Coronavirus Diary (24): Peace Trains

A lot of the news about India’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic has been demoralizing, and justifiably so, but I haven’t seen much coverage in the American press of one of India’s more ingenious success stories. Apparently, the Indian government has decided to re-purpose railway cars as medical facilities. This particular idea seems to be the successor to an earlier one, described in a recent paper in the Bulletin of the World Health Organization. Continue reading

Guest Post: The Other India: Dharavi, Mumbai (by Matt Faherty)

Mumbai Days 3 and 4 – Slums Below, Death from Above

[We continue, in a manner reminiscent of the Star Wars prequels, with Matt’s travels in India prior to the Nepal earthquake.]

In my last post, I walked around the wealthiest part of the wealthiest city in India. Today I explored the poorest part.

According to my guide at Reality Tours and Travel, Dharavi is the largest slum in Asia, with one million individuals packed into 1.75 square kilometers. In comparison, Manhattan’s skyscrapers give the island a population density of a mere 26,000 individuals per square kilometer while these Indians pack more than ten times that amount into two story concrete blocks. Dharavi is in the heart of Delhi and has grown rapidly over the last few decades. Likewise, slum tourism has really taken off over the last decade. In the Indian case, this is largely, though not entirely a product of “Slumdog Millionaire.”

The tour guide told my six-person group to call him “Monroe,” and he laid out a few ground rules before entering the slums:

  •             First, no cameras. Apparently the locals don’t take kindly to being treated like wildlife.
  •             Second, don’t hold your nose if something smells or make any other obnoxious indicators of disgust towards the neighborhood.
  •             Third, the primary purpose of the tour was to combat negative steryotypes about the slums. Apparently, after Slumdog Millionaire became a world-wide hit, everyone thought the Indian slums are inhabited solely by beggars, gangs, and drug addicts. In reality Dharavi is basically an industrial region involved primarily with recycling and small scale manufacturing.

Since I couldn’t take pictures, I diligently took notes. The following is based on Monroe’s presentation and my observations.

Dharavi was first inhabited 174 years ago when the British were busy spreading their settlement up Mumbai’s peninsula. At the time it was a swamp and not particularly amenable to habitation. Still, a small native settlement was established, but theregion didn’t really take off until the 1960s and 70s. By the 1980s, Dharavi had exploded into the largest slum in Asia in terms of population and still holds this distinction today.

In India, the term, “slum,” technically refers to any group of buildings built illegally on government land.* Over time, many slums in India gain legitimacy and government recognition, but they are still referred to as slums. This is the case for Dharavi and all other slums in Mumbai built before 1995. Post 1995 slums are largely beggar communities set up in make-shift shacks, while Dharavi consists mostly of two story concrete blocks with metal sheeting for roofs.

“Dharavi Slum in Mumbai” by Kounosu – Own work (own picture). Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons – 

According to Monroe, most Indians think that slums are filled with lazy bums who don’t want to work and are content to live on whatever scrap they can gather from landfills or whatever they can beg from productive citizens. This was the impression I got from at least one Indian I spoke to in my guesthouse in Mumbai. Contrary to these expectations, Dharavi has a GDP of $665 million (though Wikipedia says the figure is closer to $500 million) according to the Indian government’s equivalent to the IRS. Some quick math indicates a GDP per capita of about $665, compared to a national Indian average of $1,500. So while Dharavi isn’t quite a massive Hoover City, it isn’t an economic juggernaut either.

Dharavi’s recycling and manufacturing economy consists of 10,000 businesses run by 8,000 owners. Mumbai produces 10,000 tons of trash per day, and about 70% of it is processed in Dharavi. On the manufacturing end, Monroe told us that we would be shocked how many high end leather products sold in Paris and London were made here. Basically, Dharavi is a strongly entrepreneurial and productive community, which despite its poverty, is an important component of Mumbai.

The tour started on an overpass above the Mumbai railway. After an introduction, our group walked across the overpass and we entered Dharavi. My first impression is that it wasn’t quite as bad as I expected. It is dirtier, greyer, and more crowded than the surrounding areas, but not by a huge margin. The buildings are mostly two story concrete blocks without doors or windows. None of them are painted and the vast majority are grey. The street is dirt, and the rapidly disintegrating sidewalks are stone.

Lining the sides of the bigger streets are all of the same stores one finds in the rest of India, only smaller, dirtier, and shittier. There are grocers, small food markets, repair stores, etc. I didn’t buy anything but the prices were shockingly low. Monroe told us we could get a full acupuncture treatment for 290 rupees, or about 30 cents. There was also a shop which sold selfies; even desperately impoverished Indians like pictures of themselves.

After walking along the main road for a bit, we turned into one of hundreds of very similar looking side streets. We were in the commercial district, so this whole area was packed to the brim with tiny businesses. Our first stop was at a plastic recycling operation. Three guys stood outside a bed room-sized room which had some sort of rusty machinery in it. Outside, there were dozens of massive white sacks filled with bits of plastic. In another room, a guy sat on his knees in a pile of plastic which reached a foot high and covered the floor of the entire 20 by 20 foot room.

Monroe explained that there were businesses which collected plastic in Mumbai for free and sold it to business like this one for 8 to 10 rupees per kilogram. These guys chopped the plastic into tiny pieces, then mixed it with some chemicals and water in barrels, then dried the plastic into solid strips, and then resold the strips to manufacturing companies to be reused as raw plastic. Put another way, these guys used a giant shredding machine, then manually collected billions of tiny shards, then dipped the shards into dangerous emulsifying chemicals, and then laid them out to dry in the glaring sun so they could be sold to big companies for next to nothing, all without any safety equipment.

Next Monroe brought us to an aluminum recycling operation. The process here was similar. They bought aluminum by the kilo, broke it down into shards, then smelted it into ingots to be sold to companies. But the aluminum operation had the extra fun of using a terrifying make shift furnace, which looks exactly like it sounds.

We got a chance to look through all three rooms of the aluminum company. The first toom again had a giant machine and a massive pile of aluminum shards on the floor which one of the workers was diligently sifting through. The second room was the furnace, where a guy was pushing a big stick into a fiery hole coming out of the ground, The third room was the ingot manufacturing, where a few guys were working on at multiple stations on a bewilderingly complex machine. None of these rooms had an artificial light source, so all were completely dark other than whatever sunlight came through the entrance and the glow of the furnace. They were all filthy and smelled awful. However, they did have surprisingly good ventilation assisted by fans.

As with the plastic workers, none of these guys had safety equipment either. I know these slum dwellers are poor, but can they really not afford goggles to protect their eyes or gloves to protect their hands? According to Monroe, they can afford those things but choose not to use them because it slows down work.

Despite the conditions of the slum structures, they did have electricity which is used for the occasional light bulb and fan. Monroe stated that you can always tell the difference between an old, official slum, and a newer unofficial slum by the former’s electricity.

Given that most of Dharavi is dedicated to recycling, the whole neighborhood is covered in garbage. Of course, most Indian cities are covered in garbage, but in Dharavi, you can never tell whether any particular pile of garbage is just waste discarded on the side of the street, or if it’s some business’s excess inventory which can’t fit into storage. There are huge sacks of aluminum, plastic, paper, and electronics all over the place. I saw two guys rummaging through what must have been over a thousand cheap cell phones.

At one point, we went on the rooftop of another plastic recycling operation. Every building in the neighborhood has sheet metal roofs, and nearly every home had a huge pile of garbage on it. Some of these piles were clearly left up here for drying purposes, but others I couldn’t figure out. One roof had fifty or more small plastic chairs, the sort which is sold at a toy store. Others had plastic bags. Some piles seemed to be lodges between multiple buildings and I couldn’t tell who had rightful claim over them, or if anyone would even want to claim them.

From the rooftop, I could also see that every single building had its own small satellite dish. Monroe explained that cell phones and television are fundamental requirements in India that no one goes without. Additionally, just outside the slum borders were numerous high rise apartments which towered over Dharavi. One of these skyscrapers was the private skyscraper of some Indian billionaire.

Despite being coated in garbage, Dharavi doesn’t actually smell that bad. Oh, it still smells, but aside from the streets which have streams of tepid water on the side, it smells no worse than the rest of Mumbai.

The vast majority of the workers in the commercial district of Dharavi, are not from Mumbai. They are migrant workers from other parts of India, especially Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. They usually come from dirt poor farming communities where they worked as hired farm hands for 20-80 rupees (30 cents to $1.30) per day. In Dharavi, they get hired by local businessmen or particularly successful migrants to work in these recycling and manufacturing facilities for 150-200 rupees ($2.50-$3.30) per day. The monthly rent for a standard room in the slums is 3,000-4,000 rupees per month, so most workers opt to sleep in the factories instead. The managers allow this because they effectively serve as guards for their capital at night.

The migrant workers rarely plan to stay in Mumbai permanently. Most intend to stay for 8 to 10 years until they can gather some decent savings and move back home to live with their family. Some even return home during the harvest season when they can find more work.

“Pottery unit in Dharavi, Mumbai” by M M from Switzerland – Dharavi_DSC3155Uploaded by Ekabhishek. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons – 

According to Monroe, the workers are extremely happy to be in Mumbai. This place is filthy, crowded, cramped, and really just entirely unpleasant, but these guys cannot wait to leave their homes and families in the countryside to come to Dharavi and grind aluminum for twelve to fifteen hours per day in return for enough money to maybe buy a cheap meal at an Indian McDonald’s each day.

The government is awful.

This is not just my opinion, this is the prevailing sentiment of the slums. Every interaction Dharavi has had with the Indian and Mumbai government has lent further credence to the notion that the state is corrupt, ruthless, and most of all, incompetent. Or maybe Monroe is just a stealth libertarian.

The following descriptions may just sound like me raging for my libertarian beliefs, but these are all paraphrases of Monroe.

About a decade ago, either the national government or the city of Mumbai (Monroe didn’t clarify) created the Slum Rehabilitation Authority, or SRA. The SRA’s job was (and still is) to systematically tear down the slums in Mumbai to be replaced by more comfortable and standardized apartment complexes. According to the government, the purpose of this venture was to revitalize the slums, though a cynic like Monroe suggests it was a scheme to make taxation more effective and give crony-based benefits to wealthy developers.**

In conjunction with local landlords, the SRA would ask every inhabitant within a particular geographic area if they would take a buy-out to vacate their apartment. Not only would the buyout recipients receive a lump sum of cash, but they would also get a brand new apartment in the new building. If 70% of the area’s inhabitants took the buy-out, the SRA could legally declare eminent domain on the other thirty percent and clear the buildings to begin a new construction.

For the first few years the SRA was quite successful and acquired considerable swaths of land, but the slum residents soon began to resist. It turned out that the standardized apartment sizes in the new buildings caused a lot of problems. Wealthy slum dwellers who had relatively large apartments found themselves getting downgraded into smaller rooms. Meanwhile, the more plentiful slum-dwellers in small apartments couldn’t pay the upkeep and rent (which was only free for a limited time) in their new, larger apartments. Worst of all, these new buildings prohibited the small manufacturing businesses which proved 95% of the income to these slums, so the inhabitants of these new builds effectively lost their jobs and companies.

On the other hand, I’m sure the well-connected construction companies made out splendidly on the SRA.

The slum’s aversion to the government doesn’t end there.

Monroe estimated that about 95% of children in the slums go to school, and about 45% of them go to private schools. The government schools have free tuition, provide free books, clothes, and bags, and yet the poorest of the poor people in an extremely poor part of a very poor country would rather scrape together a few rupees to send their children to a private school than send their kids to a government school. This is because the government schools are notoriously useless. The class sizes are enormous, the teachers don’t show up half of the time, when they do show up they clearly do not give a shit about their professional responsibility, and as a result, graduating from a government school means almost nothing to potential employers.

According to Monroe, the locals do everything they can to send their kids to a private school, most of which are taught by local professionals and organized by local entrepreneurs, while others are established by NGOs. The only kids who go to public schools are those whose parents are too poor to afford private school tuition.

Monroe’s account of private education in Dharavi closely aligns with the Cato Institute’s findings in a 2005 study on private education in some of the poorest countries in the world.

Finally, there are the hospitals. Unsurprisingly, in a place where people regularly work with toxic chemicals and shards of industrial waste without any safety gear, illness is very common. It also doesn’t help that children literally play on huge piles of garbage. In regard to medicine, all slum-dwellers know that the private hospitals are vastly superior to the government run hospitals.

When slum dwellers get minor illnesses, they go to the local private hospitals. When they catch serious diseases or need surgery, they are forced to go to the government hospitals because they can’t afford to go to the private ones. Monroe’s father was a doctor at one of the nearby government hospitals and Monroe saw these operations first hand. They are utterly filthy and overcrowded, with injured people regularly bleeding all over the hallway. Monroe even claimed that in many instances, going to a public hospital is worse than not going to any hospital because of how often patients got infections from the unsanitary conditions.

Our tour group walked around the commercial sector of Dharavi for about an hour. I could not tell the narrow, winding streets apart, nor could I distinguish between the hundreds of make-shift businesses packed into the tiny structures lining the streets. As I said, there are no doors in this area, so as I walked around I could peek into all of the buildings. Without fail, I always saw a group of young men working on some massive machine which must have been a nightmare to get into the hovel, or sorting some pile of trash, or hunching over an old sewing machine focusing intently on stitching correctly, or stretching a piece of rough leather in the sun.

The only time I saw women working was in the pottery and food operations. Dharavi imports clay which is then soaked for days before being dried, hardened, and fired in a kiln. On the food end, women bake and arrange whatever that tortilla-like bread thing that Indian eat. According to Monroe, the food operation was entirely created by NGOs attempting to provide women with a means of earning money. Even still, women are treated largely as second class citizens in the slums, and are a tiny minority under the flood of male migrants.

Our group left the commercial district and made our way through the residential district. The residencies are divided between Muslims and Hindus. They used to be united, but were separated during the 1993 riots, when over a thousand Mumbai residents were killed in religious conflict (most of the victims were Muslim). Monroe noted that you can always tell when you’re in the Hindu region because it literally smells like shit due to their squat toilets.

Monroe also related to us a personal anecdote of how he fell in love with, and proposed marriage to, a Muslim girl. She asked him to convert to Islam and he refused, so they broke up. He said that today Muslims and Hindus basically get along in India, but interfaith marriage is still almost unheard of.***

“An embroidery unit in Dharavi, Mumbai” by M M from Switzerland – Dharavi_DSC2981Uploaded by Ekabhishek. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons – 

The residential district looked like the commercial district except the rooms were smaller and the streets were more narrow. Monroe lead us down some… I guess they could be called alleys, but that’s kind of a stretch. These passages were 2-3 feet wide and sometimes less than 5.5 feet tall (because random things jutted out of the sides of buildings). They looked like random gaps between adjacent buildings, but I could see dozens of entrances into tiny homes barely lit by single lightbulbs. Mothers and children stood outside their homes and watched us pass by, even though it meant congesting the already claustrophobic alleys. Lots of sections were flooded by streams of water flowing between the buildings.

At some parts the alleys were so narrow that I could barely see the blazing Indian sun. Though these homes were built into dark, uncomfortably tight alleys filled with rancid streams, they must have been remarkably cool for a sub-tropical location in India.

When we finally exited the alleys, we entered a clearing and waited for our eyes to adjust to see about a dozen young children playing on a massive pile of garbage, just like in Slumdog Millionaire. Then we made our way to a nearby leather processing facility which recycled old leather and built shockingly high quality bags to be sold to European and American companies which would never admit where they built their wares. I suspect that most of these bags would be sold as knock off on the street, but I have to admit, they felt extremely real, at least according to my nearly non-existent sense of leather fashion accessory authenticity.

After a short break in the mercifully air conditioned office of the leather company manager, we went to a “semi-private” school run by the NGO which operates these tours. The school focuses on teaching slum-dwellers over the age of 18 how to write and read in English, learn basic computer skills, and develop “soft skills,” like how to conduct oneself in an interview.

At the school were two twenty-something women, both volunteers from Italy. One had worked here for a few months last year and had returned for another tour of duty, while the other was on her first week out of a six month stay. These girls are absolutely insane. I suppose they at least get to live in Mumbai, which is a decent city with plenty to do (unlike my podunk farming community in Nepal), but I simply cannot imagine working in this Indian slum for months on end. These girls are tougher and/or more deranged than I will ever be.

The tour ended at the NGO’s base of operations within Dharavi. Monroe gave us a pitch about how awesome the NGO is and told us that 80% of the tours profits are donated to the NGO’s efforts in Dharavi. Then he asked us to fill out tour reviews; I gave the tour and Monroe high marks.

For the rest of Day 3 I just wrote and walked around another chunk of the scenic city center of Mumbai. The next day I did much the same and there is little to say about either day with the exception of one event I must briefly recount.

Crazy things happen while traveling. When you’re in a foreign country, you don’t understand the culture or how things operate, so you never know when you are going to accidentally do something really stupid or cause a huge problem. Other times, bizare things just happen around you and you have no idea why. For instance, I was drinking a cup of coffee in McDonald’s this morning, and despite every other table in the entire restaurant being empty, a 20ish year old Indian guy sat directly across from me at my two person table. I assumed he wanted to talk to a random white guy, but after asking if the seat was taken, he didn’t say a word and just ate his entire meal.

That was a strange situation, and I can’t explain it. What happened to me later in the day I can probably explain, but was far crazier. It wasn’t a byproduct of some cultural mores I don’t understand, though it was probably the result of some unexpected error on my part.

I got attacked by a hawk.

I was walking around some swanky neighborhood in West Mumbai consisting of a lot of really nice streets covered by beautiful leafy canopies and lined by well-maintained high rise apartments. Eventually I made my way to the nearby water, where, unlike the beaches near the city center, was no a recreational area, but primarily used for fishing. I decided to walk along the water on some flat rocks sticking out of the ground. Ten minutes later, I saw them.

There were probably ten brown hawks congregating in a small area of the beach. They were quite large, maybe 1-1.5 feet tall. Half of them were on the ground while the other half were circling in the air above. I thought they looked really cool, so I took out my camera and snapped a few pictures.

It didn’t actually occur to me that wild hawks might be dangerous, though I did remember seeing warnings about the dangers of these predators on a beach in Japan. On the other hand, I don’t typically like disturbing wild animals, so I decided to keep walking along the water and I figured I would disturb their sandy spot closer to the road.

Thirty seconds after I put my camera away and started walking, I distinctly felt something smash into my head and two claws dig into my scalp. The impact hurt worse than the claws since the later mostly grabbed hair and mercifully didn’t rip any out. I didn’t actually see the hawk who attacked me, but I saw lots of hawk shadows at my feet and could see them circling the air around me. Like the millions of rodents attacked by hawks before me, I was simply stunned for a moment. Did that really just happen?

I’ll admit, I was a little scared. These things weren’t that big, and I’m sure I could easily kill one if I actually got my arms around it, but obviously that was easier said than done.**** I estimated that the odds of one these hawks successfully dive-bombing me to rip out my throat or eyes was significantly higher than the odds of me catching one to break its neck. I specifically recalled the movie, Hidalgo, where an Arabian hawk plucks a guy’s eyes out on command. Could you imagine the headline: “American Tourist Blinded by Wild Hawks in Mumbai.”

I had to get out of there, and for some reason I just assumed the hawks would keep attacking me on the beach, so I had to get to the road and perhaps the buildings along its far side.. However, I was concerned that literally running for the road would cause the hawks to dive-bomb me more, kind of like how running away from bears supposedly causes them to attack. Maybe if I ran, my blond hair would look even more like some delicious rodent which needed to be eaten.

Look at that delicious rodent that needs to be eaten, bobbing up and down on that idiot’s head. 

The shortest distance to the road was through hawk territory, so I cautiously made my way to the road at a diagonal angle between the parallel road and water. The first attack came from behind, so as my lacrosse coach would say, I “kept my head on swivel” to spot the next attack. But apparently these hawks wanted a challenge. I saw one in the air in front of me line up so that he was flying directly at me. He dived down from the sky and I took evasive maneuvers by juking my body back and forth and moving my head accordingly like a running back trying to fake out a linebacker, or alternatively, like an idiot.

Regardless of how I looked, it worked. The hawk changed its flight pattern at the last moment and sharply turned upwards about five feet away from me. At that point I took off my back pack and was prepared to use it as a melee weapon, regardless of what risks this posed to its contents (which included my cell phone and keyboard. Fortunately I endured no more attacks and successfully made it to the road. I had survived an attack by a hawk or hawks and lived to tell the tale with both of my eyes.

Those were a lot of sentences I never thought I would write in my life.

*Irfan: This raises the question of what exactly is involved, practically speaking, in legal registration of housing. I suspect that Hernando de Soto’s work is relevant here.

**Irfan: Martin Anderson’s work on urban renewal provides an interesting point of comparison on this.

***Irfan: For whatever it’s worth, that’s the account my own relatives give of life in British India (they were from Amritsar) before the India-Pakistan division (1947).

****Irfan: Um. You wouldn’t get your arms around it, and even if you did, you wouldn’t kill it. Animals don’t die easily, trust me.

Irfan: Ted Hughes’s poem “Hawk Roosting” seems an appropriate postscript. My second choice was Rush’s By Tor and the Snow/SlumDog, but of course, By Tor is an owl.

“Direct through the bones of the living…” 

Guest Post: Terrorism and Toilet Paper in Mumbai (by Matt Faherty)

Mumbai Days 1 and 2

[I guess any continuation of Matt Faherty’s travelogue in South Asia was bound to be anti-climactic after his first-hand account of the Nepal earthquake, but as mentioned before, he sent me a slew of entertaining entries from Mumbai before going back to Kathmandu. So without further (Kathman)-ado, here are his first two days in Mumbai, which I was seriously tempted to call “Rush Hour 4.”]

It’s quite hot here. It was hot in northern India too, but that was a dry, arid to desert heat, this is humid,  sub-tropical heat.. It doesn’t help that I have a bad cold and I’ve been burning through toilet paper repurposed as tissues while chugging entire water bottles in an attempt to rehydrate. Also not helping is the fact that air conditioning is a rare commodity in India, not possessed by the vast majority of eating establishments, nor by my dirt cheap hostel. I’m actually writing the first half of this update from the wonderfully air conditioned lobby of the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel, a building ironically known for blowing up rather than keeping cool.

I’m out of the dry plains and desserts of Uttar Pradesh, Delhi, and Rajastan in the north, and I’m slowly making my way into the jungle-filled south. Mumbai is latitudinally in the middle of India and hanging off the West Coast. Fortunately I can take respite from the sun under the thousands of huge, dark green trees throughout the city. Like Singapore and Kuala Lumpur, Mumbai feels like a city built in a jungle, and still retains sizable forests and canopies hanging over crowded streets. It’s a nice change of pace from the north aesthetically, even if I can do without the humidity.

Mumbai is sort of the Hong Kong of India. It wasn’t a major city before the Europeans arrived but now it’s the economic capital of the country and by far the most developed city. Mumbai was a tiny fishing village that was turned into an outpost by the Portugese in the 1534. 130 years later it was gifted to the British as part of a dowry to cement an alliance to the Portugese, and a few years after that it was turned over to the British East India Company, where it would become the seat of British power in Western India, matched only in authority by Calcutta in the East.

The European legacy still really shows today. Unlike Calcutta, where it looks like all of the Europeans left their buildings and infrastructure to rot long ago, the center of Mumbai maintains its European vestiges in pristine form. European-style train stations, arches, university buildings, stock exchanges, churches, etc., all look like they could be featured in London today. All of these buildings are complimented by hands down the best streets in any Indian city, consisting of ample roundabouts, well maintained dark pavement, wide streets, and wide sidewalks.

“Hajiali” by Humayunn Peerzaada AKA HumFur from Mumbai, India – The Haji-Ali Dargah stands silhouetted against the setting sun. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons –

On the modern side, Mumbai is the only place in India which gets close to something like a skyline. It’s not complete, but along two particular bay coast lines, Mumbai puts up a decent row of buildings, including a couple of legitimate skyscrapers. Bikes are far more rare, and taxis out number took- tooks, especially in the more modern areas which seem tobe exclusively used by cars. The city center also has a much larger concentration of modern stores and shopping centers than I’ve seen in Delhi or Calcutta.

Mumbai’s one infrastructural short coming is city-wide transport. The only metro line is in the far north of the city. Instead, the city’s 12 million inhabitants rely on the only eight-track train system to move throughout the X square mile city. Unfortunately, it takes me about an hour to get from my hostel in the north to the city center.

The farther one walks away from the city center (which is really the tip of the city hanging out in the Indian Ocean), the more the European influence fades and the city feels more Indian. It gets dirtier, more chaotic, and smellier. The last part really needs to be emphasized: outside of the city center, Mumbai smells bad. A lot of parts smell like sewage, the rest just smells like garbage, much like Dhaka.

Despite being the wealthiest city in India, Mumbai has lots and lots of poor people. The Dharavi district is the second largest slum in all of Asia (behind only Mexico City’s biggest slum). Even in the middling area where I was staying, there seemed to be more poor people than usual, even for an Indian city. This means more beggars on the streets, more people sleeping on filthy blankets on the sidewalks, and more hovels made of bits of cement and garbage in dirt clearings next to buildings. I remember hearing in a Vice documentary that Dharavi basically survives off of the garbage produced from more affluent neighborhoods, so I’m guessing the whole city attracts the poor of India hoping to live off whatever scraps they can scavenge from the rich.

Mumbai’s wealth has a downside. In all of my time travelling, I have never seen a single city in a country that was so much more expensive than its surroundings, with the exception of Hong Kong in China. I haven’t paid more than $6 per night at a hotel or hostel thus far on the trip, and I’ve managed to pay as little as $3 per night in Jaipur. In Mumbai, I could not find any hostels, and I could not find any hotels anywehre near the city center for less than $20 per night. After hours of searching, I finally stumbled upon a guest house way up in the north for $5 per night, but it is barren to say the least. There is only one other white guy there besides me.

On the other hand, prices in the rest of Mumbai don’t seem too bad. My 40 minute train ride in the morning only costs 10 rupees, and that’s for first class. Wikipedia says Mumbai has real estate prices as high as Manhattan, so maybe it’s predominately real estate inflation.

On Day 1 I took a brief trip down town to figure out how the train system works and walk around the hear to Mumbai a bit. Noting that transportation took about an hour, I woke up at 7 AM, to get an early start on the day. I promptly fell asleep again at 7:01 AM and didn’t wake up until nearly 8 AM. I managed to get on the metro which connected me to the main train by 8:45 and I didn’t arrive downtown until 10 AM.

This was a big walking day. I took frequent breaks because my nose was constantly running and I felt very weak, though my condition improved later in the day. I walked a stretch of southern Mumbai from Victoria Terminus to Colaba, a peninsula sticking out into the Indian Ocean. This area was the cneter of British rule and contains most of the remnants of the Empire, including Victoria Terminus, Mumbai High Court, all of the buildings in Mumbai University, the Prince of Wales Museum, and the Gateway of India. All of these buildings are gothic and English style and tower over their surroundings. In between the famous buildings are plenty of minor, unnamed ones, which actually look a lot like the structures at the center of UChicago’s campus. As mentioned, they are extremely well maintained, and all seem to still be in use today.

I stopped at the Prince of Wales Museum, which you can also call the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya Museum, if you really want to. Surprisingly,the museum is neither about the Prince of Wales nor whatever that Indian thing is, rather it contains an odd scattershot of exhibitions including presentations of early Indian civilization, Mesopotamian art, modern art, local and exotic wild life, and Chinese and Japanese crafts. I have no idea what they were going for, but it was a pretty good museum. It was one of the few museums on this trip with well written descriptions that I actually wanted to read. Though I am annoyed that I couldn’t bring my camera in without paying an extra $3 (I left my camera with the baggage handler). Also there was only one bathroom, and it was on the bottom floor, so without my bag and the toilet paper I use as tissues in it, I had to keep running up and down flights of stairs to get more toilet paper from the bathroom. This was not fun.

The Gateway of India (which isn’t the same thing as the India Gate, which resides in Delhi) is another Arc de Triumph knock off, though it’s a bit shorter and wider. It’s in a really nice clearing on the water, across the street from the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel. Weirdly, the gate was built to commemorate the visit of Queen Victoria and her husband in 1911. It seems a bit much to me.

As mentioned, I started writing this update during an hour long walking break in the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel. On November 26, 2008, Mumbai was hit with a series of terrorist bombing orchestrated by Lashkar-e-Taiba, a radical Islamic group seeking to force India to release Kashmir to Pakistan. One of the bombs blew up the hotel’s roof, and the terrorists barricaded themselves in the hotel along with hundreds of hostages, including 450 guests and the present staff. Eventually Indian commandos stormed the building and rescued most of the hostages, but 31 individuals died, including 12 hotel staffers and 19 guests.

There are some low profile reminders of the bombing at the hotel today. There is a memorial in a small and (I’m pretty sure) inaccessible courtyard, consisting of one of those waterfalls over brown rock things that super fancy hotels and malls some times have. It’s about two stories tall and there is a marble wall next to the waterfall with all of the victims’ names on it. It’s not too much of a memorial, but considering that this is a super fancy hotel, I suppose they don’t want to bum their guests out, if not scare them, by reminding them of the horrible thing that happened at the hotel not long ago.

Another indicator of the attacks is the hotel’s high security. The drive-in at the entry has metal tubes designed to stop cars which electronically rise out of and go back into the ground via remote control. Just to walk through the front door, guests (and me) have to put our bags through an x-ray machine, have to walk through a metal detector, and get patted down and wanded by a guard. On the other hand, all monuments, museums, and metro stations in India do this, so it’s possible that this is standard protocol for all nice hotels in India. I’m too much of a badass hardcore traveler to know.*

I like to explore super fancy hotels so I walked around the lobby and shopping area on the ground floor a bit. There was a really nice pool which I’m fairly confident I could have snuck into, but I didn’t have a bathing suit with me. One area has pictures of all of the famous people who have visited the hotel, including both Clintons, David Cameron, Barack Obama, and of course John Lennon and Yoko Ono. I checked out the dinner menu for one of the restaurants and saw the entrees were only about $30 a piece. Meh, I’ve seen worse. However, the wine paired entrees were around $100 a piece. That’s more like it. But it still doesn’t beat the $300 entrees at Abu Dhabi’s X hotel.

I walked further south for about two hours until I neared the tip of the peninsula. I hit a few churches, having not seen any since Calcutta. One church had some carvings donated by the East India Company which was pretty cool. I really wanted to go to a church on my map called the “Afghan Church” but I couldn’t find it.

I walked for another two hours north along one of the two main coastlines in Mumbai. There is a street which runs the length of this stretch of coast, a wide sidewalk along side it, a cement barrier which people sit on, and then the beach. The beach is filled with thousands of what I can only describe as massive, stone jacks from that game where you bounce a ball and pick up a piece before the ball lands on the ground. I cannot imagine how much these things way, but they stretch on for miles. Presumably they are there to prevent erosion so India’s premiere skyline doesn’t fall into the sea.

I got a lot of attention on this walking stretch. Twice I was asked to take pictures of other people with my own camera. I don’t know why or what they get out of it. I guess the first group were too little kids and just thought my camera was cool, but they other group was a bunch of teenagers who have surely seen a camera before.

The Taj today

I also climbed over some of the jacks, walked on the sandy parts of the beach, and touched the Indian Ocean for the second time (the first was in the UAE). I got some great pictures of the setting sun on the water and considered waiting for sunset, but it was only about 6 PM and thought it would take too long, so I set off for the nearest railway station.

Wikitravel warns to never use the Mumbai trains during rush hour, especially not in coach. So I used the Mumbai trains in rush hour, in coach.

Numerous times in these updates I’ve described metros and lines getting absolutely packed with people. Forget all of that–it was nothing. Or at least it wasn’t coach in the Mumbai trains during rush hour.

The first two stops were fine, I even had ample room to sit on the ground. Then the surge came. These trains don’t have doors, so at every stop a bunch of maniacs always run alongside the train while it’s still moving and jump on, while equally insane people already on the train jump off. I even saw a guy jump off the train in the morning and smash into some poor bystander.

When the train finally did stop, I was quickly pulled to my feet by my neighbor and we proceeded to pack that train to its limit. As in, seven or eight people were hanging off the train, holding on by a single leg and arm on both sides out of both empty door. I was pressed so hard on every side that I could not bring my arms up to take out my headphone. I could shift my arms to get to my pockets. I lost track of my bag in between other people as I held on to it with one hand for dear life. At one point, the hangers on closest to me launched a daring gambit to get themselves in the train (I think it was to avoid getting hit by an oncoming train). The pressure against me was so intense, that I genuinely feared my arm would break for a second as it twisted against me. I also couldn’t breathe for about ten seconds.

The locals thought this was hilarious.

*Irfan: On April 14, 2015, the Lahore High Court (Pakistan) released Zakiur Rahman Lakhvi, the alleged mastermind of the Mumbai attack.

Guest Post: A Passage Through India, Jaipur to Mumbai (by Matt Faherty)

[Back to Matt Faherty’s journey through India, now in its sixth week. We left off last time in Ajmer. From Ajmer, Matt proceeded to Jaipur, but in the interests of time, I’m skipping the Jaipur entry, the crux of which was a thoughtful and vivid description of Amber Fort in Jaipur, followed by a description of how bored Matt was by Jaipur generally. This entry gets Matt from Jaipur to Mumbai by means of a 17-hour train ride, which is the basis of the following disquisition on the nature of train travel in India. A soundtrack has been provided for your listening pleasure.]

Crazy Train: Seventeen Hours on the Mumbai Express

When I decided to travel throughout India for a month on a budget, I assumed I could easily do so by train. My point of comparison was China. While decent trains in China are relatively expensive for the country, they are also extraordinarily convenient.  The Chinese government went all- out in building a massive rail network to service its gigantic population. As long as you aren’t trying to take a train ride during a holiday, you can typically buy a ticket between any two major cities for around $20-$30 and then hop on the train 15-30 minutes later. Imagine walking into Grand Central Station in New York City, buying a train ticket to Dallas, and then getting on said train fifteen minutes later. That’s the way it works in China.

That is not the way it works in India. Despite having one of the oldest rail networks in Asia, India’s trains are hugely over-burdened. Most major cities only have a handful of trains travelling between them each day. To automatically reserve a seat, customers typically have to buy a ticket more than a week in advance, more so for popular routes. If a customer applies to late, they can still get a seat, but only by going through a convoluted waiting list process.

I purchased my ticket for a ride from Jaipur to Mumbai four days before the departure date. I was initially slotted into the 158th waitlist spot (I’m not sure how many spots there are overall). At that point, I and hundreds of other passengers have nothing to do but wait and hope that enough people drop out to move us up the waitlist into a reserved seat. There are even websites with algorithms to track the odds of any individual ticket coming to fruition. Two days before departure, I was in the 81st waitlist slot, and a website estimated I had an 85% chance of getting a ticket. I was confirmed three hours before departure. If I never got a seat reservation, I would get a refund but no transfer to another train. At that point, I would probably sneak on and just sneak on and claim I was a confused American if discovered.

Each train has four classes of seats: Class 1, 2, 3, and Sleeper Class. I opted for sleeper class on this particular 17 hour ride, though I have a third class ticket for my next equally long ride from Mumbai to Hyderabad. The sleeper cars make up most of the train and are the cheapest seats of course. Though, they aren’t really seats, they are bare, hard cots. They are arranged in groups of eight seats, spread out across either side of a central aisle. On one side of the aisle are two parallel cots, one on top of the other. On the other side of the aisle are six perpendicular cots, stacked in threes, parallel to each other across a mini aisle. Typically people sit on the bottom cot until they get tired and sleep on whatever level their cot is on. There are only windows next to the bottom cots and a single outlet next to the bottom cot on each side.

All Aboard! 

My train left Jaipur at 8:20 PM and was scheduled to arrive in Mumbai at 2:30 PM. I arrived at the station at 7 PM and my train fortunately arrived a bit early, at 7:45 PM. I had asked for a top cot on the parallel side since it’s the most secluded, but the waitlist gave me the bottom parallel cot which isn’t bad either, since it has an outlet and a window. To my surprise, ten minutes after I sat down on my empty cot, another young Indian guy sat down next to me. I was confused. I thought maybe I didn’t understand how the seating worked. Ten minutes after the train got moving, I figured this guy had the empty cot above us and just didn’t like it for some reason, so I opted to take his place.

The cots are quite hard, and there is no separate compartment for luggage (though bottom cots can put their bags under their cots), so I had to put my large and small backpack near my feet. It wasn’t comfortable, but I didn’t really mind. I had a bunch of podcasts downloaded on my phone, some writing to do, my parka jacket for warmth, and decent seclusion. I could live with this.

An hour later I got kicked out of my cot by the guy who actually had a ticket for it. I woke my usurper up and tried to ask him to leave, but he didn’t speak English and shrugged. Whatever, the adjacent top cot was empty anyway. I moved my stuff and settled down once more.

An hour later I was woken up and then kicked out of my new cot by its rightful owner. Again I went back to my real cot and woke the guy up. I showed him my ticket which clearly denoted my rights to this seat and asked to see his ticket. A helpful bystander translated, and the guy dug out his phone to look for his e-ticket.

He dug around for quite a while, but five minutes later he held his ticket up to my face. It listed the same train number, the same destination, and the same exact seat. We had to split a single cot for the next 17 hours.

These cots are not big. I cannot lie flat on them, even at a diagonal angle. They are probably around 5 feet, five inches long and two feet wide. Even splitting this cot with someone I didn’t mind lying in bed with would not be fun.

At first we tried cutting in in half. I set up my backpack in the middle to try and lean on while he lay down in a contorted position so his knees were pressing up against the backpack and my weight, kind of like Forrest Gump and Bubba. This did not work for me. The problem was that I had nowhere to put my legs. I couldn’t put them across the aisle because people were constantly walking by. At best I could either assume a fetal position and try to stop them from falling into the aisle, or I could put them slightly in the aisle via the standard siting position while I awkwardly leaned sideways.

Livin’ on the ecstasy: another train song, totally irrelevant to India

I put my backpack under the seat, took off my shoes, and we settled on a new strategy. Our heads were at opposite ends of the cot, and we would settle into one position for a while until one of us got really uncomfortable, at which point we would wake the other up and force a new positional strategy. For instance, At first we both curled up into tiny balls on our own halves, with the unavoidable side effect of sleeping with our legs pressed up against each other. Than we switched so we could stretch out legs out near each other’s heads, with my legs near the aisle and his near the window. We tried a bunch of different strategies, but nothing was comfortable for more than an hour. We continued switching throughout the night.

Everyone else on the train, including my cot-mate, woke up around 7 AM. I had barely stretched, so I continued repositioning myself on my half of the cot while getting short bursts of sleep until 8:30 AM.

For now on I will be booking tickets further in advance.

Here are some other things that happened on the train:

  • Apparently not too many white guys get the cheapest tickets on shitty Indian trains, because I got a LOT of stares. The worst were my cot-mate, and this other 15ish year old kid across the aisle who would constantly stare at me for minutes straight. By now I should be used to this, but I think my resistance is actually wearing down.
  • Both my cot-mate and the other kid tried to talk to me. The cot-mate spoke no English so I just had to smile and shrug. The kid spoke enough to ask to be Facebook friends and for my phone number five minutes after meeting. I told him my phone didn’t work, but he was really adamant about Facebook. I was going to give him a fake name (Matt Johnson came to mind for some reason) but he used his phone to search for me, and then showed me the results and asked which one I was. He then asked me to confirm him right then and there, but I told him I didn’t have internet. For a second I was concerned that he would log out of his account and then ask me to log into mine to confirm but fortunately he did not. Honestly, I am not going to accept the request.
  • Unsurprisingly, there is no food service for the Sleeper Class. We are dependent upon random people hoping on the train at stops to sell potato chips, water, and weird Indian dishes. I bought a box of crackers before getting on the train which held me over.
  • Along with the food merchants, beggars also hop on the train and try their luck. Most just walk around and repeat something over and over again. One group was three women who literally went around clapping in people’s faces. I saw them wake up multiple people with nudges too. Of course they spent extra time working on me, but my wallet remained intact.
  • While trying to pay a water vendor while the train was moving, I accidentally dropped my twenty rupee note, and it very nearly flew out of the window on the opposite side of the train. It was blocked by the guy sitting next to it.
  • I had some used tissues I was looking to dispose of but I couldn’t find a garbage can. My cot-mate grabbed the box they were in, and chucked it out the window.
  • Every cot has at least one cup-holder. I thought that was a weird addition for such a minimalist setting.

I was nervous about a 17 hour train ride, but aside from the double-booked cot, it wasn’t too bad. Overnight rides are very different from non-overnight rides. Even if I didn’t get the best rest in the world, the sleep really passes the time. Also relevant, it saves on hotel costs. Looking ahead, I have one equally long ride in a few days, but after that I’m pretty sure they are all shorter. This is a rough, but cheap, altogether pretty decent way to travel around India.*

*Irfan: I thought I’d add some additional reading material on trains, for purposes of comparison and contrast with Matt’s post.

  • Here’s a nice piece from the London Guardian, “Ten Spectacular Train Journeys You’ve Probably Never Heard Of.
  • Also worth checking out along the same lines: Dan Disney, “Trains: An Essay,” from Cordite Poetry Review.
  • A New York Times article about the state of the rail system in Pakistan. I know it’s total name-dropping, but my cousin is the Federal Minister for Railways in Pakistan, and got that position about a month after the publication of Times article and the expulsion from Pakistan of Declan Walsh, the article’s primary author.
  • There’s no online version of it that I know of, but Ayn Rand’s “Notes on the History of American Free Enterprise” is a thought-provoking analysis of the development of the American rail system (from Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal). I don’t know the literature well enough to know how it fares as serious historiography. It’s interesting to note that rail travel plays a significant symbolic role in all three of Rand’s major novels. We the Living begins with a train ride from the Crimea to Leningrad; the Roark-Dominique love affair in The Fountainhead percolates on the train ride between New York and Connecticut; and trains are obviously central to the plot of Atlas Shrugged. Someone needs to write a proper literary analysis of the symbolic role of trains in Rand’s fiction.
  • Rail travel plays a rather dark symbolic role in South Asian literature, where rail travel is indelibly associated with the mass killings of the India-Pakistan partition of 1947. Counter-intuitive as it seems, rail travel put refugees at higher risk of death than simply walking across the border: precisely because rail travel proceeds by public schedule, people traveling by rail were easier to mark out for death by those interested in killing them (thanks to Manan Ahmed for making that point to me). The classic literary account is Khushwant Singh’s Train to Pakistan, but there are similar depictions in Paul Scott’s A Division of Spoils, and in Deepa Mehta’s film, “Earth,” itself based on Bapsi Sidhwa’s novel, Cracking India. On a slightly different (but equally dark) note, there’s also the fateful train rides to and from the Marabar Caves in E.M. Forster’s Passage to India.

Deepa Mehta’s “Earth” (1998)

April 13

It’s a day of anniversaries.

For one thing, it’s Matt Faherty’s birthday. Happy birthday, Matt!  His birthday was April 12. Whoops.

It’s also the late Christopher Hitchens’s birthday. Happy birthday, Christopher, wherever you are.

I got to know Hitchens during the 2000s, and we corresponded for a few years by email. Every year around this time, we used to joke about the fact that his birthday happened to fall on the anniversary of the Jalianwala Bagh Massacre of 1919.

Not that it was all that humorous a topic. Here it is, as depicted in the film “Gandhi.”

My grandfather–my father’s father–was there. Obviously, he escaped, or I couldn’t sit here and tell you about it. I never met him (he died in Pakistan when I was a small child), so I can’t pretend to have some powerful personal bond with him, or via him, with the event. But I’ve heard the family lore about him, and about 1919 (and 1947), so that’s the connection.

My biggest fear after 9/11 and our wars in Afghanistan and Iraq was that some day we’d repeat some American equivalent of Amritsar somewhere, and that I’d have to live as the citizen of a country stained with the blood of innocents like the ones at Jalianwala Bagh. Have we escaped that fate? Well, I can’t think of a literal equivalent of the Amritsar Massacre since My Lai, but then, browsing my way through the Senate’s Torture Report, I can’t say we’ve entirely escaped the Amritsar Syndrome, either.

David Cameron famously (or notoriously) refused to issue an apology for the massacre. It’s wrong, he said (in 2013), “to reach back into history and to seek out things you can apologise for.” I have mixed feelings about the statement, but in truth, he has a point: it’s one thing to acknowledge, but another thing to apologize for, an event nearly a century in the past.

As he prepared to leave Amritsar, Cameron explained why he had decided against issuing an apology. “In my view,” he said, “we are dealing with something here that happened a good 40 years before I was even born, and which Winston Churchill described as ‘monstrous’ at the time and the British government rightly condemned at the time. So I don’t think the right thing is to reach back into history and to seek out things you can apologise for.

“I think the right thing is to acknowledge what happened, to recall what happened, to show respect and understanding for what happened.

“That is why the words I used are right: to pay respect to those who lost their lives, to remember what happened, to learn the lessons, to reflect on the fact that those who were responsible were rightly criticised at the time, to learn from the bad and to cherish the good.”

The last word, however, goes to the birthday boy–the older one, I mean. Here’s a passage from Christopher Hitchens’s “A Sense of Mission,” an appreciation of The Raj Quartet (in fact, the appreciation that induced me to read The Raj Quartet, and make it one of my favorite works of literature, alongside A Passage to India). He’s referring simultaneously to the Indian Mutiny of 1857 and the Amritsar Massacre:

It’s not too much to say that these two symbols form the counterpoint of The Raj Quartet. On the one hand is fear–in part a guilty fear–of treachery, mutiny, and insurrection; of burning and pillage in which even one’s own servants cannot be trusted. On the other is the fear of having to break that trust oneself; of casting aside the pretense of consent and paternalism and ruling by terror and force. The persistence of these complementary nightmares says a good deal about the imperial frame of mind (Prepared for the Worst, p. 219).

“The imperial frame of mind”: I’d like to think that it’s all essentially irrelevant to us. In any case, when I think of the Jalianwala Bagh Massacre, as I do each year, I’m reminded of why I’d like to keep it so–or come to that, make it so.

Postscript: This article about Blackwater in Iraq almost got me to rethink my claim about our not repeating Amritsar. [Added later: I’d forgotten about Haditha when I wrote this. Here’s material on Haditha from Democracy Now, and an interesting but overly sanguine article from The Atlantic. The author of the second piece somewhat ingenuously writes, “In a liberal democracy…we put a very high burden on the state in taking away the liberty of a citizen accused of a crime.” Well, we ought to, and would like to think that we do. But it’s a stretch to assert that we do. Civil asset forfeiture is the most obvious counter-example, but the whole of the drug war provides another.]

Postscript 2: Horrifyingly worth reading, from the Hindustan Times: excerpts of Dyer’s testimony before the Hunter Commission.

Guest Post: A Passage (Back) to India, Pushkar and Ajmer (by Matt Faherty)

[More adventures with Matt Faherty. Bored with the Nepali agricultural experience, he’s since left Nepal, and gone back to India.]

Pushkar and Ajmer – The Religious Good, Bad, and Ugly

I am writing this while sitting in my sleeper bunk on a bus in Ajmer which will take me to Jaipur. The bus doesn’t have a separate compartment or space for luggage, so about half of my tiny bunk is filled up with my two bags. The double bunks across the aisle actually look pretty spacious. Maybe I’ll put my bags on the ground after the bus gets moving.

Four days ago I was in a similar position while taking a bus from Delhi to Pushkar. I was accompanied by a group I had met in Delhi, consisting of four Indians and an American. The Indians were three young women (Swetha, Sarah, and Saawani) and Kailash (a guy). The American was Ken, a Washington DC native and a recent graduate of Yale, currently interning at a think in Delhi. I tagged along with them because I wanted to go to a Western desert city and they happened to be going to Pushkar.

At this point I have firmly established the principle, “transportation in Asia is always interesting,” and this bus ride was no exception. We were scheduled to leave Delhi at 11 PM and arrive in Pushkar at 8:30 AM. I slept most of the way through the use of my comfy parka jacket and a dirty blanket I had to rent for 20 rupees, but I was awoken periodically at various rest stops. By my calculations, the bus stopped at an astounding rate of once every two hours. The only explanation that I can think of for this frequency is that driving in India must be exhausting. It’s not like driving in the US where you can just zone out and trust your memory muscle to stop at lights and maintain the speed limit. Rather, driving in India is a constant struggle to pass the car in front of you and create noise pollution with wholly unnecessary and redundant honks. Zoning out is a proverbial death sentence, so I guess drivers need a lot of breaks.

All of the rest stops had the worst bathrooms I’ve ever seen. They can’t be ranked against each other; they were all tied for the worst. They all had swarms of flies, urine, water, and feces all over the place and smelled like the streets of Dhaka. When I had to urinate, I opted for whatever tall shrubs I could find. When I had to do more than urinate, I experienced the real India.

We arrived in Pushkar by 9:30 AM. Our hotel was a five minute ride away, and of course we got ripped off at the price of 100 rupees. I assumed my native companions would know how to negotiate, but honestly they seemed more inept at it than I am, despite my non-native whiteness.

Our hotel was rather suspect. Shockingly the pictures on their website were actually of the adjacent hotel and ours didn’t actually have a pool (though we were allowed to use the other hotel’s pool). After being forced to wait outside for more than 30 minutes for a room with no apparent end in sight, we opted for another adjacent hotel which looked much nicer but was slightly more expensive.

Swetha, a Banglaore native who grew up speaking English and Tamil and had only recently learned Hindi, complained that the locals in Pushkar kept trying to speak English to her instead of Hindi. They were terrible at English, but just assumed she couldn’t speak Hindi because her dark skin implied she was from the south where Hindi is not common. India is complicated.

Pushkar is a nice change of pace. It’s a tiny town nestled in between a small group of mountains in the desert. The surrounding area looks a lot like Arizona with lots of small shrubs spread over the cracked dirt ground. A light layer of sand covers the city itself and made me wish I wore glasses on occasion. Pushkar looks nothing like Delhi or Calcutta in the sense that it is both secluded and more primitive. The whole town only has four or five ATMs and no meat, or should I say no dead meat since the city as positively crawling with cows which went sadly uneaten. At the same time, it’s a relatively popular travel destination, especially of the dreadlocked hippy variety.

At the center of Pushkar is Pushkar Lake, which I would have guessed was artificial if I hadn’t been told otherwise. The entire circumference, except for one part where an external stream feeds into it, is surrounded by stone steps which ascend two stories to a complimentary circle of white, stone, Muhgalish buildings which also surround the lake. As a result, the whole lake is a giant ghat which is never free of locals bathing. At night there are various Hindu ceremonies where come priests go to the shore, wave some candles around and say some prayers while bystanders look solemnly on.

Pushkar and Lake: Wikipedia

The next ring around the Mughalish buildings is Pushkar’s main street and primary market. I’m sure at one time it sold something important, but today the street stalls exclusively cater to the aforementioned hippie travelers by selling little statues, pipes, rugs, cheap jewelry, and of course stretchy pants complimented by draping V-necks, the official outfit of all Asian hippies. Nevertheless, it’s a nice street to walk down, made better by its rooftop cafes and occasional branching alcove.

After that starts the real city of Pushkar. It consists entirely of windy back allies packed with two stories residencies and small shops. They architectural style isn’t quite Mughal, it looks more like a combination of what I think of as stereotypically Indian style mixed with a desert aesthetic of white sandstone to prevent the whole city from becoming a giant oven. It actually wasn’t too hot when I was there–it may have brushed the low 90s–but in the summer it easily gets up to 110 degrees.

Pushkar is best known for its annual camel market. Thousands of camels flood into the town of less than 15,000 occupants. Our hotel owner said there is enough demand during the market that he charges people to sleep under tents on top of his roof. Unfortunately, I was not able to see the market, but I did see a handful of camels walking around.

There are not too many sights in Pushkar, so I spent most of the time hanging out near the central lake or walking down the narrow streets, but there were a few memorable areas. My first big stop was a temple based on the lake. The central shrine is quite small, but as many as ten priests patrol the area between the main street and the steps leading down to the water. I would soon discover why such a small temple required such a large staff.

My five companions and I approached the temple around noon. It wasn’t clear where the temple grounds began, so no one knew where to take off their shoes. There were numerous piles of footwear scattered throughout the steps leading up and away from the main street. I opted to keep my shoes on until the central shrine was in sight because I cannot stand this annoying custom.

The priests leapt on to us like wild dogs. Or maybe leeches are better metaphorical animals for them. Wild dogs just kill things and eat their bodies; leeches attach and draw blood for as long as they can. They approached carrying small plates with various powdered dyes and flowers on them and insisted that we take the flowers (we were not told until much later that this was not only optional, but also cost 10 rupees per person). Then each of us was grabbed by a single priest and led down to the water. They sat us down in isolation, out of communication distance from our comrades, and proceeded to rush through a prayer.

I was again asked for the names of my father and mother, though I guess he got lazy on the sibling part since he made a prayer for my “brothers” (I have one) and my “sisters” (I have none). He made me repeat everything he said, word for word, and did not seem anywhere near as amused as I was when I kept laughing at my inability to pronounce Hindi words. I don’t think his lack of humor was due to some solemn reverence for this ancient ritual, since he seemed to be rushing through the prayer at lightning speed, and even cut off my awful parroting a few times.

After two minutes of this he moved in for the kill. He told me that everyone donates to the temple when they come here. “They donate 1,000, 2,000, 5,000 rupees. Sometimes they even bring gold or gems.” Wow, if all of these people are donating 1,000 rupees at least, than I should too right? Keep in mind that an average street meal in India costs about 50 rupees, and a decent meal at a western restaurant costs around 200 rupees. So while this guy’s pitch wasn’t as insane as the Calcutta priest’s which asked for over $30, it was still laughably ridiculous. I politely declined.

But he was not done. He literally repeated the same money pitch three times right to my face. I answered the same exact way every time. Eventually he went into desperation mode and just asked for whatever he could get, but I shut that down too. I walked away with my wallet intact.

I’m not religious, and have never been, but the behavior of Hindu priests still strikes me as ridiculously undignified. This type of desperate panhandling combined with guilt-inducing charity terrorism is pretty much unheard of in my experience in Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Jainism, Sihkism, and Shintoism. These Hindu priests really come off as charlatans. They pull in random passersby, quickly mutter some blessings which I can’t comprehend and then demand payment for their holy work. I have never seen a Christian priest, Muslim imam, or Buddhist monk do anything remotely similar. It’s pathetic.

Could this behavior have something to do with donation patterns? Christians give their tithes every Sunday when they go to church. I assume Muslims do the same thing on their holy day. I’m not sure what Buddhists do. Apparently Hindus don’t have a set donation time, so they must always be on the prowl for funds. This tourist attack strategy is probably pretty effective. Then again, as I will describe later, even Pushkar Lake’s priests have nothing on the Muslims running a certain tomb in Ajmer.

Another cool spot in Pushkar was this mountain behind our hotel area. If you put a cross on top of the hill top temple, you could probably trick yourself into thinking you were looking at a hill in New Mexico. I heard some confusing reports on the actual purpose of the hilltop temple. One person said it was a place to perform animal sacrifices, while another said it was a place to repent for accidentally killing animals. If it’s both, then Hinduism is even worse than I thought.

I walked up the hill and got a great view of Pushkar. The mountain was on the opposite side of a row of similarly sized desert mountains on the opposite side of Pushkar. To the left and right of the town stretched the desert to the horizon, or more accurately, to the point where some odd haze covered the horizon. I didn’t think the haze was smog because Pushkar isn’t an industrial town and is pretty far from any major cities. But it also rained that night, so maybe it was some weather effect.

The Hindu temples in Pushkar look different from those in Delhi or Calcutta. They tend to be based in walled-off areas, and are always entirely grey. I went to a few and saw some slightly different architectural styles. I was informed that one of the temples had an odd mix of Mughal and southern Indian aesthetics. I guess I’ll be confirming that assertion when I travel south in the coming weeks.

The most interesting Hindu temple in Pushkar was discovered accidentally. I was walking around the windy streets when I spotted another walled off area and decided to take a look. At first it looked like any other temple in Pushkar, but then I noticed that the entire back half of the walled in area was covered with rose petals. As in, I literally could not see the ground, I could only see a carpet of petals.

I have no idea what these petals were for, but the effect was quite beautiful, especially since the red color really popped out against the grey backdrop. I’m less curious about the reason and more curious about the logistics. How long did it take to create this sea of petals? How long until these petals wilt and the ground gets covered with plant detritus? Why is something so elaborate done at a remote temple? Reader, I honestly don’t know.

The best sight in Pushkar was the Jhulelar Mandir, a stunning Sikh temple built fifteen years ago. Just as I have Mughal fatigue, I am well into the territory of temple fatigue, but this was a nice change of temple pace. It was my first Sikh temple, and so far I’m impressed with the religion.*

The building itself is a clean, pure white which reflects wonderfully in the desert sunlight. It has a staircase leading up to a mosque-like court yard which proceeds into the central shrine. The shrine room also looks vaguely like the inside of a mosque, but with no dome and more pillars based around a bunch of metal symbols and statues. The temple’ style is far more elegant than the usual Hindu temple. The latter has a strong “more is more” sentiment and tends to just pack as many squiggly designs and idols in as small a space as possible, thereby creating a chaotic and clustered aesthetic. But this Sikh temple uses rounded lines, lots of arches and domes, too be complimented by only the occasional decoration. It manages to be luxurious without being gaudy.

Maybe it’s because I’m so used to the unholy behavior of Hindu priests, but I was happy to see the Sikhs acting so respectfully. Were I in a different mood, I would probably rant about how annoying it is not only have to take off my shoes outside of the temple, but to wash my feet as well. But it’s nice to see a religious group going all out with the “keep the holy places” clean philosophy, plus the whole temple really was spotless. The small water pool integrated with front steps was a nice touch too. It makes the cleansing seem more powerful than merely spraying my feet down with a hose.

The temple also required me to cover my head. That’s a first for me. Women have to do that at mosques, but men can usually let their hair run free, even if a lot of Muslims wear their special hats too. Fortunately, the priests provided me with a bandanna for my hair.

Ironically, shortly after leaving the Sikh temple I stepped in a giant pile of cow shit. I knew this would inevitably occur ever since I set foot in India. It took me about a month, but it finally happen. I didn’t bother asking the Sikhs if I could dip my shoes in their pool.

Before I parted with the rest of the group, we took a day trip to the nearby city of Ajmer, which has a population of over 550,000. We were able to easily cover the whole city in a few hours.

The first stop was Akbar’s Fort, which is unworthy of sustained discussion. It’s a small enclosure with Mughal architecture. There are a bunch of random, unexplained artifacts inside. Great.

The second stop was the Golden Temple, though not the far more famous one in Amritsar. This was a Jain Temple, I think. I’m sure it was a Jain something, but I’m not sure it was a temple. It looked like some old colonial building which had a big Indian renovation but was still under construction. After paying to enter, we went through a series of hallways surrounding one central room which was two stories tall. The hallways all had windows into the central room.

Golden Temple of Ajmer: Wikipedia

In the central room itself was the Jain’s version of the afterlife. Or maybe it was some other spiritual world, the explanation wasn’t very clear. Either way, it was pretty damn awesome. It’s an enormous model, kind of like a model train set, which portrays two complexes with central towers. The model contains thousands of human and animals figures walking in between absurdly elaborate walls, bridges, pathways, and ethereal elevator thingies. Above the towers fly steam punk looking boats modeled after various animals and piloted by people. It all looks vaguely like an Indian Lord of the Rings set up, except that it is 100% gold colored. I am 99% it is not made of real gold though. I highly recommend  Google images.

Our final stop in Ajmer was the Dargah Sharif, the shrine of Moinuddin Chishti, a Sufi saint. I had never heard of this thing prior to arrival, and I thought Sufis only existed between the Mediterranean Sea and Iran.** Wikipedia tells me this guy Chishti brought Sufism to India and is kind of a big deal. Though Muslim, his shrine, which is also his tomb, is a big pilgrimage site for Muslims and Hindus alike in India. Maybe that explains why it’s the Al Qaida of charity terrorism in India.

The first hassle began on approach to the shrine. There is a half kilometer road lined with hotels and cheap restaurants in front of the shrine entrance. The Sufi guy was supposed to be a great patron to the poor, so now this place is completely mobbed with beggars, of which I was an obvious target. Nothing adds to a holy place like a crowded Indian street filled with both foot and automobile traffic. Speaking of which, I came up with a good analogy to simulate the experience of this type of road.

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Shrine of Khawaja Moinuddin Chishti: VRMuslim, Wikipedia

Imagine that you are walking down the side walk of some city minding your own business. Some guy is walking behind you at a faster pace. You are walking on one side of the sidewalk, so he has plenty of room to pass you. Despite this fact, as he gets within a few feet of you, and guy screams “MOOVE!!!” at the top of his lungs. Startled, you go even further to the side of the path. As he is passing you, the guy against screams “MOOVE!!!” at the top of his lungs. You are so shocked that you look around you to see if anyone else noticed this insane behavior. To your horror, you see that everyone is doing it. Everyone is screaming “MOOVE!!!” as loudly as they can any time they get anywhere near any other person. That is the Indian street experience.***

Anyway, once we got about fifty feet from the temple, we bought a bandana to cover our heads, since apparently these guys don’t provide complimentary ones like the Sikhs do. They we had to take off our shoes and walk the remaining fifty feet of disgusting Indian road in our socks or bare feet (I had socks on of course).

We passed through metal detectors at the front entrance and had to endure pat downs. The guy in front of me had a camera which would have to be left with the guards at the entrance. I didn’t want to go through that process so I slyly snuck by. This is India after all, I wouldn’t try that crap in a Saudi Arabian mosque, but here none of the police or private security guards care enough to do their jobs well.

After we passed through the entrance gate, I had a mini panic attack as I glanced at an enormous hill in front of me and briefly feared I would have to climb that thing, in socks no less. Fortunately the fears were unfounded, and I continued into some sort of marble Muslim complex. I’m not sure how to describe the place, but it was completely mobbed with people. It was also prayer time (mosques don’t let non-Muslims in during prayer time, so I guess this doesn’t count as a mosque) so I had to dodge random Muslims in mid kneel.

The central structure is surprisingly small, probably no bigger than most people’s bedrooms. There was a jumbled line of people trying to get into the building. They were literally packed together. As in, each person was leaning on every other person, while trying to shove their way into the room.

Before my five companions and I could enter, we were intercepted by… I’m not sure what he was. I don’t think he was an imam. I guess he was some sort of holy shrine watcher. But once again I was forced to go through another process to get into a holy structure which seemingly no one else was going through. In this case, my group sat down on a rug in front of this guy, while he raised his hands and said some prayer in Hindi while holding his hands up in front of his face. The others in my group followed suit. A minute later he put his hands down and I inferred by his interaction with the others in my group that he was asking for a monetary donation in exchange for the privilege of writing our names in a ledger (first solicitation).

I said “no,” of course, but once again my companions folded like origami. Once of them gave 100 rupees for herself, and the other gave 100 rupees “for the rest of us.” Though I never wrote my name in the book, so I guess I opted out.

It is also worth noting that this guy’s official job may have been “hair enforcer.” Three or four times during his prayer, he stopped, pointed at some poor lady on line, and yelled something until she moved her veil or bandana around until not a single hair was poking out. I have never seen such a strict enforcement of this rule.****

We joined the pile of humans trying to force themselves through a single file door into a tiny room, 50% of which was taken up by the “coffin” (do Muslims use coffins? I don’t know what this thing is called). I was at the back of my group, so behind me was a very old lady, she had to be about seventy, but she had the strength of a twenty five year old, as I can attest due to her constant shoving. Seriously, we were in a single file line and my chest was pressed up against the guy in front of me, but this lady shoved me forward every thirty seconds, as if I had some control over the line and was constantly slowing it down on purpose. Actually, this strategy is very reminiscent of Indian roads and sidewalks, where people constantly aggressively try to move forward, sometimes at great discomfort and risk, for the sake of getting barely closer to their destination.

I miss America.

Before I could enter the shrine room, there was yet another shrine guardian guy, with an even more bizarre role. He held what was either a bunch of peacock feathers or a light stick with feathers tied to the end. He would wave it over people’s heads as they filed towards the temple entrance. Sometimes he would hit them in the head. Sometimes he would block their path. In my case, he blocked my path and held out his hand for money (second solicitation). When I repeatedly refused, he lifted the stick and hit me in the head with it twice. It didn’t hurt because it was light, but still, WTF?

I bravely pressed onwards, until I had finally been shoved by the old lady enough to stumble inside of the shrine room. There wasn’t much to see. The coffin thing was covered in cloth. The walls and ceiling were made of unremarkable stone and I don’t remember any of the meager decorations. What I do remember were four men standing in front of the coffin. They would look at the crowd (which would not stop shoving), and then grab people’s hands to pull them closer and then ask for money. This happened to me twice (third and fourth solicitations).

The coffin was surrounded by a metal cage. I got pushed with the flow of the crowd around the metal cage until I was to the side of it where I saw a new level of insanity. The temple guardians were equipped with colored ropes which they would use to wrap around random people’s heads to pull them over to the metal cage to ask for money. Yes, they would literally yank people by the neck. It happened to someone in my group, and I saw it occur numerous times. I myself stayed clear but I still had my hand grabbed and was again asked for money (fifth solicitation).

Finally I stumbled out the rear entrance and once more entered the light. The shrine was disgusting. The treatment of the pious people who came here was astounding. The arrogance and shamelessness of the guardians or whatever they are was literally criminal. But once again, I escaped a holy place with my wallet intact.

*Irfan: Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to find Wiki-commons images I was able to put on the site.

**Irfan: (!) Dude. Does the name Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan not ring a bell on the subcontinental Sufi front? Soundtracks for “Last Temptation of Christ,” “Dead Man Walking,” “Natural Born Killers”….

Incidentally, it’s worth adding that the saint’s full name is Khawaja Moinuddin Chishthi. Am I related to him? Probably.

Amusingly, my cousins Saad and Salman Rafiq went to the same shrine in January 2012, didn’t encounter any of the difficulties Matt describes here, and generally described their experience as a transcendent encounter with the divine.

***Irfan: It almost sounds like the traffic here in New Jersey.

****Irfan: I have, in Saudi Arabia. Anyone who goes on the pilgrimage to Mecca can expect random pilgrims to set themselves up as guardians of ritual and sartorial purity, calling their fellow Muslims out for the most minute deviations from ritual orthodoxy, including trivial failures of the sort Matt describes here. After the pilgrimage, my mother was almost run down in the city of Jidda by a car whose driver took offense at her failure to cover her hair fully (the wind had blown her hijab back off of her forehead). Though she wasn’t badly hurt, his car did in fact make physical contact with her. I was, of course, too paralyzed by the situation to lift a finger to help her.

Guest Post: A Passage to India, Delhi Day 4 (by Matt Faherty)

[We continue with Faherty’s trip to Delhi. Exercising editorial discretion, I’m skipping Day 3, which recounts a visit to the tourist trap of Agra, where Matt went through the touristy paces of seeing (yawn) the Taj Mahal, Akbar’s Tomb (named after the semi-famous Mughal Emperor of that name, not the “it’s a trap” guy from Star Wars), St. Peter’s University, monkeys, took-tooks, trains and other bits of Indianesque lore. We’re too sophisticated for such Orientalist-touristic banalities here at PoT, so we reconvene with Matt back in Delhi.]

Delhi Day 4 – Charlatans, Iranians, and Mughal Fatigue

An interesting day today, back in Delhi.

My first stop was a spot on my tourist map called Swaminarayan Akshardham, which, to avoid further abusing my keyboard, I will henceforth refer to as SA. It is in kind of a remote part of Delhi, across the Yamuna River which runs east of Delhi’s center. I could see a massive temple as I got off a nearby metro stop which I correctly deduced to be the SA. As I walked towards it, I found two surprising things. First, I couldn’t just walk up to the temple; it was in some kind of walled complex that was about a square mile big, and even had a large parking lot. Second, there was a crowd of about fifty people waiting outside the complex, which was made even more surprising when I discovered the temple didn’t open for another forty minutes.

With time to kill, I walked to a much smaller temple nearby which turned out to be really cool. It was pure white like the Taj Mahal, and every square inch of its walls, ceiling, pillars, and exterior was covered in stone carvings. Some parts had little statues of deities, others just had squiggly lines, but it was a real wonder to behold. Again I was reminded of how odd it was that Europe had nothing comparable in its religious buildings. I guess Christians prefer to build tall rather than complex.

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Photo credit: Wikipedia

I walked back to the entrance of SA right as it opened and a followed the crowd inside. At this point we were still about half a kilometer from the temple, and numerous buildings lay in between us and it. Once again I was surprised, this time because the first few buildings were for security. The Laxmi Narayan Birla Mandi (the other major Hindu temple I visited in Delhi) had a small security area and a quick metal detector, which is common for a lot of places in India like the metro and malls. But the SA had a huge storeroom dedicated to bags, at least eight metal detectors, and numerous guards with wands.

Then there was the list of banned items, which I would have taken a picture of except cameras were on it. Some of the items on the list were what you would expect: alcohol, tobacco, food, drinks, shorts, short skirts, etc. But then, running to security-excess, there were ordinary items, like cell phones and all bags, and then there were crazy random items like books, toys, white out, all electronics, and a bunch of others which I unfortunately forgot. Pretty much the only thing I could carry in was my wallet.

Once inside, I finally saw the temple itself. Throughout this travelogue I keep having to describe amazing buildings, and this is one of the most difficult of all. It is truly spectacular. It’s not quite at the level of St. Peter’s Basilica or the Sheikh Zayed Mosque in Abu Dhabi, but it is one of the most magnificent religious buildings I’ve ever seen. It has the same level of detail that the smaller temple I just visited has, but it’s on a vastly larger scale. According to Wikipedia, the SA is 141 feet high, 316 feet wide, and 356 feet long, which isn’t as large as the bigger mosques out there, but it more than makes up for it in details.

The temple’s surroundings enhance its beauty. It’s in a walled courtyard made entirely of the same brown stone that the temple itself is made from. Built into the courtyard is a serene artificial pond which zig-zags around the entire temple. Best of all, around the base of the temple are a magnificently detailed and precise series of carvings of scenes of various Hindu stories and parables involving elephants (there are over 100 elephants in total). I really couldn’t get over just how immaculately well carved it all was, and I actually ended up slowly walking around the base and reading all of the stories. Most were harmless religious fluff, but one kind of worried me. The explicit moral of the story was (paraphrasing), “the meek can become great by seeking refuge with the great.”

I took my shoes off and walked up the steps as dozens of other guests did the same. The inside of the temple was even more amazing than the exterior. The detailed stone work climbed the walls and circled a series of domes throughout the temple. I wanted to walk around and study the walls, but a few hundred people were silently sitting on the ground, with monks in orange robes at the front facing a central shrine area, women in the back, and men in the middle. Some guy who worked for the temple but wasn’t a monk motioned for me to take a seat in the back of the men’s area.

I sat down in a cramped space cross legged and quickly remembered why I haven’t sat in that position since elementary school, especially on a marble floor. A few minutes later the monks started chanting and clapping in a pattern, everyone else in the crowd who wasn’t a tourist followed suit. I don’t think the non-monks knew the words or the rhythm, because it sounded more out of sync than the Sunday hymns in my local Epsicopal church.

Five minutes later it ended, so I got up to take a look at the central shrine area. Unlike the grey granite of the rest of the interior and the brown stone exterior, this area was almost entirely gold. It wouldn’t surprise me if they used some real gold either.

As I started looking around, one of the monks approached me and asked where I was from. I would later learn that his name is Sadhu Tyagswarupdas. No, obviously I didn’t remember that polysyllabic mouthful off the top of my head; he gave me a card with his name and contact info, which is apparently something Hindu monks commonly do.

I ended up talking to Sadhu for almost 40 minutes. First he showed me around the temple while explaining who the different deities are and what various statues mean. Then he told me about himself. Sadhu is an ethnic Indian but was born in Uganda where his parents had immigrated for business purposes while it was still a British colony. Sadhu had went to an English college to study mechanical engineering but eventually abandoned his career to become a Hindu monk. He looks to be in his early 60s now, and has been a monk for over thirty years.

Sadhu explained that he belonged to a Hindu sect which was known for being particularly strict and had been thriving over the last few decades. He was not only a vegetarian, but couldn’t even eat foods “sharp” flavors, like onions and some spices. He could not personally buy anything nor even touch money. Sincetaking his vows over thirty years ago, Sadhu had been celibate and had neither touched nor spoken to a woman. He said the penalty for touching a woman in any way was a day of fasting and bathing. They may want to rethink that incentive structure.*

Sandhu spoke to me at lengths about his beliefs. He said the ego was the cause of all unhappiness in man and therefore we should all work to banish it and attain total selflessness. In this sense, selflessness is not just living for the sake of others, but literally banishing any psychological reference to one’s self as an individual in existence.** Thus Sadhu’s name literally means “one who forsakes all.” Sandhu said he had access to modern technology like television and cell phones but he barely used it for fear of exposing himself to the “bad ideas and values” in society. These ideas and values are everywhere and corrupt nearly everyone. To demonstrate just how deeply he understood this point, he explained that before taking his vows, he had travelled throughout the world and had lived fully immersed in the “bad culture” in England. Having experienced that life and this one, he knew the truth path to happiness.

As we parted ways, Sadhu explained that a new Hindu temple was being built in New York which would surpass the SA in size and be the largest Hindu temple in the world. He told me to come to the temple and tell the monks I had met him. If I didn’t know any better, I could swear he was trying to convert me…

Sexism and self-annihilation aside, Sandhu seemed like a guy who was genuinely devoted to what could be considered a holy way of life. That is except for when he totally tried to pitch his temple’s IMAX film to me.

Oh, did I forget to mention that the SA temple complex housed an IMAX theater, a light show, and a “water ride”? There are also concession stands, dozens of maintenance workers, and a gift shop which sells Hindu magnets. And just to make visitors feel like they are getting the fully authentic holy Hindu experience, there are speakers installed throughout the complex which play monk chants nonstop.

I knew something didn’t feel right when I first saw the main temple. It was too new, too nice. Buildings this amazing and elaborate are always built hundreds of years ago by lords with so much ill-gotten wealth that they might as well pour it into an absurd construction project. By now those buildings have crumbled, and if they’re lucky, have been restored. Either way, they look distinctly old and possess a sort of dignity in representing a different era when wasting money in such copious quantities was perfectly acceptable.

It turns out that construction on the SA was finished in the ancient year of 2005 after five years of work. It offends my architectural sensibilities that these guys spend insane amounts of money to make something that looks like it was built 1000 years ago in a remote jungle, only for it to come out looking just a bit too perfect. Of course all of the craftsmanship is amazing, but why would they build something like this?

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Akshardam dome: photo credit Wikipedia

Have I mentioned the pricing? Entrance to the temple complex is free, but every ride and activity costs at least 100 rupees, usually closer to 200. And then there is the expensive food at the concession stands (which explains the ban on food), the expensive crap at the gift shop (which explains the ban on toys), and you can pay for blessings. No, I am not kidding. And at the end of it all they ask for donations. No, I am not kidding.

A full day at the SA, consisting solely of the main activities, costs more than the entrance to the Taj Mahal.

Of course it’s not that the fact that these guys are making money that offends me. That pretty much never offends me on its own. What I have a problem with is somebody espousing a philosophy which condemns much of modernity and liberalism as evil while profiting off of a fucking theme park. As Sadhu was explaining to me that he is literally not allowed to touch money, there was a guy fifty yards away charging people $5 to get their picture taken in front of the temple (which also explains the ban on cameras).

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No, it’s not in Delhi, but did you really think we were going to omit it altogether? (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

And this is not some weird situation where some profiteer is piggybacking off of a holy site, Sadhu was pitching me this nonsense. He told me about how the guy who designed the Beijing Olympics opening ceremony directed their IMAX video. He told me the light show was amazing and that I absolutely had to stay at the park another seven hours until it started. He told me all of this mere minutes after telling me how evil money and the modern world is. There was so much hypocrisy I think my brain actually froze and I couldn’t calibrate what I was hearing until a few minutes after he had left.

And this isn’t some stray Hindu sect going against the mainstream, this is a major branch of Hinduism with enough capital to build the largest Hindu temple on earth and an enormous complex in India’s capital. The Catholic Church has done some shady profiteering shit, but it’s not as though they put a light show in front of St. Peter’s Basilica. I think someone would get executed just for suggesting putting a “water ride” near the Masjid al-Haram.*** But this is apparently the best Hinduism has to offer.

These guys are charlatans, plain and simple.

I left the SA and took a train to the Lotus Temple in the south of the city. I was concerned that a ride across the Delhi metro would take a long time, since some Chinese metros take 1.5 hours or more to reverse, but it only took about 30 minutes.

Upon exiting the train, two Middle Eastern women in their 30s approached me and asked where the Lotus Temple was. These two did not have a good sense of geography; I could literally see the Lotus Temple from where I stood. I told them I was just walking in that general direction and they asked if they could tag along.

One of their names was something I couldn’t pronounce but translated to Angel****, and the other one was Sarah. They were both on a tour through India. One was an accountant, the other sold furniture or something. They were from Iran. When I told them I was from America, Sarah immediately made a joke about me being dangerous and they laughed.

As we walked to the Lotus Temple, I couldn’t help but ask a few political questions, at least to see if the German traveler’s description of Iranians was true. It was. These two hated the government and wanted to bring the Shah back. They lamented that if it weren’t for the revolution, Iran would be just like any European country today. They also complained that due to the economic sanctions against Iran, nearly all name brands in the country (including Coca Cola) were Chinese knock offs. The only exceptions were on the extremely expensive black market. I asked about what religious activity they were legally required to engage in, but I didn’t really get a straight answer. Both had nothing but praise for America.

Angel and Sarah also asked me about the US. They wanted to know if there was as much racism as they had been led to believe, and if they would personally face discrimination there for having “Asian hair.” I explained that while there are tensions between racial groups in the US, they tend to be overstated and the US population is no more racist than most European countries. Furthermore, Asians rarely face discrimination, though Arabs can.

We arrived at the Lotus Temple twenty minutes later. It was a nice change in scenery from the beautiful but repetitious Mughal architecture. The temple looks like a flower turned upside down, with the bases of a series of white petals converging hundreds of feet in the air. The Lotus Temple is technically a Hindu temple, but there is pretty much nothing to signify that. We went in with a group of twenty or so people who were told to sit down and pray for two minutes. We filed into a room which looked sort of like a flat evangelical church and sat silently while looking around the room. Two minutes later, we left.

Next stop was a nearby temple which I had never heard of but the Iranian women wanted to see. It looked interesting from afar so I accompanied them.

I have to admit this was one of those culturally enlightening interactions. It turned out that I could relate more to these Iranian women than to 95% of the foreigners I’ve talked to, especially in India. They were the first people I’ve spoken to who agree that Indian food is bad and vegetarianism is awful. They complained that India was chaotic, crowded, and dirty, and had the worst vehicle traffic they had ever seen. They raged at the scammers who took advantage of foreigners.

When we arrived at the temple, it was closed, but Angel pleaded with a guard to let us in and somehow it worked. It was another standard temple and not particularly worth writing about aside from some interesting paintings on the ceiling of Hindu myths. Sarah went over to one of the statues, made a faux-serious face, and solemnly intoned, “Look, it’s a god” while nodding.

I traveled with Angel and Sarah for another hour or so to yet another tourist spot which I didn’t know about. But this one was actually really good. It’s called Humayun’s Tomb and it was the basis for the Taj Mahal. Given what the Taj Mahal has become, it basically makes Humayun’s tomb a small, brown, poor man’s Taj Mahal, but at one quarter the price.

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 Humayun’s tomb (photocredit: Wikipedia)

While walking from the metro station to the tomb, the Iranians let me have some snacks they brought from home. Of course they spoke at lengths about how amazing Iranian food is, literally, “the best in the world.” Ugh, I don’t think I’ve ever heard of a country on Earth that doesn’t supposedly have amazing food. Seriously, every local and traveler says that every country has great food that I absolutely must try. Even countries with notoriously bad food like England or Germany have promoters who claim that the food there is “underappreciated.” I think these people just lack standards.*****

Anyway, first they gave me an Iranian cracker which tasted like an ok Graham cracker. Next they passed me some weird nut-like thing which they told me was a fruit which I should just bite into. It did not look appealing. I eventually deduced that it was a fig, which I had never tried before. It was surprisingly good–I’ll have to keep an eye out for them. After that they gave me a bunch of normal nuts like pistachios and almonds which just tasted like stronger versions of the ones I’m used to. Finally they gave me what I think was solidified yogurt. It was awful and I hope nobody ever has to eat anything like that ever.******

OK, so I tried a bunch of newish things from a foreign country and they were fine. Obviously I’m not sold on Iranian food, but I’m open to it. The women ended up giving me the rest of their bag of nuts and figs against my protests.

As I said, Humayun’s tomb was pretty good. There was a pretty court yard, a central tomb building, flanking mosques, etc. But by this point I’m hitting serious Mughal fatigue. These endless tombs and mosques are blurring together. I’m sure if I saw this particular tomb early on, it would have been fantastic, but now I can’t muster that much energy to describe it in detail. This same phenomenon hit me harder in China, but that was temple-fatigue. I really don’t care to see another Buddhist temple for the rest of my life.

The only problem with traveling with the Iranians was that they walked slowly. It was getting late and I still wanted to hit the government district so I left when they sat down near the tomb for an afternoon snack. They said that if I could make it into Iran without getting arrested, I would have a place to stay. Sounds great.

Finally I found the Indian Gate, which looks almost exactly like a smaller, less interesting version of Paris’s Arc de Triumphe. It is at one end of a kilometerish long avenue which is an obvious rip off of the National Mall in Washington DC. On one end is the gate and one the other end is a cluster of major government buildings. I intended to walk the whole thing.

Despite being prominently featured on all of the tourist guides, I had been warned by the Iranians and the Dutch yoga enthusiast that the Indian Gate wasn’t much to see. They were right, though my expectations were already lowered accordingly. It’s a tan arc with an inscription on top about all of the Indian soldiers lost in World War II. The park around it was packed to the brim with Indians lounging about and purchasing street food from portable stalls. I liked the relaxed, but somewhat festive atmosphere.

I hadn’t eaten in six hours so I looked through the food stalls. I saw a treat familiar to me from my travels in Turkey; roasted corn on the cob. I have no idea how this idea hasn’t gotten to America yet, but it’s delicious. The first vendor I approached asked for 50 rupees, which was outrageous, so I walked to another vendor 30 feet away. The kindly little old lady there asked for 20 rupees and I agreed. Unexpectedly, she rubbed lime juice all over my corn which I thought might ruin it. I was wrong: it was the best corn on the cob I’d ever eaten in my entire life. The lime, salt, butter, and corn mixed together to create an extremely powerful taste of overwhelming goodness. I should have gotten another one.

I walked the length of the avenue to the government buildings on the other side. The Parliament building was behind the other buildings and some trees so I didn’t get a good luck at it. But I did see the Department of Defense and some other major government office buildings. Again I got the feeling that a lot of the architectural style here was heavily cribbed from Washington, with a heavy emphasis on marble and Greek pillars (though I don’t think brown marble was a good choice). I asked a guard if I could go in one of the buildings and he explained for a minute that I would have to walk around the buildings to get to the other side, before quickly adding that I wasn’t qualified to enter.

One thing that this place does have that Washington doesn’t is monkeys. I saw dozens of them climbing all over the Department of Defense. Again, this probably does not bode well for the Indian military.

At the end of the avenue is the Rashtrapati Bhavan, the equivalent of the White House, and the current home of Indian’s controversial new Prime Minister, Narendra Modi. Unfortunately a big gate and a large front lawn made it even more visually inaccessible than the light house so I didn’t get much from it.

[With this, Matt sets off for Kathmandu, Nepal.]

*Irfan: Thus speaks the 22-year-old. Wait a few decades, Matt, and you’ll discover that middle age and monk-hood bear alarming similarities to one another.

**Irfan: A psychological propensity also commonly exhibited by those of us at small liberal arts teaching institutions in the United States.

***Irfan: I’m reminded here of my father’s suggestion that the holy cities of Mecca and Medina be privatized and turned over to the Disney Corporation, since Disney “obviously has better expertise at crowd control than the Saudis.”

****Irfan: Probably “Farishta,” Persian for “Angel.” I’m surprised that Matt doesn’t ask his Iranian traveling companions any pointed questions about Iran’s nuclear program. Meanwhile, here in the States, the call for bombing Iran has started up again in earnest.

*****Irfan: Reader, for God’s sake just ignore this paragraph. This is a guy who can’t eat even the most modestly spiced dish–who regularly orders a salad when we go to the local pizza parlor–passing judgment on the cuisines of the world. Come on.

******Irfan: I really hope he’s not referring to mast o khiar, which is one of the most delectable dishes on the planet. Did I mention that Pakistani food is the best in the world?

Postscript, March 29, 2015: Matt sends along this BBC item on monkey problems in Indian politics. Perhaps the situation might be improved by enfranchising the monkeys and allowing them to run for Parliament?

Guest Post: A Passage to India, Delhi Days 1 and 2 (by Matt Faherty)

[We continue with Matt Faherty on his journey through India. From Lucknow, he travels to Delhi.]

Delhi Days 1 and 2: Matt Sees Dead People

My first impressions of Delhi were good. Second impressions… Mixed.

It’s nice to be back in some semblance of civilization. Delhi is the first city I’ve travelled to on this trip with a real metro system (Calcutta had a single line I didn’t use). I was even able to bypass the exploitative airport taxis by taking the metro straight to my hotel. On the above ground portion of the metro ride, I saw one of the biggest traffic jams I have ever seen, but at least it consisted entirely of cars.

I got off the train and had only vague directions to my hotel. Fortunately, a random pedestrian pointed me to an official government tourist office. I entered and was surprised to be a guy on staff at almost 9 PM. He was in his early thirties, good looking, and immediately stood up and smiled upon seeing me. He quickly blitzed me with the usual questions: where are you from, when did you arrive in India, how much longer are you here, etc. It turns out that he had lived in New York City for a while and was familiar with my tiny home town, Garrison.*

I asked for a map of Delhi. He dug through his desk and pulled out a map that was clearly printed off the internet on regular paper. He asked me if I wanted to go to Agra and see the Taj Mahal. I did. He told me that was a good idea, but that contrary to what most people say, I should definitely stay a day or two in Agra, a greatly underrated city. He booted up a program on his computer and immediately began looking for hotel rooms for me.

Wait a minute…

None of it added up. This guy was way too cheerful and talkative to be a government bureaucrat. This was not a real, or by any means official map. And now he’s trying to sell me train tickets and a hotel room, after meeting me three or four minutes ago.

Another goddamned subcontinental scam.

Writing this at the end of day two, I can confirm my suspicions. These fake official tourist offices are EVERYWHERE. Sometime there are literally four or five offices on a single block all claiming to be the official government office. I bounced between a few, well aware of their nature, in an attempt to get a decent map. One office had a big sign outside saying, “free maps,” and then inside nobody could find a map. Two other offices gave me the same shitty print out map. Finally, another office gave me a slightly less shitty print out map which I am currently using. Every single office asked the same exact questions and made the same exact Agra pitch. Eventually, I did find at least one real government office where I bought tickets to go to Agra. I know it was real because it was in the New Delhi Train Station and looked exactly like the DMV. Also, sole employee there was nowhere near as enthusiastic about his job as his false counterparts.

Delhi is like a hybrid of Calcutta and a more civilized Chinese city. It has a business district with a handful of skyscrapers, and it has plenty of government built or maintained monuments. The streets are still not exactly clean, but they are cleaner than Lucknow or Calcutta.

The cost of this slightly nicer city is even more annoying scammers. Aside from the fake tourist offices, I am constantly getting approached by rickshaws, random merchants, and beggars. The rate of random people walking up to me and asking where I’m from has probably doubled. The rate at which those people then ask me to visit their shop, has probably quadrupled. However, I’m finding myself to be increasingly resistant to these tactics. I think I’ve gotten to the point where I can tell by an individual’s voice and mannerism whether he is really curious about this random white guy, or if he just really wants my money.

I woke up at 8 AM and after fooling around with the malfunctioning internet for a while, I made it to the metro by 9 AM. According to Wikipedia, the busiest metro in the world is in Tokyo. I’ve seen it in person, though not during its peak hours when it employs “people pushers” whose job is self-explanatory. That said, I have never personally seen metro crowds as bad as Delhi’s. It was bad enough to make me miss the first two trains that came because I failed to stuff myself and my small backpack into the train. People literally stumble out when the doors open.

The last two cars on every train are dedicated to women. This doesn’t help the congestion, especially when probably fewer than 20% of the people on the subway at any given time are female, but it’s also kind of understandable. India has a massive problem with rape and the general sexual treatment of women. Not long ago, there was a high profile case in India where a woman was gang raped to death while riding home on a bus at about 9 PM. ** The metro has signs all over the place which read, “protecting women’s safety is our top priority” and list a substantial fine for men who use the women’s cars.

I eventually squeezed onto a train and rode it until the very next stop (at a cost of 8 rupees). I got out in an upscale shopping area where I was accosted by merchants and fake travel agents multiple times. I got some useless maps and one good one, before making my way towards the Hindu Laxmi Narayan Birla Mandu Temple.

Throughout my travels, Hindu temples have been a disapointment. They have some cool designs, but none have come close to the best mosques, cathedrals, or Buddhist temples. Granted, the vast majority of Hindus are in India, so maybe I’m being unfair.

The Laxmi Temple was the first great Hindu Temple I’ve seen. It’s another site which is difficult to describe with words, so you should Google it. The Temple is four or five stories high, brown, and consists of dozens of labyrinthine floors, towers, and stair cases. And of course there are swastikas everywhere.

Laxmi Narayan Temple, “Birla Mandir Delhi, a panoramic view” by Vinayaraj – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons 

One odd part was separate entrances for foreigners and locals. The foreigners just left their shoes on the sidewalk, while I got to place my shoes (and was required to place my camera) in a lockbox in an office room. Is the assumption that foreigner shoes are more likely to be stolen and locals don’t have cameras?

After spending an hour at the temple, I made a lengthy trek to Old Delhi. To be clear, I do not currently know the differences between Old Delhi, Delhi, and New Dehli, and I keep forgetting to look it up. I think Old Delhi is a district of the city where Delhi used to be centered, Delhi is the entire city, and I really don’t know what New Delhi is but I’m sure it exists.

On the way, I happened upon the Kamala Market. This was the first of two times today I would strike traveler-gold with my random wanderings. Kamala Market is a wholesaler and manufacturing center based out of some sort of old British building (my guess is either a post office or train station). I wandered through the market and saw stacks upon stacks upon stacks of air conditioning units, refrigerators, fans, toaster ovens, and various other consumer appliances. The whole place was even grimier than regular markets, but I liked the entrepreneurial energy regardless.

Make shift stores were crated out of ridges in the wall, and unlike regular stalls, these things had legitimate sounding company names listed on signs above them. In some of the stores, rows of men were actually building the appliances. It’s very weird to me to think that some middle class Indian’s air conditioning unit was built by one of these guys kneeling on a dirt covered floor in a place like this. I guess I always imagined these things were built in giant factories with machines, but apparently not always.

There is a very important difference between the old parts of cities in Europe and in Asia. In Europe, they are usually quaint displays of the past with some nice modern comforts thrown in. For instance, old Edinburgh is a bunch of hostels and small shops in a castle. In Asia on the other hand, old parts of towns are far shittier versions of the newer parts with modern technology awkwardly slathered on top. Old Delhi is no exception, but I still really liked it.

Old Delhi is like India on steroids. There’s more traffic, more people, more rickshaws, more dirt, more mud, more stagnant pools of water, more obnoxious merchants, and less order. The streets are narrow and windy, so navigation is impossible for a newcomer. There are some old British buildings which were pretty once upon a time, but now have been subsumed in the muck. As or the modernity, Old Delhi’s electrical system looks like it was “designed” by an extraordinarily incompetent electrician with way too much money. Enormous piles of huge wires line and crisscross the streets throughout the district, sometimes to the point of blotting out the sun.

I saw an old Indian guy sitting on the sidewalk. There was a child inserting and twisting a long metal rod into his ear. It didn’t look comfortable.

Within Old Delhi lies the Jama Masjid, which I think is India’s largest mosque. It was built during the 17th century at an excruciatingly slow speed because every single one of its stones had to be blessed or whatever by an imam. Upon my arrival, it was closed for prayers, so I had to go elsewhere and return.

“Jama Maszid” by Nimitnigam – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons –

I made my way to the nearby Red Fort, a massive red fortress built by the Mughals in the 17th century as well. It also housed a Mughal palace and a massive bazaar in its time. From the outside it looks like a five or six story Red Wall which stretched about half a mile before wrapping around. Pretty cool. Entry cost 250 rupees, which made it the most expensive site in India up to that point, so I was expecting a lot. Once again, the foreigners’ entrance was separated from the locals’ entrance, but this time I was glad for it since my line was about one-twentieth of theirs.

The Red Fort didn’t live up to its price in quality, but I suppose I spent two hours there, so it made up for itself in quantity. Given that it is a massive walled palace, I expected something close to Beijing’s Forbidden City, but instead got a few random palace buildings with no interiors. Some nice decorative stonework remained, but just reading a plaque telling me that this roof and pillars in front of me was where the emperors once kept their harems wasn’t quite working for me. On the other hand, I did like the well preserved balcony, which consisted of absurdly detailed designs on pure white marble.

The Red Fort’s layout and composition was a bit odd. The palace only took up less than one quarter of the space so they just threw a bunch of other random stuff in it. Some of the buildings even looked residential but I couldn’t be sure if they were. Half of it looked like some sort of Mughal college campus with nice lawns and walking paths in front of long college-style buildings.

Many white buildings, with large grassy area in foreground

“Red Fort courtyard buildings” by This Image was created by User:PlaneMad.Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons 

One of the random things thrown into the fort was a World War II museum. To the museum curators’ credit, they know what their customers want: the whole museum was filled with nothing but weapons. There were knives, swords, guns, grenades, bombs, and some other assorted military equipment. I wasn’t complaining.

The best random building was the Indian Revolution Museum, which chronicled India’s revolts against Britain from the early 19th century until the mid 20th century. This was the rare Indian museum which had plenty of English writing, and in a coherent order to boot. All new to me:

  •             In the early 19th century, the British used to put captured Indian leaders in dresses when they executed them.
  •             Germany tried to fund and supply Indian revolutionaries to independence during World War I.
  •            Some Indian leaders launched a full fledged revolt against the British during World War II which didn’t go that well. A lot of the leaders fled India for Japan and Germany where they were put to use by the Axis powers to make propaganda pieces about the evil of the British Empire.***
  •             I liked reading about the larger social movements and organizational structures surrounding Indian independence. In the US we typically just hear about Gandhi, and he was obviously very important, but he did not single handedly lead India to victory.
  •             After India achieved independence and Pakistan split off, there were still a few provinces which hadn’t picked a side yet. According to the museum, Pakistan invaded Kashmir at the behest of its Muslim elite and against the wishes of the general populace who actually voted to join India in a referendum. Even more interestingly, the local ruler (nawab) of Hyderabad tried this crazy gambit where he tied India up in diplomatic channels while importing money and weapons from the British so that he could declare Hyderabad its own country, or in the worst case scenario, join Pakistan. Unfortunately for this ambitious fellow, India invaded (supposedly on the pretense of the Hyderabad leader using military force to oppress his own people) and took the province over by force.

I left the Red Fort and made my way back to Jama Masjid. It was open this time. Unfortunately, so was my wallet to the absurd tune of 300 rupees.

I had already taken off my shoes and was entering the mosque when the payment was demanded of me. A sign said entry was free but there was a 300 rupee fee for bringing in a camera. I hadn’t actually taken out a camera at that point, the ticket guy just assumed I had it. I told him I didn’t want to pay and I wouldn’t use my camera. He told me to put my shoes back on, and walk half way down the block to a hotel to store it. That was the only way. It was 3 PM, I was tired, and I did want to take pictures. I paid.

The mosque was nice, though not one of the best I’ve seen. It’s not quite in the same league as Istanbul’s Blue Mosque (or its Hagia Sophia if that counts) or Abu Dhabi’s Sheik Sayeed Mosque, but it sits comfortably on the next tier down.**** At this point, I’m getting the sense that every important Mughal building looks like a variation of the Taj Mahal; in this case it was brown and wider rather than tall. I expecially appreciated the beautiful Islamic designs carved into the side.

A pleasant, though costly surprise awaited me at the mosque. For 100 rupees, I could go to the top of one of its minarets. With the mosque already situated on a hill, the view from the top would give a great view of half of Delhi.

I paid, dodged a tour guide who wanted $5 (I actually laughed in his face) and made it into my first ever minaret. The view was phenomenal. Most of it wasn’t pretty (the exceptions was the side which faced the rest of the mosque and the Red Fort) but it was pretty damn cool. Chaotic and crowded Delhi stretched out before me in every direction. Old Delhi looked like a messy jumble of building. The business district had some sky scrapers with the Indian capital building poking out from behind them in the distance. I always try to get one overview of every city I go to, and this was a worthy one.

I wasn’t really sure where my next destination was. The Nigambodh Ghat was somewhere along the water, but my map was pretty vague. I set out in search of it anyway. On the way I stumbled through an electronics bazaar which sold what were probably but not certainly bootleg video games. I should have asked about the price.

Eventually I got tired of walking and negotiated with a few rickshaws. I shot for 30 rupees, but the first guy wanted 100 (I laughed in his face). Two rickshaws later I got my price. The ride only took five minutes, which is not very far even by bike. Whatever, it cost 50 cents.

This was my second golden traveler discovery. Or maybe “golden” is a bit too cheerful. I entered a gate that lead to an area bout two hundred feet long right next to the river. I smelled smoke. On one side of me was some sort of wood storage facility, which struck me as random. Much of this area was covered by by stand-alone metal sheets, about twenty feet high, which I would later deduce were used to stop rain. As I got closer, I noticed dozens of independent bonfires smoldering away under the metal sheets. There was one unlit bonfire with a crowd of people around it. I began to figure out what was going on.

You think you got scammed in India, Faherty? Does the name Hari Kumar mean anything to you? I’ll show you scammed, goddammit. 

I walked through another gate to the side off the river. Like all ghats, it consisted of stone steps leading to the river, but this area had the same metal sheet set up as the other area. There were five or six bonfires out here.

Then I finally saw it. There was a dead body placed on one of the bonfires. A couple of guys piled more sticks on top of it. I sat down and watched. A random guy in the crowd asked what I was doing here. I was nervous, I did not have a good answer. I told him I was a tourist. He laughed, turned to his friends, said something and laughed some more. He and his friends talked and laughed for a good two minutes while he periodically glanced back at me. This was a less somber occasion than I thought.

I stayed until the body was lit aflame and then left. I have officially seen a funeral pyre.

*Irfan: That should probably have been the tip-off.

**Irfan: The case has now become the subject of a controversial film effectively banned in India.

***Irfan: I don’t have a good history to recommend on the subject (I don’t know the literature), but the classic novelistic depiction of the time period is of course Paul Scott’s Raj Quartet, the subject of the famous BBC mini-series, “The Jewel in the Crown.” I’ll force Matt to watch it when he gets back.

****Irfan: Though I have visited precisely none of these mosques, I object to this ridiculous sentence on principle (the principle being sheer ethnic pride conjoined with the credential-conferring fact of having darker skin than Matt and a more authentically subcontinental name and lineage).

Guest Post: A Passage to India, Lucknow (by Matt Faherty)

[We continue with Matt Faherty’s adventures in India. Last time (actually weeks ago in real time), he was in Calcutta. From Calcutta, he flew west to Lucknow, capital of Uttar Pradesh. Here’s his report on Day 1 there, along with general anthropological musings about the peoples of Asia. –Irfan]

Lucknow – A Diamond in the Rough

If you haven’t heard of Lucknow, that’s OK. I hadn’t heard of it either until I looked at a map of cities near Nepal when I was trying to figure out where to travel. Lucknow is an Indian city with a population of 2 million not far from the border of Nepal. It is the capital of a somewhat obscure Indian province and was once a major colonial outpost during the British dominion.*

I chose to visit Lucknow instead of a better known Indian city (like Bangalore or Mumbai) for maybe three reasons. First, it was close to Nepal, my final destination for the trip. Second, I wanted to see a smaller Indian city rather than simply to jump from one massive metropolis to another. Finally, I googled Lucknow and the image results were stunning. Lucknow is barely known to tourists but has some of the most beautiful architectural achievements in all of India.

Chota Imambara (Wikipedia)

As expected, Lucknow does not have the big city feel I’ve grown accustomed to over the last two weeks. Even in the heart of the city, most buildings aren’t more than three feet tall. It’s still noisy, but vastly quieter than Calcutta or Dhaka. The relative lack of traffic is also a welcome relief from the overwhelming congestion and jams I’ve grown accustomed to having to dodge.

As also expected, Lucknow is filled to the brim with stunning buildings. In contrast to Calcutta, which looked like an old European city had been built in the middle of the jungle, Lucknow has more of a colonial feel. The predominant architectural style is a hybrid of Mughal and classical English, which oddly creates a sort of Hispanic colonial look, with lots of rounded edges and corners outlining solid marble facades. The main street especially looks like it could be from an Old Mexican town in Texas, with a single straight street lined on both sides by old colonial government buildings.

Because Lucknow gets so few tourists, I’m getting a lot of attention from the locals. Far more rickshaws are making unsolicited offers than in Calcutta. I’ve gotten plenty of smile-handshakes and one random teenager started talking to me about Obama and then asked for my phone number. I turned him down. My hotel manager is especially thrilled by my presence. He doesn’t speak English very well, and I’d bet money that he’s autistic, but that doesn’t stop him from stammering out broken sentences about how amazing America and especially Obama are. One of the attendants at the hotel told me the manager’s father had some sort of cancer which an American doctor operated on in New Delhi, and ever since then he has idolized the US.

Granted, there is somewhat of a caveat to that last paragraph. I’m still covered in pink paint and part of my hair is blue. I took a shower last night to get rid of what I could, but there is much progress yet to be made on my cheeks and forehead. I had totally forgotten that some pink people had dumped blue powder on my head until I stepped in the shower and saw blue water running off my head. This continued for five minutes until the water cleared up, but apparently I didn’t get all of that either because the front of my head is distinctly blue. When I was going through airport security this morning, an Indian TSA agent equivalent said “happy Holi” under his breath while wanding me. I replied in kind.

Lucknow Rail Station (Wikipedia)

It’s entirely possible that a fair number of the stares and attention I’m getting is because I look like an idiot, or alternatively, like I’ve been in a car accident and haven’t bothered cleaning the blood off my face yet. Certainly, the sideways glances, snickering, and occasional outright laughter are for the former reason alone.

Anyway, in the four hours I spent in Lucknow today, I visited a few major sites. First, I saw the Assembly Hall for the provincial government. It’s a massive classical style marble structure with a central rotunda which could easily find its place in Washington DC. I didn’t see any means of going inside, but it was the first of many architectural triumphs I saw in Lucknow. The Assembly was also nicely complemented by a nearby white clock tower I hope to enter tomorrow or the next day.

Second, I visited the Shah Najaf Imambara. I have no idea what that means and it took me a while to figure out what it is. It actually looks really cool from afar. I entered a large walled in field about the size of a football field, with a path running through the center towards the building itself. It looked like a mosque of some sort, and I had to take of my shoes to enter (it was too remote for me to worry about my shoes being stolen), but it turned out to not be a mosque. As I got closer, I noticed the building wasn’t made out of sandstone as it appeared, but was actually plaster over brick.

Eventually I found an inner room, which structurally resembled a mosque, but again, wasn’t one. It was filled with lots of tacky chandeliers hanging from the ceiling for no discernible reason. Lighting wise, they weren’t on and if they were, it would be overkill, but whatever.

Shah Najaf Imambara (Wikipedia: Syedfaraz 11)

A random guy approached me and started giving me a tour in broken English. He explained that the building was a recreation of a tomb in Iraq which housed some ruler and his two wives. He showed me the replica tombs and said some other stuff I didn’t understand. Five minutes later he asked for a tip for being my tour guide. I didn’t give him one.

I’m sounding too negative on the Imambara. It may be a cheap replica, but it’s pretty and makes for a nice place to take a pleasant walk.

Finally I briefly walked through Sikander Bagh, an old Mughal fort which had been repurposed by the British. During the Sepoy Rebellion, the rebels held the fort until the British launched an assault which killed hundreds of Sepoys. Supposedly the last Sepoy to die was a female sniper who picked off dozens of Brits from a tree until she was finally shot down. She got two pretty cool statues in return.

Sikandar Bagh: Ah, the good ol’ days

Not much is left of the fort but one gate and some walls. Still, another gem to look at and a great place for a walk.

A list of random things I will never get used to in India:

  •             Every vehicle on the road honking its horn every three seconds
  •             Seeing communist flags and posters everywhere
  •             Seeing swastikas everywhere (it’s a symbol of prosperity throughout Asia)
  •             Being targeted by random people for money
  •             Impossible to navigate roads
  •             Exploitative pricing
  •             Squat toilets (though I’ve dodged them all so far this trip)

I really hate tipping. It’s bad in America but it’s ten time worse here. I hate the idea that my payment for a service is only 90% agreed upon, and the other 10% is this tightrope where being too generous means wasting money and not being generous enough means being an asshole. I vastly prefer that both parties just know what they are getting upfront so we don’t have to worry about this insane world of non-mandatory but extremely expected gift giving.

And it really is insane. There’s a reason Larry David has written dozens of episodes between Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm about tipping. Even in the US where there are pretty well established parameters for when, where, how, and how much to tip, it’s still a massive minefield where so much can go wrong and so little can go right. Whatever negative things can be said about Chinese culture, I am eternally grateful to the country for driving tipping to the point of nonexistence (and it’s even illegal in some industries).

Tipping in India is somehow even worse than in the US, even if the expected rates are lower. The problem is that tipping norms are arbitrary and ill defined. A quick Google search reveals dozens of different suggested strategies and standards for tipping ranging from US levels all the way down to not tipping at all. Do taxi drivers get tipped? If so, how much? What about hotel clerks? Hotel owners? Random uninvited tour guides? Who knows?

A huge confounding issue is that rules are de facto different for foreigners and locals. I’m pretty sure, but not totally sure, that most locals don’t tip at all or at least tip rarely. The exception is probably wealthy locals, but that’s just speculation. Regardless, foreigners are constantly asked for tips. I’ve been asked by taxi drivers, rickshaw drivers, bellhops, hotels owners, airport attendants, unofficial tour guides, and waiters. I was weak early on, but my firm policy now is no tipping, with the exception of rounding up for taxi drivers when meters price to the cent (which no one has in rupees anyway).

But my problem with tipping isn’t just that no one knows the conventions in India, it’s that the locals prey on this fact. Just as the local merchants prey upon Western standards of politeness, they prey on Western standards of tipping and charity. It isn’t easy to say “no” to tossing 50 extra cents to some rickshaw driver who probably makes $5 per day. They know this fact, so they do everything they can to pressure Westerners. The weaker locals will widen their eyes, hold out their hands, and say “tip” even if they don’t know another word in the entire English language. The more aggressive locals will refuse to give you change for a payment and repeat “tip” over and over again while smiling.

Ambedkar Park, Lucknow (Wikipedia)

Of course, if anyone in the US used the latter tactic, he would at best be called a massive asshole, and at worst be punched in the face. But the Indians know that most westerners feel sorry for them and that our cultural relativism is great enough to make us endure an enormous amount of emotional abuse.

What especially angers me about this issue is that Westerners are so much nicer to locals than thee locals are too each other. I don’t think I have seen a single Bangladeshi or Indian say “please” or “thank you” to each other. Whenever I perform these common courtesies, the locals light up like I’ve bestowed some great honor upon them. Granted, it is usually not the same people receiving my courtesies and trying to pry money from my reluctant hands, but still, it is terrible custom for a segment of the population to attempt to exploit the only people who treat them kindly (not to mention pump significant foreign wealth into their economy).

I have one more observation. Actually, I’ve been thinking about this since I made my way through Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam over the course of a month during last summer. China is doing great.

I don’t just mean that China is experiencing superb economic growth (of course it is), I mean that China has a vastly better culture than its poor neighbors, at least in regards to its treatment of Westerners. I don’t know if this is a development that coincided with China’s growth in GDP over the last twenty years, or if China has always been this way, but in my experiences with China, Southeast Asia, Bangladesh, and India, Chinese people are by far the most honest and upfront with their dealings, both socially and financially.

Granted, that isn’t exactly the case at every level. Chinese businesses are notoriously fraudulent and bad at book keeping, but the average Chinese merchant never pulled half the shit I have to deal with here in India or especially down in Thailand and Cambodia. I never had someone give me back the wrong change on purpose, I’ve never had a taxi driver blatantly over charge me or lie about how far away my destination is (I’ve had Chinese drivers attempt to overcharge me, but not to the same degree, and they were basically upfront in their negotiations, with only one exception). Chinese merchants targeted me in markets, but when I refused to look at them, they left me alone rather than follow me around or grab my arm and pull me into a stall.

What’s so weird about all of this is that Chinese people have a reputation for being a lot less nice than people from these other countries. I suppose its true, the average Chinese merchant doesn’t have a big grin on his face and constantly call me “sir” like they do in India and Thailand. But if that’s the price I have to pay for not worrying if every friendly person is trying to scam me, then I’ll gladly pay it. Of course that’s not to say Chinese people are always curmudgeonly. They can be great fun in normal social gatherings. But they definitely don’t have that overwhelming smiling pep that people in the other countries do.

Some people, I know, have found that off-putting, but I like it. It still weirds me out that Indians and especially Thais seem so ridiculously happy and friendly all the time. I don’t personally know any people in the US who act this way. It’s unnatural. And as I said before, I can’t help but think that the ridiculously happy facade (whether real or forced) helps hide more sinister intentions. That is not to say that every Indian and Thai person wants to rob me, only that the ones who do can camouflage themselves in this cultural norm as a way to disarm me.

Basically, I like Chinese people and Chinese culture more than its poorer neighbors. China is comparable to Singapore, different but equal to Malaysia, not comparable to Japan, but better than Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Bangladesh, and India.**

*Irfan: Lucknow is widely considered one of the centers of Mughal Islamic culture, alongside Delhi, Agra, and Lahore (Pakistan). See, e.g., Abdul Halim Shahrar, Lucknow: The Last Phase of an Oriental Culture.

**Irfan: Despite bad-mouthing the peoples of South Asia, Matt seems to have enjoyed the luck of the Irish there, or alternatively, having left (but himself escaped) abundant devastation in his wake, including a fatal machete attack, near-fatal bombing, and ferry accident in Dhaka, and now, a fatal train derailment in Lucknow. As you can read here, things go harder for Matt when he gets to Kathmandu (Nepal), but he manages to survive and even do some farming by the slopes of the Himalayas. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.