A Travellerspoint blog

Northern India

Hello after my final month in this crazy country, where the women dress so vibrantly and wear an aurific amount of jewelery and the men are styled so bewilderingly badly- the look of choice is sandals, skin tight jeans, a grandad shirt with a 'tache and side parting to top it off. I don't know how much coverage the Commonwealth Games are getting but I'm in Delhi now and the city is abuzz with the preparations. It's good to see they've kept their word in delivering a 'truly Indian games' with the phrases 'corruption, delays, inefficiencies and unfit for human habitation' appearing most frequently!
It's been a fittingly eclectic mix this month where I found myself in a riot, saw the Dalai Lama and definitely realized 'I love my India'.

After the tranquility of the Golden Temple I fancied a change and headed up to Kashmir; which aside from being one of the greatest guitar rifts of all time is apparently rated by all the security agencies as the world conflict most likely to cause a nuclear war. It's been a terrible Summer there as I'll go on to show but the story begins all the way back at Partition in 1947.

Whilst the British did many good things in India (railways, an effective administration etc) their role in India's independence and it's partition was not a positive one. They complacently thought India would remain part of the Empire forever and as late as the 1930's were still building New Delhi as the new capital of the Raj. After WWII however independence became inevitable and the British found they'd prepared no functional plan to allow the most diverse country in the world and its many possible problems to leave the Empire peacefully. After setting an independence date of 1948, religious and racial tensions between communities grew over who would hold power in the new country, in particular the Muslims were worried that the Hindu majority would freeze them out of all power and they would effectively become second class citizens. They demanded their own state and the Brits hurriedly and somewhat disastrously brought forward independence by a year to 1947 with the country splitting into 3, with the new Muslim state of Pakistan forming Western and Eastern parts.

In the build up to independence literally tens of millions of people moved across the country to where they thought they would be safe, Hindus and Sikhs to what would be the new India and Muslims to what would be the new Pakistan. The loss of their homes, property and businesses understandably created huge resentment amongst the refugees and as the 2 groups left their homes and crossed each other half a million people were killed in riots and skirmishes in a terribly bloody period in India's long history. Many other problems were caused by this huge movement of people and for example the famous famine in West Bengal in the 1940's was caused essentially by the state being unable to feed the extra 4million Hindu refugees who'd crossed from East Pakistan (now Bangladesh).
Attempts in the 20th century at drawing arbitrary lines to separate groups based on religion were spectacularly unsuccessful in Palestine and Ireland amongst others but by far the attempt to carve out a Muslim state in India was the biggest, and certainly in terms of numbers of people affected the least successful.
Peoples identities are formed by many things including ethnicity, language, the work they do and many other factors; nowhere is this more true than in India and the idea that religion could somehow trump all these factors and unite disparate groups was always very unlikely to work- for example nobody could describe Bangladesh as being 'Islamic' ahead of being 'Bengali'.
India's different religious groups were settled in pockets literally all over the country and whilst India under Nehru and Gandhi promised a secular society where state was separated from and took no interest in peoples religion, the leaders of the new Pakistan were quite clear that it would be a 'Muslim only' state. To compare the 2 countries since partition shows India in one of its most positive aspects whereas it's easy to see why Pakistan has become one of the worlds least loved countries.

India has a constitution similar to the US and many of the positives of American civil society have been replicated here. India is the most religiously and culturally diverse country in the world and the methods they've used to keep the country together and for the most part happy is really quite admirable. Many countries in Asia are also diverse and have competing claims for power from smaller groups but whilst many of its Asian neighbors like Indonesia, Myanmar and most famously China simply send in the army to start hitting people when they start requesting self determination, India has gone the other way. It has devolved power on most things ala the USA to a state level so that minority groups have access to decision making that Tibetans or the various tribes in Myanmar can only dream of.
Whilst there's definitely not enough states (only 28 for over a billion people) and they're terribly uneven in size- Sikkim has 500,000 people whilst Uttar Pradesh would be the 6th biggest country in the world with 170million people, the system is still a model that much of Asia could and should follow.
Whilst the 2nd biggest political party the BJP is adamantly pro Hindu it's still remarkable how united the country is regardless of religion and whilst in India no-one seems to care that much that the Prime Minister is a Sikh or that the 2 biggest Bollywood stars are Muslim. In Pakistan however, the countrys best cricketer is coerced into converting from Christianity to Islam in the face of public criticism from politicians and death threats from members of the public and the country is on the fast track to becoming a failed state.

For most of its history Pakistan has been run by little more than a series of corrupt gangsters (sometimes in army fatigues, sometimes not) and the non-Muslim world and India in particular can take a great deal of schadenfreude at seeing what a country which with no sense of irony decided to call itself 'The Land of the Pure' has become.
The Muslims in the Pakistan side of Punjab had been the driving force in the push for independence but quickly decided that they didn't actually want to share any money or power with any of the new arrivals from elsewhere in India and sent them to the furthest, poorest parts of the country. Amongst other things they've continued to be very poor, have founded the Taliban and due to infiltration from competing clerics from Iran (Shias) and Arabia (Sunnis) with their different messages, Pakistan has effectively been the frontline in the civil war within Islam for the last 30 years.
Similarly just mention the word Pak-i-stan to the normally incredibly placid Bangladeshis and watch them explode in anger. The political elites in Punjab dominated Pakistan couldn't suffer Bengalis to speak their own language rather than Urdu and after East Pakistan declared independence and became Bangladesh in 1971, Pakistans leaders made the decision to instruct the army to slaughter 2.5million Bengalis aiming firstly for those with education in an attempt to give the new country no chance of growth, more famously they also authorised the mass raping of 500,000 Bengali women in a disgustingly vindictive farewell to whom they called their 'brothers'.

As with the French in Indochina and the Dutch in Indonesia the British were also guilty of leaving the new country based on administrative boundaries rather than reflecting who actually lived there. One of the things I've been most surprised about Indians is that it's very difficult to tell where people are from based only on their looks, I couldn't really pick any physical characteristics which say someone is from the North or South. They pretty much look the same, except in the part of the country which sits incongruously above Bangladesh and in the Himalayas in the Northwest, and broadly speaking if they don't look Indian- they don't want to be. The Indian army has been fighting a variety of rebel armies in the North East which don't attract too much world attention but its the Kashmir issue which has really led India and Pakistan to be deadly enemies rather than neighbourly rivals over the years.

At partition all princely states had the choice of which country to join but Kashmir voted for neither wanting to go independent, however, because Kashmiris are majority Muslims Pakistan believes the territory should belong to them and indeed Kashmir is the 'K' in Pakistan.
Therefore after partition they invaded the valley at which point the Kashmiris asked India for help...but they never left, claimed the valley is 'India' and so began 60+ years of on off skirmishes over the area with the 2 sides split across a line of control. A few years later China also stole a part of the territory and the locals have been caught very much in the middle of one of the most politically volatile areas on earth.
They call it 'Paradise on Earth' and it is a beautiful area in the foothills of the Himalayas with fertile soils, gorgeous lakes and distinctive architecture making it marvelously photogenic and attractive to tourists. However, the continued army presence has led to it becoming a hell for the locals and have become increasingly vocal and violent about fulfilling their dream of independence. Apparently the rioting works something similar to gang violence in northern American cities like Chicago or Detroit where it's simply too cold in Winter to be out doing anything and then in the Summer things kick off. And as you probably know if you've been following the news it's been a terrible Summer in the valley, the trigger incidents were the army shooting dead a 8yr old boy and the alleged rape of a local by 2 soldiers but the chronic unemployment amongst the population and virtual police state now in place means there didn't really need to be a trigger. Over 100 people have been killed in rioting and the inadequately trained Indian army operating under a ludicrously ill-thought out policy of martial law just cannot get a grip on the situation, almost daily managing to kill teenagers and arresting hundreds of others who are doing nothing more than throwing stones in defiance of orders to stay inside.

When I got to the capital Srinigar they were on a 1 day week (Friday naturally) with the army maintaining a curfew the rest of the time. I was staying on a wicked houseboat on the lake near the old town and I somewhat foolishly ignored the family's advice and ventured into town on the Friday. It was fine up until about 3pm when I saw some people running towards me and obviously something was happening. I was near the gigantic Jama Masjid (main mosque with a capacity of 33333!) and thought unless the army fancied a bloodbath I'd be safe in there. Then I heard what I thought was a gunshot (I saw on the news later it was a tear gas round) and waited for 15mins but there was still plenty happening and people running around all over the place. The main street by the mosque was covered in rock and stone debris ala Palestinian riots with troops in riot gear facing off the stone throwing protesters. When I looked round and saw a teenager with what looked like a broken nose I thought that'll do and desperately tried to find a rickshaw to try and get out. Thankfully I did very quickly and we sped the other way... only to find ourselves stopped by another protest. This one was led by women which is a pretty common tactic in India to try and stop the army getting violent in protests but again something happened and I don't mind admitting my heartrate went through the roof as the crowd started stampeding towards us. The driver very calmly said 'Just stay inside don't worry' and about 30 seconds later he had enough space to sprint through the gap between the rioters and a besieged army post. It's fair to say I wasn't unhappy when we made it out to the safety of the lake where I was staying. Whilst it was scary enough what added another element of danger to it was the fact I was the only Westerner anywhere near things and I was afraid that whilst they hate Indians more, the protesters may have gone after me a bit. This is because for many years Pakistan has sent infiltrators across the border to act as agent provocateurs in the starting of riots in a religious tone. Every local I spoke to just wants independence from India and definitely don't want to be part of Pakistan but in "the continued export of terrorism" from Pakistan as David Cameron put it recently they've tried to turn the issue into a religious one. Whilst some anti-Pakistan politicians will claim that Kashmir is an 'inalienable part of India' it's quite clearly nothing like that on the ground, culturally it's completely different and the people look much more like central Asians than Indians with much lighter complexions, grey green eyes and noses that a Rabbi would be proud of- they even drink their tea differently! As with China and the troubled North Eastern states, India claims that if they let the area go independent Pakistan would simply annex it and there is a degree of truth in this. However, India also knows that aside from the strategic importance of the area located between India, China, Pakistan and Central Asia if they let it go independent the whole structure of India could begin to collapse as a domino effect of independence movements across the huge country could take place.

I've never been somewhere with such a big military presence, certainly not over such a large area and it does ruin the landscapes. Often you'll emerge on top of a beautiful pass only to see the next valley ruined by the barbed wire and khaki colors of an army camp with the endless streams of army trucks needlessly engaging in the national pastime of honking their horns every 4 seconds. But apart from the visual pollution as is often the way with conflict zones I couldn't help but think what a terrible waste of resources it all is. Kashmir is one of the most expensive borders in the world to maintain and to give a spot example- the Siachen glacier is an area near the line of control which costs India alone $4million to maintain a military presence. As you can probably imagine nobody can live there as it's too cold and for 2 countries as poor as India and Pakistan to spend so much money 'protecting' an area where they're not even wanted is an unforgivable waste of money- it's not surprising the rest of the world really didn't want to give any aid to Pakistan during the recent terrible floods. It was reminiscent of the Falklands Islands issue for Argentina (though not as extreme) in that neither country has that strong a claim on the territory but it's been the perfect vessel to act as an issue around which the populations of the two very diverse countries can rally around. Despite the pleasant surroundings and late Summer climate it was a sad place to be and at the very least India have got to reduce the hated army presence and remove the martial law in order to improve the quality of life for the inhabitants.

One definite positive side effect of the army presence is they've created a miraculous road network in some of the most difficult landscapes to build in on the planet. Despite its size I wouldn't describe India as a particularly beautiful country, off the top of my head only 4 landscapes really stand out in the country as most of the land is used for agriculture on floodplains. However as you head East from Srinigar the landscape becomes mindblowing as you go through different smaller ranges of the Himalayas with the road closely following the magnificent glacier fed Indus as it heads down the mountains. They've built most of the highest passes in the world in order to give supplies routes for the army up to the highest, the awesome Khardung La. At 5600m it's so high you need an acclimatization stop as you ascend and even in early September parts of the road were frozen over, it's a remarkable piece of engineering to have first built it and then to keep it open all year. At the top looking down on the amazing road I found myself reflecting it was a shame Phil the Greek wasn't with me as "It doesn't look like it was made by an Indian". As you can probably imagine you could never go much faster than 20km per hour but after a hard 2 day journey you reach the Buddhist area of Ladakh. Aside from being very high (pretty much everywhere is 3500m+) it gets a level of rainfall similar to parts of the Sahara desert. Nothing can grow on the slopes of the mountains so the landscape is something like a mountainous desert with only a few spots where life is sustainable on the riverbanks.
Once you've obtained a pesky permit from the army you're allowed to visit a few isolated valleys and I spent a few cracking days hiking from village to village, once again I was just overawed by how steep the Himalayas are. Even the Andes didn't feel the same with mountains here shooting up to 3000m to the white tops seemingly directly above you- it's a landscape that almost feels scary as your eyes can't stop looking up and around you. Despite the normally miniscule rainfall about a month before I arrived for the first time ever apparently there had been a terrible flash flood which utterly destroyed many of the houses in the main town of Leh. They were made of mud brick and so simply couldn't stand any pressure from the floodwaters which was very sad to see as whole neighborhoods were having to live in tents as the debris of their homes still lay around them.

The road South towards Delhi was washed away by the floods and so any transport had to do an extra day detour to get down, officially the road closes on the 15th September and I turned up to the bus stand at 4am on the 14th hoping to get a passage out but was informed that all the buses were full for the next couple of days so I had no obvious means of getting out other than by plane. Then one of the drivers jokingly said 'Well you could sit on the floor!!' so I instantly said 'Yes' and realising he could make quite a bit of money out of me drove for 22hrs over the next 2 days with me sat on the floor of the minibus- my back hurt at the end of it. It was quite an adventure as we broke down about 9pm about 3500m up on one of the passes, it was absolutely freezing and being an hour away from the nearest settlement we eventually had no choice but for the driver to freewheel it all the way back down to the nearest village, which in the dark on single lane unpaved mountain roads was a lot of fun.

When we got down it was into the lower foothills of the Himalayas which have become very famous and turned into a hippy paradise since the Dalai Lama arrived to claim asylum in 1959. Several hundred thousand Tibetan refugees have followed him and whilst they've settled in India wherever there's altitude, it's in the area around the Dalai Lama's residence in the oddly named McLeod Ganj where they're most visible. On my last day in Leh I was actually lucky enough to hear the great man speak and you can get really close to him though he has to have several bodyguards around him 24/7 as the Chinese keep sending spies into the Tibetan community! Whilst I couldn't understand his speech (it was in Tibetan) it was a lot of fun watching the crowd. They went crazy when he appeared bowing in homage for 10-15 minutes and the lady to my right spontaneously started crying in an indication of just how much his presence/guidance means to them in their dispossessed state. Whilst it's probably not the right place to write about the Tibet issue, seeing the various exhibitions and museums of what they've been put through is really quite shocking and it's a thing of wonder how positive they remain on both a day to day level and also that eventually they will get their freedom- which doesn't look likely in the medium term. The arrival of the tourists has given them a way of making money selling handicrafts etc but Indians from the plains have noticed this and moved up to try and claim some of the business creating a remarkable comparison between the two peoples. Tibetans have a real air of dignity about them as they quietly sit counting their beads, serenely contemplating getting off the wheel; in contrast the Indians are the same as on the plains below constantly hassling any foreigners with the usual "My friend, my friend come and see my Free Tibet souvenir shop". Whilst this obviously doesn't show Indians in the best light the fact they've put the Tibetans up and given them a safe refuge (unlike much of the rest of the world in the face of China's economic might) for 50 years now shows a great deal of magnanimity and once again shows India in one of its more positive, inclusive lights.

Before I made my final stop in Delhi I visited the fantastic city of Chandigarh- India's only major attempt at being a civilized country. At partition the Punjab was split down the middle and the main city Lahore went to Pakistan so a new capital was needed to accommodate all the refugees. India commissioned the Swiss architect Le Corbusier to construct it and if you haven't had the misfortune to be dragged round an exhibition on him by me,between 1930-1960 or so he was the world's foremost modernist architect. And I loved it! Everything works, there are no traffic jams or stray dogs and there are parks and huge sculptures dotted around the city. A fantastic antidote to pretty much every other Indian city sat by the lake on my final evening there with classical music piping out of the greenery behind me I had to pinch myself to remember I was actually in India rather than a garden city in Hertfordshire on a late Summer evening.

Then I got a return to normality as I somewhat illogically finished off my time in India at the nations giant capital of Delhi which for some reason is virtually the only major city which has retained its Anglicized spelling. The overwhelming impression I have of Delhi is that it's a city where your experience of 'space' hits the extremes; it's been 'rebuilt' 5 times and the older parts of the city are almost unbearably cramped and dirty. In contrast New Delhi was designed by the British less than 100 years ago and there's just too much space with all the major parts of the city too spread out to get around by foot. Whilst it has great sightseeing and beautiful bright green pigeons instead of grey ones it was ultimately a fairly unsatisfying place to end my time in India. It's got a really unpleasant climate (it can get to 50 degrees in Summer) and is another city where the gap between the haves and have nots is truly woeful. Whilst the poor live in the tented shanty towns found all over the city the rich live in shiny towerblocks (their maids and drivers live in dorms in the basements) and shop in the grotesque A/C malls which I've increasingly realized is the symbol of the rich poor gap all over Asia. India probably faces a more diverse set of problems than any other country in the world whilst I've tried to describe but I think trying to improve the quality of life of the poorer sections of society over the next 20-30yrs must be the most pressing one for me. I don't always feel that optimistic about problem riddled countries I've been to (Haiti being the most extreme case I've seen on my travels) but despite it's problems India is definitely somewhere I feel pretty positive about. Bouyed by its terrific economic growth and a political system which certainly tries to give everyone a chance I can definitely see it achieving its desired superpower status in the coming years.

I've now been in India for over 5 months which is probably as long as I'm likely to travel anywhere, unsurprisingly I think I feel about 20% relieved to be leaving a country which has "...no electricity, drinking water, sewage treatment, traffic controls or concepts of honesty, discipline, courtesy, personal space or personal hygiene". Trying to get anything done is inescapably difficult, for example I had to see 4 people over 1.5hrs just to send a small package home from the Post Office as "We don't have envelopes or marker pens here- you need to go to the market".
Whilst most of the above I can deal with OK some things I just never got used to in India, there are a lot of frustrating things about the country that can't really concern a visitor like the dowry and caste systems or even the immense hypocrisies of the society as a whole (treatment of animals, portrayal of sex in the media etc).
However, the way people interact with you here is something I've never really adjusted to on a day to day level. Delhi has a very new and fairly good metro system - but if ever a people don't deserve a decent metro it's here. In India they incredibly don't have the concept of letting people off before getting on-board public transport- everyone tries to get on/off at the same time and in such an overcrowded city the rush hour is utter carnage. You've literally no choice but to forcibly wrestle people out the way to get on or off the trains and whilst I'm bigger than most Indians and more importantly get much angrier at the whole situation, every time I stumbled out of the maelstrom I found myself incredulously muttering to the nearest bystander "How can you live like this?".
Whilst the vast majority of Indians I found to be very good natured their social skills really differ to Western expectations; it's probably the only place I've been to where I think its better not learning any of the language. Everybody always want to know as much about you as possible through the endless rounds of conversations which just don't go anywhere and most of all being stared at all the time. A few nights ago as I waited for my train to Delhi a middle aged bloke came and stood 3ft away from me and stared at me for a solid 10 minutes, not saying anything just staring. Whatever you're doing and wherever you are in India as a white person you will ALWAYS have people watching you and I've never learned to deal with this. Whilst in Bangladesh I found myself fairly forgiving because they're so isolated both geographically and culturally, in India they're not and even in downtown Delhi or Mumbai where there are lots of foreigners there for all kinds of reasons people are fixated by you in an ultimately unsettling way. For various reasons India is not a great place to travel by yourself and I REALLY wouldn't recommend the same to girls!

But 80% of me is very satisfied too. There's a saying that "You hate India for the first 2 weeks and love it for ever after" and in mine and my Mums case we detested the place for the few weeks before we arrived as through a combination of red tape and outright dishonesty from various Indian embassies both my Mum's 2 wk holiday and several months of my trip looked ruined. In fact but for a handful of days my entire stay in India has been done so illegally and its only thanks to the incompetence of a couple of immigration officers that I've got away with it. Once I did manage to get in though I've loved the place from the word 'go'. India has a cultural breadth and depth to it which no other country in the world possesses and being here for so long and seeing so much of the place has been both instantly stimulating but also cathartic too as the traveling has progressed and I've seen the different sides to the country. I found the sensual experience of traveling in India stronger than anywhere else I've been, and whilst that includes the smells of wandering cows, the endless cacophony of car-horns and the sights of extreme poverty it also includes many, many positives. From the cliched swirls of the saris and scents of the spices to the incredible food and the amazing sightseeing, both in the historical buildings etc sense but also just constantly seeing how life goes on in this indescribable country. Indians would often ask "What's your opinion on India?" and I could never give them an answer; as you can probably gather from the tangential nature of these emails (sorry!) I found India to be one of the most intellectually stimulating places I've been to. I found opinions I have on lots of things constantly challenged as people live a life with completely different priorities than we have in the West, which I guess is much of the reason why I enjoy traveling so much. Aside from the 'bigger' picture I also found there were loads of little things I loved about India, from reading the Times of India with my umpteenth chai of the day, the fact it has 3 cricket channels and reading through some of the fantastic literature the country has produced since WWII- I even got through the 1,349 page A Suitable Boy!
It will take a bit of getting used to not hearing the Hindi love songs constantly blazing out from radios and the overwhelming colors that make up the mesmeric streetlife in India- I will miss it greatly.

But tonight I take the bus to Nepal where I'm guessing the assault on the senses won't be quite so great.
From Delhi,

Posted by carlswall 13:53 Archived in India Comments (0)

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,

Posted by carlswall 13:42 Archived in India Comments (0)

Western India

Hello from India once again, hope you're enjoying the Summer!

When I flew back into India I had to take a 32hr train to Mumbai which eventually became 42hrs but it was alright as it turned up in the morning rather than at midnight. Whilst I think getting onto a busy train shows Indians at their very worst with all the fighting and inhumanity of it, once you're onboard I think it bizarrely shows them at their courteous most hospitable best. Traveling by train is my favorite mode of transport and India it's been a wonderful experience. Unlike buses they're comfortable and unlike planes they really help knit the landscape together giving you a real feel for how you move across the country geographically. India would also have to rank as the best country I've ever been to for land transport, whilst planes are surprisingly expensive overland travel here is insanely cheap- the train to Mumbai cost me just $10 for a 2nd class sleeper ticket. On top of that the combination of a large densely settled population of whom few have cars means that transport is always plentiful and I can rarely remember having to wait more than an hr or two to go anywhere. What isn't quite so easy is actually buying tickets; India is of course notoriously bureaucratic and inefficient and the process of buying a train ticket can often take more than 2hrs and involve having to speak to 4 different people. They're not really at the stage of computerized bookings let alone card payments and everything is very 'labour intensive'. As with many other things in India it also involves lots of annoying rules and regulations which can be another frustrating aspect of the country. The country is a stickler for unnecessary rules and dealing with low level clerks or security guards can be an absolute nightmare, like you're in a nation of Gareth Keenans. Several times I've got into ludicrous arguments with people over things like where you're allowed to stand on a train platform or waiting 2 minutes til a temple is officially opened etc. Of course you can always bribe them as this is India after all (as the Delhi Commonwealth games scandal is currently showing) but I'm not generally too keen on that..

When I arrived in the worlds 4th biggest city I instantly felt 'wow'! Mumbai is a phenomenal city and by some distance the hardest to describe that I've been to on this trip; at the same time it feels both very Indian and un-Indian in lots of ways and on every level I just found it a fascinating place to be. In fact so much so that I've written so much about it I'll need to send another email in a few weeks- sorry!
The Portuguese named it the good bay (bom bahia) and the city originally made up of islands has got a fantastic geography to it. Through tetrapods they've reclaimed enough land to connect the different islands of the bay and you're treated with wonderful vistas of skyscrapers looking out over the Arabian Sea along a series of curves reminiscent of Rio.
It's long been the most financially successful city in India and for over 100 years has attracted people from all over the place looking to seek their fortune.
In the early 1990's the then Finance minister and now PM Manoman Singh opened the Indian economy from a previous more finacncially regulated system. Since then India has been growing fairly rapidly as an economy and nowhere more so than Mumbai; home to the stock market and one of the worlds most important harbors it's growing wealth has created a fascinating cultural mix and it's definitely ground zero of the 'New India'.
It's a bit of a vague concept but to me it seems to mainly entail the swelling ranks of the middle and upper classes behaving and acting ever more Western and ever less Indian. They dress in Jeans and T-shirts, snobbishly refuse to speak anything but English and in Mumbai I saw things I've not seen anywhere else in the country; fat people, glamorous people, American cars and even a McDonalds and at times it feels not so much one but a few steps ahead of the rest of the country- or perhaps aside would be a better description.
It's very multicultural with a big Arabic presence as well as Europeans, Africans and others from all over Asia but I found the Indian diversity more striking to look at. Over 200 languages are spoken in the city and at times it feels like a microcosm of the country as a whole as years of attracting 5,000+ new inhabitants per week have given the city a striking breakdown of the different fashions, foods and languages of the different states but also one of the biggest rich-poor gaps you'll see anywhere in the world.

Whilst the likes of Brazil and South Africa are famous for it I believe India as a country and Mumbai as a city has perhaps now overtaken them all as the place where you see so many people with so much, but so many with almost literally nothing. Due to the more liberal market regulations introduced in the early 1990s, the sheer size of the population in India has meant that the number of entrepreneurs who've become millionaires in India has been skyrocketing in recent years to nearly 100,000. In Mumbai there are signs of this everywhere from the luxury apartments in the plum locations to some of the most expensive restaurants you'll see almost anywhere in the developing world, though the most extreme thing I saw was the incredible sight a Lamborghini flying along Marine Drive one day.
But at the same time 1/3rd of India's population still live on less than a dollar a day- you're never far from a bustee (shantytown) in Mumbai and many have much less than a roof over their heads. Even in some of the most prominent spots in the city (beneath the national bank, on the central Cowpatty beach etc) you see destitute refugee families huddled under makeshift tents or without even that level of luxury and I found nocturnal walks would have to be on the roads as most of the pavements are taken as beds for the homeless numbering in 6 figures. The monsoon in Mumbai is absolutely vicious and whilst the rains which can gut entire days out won't kill you, if you don't have a roof above your head it really would be a terrible and presumably fairly short life.
Like many quick growing developing economies a narrowing of the rich poor gap is high on the list of things India needs to improve on but it's a hard balance to pick. Much of their growth is based on lower taxes for companies and the rich but as you've probably heard the army has been fighting an ultra left wing peasant army called the Naxalites in the poorer states for some years now and trying to make sure everyone's quality of life improves over the coming years is not easy.

But it's not all about making money in Mumbai; it's also the undoubted cultural capital of the country and the entire subcontinent. Whilst it has a strong literary and arts scene it is of course most famous for Bollywood (or should it be renamed Mullywood?).
Over the last few years the films are generally agreed to have greatly improved with different plots from the overblown love stories and historical epics and a cut from the 3hr+ running times. But they still have the worst choreographed action sequences in the world, a laughably strict censorship (they cut away at 'you may now kiss the bride moments in wedding scenes' and go blank with health warnings when alcohol is shown being drunk) and the surreal leaps into expansive song and dance numbers so I've found myself surprisingly entertained by the films. India has an obsession with celebrities unlike anywhere I've seen before; if people rightly moan about the overdoses of Heat, Pop Idol etc we get in Western countries then put it this way- there is no Hindi word for 'overexposure'. If you took the 10 most famous English celebrities and counted how many times you saw their face in various media I estimate you'd count 1-3 times per day, but in India I'd put the 10 biggest celebs (say 8 Bollywood stars and the 2 biggest cricketers) at nearer double figures. They advertise absolutely anything and everything and whilst it's amusing to see 'hardman' actors plugging air fresheners I find it quite sad seeing Sachin Tendulkar fronting ads for cement companies. Without taking any particular interest in the film industry, through the sheer ubiquity of their images I found I could very quickly tell Katrina Kaif from Kareena Kapoor and one thing became very apparent. If you want to be a star in Bollywood unless you really are one of the 'beautiful people' just forget about it. Whilst there are normally a few comic roles and moustache toting baddies who don't need to look great it's fair to say 'not many' Indian men look like Salman or Shahrukh Khan but for the women it's much harsher. There are far fewer female roles and they're often nothing more than 'the love interest', whilst Hollywood is rightly criticised for overglamourising at times (eg Angelina Jolie in Changeling) it's nothing compared to Bollywood. Actresses who I'd consider as no more than quite good looking (eg Maggie Gylenhaal, Kirsten Dunst etc) would have to be content with little more than back up dancing roles here. Meanwhile actresses who are successful in Hollywood because they're very good at acting eg Hilary Swank or Toni Collette would be simply laughed out the casting agents door as the always perfect looking Pryti Zinta, Bipasa Basu and Ashwarya Rai (who actually was Miss World!) simply glide into all the best roles. The public seem to very much want fantasy and as a friend of mine who lived here a while put it cruelly (but fairly) "Nowhere in the world is the gap between the looks of people who you see on screen and on the street so wide".

One of the things I find surprising about Bollywood's enduring popularity is that the films are in Hindi but India is made up of so many different languages. Traveling around the different states one of the standard questions you get asked is 'Can you speak Malayam/Tamil/Gujarati'? etc or whatever the local language may be. Hindi is spoken in the so called 'cow belt' in the North and acts as the main language of the country but isn't spoken by everyone, particularly in the South. Therefore English is often used as the default 'national language' but that position is very controversial; Hindu nationalists in particular believe that Hindi should assume this role and be the 'Indian national language' and the country should ditch the colonial past. However India has an extremely English literary heritage boasting authors like Rushdie, Naipaul and Seth and I don't think it should drop English too much. One of the easiest things about travelling in India is that unless you're really in the sticks at least someone will speak pretty good English, the promotion of English in schools and the ability of most of the middle class to speak it fairly fluently is an advantage over the likes of China that the country shouldn't squander in attracting business and it's ability to communicate with the rest of the world generally.

After leaving Mumbai I went to the state of Gujarat; where half of Leicester originally comes from (it's where the Patels come from you see, and everyone seems to think London is the capital of Leicester) both culturally and geographically it's one of the most diverse states in the country, and I even fulfilled an odd ambition of mine in sleeping on the roof of a church in the former Portuguese colony of Diu :-).
The area of Saurashtra is one of the few places the British never conquered in the subcontinent and is also the last remaining refuge of Asiatic lions. Considering they were down to just 12 in the 1870's the current tally of over 300 represents a remarkable comeback, in their national park they're easy to spot. They don't quite have the looks of their African brothers as a huge bald spot and less luxuriant mane means they resemble Scar rather than Simba but in a country with the land pressures of India it's impressive to see they're still surviving. I also headed out to 'India's Wild West' in an area called the Kutch; towards the Pakistan border it's an extremely dry and infertile landscape but great to explore. Aside from the odd looking Siddi people (mixture of Indians and descendants of African slaves brought over by the Portuguese Gujarat is home to some of the most colourful adivasis (tribal peoples) in the country where I uncharacteristically felt out of my depth in my lack of tattoos and piercings. Many women have tattoos on every visible part of their bodies or carrying the familys' wealth around with bangles covering their entire arms though my favourite guy I saw had 42 facial piercings- it didn't look so good.

Gujarat is also the home state of Gandhi which any of my family can confirm is one of my all time heroes. Whenever I see a statue of the great man I have to have my photo taken with him and it's a sign of how lucky I've been in terms of where I've gone in recent years that some of my most prized photos are me with him locations as diverse at the source of the Nile in Uganda, on Central Avenue in Panama City and Gorky Park in Moscow. In India very quickly I had to ditch this photo fixation as the man is absolutely everywhere; whilst Nehru was India's first Prime Minister for a whopping 17 years, it's definitely Gandhi who's seen as the Father of the nation. Every medium sized city and up will have a big statue of him, the main street named after him and he regally appears on all the bank notes.
His achievements were wide-ranging, from philosophies on how to live a better life to more practical issues like improving education and healthcare but his achievements went deeper too with many great political figures (Luther King, Mandela etc) using his examples even now. His influence on India is profound but if there's one particular area I'd pick out of his achievements it would be beginning to give the most marginalized members of Indian society, the so-called Untouchable castes a sense of respect far beyond where they'd ever been before.
Whilst he eventually led the campaign for the the British to leave India he actually spent most of his life agreeing with the British occupation, he felt the British were a civilizing influence and crucially didn't understand the caste system and wouldn't pay any attention to it, this he felt was the future Hinduism needed to embrace. Whilst Americans don't understand how I can use 6 words to describe my 'class' the Indian system is way more complicated than England, there are 4 main groups but there are believed over 2000 sub castes and so complicated you could easily do a degree course in it. Unlike race or religion it's very difficult to 'spot' the differences yet it still plays a huge role in everyday Indian life. When independence came Gandhi made sure they had the vote, quotas in state jobs and parliament and technically removed the 'untouchables' designation altogether. However, many higher caste will refuse to drink from the same fountains, eat at the same restaurants etc in fear of 'ritual pollution' and a quick glance at the hilarious personal ads in the papers show phrases like 'social suitability' (ie of the right caste) to be the most important factor in deciding marriage.

One of the most insidious consequences of the caste discrimination is the so called honor killings where members of mismatched castes fall in love only to be shortly afterwards killed by the family of the higher caste partner. There are around 7000 of these killings every year and it's very hard for a non-Hindu to understand. The complex details which decide who can marry who also gives rise to the problem of dowries as women are seen as more or less the property of the family she is marrying into. This means the grooms family traditionally requires a payment to take her in (normally gold, jewellery etc.) and one of the biggest compliments you can pay someone in Hindi is "May you have 100 sons and no daughters" whilst one of the favorite curses is "May you have 10 daughters and they all marry well". Gandhi worked tirelessly to remove these outdated social practices but unfortunately they're still alive and well, particularly in the poorer countryside. Unsurprisingly with women so obviously second preference there are almost 10 men for every 9 women in the country and it's another huge challenge the nation faces as it tries to modernize.

I ended my time in Gujarat with a couple of adventurous (ie slightly reckless) days out when hunting the huge splendidly named Great Rann of Kutch salt marsh. When I got back to the nearest town someone asked me where I'd been and when I told him he gave me a shocked look and said it was deeply illegal and I could have got in a lot of legal trouble cos it was past the last town before the Pakistan border. I can't say I cared much as they were wicked days. I couldn't get any English out of the locals so ended doing a tortuous 3hr walk through these horrible huge weeds called gavel bandos or 'crazy thorn bushes' (which are decimating the landscape) in sandals before finally gloriously finding it. I waded in as far as my shins and took some photos of the endless horizon where something that appears to be 200m turns out to take 15mins before coming out. Some locals nearby were a bit shocked to see me but gave me a cup of chai and tried speaking to me in their local dialect, I worked out they were trying to ask where I was from but 'England' didn't seem to mean much to them. They started guessing other local states in India before one of them ejaculated 'Nepal'! and all the others congratulated him on getting the answer 'right'- I didn't really know what to say but it's one of those moments when I realised I'm both a long way from home and the world is really quite a big place.
Only to have that theory slammed back down the next day. A local told me about a temple in the middle of nowhere so I got a local bus for about 2hours and then walking a few km before finding it. There was very little there but hung around with the caretaker for a bit until I needed to head back, b4 I left he got me to sign his notebook which many Indians have. It was a few years old and there were a couple of other foreigners listed who'd obviously passed by before; whilst the name won't mean anything to most people on this list to those who it will you can understand quite how spooked I was when I saw the name Giora Moss and a Nigerian address given. It's a small world after all I guess.

I'm now in Rajahstan and will be slowly heading North for the next few weeks.
From Udaipur,

Posted by carlswall 13:38 Archived in India Comments (0)

Sri Lanka and the Maldives

On my first morning in the Maldives I was chatting to the 21 yr old son of the family I was staying with:
Me: "I hear there's quite a big drug problem here?"
Him: "Yeah.... I actually used to be an addict. I also did quite a lot of dealing too and only got out quite recently".
Me: "Of prison?
Him: "Yeah, I had a 6yr sentence but got released after 1 year".
Me: "1 year! How?"
Him: "Well, when the government changed I used to deal for one of the new ministers that came in so he pulled some strings and got me released".

Justice in The Maldives- that's what happens when you bring in democracy you see...

But before that I first spent a few weeks in the island formerly known as Ceylon. I first went to the beaches on the south coast, though after having recently been in Goa I was not impressed. Sri Lanka had been slowly building up a European package industry until the deadly 2004 tsunami destroyed much of the tourist infrastructure.
Since then they've rebuilt but in a display of unforgivable greed and unbelievable stupidity on virtually every beach the hotel owners have had a competition to see who can rebuild closest to the sea. Some have made doubly sure by building literally in the surf and unsurprisingly the beaches are fast getting washed away so I wouldn't recommend the South coast for a beach holiday.

After leaving Colombo and the South I headed towards the more Tamil dominated areas in the North. I'm sure you're aware this was the main area of last years' war between the Sri Lankan army and the Tamil Tigers revolutionary group who were fighting for a Tamil homeland in the North of the island. The roots of the conflict offer a slightly different view of Buddhism as always being peace and light. There's been a Hindu Tamil community on the island for a long time and the British increased their numbers by bringing them in from India to work the tea plantations here but they've never been accepted by the Buddhist Sinhalese majority and there have always been tensions.
Sri Lanka was on the Buddha's itinerary on his wanderings and became one of the first places in the world where Buddhism became entrenched as a national religion. They've always practiced the most conservative form of Theravada Buddhism and even today the Sri Lankan Sangha (group of elite monks) hold huge power both socially and politically within Sri Lanka while the rest of the Buddhist world still looks to them for theological guidance.
Most Sinhalese would never tolerate another state on the island where another religion was practiced and it's sadly ironic that the only leader who showed a friendlier approach to the Tamils SWRD Bandaranaike (husband of the more famous Mrs.) was assassinated by a Buddhist monk.

Tensions between the 2 communities increased until the civil war began about 30 years ago and the story of the Tigers is a fascinating one as they changed the face of world terrorism during their existence. For some years they were the de facto (border points, customs etc.) rulers of large areas of the North and led by the utterly ruthless Velupillai Prabhakaran they successfully pulled off a number of huge attacks including destroying almost the entire Sri Lankan airforce in one night and even assassinating Indian PM Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 after they felt he meddled too much in the conflict. They became the first terrorist force to form naval and even air forces but their most memorable legacy was in being the first group to use suicide bombers anywhere in the world.
The 2 sides had been fighting for some time with no real breakthroughs but then the Tigers made a huge tactical mistake in forcing the Tamil community to boycott the presidential election in 2005 and allow Mahinda Rajapaksa to become president. He's a charismatic figure with an ego not much smaller than the island itself (his picture is up everywhere and he even put himself on the bank notes) and he instructed the army to go on an all out offensive to finally put an end to the conflict. This was very controversial as after kicking all foreign observers out of the area, various human rights abuses by the army are alleged to have taken place including over 7000 civilian deaths. The UN has launched an investigation into these allegations but the refusal by Sri Lanka to co-operate or give visas to UN officials, even at the expense of losing lucrative trading agreements with the EU/USA indicate that they have plenty to hide.
I tried to go the Tamil heartlands around Jaffna but was told I'd need to apply for a special permit from the Ministry of Defence which I probably wouldn't get because of my EU passport so had to go to another of the coastal areas nearby. Things were much quieter than I imagined with little visible war damage and absolutely everyone I spoke to about it thinks the alleged human rights stuff isn't that important, as after 30 years the country is now at peace. Unfortunately the President sees this as justification to slowly turn the island into his fiefdom. He has appointed his brother and even 23yr old son as ministers and is changing the constitution so he can lead indefinitely. Most Sri Lankans are not impressed after finally being at peace and he's so far done little to change the inequalities and lack of opportunities for the Tamils that were the cause of the conflict in the first place. Most people are very optimistic about the next few years but the lack of Tamil progress means a conflict may start up again in a few years.

Despite the relative peace, security is still very high and in Colombo especially it's not unusual to wander down a normal looking street only for a soldier to appear and say 'Sorry this is a high security area'. As in Myanmar however, unlike the moody glares you get from soldiers in most places in Sri Lanka they'd greet you with a smile and a chat as bored rigid in the middle of a 12hr watch shift any diversion was gratefully received.
I found Lankans to be incredibly friendly and easily talkative all the time, after spending most of the last 4 months in Bangladesh and India I didn't realize how much I'd appreciate the gentler, almost village pace of Sri Lanka. Even in Colombo things are much more relaxed than the clogging crowds of India and conversations were noticeably less invasive than across the Gulf of Mannar. In a relatively small area there's a fantastic variety of things to do with beaches, colonial cities, some ancient culture and the wonderful hill country it's a great place for a 2-3 week holiday. The only real criticism I'd have of the island was that it's hard to escape the feeling that you're viewed as something of a cash cow by the government.
Whilst local products (food, transport etc) are very cheap, as a foreigner you have to pay spurious taxes and surcharges on things like hotel rooms but the decision a couple of years ago to put up the price of tourist attractions 400% means you mainly just don't do them. Whilst I drank the Kool-Aid in paying the $50 entry for the ancient cities they did at least occupy a few days but I balked at the price of nearly everything else with the $20-30 entry fees for any of the national parks feeling particularly excessive as you're only allowed in for 2hrs anyway.

I took 3 of the best train journeys I've ever taken in Sri Lanka, one down the West coast with constant views of the ocean, one across the tea plantations in the mountains and one through the jungle to the 2nd city of Kandy. Here I had a fantastic experience staying with a Sri Lankan family- whilst it was great staying in the jungle and speaking to them etc I'll most fondly remember it for the Mum's cooking. Sri Lankan cuisine must be one of the most underrated in the world- trust me, dig out a Sri Lankan restaurant and you won't regret it. At times it felt like I was walking round in an epicurean wonderland as I found myself constantly gorging on the cinnamon and coconut heavy curries and some of the best fruits in the world (soursops, durians etc) which are just impossibly expensive to get in Europe.

The food in the hill country is regarded as probably the best in Sri Lanka and I think it was my favourite part of the country. Sri Lanka is the world's 3rd largest producer of tea and pretty much anywhere the Brits could build a railway and grow tea, they did so. Tea cultivation is one of the most aesthetically pleasing forms of agriculture and the hiking in and around the plantations was phenomenal. Amidst the bushes looking down on the 'toytown settlements' below they felt almost like Northern mining villages. Despite their poor wages and terrible work burdens they have an incredibly strong sense of community and the almost exclusively female pickers were uber-friendly and helpful as I frequently got lost on the hillsides.
The island also plays a significant geographical role in various religions legends; Adam's Bridge, the group of islands that connects India to Sri Lanka plays a big role in the Ramyana (the most important Hindu story) but probably my favourite thing I did on the island was climbing Adam's Peak. It's one of the most holy mountains in the world as Buddhists believe it's where Lord Buddha stopped and mediated before spreading the word in Sri Lanka but it's also long played a role in Christian mythology and Marco Polo wrote about it extensively in his travels. The story goes that when God ejected Adam out of heaven into the Garden of Eden this is where he dropped him; after a pre-dawn ascent I found it easy to put myself in Adams shoes (well he didn't have shoes actually but you get the idea) at the beginning of the world 6,000 years ago. With my ribs starting to itch as Eve was forming, looking out over the beautiful green landscape below I couldn't help but think "Nice one God, you picked a great spot". And it's the lush, fecund landscapes of the island that I'll definitely remember most positively about Sri Lanka.

When you read 'The Maldives' in the subject I can imagine most people thinking 'how the blazes can he afford to go there?' well the answer is The Maldives are pretty close to Sri Lanka and India so easy to get to and if you stay with a local family rather than in a 5 star resort it actually came out OK in terms of costs. As you can probably predict, the Maldivian image that is most vivid to me is of the sharpness of the blues and the whites i.e. the sea and the sand. The Maldives are made up of a series of atolls (ring shaped series of coral islands enclosing a lagoon) so the sand is of a coral white that isn't found in big quantities in many other places and as the water's so shallow, the warm sea is always a glorious shade of aquamarine. If you want to 'relax' on a beach there are few better, more aesthetically pleasing places in the world and the tourist board markets the place as 'the holiday of a lifetime' which is unusual in that there's a great deal of truth to it.
I certainly did a lot of sunbathing, swimming in the cobalt blue and snorkeling at night (incredibly exciting but definitely a bit scary too) but the place is actually a lot more culturally interesting than most resort visitors have any idea of.

Before the first resorts started opening up in the early 1970's by all accounts life in The Maldives was pretty tough, being a loosely connected group of island fishing communities with few prospects beyond a week to week existence. However, in the space of little more than a generation the country has been transformed through tourism to the richest country in South Asia and even the remotest islands now have 24hr water and electricity and through cable TV and the internet are relatively well connected to the world.
The government pretty smartly aimed only at top end tourism but have found it difficult to manage the high rolling tourists alongside the local population. The Maldives is a fiercely devout Muslim country, indeed it's impossible under the constitution to be both Maldivian and a non-Muslim and tourism has created a slightly schizophrenic feel to the country. Whilst on the resort islands most things are allowed (booze, swimwear, unmarried couples and even Israelis!) for the locals life is much stricter with the smaller islands in particular having a cultural and legal conservatism a world away from martinis and bikinis. In order to maintain this strict you might say hypocritical stance the dictatorship that ran the country for 30yrs effectively banned foreigners from leaving their resorts and visiting other islands. In order to actually see the country you needed invitation letters and permits which were unlikely to be granted as they were determined not to interfere with the traditional Islamic culture.
Whilst the arrival of democracy a couple of years has removed much of this system, over time the influence of the tourists has been felt and the islands have definitely developed social problems.

The rapid change in the wealth of the people has now created a somewhat disaffected generation compared to their parents and grandparents. Like many countries which have rapidly acquired wealth most Maldivian youths all but refuse to do menial jobs anymore; whilst 'front' jobs like resort barmen and receptionists will be taken by locals almost all the cleaning, cooking jobs etc are done by Bangladeshi immigrants (many illegal) who now make up a staggering 30% of the population. So whilst the impoverished Bangladeshis are breaking their backs sending money home the young Maldivian population now just look and act bored much of the time. Whilst a country like the Maldives looks incredible and is extremely luxurious etc for a few weeks, living here as a young person would be much harder. There are few professional level jobs and since they're wealthy enough to avoid doing lower level jobs many people turn to drugs for something to do. The Maldives are believed to have one of the biggest drug problems in the world per head of population as unfortunately the drug of choice here is a cheap and nasty version of heroin called 'brown sugar'. With my St Francis of Assisi build and insistence on wearing sunglasses during all daylight hours I fitted in pretty well with the packs of youths which haunt even the smallest islands and whilst they omit to mention it in the tourist brochures it's a huge problem the country faces.

Another strong feeling about the country I had was how precarious life there felt and how their destiny is largely out of their own hands, both metaphorically in how the country survives financially but literally in regard to their environment.
The economy is now almost totally reliant on tourism with 90% of tax revenues coming through it, a workforce entirely dependent on it and few other long term options to generate income. They've focused exclusively on top end tourism with virtually 0 accommodation options below 4* and a stay in a resort will cost a bare minimum of $100 per day, but if you want to you can easily spend $5000 per day in The Maldives. This is probably a shrewd decision bearing in mind how reliant the tax system is on tourism revenues but this also makes the economy and therefore national quality of life extremely susceptible to downturns in the market. The global economic downturn cost the economy an estimated 5% in 2009 and the Icelandic volcanic ash incident of earlier this year looks set to cost the economy 2% in cancelled holidays etc.
In a country this strictly Muslim the government are absolutely paranoid about the threat of Islamic extremism as just 1 bomb or killing of a tourist here could seriously destabilize the economy and consequently the country for many years.

Probably the more serious long-term threat though is the survival of life in the islands at all. The highest point in the Maldives is a laughable 2.4m but the atolls support nearly 400,000 people. Through the use of tetrapods and other ingenious land reclamation schemes islands have been expanded and put to specific uses (e.g. the airport island or my favorite 'rubbish island') but on staying on a smaller island I got a view of how peoples homes here are quite fragile. Most atolls have a small reef offshore which acts as a breaker to the waves but one morning I woke up to find a few stronger waves were flowing over the reef... and they kept on coming. They flowed right into the low lying island swamping the streets and carrying various bits of debris with them. These didn't look or feel at all like big waves but the sheer lack of relief in the islands means if the reef is broken there's little they can do to stop the waves ie you can't get to or build on higher ground. The 2004 tsunami led to the abandonment of 13 islands and the President made headlines round the world in 2008 when he announced the creation of a 'rainy day fund'. The idea is that if sea levels continue to rise and life eventually gets untenable on the Maldives then they would buy a new homeland in probably India or Sri Lanka and give themselves a new start. It's pretty smart thinking as probably no other country on the planet is most at risk from sea level change.

I really enjoyed staying with locals and outside from the hectic capital Male which has over 100,000 people in just a few square km, life is wonderfully tranquil and just feels very easy. There are string easy chairs everywhere on the islands and sitting out by moonlight smoking endless cigarettes and listening to the enjoyably vague philosophies of someone who's lost half their brain cells I definitely realized how lucky I am to be able to come to places like The Maldives and see how other people live. In my last couple of days the son of the family went missing as apparently the police ordered him to go to detox, (well he only weighed about 90lbs) but I was lucky enough to see the Independence Day celebrations. Seeing the street dancing and flags everywhere was a wonderful way to end my time in these beautiful islands and as I flew over the great big holes in the sea that pass for islands I felt darn upset to be leaving.

So after Buddhist Sri Lanka and the Muslim Maldives I'm now back in the land of the Hindus, Hindustan which over time became shortened to India. I'm off to Mumbai tomorrow from where I'll head to the West of the country.

From Trivandrum,

Posted by carlswall 13:34 Archived in Sri Lanka Comments (0)

Southern India

Hi I hope you're enjoying the Summer and the Rojiblancos storming World Cup run. I'm writing from Mamallapuram just South of Chennai and it's been a few weeks similar to the last in that having seen barely any foreigners anywhere I've now got to a beach resort and there's a lot around. I've been pretty shocked in India how most visitors seem to be content with a few of the biggest sights and staying at the beach- for a country with so much diversity and different aspects of the culture to enjoy I'm just shocked how unambitious most backpackers are here.

After leaving Goa I headed to the 2nd biggest mountain range in the country called the Western Ghats. It was nice getting into the highlands cooler temperatures but the 2 hill stations I went to provided very different glimpses of India. The Koorg region was lovely, quiet and covered with coffee and vanilla plantations as well as Tibetan refugee communities it was a great area to hike around in, and for the first time since Sikkim in the North have anything like some tranquility in this hectic country. Ooty on the other hand was a bit different; Indians understandably seem to like to go to relaxing rather than 'interesting' places on holiday and the old English station of Ooty located near the 2 giant sweatboxes of Chennai and Bangalore makes it an obvious draw. Whilst the area has a pleasant climate and surrounding vegetation it was almost like they lifted a normal, polluted, crowded and insufferably busy Indian town of 100,000 people and put it 2200m up in the hills. It's probably the worst place I've been to in India in just how ruined the area has become and I spent my first day there ensuring a horse got put down after it had been abandoned following an accident and then happily left the next day.

After Ooty I went to the Southern state of Kerala which is without doubt one of the most interesting in India. Geographically it's made up of wide rivers, spice, cashew, red banana plantations and a beautiful palm fringed coastline which attracted traders from all over the world. The Chinese, Dutch, Portuguese, Arabs and even Jews all left a varied religious legacy including Catholicism and Syrians Christians; they also created cosmopolitan coastal trading cities resembling those on the Malacca straights in Malaysia or even across the Indian Ocean on the Swahili coast of Africa making it a fascinating place to be for a while.
The interior of the state is covered in waterways which are still a very popular way to get around, aside from the relaxing waterborne serenity it's also a great way to see why for the poor Kerala is probably the best place to live in India.
India has a political system somewhat similar to the USA in that each state has it's own Parliament and elects its own government. In 1957 Kerala became the first place in the world to democratically elect a Communist government and (sorry Fidel) it's probably been the worlds most successful attempt at it.
The people are really proud of the tradition and you see big marches and the hammer and sickle symbol up everywhere, many people even have names like Lenin and Stalin. It's really noticeable how even the poorest villagers are much better educated and have a decent home as well as plenty of access to schools and clinics unlike in some of the Northern states like Bihar or Uttar Pradesh where if you're born poor your life chances are very limited.
The Communists achievements here are many, from female emancipation to infrastructural growth and a life expectancy of 75, fully 10 years higher than the Indian average. To focus on one thing however, Kerala has achieved a literacy rate of 94% one of the highest in the developing world and I've found education in India a fascinating thing to look at on my travels here.

Any Indian will proudly tell you their extremely capable Prime Minister Manoman Singh is the best educated leader in the world and the importance placed on education here is one of the things I've find myself most admiring compared to other developing countries. Whilst ensuring your kids are educated doesn't guarantee them a better life it certainly gives them more chance.
One of the single most common things you see in India are posters advertising schools or extra tuition classes with the qualifications of the tutors and their schools plastered everywhere. Most of the time its for Maths, Physics etc though I'm still weighing up whether to get some of the 'Personality Development' classes offered too. The focus on education undoubtedly shows the diaspora community in a good light; in the UK Indians rank only behind the Chinese in all ethnic groups results and in the States an Indian girl has just become the 8th Indian-American winner in 11 years of the American National spelling bee. The importance placed on education is definitely based on an imperfect system though, firstly in quite how judgmental Indians are about people according to their level of education. In part due to the caste system (the highest Brahmin caste are traditionally teachers) you seem to be completely marked down if you're not educated and where access to education is so uneven it's not exactly an equitable system.
Indian parents are notoriously competitive over their children (the mothers in Goodness Gracious Me was about right) and success in education seems to take on an almost obsessional tone which can be good but can also border on being slightly unpleasant at times. Exams seem to be over-competitive here to the point of being unpleasant, normally on the advertising posters for schools kids as young as 11 or 12 are made into mini celebrities. Their photos and details of their successful results are used to sell tuition classes in posters or in ads in the newspapers rather than the pass grade of the school as a whole like schools might use in England. When kids do really well e.g.at a national level then they can expect to be in the first few pages of the national newspapers along with several hundred word articles about them, which just for kids school results feels both well over the top and surely not what education should be about.

Critics of the system in Kerala like to point out that due to its higher taxes the state has been far less successful than others in attracting overseas investment and it triggers quite an interesting debate about education in India and other developing countries generally. India like most other developing countries is arguably too top heavy on education spending; whilst it annually churns out millions of university graduates in Engineering and IT fields etc it simultaneously has an appalling literacy rate of just 61% overall. In contrast somewhere like The Philippines has a fantastic rate of 92% yet doesn't produce enough high quality graduates. Consequently India has a large body of qualified workers who form the 'engine' to its fast economic growth whereas The Philippines has consistently struggled in this area, but is definitely a 'fairer' system to begin with. For countries with limited budgets for education and the impact it has on the wider society deciding where to spend the money is a hard one to manage and it's interesting both to debate and to see the differing approaches relative success.

In true Socialist fashion Kerala is also the only state in India with a visible drinking scene, or problem depending on which way you look at it. Many states like Gujarat and some in the NorthEast are completely dry and in most other states drinking out is both heavily taxed and not a very attractive option. Outside from the big cities with Western style bars (with prices to match) generally booze is only available at either bottle shops where you're given it in a paper bag by a man behind bars or at 'permit rooms'. These are incredibly depressing places where middle aged men escape from their wives to drink around dimly lit tables and as in most drinking establishments in Asia there are no women anywhere near the premises.
Therefore outside of Goa I've barely drunk but Kerala's great as dotted around the landscape are 'Toddy (palm beer) shops' which are reminiscent of the rum shacks in the Caribbean for their awesome prices and enjoyable ubiquity. I liked them of course but alcoholism and the probably related high level of mental health problems and suicide rates is becoming a serious problem which is largely unknown in the rest of the country.

Aside from the lack of booze Indians are pretty healthy in other ways, out of respect to the various religions you virtually never see pork or beef on a menu and I've been pretty amazed at how few Indians smoke. Having said that many men chew pan (sort of chewing tobacco) or betel nuts which do very bad things to your teeth and whilst they get up surprisingly late the lifestyle is generally pretty healthy.
An area where health isn't so good is sanitation; nearly 100 years ago Gandhi wrote that the lack of sanitation was 'the shame of India' and things haven't changed nearly enough.
Another of the most common 'Indian sights' are blokes pissing anywhere and everywhere and it's unusual to see Indians covering their mouths when they cough or sneeze. Much more seriously though is the 'toilet problem' the country faces. To much public hand wringing about the direction of the country, the number of mobile phones recently overtook the number of toilets and in most of the countryside a shocking 1 in 4 households actually have toilets. If you're wondering where do they go? well the answer is they take a small pot of water out and simply pick a spot they like the look of. Unsurprisingly Indian villages are often really unpleasant places to be as with the wandering cows everywhere too you're never far from the smell or sight of excreta.
At certain times such as on a train first thing in the morning you're 'treated' to the disgusting sight of seeing up to 20 or 30 people simultaneously squatting by the tracks. When you bear in mind this is a country that eats with its right hand and you have much of the answer for why India's found eradicating certain diseases so hard.
The consequences of this lack of sanitation can be seen everywhere in the country; the sheer number of beggars in the country is of course one of the things India is famous for ans astound most visitors. They vary considerably, the so-called beggar families are everywhere where parents will send out their often very young kids to guilt trip you into giving money and when you realise that they've probably been begging for generations and probably don't know any better than taking their kids out of school it's darn depressing.
Less forgivable are when ordinary seemingly solvent people ask you for money, the most memorable examples I've had of this were chatting for 20minutes with a guy who claimed to be a retired MIT professor (and talked the talk) about whether global warming exists only for him then to turn round and ask to 'borrow' some money. In Bihar at a Hindu shrine for hopefully the only time in my life I told a shotgun wielding police officer to piss off after he asked for 'baksheesh' for absolutely no reason.
However, without a doubt it's the polio sufferers/beggars I've felt most sorry for. Polio is transmitted via the 'fecal-oral route' and whilst it's been wiped out virtually everywhere else, in India it's still fairly prevalent. I'm too young to remember any cases in England but seeing it here it's a horrible disease that to differing extents leaves sufferers essentially with withered up limbs that don't work. Therefore everywhere you see beggars who are mentally fine but are unable to do virtually anything with their legs and arms; whilst better access to vaccines amongst the poor etc would undoubtedly help, just having better basic hygiene practices would certainly cut down on the number of cases.
After leaving Kerala I went to India's southern most state of Tamil Nadu where aside from seeing where the subcontinent ends to look out over where the Arabian Sea and Bay of Bengal meet the Indian Ocean at Cape Cormorin, some of India's finest Hindu temples are located. There are many things I really like about Hinduism; aside from the beautiful multicoloured temples it has by some distance the most visually interesting worship rites of the major religions. I think the fortunes of the C of E would be revived overnight if every medium sized church and up had their own resident elephant to bless you and the elaborate music and dance rituals the ubiquitous pilgrims perform are always entertaining. On a more philosophical note the lack of proselytizing and (certainly that I've seen) tolerance of other religions put the Abrahamic faiths to shame.
However, one area of the religion I'm really struggling to respect is the role of the Sadhus (holy ones) or so called 'God Men'. Almost every temple will have a few who'll uninvited mumble a few words to 'bless you' then demand exhorbitant (e.g. $10) 'donations'. With an unsettling glint in their eyes and a deeply unpleasant, almost lascivious aura about them they remind me very strongly of when I met Michael Howard several years ago.
But these are the unsuccessful ones; a key part of Hinduism is the belief that in order to show you the 'right path to enlightenment' you need a Guru (teacher) in order to point you the right way. Therefore India has a simply huge industry of God men (it's very rarely women, although you may have heard of Amma the 'Hugging Mother') where a man claims to have found the secret to 'a pure life' etc. If you can convince enough people that you've discovered 'the way' then you can become very, very (as in multimillionaire) rich. They remind me of American mega- preachers like Joel Osteen or Billy Graham Jr both in how often you see them on posters or TV but also in the degree of power they have over so many people.
The Beatles gave up on the Indian dream in the Mahesh Yogi Ashram when after a while they realised that the yogi spent more time asking for money and trying to sleep with the female guests than he did actually being 'holy'.
And that's a fairly neat summary of how they come across to me too; almost every week since I've been here there's been a big scandal involving a God man always involving money and sex. The influence they build up is incredible however, when one of the highest profile of the God men was arrested a few weeks ago with a truly appalling charge sheet including sex with minors, pimping, kidnapping, extortion and people trafficking by the next morning the former head judge of the High Court had gathered a group of celebrity backers to protest his innocence in all the newspapers- because he was their guru. As Louis Theroux felt when he did a programme on them, I find it incredible how a person can claim to have attained spiritual enlightenment and then firstly to use said enlightenment so blatantly to make themselves rich and famous - and that people actually believe it. Whilst it's a situation where I'm obviously at least partly wrong as they give a degree of spiritual wellbeing to so many people, it's definitely something I've struggled to accept here.

So with my visa running out I headed up the coast to the incongruous spot of Pondicherry. I remember it well from tedious French lessons at school and is basically a town the British for some reason allowed the French to keep on the East coast. The French part of the town feels nothing like the rest of India and it felt surreal to wander along tree lined avenues eating baguettes and seeing the odd tricolor. It's where Life of Pi is partly set if you've read it and whilst the more modern Indian influences make it look a bit ragged in places it was definitely a nice spot to watch Englands heroic draw against Algeria.

Tomorrow I fly to Sri Lanka which I'm both excited and quite anxious about as due to visa issues I'm not sure what's gonna happen when I get there. Hopefully I'll be there for a few weeks and whilst I'd like to look forward to getting a break from not so much the love affair as the all consuming white hot passion Indian drivers have for their car horns I think my eardrums will take a similar battering in Sri Lanka.
Whilst the only things I really miss from home are my dog and watching the Os having now been away for over a year it feels my life has little connection with England, like all my thought processes are wrapped up here so I hope you're able to still get through the emails!

From Mamallapuram,

Posted by carlswall 01:57 Archived in India Tagged mountains beaches Comments (0)

(Entries 31 - 35 of 63) « Page .. 2 3 4 5 6 [7] 8 9 10 11 12 .. »