Friday, 22 November 2013

Returning to the Raj

Dear Government of India, who I quite clearly love so much: Please don't deport me for mentioning the Empire in my title. I will write lots of nice things about your country, or failing that, you can have 500 rupees to let it slide.

So, Chitwan. The national park where apparently noone sees a tiger. Now they tell me. After I came here instead of one of the TIGER SANCTUARIES in Madhya Pradesh which I could have visited after Varanasi. 

Maybe that wasn't my finest moment. Live and learn eh? 

Rafting and the Chitwan stopover were meant to break up the journey to Varanasi, which takes about 24 hours when everything runs on time (so let's call it 30 hours), make it a bit more interesting and kill two birds with one stone: at Chitwan I could go and look for tigers, which would avoid having to do it a bit further on as I'd planned originally. The agency had assured me that there was an 80% chance of seeing a tiger, or I think that's what they meant - but everyone else has said that it wouldn't happen. 

Ah, hindsight. 

The main town on the edge of the national park, Sauraha, is a weird place. Travel agency, travel agency, overpriced restaurant, hotel with generic wildlife-related name, travel agency, elephant statue, overpriced restaurant. 

And every now and then, an elephant wanders down the street. 

OK, so "wanders" might be pushing it a bit.
I'd booked an elephant safari, as is standard practice here, for 1pm. So I went to the hotel gate (sorry, Forest Resort gate) just before 1, having rushed back and lost half my bodyweight in sweat in the process.

No, it's at 3pm. Thanks for telling me. 

The elephant safari was 1800 rupees. But this is Nepal, so the final price was not 1800 rupees. You have to pay 1500 for a permit (of course), and 600 for "the bus". Make that 3900 rupees, a considerably different ballgame. 

The "bus" was actually a flatbed trailer that took us round the corner. I couldn't have walked for 5 minutes? No? Because you couldn't claim for advertising purposes that you have an 1800 rupee elephant safari then? Ah, thought not. 

Of course, this is Tourist Disneyland. I forgot. 

Should have gone to Bandhavgarh instead. Haven't heard of it? Exactly. 

Elephant safaris are fun for the first five minutes. 

Then you get bored for a while, so the guide takes the standard photo of you on an elephant.

The free photo didn't include a mirror to be vain with. What a shame.
Then someone sees a rhino, and suddenly you start to give chase. On a giant elephant, because that's not obvious at all. To be fair, this bit is quite exciting. 

Then the rhino stops on some grassland while its child runs around like, well, a highly excitable child. And then you realise that there are about 10 elephants crowded around watching and it spoils the whole thing a bit. 
In the wild. Surrounded by far too many bloody tourists for it to count.
Also, dear people with more money than sense: please turn the flash off on your overly expensive camera that you don't know how to use. It's DAYTIME. And no, your flash does not go that far, however much you paid for that stupid flashgun of your's. 

In case you didn't get the message: LEARN HOW TO USE YOUR CAMERA. Learn about photography. Please, for the sake of my sanity. 

If not, I'll have to tell you I'm allergic to flash or something. Because saying "epileptic" isn't PC. 

OK, "bus" back. No, this "bus" is no better. Please stop taking my money. 

No, this is definitely not a bus. What's "Trade Description Act" in Nepali?

Also, talking of taking my money. Chitwan is relatively expensive - by which we're talking £2.50 for a main course and not 50p-£1 like the rest of Nepal. So yes, First World Expensive. My bill for food at the hotel (sorry, "Forest Resort") gets given to me at the end, and I had a certain number of Nepalese Rupees left. I want to keep away from moneychangers as much as possible and just use ATMs, because it's the best rate and avoids eating into my dollar stash, which I need for Burma, too much. More on this later.

So because charging 3 times what they charge in the rest of Nepal isn't extortionate enough, they decided to add on "tax". At 25%. Which meant that given that I'd budgeted to have a certain amount of food with the NPR I had already given the MENU PRICES, which didn't mention the tax, I didn't have enough money to pay my bill. 

Nobody else charged this tax - the cheap places in Kathmandu, the cheaper places in Sauraha - so I'm fairly sure they just made it up to get even more of my money, for who knows what.

In fact, this can apply to anyone who adds on hidden costs later; who scams me out of my money; who follows me round a place, ignores my requests for them to go away, tells me some stuff I don't really care about and then decides that this constitutes "taking a guide" and that I have to pay them an extortionate fee to cover it and who I have to pay off to make them leave me alone because the police don't care. But mostly for the hidden costs people.


I mean it. 

I am not an ATM. I do not have an unlimited supply of money. There's a reason I'm staying in a DORM ROOM at £2 a night - I don't have money to give to you to line your pockets! 

Even if you're poor, I'm not a charity! 

Dishonesty. Dishonesty annoys me. 

I have to budget, and if I have to allow for people to rip me off, people to decide that actually they want more than they assured me several times, people to change their mind and mess me around but make me pay my way out of it, then I'm going to spend less on the products of honest people who actually deserve my money.

You will be responsible for their condition, not me. 

Not that you care, given your general attitude towards me. 

Or is it just because I'm white, and therefore I should have to bear your burden?

No. I come to your country, put money into your economy, and don't expect anything of you, except for honesty, and maybe a good product in return. But I don't expect you to buy from me, or anything like that. 

Stop trying to play the victim.

Because if you're dishonest, then you give your place/city/country a bad name. And LESS PEOPLE WILL GO THERE. And you, and your scum friends, will have less chances to get money out of us, because WE WON'T COME. 

Because you know what: this is how the human mind works. If I have one bad experience, just one, it will trump the good experiences, and I won't want to come back. I'll tell people not to bother with your place, or to spend as little time there as possible, and to not give you a chance. 

I get it. You want money for food. Yes, most of the time in the developing world this is genuine. But don't try to get it out of me dishonestly. Make something that I want to buy, at a price I want to pay. Don't try to push me into buying it or paying for it - if I really want it, I'll buy it, because I'll derive benefit from it. Foundations of economies this is. 

Also, don't you believe in karma? Have fun being a dung beetle in your next life. 

Anyway, rant over. I feel better now. 

The next day I was going to leave, and I'd booked a tourist bus down to the border. Normally I just go with the standard local bus, but I'd been assured that if I paid a bit extra I'd have a bit more space and it would make less stops, and would thus be quicker. On this sort of journey, even one less hour travelling is a godsend.

OK, it might say tourist bus on the front, and the game of human tetris might be a little easier for you, but if you stop anywhere to pick anyone and anything up, then you can't claim that it's "limited stop". 

You take a bit more money off me to cover the losses made by losing a few passengers who aren't at designated stops. 

And maybe don't have 4 conductors on one bus. That creates more space too.

To anyone who says this is just the Nepali way, and I should go with it: refer to my earlier rant. 

They told me it was limited stop and therefore quicker, I paid extra as a result, but what they said WAS NOT TRUE. Again, dishonesty is what annoys me. 

I didn't bother with the moneychangers on the Nepali side, because I'd heard that the rickshaw to the border would have tried to charge me extra if I did. Given that we'd agreed on 100, and I only had 100NPR left, this would be an issue. 

I'd met a Polish couple, Anna and Ratol, just before, and the rickshaw driver even tried to get more out of them. No, those Poles are made of sterner stuff.

Also, Anna's full name is Anna Purna, which apparently made applying for an Annapurna Base Camp trekking permit highly amusing.

I digress. Stamped out of Nepal, stamped into India. 

Clocks back 15 minutes, because Nepal just want to be different. 

I asked in the immigration office about moneychangers on the Indian side, assuming that someone would do it for me. No, only unofficial ones at bad rates. But if you like, you can go back over the border into Nepal and do it there, then come back.

No, the Nepalis disagree. 

Unofficial moneylender it is.

I needed enough money for the bus fare. And in hindsight I should have borrowed the 100 rupees, but there we go. 

20 dollars should be about 1200 rupees. 

First of all, he snatched the dollar bill out of my hand while I was still insisting that he told me how much I'd get for it. Eventually he told me that he'd give me 800 rupees for 20 dollars. ONE THIRD in commission. And he was trying to do it without admitting it.

I lost my cool at this point. 

Give me my 20 dollar note back. 

Oh no, your slimy little fingers have creased it, you little scumbag. 

But no, we'll give you a better rate if you give us your 50. 

"You need to get more, the ATM might be closed for the festival". No, the clue is in the name you idiot. AUTOMATED teller machine. As far as I know, robots are not Hindu. Not even in India. 

50 is one-tenth of my dollar stash. I NEED that for Burma. But realistically, I had no choice. I wasn't letting them take a third of my money in commission. They'd give me 55 to the dollar for this, and take 6 rupees per dollar as commission, rather than the totally extortionate 20 per dollar. 

So moneychangers are dodgy. There's a surprise. There's a reason that I avoid them. 

I tried to negotiate a mildly better rate, maybe even 57 to the dollar, but no - apparently I can't forget about their stomachs. No, I couldn't forget about your stomach, or indeed your belly, because it's about four times the size of your head. Maybe actually you should give me 65 rupees to the dollar so you're forced into losing some weight and living like the rest of the population for a bit? 

Then they charged me a SERVICE FEE. At this point I lost it and might have called him a "thieving little b*****d", but there you go. He deserved it. 

He even had the cheek to tell me "watch out for mice, they like to steal from you" as I left. You can't make it up. So I told him he must be a mouse and got out of there as quickly as possible.

To be accosted by various people who wanted me to get on their overpriced buses rather than using the cheaper government bus, whose conductor didn't really care about accosting me. No, stop trying to tell me that this one doesn't go to Gorakhpur, it definitely does. And this conductor has a ticket machine, so he can't rip us off. 
Ah yes, we're back
Oh yes, these are the scum of India who I'd forgotten about and who unfortunately give its people a bad name, because 99.999% of them are not like this at all - in fact they are some of the friendliest people on earth. 

But a few of them have decided they can make a quick buck out of annoying tourists, so they've gone for it.

What was that about karma again?

So on we went towards Gorakhpur, with the 3 hour journey taking 4, because we're in India. And they still tried to hurry us off the bus when we got there, because the extra 20 seconds would make such a massive difference. 

Also, when they named Purapur, they were definitely running out of place names. 

Gorakhpur train station looked a bit like a bomb shelter on the inside: every inch of floor was covered in sleeping people. At 7pm. Which was a pain when you needed to get a ticket for tonight. 

No, come back at 8pm. 

So I wandered to grab some food and use an internet cafe to work out where I was staying in Varanasi. It turns out that the guesthouse name that I'd made up for the immigration form (I reasoned that the place must have a Shiva Guest House) was actually the place that I was staying at, and remembered that internet cafes always have the slowest connection ever. 

Blatantly a ploy to get you to stay longer and therefore pay more. 

I came back at 8pm, and got stared at a lot. Because this is India, and they like to stare at white man. And they must have photos with white man just as he's about to be served, because white man is a strange creature from another land. 

Oh no, you have to wait another 10 minutes anyway, because this is India. 

So I stood there and made a nuisance and got given the reservation form to fill out. Because just telling him the details was too difficult, of course. 

No, this is India. Must fill out the form. 

And must fill out the form again because I put my signature in the wrong place, because they hadn't printed it properly so it was unclear where the signature was meant to go. 

Signature in the right place. I will stamp this, because this is India and we stamp everything. Seriously, they love their rubber stamps here.

And I got my ticket! Indian night trains, let's do this!

To be fair, the Indian guy who first started laughing at us on the platform, then started talking, created more amusement than the entire journey on the train. He's just met white man, therefore white man is now his best friend. And please don't call me handsome, I really don't know how to respond to that. Especially when a bloke says it. 

No, I quite like standing up. I don't want to sit next to you, no, I don't like being touched, because white man is not your new best friend and white man does not treat life as a giant game of gay chicken like you seem to. 

Different culture, totally different culture - but it doesn't change the fact that it's highly uncomfortable for me. Luckily he wasn't going to Varanasi. 

At 9am the classic Indian train call of "chai chai chai chai" began. We were nearly in Varanasi. And it was a more civilised hour than the scheduled arrival time of 6:15am, so I wasn't complaining either. 

Only 3 hours late, not bad. 

India, let's do this. 

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