Wednesday, September 29, 2010

A rather interesting Indian adventure!

We were in perhaps one of the most beautiful cities in Rajasthan if not the whole of India when five out of the six travellers (including myself) fell violently ill with a nasty gastro bug. One by one we went down and if it weren't for our sixth friend who amazingly didn't get sick in the whole 5 weeks we were travelling, we would have had an even more miserable time in the picturesque city of Udaipur. She ran around for us all getting all kinds of wonderful drugs to help ease our misery and organised our mode of transport to our next destination. We were supposed to take a five and half hour train trip to Ajmer and then bus to Pushkar where we were to spend two nights checking out the annual Pushkar Camel Festival. Without revealing too much of the story so soon, I will just say now that I am a little glad that we were so ill and had to spend another night in Udaipur.

We cancelled the train tickets to Ajmer and organised a taxi which we were convinced to do by the "travel agent" who sat at a desk in the convenience store next to our hotel. We stayed in bed in our super luxurious hotel rooms for one more night to get some much needed rest before we embarked on the next big adventure of our trip.

We all piled down into the lobby where we are greeted by our less-than enthusiastic taxi driver and shoved our bags and ourselves into the rather fancy (by Indian standards) 4WD. We said a quick goodbye to the beautiful city and off we went. We winded our way through the narrow streets until we reached the "highway" and traveled at 90km/h whilst dodging cows, people and random piles of rubble. Having just spent the last few nights running backward and forward to the bathroom, we were all a little bit cautious about our rest breaks. Luckily, we managed to get over our sickness enough to not trouble us the whole six hours.

We drove through Ajmer and we all sighed a little with relief at knowing that we are only half an hours drive to our destination. We winded around, up and down hills until we spotted the city of Pushkar (slightly underwhelming). We arrived at a checkpoint where we are told that the city was closed to traffic during the festival. Much to our disappointment and grumbles, we all piled out of our 4WD and began the task of extricating our luggage. You can imagine that after spending over six hours sitting in a car, weaving around cows on the highway and trying not to be sick, we didn't really feel up for the "five minute" walk to our hotel, especially with our backpacks on. The five minute walk turned into about twenty minutes because we were westerners who had been sick. We don't walk fast for anyone! We decided to make our walk a little easier by hiring one of the wagon guys that was begging for us to use his service. We were a little too slow for him and he was getting a little bit frustrated and I think he was beginning to regret begging us to let him take our bags. His service didn't include porting our backpacks into the hotel lobby, so we took our time getting our luggage off his wagon in slight retaliation to his frustration.

I can't say that we were greeted very hospitably in our rather rundown hotel. The manager looked like he was more concerned with his fashion than making his new guests feel welcome. He was quite slow and gruff with his service and summoned one of his subordinates to give us the grand tour of the sh*thole. We trudged through the hotel looking at our crappy rooms.. Crappy is a little understated! Two of our travel buddies got the rather raw end of the deal because their room had an in-between toilet. Half western, half squat toilet which consisted of a western style toilet bowl with foot platforms to stand on and squat. I felt a little relieved that we were more fortunate to get a room with a normal toilet, but sorry at the same time for their predicament. By the end of our trip, most of us were starting to appreciate squat toilets for what they were. A squat toilet meant that we didn't have to touch any part of the nasty things. I'm not one for sitting on public toilets and let me just tell you.. it's quite hard to hover over a western toilet while your digestive system is playing tricks on you.

So we got through our stay in the disappointing town of Pushkar and were glad when our transport arrived to take us to Ajmer to get the next train out of there. The only good thing about the hotel was that the restaurant staff were so neglectful of their customers that we slipped out without paying the bill in protest of waiting so damn long to get any service.

We lugged our bags out of the derelict hole (not before the manager showed us his prized, bejewelled suite - his shining glory) and squeezed into a tiny, white van which was to take us over the hill to Ajmer. Puttering along the busy, rural road - once again dodging cows and rocks we began to ascend up the hill. We encountered a little bit of a traffic jam where the driver thought it would be a great idea to try and dodge the jam by driving on the wrong side of the road. His little, white van wasn't cut out for lugging six westerners and their mound of luggage over a mountain because it decided to conk out. A few hair-raising seconds later the van started again and the driver tried to get us up the hill on the wrong side of the road. There's never usually a quiet moment on the main street into a town, so we were being passed by large buses (driving on the wrong side of the road) filled with other unsuspecting tourists who were keen to see the camel festival. We all began to fret, wondering whether we were going to end up on the news as "Six young Australians found dead on the side of a dusty road in rural India". Luckily our driver managed to get us out of our sticky situation and finally got us to our train without a scratch.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

A trip to the "Leper temple".

It all started when we hopped in an auto-rickshaw in the busy streets of Varanasi. We were at the start of our Indian leg of our five week Nepal - India trip. Having just spent two and a half weeks in the beautiful and mostly relaxing Nepal, we were not quite sure what to expect of India. We were travelling with four other people so we knew that travelling in an auto-rickshaw and not wanting to separate could present some problems.

So we all (including the drivers smelly friend) managed to squeeze into this rickshaw, which I will say now was substantially larger than the average rickshaw hooning around Varanasi. Our friend who has a habit of over-explaining things took charge of telling the driver where we wanted to go. Having only a rough (dodgy) map of a small section of Varanasi, he roughly points to areas we wouldn't mind visiting and telling him in over-enunciated English that we would like to drive around the University to see what studying would be like in India and to check out a few temples here and there. He kind of left the directions a little broad.

Our friendly rickshaw driver takes off! We all grab hold of our belongings and some part of the rickshaw that feels semi-attached so we don't fall out and we glance and smirk at each other wondering what we have got ourselves in for. I will say now that I am very glad that half of our travelling buddies were on the small side so it made travelling in cramped places a much easier feat. The tall ones however, kept smashing their heads on the overhead bars every time we went over a bump. The roads in India are not the best so we experienced the head smash regularly.

The first 5-10 minutes of our rickshaw adventure was okay.. we just went along with it, having no knowledge of where things were in Varanasi we just thought it was part of the ride. We zoomed past a rather large gated building which we vaguely found out from the random gesturing of our driver that it was one of the temples we pointed at on the map. He didn't think it was that interesting so he kept on driving past. We were okay with that because we all silently agreed that it didn't look all that interesting. So we kept going...

We eventually stopped on a road that looked identical to all other roads in India, full of people, rickshaws, store vendors, dogs and poo. And the driver hopped out hastily, walked a fair distance and then gestured to us that we should follow him. A bit apprehensive, we slowly clambered out of our steel steed and caught up to our driver friend who was still walking briskly through some narrow "roads" dodging the parcels and litter leftover from the previous nights festivities. Turns out we made it to Varanasi for the final night of Diwali, so the alleyways were littered with cracker paper and destroyed Rangoli's. We walked fast for a good five minutes before we all asked each other "Where is he taking us?" Flashbacks of the movie "Hostel" got us a little worried about our destination so we passed a message up to the person who was in front: "ask him where he is taking us!". We eventually came out of the narrow alleys to an opening where before us was a super steep set of steps down to the Ganges River. We tried our best to communicate to the driver who was already making his way down the stairs and gesturing for us to keep up until he noticed we had stopped. A few misunderstood questions later, a friendly English-speaking man came to our aid and told us that the driver was simply taking us on a tour of the lovely city of Varanasi. He thought that by us giving him such broad directions, it meant that we wanted to be shown around. He innocently didn't think that it would freak us out.. damn Westerners and their over-active imaginations.

After a rather heated explanation that we didn't want a tour guide, we just wanted to go and see some temples and the University, we eventually came to the conclusion that he wanted his money that we agreed on at the beginning. Not being satisfied with our trip, we didn't want to pay the full fair. This turned into a rather major event with locals gathering around the six white people arguing about a pittance with this innocent rickshaw driver and our helpful translator. We all agreed to pay a portion of the fair. The fair was small enough to teach him a lesson but large enough to not get kidnapped and turned into a skin suit.

We spent a moment to regroup and had a bit of a chuckle about our little adventure and decided it was too early to retire for the night, so we thought we might give the rickshaws another go for a bit of an afternoon adventure. We were keen to check out this temple we saw on the map so we hailed down (or rather stood there looking like foreigners and they swarmed) and decided on a friendly looking man and pointed to our beloved temple and away we went. The streets started getting wider and the buildings got a little smaller which indicated that we were heading towards the outskirts of the city. Still not really knowing much about where things were in Varinasi and not having a very reliable map, we went along with it. We crossed a bridge that took us over the Ganges River to a large dusty looking piece of land with little shelters scattered all over. We turned into this gravelled driveway and continued along a dusty path past the shelters filled with people going about their business. Kids came out and gawked and followed until we finally stopped outside a large bricked fence where some more kids came to greet us. They presented with the usual questions like, "where do you come from?" to which we reply "Australia" and they came back with "Ohhh Cricket!" and the conversation goes on about Ricky Ponting and their beloved Sachin Tendulkar.

We were convinced by the rickshaw driver that we should go into this temple and have a look. We were a bit wary because it was in the middle of nowhere and there were no other tourists or even locals for that matter. The temple was in a halted construction... He said he would wait for us by the gate because he managed to convince us that there would be no other rickshaws coming down this way so he was our only hope of getting back. We eventually conceded and walked through the gates of the half finished temple. We were greeted by about ten gentlemen sitting under a tent drinking chai with a gigantic, mostly empty guest sign-in book. Our friend was ushered over to sign in for us all and not wanting to give too much information to these strangers, she put down fake names for us.

After she signed in, we were encouraged to walk fifty metres to the entrance of this less then impressive, unfinished temple and told that we must all take off our shoes. We all grumbled a little as we were travelling with small amounts of clothing and a trip to a dusty little temple was going to quickly exhaust our supply of clean socks. We left our shoes at the bottom of the steps and made our way inside the temple with the help of a few of the gentlemen. A few of the boys that were hanging about were quickly deployed to go and dust the stairs and various other dusty things so as to make an impression on their new important guests. We wandered around the empty building, looking at various fixtures and one framed photo on the wall. It really wasn't that impressive but the gentleman seemed to be very proud of it. After wandering for a bit longer, we find out what the temple was actually for. My friend glances over at me and says "did you hear that?", "no" I said. "He said this is a leper temple" says my friend with a sickened look on her face. We both gave a nervous chuckle and carried on with our tour.

We quickly ran out of things to look at and awkwardly thanked our tour guide and exited the building. We hastily put on our shoes and walked towards the gate where the rest of the men were sitting. An older gentleman offered us a bowl of sugar where I quickly took a handful (having watched two young boys do this earlier) and everyone followed my lead. I touched the sugar to my forehead and put the sugar in my mouth. The three males of my travelling companions chewed and swallowed the sugar, I kept mine in my mouth not knowing whether I was going to get sick if I digest it after having many people beforehand dip their hands into the same sugar bowl. The two other girls swiftly "turfed" their sugar on the ground thinking they were going to catch Leprosy by eating the sugar. Our hosts thanked us for visiting their establishment and said a pray for us as we left. We said our goodbyes to the locals (to some degree wondering if they were suffers of Leprosy) and piled back into the rickshaw awaiting our departure back to the comforts of our hotel.