Saturday, January 20, 2001

India - 40 Days Into Our Journey

40 days filled with incredible experiences and impressions, highs and lows MADE IN INDIA.
After arriving in DELHI, we took the first express train which was not hopelessly overbooked to PUNA. A 1600km journey in 30 hours, this is not
what I would call an express Train! But since trains in India are more than just a way of transport, but a full experience of Indian life, I didn't mind. But after this train ride I will never complain about Switzerland's or Japan's Railways again!!!

PUNA was very colorful and full of Westerners that either study Iyengar Yoga or seek spiritual highs or sexual bliss at Osho's (Rajneesh) Ashram. Yoga and Osho could not keep us from escaping to the highlands of MAHABALESHWAR after 3 days in the pollution and noise of the city. PUNA is now No.1 in my personal hit-list of the most polluted cities in the world.

For X-mas we went back to PUNA where we spent Christmas Day with an Indian family that Julane knew from 2 years ago. What a special X-mas: at 32decrees Celsius in the house of a Christian Indian Family with plastic X-mas tree and curry instead of the turkey!
Even in India this taxi is "out of service"

We had planned to leave PUNA on the same night, and booked a ticket for a night train straight down south. But after 3 days on the waitlist (Number 40&41) and then talking to the Station-Master, Reservation-Supervisor, cleaning lady, night-guard and finally even Santa Claus....

we made it to waitlist position 4&5 when the train left (without us of course!) But at least we could stand with all our stuff on the platform and wave the train goodbye! Well, a change of plans seemed unavoidable at this time. So at 8pm we first had to find a new place to sleep, since our hotel in the meantime, was fully booked (oh yeah, Murphy also lives in India!). So we took a bus the next day to BIJAPUR and then BADAMI where we were climbing with the monkeys on and around the ruins for a couple of days.

View of the Virupaksha temple in Hampi
The next destination on our plan was HAMPI. Asking around, we got lots of different answers on "how" and "when" to get to HAMPI. In the belief that the direct-bus to HOSPET would be our best bet, we just had to find out when the bus would leave. Asking a dozen people with a dozen different answers we figured that the bus must leave between 8am and 11am. Finally on the bus( 9.15am), we were about to start India's bumpiest bus ride....  5 hours later after endless "Rodeo" we arrived in HOSPET with our intestines wrapped around the stomach and the liver sitting on top of the heart. By the way, direct bus in India means not direct way, just that you don't need to change buses. We were zigzagging around and stopped at every cluster of more than two houses in the radius of 70 miles. Next time I'll go for the "indirect" bus that takes only 3 hours or so! We decided to spend the night in HOSPET since we did not want to take the next "direct bus" to HAMPI, which is just 8 air-miles distance away, but.....?

Temple in Hampi
HAMPI was once the capital of one of the largest Hindu empires in Indian history with more than 1,500,000 inhabitants (now roughly 900), dozens of Temples (all ruins) and a landscape that looks like Captain Kirk has been standing there before saying "beam me up Scottie" fascinated us so much, that we ended up staying for 5 days in HAMPI. We cycled for hours through this very inspiring area.
Unfortunately HAMPI also hosts a big army of "school-pen please...... give me five Rupees" kids. It seems as if the local school teaches only these two phrases, since the kids are all day and night on every corner begging "school-pen, school-pen, school-pen, school-pen, school-pen, ....."
Temple and Gallery in Hampi

They should teach more math, since the locals in HAMPI strongly believe that one Rupee equals one Dollar. Unless there is another explanation why they charge Indians 10 Rupees and the foreigners must pay $10 to enter the temple-ruins ($10 equals 460 Rupees!!!) We later discovered that the Indian Government decided to start a general Tourist rip-off scheme as of Oct. 2000 and now charges all foreigners by setting 1rs = $1 (or about 50 times more than the locals) It's quite OK to charge the non-tax paying tourists a bit more than the locals, but in a country where you can get a very nice hotel room for 400rs a night, you don't want to spend 460rs to enter a ruin!!!

After HAMPI we left for GOKARNA via HUBLI. In HUBLI I set a new record:  to change 40$ into Rupees, we had to struggle through 1 hour of Indian bureaucracy! That's considerably more than my old record at Fuji Bank in Tokyo.
Beach break in Goka
In GOKARNA we had a chance to take a break (from our vacation!) at a beach on the Arabian Sea. The only thing we did in GOKARNA was the 30 minutes daily walk to the beach, eating fresh and juicy pineapples and keeping the bananas hidden from the hungry monkeys. After a few (almost too few) days at the beach, we took the new Konkan railway southbound to MANGALORE. The ride went through an amazing landscape of rice paddies, banana plantations, thousands of coconut palm trees, lakes and bays.

Next day we went to MADIKERI in the COORG-Highlands, this trip is now marked as the slowest bus ride in India, or how else should I call a trip that takes 5 hours for 100 miles? In MADIKERI we went on a 2 day trek through coffee, cardamom, ginger and pepper plantations.

It was hard to leave the peaceful and quiet landscape of  COORG after 5 wonderful days and move towards MYSORE. But, MYSORE is an unexpectedly nice city, although after the scenic and pollution free landscape of MADIKERI, a dramatic change to be back in the hustle and bustle of Indian City live.
Inside a Temple in Mysore
The "bad-air-blues" was over after one night in the city, and we got the shopping fever (especially Julane though!!!) MYSORE is THE city in India to buy silk, sandalwood and Incense. No wonder we had to escape with 10 kg extra luggage and lots of rupees poorer to BANGALORE. After just a couple of days in shopping-mania MYSORE, first thing we had to do in BANGALORE was to find a bank or other sponsor that would replenish our stock of rupees again.

After just two days in BANGALORE, some begging at the ATM-God of Citibank and a very interesting visit to the "palm leaf library" (some of you might have heard about this place before) we are now back in PUNA. And here I am sitting in this little dark corner of an internet cafe (where's the coffee anyway?) and my fingertips are about to fall of soon.....

Tomorrow we're heading to GUJARAT in the north-west (right beside Pakistan!) Let's see how we are going to survive the 24 hours bus ride. Guess what? It's again a direct bus! But this time a "Luxury Sleeper Coach" what ever this might mean.

Summary of my first 40 days impressions:
India is an experience all day, every day. India is the country of the organized chaos or the chaotic organization, depends on your view point of the whole thing.
Cow in middle of Paharganj Bazaar
Oops! I almost forgot one important thing: the FOOD is amazing! Very tasty, diverse, and often fiery hot (spicy hot) the food here is a true highlight as long as you stick to 'Veg'. Vegetarian food in India is also a treat for carnivores (like me).  I've never seen such a big selection of pure-veg meals, and the best thing about it is that almost all of the dishes taste fabulous!

Meat is another story... :  When I saw what the pigs and chickens eat, I was already not to keen on eating meat. Cows are worshiped in India and consequently you see lot's of them walking in the middle of the streets, but never served on a plate! Beef is an absolute taboo in India. Even McDonalds serves only mutton-burgers! A visit to the meat market did the rest...  I am eating VEG!!! Anyway, it's often hard to tell if the chickens in the meat market were slaughtered or died of starvation.

.... more later