Bribing an Indian; getting bedbugs again; and other stories from the road in Northwest India

Let's start where I left off in the last blog post. I left Delhi to go North to the holy city of Amritsar. This city is the religious capital for Sikhs and houses the largest gurdwara in India, called the Golden Temple.

Pretty, isn't it? I'll admit I was immediately entranced by the buzzing spirituality of the place. But that sentiment didn't last long.

The temple provides free dormitory housing for pilgrims and travelers - something I thought I'd partake in just so I could feel like an active participant in the temple goings on. Then I found bedbugs in the dorm bed. Ugh this again! I immediately moved to an overpriced hotel down the block.

Another feature of Sikh hospitality, they provide a free snack called parshad which has been blessed by the guru. To accept and eat the parshad is a ceremonial act, one reflecting humility and respect. I got food poisoning from the parshad.

So what's the lesson here? Screw the spirituality rhetoric! Like any other tourist attraction or church even, the Golden Temple is an inherently human institution which can only keep running by attracting peoples' attention and dollars. But with all the millions of visitors they get every year and the corresponding revenue, there's really no excuse for the lack of proper sanitation practices and crowd management. It's a problem in no short supply in the rest of India.

With that done, I headed South to the desert state of Rajasthan. And for the rest of this post, I'll be traveling with someone I met at the hostel in Delhi. An older German guy by the name of Frank. We confused many Indian locals who couldn't decide if they thought we were married or not. Because apparently, a lone woman traveling with a man can only either be a wife or a whore. Here's us standing in front of a couple of Indian cops chained to prisoners.

Frank owns a motorcycle in India so we saw Southern Rajasthan together by bike. While riding, he'd often point out other peoples' dangerous behavior and give me tips on how to survive the road; his overall message being that I probably shouldn't drive a bike here at all if I want to live. Often, this was all done with as many curse words thrown at other drivers as possible. Frank is not a PC person.

Our first stop was the tiny little town of Bundi. Its claim to fame is a stunning 14th century fort which is currently not being maintained by the local government and is slowly crumbling away back into nature. Young men hang out here hoping to give tourists a little knowledge of the history of the fort in exchange for a few bucks' tip.

It's a tragedy that the building is so dilapidated. Especially when comparing the beauty of this structure to another fort built 40km south in the city of Kota. Though much better maintained, the Kota fort seems to have suffered mightily at the hands of a painter inspired by the circus.

Lots of time spent driving meant seeing lots of random things on the road. For example, a loaded truck, overturned and abandoned in the middle of the highway. I heard that many truck accidents are abandoned because the drivers are usually undocumented workers. It's in their interest to flee the scene rather than face legal consequences for a crash - which the police would likely blame them for regardless of whether they were really at fault.

A multi-passenger tuk-tuk is passed by a motorcyclist talking on the phone. Talking and texting while driving is becoming an epidemic in India.

After Bundi, we headed West to Chittorgarh; I by train and Frank on his bike. And this is where I bribed a man for the first time ever.

The hotel staff in Bundi urged me to buy a general compartment (non-reserved seating) ticket and take the gamble that I'd find a seat. The train is always empty, they told me, I'd be wasting money if I bought a higher class ticket. I normally don't mess with general compartment but this time I caved to their peer pressure and the lure of paying $1 versus $5 for what might be the same riding experience.

An example of what general compartment looks like when it's NOT crowded. Posted on India Mike.
So there I was, waiting on the train platform, not really registering the fact that it was completely packed with people. No, this didn't seem out of the ordinary. This is India, after all. It wasn't until a bunch of men at one end of the platform started yelling and causing a commotion that I turned to a guy next to me to ask what was going on. He gazed back at me with an expression on his face which I can only describe as looking like he was about to shit his pants.

Over the course of the conversation, I learned that today of all days, an army recruitment event had just finished in Bundi and that all the young men were now going home by train. Just like me, this guy held a general compartment ticket and was afraid of the frenzy about to unfold once the train pulled in.

Tarun, as was his name, had an idea to avoid the crowd by bribing the conductor to get into AC2 (one of the highest class compartments on the train) and he asked if I wanted to join him. I didn't need to be convinced. As soon as the train arrived, we bolted for the AC2 car together. I took one look back and saw a swelled mass of people cramming themselves through the undersized openings of the other train cars. Once inside, Tarun pleaded our plight to the conductor and we handed him 250 rupees ($4) each to sit down on unsold seats. My hero! What a fun morning this turned out to be.

Then I got into Chittorgarh. The town is known for housing the largest fort in the country. It's a massive complex with multiple buildings, temples, and a park. It was a full day of hopping around from temple to temple.

Jain temple inside the fort compound
Steps leading down to the Gaumukh reservoir
A holy cow statue at a Hindu temple inside the fort compound
A small bell at a Hindu shrine
Frank getting way too close to the local monkeys
To my surprise, a woman walked up to me and asked me to take a picture of her and her baby...on my camera. Upon seeing me do this, other families came up to get their pictures taken as well. I don't really understand what happened but I now possess many random Indian family portraits saved onto my SD card. I must have missed that story in Hindu mythology about how much of a blessing it is to have your picture taken by an Asian tourist.

Next, I boarded the bus to the city of Udaipur. Taking random snaps from the bus helped stave off the boredom.

Snack vendor selling to hungry riders on the bus
Fellow passengers ready to board
Passing another truck
Udaipur is one of the most popular tourist destinations in Rajasthan. Hundreds of years of publicity, including from one colonial British marketer who dubbed this the most romantic city in India, have allowed for it to develop to Western tastes and turned it into an unlikely oasis of calm away from the madness of the rest of the country.

Other shots from around the city:

What an Indian shared taxi looks like. These guys are so hardcore.
One day, Frank saw a fort on the top of a hill and decided we should check it out. Only we couldn't find the road leading up there. After asking around, we learned this thing was in fact a private mansion being built to look like a Rajasthani fort for a powerful multi-millionaire who deals in marble. And this is what the wealth gap looks like in India.

About 90km from the city is a town called Ranakpur, which houses one of the grandest Jain temples in the country. I had seen pictures of this place in a movie once and had been dying to see it.

Also nearby is a fort called Kumbhalgarh, which is claimed to have the longest continuous wall second to the Great Wall of China. Who knows if that's true though, as I could only find this claim being made on Indian websites. And you simply can't trust those things.

Photo by Frank Voellm

Afterwards, we moved to our final destination together in South Rajasthan, Mount Abu. As the name implies, the city is built on a mountain and is the state's only hill station. 

Ofcourse a Hindu temple would be built at the top of Rajasthan's highest peak. The experience came complete with holy men asking for donation money.
Beautiful views from the road
Less beautiful, a view of men burning trash on the side of the road and generating plastic fumes for everyone to breathe.
Like anywhere else in India, you'll still find cows eating trash at Mount Abu. This little guy is learning to chew on plastic.
As nice as Mount Abu was, it wasn't worth the two days Frank and I allocated to seeing it. By the second day, we were so thoroughly bored and out of ideas for things to do that we simply started drinking at 2pm. I'd say it was a fitting last day for us. The next morning, I took the bus to Northern Rajasthan while Frank drove back to Udaipur and then further South for warmer weather. Time for me to go it alone again.

Taking shots of the city of Jodhpur, my first stop back on my own.
I'll hang out in Northern Rajasthan for another week. Then by December 22, I'll head to Mumbai to meet, believe it or not, ALEX! He's going through some convoluted visa renewal process at the moment and needs to go to a US consulate outside the country to take care of the paperwork. And I guess he chose to do this in India of all places based on the rave reviews I've been giving the country. No matter what else, I can still say it's an interesting experience to be here.

An apt description of India

1 comment:

  1. Kelly, finally found your blog site. You are one, an intrepid traveller, and two, you are a darn good travel photographer!!.
    Also, as 3.9.15, I've found a job for U when U return. It is with a travel agency, Wilderness Travel, in Berkeley.