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North Western India

Hello once again from this strange place where rats and monkeys are worshiped but the most sacred animal of all the cow is lb for lb surely also the worlds stupidest, after spending some time with them in the desert I definitely think the amazing camels should have a higher profile.

I've spent most of the last few weeks in the wonderful desert state of Rajahstan which along with Goa is probably India's most tourist friendly state. Whilst much of that is down to its proximity to Delhi, despite it's desert setting it's surprisingly colorful and boasts several beautiful colour coded cities. I went to a couple of cities painted blue to show the the inhabitants are Brahmins and they're cracking places to wander round. Many of the houses are built as mansions round courtyards called havelis and the streets are tiny alleyways which all look the same in blue so it's like wandering round mazes.
When I was in Jodhpur they had a kite festival where the entire town goes up to their roofs and start drinking beer and flying kites in the late afternoon. It was like a scene out of the Kite Runner as literally thousands of kites filled the sky and just an amazing slightly old fashioned feeling spectacle. I also saw some Bond pilgrimage sights in Udaipur (Octopussy was filmed there) before I headed onto Jaipur which is painted a distinctive pink as a welcoming color to visitors. It's an extremely atmospheric city flanked by steep hills on 3 sides with imposing forts on top of them. One afternoon I climbed up to one of them when it started to rain; it's been the monsoon season here for the last couple of months and at times it can really get you down.
Often it will start raining mid-morning and just not stop til early evening which means more than a few times whole days have been lost amidst an ongoing battle to keep things dry. The rain that fell when I was in Jaipur didn't seem very strong but wouldn't stop after a couple of hours so I had to descend before it got dark. When I got to the bottom I was shocked to see the city underwater past my knees. It took me 2hrs to wade about 2km and most of it was in the dark as the power had gone out too. It was initially quite fun until I saw a dead floating rat then I started wondering what I was stepping on. All the locals were ecstatic saying it was the best rain they'd had in 5yrs or 8yrs or even 60 yrs as one guy reckoned but all the roads got ripped up so it left loads of potholes and I wasn't surprised to hear a bloke drowned after he got swept down a drain and drowned after his scooter crushed him. Poor lad eh?

Being back in a more touristy area brought back uncomfortable reminders of quite how much you can get hassled in India. Whilst I've learned that you can't have any sort of personal space in public like when drinking a tea or reading in a park; at times in Rajahstan it honestly feels like every single person is trying to invite you into their shop, hotel, restaurant etc with the same crappy "My friend, how are you today?" chat up lines. There's an oversupply of everything: hotels, restaurants etc and with unlimited supply of cheap labor as 'salesmen' seemingly everyone is desperately trying to make a buck off tourists. I long ago perfected how to say no without speaking or looking at them (hand up, fingers outsplayed and wiggle your wrist) but speaking to foreigners who've not been here long Indians don't seem to come across very well. In the words of a German guy I met "This is the sh***iest country I've ever been to. In 2 weeks every conversation I've had with an Indian has involved them asking for money". Whilst that's almost certainly a slight exaggeration I can well believe if you didn't get far off the Golden Triangle (main tourist area around Delhi) you could think 80%+ of Indians are just lying ne'er do wells. The Indian Tourist board recently did a survey of foreign visitors and rather than the beggars or the dirt the hassles from touts was rated overwhelmingly the worst thing about the country for visitors. Whilst I find Indians are overinvasive and often simply irritating I have also found their hearts are for the most parts in the right place too and as in most of the rest of Asia this can be seen in the lack of crime.
Unsurprisingly I often find myself comparing my long trip in South America with the one here. One of the main conversation topics amongst travelers in Latin America is crime and everyone has unpleasant stories they've heard or have had happened to them. To give a couple of personal examples, I spent a few days in Peru with a Swiss girl who got raped 2 weeks later and my sister spent some time with a German girl in Ecuador who was later tragically murdered. In Asia, with the exceptions of a little bit in The Philippines and Vietnam you hear hardly any of these type of stories and without doubt the lack of crime and more importantly the lack of fear of crime has been one of the best things about traveling here for so long. When I get on public transport my hand doesn't instantly cover my pocket, you don't have to constantly keep an eye open on who's around you and I cannot even remember the last time the 'danger sixth sense' kicked in. In the last email I compared Mumbai somewhat to Rio or Jo'burg but walking in Mumbai at 4am felt completely safe whereas a similar experience I had in Sao Paulo was extremely scary. It says a lot of good things about the strength of communities and also the Asian concept of saving face where if you dishonor your family, community etc you'll be disowned.

However, the huge flipside to this is that aside from the period when I worked in Brixton nick I've never been lied to anywhere near as much; if the lack of crime is one of the best things about traveling in Asia then the constant low level dishonesty over money is the worst. India is another Asian country where the first rules of taxi school are: 1. 'Even if they're not showing any interest or are even walking into a building, if you see a foreigner you MUST shout: "Taxi, Taxi. Hey you! hello! hello! you want taxi?" Do this as loudly and as often as possible'. 2. Always start with a price at least twice but preferably three or five times the actual rate. It's not that foreigners are that much likelier to want one, the depressing truth is that they simply think they can rip you off and it's therefore worth the extra effort shouting at you so much. Obviously I've been in India a while and know how much things cost pretty well, therefore it really gets mentally tiring having to constantly argue with people trying to charge you double the right price for things which definitely have a set price like cups of teas and bus tickets rather than handicrafts or things with a disputable value. I've found this immensely hypocritical all over the continent as in virtually every country I've been to they bang on about how religious they are. All religions preach the same 'honesty is good, stealing is bad mantra' so Indonesian officials will have their offices covered in verses from the Koran/posters of Mecca etc but then will point blank refuse to do any work until you've given them extra baksheesh. Similarly I couldn't understand in Buddhist countries how people could almost simultaneously give alms to passing monks then turn round and brazenly lie about the price of something. I constantly find myself cynically thinking where does that leave your karma/slate with Allah etc. In truth Vietnam was the only place where people would actively tell you lies to get you to use their service and whilst it's of course worse in the tourist areas even in places like Bangladesh they would still do it where they'd very likely never served a foreigner before. It perhaps says something about cultural ideas of whats 'wrong' where Europeans get very angry about it but to the locals its not a big deal whereas other types of behavior e.g. wearing shorts or showing any signs of affection to people is frowned upon. In India and Sri Lanka they even have something called the MRP (maximum retail price) printed on products and so when you're only given 20 Rupees back from a 50R note when the price is clearly marked at 25R, it's very hard to keep your temper and I find it can really get you down dealing with it every day. I find I'm just generally a bit bemused at why people would want to live a life involving this constant cycle of minor points scoring and actively trying to deceive people.

In India I think I partly put the hassling down to the 'competition' everyone faces to make a living and what so much of everyday life in the country has become. For many years India had a growing population problem and barring a disastrous attempt at enforced sterilisation during the 1970s successive governments didn't get a hold on the problem, with a conservative mentality of 'No (discussions about) sex please, we're Indian' very much restricting the debate. The family is the key institution in India and as in many places a big family is seen as a positive thing. Whilst this point of view can hardly be criticized and India is a big and bounteous country, it's not that big and whilst population growth is now down to 1.5% the horse has already metaphorically bolted and at well over a billion people the country is without a doubt overpopulated. Whether it be land, food or more frequently and most seriously water, India has reached a stage where near everything has to be fought for and you can see this in various ways in daily life here. On Indian roads for example nobody will ever give way or adopt an 'after you' policy, it's always a race for the space and the loser just has to break hard. Similarly the inhuman scrums which form when they're getting on public transport or the huge numbers of people that die getting electrocuted or falling off the roofs of trains is all over the fact there just isn't enough space for everyone. They also seemed to have 'devolved' to the stage where they're incapable of forming queues; around tickets windows or stalls people naturally form fan shapes rather than lines and there's no concept of pushing in being wrong. When buying a train ticket yesterday three times I had to ask the guy behind me (there were metal railings thankfully) to take a step back as he was breathing on my neck but each time within 30 seconds his chin would be back on my shoulder as he couldn't bare to be that extra 5 inches away from the front of the queue.

I realize I've become desensitised to a lot of things here which would simply be unforgivable behavior in other parts of the world and this was rammed home during an enjoyable few days I spent traveling with a guy who was an English teacher at a boarding school in the Midlands. He hadn't been in the country very long and despite him being 10yrs older than me several times I had to break up near fights he'd got into over things which have to happen here to keep the 'chaos moving'. He hadn't adjusted to seeing policemen hitting dogs or even beggar children with sticks and the constant raised voices and physical pushing and shoving which come from just a normal walk down the street.

One of the most worrying aspects of all this competition for resources is that there's a very strong danger of people splitting off into smaller groups based on religion/language etc and turning to violence to obtain their needs. It's yet another major problem the country faces and the results of the census currently being undertaken are eagerly awaited next year to see how much of a squeeze on resources the country will face in the years ahead. After the rain in Jaipur I was delighted to head West out of the rain and into the desert via the city of Jaisalmer which is yellow because all the buildings are made out of sandstone and so the huge fort looks like the worlds biggest sandcastle. The Great Thar desert doesn't have the looks of the Arabian or Saharan versions as it's more desertified scrubland than a rolling sea of sand but it looms quite large in the Indian consciousness as it forms much of the border with Pakistan and is where India tested its first bombs to become a nuclear power in the 1970's. The pace of life in India can at times get really quite unbearable and being able to rent a camel and guide and go out into the desert for a few days was so much more therapeutic than I could have imagined. Not seeing anybody at all barring the camel wallah and hearing nothing but the camels farting and braying was just bliss after a few Indian cities and my journal of one of the nights sleeping on the dunes sums it up nicely. "After the magic hour before sunset we had dinner then chatted about different ways to do the hajj over a couple of beedies (Indian cigarettes). Erkamel (the camel wallah) wanted me to sing him an English song so I taught him the words to Jerusalem and we sang that out over the desert sky a couple of times before going to sleep on the sand".

Then it was onto the Punjab, home of Nick Griffins favorite ethnic minority the Sikhs. For some reason all religions seem to like beards but for me there would only be one winner if righteousness came down to who has the most impressive beards. Even Sheik Osama and his boys simply couldn't stand up to a group of elderly Sikh men and I made doubly sure I was completely clean shaven before entering their holiest city of Amritsar. It's one of my favourite cities Ive been to in India and played host to a couple of the most important moments in modern Indian history. In 1919 the British empire had one of its lowest moments when General Dyer decided to mow down 400 peaceful protestors in an enclosed space for no real reason and this is seen in India as a decisive moment in the struggle for freedom from Britain as it turned the majority of Indian attitudes towards the British from "Please treat us better' to 'Please leave'. For me though India has slightly rose tinted spectacles over its freedom from the colonial past and the frequent use of the phrase 'Our glorious struggle for freedom' at all historical sites (including in Amritsar) I find pretty ridiculous. Independence wasn't achieved for nearly 30yrs and that was largely down to external factors like WWII and the end of empires generally, certainly the story doesn't compare to the struggles Ive seen in other places on this trip like Vietnam or East Timor. More recently though it was an attack on Sikhism's holiest shrine the incredible Golden Temple which stands out as one of the biggest moments in Indias post independence history. Unlike the Hindu temples where people just ask you for money too much and the Mosques where too often they glare at you for being an infidel too much the Gurdwarhas in India have been great places to visit. You're allowed to stay and eat in them for free and whilst donations are appreciated there's no pressure at all on you. The Golden Temple is a gorgeous temple built in the the middle of a tank (small pond) and the remarkable structure around the edges of the tank sleep thousands. However, it's the amazing kitchens which I'll remember most; at busy times they can produce 100,000 meals a day and just seeing the size of the dall and rice pots and the sheer number of people working in the washing up room is something I've never seen the like of. Eating communally is a big part of the religions routine so sharing a meal with 500 people several times was a great experience.

The history of Sikhism is very bloody and over time have suffered a few holocausts and fought countless wars against Muslim and later Hindus trying to eradicate their faith. Somewhat unsurprisingly the ideal being in the Sikh consciousness is that of a pure (no drinking/smoking etc) warrior soul and is much of the reason why they figure so disproportionately in the Indian army. However, as with most of the ethnic groups at the fringes of India, many Sikhs have long wanted their own state independent and at times have resorted to violence to achieve this. Most famously in 1984 a group of freedom fighters launched a series of attacks before being forced to seek refuge in the Golden Temple. It says a lot how important the family is in India (and also how much Nepotism there is) that three generations of the Nehru/Gandhi family have led the country for a whopping 37 out of 63 years between them. Even now the latest generation Rahul Gandhi is widely tipped to be the next Prime Minister when Manmohan Singh retires despite "Never having given a notable speech or even outlining any of his political philosophies' as one newspaper columnist recently put it.

Whilst Nehru was the safe hand on the tiller after independence, his daughter Indira Gandhi was probably the most controversial leader India has had. During her tenure the country became a nuclear power and slowly started to grow economically but she was also completely power crazy getting to the situation where in the supportive media and much of the public simply called her 'She'. More reliant on astrologers than public opinion in deciding policy she even ignored corruptions convictions and would simply send in the army to retain her hold on power. She did have amazing hair though, Google image her- she looked like Cruella De Vil. In 1984 she ordered the army to attack the Golden Temple in the infamous Operation Bluestar and whilst the mission was successful and the freedom fighters captured/killed they also managed to destroy part of Sikhisms holiest shrine. She then had the arrogance in thinking everyone supported her actions to insist on a public bodyguard made up only of Sikh soldiers... who promptly killed her. This led to widespread reprisal attacks around the country from the Hindu community and for a while the country was in a state of real crisis.
The reason why Nick Griffin likes the Sikhs is because they're widely regarded as industrious and like Indias other other smaller religious communities the Parsis and Jains they've been economically very successful around the world. India could never let the Punjab go independent as it supplies nearly half of India's rice and wheat supplies and it kind of tells to look at the people. By Asian standards Sikhs are big people and with the beards, turbans and the fact they're always armed with a knife (it's a religious thing) means I think only Afghans that I've seen can perhaps look more effortlessly tough. Punjab cuisine is amongst India's richest and satisfying but the food here has just been outstanding wherever; from the dosas in the south to the biryanis in Hyderabad and the sweets in Bengal traveling in India been something of a food odyssey. From the lowest street stall selling pav bhajis to the great value thalis in plastic chair restaurants and the more specialised dishes in posher ones it's all been great. The cuisine here is much more flexible and lighter than the heavy rice and curry dinners we get in England and I don't think twice about curry for breakfast at all. At times I've felt like writing about nothing but the food (maybe the emails would've been more interesting) and it's been really hard restricting myself to 3 meals a day. Trying to do any exercise in an Indian city is a non starter due to the traffic/crowds/heat etc and as a result I'm now in the worst physical condition I can remember. Therefore it's with a slight sense of fear I now head up into the Himalayas for my final few weeks in this awesome country.

From Amritasar,
Barney

Posted by carlswall 13:42 Archived in India

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