This is Monkeetime’s most successful backpacking video project. I had already visited India on several occasions, and every time had judged the country to be an absolute, mind-blowing, life-altering, stomach-upsetting acid trip. All in a good way. Usually. The cultural diversity, the mix of riches and poverty, the insanely rich history, the population density and many many other factors all come together to give an average backpacker a hell of a show that gets firmly burned into their brain and doesn’t leave for the rest of their existence.
People who HAVE been to India, know what this means. People that HAVE NOT, can’t even begin to appreciate the awesome insanity of the land, as well as have zero appreciation of the fact that after visiting India, all other backpacking is just plain boring, stupid and pointless…
Our idea was to “film the shit out of it” (Derek’s words), and then edit it in a way that comes closest to giving the viewer the feeling of being there, feeling the joys, the frustrations, the awesomeness, the tiredness, and all other stuff that you feel in India.
Click it, watch it, tell me what you think.
India is full of enthusiasm about the future. Newspapers, magazines, books, TV, movies – all get excited about the ever increasing standard of life and the great things to come. A lot of it is true: literacy rates are increasing, Indians are getting more and more educated, and being much better at English definitely have some advantages over the Chinese, at least when it comes to tapping into the global scene. You would have to be living in a cave in Afghanistan to not have heard about India’s growing I.T. industry, and there is increasingly more talk about quality domestic brands and their emergence onto the international market.
Out on the street, there is a quite different India. Depending on where you go, you can move 30, 50, or even a 100 years back. There are plenty of places right in the capital city that have not been touched by the development. Millions of people throughout the country sustain themselves on less than 1 dollar a day. Vast number of people go without basic medical care, malnutrition is rampant, and women’s rights, despite being long ago discovered to be the ticket out of poverty, is often only paid some lip service. Clean water and proper sanitation are a dream, as are well-paid jobs, health-and-safety legislation, and many other things taken for granted in the West. For the millions of everyday people that you see on the street, the glistening apartment blocks of Mumbai, cushy IT jobs of Bangalore, and jewellery-clad bodies of various Bollywood stars are just a fantasy. Commoners reality is shaped by chronic lack of resources, a government saturated with corruption and ethno-politics, as well as several millennia worth of negatively-influencing tradition (and religion) which butts heads with modernization and social progress.
Somewhere between the extreme poverty and the “Indian Dream” is the backpacker. What the backpacker gets to see is one of the most amazing shows on earth. Not because India is as spectacular as the Amazon rain forests, or as awe-inspiring as ice-bergs breaking off the polar icecaps, but because in India, the “1-billion-plus” mass of humanity is out on the streets for everyone to see. Unlike in the sterile West, where everything is tucked away, hidden, fenced off, shuttered or cosmetically enhanced, in India real life is everywhere. The beautiful, the ugly, the heartwarming, the terrifying, the grossly awesome and the awesomely gross… All are there, on the street, an arm-length away.
Every year thousands of visitors arrive in the country. Some have a vague idea what they will see. Some haven’t got a clue. Some pay the big bucks and are kept segregated from real India behind the secure windows of their privately-hired SUVs, complete with the blasting air-conditioning units to make their journey ever more sterile and unreal. Some show up with a grotty backpack stuffed with drugs, with their friends wondering how the hell they made it past the sleepy guards on the Nepal border. The land has such a massive income spectrum, there is a way or a style of travel for every kind of visitor. And with that comes every kind of possible adventure. Or misadventure.
The 24 episodes were shot between March and May of 2009, and cover only a fraction of the land. We visited New Delhi, Varanasi, Rishikesh, Chandigarh, Shimla, Manali, McLeod-Ganj, Amritsar, Agra, Jaipur, Jodhpur, Jaisalmer, Pushkar, Udaipur, Ahmedabad, Diu, Mumbai and Kolkata. Naturally, this is only a sliver of what there is to see, but we didn’t have the time or the resources to continue. And there is always the next time.
Part 1 and 2: New Delhi
The first two episodes take you to New Delhi. There are two main air gateways to the country: New Delhi and Mumbai. Coming in from Taiwan, Delhi was the natural one, but plenty of people get introduced to the subcontinent via the madness of Mumbai. A lot of backpackers roll in from Nepal through India’s busiest land crossing at Sonauli, and of course there is a number of other international connections to cities like Kolkata and Chennai. No mater which place is the entry point, all travellers need to have their visas sorted out before arrival, and this takes some planning. Taking care of this in Canada or Thailand is effortless. Doing this in Kathmandu, on the other hand, is a massive pain in the ass and not at all recommended.
For a first-timer, arriving in Delhi is the deep end of the pool. Most backpackers stay in the Paharganj area which is a busy bazaar, full of tourists, vendors, beggars, screaming kids, shitting cows, and polluting rickshaws. The primary reason for its popularity with travellers is its location right next to the New Delhi Railway Station and the city centre. We wasted no time and immediately got going with our explorations. Notable landmarks that we visited include the Red Fort, Jama Masjid mosque, India Gate, Raj Ghat, the Lotus Temple, and a few other places. We obviously missed some stuff (notably the Humayun’s Tomb, Gurudwara Bangla Sahib, and the Qutub Minar), but that’s just life, and there is that proverbial “next time” that I keep on mentioning.
Delhi is a good spot to sort yourself out for the India experience, get some bearings, arrange train tickets at the New Delhi Railway Station, and so on. Of course, it is also prime time to get scammed, but there is going to be a separate article about that.
Parts 3, 4, and 5: Varanasi
Varanasi is… India. No, I don’t mean it in the “Duh, it’s in India..” way, but rather, Varanasi is all of India compressed into one city. You could say it is “India Express”. Every so often I get messages from people who have seen the India series and are asking for help with designing an itinerary. When they have some doubts regarding whether or not they should go to Varanasi, I use the standard reply: “If you only have 1 day in India… As long as your finances allow you to do it, you should head to Varanasi”.
Fortunately it is only a short flight away from the capital, and for those on a lower budget, an easy 12-13 hour, preferably overnight train ride (which at the time of our journey cost about 12 USD).
No other place has the stunning effect of the huge variety of religions and ethnicities jammed into one place, usually congregating at the river Ganges which is used for transport, cleaning, waste disposal, religious rites and spiritual purification, funerals and as a drinking water supply… In one day you might see a wedding, a dozen funerals, a death, and possibly a birth. If that isn’t a spectacular roller coaster of adventure for you, then I guess forget India and just go to Florida instead, because you are almost dead…
Located on the west bank of the Ganges, the ancient city is a plexus of crowded, narrow winding lanes flanked by shops and scores of Hindu temples. Home to almost 1.4 million people and incredibly rich in culture, the labyrinthine Old City is hugely popular with tourists, as well as pilgrims: Varanasi is a holy city in Hinduism, being one of the most sacred pilgrimage places for Hindus of all denominations and is one of seven most holy places for Hindus in India.. Every few steps you will find a small shrine of some sort, a temple, or just a holy man sitting about, relaxing. There are no big-name hotels, and the bulk of accommodation is provided by small guesthouses. Similarly, the masses are fed at the hundreds of dinky hole-in-a-wall restaurants, and only very recently this has started to change with McDonald’s and Domino’s Pizza arriving on the scene.
The best way to experience this place is to simply walk out of the guesthouse and not come back till sundown. We found that roaming aimlessly through the streets ended up exposing us to a constant stream of interesting content that we captured with our cameras.
Unfortunately for Derek, on the very last day in New Delhi he picked up some sort of a stomach bug and was disabled for the first few days of our stay in Varanasi. As a result I ended up roaming about, either alone or with Chris, Rasmus and Johanna. We often gravitated to the ghats (steps) on the riverside. Over the years of backpacking, we discovered that if we picked a spot and just sat around doing nothing, soon enough everyone would just ignore us, and then we would be able to film all kinds of natural scenes of people doing ordinary, everyday stuff.
The absolute highlights of Varanasi, for me, anyway, are the temples, notably the Golden Temple (although no filming is allowed and there is absolutely no chance to cheat the system as everyone is throughly security-checked), sunrise boat tours on the river (a wonderful way to wake up and start the day), as well as just watching people work on the riverside. Boatmen, washers, the odd herdsman… Everyone seems to have something to do by the river, and you could sit there and watch them do whatever it is they are doing for hours. But the absolute highlight, burned into my memory are the burning ghats, where bodies of the deceased are cremated and their ashes placed in the Ganges. Perhaps it is just some sort of morbid, ghoulish curiosity, or a fascination with death, which in our culture is so ‘tabu’ (think of the sterile environment at funeral homes where you don’t really see what is happening to Grandma’s corpse), or perhaps a mix of both, but the first time I saw a cremation from start to end I was stunned for several days…
This went on for several days. The schedule was pretty much the same every day: wake up at about 7AM, wash up, go have some breakfast (Varanasi has a seemingly countless number of rooftop restaurants which provide outstanding views of the river), then walk about, filming, chatting, exploring. Lunch usually consisted of some rice and lentils at one of the multitude of local eateries, and followed by more roaming, filming, sneaking about, and scoping out sights for the next day. Dinner would usually be near the guesthouse somewhere as no one was interested in a long hike after that. The result was a massive (20GB) collection of street scenes, workers, animals, musicians, vendors, cops, pilgrims, holy men, not-so-holy men, and everything in between. But the way I see it, it is much better to have too much video than not enough, as it is rather difficult to fill in the blanks later on.
Part 6: Rishikesh and Chandigarh
Located in the foothills of the Himalaya, the holy city of Rishikesh attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors every year. Because of its location on the holy Ganges, and due to a mix of legend, tradition, and superstition, the place figures very highly on a pilgrim circuit, and as a result it is, by law, a vegetarian city. It is also alcohol-free, and recently egg-free, in order to be in maximum compliance with hindu laws. I have been hearing about Rishikesh ever since my first trip to India in the Fall of 2003. I had never gone there before this trip in 2009 because the usual sources of information about “how awesome it is” were stoned foreign backpackers with a massive affinity for hashish (which replaced alcohol as the recreational drug of choice) and a moderate aversion to soap: it just didn’t seem like the kind of place I would like to visit. Just imagine an opinionated asshole such as myself being surrounded by stoned hippies talking about “life, universe, and how the system is fucked up, man…”
This time around, however, we decided to pop in, if only for the express purpose of filming the stupidity. And while the filming was mediocre, as it is very difficult to capture the idiocy of a western backpacker under influence of bhang lassi and trust fund; it was interesting to see that, Indian pilgrims aside, as they do have plenty of religious reasons to be there, foreigners are indeed only infatuated with the place because they are largely left alone in their pursuit of weed, hash and munchies.
I have never been to a place with such overload of yoga schools, ashrams, chakra-bullshit workshops and other hippy-dippy crap that ought to be illegal on the account of the sheer stupidity of it all! Rishikesh, sometimes nicknamed “the world capital of Yoga”, has numerous yoga centres that attract heaps of these gullible tourists. Scores of foreigners believe that meditation in here brings them closer to attainment of moksha, as does a dip in the holy river that flows through it. I am not sure how permanent that moksha is, as most of these people go back home to their usual day jobs and their usual dipshitness, seemingly unburdened by all the magical stuff that happened in India. I know I sound very angry right now, but I simply am in touch with my inner jackass.
Anyways. Plenty of Hindus set out on a pilgrimage to Rishikesh, but these people are simply blinded by their own religion which has been pounded into their heads for their entire lifespans. For a white guy with an accounting job in Edmonton or Sydney to suddenly crave moksha, I suspect it is a combination of 50% stupidity and 50% pretentiousness… But these people DO turn up by the dozen, sign up for courses, empty their pockets, and propel the economy. And the locals are more than happy. In this town of 60 thousand, guesthouses are ever more plentiful, stores well stocked, restaurants busy, and the streets are crawling with bogus holymen peddling theology and drugs. Yeah!!!
Fortunately there is a different, more sober side to this. More and more tourists are coming out to Rishikesh as it is a gateway to the Indian Himalaya. Plenty of adventure sports are on tap, most notably white water rafting (on the Ganges!) as well as hiking and backpacking, and, most recently, bungee jumping. Not that these activities are that enormously enriching, but at least they don’t rely on some stupid theology and crystal power.
We did go for some nice hikes around the area, one day clocking about 10km along the Ganges and another day making an unsuccessful attempt at getting up to a remote temple high up on the hill. This second adventure didn’t work out because of the blistering heat, and we gave up about halfway there. In the evenings we usually parked ourselves in one of the friendly restaurants in the Laxman Jula area and munched on pancakes and various veggie dishes. We managed to not get attacked by the stoners for having unorthodox opinions about travel, and all in all we had a decent time in the “holy city”.
Next stop: Chandigarh… Of course, getting out involved a rickshaw, a bus, and a train. That last one was the funniest, as NOBODY at the train station seemed to have the vaguest of ideas regarding WHICH PLATFORM that train was going to pull into… In the end we managed to get on a train which was a special tourist unit, meaning “a little less tattered and with blankets”, but whatever. We are not here for first class travel, and the train did manage to get us to Chandigarh with minimal loss of life and limb…
Chandigarh is sort of the opposite of Rishikesh – an orderly, planned, neat, and reasonably clean city. In fact, a year after our visit it was reported to be the “cleanest” in India. This is the first planned city in India and while it lacks on the temples, it packs some very interesting architecture. After the partition of British India into India and Pakistan in 1947, the former British province of Punjab was also split between India and Pakistan.
The Indian state of Punjab required a new capital city to replace Lahore, which became part of Pakistan during the partition. After several plans to make additions to existing cities were found to be unfeasible for various reasons, the decision to construct a new and planned city was undertaken.
Commissioned by Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of independent India, to reflect the new nation’s modern, progressive outlook, Chandigarh was designed by the French architect and urban planner, Le Corbusier, in the 1950s. Le Corbusier was in fact the second architect of the city, after the initial master plan was prepared by the American architect-planner Albert Mayer
By far most famous (among backpackers, anyway) is the Rock Garden which we promptly visited. Built by a guy named Nek Chand, who, for many years, quietly beavered away on his concrete and stone project, the garden is a vast collection of sculptures, interesting buildings and other structures, spaced with streams, ponds, waterfalls, and studded with plentiful trees.
In his spare time, Chand began collecting materials from demolition sites around the city. He recycled these materials into his own vision of the divine kingdom of Sukrani, choosing a gorge in a forest near Sukhna Lake for his work. The gorge had been designated as a land conservancy, a forest buffer established in 1902 that nothing could be built on. Chand’s work was illegal, but he was able to hide it for eighteen years before it was discovered by the authorities in 1975. By this time, it had grown into a 12-acre complex of interlinked courtyards, each filled with hundreds of pottery-covered concrete sculptures of dancers, musicians, and animals.
His work was in serious danger of being demolished, but he was able to get public opinion on his side, and in 1976 the park
was inaugurated as a public space. Nek Chand was given a salary, a title of the “Sub-Divisional Engineer, Rock Garden”, and a workforce of 50 labourers so that he could concentrate full-time on his work. It even appeared on an Indian stamp in 1983. The Rock Garden is still made out of recycled materials; and with the government’s help, Chand was able to set up collection centres around the city for waste, especially rags and broken ceramics.
It is a wonderful escape from the noise of the city, and indeed is very popular with locals and visitors alike. We spent the day at the Rock Garden, shot a heap of photos and video, and then retired to our basic hotel room above the long distance bus station, from where we would leave early next day for Shimla.
Part 7: Shimla
Vast numbers of people arrive on the Kalka-Shimla railway, one of the steepest sections of train track in the world which in itself is an adventure. We were not lucky enough to secure tickets for the train (packed with tourists!), so we took a coach, which tracked the railway anyway, so we got all the same views. Interestingly enough, the bus turning on the countless switchbacks ended up giving me the nastiest case of motion sickness and I came very close to losing my breakfast.
After about 5 hours on the bus, we arrived in Shimla. Formerly the summer capital of British India, it is a beautiful spot. Not only is it perched up on a ridge in the foothills of the stunning Himalaya, but the tattered colonial buildings, the churches, and the busy streets filled with domestic tourists give it a feel like no other. Everywhere you look, the terraced hillsides look like multiple layers of a giant birthday cake covered in houses, several candle-like church spires sticking out of the icing of roads and squares, and the whole lot liberally sprinkled with a good mix of people and monkeys.
We hiked about through the urban maze looking for a guesthouse, but it was not easy to find one. The cheap ones were filled, and the good ones were priced a bit out of our grotty budgets. Eventually we found our way to the YMCA building on the edge of the “downtown”, and in it discovered one of the most charming guesthouses ever. Tattered, paint chips falling off the walls, made of squeaky flooring held together by similarly squeaky piping, the guesthouse was half as old as history itself, but cosy, warm and with some phenomenal views.
The town has plenty of good restaurants, most notably (for me) “Subway” where I immediately filled up on meatball subs and choco-chip cookies. Hiking about can be a bit straining for someone who has been regularly dodging fitness, as the
different levels of the town are reached by a multitude of steps. In fact, it is common to see older visitors experience some near-coronary events midway on these steps. So stay fit, people!
One day we ventured up to the “Monkey Temple” atop the ridge. While there is a whole elaborate story about the temple, the tourists concentrate on the monkeys which are cheeky and WILL run off with your camera or sunglasses, so watch yourself. I personally recommend a big stick, preferably with a nail in it. Holy monkeys my ass!!!!
We stuck about for a few, enjoyed the surroundings, and it was especially interesting to see what Indians do on their vacations. What was NOT interesting, on the other hand, was the fact that our Vodaphone mobiles spontaneously decided to not work in Shimla, despite full coverage by the company. No one seemed able to sort this out, and so we paid for a non-existent mobile service which apparently was in “receive-only” mode as it still got the shitty adverts and promotions sent to us by Vodaphone. Not cool.. Not cool at all…
Part 8: Manali
From Shimla we took a wonderful 10 hour bus to Manali. These buses are a great way to see the land, but also a great way to get sick, and plenty of people do. The sides of Indian buses are covered with multicoloured streaks of vomit, the angle of which indicates if it was a fast or a slow service. Check out the photo Derek snapped during a bathroom stop…
When we loaded on the bus, an annoying man demanded a 10 rupee payment for loading our bags on the roof, even though we loaded them ourselves. Naturally, being sensitive and caring people, we told him to fuck off, and he did. In the mornings, both mine and Derek’s blood sugar is quite low, and it is a bad time to try to scam us, lest you end up with your femur ripped out of your thigh and firmly placed through your skull…
The ride was an adventure, as the driver was suicidal and/or unable to grasp the concept of “not passing on blind turns”. Seriously, while this is not the steepest and scariest rode in the world (there are faaaaar worse ones in Bolivia and Nepal), the driver tried his best to fuck us up. Frankly, I have not seen driving as shitty as his in a very long time. This went on for a few hours, until we switched buses in some dinky town, and then beelined for Manali in an even more rickety unit.
Set just under the Indian Himalaya, Manali is one of the main pilgrimage sites for western backpackers in the Subcontinent. It is a beautiful place renowned for clean air, calm atmosphere, spectacular views and plenty of relaxation. Unfortunately, some people push the relaxation to the next level with the aid of Manali’s famous export: THC.
The place usually crawls with stoners looking for their fix of marijuana or hashish, but they don’t necessarily sep there: anything you want you can buy here, as money talks, and it talks quite loud. Even though we arrived in early spring and the temperatures were too low for stoner comfort, there still were a few visible on the streets, most notably a ginger husk of a human being that, according to locals, has been there for almost 6 months, smoking up and talking shit. What a life.
On a bitchy note, I have to say (yet again) that stoners piss me off… Dear stoners… Do you REALLY have to fly 12 timezones away to an amazing land filled to the tits with culture and history, and the proceed to intoxicate yourself, learn nothing, see nothing, and do nothing?… Correction, it’s not “do nothing” because your presence there, combined with your inability to think, raises prices and causes every drug dealer in the country to approach me trying to sell me your dogshit lifestyle…
While a lot, probably MOST backpackers in India engage in some drug use, I think it horrible on several levels. Health stuff like brain damage and lung cancer aside, these people very often end up passing out at random locations, only to wake up with their wallet, camera, and/or passport stolen, thus fucking up their own and their friends’ vacations (if you lose your passport in India, there will be approximately 1 month of running around to gather your paperwork before you get the new one issued at your embassy, and fun it is not). Some end up in big trouble with the law, or rather with law enforcement officials: an Indian policeman makes peanuts of a salary, which means if there is an opportunity to augment it with some baksheesh from some man-child on their first trip, they very much will take it. Some actively arrange the situation, as they are in cahoots with the drug dealer who sells at an extremely attractive price (“just can’t say no to that!”), but the profit is not in the sale, rather in the $2000 bribe quickly handed over in order to keep themselves out of jail. Indian justice system (well, ALL systems, really) are choked with bureaucracy, and it may be a year before you even see a judge. The jails are not known for their comfort, so, invariably, everyone who CAN pay, PAYS. Not smart.
Anyways, obviously I got stuck on a thought here for a bit… Manali is a wonderful spot, and there is plenty of beautiful hiking, rafting, paragliding and whatnot to be done here. My problem is that as a person who does not indulge in any of the previously mentioned substances, their use instantly sticks out in my mind and I cannot miss them, hence the seething, obsessive hate…
We stuck around for a few days, did some walking in the hills and filled up on pies and other random treats, enjoyed our awesome and wonderfully cozy accommodation, and then got out. Our original plan was to continue north deeper into the Himalaya towards Leh, but we were fed some very bad info about the road (courtesy of a turd backpacker whom we met on a train a few days earlier, and who turned out to not know shit about India, but spread it like the Lonely Planet…). The only road to Leh turned out to be snowed in and firmly shut for another couple of months, and the only way in was on a not-inexpensive flight. Rather than ruin ourselves, we turned around and headed to another place.
Part 9: McLeod Ganj
Perched at an average elevation of 2,082 metres above the sea level, McLeod Ganj is a beautiful hill station in Himachal Pradesh. It is known as “Little Lhasa” as the Tibetan Government in Exile has been headquartered there since 1959. As such, it is also home to thousands of Tibetan refugees who reside here as well as in the larger city of Dharamshala few hundred metres below. Naturally, as a place full of Tibetan refugees, it quickly turned into a backpacker mecca, full of hippies and flower children who run amok from one yoga session to the next, hoping at some point in between to score some weed and an audience with the Dalai Lama.
Before we could make it to this heaven on earth place filled with good karma and even-better charas (Hindi word for hashish), we first had to embark on a stressful and dangerous journey on the highways of Himachal Pradesh. Drivers in this part of the world seem to be not at all troubled by the very close proximity of death, and instead of reducing their chances of prematurely departing this world with a skilled use of brake, they simply let go of the steering wheel and do some sort of retarded prayer while the vehicle whizzes past a roadside temple or shrine. The opposite of clever.
We got into McLeod Ganj in the evening, and just managed to find what looked like a half-decent hotel. In the morning, while the views were spanktastic, the facilities turned out to be constructed by retards: hot water connected to the toilet (WHY!?!?) and shower (impossible to use without 2nd degree burns) made us get out and look for a new place. After a few hours of digging around, we found a cozy, clean place with satellite TV, hot shower, and awesome views, all for a tiny 500 rupees. For extra 50 rups we got a portable heater in the room, which was a good choice as I ended up getting a one-day cold/flu type thing and would be quite miserable without it.
Exploring the town is a pleasant enough experience. There is one main road snaking its way up the hill and everything is laid out along it. Couple smaller roads bisect the main strip, and at one point, it all comes together into a “town square” of sorts where dozens of vans and buses do their thing, tourists run about with their cameras clicking, and where all vendors seem to congregate. Few hundred metres down from the square is the most important Buddhist site in town, the Tsuglagkhang, the Dalai Lama’s temple.
In March 1959, Tensin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama, fled to India after a failed uprising in Tibet agains the Communist Party of China. The Indian Government offered him refuge in Dharamshala, where he set up the Government of Tibet in Exile in 1960, while McLeod Ganj became his official residence, and also home to several Buddhist monasteries and thousands of Tibetan Refugees. Over the years, McLeod Ganj evolved into an important tourist and pilgrimage destination, and has since grown much in population.
As a result, tourism is an important industry in McLeod Ganj, but many people also come here to study Tibetan Buddhism, culture, and crafts. The town is known for Tibetan handicrafts, Tibetan carpets, garments and other souvenirs, but, as I previously mentioned, in backpacker circles it seems to be most renowned for the easy availability of weed. You smell it everywhere, you see it everywhere, and every other cafe has some sort of rasta theme, with pictures of Bob Marley alongside those of Dalai Lama, and either Tibetan chants or reggae music pouring out of the speakers. Plenty of confused whities roam the streets, either posing as monks (heads shaved, long, robey clothes), or, in one case, an unkempt, unshaven individual doing his rounds in a full Tibetan monk getup. It seems like the whole town, locals and tourists alike, are totally brainwashed into celebrating Buddhism as if it had any more merit than Harrypotterology. Sheep.
I don’t want to repeat my stance on Tibet independence and theocracy, you can CLICK HERE FOR MY TIBET RANT / PAGE ON FACEBOOK. At this point I will only say that while the surroundings are pleasant, the hype surrounding the whole Tibetan Buddhist establishment and the Dalai Lama is, for me, anyway, annoying and nauseating. Aside of that, if you are a more mellow individual than I am (and odds are that you are, because I freely admit that I have a particularly big stick up my ass when it comes to religious and hippie shit), you will love McLeod Ganj. In fact, my first visit there in 2005 was a fantastic experience with great friends, wonderful food, and beautiful, relaxed time in the mountains.
Part 10: Amritsar
From McLeod Ganj we took a rickety bus to Pathankot, where we switched to another, even more rickety bus, which took us to Amritsar. While most of the parts on the bus were broken or about to break, the horn was completely intact and in excellent working condition, which the driver was determined to test at every opportunity – meaning every 3 seconds. Thankfully I had a big bag of earplugs which I immediately proceeded to jam into my skull, thus making the experience bearable. We rolled into town, which turned out to be even more noisy than our hell bus, and after a few hours of searching, checked into a disappointing dungeon-like hotel room. We paid MORE (100 rupees) for a lot LESS, as we ended up getting a damp, windowless shithole of a hotel with no hot water and only a broken toilet. Aaaaaah… India… ever the surprise…
The reason for the sudden difference in the quality of accommodation is the fact that Amritsar is home to the Golden Temple, the Holiest of Holies of Sikhism. As a result, year round it is overrun with pilgrims who need to be housed somewhere and are driving the prices up while simultaneously driving the quality way down. However, shitty accommodation is an OK price to pay for a visit to Amritsar, as the temple is a truly wonderful place, and it feels like it is thousands of miles away from the noise of the city.
Set in a gated compound hundreds of metres across, the Harmandir Sahib (referred to as the Golden Temple in the western media) is the spiritual and cultural center for the Sikh religion. It attracts more than 100,000 visitors on weekdays alone (more than the Taj Mahal) and is the most popular destination for Non-resident Indians in the whole of India.
Before entering, everyone has to cover their hair and wash their feet. Once inside, Sikhs are allowed to take a ritual bath in the holy lake, while foreigners are only allowed to look. In one corner of the compound thousands of free meals are served to the pilgrims (and tourists), while in the heart of the place, in the middle of the lake, is the famed Golden Temple. Inside the temple is found the holy scripture of sikhism,
attended to by dozens of people fanning, praying, and doing other holy stuff. The atmosphere is quite elated, and while I couldn’t care less about the religious significance of it all, the people are very friendly and respectful of everyone (or at least they were that day). We visited the temple twice – once at daytime to see the full-blown activity, and then a second time after sunset, when the temple was glistening in the floodlights reflecting off the gold-leaf walls. Beautiful stuff.
Part 11: Agra
From Amritsar we moved on a sleeper train to Agra, home of the famous Taj Mahal. The train was hugely delayed because of some sort of derailment, but we made the best of it while waiting at the Amritsar train station by chatting with a middle-aged Brit who was traveling in India on some sort of business and had developed one of the most jaded and nasty attitudes about India and all things Indian that there was no choice but to listen, laugh, and enjoy.
After getting to Agra at about noon, we spent a few minutes trying to round up some accommodation. Eventually we settled into some lodge, a decent enough place with “a view of the Taj”. Naturally, that view was only available from a specific point in the room, but we didn’t care, as we needed a place to crash. Located in the Taj Ganj, which is just a skip and a hop away from the Taj Mahal itself, the guesthouse was in the middle of the backpacker centre of Agra. There were heaps of coffee shops, hostels, restaurants, juice bars, variety stores, internet cafes and other places frequented by the backpack-laden hordes. We didn’t spend much time there and instead headed to the Taj.
As with any national landmark, where there are tourists, there are vendors and touts. I decided to film the circus around the Taj because it really is fun to see the kind of shit that goes on there. Everyone is hell-bent on selling kitschy souvenirs, tattered postcards seemingly printed 3 decades earlier, and useless, non-related items like whips and Ganesh statues. All the vendors come at you like zee Germans coming into Poland, from everywhere and all at once, but really there is no need to get agitated and we simply repeated the mantra “no, thank you” over and over again… Interestingly, captured in the video, at one point a rickshaw driver tried to talk us out of going into the Taj (“nothing to see there and expensive”), and instead going on a pedicab tour with him. Surprisingly enough, many people WOULD fall for it, “because locals know best”. Unfortunately, these types don’t give a flying monkey’s ass about whether or not you get to see the Taj and if you enjoy yourself or not. Their only mission is to deflect some of your rupees into their own pockets. That’s all. A friend of mine flew all the way to India from the UK, made her way to the Taj, only to be deflected this way, and after having spent the whole day in Agra, NEVER GOT TO SEE THE DAMN TAJ! Holy shit! It happens everyday, but my question is: Have you got no filters? Don’t you remember why you came to Agra? Why would someone go all the way there and then follow some two-rupee rickshaw puller’s advice?
We went into the Taj and it was magnificent. It was actually my 3rd time there, and it never ceases to impress me. The pristine environment, the calm, the dignity of the buildings, all combine into a beautiful experience for every visitor. Some bitch about the steep price of admission (750 rupees for foreigners, 30 for Indians), but fuck it: if you made it all the way there on a $2000.00 air ticket, why would $17.50 stop you now? AND it is quite evident that the money is indeed well used as the entire compound is spotless and truly inspiring.
Built between 1632 and 1653, the complex is most famous for the domed marble mausoleum of Mumtaz Mahal, Mughal emperor Shah Jahan’s wife. The glistening 42 metre high structure is visible from miles away, and is flanked by 4 minarets, each 40 metres tall. Wonderful from the distance, the detail is stunning up close, as it is absolutely saturated with inlaid semi-precious stones which form all kinds of designs and calligraphy.
After orbiting the exterior of the Taj, we went inside which was full of people filming and taking photos, despite the signage stating that it was prohibited, and so we partook in the fun. Almost all guides were demonstrating the echoey properties of the interior with their shouts, and, once again, we decided to help out. When in Rome…
Behind the mausoleum, one gets a spectacular view of the Yamuna River which flows behind. There, we were treated to one of the multitude of “India Experiences”: a dead body had washed up in a shallow area, and a hungry dog was tugging at its fingers, trying to get a bit of a snack. I immediately begun to film the spectacle, and soon enough, all the tourists were looking at it. Eventually, after a few minutes, the police showed up in a paddle boat, but only to push the body downstream in order to stop the shocker… Very interesting indeed…
Next day we went bumming around town, spent about 3 hours trying to find a bank to change some traveler’s cheques (failed), and then hiked along the Yamuna for some backside photography of the Taj. Off the beaten path, the backside of the Taj is truly a photographer’s orgy, but it also puts you in a close proximity with the Yamuna which is not at all pristine… But if you can brave the trash and the shit, it may be a rewarding expedition.
Part 12: Jaipur
About 5 hours away from Agra is the “Pink City” of Jodhpur. Vast majority of buildings in the city are pink hued, a stunning sight from the distance, especially from the nearby hillsides – why exactly “pink” was the choice is not known to me, but a variety of bullshit legends are available on tap, and as such, I will not mention any of them here. One way or another: the city is pink, it’s pretty, take a photo.
Built in early 1700’s, Jaipur was a planned city, and its architecture very advanced. At a time when the rulers of neighbouring kingdoms were busy fighting each other, the ruling family of Jaipur used their excellent diplomatic skills which spared them the expense of war, thus enabling the city to grow. A number of famous monuments has been built, and we visited several of these. Thus we ended up at the Hawa Mahal palace (or remnants of it), the Jantar Mantar observatory, and the Jaigarh Fort.
The Hawa Mahal was essentially a harem, and currently is famous for its unique 5 storey exterior which has 953 tiny windows which allowed the ladies of the court to look out without being seen by the people outside, as per purdah, the practice of preventing women from being seen by men (other than the one shagging and paying for them, because don’t kid yourself, these laws are all about turning the women into a commodity). Formerly the palace was a splendid piece of architecture, but despite a pricey renovation program which commenced in 2005, the interior of the Hawa Mahal still has a long way to go, with people trashing it and spitting/pissing all over the place…
The Jantar Mantar observatory is a collection of architectural astronomical instruments, built by Maharaja Jai Sing II between 1727 and 1734. He had constructed a total of five such facilities at different locations, but today the Jaipur observatory is the largest and best preserved of these.The observatory consists of fourteen major geometric devices for measuring time, predicting eclipses, tracking stars’ location as the earth orbits around the sun, ascertaining the declinations of planets, and determining the celestial altitudes and related ephemerides. Each is a fixed and ‘focused’ tool. The Samrat Yantra, the largest instrument, is 90 feet (27 m) high, its shadow carefully plotted to tell the time of day. Its face is angled at 27 degrees, the latitude of Jaipur.
While all this awesome stuff was available inside the observatory, just outside dozens of urchins were waiting for dumbassed foreigners who needed to be scammed. We were approached by a duo of scummy bastards who spent their afternoon driving in an empty cart trying to get into people’s photos, and then demand payment. Naturally, they did that to us, but we didn’t pay out, only dished out some abuse.
Last stop for the day was at the Amer Fort, sometimes spelled Amber Fort. Located on a hill some 11km from Jaipur, this is one of the principal tourist attractions in Rajasthan. The huge fort dates back to the 11th century, although currently it demonstrates mostly its Rajput-era architecture. It is a spectacular place which, at the time of our visit, was totally open for exploration by visitors, and so I snooped about, Indiana Jones style, through just about every passage, room, and tunnel, often getting hopelessly lost in the maze.
Part 13: Jodhpur
After taking an evening train we got into Jodhpur at about 11PM and immediately checked into a comfy and cozy hotel near the train station. In the morning, we enjoyed our breakfast at the hotel’s rooftop restaurant with an amazing view of the Mehrangarh Fort. The plan was to visit the fort, then bum around town for the rest of the day, and then next day head to Bikaner, a few hours train journey north of Jodhpur. This automatically meant an adventure at the railway ticket booking office, where we were initially unsuccessful, but then after some running about and filling out dozens of forms, we managed to secure two tix. That done, we headed to the fort.
Perched atop a hill, some 122 metres above the city and enclosed by massive walls, the Mehrangarh Fort is the awesomest fort in India, and pretty much one of the best in the world. Wonderfully preserved, in addition to the superb museum and an even better audio tour, the fort offers a magical view of Jodhpur. From the height of the ancient fort walls, you can see why Jodhpur is called “the Blue City” – as far as you can see the buildings are painted light blue colour, creating a stunning view. Inside the fort you quickly get lost in a maze of museums and period rooms, all connected by numerous corridors and passages, and it quickly becomes evident that you could spend a week exploring the place, not the few measly hours allocated to each visitor.
After the fort adventures, we explored the city. It is a busy and noisy place, home to well over 3 million people. But, interestingly enough, it is easy to get lost in the network of tight alleyways which are surprisingly quiet and more village like. Each street is like a department of a large store, and so they specialize in different wares sold there: there are fabric streets, food streets, pottery, silk, shoe, pots and pans, and so on. We ended up going to the “turban street” to purchase some headgear for the upcoming heat of the desert.
Part 14: Bikaner
The train to Bikaner seemingly took forever, but there is a good amount of magic in the never-ending desert bisected by the train tracks. I monkeyed around with my camera until, via a mix of lying, cheating and scheming, I managed to finagle my way into the train engine for a few hours of filming and monkey business. When we finally rolled into Bikaner, it became clear that accommodation options were fiercely more limited than elsewhere, as this place is not as firmly installed on the backpacker pancake trail as other spots in Rajasthan. We managed to find a tattered and somewhat cramped place, and then went into the city.
Bikaner is the 4th largest city in Rajasthan, and is home to a number of interesting forts, palaces and temples. We spent most of the afternoon at the Junagarh Fort which is a spectacular place dating back to the16th century. While the fort doesn’t oaredoffer anywhere near the awesomeness of the views of the Mehrangarh Fort, it is loaded to the tits with interesting museal displays, most notably the phenomenally large armoury collection, which can entertain for a long time. We snooped around for a few hours, and then headed back into the city for some more exploration, although it quickly got tiring given the extreme heat (well over 40 degrees Celcius) as well as the extraordinary amount of city noise.
The second day in Bikaner was our big adventure at the Karni Mata temple, which is probably the only reason for most of the backpackers visiting this dusty and remote place. Mostly known as “The Rat Temple” by foreigners, the Karni Mata temple is located some 30km away from Bikaner in a town of Deshnoke. According to an Indian legend, Karni Mata, a 14th century mystic and an incarnation of Hindu goddess Durga, implored Yama , the god of death, to restore the life of the son of one of her storytellers. Yama refused, and Karni Mata reincarnated the dead son and all other deceased storytellers as rats, under her protection. Today the temple is a pilgrimage site and thousands of people from all over India make the journey in order to get whatever randomly awesome benefits they are promised… Apparently, you get a bonus shot of good karma if, out of the thousands of brown rats you spot one of the four or five white rats, as those are considered “especially auspicious”. If a rat gets stepped on and killed, it has to be replaced by one made of solid gold, so beware…
Part 15: Jaisalmer
From Bikaner a night train took us to Jaisalmer, an outpost deep in the That Desert on the Pakistani border. It is important to choose your train compartment carefully on this stretch of the journey, because if you cannot cope with the expense of the A/C car, you will have to put up with insane amounts of dust deposited all over you in the regular sleeper car. I had grit in my eyes, ears, mouth, nose, and in between every fibre of my dreadlocks… Gross and irritating, and I immediately jumped into a shower when we finally found a room in a guesthouse at the Jaisalmer Fort.
The Fort, proudly standing above the honey-coloured town and the fiercely desiccated desert below, is unique in the way that it is a “living fort” – it is not a museum, but rather home to hundreds of families. While there is some negative environmental impact on all the people living in the fort, it is an amazing place and even the shortest of visits immediately throws you back to the 14th century India: cows roaming in the tight alleyways, vendors shouting about their awesome wares, goats bleating, kids screaming, and so on.
Our room had a wonderful view of the eastern side of the city, and the rooftop chill out area provided 360 degree views and possibly the world’s best place to unwind, enjoy a pancake and a Coke, served over a sunset… Nearby restaurants served plenty of yummy stuff like cakes and pies, and just a few minutes away was one of the neatest thali restaurants I have ever seen in India. For as little as 20-30-40 rupees you could fill up on a variety of thalis (Bengali, Rajasthani, Gujarati, and more), with free refills of everything – and that was precisely what we did. We filled up like idiots, only to digest and go back for more the very next day.
We staid in the city a few days as we were enjoying the environs and we were meeting Ingunn, Siri, and Ida, three of my backpacking friends whom I previously traveled with in South America and Thailand. The Norwegians were doing their own adventure-of-a-lifetime through India, and we decided to meet up and share some fun times. When they got into Jaisalmer, we romped about some more and then made arrangements for a desert trip.
Part 16 and 17: Camel trekking in the That Desert
Some people elect to “do” the desert via an evening trip to the nearest sand dunes just outside of Jaisalmer, but that is seldom a solitary experience as just about every other tourist will do the same, quickly followed by random vendors. Others elect to head out deeper into the desert.
Figuring hugely on the backpacker circuit through Rajasthan are the various camel safaris. While most tourist camel experiences around the world tend to be ripoffs where you sit on a camel for 30 minutes, walk around in a circle and have 100 megabytes of photos taken, the Rajasthan experience is a wonderful must do. Priced at about 300-400 rupees per person per day, the all inclusive trip is a great way to give yourself a break from the noise and craziness of India. Obviously the lower-priced excursions will provide less comforts, but by the time you spend 500 rupees (nothing for a westerner and a small fortune for an Indian camel man), you have a guide who cooks 3 meals a day, all the snacks and water you may need, and nothing to worry about as these guys know what they are doing.
A lot of visitors do a short overnight trip, but I find that this is too brief and you never actually lose sight of civilization. The best doses of camel trekking are 2 or 3 nighters, when you really feel like you left the world behind and it is only you, your friends, the camels, and their owners. I even met an American traveler who loved the try so much, he came back after a 4 day trip and immediately set out again for 7 DAYS!
Getting up on a camel is an experience in itself, as the animal goes through some interesting motions in order to get to the “cruise” altitude. Once at the top, some people complain about the alignment of their legs and the bumpy motion, but this is nothing that cannot be fixed with some padding, and there is never a shortage of blankets. The only danger is that posed to your camera: countless Nikons, Canons and Sonys are smashed (or lost) when tourists drop them from the top. Use your straps!
The journey usually follows this simple recipe: 7-8 AM breakfast (chai, butter toast, fried eggs, with sides of jam, honey, and maybe some fruit), camel ride until about 11AM when the heat of the day starts getting unbearable, lunch stop (some sort of sorry with potatoes, and cauliflower) and a nap. By 2PM it is camels again till about 4 or 5 when the final camping spot is chosen somewhere in the sand dunes.
The tourists usually go nuts on the dunes then, while the camel drivers prepare the dinner. A natural must-do is climbing to the top of the highest dune and watching the sunset. But this is also good time for reading, introspection, or molesting your girlfriend.
The adventure is not over at sundown, in fact, a whole new one starts. The starry Rajasthan skies are a glorious light show and you can easily spend several hour under the blanket looking up at the glowing sky. Of course, there are interruptions, most notably (and distressingly to girls) the thousands of dung beetles that seem to emerge as soon as the air cools down a little bit. So don’t b surprised if you get woken up in the middle of the night by the annoying, but totally harmless, scratching of a confused poo-roller.
Part 18: Pushkar
Much like Manali, Pushkar figures very high on the backpacker circuit, especially for the travellers whose idea of “great backpacking” is in spending multiple weeks in the confines of their cheap hotel room which is consistently filled with hash smoke and the sound of Bob Marley, with occasional breaks to make it to the rooftop cafe in order to have a banana-chocolate pancake and possibly replenish their hash supply. Ok, clearly I am exaggerating, not every visitor to Pushkar is a hash head, but plenty are and those tend to stick out the most.
Located 14 km northwest of the city of Ajmer, at an average elevation of 510 metres above sea level, Pushkar is one of the five “dams” (pilgrimage sites) for devout Hindus. Commonly referred to as “Tirth Raj” – or “The King of Pilgrimage Sites” it is a very important place as Hindus believe that blah blah blah religious crap that is incoherent blah blah blah lotus flower blah blah blah Lord Brahma performed penance for 60,000 years (which is bullshit because we all know the world is only 6000 years old) blah blah blah thy built a temple and worshipped him ever since.
Popular with Indians as well as foreigners (though for different reasons that I mentioned already) Pushkar is a micro-bonanza for local entrepreneurs of all types who cash in on the visitors. It seems like a lot of people check their brains in upon arrival and roll with whatever religious shit is pushed their way. Thus, a lot of pseudo-saddhus, bogus Babas and other faux holy men peddle their shit, especially at the Pushkar Lake, the focal point of the religious observances in town. A popular scam involves accosting unsuspecting visitors and telling them that they have to participate in a prayer service where they obtain some blessings and a “Pushkar Passport” which is a piece of string tied to their wrist which signifies that they have been blessed and inducted into this esoteric society of Pushkar visitors. In reality, the baba babbles on about bullshit, the words of prayer most likely being the ingredients list from a jar of strawberry jam, and then ties 5 paisa worth of twine around the flower-child’s wrist. The conclusion of this wonderful meeting of cultures is a payment, ranging from a few hundred to a few thousand rupees. After being a monkey for a few minutes, I got my “Pushkar Passport” for one rupee (and only because I wanted to get it on video) while my friend Sandy got ripped off for a 1000 rups. It truly pains me to see people fall for this shit, but most are willing to participate in this as it offers them some sort of contact with the “mystical India” which, to me, is mostly composed of con-men and weasels and is completely disposable.
Anywho. We spent a few days in Pushkar, which was in the middle of the all-Rajasthan heat wave and mostly deserted. The place fills BIG TIME with tourists in late fall when the Pushkar Camel Fair is on, and that is a spectacle to experience! Thousnads of people pour in with their prize camels which are to be sold, bought, transferred and what not. There are camel races, all kinds of circus acts, and all the associated fun and drama. I have seen it before, but unfortunately this was well before my filming days, so I will need to return and share this another day…
In the meanwhile, Pushkar revealed its more nasty side as the urchins, starved for victims, seemed to be attracted to me like flies to shit. I managed to film several interesting interactions which although not truly representative of India as a whole, are quite representative of the tourist/urchin interaction on the raw streets of India.
Part 19: Udaipur
In HUGE contract to Pushkar, Udaipur carries itself with a high degree of culture and class, and is a wonderful place to unwind without the hash. Naturally, a lot of people still bring their hash supply here, but most of the time the city is visited by an entirely different demographic. Most famous for its Lake Palace (seen in the 007 movie “Octopussy”), Udaipur is an ideal destination for newlyweds, honey-soaked couples, and people who do not wish to purchase twine for hundreds of rupees per inch. Loaded tot he tits with palaces, museums, temples and other nice stuff, the city is pleasant to walk about, as just about every other house is elaborately painted, creating a stunning effect for anyone taking a stroll. I’m having a difficult time writing about this, so just watch the damn video…
For our gang of 5 (actually, 6, as now we were joined by Danny,
a New Yorker whom we met in Pushkar) used this as a mental health break as we managed to get into a top-notch hotel (by backpacker, not absolute, standards) which had awesome A/C, Sat TV, beautiful bathrooms with hot water, and wonderfully clean interior with most comfy beds we had in weeks. The mandatory rooftop cafe offered magical views of the lake, sunsets, and at night, aerial stunts performed by hundreds of fruit bats, illuminated by the gentle glow of the city.
We spent a few days, hiked about, ate everything, partied, and chilled, and then moved on.
Part 20: Mt. Abu, Ahmedabad, and Diu
We said goodbye to the friends and took a long bus ride to Mt. Abu. While the sleeper bus was not the most comfortable in the world (we didn’t get the sleeper compartment but only some seats in the noisy and crowded back), the views, once again, were stunners. The 10 hour journey took us through some fantastic mountain ranges, expansive desert, lush valleys, and dusty cities. We got into Mt. Abu in mid afternoon, found a tattered room in some no-name lodge, and went digging around town.
Rajasthan’s only hill station, Mt. Abu is quite chilly at night, which was a welcome change from the sweltering heat of the lowlands, but the biggest reason for our visit were the Dilwara Temples, a marble complex carved by Jains several hundred years ago. Vieo cameras are prohibited inside, but Derek brought his Nokia camera-phone and so we managed to sneak a good collection of photos from the interior. The detail of the carvings is mind-boggling and it is a definite must-see for any visitor to Rajasthan, easily worth the detour and potentially uncomfortable bus journey.
Next day we headed to Ahmedabad, which, in itself, had nothing much of interest other than an Acer service centre that I had to visit as my laptop killed itself a few weeks earlier, making it impossible for me to edit video. We found a quarter-decent hotel not too far from the railway station, upon which Derek proceeded to get violently ill (second time in India!) and not doing much with himself for the day. While waiting for the laptop to get fixed, we spent time hiding in the hotel, watching TV and pondering the horrible life people lead in this city.
After two days in Ahmedabad we jumped on a sleeper train to Diu. The train didn’t actually take us to Diu but to a “nearby town” from where we took a 2 hour bus to the quaint town. Formerly a Portuguese colony, Diu is full of churches, european-style architecture, and, most importantly, Portuguese style calm, which is quite eerie and unexpected in India. For foodies, Diu offers heaps of Portuguese-influenced dishes, and being on the coast, seafood is dirt cheap and a shame not to indulge in. The multitude of churches are interesting enough to explore, but most interesting of it all, for me anyway, is the Diu fort, a huge complex built by the colonists, and totally open to visitors to explore. A maze of passages, both above and underground, we lost ourselves in this place for a few hours, sort of the usual thing to do in forts I guess… We were lucky as there were hardly any visitors, and, more importantly, hardly any barriers or doors. We literally walked into anything we wanted to walk into, which was ace!
Part 21 and 22: Mumbai
Mumbai, formerly Bombay, is the fourth most populous city in the world, and at 12 million people, the most populous city in India. The whole metropolitan area is home to over 20 million people, and as such, it is a busy place. Being the richest city in India, it also has the highest GDP of any city in South, West or Central Asia. However, as you can imagine, this wealth is nowhere near the wealth distribution in the west, and while it is not unusual to spot a Hummer H2 rolling down a street, it is also not entirely unusual to spot a child with no limbs begging for food somewhere in that same spot.
We arrived at one of the seeming multitude of railway stations that are scattered all throughout the place, and it quickly became a lesson that just because you “have arrived” it doesn’t necessarily mean you are don’t with travel for the day, as some far-flung station are as far as a 500 rupee taxi ride from the city centre. Also, there are several “city centres”, and so you better do your research and prepare for some confusion. We aimed for the Colaba, the slightly tattered part of Mumbai where most backpackers end up staying while visiting the city.
We checked into the Salvation Army hotel, which, at 600 rupees per night, was far from budget accommodation as far as India prices go, but as far as Mumbai goes, was the bottom of the barrel, both price wise and quality wise. We moved into a shitty dorm room that looked like the last time anyone cleaned it was shortly before the Brits left in 1947. After a few nights there we were moved to a double room which was a step down as far as comfort goes, on the account of the horrific bedbug infestation. Derek managed to get some sleep, but I was itchy all over the place and eventually lost my shit and demanded to be moved to another room. In the morning we threw a tantrum, got our money back, and moved to a hotel down the street which while a tad more pricey, allowed us to sleep without the itchy bites.
Our time in Mumbai was spent on moseying around, eating, resting, taking photos, hanging out with Jen and her friends (we reconnected in Mumbai for a few days), and sorting out some Thailand visas as that was going to be our next step in the journey after India. The highlights included a totally unexpected invite to a wedding party which was a load of new adventures: not only did we, the whities, not know WTF was going on, but the bride and groom also seemed bewildered by the whole experience and relatively clueless.
Only the extended family members and some other riffraff which was most likely not even invited in the first place seemed to have a jolly good time… In the end we didn’t care and enjoyed a good dance, a good shout and, in Derek’s case, some good bevies, all free of charge. In fact, not only was everything free of charge, but we were also given stacks of cash (actual indian rupees) to “feed the band” so they keep playing. Good fun!
We clocked a shitload of miles on foot, often ending up in “middle-of-nowhere-no-idea-where-we-are” sort of places, but each time we were pleasantly surprised with some new sights and experiences. Such was the tour of a semi-slum on the west side of the city. Occupied by dhobi wallahs, entire families who specialize in doing other people’s laundry, the place was a maze of tight alleys and even tighter houses, but everyone was very welcoming and friendly and we were free to roam unharassed. Another day we got a good tour of the “Thieves Market” – a flea market of sorts, where you essentially shop for other people’s trash. In a country where 300 million people survive on about $1 a day, there is plenty of market for second hand goods and heaps of it was visible that day.
A nice culinary discovery, for me, was a Dunkin Donuts shop tucked away somewhere in the embassy district (across from the U.S. embassy!), as well as another of Subway restaurants. As far as local cuisine goes, a great place we visited on multiple occasions was Gokul Restaurant, kitty-corner from Leopold’s Cafe (a famous foreigner hangout). Gokul serves LEGENDARY fried fish which goes down awesomely with garlic naan and curry dip. Yum and slurp!
Part 23: Calcutta
We flew right across India to the urban sprawl of Kolkata, formerly Calcutta. While it seems stupid to move like that right across the land, especially that we were already very close when in Varanasi, but we decided that Kolkata would be our exit point given the cheap flights to Bangkok. In contrast to the very Indian airport where we got momentarily trapped in a bathroom because some genius put the door handle on the wrong side of the door, the downtown area is as colonial style as it gets. Old multi-storied brick buildings, old and tattered signage, and greenery everywhere. Immediately noticeable were the rickety electric trams plying the streets, and between them the similarly rickety yellow “Ambassador” taxis, as opposed to the black “Senator” taxis of Mumbai.
Once again, the two of us checked into some nameless guesthouse in the backpacker ghetto in the centre of the city, and began exploring. Most stunning was the tremendous amount of green space, right in smack middle of the city, complete with sheep and horses grazing on the lush, green Bengal grass. After crossing what seemed like some teleported ranch from Texas we got to the Victoria Memorial. Built between 1906 and 1921, this was an outrageously pricey project whose only purpose was sucking up to the British crown. A particularly annoying thing was that the totally unnecessary building was put up in Calcutta, which for a very long time was the centre of Indian poverty and a big empty marble building was just about the last thing it needed.
We did some dicking around town, hiked another million miles, filmed all kinds of street scenes of poverty, and otherwise killed our time before our flight to Thailand.
Part 24: The Finale
This final episode of the Backpacking India series was a way of encapsulating the whole experience. Once I started working on it, it became evident that India HUGELY resists encapsulation, and really, she is what she wants to be, and she tells everyone a different story. In the end, it really is up to you, the viewer, to get a passport, a backpack, and maybe a camera and head there and make her tell you whatever the hell she wants to tell you. The final few minutes of the video are made up of a collage of some select photos we managed to gather throughout the journey…
At this point I guess many thanks should be extended to the multitude of friends who participated in this video journey, the other multitude of friendly and surprisingly cooperative locals, as well as the huge number of youtube fans whose viewership makes these projects, while fairly pricey to put together, a true joy and an exciting alternative to having a real job somewhere back home.
So long, and thank you for all the clicks!