Matthew's News and Gossip

Matthew's News and Gossip

A man with no talent, but armed with a digital camera, can waste lots of bandwidth

Thursday, October 03, 2002

Sept 29--All India is pretty rough but Agra really tries your patience. There are endless attempts to sell you chess sets, necklaces, anything made of marble, and anything else that moves. By now I had lost patience with rip-off rickshaw drivers, and aggressive hawkers, and I managed to really lose my temper a few times. It didn't help, but I felt better!

The big things to see are the Taj Mahal itself (a big tomb), the Agra Fort which was the capital of the Mugul empire in the 16th and 17th centuries, and the Palace and Mosque 30 Kms away at Fatapur Sikri, which was briefly the capital between 1574 and 1590 when they ran out of water. I kept on paying for guides and getting less than I'd hoped for, and by now I was in Indian mode--which means that paying $2 for something that I could have got for $1 really wrankled. What was interesting was meeting a random British couple called Pete and Fiona on the bank overlooking the Taj Mahal. I'd got up at dawn (really!) to take a boat over to see it in the early light. There are a few pics of it reflected in the mud(dy river). They are driving from London to Sydney to have a good time and raise some money for CARE International. If you're bored of my tame adventures you might want to read theirs or donate to CARE in their name.

The long and full set of pics from Taj Mahal, Agra Fort and Fatapur Sikri is here

I found out via the incredibly slow internet access near my rather nice hotel (Hotel Sheela) that JB had managed to get his man at Cathay in Singapore to switch my flights so that I could go to Roger Owens' leaving party in Hong Kong on Friday Oct 4, and then meet JB, Roger and Hugh McDorfman in Singapore the next day. My liver is dreading this already. However, this gave me the time to go to Varanasi. On my way to book the ticket from an agent set up by Raj the Internet dude, I nearly fell prey to the famous gem scam.

The one the guide books warn against works like this: you buy $5,000 worth of gems from a jeweller for $2,000 on your credit card. The jeweller mails it to you on your next 1st world stop (in my case Australia), you give it to his man who gives you $7,000, you send another $3,000 to the jeweller and pocket the $2,000 profit. The guide books tell you that there is no man and your gems are duds. The version that my travel agent's "brother" tried on me was similar. Apparently he had exceeded his export quota, and so was essentially "buying" my personal export quota. I would still have to put $2,000 on my card for $5,000 of gems, but he wanted to send my slip to MY bank/credit card company rather than keep it (as the guide book warns about), mail the gems to Australia and then I would have to write to my credit card company telling them to process the payment, only after I had the money from his man in Australia. I couldn't see where the scam was. But in the sure knowledge that the best cons are the ones that look foolproof if not legal, I luckily had to rush off to Fatapur Sikri, without getting my chance of making a fortune.

On the way out of Fatapur Sikri I randomly met the 2 Canadian girls whose tickets to Varanasi I'd bought (I'd met them in the hotel the night before). On an interminable bus ride back that went round half of Agra, it became clear that we were close to missing the train. Even worse, the travel agent told me that the Agra train was full and he'd got us on a train from Tumelka some 30Kms the other side of Agra. Getting to the hotel was chaos--we used 3 separate rickshaws, none of who believed us when we said we wanted the East gate of the Taj Mahal where the hotel was. They kept on taking us to the closest gate. We kept on barely paying them. Then the one taking us to the taxi stand wouldn't. We kept on being dropped at his friends' places as they asked us to "take a seat". After about 10 minutes of me shouting "Taxi now or no pay" in my best Memsahib accent, he found us a taxi stand with one taxi at it. We had no choice but to accept paying 500 rupees (the going rate is 300) to get to Temulka. Driving in India is terrifying, and this was the worst ever. The taxi drove down the wrong side of the road for 30 Kms swinging in if a huge truck or bus came the other way. Me and one of the Canadian girls (Mira) hung on for grim death (no seatbelts of course), and only at the other end did we find out that the second Canuck (Ariel) had gone to sleep!

We had made the train with 5 minutes to spare, and incredibly for India it was on time. And the ticket I'd bought from the gem dealer's brother was genuine. Maybe the gem deal wasn't a scam! On the train we hung out with some joker Indians (who somewhat ironically owned a washing machine store in Varanasi--the center of Indian purifying-- and had been staying in a $130 a night hotel in Agra). I thought they were funny but the girls were a litle scared. I was both of their husbands(!), but really the guys on the train were very nice, and I wish I'd had time to take up their invite to visit them at their home in Varanasi, but I only had one night there and the girls rebuffed their invite kind of harshly. (I don't think the guys really cared about inviting me!) I showed them some photos (they couldnt guess who my girlfirend was, but they think it's Diana France!), they showed us a few of theirs, and one of the girls' Mira showed her's. They were a little shocked by Mira's photo of her kissing a friend in a very friendly manner, but I liked it!

We arrived and went to a cheap guesthouse for a snooze. Then I went for a walk with Ariel. Varanasi is amazing. The old town is a rabbit warren of tiny streets--too small for rickshaws. Every five yards kids play with you (I played a few shots to extra cover in an alley by a Nepali temple--that's cricket for you Yanks-this is Ariel batting). Then we were suddenly by the river. The Ganges is filthy and smelly but it is extremely sacred to 500 million Hindus, most of whom want to wash in it all the time, it seems!. All down the length of Varanasi, steps called Ghats go down to the water. They are a combination of washing steps, market place and temple. At one Ghat (Demshawala, I think) I was "pressured" into having a great two man massage. I paid well over the odds ($5 not $3) but it was well worth it. The next morning I got up at 5am with one Canadian (the other was sick) and a random Swiss physicist -- a kind of Frank Schellenberg sound-a-like - and went out for sunrise on the Ganges. We lit a few candles (bought from a pushy 6 year old girl) and then our boatman Babu rowed up (50 minutes) almost through the pilgrims and "sadus" (holy men) washing on the Ghats, and then put us out into the current which quickly took us back downstream near to the Burning Ghat, where lucky Hindus who die in Varanasi and are cremated are put in the Ganges and guaranteed a place in Heaven.

The full Varanasi set is here

My one night in Varanasi showed off the major traveller phenomen in India. The vast majority of backpacker travellers are Israelis escaping a rather bleak time at home. Literally the hawkers great you by saying "Shalom". I spent a fun night chatting with stoned Israelis, particularly one girl who managed to knit while stoned, and one French brother and sister combo who had been up in the Himalayas looking after Tibetan refugees--she's a nurse and he was teaching them to make cheese. The Tibetans can't handle living at 5,000 feet (it's too low) and they all have sinus infections.

After my morning on the Ganges I had just time to visit a silk factory, which means see looms in lots of people's houses and then buy what I hope is not overpriced silk. Then I had to skidaddle in a very very slow taxi to the airport in order to fly back to Delhi. During the security searches (which make SFO's look efficient and quick) I managed to lose my hat which made me very grumpy! (I've had it 5 years and love it)

Back in Dehli what had looked chaotic and filthy two weeks before now looked like a paragon of order and cleanliness. I had a swim at the great Taj Mahal hotel where I stayed the first night and where I left my bags. They recognized me, even the pool attendant! That evening I walked north past India Gate, up to the railway station. Finally deciding that my body was ready for it, I chanced a roadside restaurant at the train station before heading to the airport. My first day in Hong Kong therefore consisted of looking for bathrooms! But they are clean in Hong Kong! I sent my last emails from India in the cheapest and fastest Internet cafe yet. It had a satellite connection and about 80 stations--cost was 10 Rupees an hour (about 20 Cents!). After arguing with a taxi driver who wanted 400 Rupees to go to the airport, I took a rickshaw for 200.

The contrast between getting out of the filthy rickshaw and being lavished in Cathay Pacific's customer lounge (including a lavatory attendant who insisted on turning on the taps for you and getting the paper towels out) was the most extreme I experienced in India. And when I awoke I was back in the very very modern world of Hong Kong airport!
posted by matthew  # 12:54 AM
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