Tuesday, October 09, 2007

102 In Rishikesh

We made it down to the big pile of dirt that was the Hardwar bus depot and asked around for the Rishikesh bus. Everyone kept pointing in a vague direction, the confusion only being cleared up 15 minutes later when a bus stationed itself there. We and a bunch of other westerners crammed ourselves on it and we started the hour drive up the river.

For being 'a major place of pilgramage' Hardwar, besides being even more atrociously ugly and dirty than normal, was rather disquieting. For as we reached the outskirts there were water theme parks (Indian style) with giant gaudy plastic representations of Hindu dieties in front.

When we got to Rishikesh (an ancient place of hermitage where the Ganges really comes out of the mountains) it got to be even more of a carnival. First of all, the town and the river were both a lot bigger than I remembered from being here in 1970. Crossing a long narrow passenger suspension bridge occupied by beggars and desperate monkeys, we came upon a true bizarre/bazaar, and area that the Lonely Planet claimed had the 'best vibes in town'. 'Ashrams' were uniformly weirdly painted courtyards with little plastic deities surrounded by cages. A couple of restaurants had men in loincloths in front grotesquely painted to look like creatures I've never seen depicted in Hindu mythology. I went looking for hotels and after 45 minutes hadn't found one, which is very strange anywhere in India, let alone a place with umpteen thousand westerners.

We hired a porter to wheel all our luggage a kilometer to where a few hotels were, and I chose one of them. By now it was around 7 pm, and as our stuff was carried up to our room I realized that my body was about to collapse again.

I laid down and my third fever of the trip started up. When I awoke Friday morning it was 102, and there it stayed all day. Now when it gets that high you really can't concentrate on much besides breathing successfully, and of course Maureen was out trying to find medicines and cures. As the afternoon continued and it wasn't going down I was kind of worried, since if it jumps up to 104 or so that can get kind of serious at this age.

But at 6:10 all of a sudden it broke, and within an hour was almost back to normal. All I had to do now was to lie in bed, and by 4 pm Saturday I had enough energy to go for a short walk.

Rishikesh on second look had less than it had seemed.

Sunday morning somebody pointed out that ruins of the Maharishi ashram where the Beatles had stayed in 1967 were only a ten minute walk away. Since one of the main reasons (who knows why) Mo had wanted to come to India was to see that, we had to check it out.

Sure enough, the ruins were easy to find, and a 50 rupee bribe to the watchman let us in. Maureen was so happy in the quiet sylvan retreat that she had to sing her favorite Beatles song: Happiness Is A Warm Gun. For my part, I contemplated the irony that now the Beatles were gone from the forest and yet the Monkeys remained.

Saturday, October 06, 2007

Hardwar The Hard Way

Once all the nose drops, etc., had kicked in I was feeling pretty good, so when a little guy came down our little street on a giant elephant, it wasn't hard for all the shopkeepers who had come to know us by now to negotiate a deal for him to take Mo and me around the block on top of said elephant.

Later, when I was sitting around laughing and joking with said shopkeepers I started feeling the nose drops, etc, starting to wear off. Two hours later I was up in my room with the worst pain yet, lying on my back, dropping drop after drop down my nose, knowing all the while that it would take about 3 hours for it to work.

Next morning it seemed better again, and we got the early morning private taxi that would take us to the early afternoon train. India has finally decided to build a series of 4 lane roads throughout the country, and in typical Indian fashion they are building them everywhere at once. Very slowly. As we slowly bumped our way along the right of way I had the distinct impression that in six years time the construction project will be in its exact same state of non-development, but with the dust and the trucks and the delays still busily occupying the space.

The guy booking our cab was naturally cautious, so we arrived two and a half hours before the train. Off to the only pretense to an actual restaurant in town. Then back to get a late train.

The computer had said that the only seats left were in 1AC, a class of service so high that most trains don't have it. And it costs accordingly. We were shown to a compartment that would have been standard 2nd class in Mongolia or Europe. Maureen was immediately freaked out by the mice running around the compartment.

So we got them to switch us to another compartment, this one with only 2 berths. It was incredibly grotty, with peeled wallpaper and rusty tables, etc., that didn't begin to work. Oh, and the mice were also here. But we talked ourselves into staying there, because at least we wouldn't be woken up in the middle of the night by weird Indian berthmates.

As we slept we went past Delhi and up towards Hardwar, a major Hindu site where the Ganges reaches the plains. Even though the train stopped rather frequently in the middle of nowhere for lengthy periods, it was actually closer on schedule than when we had started.

But then, 5 km from Hardwar, it stopped. For 45 minutes. Okay, now it started again. For 1 km. Where it stopped for another 45 minutes. Meanwhile, we hadn't eaten all morning, and now it was 2:30 in the afternoon.

Finally, we get to the station. And I was immediately made aware that Rajasthan, where we had just been, is actually more laid back than north central India. Immediately we were bombarded with hassling porters, rickshaw drivers, you name it. And though I will try to accurately depict the experience later, you pretty much have to experience the extremely neurotic level of these people hassling you to no go effect for themselves to believe it.

Anyway, we made our way out of the station and over to the 'comfortable mid-range option', which turned out to be an over priced dump. So we decided to finally have our first food of the day in their (thank Vishnu) AC restuarant and then head up the river to Rishikesh.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Six Days In Udaipur

Another 6 hour bus ride which, although the seats weren't that horrible, left us curiously exhausted. Then an autorickshaw to the tourist district, a tramping through of several hotels, and the deciding upon of a room.

Udaipur is one of India's premier tourist cities and is on a lake, albeit a manmade one of about 100 acres, many of which are dries up right now. But with the green raggedy hills all around and the inclusion of many Moghul-Italianate 'palaces', it's actually a beautiful spot.

Which is quite amazing for India, since the country does absolutely everything possible to make itself exquisitely and all-encompassingly annoying. For instance, you can't walk down the narrow streets without every single shop owner--no matter what they're selling--pestering you to come in and take a look. Now you would think that after 40 years of dealing with western tourist someone would have had a clue that not being annoying would get you more customers in the end, but there seems to be this neurotic need for them all to bother you. It's as if 'Service' has been their cultural ideal, but instead they have become abjectly servile and passive/aggressive as a result.

Anyhow, Friday morning I had set aside to set up the tickets for the rest of our journey. Theoretically, we would take the night train to Bombay, spend the day there, take another sleeper to Goa, spend a few days there, take a sleeper to Bangalore, and then fly back to Delhi from there, leaving a couple of days so that we could go down to Agra for the Taj Mahal.

Ah, but that was theory. In practice, arranging anything going anywhere is like a root canal without novocaine. For instance, the night train from Udaipur gets to Ahmedabad at 4:30 am, from where you have to take a 6:30 train to Bombay which gets you there in the afternoon so there goes the sightseeing. Anyway, that train was booked up for the next week. You could also take the bus to Abu Rd (yes, that's where they made the album), and catch the 5 pm train directly to Bombay. Except you'd be sitting in the hot sun at Abu Rd for 5 hours, and maybe they wouldn't run the bus that day. Oh, and that train's booked, also. Okay, there are 5 trains leaving Ahmedabad at night, and if you took the afternoon 6 hr bus trip to Ahmedabad, then you could catch one of those. Except that they're all booked up, too, unless one that has emergency quota berths at double price.

And on and on and on for the other parts of the trip, too. Now we had to consider how much we really wanted to see Bombay, Goa, and Bangalore. After all, 15 hours in hot, humid Bombay with no room to retire to; a few days in Goa where the monsoon is just maybe starting to get over; a visit to Bangalore, which, though it is India's richest city is still supposedly a dump with horrible infrastructure and no tourist sights anyway...

The truth is, at this point India could offer almost nothing which would be worth the hassle of getting there and dealing with the people once you did. Which made us think of going back towards Delhi.

Except that we've 'done' Rajasthan. And it's a 10 hour bus trip (usually overnight) to get anywhere from Udaipur. And the Taj is closed on Friday. And, and, and.

So in the end we tentatively decided to go to Bundi on Monday by private taxi for 2500 rupees, see some more forts, and figure it out from there.

This took up most of Friday. At 3 we tore ourselves away and went over to the City Palace, a beautiful huge birthday cake building overlooking the lake. And when we were done touring that we went back to our hotel and sat looking out over the waters, seeing basically the same thing that the people at the Lake Palace Hotel in the middle of the lake were spending $400 a night to see. I was noting a weird cold like feeling in my right sinus, and hoping that it didn't get worse.

Saturday morning it felt better, and we took an all day cab ride through Indian back roads to see a couple of famous tourist sites: a big old medieval Rajput fort and a carved marble Jain temple. We climbed up the hill to the fort in 95 degree heat, but thankfully had paid extra for an AC cab. We got back around dark.

Sunday morning I awoke with the feeling of a cold hard steel chisel on my right sinus, and Sunday and Monday were spent with me in bed with somebody banging and banging away on said chisel. Oh yeah, and there was a giant boil on the inside of my nose. Maureen went to the pharmacist and he said 'sinusitus' and gave her some antibiotics and other pills. Monday she got a doctor and he pretty much confirmed the pharmacist's diagnosis.

Tuesday all the nose drops, etcl, started to kick in and I could at least write a blog. As I had been lying in bed the past few days I had kept going over and over in my head how we would get out of Bundi and where we would go. But I also had the time to look at train schedules, and found that there was a Hardwar Express that left Abu Rd and deposited you north of Delhi at the ashram area of the Ganges 24 hours later.

When I checked with our guy this morning there were exactly 2 seats left, in Class 1A, the most expensive. So we snagged them and also arranged for a cab in the morning to deposit us at the Abu Rd train station. (After all, construction on the road from here to there...)

I know I'm spending a lot of rupees, but, hey, my nose hurts. And anyway, just think of all we saved by not going to Goa.