Friday, 8:30 in the evening: flight from Beijing International to New Dehli, direct, on the Chinese national carrier. I'm seated next to the reincarnation of a bobblehead doll, who throughout the flight swings his head from left to right in a long sweeping motion, until he notices me looking at him, at which point he sheepishly stops until he thinks I can no longer see. But the seats in economy don't exactly have an ocean of distance between them, so I pretend I can't see him to allow him to get his head swing on.
At 3 in the morning, a scant hour and half behind schedule, we begin our descent into New Dehli. The stewardess, struggling a bit with the English, makes the following announcement: Indian Regulations require that we spray down the cabin for… dysfunction , and with that precaution, they air-freshener the entire cabin. Suitably refreshed, we deplane in Dehli.
I've declared this trip to be No Sleep Till Varanasi, which is like the song No Sleep Till Brooklyn, only with an Indian flair. So while my boss and his wife, on the same flight as I was, head off to bed, I head to the train station to hop the first Taj Mahal-bound train to Agra, 2 or so hours away.
Dehli Railway Station, four in the morning: the first immutable law of solo travel in India comes to light: you cannot attempt to do anything without someone "helping" you along. So, while I'm trying to wrestle a ticket out of the ticket venders ("come back in… 13 minutes," they tell me), someone else is trying to convince me that the easiest way – nay, the only way -- is to go to his friend's travel agency, just across the street, and there's no need to even stand in this line, get out of this line immediately, come with me, why aren't you moving, are you not listening? And so on.
I shake him. The process of getting a ticket requires an application form, printed on ancient paper and re-xeroxed (or mimeographed, it's hard to tell) so many times that the words are illegible. The guy behind me, smartly dressed in a purple tie and looking far too well put-together for 4 a.m. in the train station, helps me out in return for the use of my pen.
I get my ticket for the 6:15 express to Agra, and then wander across the street to find a bottle of water. There's a fistful of small open-air restaurants the street, and one guy, frying paratha and chapati -- two different Indian flatbreads -- asks in polite Hindi if I want breakfast. I'm thinking that I'll just get a chapati or a paratha and move on -- surely bread can't make me sick -- but when the bread (steaming hot, still frying in it's own oil) arrives, it's coupled with a side of chickpeas (chole, my favorite), and even though I'm at the train station at 4 a.m. and this place has violent illness written all over it, how can I not eat? So I do; there's a layer of spice baked into the paratha, and the chickpeas are swimming in an oily cumin, tomato and hot pepper sauce that's ridiculously good, and I decide that if I have to get sick, it'll be worth it for food like this.
On the train to Agra I'm surrounded by shriekingly giggly Japanese schoolgirls. A stereotype, shattered in my mind: I had no idea that Japanese people were capable of being loud, much less obnoxious.
Agra, 8 a.m.: just outside the train station I see my first sacred cow, grazing in the dumpster. This is exceedingly exciting to me and I take pictures, but in retrospect (perhaps because I was alone), I realize that despite my well intentioned plans (which mirror every other pun-loving India-bound traveler's plans), I forgot entirely to say "holy cow!" upon seeing it.
No Sleep Till Varanasi: I head to the ticket counter to get my overnight train ticket to Lucknow. The window, labeled in English, reads: Foreign Tourists. Ladies. Freedom Fighters. I (who blur the line between foreign tourist and freedom fighter), am informed that the overnight to Lucknow is sold out.
Agra Fort Bus Station: the entire length of the outer wall doubles as an open-air men's room, and multiple people are going about their business. The smell is overpowering; it's unclear where women go for such things. I'm told that there's a "sleeper bus" to Lucknow, leaving at 8 p.m., no reservations available.
I wander around the outside of Agra Fort (British Era, imposing and impressive, still an active Indian army base). A sign reads Wearing of Crash Helmets Is Compulsory. I packed light -- too light, it seems, since I don't have a crash helmet on me. I decide it's time for the Taj.
The Taj: as impressive in real life as it is in the pictures. And it makes me pause a bit: I feel like I'm checking off a Major Life Box, a box labeled Things You Must See Before You Die. And by checking it off, it's like I'm one step closer to death. If a formal list of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World existed, the Taj would assuredly be on it. What's left to see? (The answer: the Pyramids, of course). Further introspection on this topic can now be abandoned until I see the pyramids.
The Taj Mahal ("Crown Palace") deserves more than a single paragraph, I feel, but what can I say that hasn't already been said? I can mention that Islamic calligraphy that runs the length of each side of the Taj, and that I, after having examined such calligraphy relatively extensively in Pakistan, was captivated by it. Or that the entranceway to the Taj is flanked by professional photographers who snap portraits of tourists for small amounts of money, and who bully casual tourists from taking that perfect entranceway shot with the long reflecting pool just as you enter so they can monopolize it.
Also, since the perfect tripartite symmetry of this trip was carefully planned, I'll go ahead and mention that the Taj, the mausoleum and mosque of the Taj Mahal, represent one side of the symbolic triangle of this trip. That triangle side can be labeled: ISLAM.
45 minutes outside of Agra: the village of Fatehpur Sikri, home to a World-Heritage mosque and mausoleum. In Pakistan, one of our officers had to go out to a village on field assignment, and upon returning would only comment on the state of the village by exclaiming: The flies, my god the FLIES! This leaps to mind as I walk from the bus station to the mosque, passing by butchers and samosa venders, merchants selling sweets and chickens and tobacco, all covered in thick clouds of flies, and I can't help smiling.
The inside of the mosque is full of kids asking for pens, and a stonecutter who claims to work in the mosque. (His story falls apart under questioning -- he's a local stonecutter who's in the mosque to drum up business). You've got to take your shoes off in the Mosque, but the buildings are covered in beehives, and there are dead bees everywhere inside the courtyard. I, like all massive cowards, live in dread terror of bees and have to concentrate all of my energy on not stepping on their corpses.
I'm sitting writing down all of these things when I little girl next to me -- maybe 7, 8 years old -- says hello. I finish my sentence and then look up and reply, in Hindi, hey, how's it going? She leaps backwards, and stutters -- Y-you speak Hindi?! A little, I tell her, and she spins around to her parents and relatives and shrieks, my GOD, he speaks Hindi! And they all cluster around, and they're friendly and not trying to sell me anything and it's fantastic. And so, with their entire family in tow (they've brought along everyone, maybe a dozen people) I brush out of the mosque, past the stonecutter who's still hoping to take me to his shop, to the ice cream cart, where we all have cream-filled mango-popsicles on a stick (the Indian equivalent of the Orange Dreamsicle), and it's a glorious day to be alive.
Back to Agra, for sunset at a small restaurant on the roof of a hotel overlooking the Taj. The sunset is lovely and the Taj is magnificent in fading from white to orange to pink to gray. But the restaurant is built over a sewer and the night air smells overpoweringly of human waste, and this sort of blunts my enjoyment of the lentils and bread that I eat for dinner.
Overnight bus to Lucknow: I'm on board at least an hour early, maybe the sixth person on the bus, but someone has already taken up every inch of overhead space with dozens and dozens of shoeboxes, bound together in packs of 8. I had been lulled into a false sense of security by the word "sleeper bus," thinking that it might be slung with hammocks like Chinese sleeper buses. But it's full of seats, and resembles the ones in Sri Lanka -- too small for my legs, bracingly uncomfortable.
The bus, subsidized by the government and extremely inexpensive (well under 100 rupees, much less than $2.50 for an overnight ride) is clearly a means of transportation for those who can't afford the train. The gentleman across the aisle from me only has one arm; the woman behind me is trying to keep her four children in line. I'm pinned into the corner by the guy next to me, who dozes off on my shoulder. Someone hops on the bus and tries to sell a used pair of tennis shoes. He's aggressive, waving them under the noses of passengers to show their freshness. The price, at 90 rupees ($2.25) is right, but I decide to pass.
None of the windows on the bus close, and it's freezing cold. By one in the morning I'm still wide awake, shivering, exhausted and wearing every piece of clothing I own -- two fleeces on my torso, one tied around my neck like a scarf, and two t-shirts wrapped around my face in an effort to keep warm.
I'll be honest: I can't remember the last time I was as miserable as on the overnight bus to Lucknow. Tired I can handle. Uncomfortable I can handle. But my god, being cold makes me absolutely miserable. When I came to this conclusion, I still had 6 hours to go on the bus. But I pull through in the end, since there aren't exactly a lot of accommodation options at 3 in the morning in the middle of nowhere, Uttar Pradesh.
Lucknow: Famous for the purity of its Urdu. One of my old Urdu teachers told me that when Urdu speakers from Lucknow use their full formal dialect, the result is poetic, but (to him) rather annoying.
And perhaps that's enough for now. It's almost time to head to the next city over, to hop the overnight train back to Dehli.
There is a bus. I'm just not that hardcore.
Posted by Dakota on 5:09 AM link |
Everyone who has ever come to India -- every single person in the long history of India who's paid a visit here -- has described it as "overwhelming" and "sensory-overload." They usually fail to adequately describe exactly what it is that makes the place so sensorily overwhelming. They don't mention:
Every waking second of every day is spent slogging through excrement-laced mud that's flecked with ancient garbage and the shiny packaging from betel-nut wrappers, and long open sewers are everywhere and almost unavoidable. As you walk, you're invariably dodging oncoming traffic (cars, three-wheel tuk-tuk rickshaws, bicycles, trucks and donkey carts), all of whom are honking at you with horns of different pitch but unvarying loudness, and in addition to vehicles of all sorts, you've got to dodge street dogs, street goats, and sacred cows that thoughtfully munch on garbage and don't move for anyone. Meanwhile, you're being tailed by minimum three hucksters who are looking to sell you something, take you to a guesthouse to snag a commission, or rip you off in some other way; those three people will, over the bleating of the goats and the honking of the horns and the crunchy-wet slorp of your boot crushing garbage while skidding through frothy mud, will be continuously shouting at you Hello! Where are you going? Friend, hello, where are you going? As background to the shouting and the bleating and the whatnot is religious music of some sort being blared from a massive speaker outside of a tiny booth selling 5-rupee cassettes, while simultaneously the stench from the open sewers is punctuated by massive clouds of incense smoke that billows from half-burnt sticks attached to every stand, stall and samosa cart in the city. In the mean time, at least two women holding children have seen you and are now begging for coins by waving their babies at you and there's also probably a dust-streaked crippled person, lovingly maimed by well-intentioned parents decades ago to ensure him a lifetime of income from begging, now dragging himself around on a cart of some sort and also begging for coins, and meanwhile you've got your hands stuffed in your pockets and clutching your wallet, because there's plenty of pickpockets and monkeys -- MONKEYS! -- both of whom have been known to steal things, albeit not usually for the same reasons.
If all of this sounds miserable, please let me assure you: it's fantastic beyond any speaking of it. This chaos --this absolutely out-of-control berserkness that accompanies every-day life -- is the fundamental reason that one comes to India.
I'm in Varanasi, which ranks amongst the coolest cities I've ever been to. Internet and electricity are unstable, so more likely than not, nothing will get said about any of this until I'm back to China. In the mean time, the best of days!
In full disclosure: I've only seen a couple of monkeys thus far, and none of them have tried to steal anything from me.
Posted by Dakota on 7:36 AM link |
Blogger just forced me to upgrade to The New Blogger. Being a luddite, I feared that my entire blog would go away, egads! So I copied and pasted the entire thing into Word to save it. I can now say on good authority that I've written 193 pages about absolutely nothing.
Happy Chinese New Year: it's the year of the pig, starting tomorrow. As such, I've got the week off (three days off, two days of self-study, mash'Allah). Plane leaves in five hours. Destination: New Dehli. Updates will hopefully be more frequent while I'm on the road. Until then, the best of days!
Posted by Dakota on 2:34 AM link |
Minimum fare in Beijing Taxi is ten kuai, a buck twenty-five even. Maximum fare on a
bus for those wielding a transportation card: eight mao, or one thin dime. This is the explanation I use when people ask why it is that I've become engrossed with the Beijing Public Transportation system, but it fails to fully explain the reasons behind my obsession. Beijing
In short: the
bus system is the best I've ever seen, ever. The vast majority of the city's 16 million people rely on the bus and subway system to get around, which means the demand for buses is astronomical. As such, the number of buses plying any given route is through the roof, and the wait for a bus is never more than 4 minutes. The buses themselves take only about 25 percent longer than cars, except during rush hour when Beijing traffic grinds to a gridlocked halt but the buses ride designated bus-only lanes at twice the speed of regular cars. Beijing
I've always been impressed by people who are good at transportation. Quixote, in DC, could hear someone's address and name the bus route.
16th streetheights? Ah, the S2. Here, a girl from Frisbee heard my address and where I study, and responded: so, you take the 117 and then transfer to… and I was immediately jealous. The jealously turned into light-hearted research, which then turned in to a full-on obsession.
My new favorite pastime is the game of Whatever Bus Comes Next, Take It To The End. Thus I can tell you that the 729 southbound will get you from my house to the Embassy for a nickel, whereas a cab will run you $2.50. (The 729 northbound, by contrast, will zip you out to a god-forsaken industrial area in the Northeast part of town, rife with large piles of rusty rebar. If you, for any reason, need to purchase rusty rebar, the 729 northbound is your bus). The 815 winds its way through old neighborhoods, past a temple to the ancient bell tower. The 117 will take you to a shopping district, and then on to a 24-hour Taiwanese noodle joint.
And then some buses just don't seem to go anywhere at all, and you get off and think: my god, why does this line exist? But within 4 minutes, another bus will show up and take you back to where you came from.
In DC, SmartCards make the trip smoother, but aside from the convenience for the user, there's no real incentive to get one. Passengers are still allowed to feed their rumpled bills into the machine and clog up the entranceway, slowing down transportation. In
, the ticket taker is in the center of the bus, rather than at the door, so everyone gets on at the same speed. Moreover, unlike DC, Beijing encourages users to get a smart card by means of market forces: it's a kuai -- 12.5 cents -- to ride without a card, but 4 mao -- a nickel -- with one. Things are smoother, the ride faster and the fare lower, and everyone wins. Beijing
I am strangely proud of my
smartcard. I feel that it somehow makes me legitimate as a resident of Beijing . Beijing
Aside from the odd person riding with me, I've only ever seen one other foreigner on the bus. When he got on, several minutes after me, a passenger turned to her friend and commented -- so many foreigners! Her friend responded -- they must be friends.
I spend inordinate amounts of time on bjbus.com; the English version is scaled down and rarely works, but the Chinese version is top notch, rivaling anything WMATA has to offer. A few weeks ago I hacked apart the 50 pages of a
bus route book, and then pasted them together to make a single enormous map. And then I started copying bus lines from the route book onto a map of Beijing , marking out each route in pen to see where they go. Beijing
I crane my neck to see the numbers on buses when they roll by. I actively memorize the names of bridges, which often correspond to bus stop names, so as to make route planning easier. I chat with ticket takers, just for the sheer joy of it. My cocktail party chat has become intensely boring, and people actively seek to get away from me when they hear my dedication to public transportation. This is a price I'm willing to pay.
Posted by Dakota on 2:32 AM link |