India is a shocker; in this there is no doubt! We went there expecting to be shocked, but nothing could have prepared us. We spoke to travelers who had been there. We read the forums. We watched videos. We read the Lonely Planet guide. We thought we knew what we were getting into. With an expensive four-week visa, we put up the white flag in Delhi after the third week. Leaving the hotel for a short walk would have me peaking within seconds! I was done. Yet, this was the most incredible place we have ever visited.
It has to be strongly noted, that we travelled a very common route, through very popular tourist towns and cities. We made our way from the great city of Mumbai up to the province of Rajasthan and then north to Delhi and Agra, then far to the east in Varanasi. We traversed a distance of over 2,000 kilometres. It felt like we covered so much ground in three weeks, but in reality, we barely skimmed the surface.
Just looking at India on the map, one realizes you could not hope to see it all in a lifetime. This is why there are so many Indian tourists. Their country is so chockfull of sites that they can be perpetual tourists in their own country. Sylvie and I saw some of the world’s greatest fortresses, palaces, mausoleums, temples, landscapes, markets, cities and towns; yet we saw nothing. That being said, I will be generalizing quite a bit in this journal entry and somehow I feel it will still be quite accurate.
Deciding to visit this country was difficult. We have been preparing for a couple of years by visiting other countries that we felt were training grounds for the rigours of India. Vietnam was one such place. Cambodia was another, as was Flores in Indonesia, and of course Nepal, which was the final lesson. These prerequisites were in place to prepare us for what would surely be an enormous trial. Words like “poverty”, “filth”, “congestion” and “isolation” were the key elements we would need to be able to face up to the challenges of travelling in that country. These were the recurring words, the recurring themes of India. There was another term we never expected though, which was complication.
We would quickly learn that almost everything you wanted to accomplish became a complicated task in India. From finding a restaurant you are comfortable with, to booking trains. It was never just point and shoot; it was always a work around, a side road, an extra form, an extra step, a longer wait, and a change in plans. An Indian we met in Udaipur explained it to us, as “The last thing leftover from the British colonial period is the bureaucracy.”
Our education started with the application for our 30-day tourist visa. Most visas are granted on arrival at the airport with a few simple questions and an exchange of US currency (USD). India’s process was overly formal. This mess of an application took us over four hours to complete, and days to finalize. It had many questions we had to Google to make sure we were answering them properly. From the strange wording, to strange questions … so many questions! The officials wanted to know about every family member right up to deceased grandparents, and whether or not they had any relation to Pakistani citizens. They wanted to know what jobs we had, address of employers, our parents’ addresses, whether or not we had ever been in the military, and loads of crazy information you would never expect to be asked. They wanted photos of this and that dimension, which had to be in PDF format and under a certain file size. That was a first, and not very straightforward to accomplish. How does someone with little or no computer experience do this? To top it off: the payment, which was non-refundable under all circumstances. It clearly stated that if we made a mistake on the application, and it was denied due to that mistake, we would lose our money; or if we were denied for whatever reason, the money was gone as well. It was a scary $135click of the mouse. This was a clear indication of things to come.
We started our spiral into insanity with the city of Mumbai, population eighteen million or so. At the airport, the visa processing was time consuming but painless – all those threats in the application process disappeared, and we started asking ourselves what that was all about. We would learn in the weeks to come. They did swindle us out of a day on our expensive tourist visa. It was ten minutes to midnight when we were processed and we couldn’t get it stamped afterwards, so our visa started on a day that had ten minutes left in it. How unfair! When I asked what the penalty was for overstaying our visa, I was refused an answer. I tested the waters and tried repeatedly asking in different ways until the officer became as annoyed as I was. So we exited the airport to begin our twenty-nine days in India!
The priority on our first day was to get a SIM card for our phones. A very painless process in any country we have been to. Approach counter, pay money, they install SIM card and type some codes in your phone, and you are done. Not in India. This was another long process of silly pointless questions about us. Silly because they asked questions like, our phone number, which we lied about, because clearly, we don’t have a phone number, we are here to buy one! They wanted our address, which we don’t have, so we made one up. (Did you know Cochrane, Canada is a valid address?)They wanted to see passports and other identification, our hotel address – even though we were checking out the next day. Just way too many formalities! It was four hours later that our phones would light up with service. Oh my! Vodaphone would text us five times daily with useless offers and information, mostly in a language we couldn’t understand. We were seeing a pattern: complicated procedures, which appear to have a purpose, but really don’t. As one Indian would tell us, “The problem with India, is that there are no problems” and “In India, anything is possible”. These two sayings are so true. There are rules, but no one follows them. There are immigration officers, but no one respects them, as I didn’t. There are police officers but no one fears them. There are forms to fill out, but no one reads them. Anything is possible in India, so just embrace it. SIM card, check!
Mumbai was all about getting our feet wet and organising transport to the southern edge of Rajasthan. We explored the colonial areas of the Fort district and cruised around the side streets and parks. It didn’t seem so scary at this time. Yes there were lots of people, but we were in a big city. The colonial areas and buildings were incredible and we ended up burning through our camera battery before ending our day – a first.
The Gateway to India was a huge, awesome arch gate like the ones in Europe. We had to get closer. We looked at the mass of people leading up to the giant courtyard and followed it down the street …way down the street. A very long line … Is this free? How many hours will this take? We jumped in line and we were instantly transported to another world, to another bite of insanity. The line was like a ride at the Wonderland amusement park near Toronto. There were so many people cramming together and pushing their way to the front: children, the elderly, young men and women -everyone Indian. They were all smiling and happy, rolling along this river-like “line-up” on the sidewalk … ebbing and flowing, in and out. Then we reached a point where the women went one way, and the men the other … à la Malay. Oh boy, things got real interesting then. I was now being leaned on from behind, two hands on my shoulders. I had no choice but to lean on the guy in front of me in the same manner. A literal mosh pit … ebbing and flowing. I almost fell at one point, but was rescued by the guys in front and behind me. Everyone was supporting everyone. We were one. I couldn’t believe it. Sylvie would report to me later that she had a little girl latched on her shirt the whole way through her mosh pit journey.
We were all working towards the security tent. I understand now! This is all for my safety and security, much like the visa application process. The security tent had a metal detector archway to walk through first. As our mosh pit approached the machine, people just bypassed it by walking around it. Some went through, but clearly it wasn’t operational. There were no lights or sounds or anyone actually watching it. A complete show! Inside the tent were many police officers with machine guns – and you would think that the mosh pit was over inside. Not at all! We moshed right on into the tent as well. There was a table to check our bags for weapons and bombs. Another show. One of the officers had me open one of my many zippers, pretended to look inside, and waved me on, just like they did with anyone who presented them a bag. It was a complete sham! The pattern was emerging ever more. Afterwards, I gave a final head nod to my new “intimate” friends and exited the tent- free once again to move where and when I wanted. What a ride! Oh, and the gateway to India was beautiful.
We also visited Mani Bhavan, which was Gandhi’s home for seventeen years and learned much of his history. I won’t go into a history lesson here, but what an incredible man!
We got our first taste of extreme poverty in Mumbai, without ever approaching an actual slum. Certain streets are inhabited by homeless people called the Untouchables. The entire street -chunks of pavement taken over by people with nothing. Some had tarps tied up to street posts to make a canopy, others had makeshift mattresses for beds, some had old cooking equipment set up. There were entire unwashed families, sitting around passing time. There were kids playing games with each other, running around the sidewalk and the busy street. Many sleeping, others cooking, some begging … there were many children begging. They were so grimy from the cars and filth of the city swirling around them constantly. We walked down a few of these city streets feeling like we were walking through their homes. These weren’t back alleys, they were busy city streets.
At the end of one such street we noticed a man, possibly homeless, with a piece of paper in his hands standing around. He looked at us as we walked by, and then started following us. We figured he was a tuk tuk driver wanting to offer us a ride, or possibly someone wanting to be our tour guide. It seems like everyone you meet in India has the side job of being a tour guide. He followed us a block, then across a busy street and then another block. This guy wasn’t very swift. We made him easily. We stopped to buy some water from a random vendor on the sidewalk, allowing this man to pass us, which he did. We stalled there for a while and then crossed over to the other side of the street. Then we saw him doubling back in our direction, but now instead of a piece of paper, he had a makeshift bat. As we were crossing an intersection, he was crossing the main street to meet us or continue his tail. I figured the middle of the intersection was the best place to confront him, as I would be in plain view of everyone around. We stopped right in the middle of the road and stared at him. He hesitated as he saw me looking at him. I put on my brave and mean face (shitting my pants, heart pumping) and asked him confidently and loudly “What’s up??”. He stopped in his tracks, gave me a look of defeat, turned 90 degrees and headed back the way we had come. OMG … What was that? Mumbai was quite the experience.
In Mumbai, we learned of the complications of booking the famous train. You basically need to book days and weeks ahead, and you are not able to book online unless you have an Indian cell number. After acquiring our SIM cards, it was too late to book our train. Full of complications … We took the bus … the sleeper bus.
We learned that night about India’s outrageous traffic accident fatality rates, which are among the worst in the world, just behind most African nations. We googled this information after the first twenty minutes of being jostled around our tiny sleeper compartment like bingo balls. I was fearful for our lives. This was not a safe bus, at all. The driver was maniacally honking and dominating the road with ruthless acceleration and road bullying. Yanking the wheel this way and that. Listening to that engine slowly gain in pitch at 3:00 am in the morning is a sound I will never forget…reaching epic bus speeds, knowing that cows are in the middle of every road, at any time. A moose back home is dangerous, but rare. Cows are common, even expected. It was a horrible night.
The bus had other annoyances as well. There is zero respect for the “sleeper bus”. People entering at all hours of the night do so yelling about something. It never failed. No one just enters the bus and heads to their assigned seat. There is always some sort of yelling and disagreement about the seats … every time. Every stop was a half hour deal rather than just letting people on and continuing on their way. It was awful. I would stick out my head from our bunk and give them dirty looks, then feel bad thirty seconds later as I know they really don’t mean us any harm or discomfort. It’s just the way they do things around here.
Rajasthan is the western part of India closest to Pakistan. It has that Middle Eastern desert feel to it. It’s a real fairy tale type place with ancient dwellings, fortresses, palaces and villages. It is in Rajasthan that we were able to see and walk through some of the largest and most spectacular fortresses and castles. That was supposed to be Europe, but little did we know.
The places we saw on a daily basis in our two weeks in Rajasthan echoed every adventure movie I have ever seen. The place had me perma-smiling in pain, had me humbled, having a complete reverence for India. We had no idea. We felt stupid that we didn’t know about the grandeur and magnificence of this place. The photos might show a fraction of this sentiment and my words might add to it, but no one will be able to resist the charm and magic of this place once they visit. It absolutely blew our minds, day after day, hour after hour, battery after battery.
We visited a very classic set of cities. We started in Udaipur, and then bused it to Jodhpur, then to Jaisalmer, then to Jaipur. These are the main stops with many more cities and hotspots between them. Alas, with time and visa restrictions, you can only do so much. The climate was beautiful during the day, like fall in Canada. At night, the temperature dropped nicely, in the single digits sometimes. Rooms had no heat ever, and hot water was either on a timer, or by advanced request. The food was absolutely ridiculous: curries all the time, fresh roti breads or potato breads (paranthas), everything vegetarian. The meat was likely to make you sick or have you choking on bones. Meat was hard to find anyhow, as it was roaming and ruling the streets under unquestioned religious protection.
Eagles dominated the skies. Eagles are a rare site back home. I’ve seen one in my lifetime driving from Sudbury to Timmins. Here they are commonplace. That shrill sound I had only heard in videogames or animal documentaries are a regular ring tone around here. At first we noticed the single eagle flying above looking for prey, but as the days went on we noticed that they actually flock. Twenty to thirty eagles flying overhead in circles, intimidating every rodent, gull and pigeon in a three-kilometre radius. This changed my view on the solitary rare eagle. I tried so many times to capture that perfect photo, but they are very intelligent to stay away from humans. They are always high above circling, or perched on the highest water tank, antenna or tower, way out of reach of us, and almost always out of range of our 210mm lens.
Rooftops were the norm here as well in Rajasthan. There is a whole world and life happening up there. Every restaurant and every hotel had unconditional access to the amazing rooftop world. We ate every meal above the city – well, above our neighbourhood anyhow. We got to stare at the celebrity fort, palace, lake or temple of the day each place we went. You would pay big bucks for views like this anywhere else. Here it’s a given – taken for granted. The rooftops provided unhindered visual access to the eagles – and the military jets that ran regular sorties to the Pakistani border. The sound a MIG 29 makes at thirty kilometres distance would overpower our conversation – pure raw power. The rooftops also gave you shelter from the racket down below – the reckless honking of the bully driving culture of India.
The other sound of note would be the call to prayer that we usually got to witness at our suppertime. We are used to hearing one call to prayer in our immediate area when roaming at street level in other places. It’s always an interesting sound to listen to – so many variations of it, but on the rooftops, we could hear every call to prayer for ten kilometres. All of the various neighbourhoods reminded their worshippers that it was time to pray. Not only was it very loud, but these calls would start and finish in a scattered fashion – minutes apart – and each “singer” had their own “tune” that they sang. Since they started and finished at different times within a twenty minute period, you ended up with an out of tune choir of voices that gets all the monkeys squealing and the dogs howling and barking.
Aside from visiting all the fortresses, palaces and havelis, we also took a desert excursion tour. For a small price, we were driven 30-40 kilometres in a Mahindra jeep towards the Pakistani border -deeper into the desert. There we met up with our camel rider who had a camel for each of us. Our camel rider was the real deal: anon-practicing Muslim who literally lives in the desert – in some village kilometres away from our desert tour. The three camels were loaded up with meagre equipment that would sustain us till the next day. We mounted these foreign creatures and did our best to adjust to the rhythm of the ride. There were no stirrups, so having your legs dangle for more than ten minutes became unbearable. My old age kicked in and I had no choice but to ride sitting sideways, like our camel rider.
We rode through some villages and into a desert landscape we will never forget. Let’s not mislead the reader; these weren’t Saharan white sand dunes as far as the eye could see. There were large patches of dunes, yes – but mostly dry arid shrubby desert as far as the eye could see. It was pretty great. Our camel rider made us lunch and chai tea from scratch over a very small fire. He cut up some vegetables with garlic and onions, fried it up and put it into a boiling pot for this sauce – full of potatoes and tomatoes. Then he made dough from water and flour and rolled it out on a piece of wood – and used a small piece of tin shaped like a shallow bowl over the open flame to make our chapatti bread. Make no mistake; this was a restaurant quality meal. Delicious. He cleaned our dishes and his cooking wear with sand – uh oh – again, something I will never forget.
Later that day after traveling on the camels to our camping spot, he made us another similar meal for supper and setup a crude camp for the night. We sat up drinking a couple of pints he had acquired for us, and then slept in a tent in the frigid night-time desert climate. The camels and the wind were the only sounds that night. The disgusting sounds those camels make is something else. The very loud mixture of a toilet flushing mixed with that sound Rugor Nass (Star Wars) makes. When they make this sound, a part of their cheek or tongue blows up like a thin, very gross, pink balloon that comes out of their mouths – so thin you can see through their skin – looks like it hurts, but obviously it doesn’t. This was mating season for them, so they do this to … express their sentiments?
Annapurna was the physical climax of our lives – Rajasthan became the mental climax. I could write pages more but it will never be clear enough. Rajasthan was un-frikken-believable!
Agra and Varanasi
We would next visit the ridiculously famous bucket list tourist site champion of the world, the Taj Mahal. This mausoleum is located in the city of Agra, just southeast of New Delhi. We took the local train to get here. This cost us about fifty cents for a three-hour ride- a complete revelation after spending $30 + on all our bus rides. This was the local train though. The one you hear about – the one you read about – the one you just have to try. We tried it alright. We sat in the luggage rack above the seats with four other guys out of luck for the primo seats. Others stood around crammed like sardines below while others hung out of the train at the gaping opening to the entrance of the car. At one point, a fight nearly broke out as a man was shoved out of the train at one of the stops. It’s so crowded and people get very impatient – this all has to do with this positional bullying culture that goes on in India – for lack of better terms – and to be explained at the end of this journal.
I must retell this extremely interesting thing that happened on this train ride (something that would never in a millions years occur back home): A woman with her children crammed below our seats- her bags were squished into a corner for her and she was given a decent space to stand. A complete stranger who had a proper seat took her youngest child. This complete stranger was a man of maybe thirty years old. The man cradled the child as if it were his own and seated him closely and snuggly on his lap – quite an intimate position actually – like a father would do. This wasn’t a fleeting gesture either. He held that child for probably an hour. The mother was a few seats away – and here was this complete stranger holding her five year old who is now taking a nap in his arms.
Agra – the Taj Mahal was amazing. As one article we read expressed perfectly: It’s like a painting in front of your eyes to gaze upon. We went early and got to see the sun creep up on it, the fog lift from it … slowly – this giant in the mist. It was sublime and perfect. It was robbed of all its jewels, gems and riches by the British years ago. They can give them back anytime – I hope they know! It was built by a Mughal emperor as a mausoleum for his favourite wife – yeah, a burial place for his favourite wife. It bankrupted his empire. But OMG, it is so ludicrously beautiful.
After a couple days in Agra, we took a very long and dangerous bus ride to Varanasi. This was often listed as the number two “must see” place in India. This is debatable of course, but yes it blew our minds. India hadn’t stopped blowing our minds yet, day after day, hour after hour and battery after battery. Varanasi is a religious mecca, with ancient narrow roads, many temples and many ghats along the exalted Ganges River. A ghat is a place where they burn dead bodies – not cremate – but burn over an open fire.
The family marches in the body, covered in ceremonial linens, through those narrow streets chanting and making percussive beats. This parade of people, which you will surely run into, is headed to the riverside where crowds of people are gathered to mourn and witness the constant burnings. Corpses just keep arriving, a non-stop assembly line dealing with death. There are massive piles of lumber, ashes scattered, ceremonial flowers and trinkets everywhere and of course, the funeral pyres.
I hate to sound insensitive, but people die each day and I don’t know these people from a hole in the ground and I surely wasn’t the only tourist watching this stuff go on. People come from around the world to witness this. So yes, we saw a corpse burn -we saw a couple of corpses burn. I watched as the fire tender shifted logs and ashes to maximize the burn on the shin to foot section of a leg that casually rolled out of the fire. He then churned the logs over a bit more and flipped over the legless, armless torso- neck and head still connected – charred and falling apart. The black holes where the eyes used to be freaked me out a bit – right there – ten feet in front of me – as close as the hot fire would allow me to get. Afterwards, they toss the ashes into the Ganges.
All along the Ganges you see locals bathing, some to clean themselves, others for a spiritual purpose. I was content to soak my hand in there and then not use said hand for the next hour until I reached a sink with soap. Apparently the fecal levels of this river are off the charts. Judging by its colour and the dead cow we saw floating down it, I believe it. Along this river you can also find many holy men doing their thing … all painted up offering blessings and what not. If it wasn’t for the fact that they all wanted money from you, I would perhaps have taken them seriously.
There are also many beautiful temples and ancient buildings lining the river. We spent an afternoon slowly meandering along, stopping for the occasional chai tea. Varanasi was amazing.
It all ended in Delhi
Our last week was spent in New Delhi. This place ended our trip -this place had me raging within a couple of hours of arriving. This city chased us to a beautiful hotel that we would recoup in for the remainder of our stay. We did venture out to see some of Delhi’s sites, but we also needed to clean the India out of us and just chill for a few days. Then Delhi Belly hit us for a couple more days -and then the weather turned stormy, which is rare. We hunkered down. It wasn’t a bad thing. We needed it. New Delhi is a crazy jam-packed city with many different areas – many diverse neighbourhoods – many distinctive environments. We barely scraped the surface once again. We discovered the central Connaught place where the British must have made their “hood” back in the day. It was all American restaurant chains and expensive hotels arrange in circular rings of roads. We went to Bangla Sahib Gurudwara, a beautiful temple to get a taste of the 500 year-old Sikh religion. 500 years old. Jacque Cartier was discovering Canada and they were discovering a new hidden god à la L. Ron Hubbard. We also visited Humayun’s tomb complex which was basically a mini version of the Taj. We ate at McDonalds, Pizza Hut, Subway, KFC and Dominoes the entire week … Yes, India had beaten us down after only three weeks and Delhi was left to pick up the pieces. Ashamed a bit, but take a walk in these shoes and see how long you last! I think we did pretty well.
It has to be mentioned that animals live in India just as naturally as the humans do. Back home, we can say the same about the crows and the squirrels. Stray dogs back home are hunted and caged -stray cats chased off – cows and farm animals fenced in on the outskirts of town. In India, the relatively non-threatening animals live among the people, in town, in the city. Cows are the first animals you will notice walking around an Indian city. They roam the streets and sidewalks unconditionally. Cars, buses and pedestrians alike cede them the right of way. No human gets this privilege. We were told that they are free members of society – no owners. They eat garbage and whatever people will feed them.
Next in line would be the dogs. There are so many stray dogs in India. Some are the just the most gorgeous mutts you have ever seen, while others are vicious territorial street brawlers. You hear the frantic yelping of a pack of dogs engaged in combat every hour. At first this was alarming, but near the end, we barely flinched. And puppies everywhere! These dogs are reproducing at an alarming rate – no control whatsoever. You had to be careful when you walked so that you wouldn’t step on sleeping puppies or a sleeping mother. We didn’t even think of petting dogs in India. You never knew which ones were vicious or not. One Indian explained to us that the government wanted to remove the stray dogs, but the people protested against this. He explained that the dogs know everyone in the neighbourhood and that they alerted everyone whenever strangers came around. He explained that the dogs help keep crime down.
Monkeys everywhere – not the nice playful monkeys I just can’t resist. No. These monkeys are dangerous and evil, dominating the upper levels of the cities and towns. They crawl up buildings and jump from one to the other like Spiderman. They chase each other and fight each other just like the dogs do. These monkeys you avoid. I made the mistake of staring one down, and had to prove my dominance by standing my ground and waving my fist – heart pumping and regretting my decision. Of course I won, but I must have looked like an ass, considering everyone else just avoids them.
As well, you have every other farm animal you can imagine: pigs, goats, horses and water buffalo – just roaming around. It is surreal -it’s better than any farm zoo I’ve been to.
I am no expert on this subject, but I cannot not mention it. India has a serious caste system going on. This system is something that has existed and evolved from ancient times – through the many different empires and times of India. It is a part of the Hindu religion and so the Buddhists and other religions don’t follow this system, but since most Indians are Hindus, most people are bound by it. The caste system means that people are basically ranked and classified, and that their ranking or caste reserves for them certain jobs or career paths. Their caste also determines who they are able to marry. They are only supposed to marry someone from their caste but I imagine that there are exceptions – remember, anything is possible in India. There are four main castes but I am being very general here. I can’t begin to understand all the sub-castes and offshoots of this system. For our purposes, there are four.
The Brahmin, which we met a few, are the religious leaders and educators – priests and such, if I understood correctly. From what they told me, they are the “super” caste. They stay away from any vegetable that comes from beneath the earth: onions, garlic, etc. Where they get their flavour from, I have no idea. Again, this information is simply from my fast conversations with them. I didn’t ask too many questions. Next are the Kshatriya, which is the warrior and ruling class: emperors and soldiers. Next there are the Vaishya who are business people. Then you have the Shudra, who are labourers. Gandhi made a fifth caste: the Dalit (also called the Untouchables), who do all the dirty jobs. You cannot move your way up the castes – if you are an Untouchable, you will be cleaning feces your entire life. There was much talk of this – many references to it – but really, I don’t understand it. What I’ve written is what I got out of it and I haven’t had the time or motivation to learn any more. But there is a pretty unreal hierarchy thing going on in India.
I will end this journal by stressing one final time just how unbelievable India is. It’s a massive country with 1/6th of the world’s people living there. It will shock you over and over again. It will have you looking at the world in a whole new light. It has changed our views more than any other place we have visited and I am sure I will be making references to India for the rest of my life. Put on your big girl/boy pants for this one though, you are going to need it. It’s no walk in the park – it’s a panicked sprint through the darkest forest.
** If you are a person who enjoys happiness and positivity in their lives and you are still reading, I would recommend you end your read here. Thanks for reading once again.
I feel that I have to write about the following – it’s stronger than me. We spent time in India – we suffered hard in India, and I need to share with those who are interested. I will only write what we saw, heard, smelled, touched and felt. I will pass no judgment, as hard as that is for me. I’m so sorry to anyone I offend, but here we go.
The Horror and Rage
I can be very patient – my job requires it of me. And we have travelled a lot and have had many setbacks, hardships and crazy situations to deal with. Sylvie patient? That is an understatement -she tolerates me. India had us on our knees within a few hours in Delhi. We had reached our maximum. We simply couldn’t do it anymore. Maybe it was the lack of awe-inspiring sites in Delhi that did it. Every other city had our jaws dropping, thus blurring the insanity going on around us. In Delhi, it was front and centre.
I hate writing about buses and cars, traffic and honking … I really do. I feel like I repeat myself because traffic systems in non-western countries are just a mess. I really wish I could take back everything I’ve ever written or said on the subject, because India propels every other nation’s traffic situation to the back of the line.
This isn’t just another traffic rant about horns and lack of rules. This is a realization and acknowledgment to loved ones back home that we are alive and well – and we are perhaps lucky to be that way. I will probably never return to India for this reason alone. It’s a horrifying place to walk, drive or ride in. Horrifying.
Yes, this part is all about the road, the walkways, the getting from point A to B – whether that be across the street, or 600 kilometres away, there is horror and death just waiting to strike you. Without judging their driving skills, I can honestly say that India is in severe need of traffic reform, of rules, of regulations or maybe just respect for law enforcement. I am not sure what will change the situation there and frankly, I wonder if they even care. Perhaps it’s just us, as visitors, who want change. People have been trying to change and save India for hundreds of years. Maybe it’s not our place. I won’t be going back though.
The root of it all comes from an apparent need or desire for positional dominance. That means that wherever a person stands, walks, drives or rides, they always (no exaggeration) always try to beat you to the front. They always want to be in front of the line. We never saw anyone give in or give the right of way. Not once. Some are more aggressive than others, to the point of bullying, but make no mistake, everyone will fight you for that front position. I am mostly talking about driving, but this applies to line-ups at the ticket counter, store, bank machine – to that doorway you want to walk through, to that space you want to occupy. As Canadians, we usually leave a respectable five-foot space between us and the person in front of us in line. I lost count of the times an Indian would simply walk in and take that space – butting in. And in those line-ups, there is always about four or five individuals crowded at the front of the line, skipping the line entirely – and getting served. It boggles the mind.
Back to the road: This leads to many a dangerous situation. Games of chicken with the massive bus against the tuk tuk – on a highway traveling 110 km/h – with pedestrians, cows, dogs and whatnot wandering around – the horn being their number one assault tool and warning. Some people simply drive down the street with the horn held down – and here, it literally means, get the $^@& out of my way. You could never walk down the street and just sight see. You always have to check behind you, beside you, in front of you for someone wanting to be in your spot – to jump into your space -to beat you to that square foot of earth. Just dangerous!
The buses were the scariest, because we had no control. We couldn’t tell them to relax and take it easy. We had to hope that we made it accident-free to our destination. I felt very irresponsible every time we were on a bus. I kept thinking what Sylvie’s mom and dad would think if they could see us then. They would not have approved one bit. The buses careened down the road at crazy speeds, passing everyone the whole way, steady on the horn …three or four different horns, I might add. They had combinations from horns that sound like a song, to elephant sounding horns, to machine gun horns to the standard dooms day blast. While we were in India, I read of three different fatal bus and train accidents that occurred. We were on a night bus when I read about an accident that killed a bunch of school children that morning. According to CNN, there were 142,000 people killed in 490,000 road crashes in 2011.. that is almost 1 accident per minute and 1 death every four minutes — making it a bigger killer than HIV/AIDS and other diseases.
Walking down the narrow street was very difficult. The cars that want to run you over – that startle you with the horn even though you know they are there. They push you to the side – the tuk tuks push you to the side, rush to cut you off. There is no waiting at all. Woman and child crossing the street? Too bad, try your best to cut them off and get by them from the front. Old man with cane hobbling across the road? Blast him with the horn. Children in the streets? Speed up and try to get in front of them. Cow, dog, goat, pig or horse? Maintain speed, swerve hard and almost hit the mother and child. I’ve never seen anything like it. It is beyond my comprehension how this behaviour is acceptable to them. Me first! Me first! Look up the stats – it is mind blowing – and now, understandable. So yeah, we had a solid month of horror which turned to rage – and then a quick blanking of the mind – some breathing – some calm. And then seconds later, the cycle would start again. Our hotel or rooftops were our only sanctuary from this.
A different form of chaos – the absolute, the ever present, the complete filthiness, which doesn’t even give it justice: Hundreds of years of filth on top of more filth – dirt on top of layers of dirt. Grime soaked into the brick, wood and cement of every single surface. I feel as though we just finished filming the final and most epic episode of “Dirty Jobs”. You can’t imagine … I will try and help you though. I apologize India – so sorry about this.
I talked about the garbage in a few places: Naples, the Philippines, but they don’t even compare. As for India, there is no question why it’s like this. The people do not use garbage cans. They wilfully and purposely litter their country. Time after time you watch them do it. It’s astonishing! We saw a man walk to the middle of a busy road, put down two paper cups of half drunk chai tea right there and then walk away. For some reason, he wanted to place them in the middle of the road rather than on the sidewalk.. sorry, a garbage can.
We regularly witnessed people throwing trash just about anywhere, anytime. Whenever we asked where we could throw something out, we were directed to drop it where we stood. We were walking down the street one day holding our banana peels, looking for a garbage, and a man who was sitting on the street, (not a chair, the street) selling trinkets, swatted the banana peel from my hand. The peel landed right in front of where he was sitting – right in front of him – in front of his display of trinkets that was laid out on a blanket on the pavement. He didn’t want me carrying a banana peel. Instead, he wanted it, not two feet in front of him and his display, where he was sitting.
There are mountains of trash everywhere – hills of it. You can see layers of trash in places where a bulldozer went through to create a walking trail. You can see the layers of garbage, like rock layers in cross sections of the earth’s crust, in the walls created by the dozer. Cows, dogs, goats and birds ransack garbage bags on the road. It’s not a problem. It’s very common to see trash strewn all over an intersection from a bunch of broken bags with a cow going through it all. Trash is in front of your storefront and in front of your hotel. Garbage right outside your house, because you put it there. I know it’s their country and their way and none of my business, but it’s still my planet – our planet.
Trash is one thing, but then you throw in feces. Now you have total and absolute horror. The hierarchy of feces goes in this order of prevalence: cow, dog, human, goat, bird and then the rest of the farm animals. Where is this stuff? It’s under your feet – always. You have the dry stuff from last year that is not a problem.. it’s the five minutes ago stuff that really got us.. Once again, it was very difficult to sightsee, because you were constantly looking down to avoid stepping in it. Looking around to avoid being hit by a vehicle or person. It made you dizzy – it exhausted you. We stepped in fresh feces regularly. You smelled it constantly.
Urine everywhere – and we constantly saw men urinating in public. Apparently women can control themselves. The pavement was dotted with streams that start at the wall to the left, and ran across the walkway to the street. Everywhere – every minute you smell someone’s fresh urine – every minute you smell fresh feces. Human feces is the worst … the variety. You could smell when someone was sick or healthy – the horror of living this way. It was a horror for us, but not a problem for them. I once had a coated shoe – real bad – and we were going to look at a hotel room. I offered to stand outside while Sylvie went on ahead to check the room, but I was waived inside the hotel – no problem! I took off my shoes.
When you combine everything hitting you at once…the smells, the honking, the near collisions and bullying, within seconds of exiting your hotel, you have yourself the monumental task to stay the course and continue on to that next site, that next activity, that next meal. India’s incomparable richness and grandeur came at a high price of über perseverance, setting aside social norms you are accustomed to, sometimes reckless bravery, and some very hard work. Thanks for the amazing life lessons India. Thanks for blowing our minds. Thanks for having us. We shall never forget. How could we?