In 99-00, I spent a year in India. This is the whole journal of my adventures there, on a single page.
Arriving in India: first weeks in Pune
Bombay domestic airport; July 20, two hours to wait
Start of my troubles: Saturday, just a day before leaving, a wicked cash machine swallowed up my VISA card. Impossible to confirm my hotel reservation in Bombay. Travel to Paris and pick-up for the night goes smoothly. Still no news from my hotel, that I had informed of my VISA troubles…
Next morning, before departure, last e-mail check: no success. While writing down the phone and e-mail address of the hotel, I notice a link on the Internet page: a “traveller’s notice” about my hotel.
Click of the mouse, and I learn about confirmed reservations that ended up in no airport pick-up and a full hotel, and e-mail reservations unheard of at the reception desk… “Well, I had better consider I have no hotel reservation!”
I just managed to catch a chat friend on the Internet who gave me one of his friend’s phone number in Bombay – just in case everything else failed.
Arrival in Bombay
Take off was a little late, and a very sweet Bombay-bred and New York-married girl was my seat neighbour. She gave me her number to write down too and a few tips about the town.
Safe flight, safe landing, hunt for luggage. The zip of my suitcase had burst open in one corner – hope I didn’t lose anything vital! – not to mention the broken pull-handle and the missing strap.
I did quite well until I got out of the customs (that must have added up to about 30 metres), and then a member of the airport staff simply jumped at me and proceeded to drag me to a hotel reservation counter. I tried to brush him off and finally realized he was probably more official than what I had thought at first.
My hotel was not on their “tourist recommendation” list, had “no style” and was a rather “hanky panky place” (sic). Adding this to the fact that my flight neighbour had already told me Juhu was not a nice area… Gosh. Hesitation. What should I do? In the meantime, a member of the airport staff comes back saying there actually is a guy from the hotel waiting for me. Even though the plane is an hour and a half late!
I am impressed by the efficiency of my e-mail reservation and embarrassed by the thought of cancelling it. I’m quite certain I don’t want to go to that hotel anymore, but after all the fuss I made by e-mail to maintain my reservation, I feel quite bad. Finally I decided that putting my safety possibly at risk for a question of politeness would be a bit silly.
The official tourist-helper was nice and indeed helpful – and obviously he didn’t seem to be after an oversized tip; he just wanted to give me his phone number for the next time I passed through Bombay ; ).
He packed me into a (free) van heading for the hotel they had chosen for me – same range of prices as what I was ready to pay. First whiff of Bombay night-air and honking traffic – awesome.
Hotel in Bombay
The guy in charge at the hotel was helpful too. Arrangement was made to care for my ticket to Pune, with free shuttle to the domestic airport.
Air-conditioned and mosquito-free room. Deafening sound of the fan and the “fridge” (I mean the air-conditioning device). Old and a bit scruffy by my standards (nothing awful) but seemingly clean (I decided all the same to use my sleeping-bag instead of the freshly pressed but non too white bedsheets).
I tried to compose myself a little, had a shower and proceeded to spray myself with mosquito repellent (fun, I hadn’t turned off the fan…). There were quite a few flies in the room and I couldn’t be sure one of them wasn’t a malaria-carrying mosquito. I must say my brain wasn’t functioning too well at that moment – so I decided to apply “health-rules” blindly (I started by brushing my teeth with tap-water – strictly forbidden!).
After having turned off the fan, the air-conditioning and the TV, there was relative silence. Continuous buzzing from somewhere in the building (too loud to be called a hum) and traffic noise unheard of in Europe (especially at 2 a.m.).
Gosh, it was so hot in that room. I had felt the heat on the journey to the hotel (27 C had said the airport) but it hadn’t bothered me too much as I had been rather cold on the plane. But trying to go to sleep, I did find it a little disappointing to feel hot and sticky only minutes after my shower. At least I was clean.
Sleep at last, one middle-of-night wake-up (“Damn! I wish it were morning!”).
I got out of bed around 7 a.m. without having the slightest idea what time it was. With the jet lag and without a watch, it could have been 11 a.m. for all I knew.
I waited through the morning with breakfast, TV, shower; I sorted my papers and tried to learn how to use my camera. I remembered to take a snap of the room – for history, my first Indian night. By midday I had my plane ticket just about sorted out (including the trip to the airport) – of course, nothing had gone exactly as expected.
To the domestic airport – about tips
After dinner, another helpful guy put me in a car with one of the hotel staff.
The man who had carried my suitcase asked for his tip. First time. I had tipped the hotel boys once or twice rather awkwardly (to tip or not to tip, and how much?). I had a vague idea that a tip for these circumstances should be something like Rs. 5-10, and I could choose between Rs. 10, 50 and 100 banknotes. I had this impression that I had been systematically tipping the wrong people. Guess I’ll learn more about it as time goes by : ).
Travel agent. Now that I have seen the desk at the entrance of the airport where you can buy tickets, I’m not so sure why I had to go through a travel agent. Especially as it took 45 minutes instead of the five or ten scheduled.
The hotel guy was nice and friendly until he dropped me in front of the airport and asked for his tip. Two porters had already rushed up to us and looked almost ready to run off with my luggage. I fished a note out of my pocket for the driver – Rs. 10.
Enough? Not enough? I had already paid the hotel Rs. 150 for a trip which was supposed to be free at the start.
When he saw the banknote the driver became somewhat aggressive. That was not enough! He had waited one hour for me! (as if it was my fault the ticket guy was slow – *he* was the one who had been doing the negotiating).
He wanted Rs. 100. That sounded a bit exaggerated even to inexperienced me. Without taking into consideration it would have freed me of just about all my remaining local cash. As I protested he went down to Rs. 50 (the porters had sided with him). Anxious to get into the airport as fast as possible and get rid of him and the porters who were fluttering about my suitcase, I fished out enough notes from my purse – porters peering into it at the same time. Sensing what was about to follow I told the porters I could push my trolley alone. As they insisted more than I did I finally found myself in front of the ticket counter without having won back my luggage.
The airport employee at the counter told me to go inside to check in – and for that trip I was firmly decided not to accept any help. The porters charged in again but that time I won the battle – with a little help of a lady behind the counter who shooed them off.
All that got me rather annoyed. I had never seen anybody insist so much when you have already said no half a dozen times, and I do get irritated quite easily when I am stressed and have had little sleep.
I hadn’t got ten metres into the airport that it started again. Another porter approached me. “No thank you! I can do it myself!” Oooh… but he was official – airport employee – I saw his badge. OK, OK. Let him do his work *prepared to give him a reasonable tip – by my standards*.
Check-in. But there he was again! I was supposed to put my hand-luggage in his trolley. No way! I like doing things myself. “Little money, little money…” Oh OK, he wants his tip. I fished out Rs. 20 (that I mistook for Rs. 10!) just when he was telling me something about 10 DOLLARS!
He got away with Rs. 30 – and I felt all of a sudden very grumpy about Indian helpfulness in hotels and airports…
Pune; July 22
Arrival in Pune
The flight to Pune went OK. It felt good to find myself in a familiar environment again (the clean airplane). Radha, my contact in Pune, was there to pick me up and greet me in her home. After Bombay, Pune was cool, less crowded, cleaner.
I took a little rest and then a shower (a “bath”, as it is called in India). She lent me some Indian clothes so I could change.
We went to one of her friends’ for an “international supper” – it was very nice. Food was delicious.
The next day we went to buy me some clothes – beautiful and incredibly cheap for me, of course (and it was the sales, half-price!). A rickshawallah got us lost in town – he didn’t know the way but had taken us because he had heard us talk French, according to my host. I noticed she seemed to have to argue a lot (at the shop, with the rickshawallah) – and that seems normal in India.
We had another nice meal at her home (that I ate with my fingers). In the afternoon, we went to visit the place she had found for me to stay in. A bit out of town (in Aundh), near the university. Calm and green. Enormous. And very posh by my European standards – almost too much.
I’m starting to feel more at ease – at least with my host’s family. I haven’t ventured out alone yet, and it does scare me a little. The simple thought of taking a rickshaw alone is surreal – and I’m really not a scaredy-cat at home.
Sick : (
In the evening we went out to eat. I had already been quite bold with my health by eating salad and brushing my teeth with the tap-water, so I was starting to feel a bit (too) confident. I ordered a lassi. Drank some – it tasted strange. Must be the yogurt. All the same, I didn’t finish it.
We got back home and about an hour later I started feeling sick.
I went to bed hoping I would wake up the next morning feeling better, but instead I woke up at 3 a.m., sicker than I had ever been in my whole life. One hour and a few painful moments later I went back to sleep.
I didn’t feel very well the next morning, but tried to nibble and drink some tea. Bad idea. A couple of hours later I was sick again. I decided to go for a straight fast. I slept just about all day, and in the evening felt thirsty enough to drink a little.
The next morning I felt quite well, and hungry. I ate some toast and my temperature dropped.
This episode put me off masala dosa (the main thing I had eaten that evening) for nearly six months…
Pune; August 1
After having been sick, I was bundled off to the pay-guest place Radha had found for me. Nice at first, it soon became unbearable. It seemed impossible for me to do things the right way. The climax was when I found myself waiting two hours in front of the gate because I had come back early and the old lady still hadn’t given me the keys to the house.
It seems a couple of things had disturbed her. One of them was the fact I hadn’t yet paid her (even though money didn’t seem to be an important question at all when we discussed my accommodation). And I think she didn’t approve of the way I was coping with getting inserted into my new Indian life (God knows why).
In any case, she “suggested” that maybe I should look for another place after my trip to Rishikesh. And seemingly she had already done a bit or phoning and organizing behind my back to make it possible.
I didn’t need more than that to decide that I was about to spend my last night in her custody, and I found a hotel the very next day.
Nevertheless, during my short stay there I had managed to get myself finally into town. I registered at the Police Commissioner’s office (exhausting experience, including running all over town to have photographs and multiple Xerox copies made of all sorts of documents, getting a bona fide certificate from my university and taking a blood test for AIDS). I did some shopping. I took a rickshaw – more than one, in fact! I got acquainted with the university catering and library.
I was helped a lot in all this by Mithun, one of my Internet contacts and by Madhav, the boy who was staying as a pay-guest at the same place as me.
Pune; August 7
Living at the hotel
The hotel I moved into was quite nice, and people there were friendly and helpful. But I knew that I could get better for the same price. Unfortunately, the hotel I wanted to go to could not tell me for certain if they would have a room for me.
I phoned and dropped in there for about four or five days in a row, each time hoping I would get a chance to move in. Finally I asked Madhav to go and enquire, and miraculously I was told I could have a room two days later. But until the last moment I was expecting things to go wrong.
I went into town a bit more. I must say I found the Deccan area very pleasant to be in. I ate out. Met a couple of Internet contacts. I visited a few libraries and found my heart’s content (or the nearest I could get to!) at Deccan College.
I also met a Japanese student from England, and it was a great relief to be able to share my feelings with somebody who had lived in the same world as me. Of course my Indian friends had all been very understanding, but I guess that you cannot really understand how distressing India can be for a foreigner if you are not a foreigner yourself.
On Sunday I went out for a trek to Sinhagad with a group of Law College students, friends of Madhav.
It started with an hour’s waiting at the bus station (I’m getting used to waiting in India!) and then a forty-five minute bus ride. It was like being on a roller coaster! I also enjoyed feeling the usual excitement of going out on a field trip. I was slowly starting to enjoy being in India, and was happy to find myself in a known environment: a group of boys and girls going out together on a trek.
This was my first expedition out of town in India. I found it so beautiful!
The bus dropped us in a little village at the foot of the big hump we were going to climb. It was steep and we climbed with hardly any pause. I have heard Indians joking about stressed Europeans before, but there it was roles reversed. I almost thought we were going to run up the whole way! It rained quite a lot while we were going up, and I couldn’t make up my mind whether to keep my jacket on or off. ; )
We passed an old fort and stopped in a little place where we could get something to eat. Tea and delicious pakoras. I must say I was starving.
It was really quite delightful to feel part of a group of people my age. But little by little I had to come down from my pink cloud. Although everyone was being very friendly and accepting with me, there *were* differences in the way people interacted with each other. I was not at home. Gradually I started to feel uneasy. I had probably been less wary and had been caught by the culture shock unexpecting.
But that didn’t prevent me from having a really refreshing day.
After the snack we proceeded to the top. It was amazing. The place was one of the windiest I had ever encountered. What was particularly impressing was that the wind was vey local. You could find a calm spot but a couple metres away be nearly blown off your feet. A little stream dropped off down a cliff creating a little waterfall. If you stood next to the stream, the water from the waterfall would be blown back into your face – a free shower. Unfortunately we were in the clouds, so there was not much to see. Only to feel.
We had lunch on the way down at the same place. I thought I would break my neck going down, it was so steep and I was starting to be really tired. So I just played safe and walked extra carefully, tiring myself out a little more. It is much more demanding to walk without taking risks than simply running down!
One of the things I had wanted to get done for days was find a place to do some judo. This trek had drawn my attention to how much I needed physical activity to really settle down in my Indian life.
I had an address and went to enquire. In five minutes I discovered I was a judo expert from Switzerland looking for somewhere to teach. I was nevertheless shown a place where I would be able to train.
First surprise: women were accepted. Second surprise: the class was actually mixed. Third surprise: the majority of people there trained every day.
Before I actually managed to free myself, I was shown the whole PE centre (or was I the one being shown around?). The manager seemed very keen on my contacting him as soon as I had a moment – I’m not sure exactly why.
Back at my hotel, I decided to try out the gym mats that were used as tatamis as soon as possible
So, the very next day, training. That was tough. After more than a month without judo I was really out of practice. And as I expected, the training was rather rough compared to the kind of judo I am used to, and not very technical.
For me the worst part was having to go without a shower after training. I guess I’ll get used to it : ) – in fact, there is no changing room; the boys change in the dojo itself and the girls have a kind of closet on a balcony…
Delhi; August 19
A normal week
Before leaving for Delhi I spent a rather “normal” week.
I ate at Mithun’s place and got to know his sister and family. I went shopping. I ate out in various places with various people. I thought I had found a flat – but it just slipped away. I spent a lot of hours arranging my web site – mainly to keep myself occupied: I had just learnt that my cat had died and was feeling a little depressed about it. I jumped on the occasion to start learning HTML and think a little about web designing (which by the way decided me to think my site all over again…). I had a stomach upset followed by a couple of digestively painful days. And – for a change! – I waited.
Just before taking the train to Delhi, I had to get some papers and medicine out of my safe. Unfortunately, the bank was closed (national holiday!), and I had to leave without them…
Off to the capital: hope lost and found
Journey to Delhi
The trip to Delhi was awesome. Madhav picked me up at my hotel at 9 p.m. The train would be leaving at 4.30 a.m. Five of us were going to Delhi and a couple of others were there to see us off. First we ate, and around 11 p.m. we went to the station. And waited!
I have to mention a scene that left me quite shaken. An old man got beaten up by some soldiers in front of my eyes. From what I understood, he was a bit crazy and had said something to the soldiers that they did not like. And there he was, on the floor, with those people kicking at him. Nobody budged. I myself was frozen. Luckily a railway employee arrived and the beating stopped. It ended up with this official taking (dragging) the old man away (after hitting him a couple of times with his stick to make him stand up). I don’t really understand what happened. And what astounds me most is that the soldiers got away with what they had done.
Apart from that incident things went quite smoothly. We found our names on the reservations list – luckily, mine was next to my friends’, otherwise I would never have recognised it, mutilated as it was!
I tasted railway coffee and found it very nice. (I don’t like coffee. This probably explains why I appreciated the drink you can buy under that name in railway stations.)
We got on the train, slept, read, talked, ate, watched the countryside and before I had realized what was happening the 27 hours of journey were behind us and we had arrived in Delhi.
I really enjoyed that journey. As we were five, we had nearly a compartment to ourselves (except the second night). I slept surprisingly well, despite the noise – I guess the train rocked me to sleep. The only drawback in this affair was my painful and persisting tummy-ache.
First contact with Delhi
I spent a day and a half at Madhav’s parents’. A place you could nearly call paradise – and which serves some of the nicest food on earth. The next day I moved into the YWCA hotel where they had helped me obtain a room. Nice place, not too expensive and in the heart of Delhi.
At that moment I was suddenly overcome by the feeling I was perfectly alone in this unknown town – I had even forgotten to take Madhav’s phone number. The stress of the last weeks had been gently adding up and I was feeling quite miserable.
I nevertheless decided to get moving and withdraw money from my bank account, as I was “a little” short on cash (understand: I couldn’t pay my first hotel night). Unfortunately the transfer of money from Pune to Delhi would be long and the bank was about to close. I hunted for an Internet cafe – without success.
As I walked around Connaught Place, I had the impression that every ten metres somebody would jump at me to offer help, assistance, or transport. I’m exaggerating, of course – but just a bit. It was quite scary at first, and I did my best to take the “I Know Where I’m Going” look.
Out of all the undesirable encounters I made during those next days, one surprised me. A young boy who wanted to talk and that I had brushed off like so many others. I bumped into him an hour or so later, and realized that he *really* wasn’t after my money. From what I gathered, this young teenager went to a Hindi medium school, and practiced his English by chatting with people like me. Dreams of studying medicine abroad. Incredible – but true?
In any case, the heat, rickshawallahs and other guides, added to the non-success of my enterprises found me walking into – guess! – a McDonald’s. Would you believe it? It was nice and cool (cold) inside, hassle-free, and I could open my map without attracting ten greedy people around me. I drank an over-expensive Fanta and prepared to face the non-AC world again.
Back at the hotel, I did some planning to cheer myself up – yeah! Let’s go to Amritsar and Dharamsala! – ate a tasteless thali and finally went to bed.
Ill, alone, and pennyless
I had an awful night, waking up alternatively freezing (turn off that noisy fan) or in a bad sweat (switch that noisy fan back on). Each wake-up brought me closer to accepting the evidence I was catching a cold and my sinuses were starting to be in a very nasty state.
One of my zombie expeditions out of my (clean!) bed brought me face-to-face with a giant (5 cm) bug in the bathroom (a cockroach in fact). Even in my sleepwalking state, I managed to open the locked cupboard, catch my camera and take a picture for posterity.
The thermometre’s verdict in the morning left no doubt. I stopped measuring at 38.9 C (something like 102 F) and inquired about a doctor at the reception. Payment was to be made in cash, which meant I had to run to my bank first. And I was really not in a state to go out alone – I didn’t quite fancy the idea of fainting in a rickshaw or on the pavement.
I waited a couple of miserable hours in the hotel lounge, feeling physically and mentally at the very lowest.
Finally I rang up the teacher of my Rishikesh Hindi course. It was the only number I had in Delhi (though the woman I had been introduced to at the YWCA would certainly have helped me if it had come to that). I knew that Nicola, the Swiss student organizing the course, was coming to Delhi – and I hoped he would be there already.
He was. That saved me. He lent me some money (at that moment I did not know that I would have to wait for a whole week before seeing my own money) and took me to the doctor’s (no, it was neither malaria nor meningitis!). Then we ate and went money hunting in the afternoon, another piece of fun.
The Swiss money transferred to my Indian account had not yet arrived, so it was impossible for me to get any cash, even by going through the complicated procedure of withdrawing money from the New Delhi branch of the bank while having an account in Pune (which involves faxing checks and sample signatures).
We bounced from bank to bank trying to find a place where I could get cash using my VISA credit card. Without success: we ended up in the bank we had started with…
I found an Internet cafe at last, costing about four times the price I pay in Pune – but at least I could communicate with the rest of the world.
Delhi; August 20
After a rather peaceful night and a useless trip to the medical centre in the morning (they had misread my lab results!) I went out money hunting again, with no more success than the day before. That was to become a habit in the next few days – the money hunting and the lack of success.
I found a place where I could withdraw cash with my credit card – and the reply (“funds insufficient”) left me disillusioned. Especially that the man in charge wanted Rs. 100 to try again with a lower amount…
Rishikesh; August 23
Before going back to my hotel I spent Rs. 125 in the Internet cafe to send a couple of desperate e-mails (to my parents – where they on holiday? Had they forgotten to pay my VISA bills? – and to VISA – who never reply anyway). It wasn’t wasted money. In my chatroom, I bumped into a chat pal’s friend whose mother was living in Delhi.
I spent the evening watching TV at the hotel and talking away with some South Indian Singaporeans.
Morning. Another unsuccessful visit to my bank. But at least things got moving: we managed to find out that the money was stuck at the Bombay Treasury, “because the account information given by the Swiss bank for the transfer was incomplete”. You bet.
In any case, I was told that the money should be arriving by the beginning of the next week.
After another lunch with Nicola, (how nice it is to be able to speak with somebody of your own culture!), I called this chat pal’s mother in Delhi. She had rung me up the previous evening in reply to my e-mail, and had invited me to drop in. I took the bus to go there (alone!); half an hour’s journey.
I spent a really nice evening, talking, eating, and walking around in a green park. Having been married to a diplomat, she had travelled in an impressive number of countries.
Bus to Rishikesh for the week-end
The following day, departure for Rishikesh with Nicola. He was going up there for a couple of days to arrange the last details before the students’ arrival, and had invited me to join him.
Before we left we were lucky enough to take part in a puja that was given for the second birthday of our Hindi teachers’ daughter, Ekta. That was my first contact with “religious stuff” in India itself. I used up a whole film of slides while Nicola took notes – a real journalistic operation…
As we were walking down to the bus which would take us to the ITDC Depot, Nicola did comment on the fact that I attracted a little more attention than him alone… It was nice to hear somebody admit at last that I was a particularly “visible” foreigner.
We got to the ITDC Depot, ate a very greasy and not too tasty aloo parantha, fought our way through people who desperately wanted us to climb into busses to various destinations, and caught one to Haridwar (larger town not too far from Rishikesh – we could get another bus there).
One noticeable thing about these busses is that their frequency is rather high – every half-hour or so. You don’t have to book (even though it is a five-hour-plus journey). You simply get on the bus and then buy your ticket. In fact, if I had to compare I would say the Indian bus system is closer to the Swiss rail than is the Indian rail (which in some ways reminds me of taking the plane).
The journey was nice (I’m starting to like travelling here!). I must say I was glad to have a male companion with whom to swap places when my Indian (male) neighbour started squashing up next to me more and more. By the way, this same neighbour, (by then Nicola’s neighbour, and very impressed by his Hindi!) wanted us to help him get a job in Switzerland (!), and of course invited us to stay at his home in Haridwar…
I forgot to mention one little detail: by the time we had got on the bus and it was starting to creep out of the station, we realized we had both forgotten our newly bought bottle of chilled mineral water. Talk of bad luck! We decided we would survive the next three hours without water, but that we would avoid digging into my thirstifying Indian snacks.
We finally arrived at Haridwar, having found some water, eaten part of my snacks, talked our lives away and enjoyed the beautiful countryside (especially at sunset). I also had the great honour to receive an Indian baptism when the man in front of me was suddenly sick and I was not quick enough to shut my window in time… but it was just a drop or two, nothing deadly.
Night had fallen. We got off the bus, brushed away a couple of touts who wanted to get us into this or that hotel, and walked for about thirty seconds. Suddenly Nicola spotted a bus for Rishikesh. It was leaving! We ran after it like madmen and jumped into it “on the move”. Common thing in India, where busses seldom come to a complete stop, but I hadn’t done it yet.
The crowd in the bus was obviously less urban than in the previous one – and it was more crowded. The journey lasted three quarters of an hour. I spent that time heavily compressed between my two neighbours (sides) and my rucksack (front). I could also mention that being at the very back of the bus (seats with the less leg-space) and being for the least of non-standard height and leg-length in India, I was quite happy when we finally got out of the bus.
Although I may seem to make this bus journey look like a terror ride (amidst sick, drunken or “interested” people), I really did enjoy it. The fact that I was not alone helped: I am getting used to being very defensive with strangers (Delhi…), and travelling with somebody allowed me to relax and be more “myself”. A great relief. And as I have already said, there is nothing like being able to talk with a friend from your own culture after three weeks spent “alone” in an alien country.
A pleasant day in Rishikesh
If in Pune and Delhi the monsoon seemed to be reaching an end, in Rishikesh it was absolutely pouring. We took a rickshaw and sprinted the last hundred metres to the hotel under buckets of water.
We had a nice meal and slept in an equally nice room, lined with cedar wood (at least that is what my still ill nose identified it as) and provided with a noiseless fan as well as a non-functional TV set.
Rishikesh; August 25
I woke up late and spent some time outside, fascinated by a group of monkeys on the hotel walls just in front of our room – my first “wild” monkeys. I was to see a lot more in the village.
Nicola fixed the accommodation details for the arrival of the rest of the party, and we spent a good part of the day wandering abound Rishikesh. What a change from the India I had seen until then! Being in a holy place, there was of course an incredible concentration of “sadhus”, more or less authentic (even a couple of white-skinned ones). But that was not all the difference. The “normal” people were different too. It is hard to explain in what way. More traditional looking, maybe? I think that what I saw there was closer to what I had expected to see coming to India – even if it is a tourist place (for Indians).
The attitude of people was much more pleasant. In the centre of Delhi, I already mentioned it was impossible to walk ten metres without being hassled. In Rishikesh, either people didn’t seem to care about our presence, or if they did, they would in most cases simply stare at us in astonishment.
We stopped a few minutes on a ghat, watching people dip themselves in the Ganga. The river was muddy brown and the current very strong. People bathing would hang on to chains to avoid being carried away by the current.
As I mentioned, the monsoon had not reached an end in the mountains, and we spent the greatest part of a rainy afternoon writing and resting in our pleasantly smelling room.
Back to Delhi: Deluxe bus and shoe-shine boys
For the journey home we planned to catch a Deluxe bus from Haridwar (the type of bus we intended to pack the other students into). Unfortunately we had about an hour to wait. We had enough water with us this time, but we were both longing for fresh fruit.
The bus departure area is quite busy and tiring for the poor foreigner (beggars and touts). Hunting for bananas was not much better. After a couple of “baksheesh, baksheesh!” we hastily bought some bananas (said Nicola: “too many!”) and made a beeline for the bus station’s waiting area.
No sooner had we taken a seat that I began to feel painfully visible. A couple of young “Shoe-shine! Shoe-shine!” and beggars had spotted us.
As Nicola had “shineable” shoes the situation was quite bad. After a couple of “abhi nahin”, “bilkul nahin”, “bas!” and “kuch nahin”, one of them finally accepted a banana to leave us in peace. I turned into an automatic banana distributor for a minute or two, as we were swarmed by beggars and shoe-shiners who had suddenly changed their mind on the acceptability of the banana as baksheesh. A bit over half our stock disappeared into various stomachs. The remaining bananas were deftly stuffed back into my rucksack. Finished! Kele ho gaye!
Just as we were enjoying our dearly bought freedom, two more boys arrived to try to “shine” Nicola’s shoes. They had missed the banana distribution and Nicola felt a bit sorry for them. “OK, let them do it (Rs. 5), like that it is done!”
They grabbed a shoe each and set to work. Payment time. Between the two of us we managed to gather enough of our precious change to give half of the price to each. But to our astonishment, the money I put into the smaller one’s hand simply trickled into the elder one’s, and off he went!
The small boy simply stood there, forlorn, waiting and mumbling, expecting his pay. None of Nicola’s explanations (in Hindi of course) that his “bhai” had got the money would make him budge.
He vaguely said something about being hit. OK. One case of common racket. We decided to give him a chance, remembering too that the sum of money involved was not much in absolute, and gave him Rs. 5. To be kept out of the other one’s view, as was clearly said!
But then, the first thing he did was run up to the elder boy and hand the money over to him. It all looked like a perfect plan to cheat soft-hearted people like us!
Well… If we had lost five rupees, we had at least gained a little wisdom…
The Deluxe coach was indeed a pleasure. Fans that turned on when the bus stopped (stopping which caused the refreshing wind caused by the speed of travel to disappear). Music including a couple of my favourite Hindi songs. Seats that allowed you to doze off without getting killed at each bump. Add to that a very “select” crowd of Indians (no lubricious looks or sickly-sweet hellos from those guys…). We also fancied imagining the driver had probably had a little more sleep or training than in the “normal” busses.
But apart from all that, “Deluxe” in India has little to do with what you would expect of the same label in Europe. Old, rumpled and half-clean (?) seat-covers (remember that most Indians put oil in their hair!), dirty windows, dirty luggage shelves, screeching music (playing too fast and going on and off at irregular intervals – no wonder westerners can’t stand Hindi music!), dare-devil driving (Haridwar to Delhi in less than five hours!) and no extra frills… In fact, AC and non-AC make more difference here than normal, Deluxe, first or second class.
Some thoughts about India
During these last days with Nicola we had many occasions to talk about India and reflect upon the differences with the west. I have mentioned (or will mention) some of them in my “culture shock” section, but there are a couple of little details I want to mention now. Particularly because I am getting so used to them that they are starting to be normal to me. I won’t pretend I’ve “understood” India. This is just where my thoughts lead me.
For example, take the number of “sirs” and “madams” an innocent foreigner is served by the average Indian employee. A couple in each sentence for the very severe cases.
Another example is fans hanging from every ceiling. Windows and doors that are not “outside-tight”. Dust everywhere. Buildings more or less ramshackle. Things that never look quite finished. Clothes that are never quite clean. Scorching heat. The gaze of people as you pass by…
One conclusion we arrived to – not a very original one, I’m afraid! – is that India is a world of contrasts and extremes, often to be seen side by side. You will see people living in slums next door to big banks and expensive restaurants.
The people’s attitude is also quite paradoxical.
Indians will often be very friendly, polite and helpful – but how “genuine” is their friendliness? Are they simply doing their duty by giving you a hand? You can find yourself being helped to a certain point and then almost dumped on the side of the road as if you suddenly didn’t exist any more.
The famous Indian hospitality has an ambiguous side to it too. People are bound to offer you shelter and accept you, as it is their duty. The way it is done can seem strange to us. I may be wrong, but I have the impression that in Switzerland the host would always tend to tell the guest to stay longer, to the point where the latter will refuse to be a burden any longer and leave – in a way, making it the guest’s decision to put an end to the hospitality. I admit I might be a little idealistic here.
Individualism is another of those paradoxical topics. The west is supposed to be individualistic and self-centred, but I have come upon a few “Indian” attitudes which seem to me more individualistic than the corresponding western ones.
For example, you are expected to fight for yourself more often than in Switzerland, where lots of people will always coax you into taking your place. At the counter, in the bus, anywhere in life. You are supposed to make your own place and ask for yourself. Seldom will one wait for you to take your turn if you do not take it yourself, or ask you what you need. When I say this, it sounds wrong – people keep asking me to take a seat and tell them what I want. But in Switzerland nobody would ever go past somebody who is obviously waiting at a counter. Nor would somebody be left at a counter without being invited to make his inquiry. The rules are different here. You are supposed to talk first.
While I’m at it, there are common ideas that I’ve heard over and over again propounded by Indian residents. About marriage, family, and domestic help as a sort of social structure, a help to the individual. They certainly have truth in them. But they do not seem to make the lacking social services and infrastructure unnecessary.
What about all the miserable people in the streets? Do they have no family to take care of them? Or do they all belong to family-gangs of beggars?
Of course, I know things are not that simple.
A couple of days in Delhi
Let’s get back to our travels after this little digression.
On our return to Delhi we booked the next trip with a private company (not a very good idea, as we were going to see). It all looked perfect – maybe a little too much!
We went to our Hindi teachers’ place (I had to pick up some of my stuff there). There had been a water shortage since morning, and they were also experiencing a rather long power-failure. Poor Nicola was dying for a shower, so we went back to my hotel to deposit my luggage before eating, and I smuggled him into my room for a quick bath – such a relief after a day’s travel.
I spent a good part of the evening washing my laundry (with soap, for a change). Imagine my dismay, when the next morning, once my clean washing was hanging all around the room to dry, the dhobi came knocking on my door!
I went money hunting again and this time met with success. At 1 a.m., I had withdrawn money from my Pune account and managed to get cash using my VISA. Hurray!
After an expensive meal at the Embassy hotel (both Nicola and I felt we needed a treat and I was longing for some chicken) we got a couple of details fixed for the Swiss students’ arrival.
When I look back at the last week it seems I spent all my time money hunting and wandering around Connaught Place with Nicola. I had a rather good time on the whole – but to be honest I must say it was due more to Nicola’s presence and to our conversations than to Delhi itself. That might very well be the detail that counts!
Rishikesh; August 29
On Thursday (the next day) I went sightseeing. Finding myself in an AC bus with a bunch of other (mostly white) tourists was quite a new experience to me.
The guide took us to most of the “tourist spots” in Delhi: Humayun’s Tomb, the astronomical sundial, Qutab Minar, Birla Mandir, Lal Qila, Baha’i Temple, Gandhi and Nehru’s memorials, ityadi, ityadi…
Travelling in an AC coach gave me a queer feeling of distance with the town. We would stop, rush through a curtain of everythingwallahs, listen to the guide’s speech, click a few pictures and retreat into the cool dustless bus, already hot and sticky from our 20 minutes of contact with the “real” world…
Switching from hot to cold all the time is awfully tiring – punishment for the use of AC.
Rishikesh: Hindi classes and Swiss students
Fresh foreigners in Delhi
After a few hours rest and a meal I went to the airport with Nicola to pick up our fellow students. They had arrived safely, all but one who had stayed stuck in Frankfurt – plane delay – and joined us 24 hours later. He got to spend a night in a very good hotel over there…
Seeing them all clean and fresh and bewildered reminded me of my own arrival in India over a month ago. In the space of a few hours I suddenly realized how much I had learnt and how well I had got accustomed to this new country. I was no longer lost and ignorant. I knew my way through town and public transports, hotels and restaurants. I had acquired much more knowledge than what I was aware of. It was quite a soothing feeling to be the one “who knows” – even though, of course, I don’t know that much.
For the next day we had hired a French-speaking guide and a mini-van (AC). The guide knew his job, which also consisted of taking us into a “silks” shop he knew – slight disappointment that he hid reasonably well, because we didn’t buy anything – and taking us to a restaurant which was a bit more expensive than what we wanted (but the meal was delicious).
In addition to some of the monuments I had seen the day before, we visited Jamma Masjid (very impressive) and the Jain Temple with its bird hospital. The inside of the Jain Temple was beautiful, miniature-like paintings all over the walls. We were lucky: had we arrived ten minutes later, we wouldn’t even have been allowed into the temple.
We got back to the hotel and I had but one desire: to lie down underneath a fan and doze off (a recurring kind of desire those days – running around Connaught Place in scorching Delhi while still convalescent was killing me).
I had a small nap and a nightmarish wake-up (the kind you have when you open your eyes, have no idea where you are, what time it is and what was this important thing you had to wake up for).
I then took the two other girls of the party to Connaught Place by rickshaw (the boys had set off some time earlier). I deftly negotiated the price of the ride upwards: “Connaught Place, how much?” – “What you want”. Disbelieving, I suggested ten rupees. “Ten rupees, fifteen rupees, what you like.” – “OK, fifteen!” said I, glad to get out of the bargaining so easily (I hate bargaining…). I must add that this guy was our “favourite” rickshawallah, and maybe I was feeling thankful I bumped into him at this crucial moment.
We had a nice (and cheap!) South Indian dinner ending with a mitha paan. Half our party simply swallowed it up. I chewed at mine conscientiously but I didn’t really enjoy it that much. Too many strange tastes mixed up together. So I spat it out on the pavement a bit prematurely.
The journey back to the hotel was fun. In the end we decided to use our feet, but at one point we considered hiring two or three rickshaws. Poor Nicola found himself trying to negotiate in the midst of about fifteen to twenty rickshawallahs! Utterly hopeless situation.
After a well-deserved AC night and a final YWCA breakfast (I had almost started liking them!) we set off for Rishikesh.
Journey to Rishikesh
We got to the bus station without too much trouble (a cramped and sweaty journey in jeep and rickshaw with luggage piled up on top of us). I mentioned earlier that we had booked our journey with a private company. You shall now learn why we regretted it…
It had all seemed too perfect. When we had got back to Delhi after our speedy Deluxe ride from Rishikesh, Nicola and I had asked the driver if there were any similar busses for our journey two days later. He told us the only Deluxe busses to Rishikesh left at 8 and 9 a.m. (too early for us). We found ourselves talking with a guy who could hire places for us in a bus better than this one, at the time we wanted, from where and to where we wanted – and at a fair price.
Half-aware we might be stepping into a tourist-cheater trap, we climbed into the rickshaw to go to the booking office. We fixed a few more details, the price rose a bit as the initial misunderstandings were cleared (yes, we wanted to go to Rishikesh, not Haridwar!) and finally bought the tickets.
Obviously the two guys who had touted us got quite a comfortable commission – they almost refused the ten rupees we had arranged to pay for our rickshaw ride!
We had silenced our doubts until the departure. We were in any case relieved to see that there was indeed a bus, although it had neither fans nor music and the seats were somewhat plainer than what we expected. Only problem: the bus would leave when it was full. One by one we saw some other passengers arrive. Finally we left by quarter past twelve (instead of eleven, not too bad).
At mid-ride Nicola went to check that they would drop us at our hotel and not at Rishikesh bus station. We learnt the chauffeur intended to leave us at Haridwar and put is in two Vikrams for Rishikesh (was he going to pay them?)… arrangement which we politely but firmly refused. At Haridwar and again a little later the driver tried to pressurize us (especially our Hindi teacher, as he “spoke no English”) to get out of the bus. We did not give in but all the same, we had to finish the last few kilometres of our journey by jeep.
Needless to say we learnt a good lesson from this. I think that in future both Nicola and I will stick to the government-financed transport – unless we have a very good reason not to do so.
Arrival at the hotel – the feeling of being treated as VIPs was even stronger than the time before. Nice meal “a volonte” and another good night’s sleep.
Rishikesh; August 30
More thoughts and stealing monkeys
After two days of “rest” I am starting to get over my Delhi tiredness, and my appetite has become monstrous. I guess I’m compensating for my consecutive illnesses.
Hindi lessons have started and I feel a surge of motivation for languages – I want to finish polishing up my English really seriously, catch up my German before it runs away, learn more languages.
So little time and so much to do in life… one thing at a time!
I’m reading “India – A Million Mutinies Now” by V S Naipaul. It is fascinating to receive answers to many of my unasked questions – mainly about the slums, the Dalits, and everyday life for a good part of the Indian middle-class during the last decades.
As I read, I realize that a couple of the things that have moved me the most have not been mentioned here. Of course, I can’t talk about everything. I already have the impression that a good part of this “logbook” must be a bit boring.
One image I cannot chase from my head is that of a small boy who came running after us at the Lal Qila in Delhi. Another beggar, like so many you see in the city. This little boy – how old was he, six, seven? – was carrying a tiny baby, thin and either sleeping or unconscious (though his thinness seemed to indicate the latter), his head lolling from side to side as the young boy ran. Maybe another set-up for cabbage-hearted people. Maybe not.
I have seen so many miserable people, especially in the centre of Delhi. And yet I have probably not seen the worst. The sick and the injured lying in the streets, those hands eaten by leprosy stretched out before me… What can I do for them? Will a rupee or two save them? I feel helpless but also a little uneasy. Is all this misery genuine? I have the feeling that some of these people may actually be dying there, before my eyes. And I do nothing. I retreat into my shell, shut my heart and walk straight through. All this human suffering would simply tear me apart if I let it in. Raw helplessness.
Rishikesh; August 31
There is also Manoj, the girl from the slums who works for our Hindi teachers. She lives with them and helps in the house, looking after their little daughter Ekta.
She must be about 16 and her father wants to marry her – it is already late for a girl of her caste, I am told. That will probably mean the end of the decent life her “host” family is now offering her.
They avoid leaving her too long in her real family, for not only does she work there like a slave, but another Indian could come along, offer more than them to her father, and they would lose her. And who knows how she would be treated in her new home, either.
The father was reluctant to let her come with us to Rishikesh. He feared our teacher might sell her there.
For her this journey is quite an adventure. Probably her first big journey, I am guessing. She is amazed by the mountains that surround us – “how do people get up there?” – and afraid to sleep alone in a room of her own. What we call “privacy” and treasure so much in the west is unknown to many people – and I can easily imagine it can be terrifying if you have never been alone.
Nicola told me that what astonished her the most was the fact that he actually filtered the tap-water before drinking it. For her tap-water is already such a miracle.
She has never gone to school, “of course”. Our teachers tried to teach her how to write. She painfully learnt the letters, but putting them together to make the words was beyond her.
Apart from the domestic work that she does, her life seems to revolve around TV and dreaming about her wedding: life will be like a Hindi movie…
As I was writing this, an army of creamy-brown, short-tailed and red-bottomed monkeys (bandar) of all sizes were taking possession of the hotel garden. About half an hour before, I had chased one of them, which was about to enter an open room. My room was open too, but I was in it – it didn’t seem “dangerous”. In fact, one of those cheeky beasts entered this very room and stole a lime from the table next to me. Barely a metre away. I didn’t even see him.
Stealing monkeys are far from uncommon. A few hours later I saw another one deftly grab two packed sandwiches from a shop and retreat just out of reach to enjoy them under the shopkeeper’s eyes. He knew what he was taking – it wasn’t washing powder or toilet paper.
My Hindi teacher also told me of monkeys in Agra that will tug at your trousers begging for food, and others (I can’t remember where) who would steal washing and give it back in exchange for food.
Rishikesh; September 1
Life in Rishikesh
Today is the third day of intensive Hindi. I can see my progress already. Our teacher is drilling us without mercy – my head is full or girls and chairs and tables all dancing around together.
The weather is nice; sunny, but the heat is bearable – apart when the hotel people switch off the electricity because they are cutting down trees. No electricity means no fans – it is then that you realize a little breeze makes life so much nicer over here. Power failures are common – in Pune and Delhi too, though they are usually short there.
This afternoon we went out to Rishikesh bazaar – our practical Hindi lesson consisted in asking prices for fruit and vegetables.
Rishikesh; September 4
The end of the week went on just as it had started. Lots of Hindi, lots of laughs at the dinner table and a couple of expeditions in town.
I found some edible chocolate, bought a lungi to wear while bathing in the Ganga and started to understand still a bit more about the Indian way of thinking – mainly following a couple of conversations with my religions teacher from Lausanne.
Rishikesh; Thursday, September 8
On Saturday we went to see a movie: Hogi Pyaar ki Jeet. I’m really making progress in Hindi – or is it in Hindi Movie Script Decoding? Even though the movie was supposed to be a flop, I enjoyed it. I’m not a very difficult customer with movies.
The next day we went to Haridwar for the afternoon, by train. We took part in a big (popular) arti there in the evening.
On the way back I stepped into a shop to take a look at a salwaar kameez. The streets were crowded. I got out of the shop after a few seconds but the others were already out of sight. Lost for lost, I stayed a little longer and finally bought the salwaar kameez – a good buy by the way.
I then ran to the railway station, hoping to catch up with the others who were planning to take a Vikram (in fact it seems I overtook them). I wanted to buy a railway timetable. After a while of hectic running around in the crowded station (I forgot to mention that it was quite hot and that as I had run I was dribbling with sweat) I finally found the right counter. Of course there was a queue. I spotted a fellow videshi near the beginning of the queue and managed to have him get the book for me. He didn’t look very fresh.
I then headed for the bus station, tired and sweaty and decided to go straight back to the hotel.
Guess who I bumped into over there?
My lost friends!
We took the bus and arrived at the hotel just in time to have supper (omelette and cheese sandwich).
During that week I had my first conversation classes and noticed again that I had really made some progress. I also started to have the impression that I was finding the correct way to deal with Indians and India – feeling a little bolder, acting a little bolder and getting better results. I began to think about the moment when my Swiss friends would go back and I would find myself
- Aventures in India — Scribbled Travel Notes [en] (2000)
- More Backlog [en] (2001)
- So, How Was the Trip? Tell Me About it! [en] (2000)
- Boring Backlog [en] (2001)
- Preparing for Departure [en] (2004)
- Rishikesh: Hindi Classes and Swiss Students [en] (2000)
- 10 Years Ago [en] (2011)
- Arriving in India: First Weeks in Pune [en] (2000)
- I'm Home [en] (2011)
- Back From India [en] (2012)