India that I was looking for?

Day 2, let's go. But I'm minus a camera, because it broke at some point on the train journey. Just totally stopped working. But all the writing had rubbed off it, suggesting it got put under a fair amount of pressure. Indian luggage racks? Or maybe some kid decided to sit on it, or put his feet up on it. Because this is India, and lack of personal space extends to your possessions.

I digress. Blackberry pictures today then - the nearest camera shop is in the next town along.

I went back to the Hut for breakfast the next day. No, the view of the temples isn't much better, the sun's behind them. Oops. Enjoyed my omelette though. My cheese omelette. With cheese grated on top, just in case I didn't believe that it was a cheese omelette.

So on to the first temple. I'm a big fan of this type of architecture - Bundelkand era. And because I didn't have a proper camera, I have more reasons to come back. What a shame.

"Do you want to go on the roof?"

Of course I do.

I went up there with some French girls, which meant that it was an opportunity to pretend to speak French again. Among my "what's health and safety in Hindi" comments - no barriers, stairs that were bigger than the average dwarf and opportunities to fall over at ever corner.

But you got a flipping good view. Might have to camp out here at sunset at some point.

Dear Blackberry: this is one of the reasons that you're going under. Please develop a proper camera
And please, stop judging me for taking pictures on my phone. It's not my fault.

The guy who took us up was helpful enough, acting as a personal photographer a few times.

Even got a tikka. Aren't I just that cultured
So as we went down he did the usual Indian thing of asking for a tip.

But I only had 100s. I usually tip 20 rupees or something like that.

And you can't ask for change for your tip. Yes, I've tried.

OK, have 100, it's your lucky day. You're lucky that an Indian family have adopted me and are feeding me far too much. I'll head to the fort now.

To be fair, this is Orchha and he probably wouldn't have minded if I didn't give him anything.

Even on the market they aren't pushy. They show you what's on offer, offer you chai, and are genuinely friendly. Of course they want to sell - but they don't treat me like an ATM like I've experienced in the more touristy places. I bought a few old coins, and the price they gave me was hardly worth bargaining down. Shame, I enjoy a good bit of haggling.

So a good hour later, I actually made it across to the fort.

No, I don't have a camera, I don't need to pay the 25 rupee camera fee.

Aren't I just such a rebel today
My phone camera doesn't count, it's rubbish.

Talking of not touristy - the guides were sat down, didn't shout, didn't whine, weren't pushy and were absolutely fine when I told them I just wanted to have a wander round. Getting lost in forts is something that's still fun for me, given that I have a mental age of about 6.
Could be worse
I'm glad I just had a wander. The place is beautiful. So serene, so quiet, and so real! It was even falling apart in more than one place - the hole in the ground that meant I had to shimmy along a wall, perched a good 30m above ground, made me question what the Hindi was for "health and safety" once again. But only to myself, so it's acceptable.

To be fair, it's probably just "health and safety" in an Indian accent. It's always the amusing thing about languages I don't speak - how they've just adopted English phrases for things they don't have words for.

See you later
Either way, the place just seemed genuine. It's undiscovered, and I hope it stays that way - it could all too easily be ruined by the tour bus crowds. And that would ruin the whole atmosphere of the place - see any tourist destination in India for evidence. If this goes that way, they might need to open a mental hospital for me.

OK, I said I'd go for lunch at 1. It's 12:30, so I better leave. Given how many people I spoke to on the way, that was probably a good call. I even got invited in for chicken later in the day, which is always going to tempt a carnivore like me. Just better not indulge, as I've promised Puja that I'll join them for the festival later. And they'll probably over-feed me again. Not that I'm complaining, it sounds fairly heavenly to me.

So I made it for lunch as I'd promised. Then came the awkward moment a couple of hours later when I had to say "goodbye, be back later" because I hadn't quite seen everything yet. And given that I never spend anywhere near long enough in one place, that was a problem.

I wandered up to a hilltop temple, the Lakshi Narayan Temple, which had a few beggars outside. Except they weren't pushy in the slightest, and just played various makeshift musical instruments badly. All very civilised.

This temple was also decaying. And had Hindi graffiti, which amused me more than it should have. I climbed up the steps of the tower, thinking it would give me a better view. The steps were really dodgy too, and made the ones earlier look like a breeze - but I made it to the top.

This is a tower, in case you didn't know.
Only to find that the windows were bricked up.

I suppose I was due something like that.

I'll just have to settle for this then. Or the non-Blackberry'd version of it, anyway
Ranu, the owner of the Orchha Hut was up there too. Small world. Small town. I seem to know half of it already.

Though I found someone who I didn't really want to know that afternoon. A girl who looked about twelve definitely learnt her sales tactics from Agra or Varanasi, because she was pretty pushy! I had a "gift" foisted on to my wrist - some wristband with bells on.

Ah, so you've also learnt the "tag the tourist" tactic too. Great.

I should have pushed her away at that point, but unfortunately I pretty much got dragged across. She was a bit feisty. And her stall was crap as well.

So I chucked her 20 rupees for the "gift", she whined (of course) and demanded 50, and I just walked off and left her to cry alone.

And I eventually made it down to the Chattris (cenotaphs) as the sun was setting. They were meant to shut at 6, and it was about 4, so it should have been fine. I went for a wander inside them, tried to find the one I could climb to the top of, failed to do so, then eventually found it. At 4:30.

Someone shouted at me.

We're closing.

So I disappeared off around the corner to have a better look for a good 10 minutes. I've just found what I was looking for, so I will make the most of it.

THIS one? Who knows, they all look the same
The third time I got shouted at, I thought I'd better leave. So I slowly wandered out. It's definitely 4:30pm, not 6pm as advertised, so I will make you work a little bit longer likey you should be.

I went to watch the sunset from the fort instead. I genuinely considered taking an autorickshaw to get past fiesty salesgirl, but then remembered that I was a man and that I could probably deal with a whiny 12-year-old Indian girl. She just gave me evils as I walked past. Poor girl.

This seems like a perfectly relevant picture for right now.
I'd heard that the camel stables had a good view of the fort and some smaller temples for sunset, so I headed up that way, only to get told that the fort was closing and that I had to leave. So I continued with my rebellious streak and sneaked in, eventually finding some steps that hadn't been gated up and going for a look.


After dark I wandered back through the centre. I made a new souvenir-shop-owner friend, who was more interested in buying me chai than selling me anything. But I still took the painted metal camel that he'd been failing to shift for the past year since it caught my eye. 700 rupees was a bit of a bargain for what I got too. It can clutter my house with the other handicrafted animals.

Sorry, my parents' house. Having my own house requires a proper job. As if I'll have one of them for a while.

He taught me some useful phrases for Agra too. Cello means go!, while santi means quiet. CELLO, CELLO!

I tried to find my chicken friend from earlier, but lo and behold he was gone. Or maybe I just couldn't remember what he looked like and walked straight past him, but who knows. And someone let off a stupidly loud firework that I genuinely thought was a bomb going off - but that's festivals for you.

And there's always a festival.

This one was a festival of sweets, or so I picked up. The best kind of festival. So I went to my new Orchha family and oh they fed me well. I even celebrated the festival with them - they'd done their sacrifices and drawn the lotus flower (the people who sell the colours must do well) and so I joined them in walking around the fire 3 times. But this is in the back garden, so you have to duck under the washing line and not knock over the stick that's holding the fire up.

So THAT's what these are for
And always go clockwise. Always. Don't want Shiva to get angry at me.

Eventually I said my goodbyes, gave Mina a bit of money "for the family" (for my food!) and wandered back up to the hotel. And Puja, I will actually answer my phone at some point. I'm a bit rubbish at that.

It's a place I definitely want to come back to though. With a proper camera. So the camera fee better not go up, or I'll have to sneak it in again.

The real India has most definitely answered my call - and stood up.

Wednesday, 27 November 2013

Will the real India please stand up?

So after eating some of what is quite clearly, and quite scientifically, the best food ever - which nearly convinced me to stay in Varanasi, strangely - it was off to Mughal Sarai station, the other side of town.

And this being India, nothing is ever that simple.

The autorickshaw wouldn't start.

To be fair to him, the driver didn't give up - he tried everything. He went into more parts of the auto than I thought existed, but eventually settled for the old-fashioned tactic: the push-start.

But despite paying over the odds for an auto purely because the colour of my skin must make me a walking ATM, we still had to act as the local bus service for various people who wanted to get in on the way.

Various people who quite blatantly and obviously paid next to nothing, for a fare that any driver would shout "one-hundred" at me if I even attempted such a thing as going across town.

I'm fairly sure it's a fact: for white man, every autorickshaw fare is 100 rupees. Until we hit 5km, in which case it's whichever big number the driver knows the English for. And if there's a meter to stop this kind of thing, it never works for white man - because who knows, they might only have to pay a FAIR AMOUNT rather than having to mess around with the people who not only take advantage of tourists' wallets openly, but also try to take them to the shops and hotels that pay them commission.

Regardless of whether they wanted to go there in the first place, or whether they can afford it.

As I said last time, it takes money out of the hands of HONEST local people, and puts tourists off coming at all.

Anyway, I digress.

By the time I'd worked up enough anger about this whole situation, we'd stopped again, and my autorickshaw was now the main attraction in town.

Bigger than the actual attraction of some Hindu festival (there's always a festival) going on in the street.

Well, taking up both sides of the dual carriageway, and closing it off.

Ah yes, white man has just happened to turn up. Must shake white man's hand. Must get photo of white man. Must just stand there and stare at white man, despite the fact that he's NO DIFFERENT to any of us, apart from the colour of his skin.

I don't mind the shaking of hands and the photos - in fact I find them mildly amusing. At least they're making an effort to communicate with me, and at least they're welcoming me; making me feel human; treating me as a person. Staring on the other hand is just uncomfortable. Yes, the culture is different - staring is just showing interest - but staring is the kind of interest you show in animals, insects, the things you can't communicate with. OK, so maybe language might be a barrier - but that doesn't stop me using some strange game of charades in a futile attempt to communicate with foreigners!

I'm a human, just like you. I can speak. I can respond. I don't just have some sort of animal instincts. I'm not another species. Your culture is meant to be welcoming and friendly. Come on - take a think about it. We wouldn't do this to you. Maybe it's because we're used to such diversity, but seriously - think about it.

But it's not the worst thing. If the staring is uncomfortable, and the hand-shaking and photos amusing, the face-pinching is plain uncivilised.

Yes, I said "uncivilised".

It is uncivilised.

Don't give me the "cultural" nonsense. Causing pain to another human being unnecessarily by PINCHING THEIR FACE is ridiculous. I genuinely don't get why people do it, or why it's so widespread, or who thought it was a good idea. But it makes me tempted to act like an animal and punch someone - if only I knew who it was, because they tend to make themselves scarce pretty quickly.


Man up and talk to me!

If you don't speak English, just smile, or shake my hand, or make some effort to recognise that I'm human!

Anyway - enough of crying about being a white man. The culture shock had hit me again at this point - on my second visit to India - despite the fact I knew what was coming. Despite the fact that I'd come via Nepal, which isn't that different. It's the staring and the touts that generally put me in a bad mood.

Eventually we got moving again, but that required a push-start. By face-pinching locals. Thanks for the welcome, but please don't ruin it by doing stupid things like that next time.

Into the station and finding the platform proved to be a mission in itself. I thought it was platform 4, then I wasn't so sure. So I wandered back towards the main concourse to check. No taxi drivers, I don't want a taxi back to Varanasi, now or ever again in my life.

Indian railway stations do the stupid thing of putting the platform information for departures on a whiteboard behind the enquiry desk window. The same enquiry desk that has a large scrum of people trying to shout at the poor guy sat behind the window, plus a second scrum trying to look at the whiteboard. It really doesn't work, especially when you can't read Hindi script and have to guess from what you think is the train number and departure time.

OK, I still have no idea, but let's wander back to platform 4.

Oh, I should have just stayed here. It actually admits that my train exists now. And it even tells me where my sleeper car is going to stop.

Let's get going.

It was meant to roll into Satna, the station where I'd change for a bus to Khajuraho at about 5am.

So I woke up at 5am.

We were in a station.

But with this being India, and not Germany, we were at Allahabad - the next city along from Varanasi.

We didn't get into Satna until 9:30am.

Not only had I missed the 6:30am bus to Khajuraho, but I'd also missed the 9:15am bus. Either I could wait until 2pm for the next direct bus, or I could change at Panna and then attempt to say "Khajuraho" there.

Eventually, I settled for changing at Panna. A note: it's Panna, and not Panni. Panni is the Hindi word for water, and shouting it in a bus station just confuses people - especially the people actually selling water to people on buses.

Thankfully, someone who could actually pronounce "Khajuraho" bailed me out. This bus will take you straight there, and will be quicker than the government bus.

But it's leaving now. You'll have to chase it and jump on.

Jumping on to a bus, while wearing a 15kg pack on your back and another 5kg pack on your front, and doing so successfully, must make me level up in terms of man points. Surely.

It was a private bus, and I assumed that I was going to pay for the privelige.

Nope. Cheaper than the government bus.

But packed as full as the government bus, and with the same annoying staring as on the government bus. Which when you've not particularly slept well, haven't eaten for far too long and aren't feeling too great, is a bit too much. So white man slept, the concept of which must have caused much amusement among the locals.

Of course there was a catch: it dropped me off at the main road, about 20km out of Khajuraho itself. But no worries, there's a shared auto that'll take you in. Squashed in and into Khajuraho for 10 rupees. Problem solved.

Apart from the fact that we decided to go the long way round, and wait outside another guesthouse for about 20 minutes while the owner tried to persuade me to stay there instead. Sitting there, lying down and pretending to sleep did the trick though. Yes, I'm tired. Yes, it's partly related to your crap. Yes, please take me to the place I asked you to, and the place I'm paying you to take me to.

Checked in, I went to find some food. I needed it.

The kids here seemed to think that white man was not only an ATM, but also a dollar dispenser, pen vending machine and chocolate factory.

I should have realised what was coming.

I was wandering towards the Jain temples, and the place seemed eerily quiet. It really didn't feel that touristy. Then they descended, like flies.

Do you want to buy this overpriced crap that you really don't need? Yes, you do. Good price! Good price! No, no, no, come to my shop first!

Unfortunately I found the keyrings they were offering me a little bit amusing. Khajuraho is home to the "naughty temples", as someone put it in Varanasi. Kama Sutra may well have come out of here. Let's just say that the keyrings acted out the Kama Sutra, and that whoever makes these is a very clever businessman.

I say unfortunately, because showing any sort of interest, even if it's in the "those are genuinely quite a clever idea" form, is just food for the flies.

To try to move away from that, I just asked if they had postcards. I actually collect a postcard for each place I go to, so these might have been quite useful.

If they weren't trying to charge 30 rupees for them.

Postcards cost 5 or 10 rupees normally. Everywhere.

And apparently, two postcards for 50 rupees is a "good deal".

So I laughed at him, told him he was a rip-off merchant and that I wasn't going to buy anything from him, and wandered into the temples.

Thankfully they didn't follow me in.

I just had a security guard for company, who insisted that I do some stupid poses against the temples.
Man card lost
And I wore a leather belt into a Jain temple, which probably condemns me to a fiery death or something.

I spent a good long time in there, but the flies were still there, ready to pounce, when I left. Now they could offer me an even better deal. First of all, they tried saying that they'd sell them "at cost" to me. Then they said that "for me", I could have them for two-thirds of the cost.

Yes, I don't buy from liars. Leave me alone before I swat you away.

So I had a wander into the old village. I got accosted by a family before long, which is the normal Indian way. They were nice enough as well - gave me a chai and so on. The father offered to show me to the Eastern Group of Temples, which turned into a guided tour.

I should have seen it coming.

Then the stories started. "I've broken my leg so I can't work as a taxi driver, so I'm just showing people around for a bit". Ah, you're a taxi driver. Try not to judge. Try not to judge.

I tried to escape at this point, but no. Inspired by the Hindu gurus we saw smoking weed, he wanted me to join them to have a smoke. And I was expected to pay for it.

His uncle, or brother, or someone, 'rescued' me. And took me into his shop in his house, where he tried the hard-sale tactics with his souvenirs. Oh yes, you're a rich white man, just withdraw cash from the ATM which is YOURSELF.

So I escaped.

Out of the house, in the opposite direction to where the original guide/taxi-driver/scam artist was stood, trying to roll a joint.

White man walking quickly out of the old village confused the locals, especially when my new "friend" was chasing me.

I went and hid in the Western compound which was my hotel. Julian Assange, I feel your pain. You're just lucky that you have food made for you. I had to escape at some point. So I located somewhere suitably far away from the centre in my Lonely Planet and set off to go there.

Suddenly I had a new friend again. I tried to go into the place I was planning on going to, but it was closed. But there's more restaurants near the market. Yes, true. But I'm hiding from a whole village right now.

I was already suspicious, but for some reason he'd befriended me to the extent that I went to his friend's rooftop restaurant - after he dismissed my tongue-in-cheek suggestion that he was collecting commission from me. The menu seemed legit and the prices reasonable, he seemed more interested in talking about his conquests in Goa than anything else, and he wasn't expecting me to buy him any food.

Then his friend came over. Possibly the strangest and most uncomfortable person I've ever met. And he even showed me some texts off an Israeli girl who apparently missed him. Stockholm Syndrome, perhaps. But my, he was weird.

At this stage, they decided that they'd try to convince me into exporting their gems in my luggage. Illegally, using the "personal allowance". All I had to do was pay for the insurance. And then claim the gems had been stolen, and claim back five times their worth on insurance

I should have known.

I seem to have this unique ability to know that I'm probably walking into a scam, but not do anything about it.

Maybe I'm just too British.

My food still hadn't come either, and it was about 2 hours later.

Second escape of the day. I got out of there incredibly quickly, leaving whatever dodgy whiskey they'd tried to intoxicate me with behind.

And no autorickshaw driver, I don't want a ride. Or that kind of ride.

I'm going to sleep. And I'm getting out of here tomorrow.

No more
I didn't even see the Western Group, the main group, so I'll have to make do with pictures. At least it means that I don't have to put a NSFW warning on this blogpost, because those are the actual "naughty" ones.

12:30pm train to Orchha: boarded. Last photo on my camera, ever. More on that next time.

Photo #69 from Khajuraho. You can't make it up.
Will the real India please stand up?

Saturday, 23 November 2013

Varanasi: stench capital of India

First impression of Varanasi: Bloody touts.
Second impression of Varanasi: Oh wow, it smells bad.

I mean, it smells really bad.


We went to the prepaid office rather than let any drivers mess us around, then let them fight over the three white people, who would pay.....  well, exactly the same as an Indian, given that we'd just gone to the prepaid office. Having not had breakfast or coffee, I really couldn't be bothered haggling. None of us could.

And no, we're not going to give you 200 rupees extra for you to walk us to our hotel from where you drop us off. If I get lost, I'll walk down to the river, find the ghat it's on, walk up the steps, and hey presto, there's the guesthouse.

Autorickshaws can't get right to the river in the daytime because there are too many people on the street, so we got dropped off at the last point and went our separate ways.

But apparently rickshaws can take me to the ghat?

Or so he said. He wanted 50 rupees for it, which he had to be joking about. I stuck to 30 or walk, and the usual starting to walk away trick worked. OK, 30 rupees.

To drive me 100m down the road to the next roundabout.

No, this isn't Munshi Ghat. Where you claimed you could take me.

Why didn't you tell me this, you dishonest little (expletive)?

And in order to save this post from the trap of the last one, I just paid him the 30 rupees, told him he'd have bad karma and walked the remaining 5 minutes to the guesthouse.

Though it feels like a lot longer on the tiny backstreets of Varanasi, where you don't have a clue which direction you're going in, let alone how far you are from the Ganges. And given that the first person who said he'd take me there just pointed me in some general direction but really just wanted me to go to his silk shop, I was fairly sceptical of any other helpful locals.

I shouldn't have been. This one was actually helpful. I would have walked straight past the street had he not pointed it out to me.

The guesthouse owner was more than happy to let me leave my bag, and for me to go and have breakfast on the rooftop. Good big breakfast and flipping cheap!
And hello Ganges!
There are monkeys everywhere here too. I mean everywhere. They run across the rooftop quite happily. Little feral monsters they are though.

Having only just arrived, it seemed strange to be sorting out my transport out already, but this is Varanasi, and it's impossible to get out of - I guess because everyone takes a sniff and realises that they want to leave too. With no Indian SIM card yet, and with the Indian Railways booking website annoying me enough that I'd rather go for a swim in the Ganges, I headed to a travel agent who might be able to sort it out for me.

Like the agency in Kathmandu, this one was also run by a guy called Om. Must be a thing.

Yes, I can sort you out with a train on Tatkal (the last-minute bookings service you pay a little extra for) but it leaves from the other station 18km away, and there are only 10 sleepers left.

Yes, that'll do.

OK, come back at 12.

So I went for a bit of a wander on the ghats, which were strangely quiet. Nice though!

And the ghat my guesthouse was on, Munshi Ghat, was the nicest of the lot actually - less concrete and more actual historic design work. Strange that in such a holy place there was so much dirty concrete, but it means less distractions I suppose.

I headed back for 12, having to have to shout at a few people who were trying to accost me. If I didn't get the ticket at 12, I'd be done for, and stuck in Varanasi for another few days. No, no thank you, I've been held up enough as it is.

GET OUT OF MY WAY part 8000
Back there for 11:57.

OK, there are now 6 left. But we have to wait until 12, because of how the system works.

Logic level: India.

Details put into the system far too quickly, submitted, and result back.

I've got the last but one seat.

Which Om got incredibly excited about, and shook my hand far too many times, before printing the ticket and wishing me well. I was just glad that I was going to be leaving Varanasi at some point, even if it did mean having to deal with autorickshaw drivers again.

And having paid an agent to do it, I then got the one thing that I needed to book train tickets myself: an Indian SIM card, and an Indian phone to complete the set. Not even a Nokia, I'm not that upmarket.

Logic level: India. I've adjusted already.

So new phone in hand and lunch eaten (the food is very good here), I went to have a look at the temple.

On to the main street and I was accosted by a guide. I made the mistake of telling him I'd be back later, rather than just telling him to bugger off, because I'm too British for that. So he decided to follow me to the temple, or, as he tried to put it, "show me the temple". He wouldn't listen to my requests to leave me alone or to go find someone else to follow, so I just played the British card and put up with it.

The temple's nice as well, even if I can't go into the main complex. No photos as cameras aren't allowed inside, so you'll have to find one by someone who's sneaked one in (search for "varanasi golden temple" and ignore the one that's actually in Amritsar).

Oh no, here's a priest, he can take you inside for 7,000 rupees.

Yes, of course he's a priest. I'd rather convert to Hinduism and back and go in for free in the meantime.

And please, leave me alone, let me go around on my own, rather than making sure I'm guilt-tripped into going back to the shop that you receive an extortionate commission from. And yes, I want to go for a walk along the ghats NOW, and I don't care if things don't get interesting until 5:30pm, I just want some pictures. And some peace and quiet where I don't get accosted.

Apart from by a "mother and child" with empty milk bottle, who I told to Google "milk scam".

Bloody silk shops. They won't give up.

So I went in, bought something cheap and told them I'd have a think about the rest, and got out of there. They invited me back for chai the next day, but that was never going to happen.

He chased me outside and still tried to sell me some of the more expensive pashmina at "my price". Having been told his costs were 2050 rupees (as if), and having told him I wasn't going any higher than 1500 for something he'd wanted 3000 for, I'd left. But he was still willing to sell it for 1700.

Yes, willing to sell at a loss.

No, I don't buy from liars, sorry.

And he still followed me back to my guesthouse, the whole way trying to get me to go to a massage parlour that he wouldn't tell me the prices of unless I went myself.
Silk shops don't have this view, so I don't want to go
So in an effort to lose him, I went along. Ah, you're charging British prices in India? Seems legit. Avoid "Kerala Massage" in Varanasi - you can get what they offer at one-eighth of their price pretty easily.

But no, that didn't work. So I slipped off down the side street to my guesthouse, but he must have had a GPS tracker fitted to me or something, because he managed to find me again - and demand a "guide fee" from me for his "services".

I nearly punched him.

Walking inside your guesthouse works to get rid of them. If only I'd realised earlier.

But yes, from now on, if anyone accosts me, I'm not speaking to them.

I'd been told that a place called Blue Lassi did the best lassi in India, so I went to try it out. And I needed it after that afternoon's experience. It most certainly did the trick - the stuff is amazing.

Inside I met an Australian girl called Nat, who was using it as a cure for Delhi belly. Not sure what the doctors would think of that, but there we go - I can't talk about using non-approved recovery tactics anyway. My sense of humour just confused her, but we got along well enough. Oh, and her pearl of wisdom for you all: if you need some change, ask a policeman, because they take so many small bills in bribes.

And in India, you always need change. Everyone wants change. Yet ATMs still insist on giving out 1000s.

We grabbed some food at a place called "Spicy Bites", which just gave me flashbacks of some of the horrific post-night out food I've had in a takeaway of the same name in Leamington. Thankfully, the food here was really quite good. For entertainment, there was a guy across the street who kept trying to sell us drugs in more and more hilarious ways as time went by; he really would not give up!

Everyone here sells drugs as a side job, which means I get to use my "no, I don't need them, I'm an international drug lord" line far too often.

As for autorickshaws, I just tell them it's against my Jedi religion, and that Indian customs confiscated my staff.

Day 2 and I had to be up at 5am to make the sunrise. I was going for a boat trip on the Ganges, and with me not wanting to pay white-man price, I got my guesthouse to negotiate for me.

Indian mornings, why so cold?!
So I got Indian price plus commission, which turned out to be white-man price after all.

And however cold I was in my leather jacket (maybe not the best choice while traversing a Hindu holy site, but there you go) it was genuinely enjoyable. Incredibly atmospheric - how the place is so noisy, so busy, so crazy, yet so serene is beyond me. But it made coming here worth it - despite the touts, the utter stench, the dirtiness, the craziness and the general intensity of the place.

Still, I'd just got up at 5am and needed to go back to bed to put my system back to normal.

System back to normal, I went on the wander down the ghats that I'd wanted to do the day before, but that my friendly "guide" didn't want me to see. Because obviously, silk is more important than, well, the Ganges.

Don't mind us
Again, it was very quiet, but still strangely atmospheric. Until, that is, I got offered cannabis by a 4-year-old, who seemed genuinely disappointed that I didn't want any. Not sure he understands "international drug lord" though.

Then I got lost on the back streets.

Normally, this isn't a problem, but this is Varanasi. The back streets smell even worse than the main roads - they're genuinely unbearable. Buffalo everywhere, rubbish everywhere, buffalo excrement everywhere, flies everywhere. Absolutely disgusting. And impossible to escape, because every time you try to go in the general direction of the river, you reach a dead end.

Eventually though I found the main ghat, and had a seat.

Then someone noticed that I was sprouting my excuse for facial hair, and that maybe I'd like to have a shave for 20 rupees.

OK then, saves me doing a bad job of it. And I still don't have any shaving foam.

No Anselm, posing for this picture is unnecessary
But the usual Indian male approach of getting far too close for comfort kicked in again, and he decided that it would turn into first a head massage, then a back massage - then I said no more, you'll probably charge me for it. No no, I'm doing this "as a friend". No no, I don't like joining in your personal game of gay chicken.

He only wanted a bottle of Pepsi in return as well.

40 rupees? Cool, have this 500.



Right, stop crying about it. And no, I don't like Pepsi, so no.

So he got possibly the biggest wad of change I've ever seen out of his pocket, and admitted defeat.

So wait, why did you need change?

I don't understand it. Everyone hoards change here.

The issue is, when everyone does it, getting out of that equilibrium is near-impossible - especially in a country without supermarkets which will change any note for you without crying about it.

Logic level: India?