Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Poo pooja at Varanasi

Don't get me wrong - I grew up on a farm where "portable cowpats" made excellent frisbees but even for me the excremental environment is an issue (sic)! Poo from many species abounds, on the streets, in the alleys, in the corners, under your feet, on the walls (drying in palm-printed dung cakes for smoky fuel later) and in the water, where bacteria of faecal origin are at over 3000 times the limit deemed safe (in the West) for bathing. But bathing people are, and doing pooja (prayer ceremony, that is) - and in their thousands every day - as they have done for millenia at this focal pilgrimage centre for Hindus. They come from all over India, from all classes, cultural persuasions and styles, from the dread-locked sadhu to the city poseur in designer gear and attitude, all to immerse themselves in Ganga Mata, the mother river of north India. Lurking round the edges are the spiritual hitchhikers and ethnic voyeurs of the backpacker trail as well as some who shun the bargain basement and so are probably less well prepared for all this. We visitors from cultural outer space seem somehow to have a niche, a role even, and are almost totally tolerated, even those who push forward intrusively, camera in hand, to the heart of the bathing activity.

All the filth and stench perhaps contribute to the spirituality of the place: the material world is so unsatisfactory that the path of the spirit seems more appealing. The shift of focus from the physical to the metaphysical is almost explicitly prompted. But of course it's not intentional, nor am I suggesting that by neglecting our sewers we in the richer cleaner world might be persuaded to turn our minds to higher things!

It's a world of the elements, particularly of water and fire, the river and the pyres - but also of air, full of smoke and incense, and earth, represented by the matter underfoot.

It's at the burning ghats that even the tourists behave themselves, at a distance, cameras sheathed, as bodies are throughly dunked in the sacred river before being set on woodpiles of selected timber drawn from immense stacks further up the bank. Fire meets water and then, fire over, ashes are swept into the water to be carried blessedly away. For some, myself included, a little of this easily suffices - not that death or cremation repels but that it's hardly a spectator sport and being downwind is not to be recommended.

I shan't try fully to describe Varanasi but it is clear that it fascinates, despite much of the above. The vision and the ambience of adherents of an age-old religion reliving time-worn traditions with intent and conviction, immune to distractions of intruders, must impress most who visit and who then find themselves reluct to tear themselves away. For Hindus it's a place to die and be cremated: for foreign visitors it's a place to wonder.

Monday, January 30, 2006

Islands of calm in a sea of chaos

Travelling in India (for the backpacker class anyway) seems a bit like island-hopping through wild and challenging oceans. Take my trip from Jabalpur to Varanasi. Because it was a Sunday the resevations office closed at 2 but I'd already found that the train I wanted was a less popular one so I took the risk of buying a basic ticket and hoping!! The ticket collector at Jabalpr couldn't issue a sleeper number/ticket ("no information on that train") so I put my fate in the hands of the on-board inspectors. It took 4 hours for the ticket inspector to come up with a berth for me, having sold me a ticket (after about 2) for a seat number already taken (with a valid ticket - I checked). In between many to-ings and fro-ings up and down the train, sometimes within(you don't know perhaps what sleeper class gets to be like after about 24 hours journey!) and sometimes bypassing by using the platform when train stopped (every hour or so) until the train nearly left without me in some remote outpost - the ticket I was originally sold was 9 carriages down the train!! Too many tedious twists and turns to go into but I was faced several times with the prospect of spending the night perched on a stool in the loo lobby of 3-tier A/C (at least I got a glimpse of how the other half travel until a horde of Russian ?? tourists surged in a supplanted me from one of several temporary refuges. I even had a "why can't they just say "no" ' episode only with frills in that this quite sophis guy (Mumbai-based presumably) offered me his kid's bunk if all else failed but when I tried to track him down I found a kid but if he was there it was under a vast blanket which I could hardly disturb for a favour. In this case perhaps I shouldn't criticise him, just fate.
However, when I did get a bunk I slept like a log in between stations, despite all sorts of distractions. Arrived as I knew we would before 5 a.m. so I had time to kill at the station until dawn broke: the place looked much like a post-disaster zone with bodies strewn all over and at least average levels of piss smells and crap in many corners. These did not end when I emerged. Once at the Ganges (hassle-free rickshaw ride: I must have overpaid!) I sought out my old "Lodge" but got absolutely lost in the maze of alleyways and thoroughly pestered by touts (not just for hotels but boats on the river, massage and the gods know what else!) so of course I eventually had to step in it - cow's only, I fervently believe. This place would really test most people - it does me! Either I've got more fastidious (but not so much as the Japanese tourists walking back from the burning ghats with masks and horror covering their faces! What a contrast from super-hygenic Japan). So you see the subject line is perhaps wishful thinking or retrospective (Bharatpur and Kanha both qualified as islands: here the island may be confined to my hotel directly overlooking the Ganges, facing into the sunrise and looking down from a height).

More on Varanasi in another post, unless I'm driven away to the Buddhist calm of Bodh Gaya (though another chaos-ocean, this one called Bihar)

Friday, January 27, 2006

Freezing in the forest

I'm now at Kanha Tiger Reserve in Madya Pradesh and I'm pretty cold!!

Who in their right mind would get up at 5.30, put on three pairs of trousers, two T shirts, two shirts, jersey, sweat, shirt, fleece , beanie, scarf, two pairs of socks and still be cold sitting on the back of an open jeep with frost glistening on the grass either side. (It's the wind chill factor with a vengeance) However such madness is often rewarded - on the first afternoon by an excellent sighting and photo-op of a tiger (even close enough for my little camera) and then yesterday THREE cats - a tiger, at greater distance, a jungle cat (not unlike domestic) and (wonder of surprises of rarities) a good long view of a leopard - OK too far for my camera but still .... Downsides include severe snuffles and disappointments, like this morning when the "tiger show" (elephant takes you there) with two adult tigers and four cubs was closed by the time we arrived to clock in.

Things are much the same as when I was first here eight years ago (apart from increase in the amount of jeep traffic asllowed - and prices) and I was lucky to track down (with ease, little tracking involved) the excellent driver/ornithologist I went out with last time. Also, two active tiger sightings, not just dormant under a bush, is two better than last time when I was here for twice as long. But this time the steep ramping of prices for foreigners and the bone-chilling cold will have me moving on tomorrow. If I can get the train booking, it'll be Bodh Gaya, the site of the Buddha's enlightenment under the Bo tree, and then Varanasi (or vice versa). But then again, I could just decide to head for the gentler and warmer zones of the South.

[Added on 28th Jan: I've taken a day off from travelling and exploring to just be - and try to get over a rampant ENT infection - or just extreme irritation with the dust and cold. Very reminiscent of the contents of Sarah Macdonald's excellent "Holy Cow", every current India traveller's must-read. Tomorrow the challenge of Jabalpur, and hassling for train tickets to somewhere spiritual and hopefully not too cold!)]

Sunday, January 22, 2006

So many species - and we are only one!

Well, I've made it - off to India for the third time. Apologies to anyone reading for the rough-and-ready nature of this as it will be cut and pasted from e-mails to friends - so some diversions are inevitable!

Anyway to cut to the chase: Flight went well as far as Bahrein, although delayed nearly 2 hours! Went a bit frayed after that - lots of extra delays and a landing in what I thought was thick fog at Delhi was somewhat hairy. Still, safe on the ground and with A PLAN! The key was the railway booking office at the airport, which conveniently got me a seat on the afternoon train from Nizamuddin (station in south Delhi) to Bharatpur. Then taxi to station and general kicking of heels in a harmless and non-boring way. There is always plenty to amuse just watching India going about its business. The place is certainly no cleaner and no quieter than when I was last here!The train was OK and gave me the chance to display the"calm but firm" persona that seems to work best for me (and I like to be in) - when person occupying my nice breezy window seat tried to maintain mine was the aisle! Only worry: falling asleep (as I did a lot) and missing the station (and - as happened - playing sleep-footsie with the married woman opposite: wake covered in confusion). On arrival at Bharatpur, the"calm but firm" worked again to sail me through the throng of autorickshaw wallahs until, almost clear, I sealed a deal at the Lonely Planet-approved (!) price and was soon at the pleasant guest house, quietly situated off the main traffic road. Took a stroll along the road to the gate of the park and as I turned to look at a stall of oranges a chorus of "Arthur!"s sounded from across the road. Celia and Nigel were not due until the morrow but had fled Jaipur (by car, no less: must have been desperate) a day early. Really good to meet up and catch up on a tinsiest bit of their travels. Next day up early to get into the park betimes, them leading me to places their guide had found interesting birds on the previous day. That was fine by me and the day passed gently and interestingly (and peacefully - in India but out of it, as you might say). Saw a lot of birds (Celia seems to specialise in owls, I prefer the bright ones: kingfishers, rollers (we saw a splendid one, apparently green not turquoise in the setting sun) a Saras crane (great red-and-charcoal-grey head!) and various I can't name) Yet to see my favourite, the bee-eater. Met someone who said the birds at Udaipur were just as good, if that's any consolation for missing Bharatpur. We lasted till sunset although neither Nigel or Celia's camera batteries did - the bane iof digitals, apparently! Good sunset shots on mine and then we collapsed ravenous and tired onto our supper.Today we were on different tracks (and in fact I've yet to meet up with them, although we were meant to) with me going to the station to book a train for Sun eve from Agra to Jabalpur - for Kanha National Park. I went through various route/destination options in my head but I knew I wanted to go there so why not first, particularly sinceI've given up on the thought of striking south from Kanha. Then perhaps Varanasi after that, followed by a bit of Rajastan maybe before going south. Cutting a long story, I did get the ticket on second choice train at second attempt - fortunately the queue was short both times although no tourist window/quota. Laughing Jackie-wise through the utter chaos of everything there and back on my bike (failed to mention: best thing here, doing it all on a sit-up-and-beg, although my bum's quite sore today!) Yes, Forster had it right in Passage to India in his description of the chaos of it all: all human life is there and quite a bit else. Then another good day inthe park, with some ace sightings of the beautiful Saras crane, with me doing the classic stalking technique to get really close. Of course at this point MY camera battery fails (should have got a second to use while first re-charges)..

Two more days at Bharatpur bird park were just right to help me adjust to "incredible India" in a relatively painless way. Lots of interesting birds seen but also just the experience of exploring and relaxing in the park for hours at a stretch. "Being not just seeing" (current watchwords!) But if you want a thought provoked by the park - it's in the title.

[This was typed in Agra (tourist hell, despite the heavenly Taj) but only for the afternoon while I wait for a train to Jabalpur from where I hope to visit two game parks. More in a later blog: my patience with these slow connections is a tad limited!]

Sunday, January 01, 2006

Travelling hopefully

I have written the following as a draft and edited it twice and still I'm not satisfied. Basically that's because it's unresolved in my mind. So what to do? Publish and be damned! Or publish and hope that comments may illuminate the modern-day dilemma of a supposed Green who still wants to venture "down the road apiece".

"I have to admit it: I am a travel junkie.
Travelling does for me in terms of stimulation and mental opening up what little else can. But these days it is so hard to travel with an easy conscience. In particular, any green analysis of the impact of air transport on the build-up of greenhouse gases is going to be damning of its use, particularly by mere travellers for leisure.

Is it just special pleading for me to argue that the plane will fly whether I am on it or not? (It is true, whereas my car won't go anywhere unless I'm in it, driving it - or my fan heater won't chuck out heat from electricity unless I turn it on.) Or if I argue that the actions or self-restraint of an individual are less than a drop in the ocean - or like pissing into the wind? What is needed is action with widespread effect, such as international agreements (say within the European Community) to put a progressive tax on aircraft fuel with the takings spent on alternative energy development or other green causes. What is needed most of all is to get the US on side: without action there, my donning of a hair-shirt would be just so much self-righteous masochism.

You see, I've worn the hair-shirt before - through the 1970s when very few seemed to be awake to the threats to the global environment. I grew my veg behind my house - and wheat for my chickens in the front! - and cycled most everywhere: I shunned consumerism (and still largely do). Generally, I was regarded then as just some harmless freak. It didn't seem to impress women, anyhow! Now I'm in my sixties I am less convinced by the self-flagellating solo gesture and perhaps I am also more pessimistic about the chances of halting global warming. In those distant hippy days, I used to say, "Many a true word spoken in paranoia": nowadays it seems more true than ever. Paranoia says that Big Oil and the rest will stop effective action stateside or world-wide. The Gulf Stream will switch off and Western Europe will freeze. Greenland Ice and later the Antarctic Polar Cap will melt. Seas will be swollen - with the melt water and much more still by expansion through heating - and flood most of the major conurbations and much of the best arable land. And stuff we can't even begin to predict. "Civilisation" will be devastated.

So what am I saying? It's mighty hard to go travelling with a clear conscience, especially by air. But are we then to revert to a wartime inquiry: "Is your journey really necessary?". To that I am inclined, like King Lear, to respond:"Oh reason not the need! ... Allow not nature more than nature needs, man's life is cheap as beast's" What perhaps it comes down to is that we each take up our position along a continuum between the minimum possible ecological impact and a carefree consumerism that knows no bounds. And what will I do? No doubt I will fly sometimes (watch this space!) but I will see what offsetting is possible by going to http://www.co2.org and http://www.carbonneutral.com/shop/index.asp (formerly known as Future Forests).

For more disturbing reading, I go to http://www.chooseclimate.org. No doubt, I'll be reading and thinking some more. Any comments?"