Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Everyone told us that we would either love or hate India, but actually we had pretty mixed feelings. Just walking down the street here is an experience, as you dodge crazed rickshaw drivers seemingly intent on knocking pedestrians into the open sewers, feral cows feeding off piles of festering rubbish, and mangy monkeys that loiter on street corners looking for someone to pick a fight with. But despite this, we found India a fascinating place with enough charm for us to overlook its annoyances.

One of our favourite things about India was the sweet but slightly crazy people we have met. We got chatting to an old man on the train to Varanasi who refused to believe that there were no arranged marriages or wild monkeys in Britain. In Jaipur we were accosted by a man who asked us where in the UK we lived, and when we answered Brighton asked 'so are you gay?'. We also met a rickshaw driver there with the brightest orange hair we have ever seen. Less charming were the fake holy men, who hang around in temples trying to put dots on tourists heads then demanding money. The Jain temple in Jaisalmer even had a sign saying 'please don't tip the 'holy men''! (They also had a sign outside asking women not to enter during their 'monthly course period'.)
Another thing that we loved about India was the food. This must be the easiest country in the world to be a vegetarian, and we have become addicted to vegetable thalis, paneer cheese, lassis and super sweet chai tea served in disposable clay cups. After hearing other travellers' Delhi belly horror stories, we were relieved to escape India without suffering any stomach problems, despite indulging in some fairly dubious street food.

Our first Indian train ride was from Gorakhpur, near the Nepali border, to Varanasi. This was quite an experience - we didn't know that there were different classes of ticket so we wound up getting seats in the cheapest carriage, which is commonly known as 'jungle class' because of the people sitting on luggage racks and hanging out of the doors. Varanasi is a filthy but charming city and, despite being a bit of a shock to the system, it became one of our favourite places in India. We took a dawn boat trip alongside the ghats - platforms along the banks of the Ganges where local people bathe and wash their clothes every morning. We weren't tempted to join them as although the Hindus say Ganges water is holy water, we were a bit put off by all of the dead bodies floating in there. Most of these are put in the river at the 'burning ghat', where Hindu cremations are carried out.

From Varanasi we took another train to Agra. Agra itself was a fairly unpleasant town, but the ugliness of the town only seemed to highlight the beauty of the Taj Mahal, the first sight of which took our breath away despite the crowds of tourists and the yellowing marble. Up close it is even more impressive, with thousands of jewels inlaid into the stone, and an amazing echo effect inside of the dome which amplifies the murmuring voices of the visitors.

Next we went to Jaipur, which was a bit of a let down, perhaps because Debbie went down with flu and spent most of the time in bed. The city's famous pink buildings looked pretty shabby to us and we were too stingy to pay the 300 rupee entrance fee to the City Palace. Our personal highlight was a beggar at the Sun Temple charging people to take a photo of his 'six-legged cow', which turned out to be a cow with the back two legs of a dead calf sticking out.

After a long train ride across the Rajasthan desert, we were welcomed to Jaisalmer by a seething mass of hotel touts and rickshaw drivers. Luckily we were spared from having to deal with any of them as for once we had booked a hotel and they had sent a car to meet us. From Jaisalmer, we were able to take a trip into the Rajasthan desert. First we went by jeep to an abandoned village and an oasis where we had a nice swim. When the road ended we swapped the jeep for camels and rode out into the desert. It was a warm, clear night so we slept out on the sand dunes, and everyone fell asleep looking at the stars, except for Graeme who was more interested in watching the dung beetles steal bits of camel poo and roll them around. He wasn't so pleased when he woke up in the morning to find one had crawled inside his t-shirt.

We spent our last two weeks in Dharamsala, working as volunteer English teachers to Tibetan refugees. We stayed in McLeodganj – the top end of town, which is dominated by the Tibetan refugee population. Our room had views of mountains decorated with prayer flags and with eagles flying overhead. Debbie had a job teaching English to a nun and Graeme taught a class of monks, and both of us volunteered at conversation classes. Working with Buddhist monks and nuns was an interesting experience: at one class, without thinking, Graeme killed a mosquito that had landed on him then looked up to see his group of monks all staring at him with expressions of shock and horror on their faces – one of them looked like he was going to cry.

A highlight of our stay in Dharamsala was attending a teaching given by the Dalai Lama. He spoke in Tibetan but an English translation was broadcast via radio. Everyone sat on the floor and after a few hours our legs and backs really ached. The elderly monks and nuns who sat around us didn't seem bothered by this at all, although one nun kept falling asleep and her friends had to keep poking her to wake her up.

On our first visit to Delhi we stayed in the main backpacker area called Paharganj, which seemed to be a mix of all of the worst things about India: endless shops selling MC Hammer trousers, persistent rickshaw drivers and constant rip-off attempts. We did like the Akshardam temple, a new construction with a main building covered with carvings of elephants, and a kitsch boat ride through scenes depicting scenes from the history of India. After spending a couple of weeks up in Dharamsala we were not keen to return to Delhi, but our second trip was more fun as we stayed with some friends of Debbie's sister; Amarjeet, Sunita, and their very cute baby daughter Shrushti. Delhi was still too hot for us so we spent our last afternoon in an airconditioned cinema watching a bollywood movie called 'Dil Bole Hadippa', luckily the story was so predictable that we could understand what was going on despite not knowing a word of Hindi.

After a year a half of travelling we arrived back in London slightly shellshocked and were met at the airport by Perry who took us back to his place.

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