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Guest of honor on the Republic Day of India

Posted: 2007-02-01 18:12:49, Categories: Travel, India, 701 words (permalink)

Speaking in Narhaith on the Republic Day of India. In the afternoon on January 25th I arrived to a small village called Narhaith. A few highschool students started talking to me and brought me to the primary school of the village. There I was warmly welcomed by two teachers, Mr. Dinesh Kumar and Mr. Ramdang Pti. They offered me tea and fruits and told that next day there would be a celebration of the Republic Day of India. I had actually heard about the Republic Day in Delhi but already forgotten the date. When I said that I'd be happy to stay and see the celebration, the teachers were excited and said that I'd be the guest of honor in their program.

During the next few hours I was taken to a local temple, given a tour in the village and treated to a tasty dinner in one of the village homes. After some rounds of Indian rum (Old Monk, fairly good actually) and local "wine" it was about ten in the evening and we returned to the school. I was given the task to write a speech which one of the high school students would then translate to hindi. I took a fairly conservative approach, explaining who I am, telling about the warm welcome I received in the village, then congratulating India on the Republic Day and wishing peace and happiness for everybody. Obviously I was unable to check the translation, but it looked good. :) Around midnight we went to sleep on the floor of one of the school rooms. People were very curious about my strange western things such as my sleeping bag and my headlamp.

The program started at nine in the morning by singing the Indian national anthem and raising the flag. Then there were a few speeches, some songs performed by children and two short dance performances. As the guest of honor I was given two flower necklaces and a chair behind the table in front with the teachers and other respected people while the school children were sitting on the sand field.

After the program Dinesh invited me to his home, he was actually living in another village away from the school. I accepted the invitation and rode my bicycle 15 kilometers back the road I had just taken the previous day. There I got the full Indian experience of staying in a village where everybody knows each other. Dinesh wanted me to individually introduce myself to every relative and friend of his - and I can tell you there were many of them. ;)

One of the particularities of Indian culture is that traditionally the guest eats first and only then others can start. They'll give me food and everybody will sit around watching me eat. I'm a slow eater and they'll keep adding more to my plate until I've several times said that I'm full, so it takes quite a bit of time. Personally I would prefer that we'd all eat together, but naturally I don't try to fight against the local culture. In modern families this is changing and eating together with the guests is becoming more common.

Before Naraith I stopped for one day in the Sariska national park. Just upon arrival I met two Canadians who had a car and driver (in India you usually rent a car with a local driver) and we went to the park together. We saw lots of monkeys, deer and peacocks but were also lucky enough to spot one leopard. It was a fairly short sighting so I didn't get a photo but there was no doubt that it was a leopard. Also the surroundings of the park where I could ride my bicycle were pleasant and full of animals: especially monkeys liked to play by the roadside.

A few days ago I finally arrived in Jaipur. It's again a big city of several million inhabitants and some interesting places, I'll write more about it later. Riding from Delhi to Jaipur took several days more than I expected, but spending time in the villages was certainly worth it. As a Romanian guy whom I talked to in Cluj said: "More important than to travel in India is to be in India". I agree with him.

Surrounded by people

Posted: 2007-01-23 08:37:13, Categories: Travel, India, Cycling, 894 words (permalink)

Crowd of Indians surrounding me in Sohna. Whenever I arrive in a village and stop my bicycle, it takes merely seconds to be surrounded by dozens of curious faces. If India is an exotic destination for me, the reverse is also true: locals have never seen something as strange as a white man touring their country by bicycle. They'll push each other to get closer, they'll squeak the horn attached to the handlebar of my bike and push the gear buttons, some even want to touch me to make sure I'm real. A lone cyclist in India is never alone.

On my first day of hitting the countryside, I met a motorcyclist just after leaving a small town called Sohna. His opinion of the next 50 kilometers wasn't too encouraging: "Totally backwards country, only poor people, you'll not find any place to stay...". I could have turned back and checked in to a hotel in Sohna, but that would have been deliberately avoiding any possibility of adventure. I decided to ride until Nuh, the next town on the map about 20 kilometers away, and see what would happen there.

I didn't even reach Nuh before I was talking to two college students living there, on their way back to town by motorcycle. After hearing that I didn't have yet a place to stay for the night they readily invited me to their home. We went to get a blessing from a local temple at the foot of nearby hills, chatted with friends around a small fire while the village was suffering one of the very frequent power cuts, tried a special mix of sweets and spices wrapped to a plant leave called "paan" and had dinner together before going to bed. I heard that they had met two German cyclists on the road a couple of years ago, but I was the first foreigner who actually stayed as their guest in the town. I would have had an invitation to stay for another day had it not been that unfortunately my new friends had to go to Delhi early next morning. Now it became an open invitation: they said I'll still have to come back before leaving India. They even called me several times during the next two days and sent sms messages to make sure I'd return.

Nuh also showed how modern technology is making it's way to Indian villages and small towns. A car is still a rare luxury item, but for example mobile phones are becoming increasingly common. Most traffic on the roads consists of either buses and trucks, or light-weight vehicles such as motorcycles, mopeds and bicycles. Cows and hairy pigs roam on the narrow alleys in towns and villages while camels are used along with trucks for long distance hauling of goods.

Last two days I've spent in Alwar, a pleasant medium-sized city of a few hundred thousand inhabitants. Also here a foreigner is a target of constant attention: everybody wants to ask at least what's my name and where do I come from. However, unlike in Delhi they are not touts which try to lure me to a shop or restaurant, here people just want to spend time with a foreigner and perhaps get a contact address abroad. Answering the same questions over and over can get tiring after a while, especially as the discussions don't usually get much further without the ability to speak hindi. I don't have any hard feelings to ignore touts, some of which are even outright dishonest, but doing the same for people who are simply curious and friendly would be rude, so I try to keep on smiling and answering those questions. And should I start ignoring people I would also miss some of the best experiences, like meeting Dhara.

Dhara was one of those people who came to talk to me in a park and wanted to know who I am, where do I come from and whether I like India. Then he wanted to take me around in the city and show all the historical places, as he put it. I decided to follow him for a while at the same time wondering when he would start asking for guide fees. I couldn't have been more wrong on the last point: as I was his guest he wouldn't let me pay for anything except a small gas refill for his old scooter which we were using to get around. In addition to the sights and tasting kalakan, a specialty in Alwar, I got a small insight into the life of an Indian truck driver. The evening ended with a dinner at Dhara's modest home, where a dozen family members shared three small rooms and a few animals lived in the yard. The food was cooked on a stove burning platters of dried cow dung; wood is scarce and only more wealthy families can afford a gas range.

One of the pleasures of leaving Delhi has been a sharp decrease in the pollution level. Roads are a bit dusty, but otherwise I've been able to breathe reasonably clean air again. My long-lasting cough which started in Istanbul and continued in Delhi is finally gone. Beggars are also much less numerous than in the capital. People in the countryside might be poor, but most still have at least a clay hut where to live in and enough basic food to eat.

Taj Mahal and train travel

Posted: 2007-01-19 06:34:59, Categories: Travel, India, 767 words (permalink)

Taj Mahal, classic view from front. Last Tuesday I took a train to Agra to see the Taj Mahal. It's a memorial dedicated to the favourite wife of Shah Jahan, who was the ruler of the Mughal empire during years 1628-1658. The picture on the right is a classic view of the front facade, a shot taken by nearly every tourist, now me too.

I had actually expected the building to be bigger than it actually was. Of course it wasn't small, but it wasn't enormous either. Perhaps the reason for imagining it being yet bigger is that pictures of Taj Mahal often have a kind of ethereal feeling, which is a natural result of a layer of mist and fog usually surrounding the monument. In most cases that would result in dull looking photos, but Taj Mahal seems to be suprisingly photographic.

The white marble was magnificent and as an engineer I liked the symmetry of the construction. However, I didn't feel the same kind of sheer admiration as in a couple of other great buildings in the world, for example Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, Turkey and Todai-ji in Nara, Japan. Taj Mahal could have it's virtue in more subtle beauty, but the surrounding garden fell a bit short to achieve that, and the river behind the monument was ugly in all its dirtyness. As a result Taj Mahal fell to the "Nice to see" category without creating an everlasting image in memory like the best moments during my travels do.

I wrote in my previous post that life in India is cheap for a westerner. Entrance fees to monuments and museums are an exception: foreigners are usually charged 10-30 times what the locals pay. For example entrance to Taj Mahal was 750 rupees, which is 13 euros at the current exchange rate. Most other monuments I've visited this far have been 250 rupees, except temples which are generally free. On one hand I do acknowledge the need to keep the fees low enough for Indians while collecting extra bucks from rich tourists in order to contribute to the maintenance of the sites. On the other hand it feels a bit awkward when the entrance to a typical historic site costs about the same than a modest hotel room in central Delhi, or all the meals and transport combined for one day.

The trip to Agra allowed me also to experience a bit of train travel in India. Trains here have several different classes, something for every budget. On the way to Agra I took the A/C Chair class which is in the middle of the range, and for the return trip opted for the cheapest second class, although with a seat reservation. The A/C Chair class was fairly similar to second class travel in Finland, while the Indian second class actually overcame my expectations.

I was prepared for an unpleasant experience in a crowded and cramped car, but it wasn't too bad at all. Everybody had a seat, people seemed generally happy, the car wasn't too dirty and above all it felt like being there, among ordinary lively folk, traveling. Vendors walked back and forth shouting and offering snacks and tea (which was very tasty, by the way) for very reasonable prices. It was a bit sad to see a small boy, perhaps ten years old, cleaning the floor and begging for alms. However, as he was doing passengers a real favor they were also rewarding him more often than beggars in general, so even that scene was less depressing than other homeless kids on the city streets. Personally I prefer to donate food rather than money so I gave the boy a banana.

The price difference between the two trips of equal distance was fourfold. The train to Agra was a special express where also breakfast was included, normally A/C chair class apparently costs about three times the second class ticket. As even first class passengers need to endure the same slightly chaotic train stations where rats run back and forth between rails, I don't feel the added comfort is really worth the extra rupees. Of course this is only based on a single short trip and the experience might differ on another day. The second class cars may get very crowded as it's also possible to travel without seat reservation (although I'm not sure if you can then be in the same car than passengers with reservation). Especially on overnight journeys and during hot days the air conditioning in the better classes might come handy. However, based on my first impression I'm quite likely to choose second class again.

Navigating in New Delhi

Posted: 2007-01-15 18:19:55, Categories: Travel, India, Hospitality exchange, 741 words (permalink)

A bicycle rickshaw overtaking a cow, New Delhi, India. The first suprise in New Delhi were large open spaces in the city center: not every place in the capital city of India is packed with people, houses and vehicles. On the other hand, a walk in the market streets of old town, a drive from a suburb to city center in the morning or a ride in a rush hour bus gives a good taste what's the leading metropolis like in a country with more than one billion inhabitants. It's lively, it's fun, it's occasionally depressing (poor homeless people on the streets), it's polluted, it's noisy. Many rickshaws, buses and trucks carry a request painted in the rear: "Keep Distance! Horn Please!". The first part is ignored by most drivers but the latter is followed with enthusiasm. ;-)

The traffic looks quite chaotic but I've been constantly amazed how easy it is to travel around in the city. For short distances up to a few kilometers, a cycle-rickshaw or motorized auto-rickshaw will cost less than one euro — after some bargaining of course. If the distance is longer, I often just go to the nearest bus stop and simply ask a fellow passenger which line to take, without even trying to decipher the Hindi script in which the destination is written on the bus. Virtually every time I've met very helpful people who speak English, help me to the correct bus, show on which stop to get off, and sometimes even walk me to my destination or help to negotiate a good price with a rickshaw driver to take me there. It would be quite affordable to hire a taxi for a full day, as prices start at less than 10 € for 8 hours and 80 kilometers, but that would be much less interesting.

In addition to rickshaws and buses, I've also tried the subway, taxi, maxicab and a ride at the back seat of a motorcycle driven by a turban-wearing university student. Oh yes, the last one was without helmet, as you might guess. I also survived riding my own bicycle 23 kilometers from a suburb to city center. Locals seemed to be quite amused by that sight.

For the sightseeing, I've seen a number of temples and mosques, a couple of ancient forts and museums, and quite a lot of city life. Best parts have been the monumental and brand new (building completed in year 2005) Akshardham temple, and a couple of less famous sites where locals go. For example, I went to wander around in Delhi University campus and met a group of physics students. One of them took me to a local Gurudawara, a temple of the Sikh community, where people were playing and singing to say good night to the priests. The atmosphere was at the same time devout, sincere and cheerful — a captivating experience.

Food is tasty but not too spicy, and cheap. Most dishes are vegetarian, I think I've eaten meat only twice during my first eight days here. A typical meal consists of some kind of bread, a few vegetable based sauces and possibly rice, and costs between 0.5 and 1.5 euros. It's possible to spend multiple times that in a fancy hotel restaurant, but I've mainly eaten from street stands or in nice small cafes and restaurants where locals go as well.

Earlier I've advertised my positive experiences with Hospitality Club, both as a host and as a guest. In India another similar site called CouchSurfing seems to be more popular so shortly before coming here I joined that as well. Through CouchSurfing I met Saurav and Kanupriya, a nice couple who warmly received me when I arrived, and helped in many ways during my first days in Delhi. I also participated in a CouchSurfing meeting in a local restaurant with live guitar music and some 20 members attending.

Tomorrow I'll take a train to Agra and back to see Taj Mahal, perhaps the most famous sight in India. I'll go there with two other Finns which I happened to meet by accident when buying the tickets. After Agra I'll stay at least one more day in Delhi but will soon get out of the city and start cycling towards Jaipur, which is about 300 km away. Except for a few short rides in Istanbul and Delhi it's already over one month since I was actually traveling by bicycle, so I'm looking forward to getting back on the saddle again.

(Minor edit 2007-01-18: added names of my CS hosts.)

New Year and Kurbam Bayramı in a Turkish family

Posted: 2007-01-06 16:57:08, Categories: Travel, Turkey, 893 words (permalink)

Having dinner during the Kurbam Bayramı celebration in a Turkish family. I was planning to celebrate the New Year at a club in Taksim, the busiest nightlife district in central Istanbul. I had even signed up beforehand to the party. However, the unexpected happened again and I found myself as the honoured guest in a Turkish family living in an eastern suburb of the city. None of them even spoke any English, but it didn't stop them to treat me with all the food, love and care they had.

The story actually begins already December 19 when I was leaving Istanbul for going to Ankara. The train station is on the Asian side of the Bosphorus and I planned to take a ferry there around nine o'clock, in order to catch a train leaving an hour later. However, at the ferry docks I noticed that the last ferry to the right place had left 20 minutes ago. Well, I took another one which brought me to a couple of kilometers away and started walking towards the station. I could have taken a taxi but didn't want to spend extra on that. I had not yet bought the train ticket and there was still a later train the same evening if I'd miss the one I intended to take.

I didn't need to walk long until two guys driving a city cleaning department pickup truck stopped by and waved me to hop in. I managed to explain where I'm going and got a ride to the train station. One of the guys even helped me find the ticket counter and train. Then I got the phone number of one of the guys, Ali, and he asked me to call when I'd be coming back. I'd get another ride and we could have a cup tea together, they said.

When I was boarding the train in Ankara eleven days later I remembered Ali and wondered whether I'd bother him again. The request to call had sounded genuine and even enthusiastic so I decided to give it a go. I sent a message saying that I'd be arriving the following morning.

In the morning he wasn't at the station but gave me a short call at the designated time. After a couple of unsuccesful attempts to communicate without a common language I found a friendly person at the station who helped to translate. We decided to meet at the same place at 17:00 the same day.

I was there at the agreed time and so was Ali, again driving the same small truck. Then off we drove, pedal to the metal, picking up some other workers and dropping them home, and ending up to a city truck depot where Ali left the vehicle. From there we hitchiked, walked, ran and took a bus east, finally arriving to a house where Ali's family was waiting for us.

It was a big family. If I understood correctly Ali had five brothers and one sister. Four of the brothers were present, two with their wifes and small kids, and either all five (including Ali) or at least most of them also lived under the same roof with the parents. Now all had gathered to the living room to celebrate the first day of Kurbam Bayramı, one of the big muslim festivals which happened to co-occur with New Year's eve this time.

We had a meal which consisted of meat, cabbage, youghurt, hot chilis, bread and of course tea. For the dessert there was a huge plate of home made baklava and different kinds of fruit. Other program of the evening included watching Ali's photos from his military service period, watching my photos from Finland, chatting (as much as we could with the limited common language) and watching television. A small funny bit for me was that the Santa Claus appeared in the New Year TV show, and Turkish people actually often call that day Christmas. Alcohol was not part of the celebration in this family: everybody was drinking only water, tea or soft drinks.

I also took a shower and my hosts insisted to wash my jacket, which they found dirty. ;) We went to sleep around one o'clock and in the morning I was again treated to a sumptuous breakfast. Then I returned to the European side of Istanbul and to my hostel accompanied by Ali, who thereafter needed to go to work again.

Right after the New Year I caught a bad flu and spent a couple of days mostly in bed. Now I've mostly recovered but still coughing and sneezing frequently. However, sick or not, today is my last day in Istanbul. In a few hours I'll pack my stuff and ride to the airport, where I'll be boarding a flight to New Delhi, India at 02:15. I hope everything will go well and both me, my bicycle and other luggage will arrive there safely.

Riding the bicycle in New Delhi may be challenging to say the least, so this time I'm not planning to simply load the panniers on the bike, get out of the airport and head to the city. Instead, I should be having a taxi waiting for me at the airport and a place to stay for the first couple of days. This way I can take it easy upon arrival and see later whether and where in India I can actually continue cycling. More about that later.

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Copyright Arto Teräs <ajt@iki.fi>, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported License.
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