Friday, October 21, 2005

India Blog 1

Welcome, Namaste, Shalom:

Here we are in India and we can hardly believe it. I am actually sitting in an office in Calcutta using a lap top which belongs to a friend of a friend....forget it: it's a long story and there are so many others to tell!

We arrived in Delhi early on Sunday morning after a fairly quick flight from Istanbul; found our bus driver waiting for us as promised and were taken to the Prince Polonia Hotel (!) in the center of the Delhi market. We got there at about 4.00 am after an unbelievable ride in the from the airport. The roads were absolutely chockablock with trucks, little motorized rickshaws, Ambassadors (formerly known as 1958 Morris Oxfords) and bicycles, pedestrians, buses: Hylton was riding up front and he was giggling hysterically the entire way to the hotel - mainly I think from sheer terror! Our driver managed to squeeze in and out of spots, cross intersections, get the best of buses...the driving in India is a story all on its own so I will deal with that MUCH later.

When we got up at about 7:00 we took stock of exactly where we were. The hotel itself was very nice and clean, air conditioned room, bathroom, but we thought a little expensive at Rs 1000.00 per night (NIS100.00 or $20.00). The street had potholes and rocks in the road; the jeep could hardly drive down it. Almost immediately outside the hotel were three cows just lying around the street: a little "makolet" across the road where we could buy bottled water etc, a baker (everybody working like a scene from medieval times - sweaty and dusty; bread baking on the open skillet...fruit and vegetables being sold outside, "chula" (dung) fires in the street, a lady removing lice from her daughter's hair, mangy dogs, mangy beggars...VERY "colorful" and entertaining.

We went to find the railway ticket office to book our tickets to Kolkuta. Long story short, we ended up with a jeep and a driver for the day and to take us to Agra to the Taj Mahal - why?
Because we couldn't get a train from Delhi as the holidays have just started here and the trains are FULL! The only train we could get was from Agra to Kolkuta so the guy at the tourist information office (where we had to book the tickets) organized an air conditioned jeep, driver etc etc to take us all to Agra in the morning. In the afternoon, we had the jeep to tour around Delhi and then to fetch Nate and Helen (and their friend Rita) from the airport. Sounds very "larny" but we had the jeep the first day free because we had booked it for Agra.

On the way to the station, we walked through the market - absolutely amazing what was on sale...anything you could think of. The traffic at the intersections is CRAZY! Huge trucks blocking the road, drivers just hooting and squeezing alongside them, little motorized rickshaws bouncing along the road, bicycles, cars, cows, noise, hooting. Near the market there is a main intersection to the station. You just take your chances and cross the road and hope you get to the other side.

The traffic moves on its own, never mind the lights. To get to the tourist train booking office, we had to take one of these rickshaw scooters. Four of us piled in (we'll send pix) with "Jolly" (a Sikh in a turban) as our driver. I was sitting up front next to him and about half way there he said: "YOU drive sir..." and let go of the handlebars! I found it, shall we say, "entertaining" - actually bloody scary! He was directing me which was to go but I was trying to concentrate on the traffic whizzing around and trying to find the brakes.

Once we had organized our tickets and the jeep and driver we were taken on an extended tour of Delhi. Highlights of the day: We went to the Jamal Masjid - the largest mosque in India, and then the Red Fort - both built in the 17th century. Around the mosque are hundreds of beggars of different shapes, sizes and afflictions(!) We have become very good at ignoring them and the snake charmers and the touts (selling ANYTHING you want). In the evening we drove around New Delhi (the British city - which is actually very beautiful, very green, wide avenues), but the biggest highlight was a visit to the Gandhi Ghat - the place where Mahatma Gandhi was cremated. The feeling there is indescribable: hundreds of people visiting the site, you have to take off your shoes and walk through the beautiful landscaped gardens to the simple black slab on which his body was placed. We bought some rose petals to place on the spot and the amazing atmosphere literally overwhelmed us. I believe this is one site that anybody with any feeling and understanding of humanity HAS to visit...(more about this much later.)

We then drove to the government offices and then to India Gate, a huge monument commemorating India's fallen soldiers - thousands of people thronging the area as it's the start of the holidays. There were ice cream sellers and balloons and a festive atmosphere: like Yom Ha'aztmaut 10 X !

In the morning we left early for Agra by road. After about three hours (and a stop at a VERY smart restaurant along the way for breakfast - driver's choice, not ours) we arrived in this town and were taken directly to the Taj Mahal. To reduce pollution, vehicles are not allowed within a kilometer of the site, so each couple had to hire a bicycle rickshaw to get us there. Suffice to say the Taj Mahal is just magnificent: there are no other words to describe it. It's familiar from all the pictures you have seen in travel mags etc but in real life it is quite spectacular. I wont go into the history now, but the entire edifice is built to a precise symetrical pattern; what is on the right is mirrored on the left, perfect symetry.

We were followed in by a horde of photographers: you would have thought we were visiting VIPs with a crowd of paparazzi in tow. We tried hard to fend them off, but eventually agreed to let them take our pictures, which came out quite nicely.

Next morning we took the Kalka Mail from Toondla (outside Agra) to Kolkuta: our "compartments" were four-berth cabins with two berths on the other side of the corridor. The only thing separating them was a curtain which could be drawn. Our "cabin mates" were Vimal and Beena from Kolkuta, a lovely couple who had been to a health retreat in Rajasthan and were returning home. We swapped stories, discussed our different lives and families and struck up a lovely relationship. They taught us some Yoga exercises and we also exchanged food...they gave us Dhal sweetmeats and we gave them halva: a real intercultural experience. Now they have INSISTED that we have dinner with them when we return to Kolkuta.

Oh Calcutta (English spelling); what an amazing city. Take away the shmutz and the beggars, clean up the buildings a bit and it looks very much like London; which is not that surprising seeing as how the British built it almost from scratch 300 years ago. The traffic was once again hair-raising. Ambassadorss (those Morris Oxfords again) literally squeeze in and out of tight spots, bend themselves around corners, belch their dieseled way through the streets and eventually, despite the apparent odds, deposit you where you want to be - somewhat the worse for wear. We spent the next few hours after our arrival viewing the city and booking into the YWCA (about which we shall say NOTHING except YEUCH!!!).

Helen was like a kid..remember she was born in Kolkuta and hasn't been back since 1977. She visited her old apartment, and then took us through the New Market to visit Nahoum's Confectionery - a business which was started by the Nahoum family in 1902 and has been in its present spot in the very heart of the market since 1916. It is run by David Nahoum, the last
in the Nahoum family line still involved in the business and one of the last few Jews left in Kolkuta. His cakes and sweets are delicious and the business is an institution in Kolkuta. Helen was very emotional. She kept saying "the ghosts...the ghosts..." remembering her childhood and the vibrant Jewish community life which thrived here all those years ago. David has promised to take us to see the last two synagogues in the city when we get back from Darjeeling...

Goldie - Helen's friend about whom much more later - took us to a new restaurant for a typical Bengali lunch - just too delicious for words: meanwhile it was pelting down outside and the Kolkuta streets were awash. The drainage leaves something to be desired. The interesting thing about this city is that there are some really upscale shopping areas - Park Street for instance - with really classy cafes, restaurants, clothing stores and a fantastic music and DVD shop...and across the street are the beggars and the rundown little stalls; the scruffy dogs and scrofulous children; squalor and opulence side by side.

We left for Darjeeling yesterday (Thursday ) afternoon. Well, it was supposed to be Thursday afternoon but ended up as Thursday night - our train was delayed for hours. We waited on the station platform (9a);then we were told it was 9b; then we were told the train was only leaving at 7:00 pm instead of 5:00, then it was changed to 8:00 pm on platform 8. But if you really want to see a slice of Indian life, it is on the station platforms that you really get up close and personal. We met Karan, a beggar shoe cleaner boy of about 9-years-old, to whom Marlyn gave a pencil and sharpener and some paper - he was thrilled. And then we were accosted by a little girl, she couldn't have been more than 7 or 8 carrying her little sister of about 2: the sweetest faces you could ever imagine, begging for scraps and rupees. If you allowed yourself you could actually fall apart over the filth and degradation and utter poverty in which these children live. But one has to put up a shield and actually shoo them off: begging is more like an industry in India - the more deformed and deprived the beggars look, the more valuable they are as beggars. It's a strange logic; we didn't want to appear lazy by finding porters, but actually realizedd that by NOT getting them to shlep our bags, we were depriving them of employment.

And now we are in Darjeeling having arrived a few hours ago after an overnight train ride from Kol, and a four hour jeep ride up the hill; twists and turns, buses, trucks, jeeps other vehicles coming and going - one or two actually not making it. There were a few wrecks teetering on the edge of the mountain. We shared our jeep with Col. Muhkarjee, an officer in the Gurkhas and a really colorful character. He has invited us to the Officer's Mess in Darjeeling this evening for drinks and dinner and we are looking forward to it.

So far, we've had not stomach troubles at all; really enjoying the food and keeping to sealed bottled water.

Darjeeling is charming but its raining and cold so we are not walking about today. Tomorrow we'll start looking around as the weather promises to improve. That's it for now. Future blogs will feature the Bog Blog or How to use a squat on an Indian train and some more on the traffic and Indian drivers...till then



benita. said...

Hey Marlyn and Larry,
that sounds amazing, it seems as though the people are very hospitable inviting you all over the place. Larry your writing is amazing, the place really comes alive under your pen!!!!! Enjoy enjoy enjoy, you must tell me if the curries are hot by your standards or not!!! love, Benny.

r said...

hey guys ...

shabbatshalomchagsameachetal ...

wildly jealous n all, you know.

r, m, k & d