Thursday, 18 May 2017

India - some good bits

Backpacking in northern India is not for the faint-hearted. We cut short our intended stay from three months to five weeks for a variety of reasons, mostly to do with pollution, filth, poverty and constant loud noise. To be fair, there was also probably an accumulation effect from three months in Egypt, Sri Lanka and Burma.

Lest you think that we hated India, we really didn’t; here are some random highlights:

The nectar of the sub-continent

The best tea is behind bars, Jo says
The first encounter with Indian tea can be startling, especially if you are of the PG Tips and no sugar persuasion.

Chai is served in small cups that look mean compared to the stout British mug. But your first sip confirms that the amount is just right. It is extremely sweet, very milky and spiced. It is often made with no water at all, making it essentially a hot, gingery, tea milkshake. And it is a wonderful thing, particularly on a freezing morning in the Himalayan foothills: one slug provides enough mojo to get you dressed, out the door and headlong to the first Buddhist temple.

Enter the dragon

Calm, calm...
The Taj Mahal was built as a homage to an adored woman. Ironic then that entry into the complex seems expressly designed to infuriate… women.

Waiting over 40 minutes in their queue, their eyes narrowing, the women watch the men blithely sauntering to the front of the men-only queue.

When the ladies finally get to the front, the mystery is laid bare: the men have five security booths, the women, one.

Only after a good ten minutes venting to your husband about the ludicrousness of this scenario can you gaze in wonder and fully appreciate the grandeur of the Taj Mahal which – clich├ęd but true - no photo can capture.

All is forgotten, if not forgiven.

Corpses on fire

The sacred cows like to warm themselves by the flames
There is a positive side to this. Bear with us.

Over 200 bodies a day burn down to ash by the Ganges in the city of Varanasi. They are on wooden pyres open to view by everyone, and if you choose to look you will see everything imagineable.

It is horrific at first, but our tour guide artfully set it in context, and by the time we left the city we appreciated the practical Hindu take on the mortal coil. There’s nothing like seeing a son set light to his mum’s corpse or stokers snapping an errant leg back into the flames to understand that these really are empty shells. The important bit has clearly died or gone elsewhere.

OK, not the greatest fun, but as memorable as it gets.      

Fun with trains

Jo wisely hogging the bottom bunk on the train to Agra
A friend insists that the trains are the best thing about India – and indeed they are funny in a Mr Bean kind of way. Glossing over their punctuality, here’s some entertainment they provided us:

We learned not to assume that the B1 sleeper carriage you’ve been assigned is actually the right B1. There can be more than one. So before you turf out the poor sleeping occupants of your bunks, best to walk the length of the train and find more B1 carriages... maybe even yours.

If you have bagged a coveted lower bunk, be prepared in early morning to find a stranger from an upper bunk casually sitting beside your feet waiting for the rest of his family to come and join him and sit on you.

Snacks and chai are continuously, vocally on offer. At the start you shy away from the exotic options and stick to what you know: bags of crisps. Familiarity and overconfidence eventually tip you to bolder choices: "Yes sir, I will have two old newspaper cones of that weird crispy thing with onions, tomatoes and lime all mixed together by your fair hand." Which leads neatly on to…

Dave’s dodgy constitution

Dave re-enacts that first night, at the Chandigarh Stone Garden
Dave got a bit ill. Delhi Belly crept up on him in the dead of night and remains lurking within him to this day.

Fortunately we have a friend well read in diseases which target careless travellers and he supplied a hit-list of suspects to eliminate. It isn't food poisoning. It isn't giardia. It isn't amoebic dysentery and, Dave insists, it is not hypochondria. The investigation continues.

On its own this condition would be handicap enough but it coincided with a sudden onset of what the Beano would describe as Lumbago, caused by bending over to pick up a shoe. Doubly unfortunate because the event coincided with embarkation on a 13-hour, very bumpy bus ride.

The upshot of all this is that Jo is now even shorter, her spine compressed two inches by the valiant job of carrying both 15kg rucksacks from bus/train to station over a two-week period while Dave healed. Another reason Dave loves her.

Too much to report

We wrote more diary entries here and took more photos than in any other country. India is as astonishing as people say.

But there’s no point trying to relay everything we have seen and done in a blog post, and certainly not over a pint. It’s all memories primarily of interest to us, which we will more than happily share with you when you decide to go!

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