Friday, 29 July 2011

Nepali Wood

In retrospect, I’m not sure why we ended up staying in Thamel, in the heart of Kathmandu. I’d eschewed the guide book and picked a hotel based purely on Trip Advisor recommendations, which felt recklessly ‘off-piste’, but which ended up being a good choice, despite the fact that the taxi driver had no idea where the place was. It was the best hotel we’d stayed in yet, with entire hemmed towels waiting on the beds for us (in one Indian hotel we’d been given three “towels” which were clearly three fraying thirds of what had originally been just one decent sized towel). One of the curious aspects to travelling in Nepal is the disparity between the cost of sleeping and eating. For the same price as Indian flop houses, we get what are arguably two-star hotels, but we are spending about twice as much on food. This may have something to do with the well-heeled backpacker influence.

Thamel is the backpacker Bantustan in the middle of Kathmandu. By day intrepid Westerners sally forth to do battle with legions of scheming rickshaw drivers seeking to dupe them out of an extra fifty pence, restaurant staff determined to sell them dodgy local food of uncertain provenance, and guides seeking to pass off their careworn spiels as bona fide historical fact. But by night tender comfort can be savoured in the Irish bars and American coffee shops and Italian pasta restaurants and German bakeries. The streets are one endless series of souvenir stalls, all piled high with the exact same stock of traveller garb that we had already scoffed at in Pokhara. This time the difference was the number of places selling enormous “Gurkha” knives that even Crocodile Dundee wouldn’t sniff at. That and the number of men who sidle up to me offering drugs. Even the child on my shoulders isn’t deterrent enough. I need my ears cleaned, for mercifully I can’t hear the entire roll call of what is on sale – I’m pretty sure one young fella, who had the quivering look of a schoolboy about him, promised me heroin.

Outside Thamel, back in Nepal, we stumble into Durbar Square, World Heritage site and all that. The buildings are astonishing – large sections of them are carved from wood, and the degree of intricacy in the carving is difficult to take in. Then we stand in the shelter of the eaves of the Jagannath Temple, and look up at the roof struts. They have been patterned with scenes of the most invigorating obscenity, the possibility of which took me several years of adulthood (and one trip to Amsterdam) even to begin to suspect. It is difficult, without throwing money away on the services of some charlatan masquerading as a guide, to begin to fathom how on earth scenes of this nature could ever have been sanctioned for the exterior surfaces of a temple, but here they are, staring us in the face with their cheerful carved obscenity. Wood indeed.

On the way out of the square on the second of our visits there Oisin rushes to grab a flag from some people with a big pile of disposable flags to hand out. Turns out it is a Facebook-originated group of “civil society” campaigners for political reform in Nepal. Given that the civil war was notionally settled five years ago, they are fed up with their new political masters squabbling over the long-awaited constitution, never mind making a start on endemic corruption and clientelism. It’s all a bit Tahrir Square, and my mind flits back to the two tents I glimpsed from the bus window, set up outside Cardiff Castle in the rain on the day we left for Heathrow. I wonder if they are still there – the European movement for democracy or some such the banner said, inspired by the Spanish protests that kicked off just before the summer. What will all these new social movements do when the powers that be decide it’s simpler to turn off the internet and unplug the mobile phone masts? Perhaps sit down together and do some old-fashioned plotting. If they come to Thamel, they can be sure of a good latte and a decent blueberry muffin, right in the heart of Kathmandu, while they plan their next move.

Sunday, 24 July 2011

Mujeres India

Debe ser muy difícil ser mujer pobre en India pensaba yo cada vez que veía a las mujeres en las provincias del norte de la India detrás de bambalinas orquestando el show que protagonizan los hombres. Solas, y casi siempre con las caras cubiertas las vi de lejos: limpiando platos en los patios traseros de los restaurantes, barriendo calles, cargando cemento en platones que balancean en sus cabezas o ladrillos en bolsas sobre la espalda con manijas que se tiemplan en la frente. Del otro lado estaban los hombres: ágiles y parlanchines sirviendo a los clientes en los negocios; dinámicos manejando carros, motos y bicicletas en las mismas calles que ellas van barriendo en silencio, o casi estáticos levantando paredes sin prisa con los mismos ladrillos y el cemento que las mujeres-hormiga les traen. Ellas siempre haciendo los trabajos más precarios.

Pero había otros tipos de mujeres. Vi a muchas caminando por ahí rozagantes y sonrientes, envueltas en saris preciosos paseando por entre los bazares, claro que siempre haciendo parte de un grupo familiar, o tomando parte de ceremonias religiosas públicas, casi nunca solas o con amigas. El contraste es grande especialmente en las zonas rurales donde se ven grupos de hombres – sin niños ni esposas – conversando bajo la sombra de árboles frondosos. Los grupos de mujeres que vi por el campo, regresaban en fila por la orilla de la carretera y bajo el sol, después de la primera jornada de trabajo rumbo a sus casas donde seguro las esperarían las labores domésticas, los niños.

Todas mis apreciaciones acerca de las mujeres en India son simples observaciones que carecen de la profundidad que dan el tiempo y la convivencia con una comunidad, sin embargo entre más me fijaba en sus roles más descubría aspectos de la cultura que – a ojo limpio – parecen ser poco favorables para ellas. En Varanasi conocí a una mujer de 26 años con la mitad de la cara, el cuello y el pecho quemados. Vendía abanicos y tarjetas postales a las orillas del Ganges. Después de conversar con ella un par de días seguidos, me contó que la había quemado su marido, y me repetía como queriendo agregarle peso a la historia, que era un hombre muy malo, como si las huellas de las quemaduras no hablaran por sí mismas, un hombre tan malo que no contento con destruirla a ella también acabó con sus tres hijas.

Y es que tener hijas tampoco está muy bien visto en India. Hay un dicho tradicional para las mujeres embarazadas “Ojalá seas madre de cien varones” porque las niñas hay que casarlas y al casarlas hay que pagar un “dowry” (dinero o bienes materiales). El dowry lo iniciaron las familias ricas como una muestra de su poder económico, pero pronto las clases medias y bajas y la mayoría de las castas lo adoptaron. El dowry termina siendo una carga para la familia de la novia que adquiere deudas enormes para mantener viva una tradición que los esclaviza desde el mismo momento de la concepción. A finales de siglo 20 muchas parejas en las grandes ciudades optaron por realizar exámenes médicos para averiguar el sexo del feto. Si era niña en muchos casos el embarazo se terminaba antes de tiempo. Las familias de las zonas rurales optaban por dar a luz a las niñas y luego “ponerlas a dormir” administrándoles sustancias venenosas.

Hablando con la vendedora ambulante a las orillas del Ganges y viendo sus quemaduras que le daban un aire tristísimo, entendí que en el inconsciente colectivo de ese país aún ronda el fantasma del Sati (las mujeres que se arrojaban a las hogueras donde cremaban a sus maridos para que con su sacrificio se borraran los pecados de sus maridos). Aunque la práctica como tal fue abolida en el siglo diecinueve, en los ochentas una mujer de 26 años acabó en la hoguera donde cremaban a su esposo bajo la mirada de su familia política que no hizo nada para detenerla, muchos aseguran que murió contra su voluntad. El hecho es que la relación entre el fuego (sagrado, purificador, ceremonial) y la psique India es inseparable. En el Ramayana, Sita (la mujer del héroe Rama) se arroja al fuego después de infructuosamente tratar de convencerlo que su castidad sigue intacta a pesar de haber sido raptada por el enemigo. Rama la rechaza, ella no puede con su desprecio y se arroja al fuego. Pero los dioses la salvan (otra vez la religión siendo guardiana de la castidad femenina) y Rama la perdona. En el lugar donde murió la joven de 26 años se erigió un centro de peregrinación donde miles de visitantes llegan a exaltar su virtud.

Un mes es muy poco tiempo para sacar conclusiones acerca del estado de las mujeres de ese país, mucho más aun cuando las consideraciones vienen de parte de una turista con una limitada bibliografía y poquísimo contacto directo con las mujeres ahí. Sin embargo hay otros referentes con los que inevitablemente uno termina estableciendo comparaciones, y en ese caso India sale mal librada.

A fin de cuentas creo que mi frustración con lo que vi tiene mucho que ver con mi experiencia de visitante. En los ocho hoteles en que dormimos en la India no tuvimos ni una anfitriona, en ninguno de los muchos restaurantes en que comimos vimos a una sola mujer trabajando, en ningún tren compartimos cabina con una mujer viajando sola, en ninguna agencia de viaje nos atendió una mujer. Puede que sea todo coincidencia y que la realidad sea muy diferente… Ojala sea así porque para mí antes India tenía identidad femenina, ahora ya no sé.

Saturday, 23 July 2011

Nepal pics

In Lumbini Oisin makes friends with a monk from Myanmar.










Working in the paddy fields near Pokhara.














No, we didn't do anything as stupid as hire a moped for the three of us, wear ill-fitting helmets, and drive around Pokhara for a day with the helmetless child standing on the platform, hanging off the mirror stems, cackling with delight for hours at a time. Of course we didn't. And if we had have done something as stupid as that, I certainly wouldn't be posting pictures of it here, would I?















Oisin got a table tennis lesson from one of the Nepali kids in Pokhara.

Agra scenes

Backpackerworld: Pokhara

“Hell is other backpackers”, Jean-Paul Sartre once wrote, and Samuel Beckett famously ended his first visit to France with the words “I can’t go on backpacking. You must go on backpacking. I’ll go on backpacking.” Arriving in Pokhara, in the centre of Nepal, after an 8 hour bus journey through the Himalayas brought home the horror of these words.

From the swampy lowlands of Lumbini, we had steadily climbed into the mountains, along switchback roads seemingly hand-chiselled out of the very sides of unforgiving mountains. This time of year, with its rains, means a much greater chance of mud and rock slides, and the convivial young bus owner, who seemed to be journeying with us in order to make sure his employees didn’t drive off with his major investment, enjoyed telling me how the week before they’d been held up for 6 hours while several tons of ex-mountainside was cleared off the road. Climbing further, we bumped our way through valleys that looked like they’ve been cleaved into the mountains with an enormous celestial axe. Rope bridges hung perilous and insouciant over the swirling waters churning below as I tried not to freeze every single frame of the mental footage I was previewing of our helpless plunge over the unprotected edge of the road and down the side of the ravine.

The touts in Pokhara were certainly insistent. I had extrapolated the fearsome reputation of the Nepali Gurkhas to the whole population, and had resolved not to look anyone in the eye for the duration of our stay in the country. The inclination to haggle forcefully with the locals at a market stall begins to wane when you notice that the shop next door has a huge military banner reading “Anyone who says they prefer death to living as a coward is either lying or a Gurkha”. Hence the touts unknowingly had a head-start on me, and the cheeky one who happily continued his patter in fluent Spanish with us as we adjusted our backpacks and looked for a taxi to the Pokhara hotel was particularly hard to shift. It wasn’t till he’d told me to sit in the back of the taxi with Pati and Oisin, as he’d be coming with us to “make sure we got to our hotel”, that the penny started to drop. The taxi-driver smiled disinterestedly when I asked if the guy was with him – he was understandably keeping working relations friendly with someone he sees every day, while we’d be gone the following week. It was up to me to deal with the tout. I told him to sling his hook. In English.

Pokhara is a little chunk of paradise. At 800m above sea level, it is cooler than the plains, but still sunny and warm. The peaks of the surrounding Annapurna range of Himalayan mountains are coy at this time of year, and we only caught one glimpse of “Fishtail” mountain peeping through the monsoon season clouds. Nestling at the side of a lake, the town has become Nepal’s primary outdoor pursuits centre, with agency after agency offering paragliding, white-water rafting, kayaking, canyoning, trekking, climbing and horse-riding, along with air-conditioned bus trips to the next destination for four times the price of a Nepali bus. God forbid a pampered Western gap-year student might share a bus with the locals. So Pokhara, or rather the backpacker enclave known as Lakeside, has become a self-centred little backpacker world where shop after shop offers the identikit “traveller uniform” of hemp trousers and tie-dyed baggy tops, soapstone jewellery dangling from leather strips, woven shoulder bags with meaningful designs – the sort of stuff you’d never catch a local wearing. There is enough of this gear in Pokhara to kit out the national AGM of People & Planet for at least a generation. To be fair, the backpacker business, as evidenced by the types of experiences available to purchase, has moved substantially up the income range, and I have a sneaking suspicion that these shops have been stuck with this stock of traveller uniforms for a good decade or more. One would die rather than be seen in the Pokhara Irish pub in anything less than a Berghaus microfleece these days. Perhaps the shop owners are holding out for a Levellers revival.

In the middle of all this we ran into Maya and Kushal, with the delightful Jazminda. She was 4, Oisin was besotted at first glance, and so they ended up playing together for as long as it took them to start punching each other in the face. Maya is a Guatemalan-born German woman who’d fallen in love with Nepal years ago, and who had now fallen in love with Kushal, an economics teacher and climbing instructor. They’d been married the week before, and were waiting for her mother to fly over from Germany for the big Hindu wedding party. Maya kept pumping me for opinions on international relationships, but I couldn’t bring myself to tell her the awful truth. Perhaps a Nepali climbing instructor with Gurkha blood in his veins will be easier to live with than a sociologist from the Colombian Andes.

Tuesday, 19 July 2011

Lumbini, County Mayo

We leave Varanasi and head north for Nepal. The overnight train takes us to Gorakhpur, where the inevitable tout is waiting outside the first class carriage to hoover up whatever Nepal-bound gringos it spills out and to usher them swiftly onto his particular jalopy. We absorb his solicitations and walk on, more focussed on finding food for the child than catching the next bus out of town. I’m not sure I’ve ever had breakfast before where I’ve been entertained by mice running over the food preparation surfaces, but let’s assume that (a) as I’m writing this we all survived, and (b) Gorakhpur’s railway station cafes won’t be troubling the compiler of the Egon Ronay guides anytime soon.

We thought the persistence of the tout was worth at least a perfunctory enquiry in the corresponding office, so I went to ask for the price of a ticket to the Nepali border. The fat man behind the desk was delighted to show me to a seat, and began offering me all sorts of packages to the tourist hotspots of southern Nepal. When I told him I only wanted three tickets to the border he lost interest immediately and assured me no bus would be leaving for the next hour and a half. I left, we walked to the end of the street, hopped on the local bus, and were on our way ten minutes later.

At Sonauli a Nepali cycle rickshaw man gave us the slowest, most languid sales pitch we’d yet encountered. “Forty rupees full service.” We were beginning to like Nepal and we’d not even set foot in the place. I’d not expected to be offered a “full service” anywhere before Thailand, and despite not being exactly sure what it comprised, we clambered aboard his rickshaw. ”Full service”, it turned out, was taking us to each of the border posts in turn and waiting as we got stamped out of India, went to the sweet shop to change some sterling into both dollars and Nepali rupees, and then got stamped into Nepal. US dollars only for the Nepali visa on the border. The sweet shop man assured me that all three of us needed a visa, and so happily sold me $75 for three fees. The Nepali border guards put a sticker marked “Visa Fee US$25” in each of our adult passports, but the child got only a stamp, and it read “Visa Gratis”. Now it’s been a while since I studied Latin, but I’m fairly sure this means free visa, and so I’m equally sure that we thus got fleeced for the child’s $25 visa “fee”. I’ve explained this to the child, but I’m not sure that he’s grasped the fact I’m offsetting it against his pocket money for 2021.

By this time it was past midday, and our destination of choice, Pokhara, was still a solid 7 hours distant. We debated and decided to turn left instead, heading for Lumbini, a mere hour away. First impressions of Nepal were striking – all the people seem to have been left behind in India. The place was near desolate. On the road the taxi could travel entire car lengths without using the horn, and at times there was so much empty space all around us that the driver wasn’t sure which potholes to avoid. Once we got out of Bhairahawa (in 2 weeks we never learnt how to pronounce this place name) onto the road to Lumbini we started to fret that something was on and no one had told us about it. There was no one around. Maybe the civil war had kicked off again and the people had fled the country…

Lumbini is taken as the birthplace, around 486 BC, of Siddhartha Gautama, better known to the unenlightened as the Buddha. Once we gained the environs of this holiest of places in the Buddhist world, the commercial branding took a turn that transported me back to rainier days driving through Knock, Co. Mayo. Rivalling even the Lamb Of God B&B, or the Mary Magdalene Pedicure Salon in Ireland’s holiest town (I may have made that last one up), Lumbini boasts a Buddha Bhoomi Guest House, a "Lord Buddha Hair Cutting" salon, and a "Siddarth Power Loundry Service." The gardens around his birthplace are being turned into a quite elegant and peaceful park, but with their ample waterways they are exactly the sort of mosquito breeding grounds in tropical Nepal for which the practice nurse insisted we take anti-malarials.

There’s only one thing I really know about Nepal, that it’s the origin of the famed Gurkha soldiers. Hence there’s only one thing I can really think about as we drive across the Nepali lowlands – Joanna Lumley. It is not uncommon for British men of a certain age to spend undue amounts of time thinking about Joanna Lumley, so I distract myself by watching the other Western bloke on the tiny local bus out of Lumbini the next morning have a panic attack and insist that the assistant change his seat. There is a rudimentary grammar to the assistant’s communication with the driver. After a few minutes I decipher one bang on the door for “stop for passenger”, and two bangs on the door for “onwards, passenger aboard/alighted”. Repeated bangs seem to have a variety of meanings, mostly “get the finger out” while we are overtaking. I can’t work out why the assistant, hanging out the nearside door, should be advising the driver on his overtaking practices. I swivel round in my rear-facing seat and take a look out the front window. Or rather I don’t. The windscreen is so cracked and fractured that it is most likely the assistant has a better view of the oncoming traffic than the actual driver. Maybe that is why the other bloke was having his panic attack.

Sunday, 17 July 2011

Vicarious Varanasi

Some doors are closed to me. Others I choose not to open. In the case of the cremation ghat, it was a simple question of not wanting to see it. Early that day I decided that it could be interesting for Pati and me to have differing experiences of the same place. Hence she went off with Oisin to see the Kashi Vishwanath (Golden Temple) not far from our hotel in Varanasi, while I waited outside with the bag full of stuff that she wasn’t allowed to bring in for security reasons. Hindus walk past their temples like South American football players entering the field of play – the thumb of a clenched fist is touched to the forehead, and then moved across the chest in what seems uncannily like the way Roman Catholics cross themselves. I decided to take chai while I was waiting for my pilgrims to return, and the chai-stall opposite the temple served me a delicious thimbleful of tea in a small ceramic cone. When I tried to return it to the tea-seller, he got a little agitated as I set it down on his counter, and indicated that it was to go in the bin. I know we Westerners enjoy a throwaway culture, but surely an embryonic flowerpot is too much to be chucking out after a single cup of tea that cost me about 15 pence? Then it struck me that a “disposable” cardboard cup would probably cost much more to source or produce here than a tiny little ceramic pot, so in the bin it went. There are curious attitudes to waste, ones that I can’t quite get straight. In Agra, the week before, we’d driven past a series of road signs declaring “Say No To Polythene”. As a general principle this is largely sound. But surely there is a more pressing issue of priorities? Without wanting to restate the blindingly obvious, wouldn’t saying no to public defecation be a more pressing concern than plastic bags? Mind you, at least in a year or so you’ll be fertilising your tomatoes with this morning’s movements – not something you can say about polythene.

Some doors open to me involuntarily: despite walking the streets with my little nuclear family, I still get offered drugs. In the middle of the day. The tiny part of me that imagines itself to be a respectable middle-aged man travelling the world with his morally spotless family is outraged that the company of a small child is not enough to discourage seedy blokes from sidling up to me to ask if I’d like something to smoke. A much larger part of me indulges in foolish self-congratulation, along the lines of “well, at least you don’t look like you’ve completely retired from bohemia, take it as a compliment”. I struggle to think if there has been a single country in which I’ve set foot where I’ve not been offered drugs at some point. Maybe I do need a Nancy Reagan t-shirt after all.

I got mugged by a masseur on the banks of the Ganges. We’d been watching the waters flow quickly by, and reflecting (once again) that we’re here at the “wrong” time of the year, as there are no boat trips due to the height of the river. A guru had explained this to us, as he tried to soft-sell an hour’s meditation class. Once we’d declined the invitation several times, we seamlessly moved on to discuss India’s energy requirements and the opportunities for hydro-electricity. Despite the orange robes and prayer beads, this bearded sage started to succumb to great giggles as he told us how India had dammed one of the tributaries of the Indus that flows into Pakistan, hence depriving their neighbours of a part of their traditional water supply. He drifted off, and the masseur appeared before me, hand outstretched. For a second a flash of familiarity swept over me as I instinctively put my hand out to Cardiff’s late “Mr Shaky Hands Man”. The masseur gladly seized it in both hands, and before I knew it, he was halfway up my arm in the process of some sort of introductory massage. I eventually gave in, and ended up prostrate on top of a wooden pallet, while he pushed and pulled and tried manfully to pummel me into shape. What I think he took as my innate resistance was me trying to make sure he didn’t crush my sunglasses in my breast pocket. As this spectacle was unfolding, Pati and Oisin were playing with some of the locals who work at the ghats selling trinkets to the tourists. One young woman had sold us a bamboo fan two nights previously, but tonight she was gently pestering Pati to buy a book of postcards of the city. She moved her head stiffly, and it became apparent that she had an enormous web of scar tissue running from both sides of her chin over her breastbone and all the way down below the neckline of her top. Pati got chatting with her about Oisin, and then asked her if she had any children of her own. She became melancholy before telling Pati that she had had three daughters, but that her husband had killed them before attacking her with acid. At this point, post-massage, I witlessly butted in, and this particular door swung closed. It wasn’t a conversation that was ever going to continue with me being present. We didn’t see her again as we left the next day, but we bought the postcards.

Friday, 15 July 2011

Ultimos dias en India

Se llega a una ciudad desconocida como a una primera cita: con incertidumbre y con ganas de que sea justo-lo-que-se-espera… Jaipur llenó todas las expectativas. Nos quedamos en el lado urbano absorbiendo unas pocas atracciones; para la gran mayoría de sitios turísticos no hubo tiempo. Nuevamente como hace unos años en las calles de Paris, seguimos los pasos de Julio Cortázar; esta vez con la Prosa del Observatorio fresca en la memoria como brújula para orientarnos en el Jantar Mantar de Jaipur, un observatorio astronómico hecho por un Majaraya poco convencional con los ojos bien puestos en las estrellas.

En Jaipur la contundente lluvia del Monzón nos cayó encima por primera vez una tarde mientras deambulábamos entre bazares de textiles y zapatos de puntas enroscadas. Después del extenuante calor del medio día estar en medio de esa lluvia y sin sombrilla es una bendición, los arboles lucen agradecidos y ligeros después de la lluvia y el taconeo rotundo de las gotas opaca por un momento los pitos ensordecedores de los rickshaws. Dando brinquitos para evitar charcos en semejante escenario, casi sin proponérselo, uno se siente como protagonista de comercial de Ajax Pino.

El Hawa Mahal, una de las construcciones más interesantes que hemos visto en India y la más asombrosa de Jaipur, me abismó por razones contrarias. El bien llamado Palacio de los Vientos es impresionante, entre más se sube de nivel el lugar se hace más intrincado y más fresco; la atención al detalle se nota en cada ventana, en cada columna. Sin embargo es difícil disfrutar de la vista cuando se sabe que fue construido como claustro para las mujeres reales, entiéndase para las esposas del caballero de turno en el poder. El edificio “protegía” a las mujeres de las miradas masculinas, lo cual realmente significa que éstas, desde su claustro lleno de agujeritos, persianas y ventanitas perversamente pequeñas, podían ver pero no tocar el mundo exterior. Con el hermoso palacio del viento se validaba una vez más la absurda purdah impuesta a las mujeres a causa de las inseguridades patriarcales. El palacio es encantador y me gustaría poder divorciar el lugar del uso para el que fue construido, pero no puedo y entonces para mí esa jaula de oro sigue siendo jaula, como la purdah en pleno 2011 sigue oprimiendo a millones de mujeres, ocultándolas detrás de velos para tranquilidad de todos menos de ellas.

Pero dejo mis cuestionamientos feministas para otro texto y regreso al itinerario. De Jaipur pasamos a Agra, la ciudad del Taj Mahal y también probablemente la ciudad más sucia y caótica que he visto. El Taj Mahal es definitivamente impresionante. La historia oral cuenta que lo construyó el adolorido Majaraya Shan Jahan para albergar el cadáver de su esposa favorita con la que tuvo 14 hijos; sin embargo John Keay, en su libro de historia India, sugiere que los motivos que lo movieron tenían más que ver con orgullo dinástico y simbolismo Islámico que con la historia romántica que cuenta la canción de Jorge Ben. Afortunadamente cuando estuve allí aún no había visto el comentario de Mr Keay.

De Agra fuimos a Varanasi, y Varanasi me resultó más grande que India, como que todas las corrientes confluyen ahí, literal y metafóricamente bajando por las aguas del rio Ganjes. Las calles están demasiado vivas para ser una de las ciudades más antiguas del mundo, miles de peregrinos deambulan descalzos y con las cabezas afeitadas, las vacas invaden las angostas calles por las cuales no deberían pasar más que un par de personas pero por las que pasan motos, rickshaws, bicicletas, procesiones, bandas que acompañan las procesiones, policías de esculturales bigotes, turistas, sadhus, vendedores de guirnaldas de flores para el templo de Oro y tantas otras imágenes para las que no hay espacio, ni aquí ni en las calles. En Varanasi tuve el mal juicio de ir al ghat (escaleras a la orilla del rio) Manikarnika donde se creman los cadáveres. Hice el tour, aspire el humo asfixiante que a veces (en las hogueras de los muertos ricos) traen notas de madera de sándalo. Aprendí de las diferencias de trajes de los muertos, conocí uno de los hospicios donde llegan los creyentes moribundos a pasar sus últimas horas. Una vez muertos son lavados en el rio y luego cremados en las fogatas de las orillas del Ganges que según dicen tienen la propiedad de poner fin al ciclo de nacer y morir y volver a nacer. No fue necesariamente lo que vi en las hogueras ardientes, ni en los pasillos ni en el mismo rio lo que me hace pensar que juzgué mal en haber ido, sino en cambio fue la sensación de no pertenecer ahí, de no tener por qué estar ahí. Los celebrantes parecían bastante pragmáticos, incluso los familiares de los muertos a los que bañaban con prisa y sin muchos reparos carecían del drama judeo-cristiano de las ceremonias de muerte que yo conozco. La actitud del guía que me dio el tour por el ghat también me dejo perpleja. Al final me llevó donde un Sadhu en uno de los hospicios donde esperan su hora los moribundos y me tradujo sus palabras, preguntas sobre mi familia, para al final darme una bendición prefabricada y preguntarme con cuantos kilos de madera querría yo contribuir. 250 rupias el kilo, con ese dinero, dijo, compran madera para cremar a los que no tienen como pagar. Yo cerré la transacción donando un modesto kilo (la mayoría de la gente me dijo el guía insatisfecho, donan dos o tres o más!). Salir de ahí y encontrar a Oisin subiendo escaleras de dos en dos y a Gareth fresquito y bebiendo agua fue como despertar de un sueño largo.

Tuesday, 12 July 2011

Bathing in the Ganges

Born to die in Varanasi

According to the guide book Varanasi is one of India’s holiest cities. We got off the overnight sleeper train in it after not getting very much sleep. Opposite us in the carriage was a fierce unsmiling man with the face of a 19th century political assassin. He wore suspicious shiny shoes and dusted his spotless trousers with the Indian Railways towel every couple of minutes. He did eventually lie down, fully-dressed, on the bed, as if to sleep, but he was sitting bolt upright in his original position when I was jolted back to consciousness a few hours later.

As far as holy cities go, Varanasi gives the impression of being a religious tinderbox. There are armed police on nearly every street corner, although with the amusing informality of Indian police, they stare over their cumbersome and antiquated Lee-Enfields at the child and wave back happily at him if he deigns to notice them. They appear, one assumes, to be guarding the innumerable shrines which pepper the old city near the edge of the sacred river Ganges. Even someone as ill-informed as I am knows that India has a solid history of religious conflict, so presumably the police, with moustaches, torpor and out-dated weaponry, will leap to the well-drilled defence of crumbling shrines in the event a riotous multitude presents itself. It is reassuring for a boy from Belfast to stumble into a foreign city in July and discover that the holy places need permanent armed guard, and that the religious fanatics all wear orange. On our first day we ran straight into a religious procession, complete with marching band and maniacally enthusiastic drummers, and nervously tailed it in the hope of a good photo or two. In return we were regaled with free drinks (close your eyes and take a good visible draught for fear of offending, and just hope your own personal god is protecting you from celebratory drinks made with actual Ganges water) and sweets, although I couldn’t establish if the sweets were for me or for me to give as an offering to the idol being towed through the narrow streets in a handcart.

Varanasi is where the devout come to die, to be cremated in the open air on the “ghats” on the banks of the Ganges. Despite the heat, this fact chills me. There is a morbid tourist route which involves faux-respect for the sanctity of the cremation zone (keep your cameras out of sight) while all the time gawking to catch a glimpse of a singed body part. In the narrow back alleys of the old city the most unlikely men double-take us and fall in step with directions to the “cremation ghat”. It can only be touting, but what business is there in tourists rubber-necking death? We decided that we weren’t going to venture too close. We’d met a Danish couple the night before who told us of their regret at having seen burning limbs. I didn’t fancy the sort of explanatory contortions that a scene like that would require for the ears of a three year-old. He hasn’t quite yet come to terms with the loss of his toys to the monkeys in Simla. Yet as we wandered the lanes, hopelessly trying to locate one of the largest rivers in the continent, we inevitably ended up being guided to the site. Smoke curled around the last corner, and for a moment I thought of trying to hold my breath, keen not to be breathing in the last motes of someone’s loved one on the breeze. Oddly neat stacks of chopped wood, the height of two humans, dotted the steps down to the river, and an old man swung an ineffectual sledgehammer at several chisels that he was using to split open a sizeable tree trunk. I hid with the child behind one pile of timber as Pati went forward for the tour, in the company of a gentleman who purported to run one of the hospices in the area. The embers of a cremation were still sending tendrils of smoke out into the air around us, yet she said that the heat was incredible as she got closer. Then she was taken upstairs to the hospice, where among a pitiful assortment of human frailty and mortality, she was invited to make a donation – to cover the cost of the wood for the burnings. 250 rupees buys a kilo of timber, apparently. On a balcony next to her an American man stood taking pictures with a long-lensed camera. Different donations garner different privileges and religious strictures wilt in the face of the death business. Devout Hindus come here to die, in order to be cremated next to their holy river, and yet its condition seems to matter less to the living. A local holy man turned environmental campaigner for the state of the river recently died after a hunger strike to protest against the government’s inaction over protecting the Ganges from increasing levels of illegal industrial pollution. Regardless of the number of body parts floating in the waters, it’s the heavy metal pollution that proves the greatest risk to human health. We head back in silence to the hotel, change all our clothes and take a long shower.

Wednesday, 6 July 2011

Varanasi pics

What side of the street do you pick when faced with this?













Oisin is really getting into his backpacking. Nepal is that way...


















Yep, it's a cobra, no we didn't touch it like he was inviting us to, yep we had to pay for the photo.

Tuesday, 5 July 2011

Agra Aggro

As we checked out of the gorgeous Pearl Palace hotel in Jaipur last Thursday to catch the afternoon train to Agra, the clerk casually enquired where we were off to next. “To see the Taj Mahal? You do know it’s closed on Fridays?”

We didn’t. Or at least, I hadn’t paid enough attention to the guide book, which clearly mentioned this fact, at the time of cleverly booking all our train tickets in advance. So off we trotted to the Jaipur railway station ticket office, and managed to change our onward ticket so as to spend an extra night in Agra and get to see the Taj Mahal on the Saturday. It being a Muslim monument, it is not entirely inconceivable that it would be closed on a Friday.

Getting off the train in Agra seemed like stepping onto another planet. The monsoon rains had come down heavily just as we were arriving, and we had nervously observed flooded streets with water coursing through people’s downstairs rooms next to the railway tracks. Beside the tracks were growing piles of refuse that at times threatened to overcome the jerry-built dwellings alongside. These were entire contour lines of rubbish that would appear on a decent map of the area.

On the platform we were greeted by the maddest orange sky. There was no sign of the sun, but the rains had provoked a power cut, and the only light was this orange light that felt like we were on Mars. In hindsight it might have something to do with the pollution that blankets Agra, but it wasn’t till we were leaving that my throat gave up trying to cope with the foul air and turned to sandpaper in reaction. Outside the station the streets seemed jammed with people, but that’s nothing out of the ordinary for country with so many people. Our rickshaw driver then explained to us on the way to the hostel that we had arrived right at the end of a three day festival at the Taj where the doors are thrown open to all-comers for free. Our hostel was next door to the Taj, so we were driving against the flow of a human torrent that started to make the flood waters look tame. Rickshaws crammed with easily a dozen people at a time (I think they’re supposed to take three in the back and a driver) stuttered past, while scooters with families of five wedged on tried to weave between the logjam of vehicles. The roundabouts were a free for all, the police just stood around in case witnesses were needed later, and there were people, bicycles, rickshaws, pigs, taxis, scooters, cows, goats and more people everywhere.

The hostel turned out to be the grimmest we’ve managed so far. Hopefully that’s rock bottom, and we’ll not have to step past the goats and their piles of shit in the back alley on the way to any other rooms in the coming months. Nor watch the mice scurry around the patio outside. Nor lay our heads down on greasy pillows. The only redeeming feature was the absolute kindness of the people who worked there – if only they’d take a moment to clean the bathrooms!

On Friday we headed out of Agra to see the abandoned palace complex at Fatehpur Sikri. It’s quite something, finished in 1585 and then abandoned, no one seems quite sure why, just ten years later. We nearly got into another row with the uninvited guides, who display a persistence to rival even Oisin’s attempts to live off ice cream, but eventually we were left to wander by ourselves. Ignorance is bliss – it’s a pretty building, I want to take nice photos of it and play with my boy, not spend an hour rushing after some blagger who will tell me what I can read in my book. The most striking image of the place is the lime green waters of the pool. I don’t know what sort of things grow in water to make it turn bright green, but I’m fairly confident they’re not conducive to human health. And of course there were a pair of Indian lads splashing around in it, having a whale of a time.

After missing the three day free festival, and after planning to visit it on the day it was closed, and after the vilest cup of breakfast coffee in recorded history, we made it to the Taj on Saturday. The only thing in my mind the whole time I was there was that image of Diana Spencer sitting all on her own in front of it. The soundtrack to that image should be Kim Jong-il’s song from Team America – “I’m So Ronery”. We found the marble bench she posed on for that photo, but a million tourist backsides have long since polished off any trace of that particular dead royal. The building is fabulous, but the heat and humidity got the better of us, and after a couple of hours we gave up trying to detect the ‘wondrous play of light on the surface of the marble as the sun crosses the sky’. We reclaimed our bags from the hotel and made a hasty escape for the night train to Varanasi.

Monday, 4 July 2011

Confesion

Para hacer justicia con las realidades de nuestro viaje me siento en la obligación de compartir una afirmación: LA INDIA APESTA. Así de simple y sin concesiones. El maravilloso subcontinente que nos fascina con todas sus explosiones de colores y sabores me sobrecoge con los olores fétidos de sus calles. Muchos de los olores nauseabundos los he olido antes, y quienes me conocen saben que no soy particularmente melindrosa, sin embargo en tres semanas que hemos estado aquí he llegado a conocer el límite de la náusea.

De chica iba a la plaza de mercado los viernes con mi mamá a comprar frutas y verduras y siempre había charcos donde se mezclaban los olores de la comida semi-descompuesta con las aguas negras o con las urgencias humanas, pero estos olores estaban usualmente confinados a espacios específicos y uno pasaba rápido y los olores se quedaban atrás. En Glastonbury 2000 vimos en concierto a Morcheeba y a Moby entre otros, pero cuando pienso en esos tres días de festival, la memoria más clara es la de los baños portátiles apestosos haciéndole seria competencia a la banda sonora. Pero ni el festival ni las plazas de mercado de Tunja me endurecieron tanto la panza como para poder lidiar adecuadamente con la mezcla inclemente de olores terribles que ofrece India. Y es que India apesta porque a la gran mayoría de sus habitantes les importa un sieso la higiene a nivel público.

Hace un par de posts mencioné que subiendo en tren por los Himalayas daba pena ver los cauces de ríos secos y las laderas de las montañas poblados de botellas, costales, harapos y mil cosas más. Botar la basura al suelo es simplemente una de las cosas que se hacen sin pensarlo dos veces y no solo en India, en Colombia aún se ven paisanos botando la basura por la ventana de los carros y en Cardiff también viven especímenes así. Con lo que realmente no sé lidiar es con la mezcla de basura, excrementos y aguas negras que se amalgaman en una inmunda trinidad omnipresente en los espacios públicos de la India.

Ayer, después de una día completo recorriendo Jaipur que se despertaba radiante después de los chubascos del monzón, me imaginaba lo lindas que serían esas calles con todos sus personajes y edificios maravillosos, si los olores que predominaran fueran los de los inciensos que se encienden en cada árbol y en cada esquina en altares a los tantos dioses hindúes, si la fragancia de los mangos inusualmente aromáticos se pudiera distinguir al pasar por las carretillas donde los venden lindamente arreglados en platones de lata, si la madera de sándalo, si los perfumes de aceite, si el cardamomo y demás especias…

Usar las calles como baño público es, no solamente normal, sino descaradamente permitido. Uno necesita realmente ver donde pone los pies pues en cada esquina que uno dobla, en cada calle estrecha, detrás de cada poste de luz, de cada muro, debajo de cada escalera asecha la realidad de esta cultura que una escritora India describe como urgencia de purificación. Según lo explica en su libro Karma Cola, los habitantes de este país utilizan cualquier oportunidad para deshacerse de los impuros productos de sus organismos, no importa donde los coja el momento, lo importante es deshacerse de la carga.

Yo, marcada por principios cristianos y no hindús, me reservo mis urgencias para la privacidad de mi propia compañía, le doy cuerda a mis moralismos occidentales y bendigo hasta el punto del fanatismo a los pañitos húmedos que me dio mi amiga Sandra Gómez en Londres, al agua, al jabón y al desinfectante aceite de árbol de té y me baño minuciosamente después de entrar a nuestra habitación de turno en los pulcros hoteles de la India.

The Wave

We’ve hit the wave. Not so much the “wall” that athletes talk of hitting (although in my experience the wall took about ten minutes to catch up with me from the start line of the Bristol half marathon, then clobbered me with its cement and hitched up a wagon full of breeze blocks for me to pull around for the next two hours), but a solid experience of water. The wave. In Jodhpur the heat was so dry that our skin would sting by the end of the day, but as the train to Jaipur pulled across slowly greening fields, we began to see puddles, then flooded ditches, then finally whole fields under water. By the time we reached the capital of Rajasthan and the doors to our air-conditioned compartment swung open, the humidity was waiting on the platform like a slavering Rottweiler that had been promised a dinner of barbequed white folk.

The curious thing is that the temperature is actually lower, but overnight someone rigged up a sprinkler between my shoulder blades. We headed off to see the City Palace, one of the sights of the famous “Pink City” of Jaipur, but no matter where I stood, sun or shade, there was a steady stream of perspiration running down my back. My clothes turn to ‘camo sweat’, light areas set against a camouflage pattern of soggy darker areas of liquid that used to be me. Red flecks come up on the child’s skin, and headaches start to kick in during the afternoon, and we take a moment to make sure we’re not on a slippery slope to sunstroke.

It seems too easy to throw your weight around in a country founded (according to Richard Attenborough) on pacifism. But the pressure of the touts, as the guide books call them, has increased dramatically, and Jaipur is in danger of becoming an unpleasant place to take a stroll due to the constant cries of ‘what’s your country’, ‘I give you good price’, ‘you want rickshaw tour of city’, ‘hello… hello… hello…’. Generally it is easy enough to smile on the way past, perhaps sidestep, or lapse into Spanish. Spanish is a godsend most of the time, for it demonstrably puts you beyond the conversational reach of the majority of the hawkers, but the sharper operators pick up on it, and can manage a few ‘holas’, or ‘de qué país?’. Their confusion is a delight to behold when I tell them I’m from Ireland. One, though, blocked Patricia’s path completely, and in an uncharacteristic way, made no effort to let her past. The colonnades are a visual treat, but once the contents of each shop have been arrayed on most of the pavement, there’s not much space left to the passer-by. Pati nearly had to step into the road to get past this insistent bazaar dweller, and by the time I had caught up with her I had little good-humour left and (to make room for the child, of course) helped him back into his stall.

Outside the walled city, we walk against the flow of the traffic to sabotage the endless sequence of kerb-crawling rickshaw drivers who won’t believe that we actually want to use the pavements of their city for anything other than a toilet. A park opens up on the other side of the fence, and for a moment it is like taking a walk in any city: a small hand tugs at mine and asks to go in. Then a group of older men clad in dirty rags appear, scattered the full width of the pavement ahead of us. Something about them strikes me as incongruous, despite my limited experience of this country and ability to make such a judgement. One of them jumps out, and rushes up to us, yelling greetings at the child. His enthusiasm is out of all proportion, and so concerns me to an equal degree. Craggy features hunker down to Oisin’s eye level, white hair like a halo of static, filthy hands waving indecisively between the child’s cheeks and a handshake. I keep a grip of my only offspring, and don’t break step, but he leaps forwards and backwards with a nimbleness apparently born of malnutrition. I hate to use the child as his own human shield, for at the wrong time it would be a sign of weakness, but this is more than an unwelcome photograph. Just as the last of my patience trickles down my back, a second, semi-clothed man materialises out of the bemused peer group and with what seems like crisp new twenty rupee notes, starts waving handfuls of paper in circles above Pati’s head in an obscene parody of some yogic ritual. Overload has been achieved and I turn and yell full volume at the jabbering first one ‘that’s enough’. The second one doesn’t even notice and continues his blessing (or his curse). I push him hard to one side and don’t stop to wait for a reaction. My shirt is glued to me, front and back. Oisin is still asking to go to the park.

Sunday, 3 July 2011

Drinking opium tea


This is me, in Shanti's house, drinking opium tea from my hand. This is apparently how guests are welcomed in the Bishnoi houses. And no, I didn't get high.