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.

Escape from Kathmandu

Matt Faherty reports that he, his mother, and his brother have managed to get out of Nepal. They’re currently on a layover in Istanbul, Turkey and expect to be back in the States later today.

A bit premature, but: welcome home.

10:38 pm, EST: Matt, Tom, and Mom have landed at JFK, which I believe qualifies as an entry onto American soil. Current conditions in the New York Metro area are calm: partly cloudy, 46 degrees, with winds out of the NNW at 11 mph. No charging rhinos, capsized ferries, hawk attacks, machete attacks, or earthquakes are predicted for this evening.

Matt: Try to lay off the adventures for awhile. Lunch is on me at Angelina’s–a nice, sanitary place. You won’t have to eat any “weird Indian dishes,” and I’ll handle the tip.

Postscript: I’d like to urge readers to give whatever amount they can afford to the relief effort, whether large or small. Here’s information for six reputable relief organizations, from Time magazine.

Postscript, April 29, 2015: An item on the Faherty family ordeal in the Putnam County News and Recorder. It’s behind a paywall, but I’m told that it quotes from Matt’s blog posts here at PoT.

Guest Post: Report from the Nepal Earthquake (by Matt Faherty)

An Earth Shattering Finale 

[I had received several posts from Matt in India since his last one, but hadn’t gotten the chance to post them here. Since then, he’d gone back to Nepal, where his mother and brother had gone to meet him. What follows below is his first-hand account of the earthquake in Nepal. We’d been joking for weeks about Matt’s just barely missing disaster on this trip. This time, it no longer seems funny.]

I am writing this post on a baseball field, under a tent within a compound which houses and supports American government personnel in Nepal. I arrived in Kathmandu from India the second time yesterday, April 24th. Earlier that day, my brother Tom and my mother arrived in Kathmandu as well. We have been together in Kathmandu for about 24 hours now, and our current top priority is to leave Nepal as soon as possible.

At 10 AM this morning, my mom, Tom, and I left our hotel, which happened to be adjacent to the infamous Alobar1000, and set out for Monkey Temple. I had already been to Monkey Temple, but for our first of three full days in Kathmandu, I decided to tag along with the others and re-run through a few big sights. To get to the temple we had to walk out of Thamel, our hotel’s district at the heart of the city, and make our way across a river to a hill overlooking the city on the Western end of Kathmandu. The walk takes about forty minutes and demonstrates the best Kathmandu has to offer: windy streets, dirt roads, old temples, and lots of hippies.

We arrived at the base of the hill by 11:15 AM. Monkey Temple is on top of the hill’s summit, and the only way to get there is to trudge up a hundred or so stone steps of increasing height. The hill was more crowded than last time I was there, with dozens of individuals slowly meandering their way up. As before, little stalls lined the stairs and the merchants harassed the poor tourists. Monkeys climbed trees, fences and small shrines, eating everything in their path and looking like adorable little furry humans.

Due to our slow pace (my mom and brother alleged jet lag), it took us thirty minutes to reach the peak. Right before getting to the top, we were stopped by a small ticket stand and each charged a relatively steep sum of 200 rupees to enter. We paid climbed the last few stairs to reveal the whole temple. At the center is a white structure which looks like an upside down, swirly cone. Surrounding the cone on four points are four white towers, roughly three stories high. Around the towers on two adjacent sides are a row of brick buildings which house a monastery and a couple of shrines. On the other two sides are a pair of two, square based, two-story brick structures which housed their own shrines, and a series of platforms jutting out from the hill-top which provide great views of Kathmandu. This local geography will be relevant momentarily.

Rather than examine the central structure, we took a left as we got to the summit and made our way over to one of the look-out points. Since we were facing east from the western end of the city, most of Kathmandu lay before us. At the city center we could see the Sundhara, a white lighthouse-like tower which I had climbed during my last visit. Adjacent to the tower is Basantapur, a collection of pagodas and large buildings which make up one of the main palaces for the now-defunct royal family of Nepal. Most of the buildings in the city are three to four stories tall, and look like well built shanties. Despite their shoddy appearance, Kathmandu’s architecture has color and charm, and looks nothing like the similar poor cities throughout Indian and China (my brother remarked that it looked vaguely like Rio de Janeiro, especially with the mountains in the distance).

As I turned away from the lookout point, I felt the first rumble. I don’t know if I heard it or felt it first, or if the two feelings were so closely aligned that I couldn’t differentiate between them. Either way, it was a low, deep bass that seemed to come from the city itself. At first, I briefly dismissed it as construction, despite how absurd it would be for construction to be large and loud enough to disturb this isolated temple.

Then the rumbling started to grow. Within five seconds of its start, it was clear that everyone was aware it. Most people stopped in their tracks, others gripped the railing or leaned against a nearby building. I stared at my feet.

The rumbling grew more. Within fifteen seconds of the start it took on a defined shape. The ground shook side to side. I stuck my arm out for support and landed against the white structure at the central buildings corners. Cries rang out around me. My mom and brother were somewhere behind me, but I didn’t know where. Everyone I could see was still frozen in place but now trying to stay on their feet.

The rumbling grew. Twenty seconds after the start of the rumbling, everyone began to move. People darted in different directions around me. They must have known more than me, because I tried to stay in place. By this point I had realized we were in an earthquake, but having never personally experienced one before I had no idea what to do, and everything was moving too fast for me to make any rational decisions. I leaned against the white building.

The rumbling grew. I was being jostled from side to side with every tremor. They seemed to come every few seconds. Debris began to fall around me. I didn’t have the time or stability to see where it was coming from but bricks were smashing on the ground behind and in front of me. I had to move. I had to get away from the buildings.

The rumbling grew. I stumbled forward, moving between the white building on my right and the square-based brick building to my left. I could hear screams and cracking buildings over the increasingly loud rumbling. A chunk of the white building not much smaller than myself fell out of the structure and landed five feet in front of me. I turned to my left and tripped alongside the brick building. When I got to the far end of it, as far as possible from the crumbling white structure, I crouched on the ground and put my arms over my head.

The rumbling grew. I briefly lifted my head and caught a glance of dozens of people crowding on a large platform in front of me. They were crowding near the railing of a platform jutting out from the summit, where under normal circumstances they could get another great view of the city. Currently it looked to be the furthest possible place on the entire hill-top away from another building. Everyone pushing against the far railing looked terrified, but they also looked safer than I was.

I still had no idea where my mom and brother were.

Through the violent side-to-side rocking, I pushed forward. A few other stragglers were still close to the central structure as I was, but they seemed to have the same idea I did, and were making their way for the summit edges. Using the railing, I managed my way down a short staircase onto the jutting platform. I stumbled over to the railing and looked back at the temple. All of the buildings were being rocked back and forth. The central structure seemed to be holding strong, but the white towers and the brick buildings were rapidly falling apart. Huge chunks had already been flung off and were collecting into rubble piles on the ground.

I was afraid that a piece of building might traverse the twenty feet from the temple area to where I was standing. I wanted to get as far away as possible. I looked over the railing away from the temple and saw only mountain side. A few individuals had jumped over and were hugging trees in the light forest and shrubs. I considered doing the same but it dawned on me that if the shaking got bad enough the very platform I was standing on might break off and slide down the hill, thereby crushing any people under it. That was probably not architecturally possible, but in the moment, I was ready to consider anything.

The rumbling grew. It reached its apex. I turned back to the temple complex and saw my mom and brother stumble down the same path I had taken. Behind them larger and larger chunks flew off the brick building and crashed in puffs of brown smoke mere feet behind them. The smoke clouds engulfed them as they ran over to the hopeful sanctuary which I and dozens of others crowded on. Behind the brick building, the white tower continued to struggle, until a handful of rapid and particularly intense tremors tipped the scales. This three story tower crumbled before my eyes in seconds. It looked like a controlled demolition.

I thought the whole place might come down. I thought the central dome might collapse on itself and the side buildings along with it. I thought Monkey Temple would be wiped off the map.

Then, in maybe ten seconds, the rumbling slowed, and then stopped.

I’m fuzzy on the timelines. My best guess is that the main quake lasted 1.5 to 2 minutes, but I can’t say for sure.

When it ended, I was standing beside my mom, my brother, and two dozen other terrified other individuals. We had to get off the hill-top as soon as possible, but we weren’t sure if it was safe to go near the buildings. Could an aftershock happen at any moment? However, there was no nearby exit, and the only exit besides the entrance was on the other side of the temple, so we went back the way we came.

Within seconds of the quake’s stopping, I pulled out my camera and began snapping everything in sight. We had a view of the entirety of Kathmandu in front of us and it did not look pretty. White smoke clouds rose out of particular clumps of buildings spread throughout the city. Even from the temple’s position of isolation I could hear a constant background of cries emanating from the city along with innumerable honking cars.

The area around the central structure was entirely covered with piles of rubble, mostly brick. About a quarter of the brick structure was gone and only the base and a jagged, broken wall remained of the nearest white tower. I’m not sure what happened to the other towers. A dozen individuals ran into a nearby monastery, possibly to save its artifacts, possibly to save its monks. Fortunately I didn’t see any casualties.

We quickly descended the stairs alongside dozens of others fleeing the temple. Half way down the hill we came to a clearing where the stairs are less steep and dotted with small stone shrines. The three of us went to a dirt area beside the staircase where others were standing and sitting. Within a few minutes, maybe 40 individuals had piled into the clearing. Some were crying while others seemed to be in shock. Nearly all were taking out cell phones and desperately trying to call someone, probably either the Nepali equivalent of 911, or a family member. Of course the phones were down due to the surge in use.

About five minutes after the first quake ended, we began to feel the after shocks. They came at decreasing intervals, until they settled into a range of about 10-15 minutes apart. These tremors were nowhere near as bad as the initial quake, but I’m sure they were still doing damage to the city. With every shock, a cry arose from the city, eerily reminiscent of the sound of a passing roller coaster in an amusement park, except the cries were fearful rather than joyful.

A Japanese man standing near us remarked that the earthquake was not over. He put his hand on the metal fence which surrounded his clearing and then advised us to stay where we were for a while. I touched the fence and felt it was still shaking.

With no buildings and only a handful of sturdy looking trees in the vicinity, we figured the clearing was an ideal place to get our bearings. There was a small gap in the trees through which we could see a chunk of the city. The individual white clouds throughout the city had merged into a general haze which further added to Kathmandu’s usual air pollution.

After ten minutes of looking out at the city, my brother noticed that he couldn’t find the Sundhara, the lighthouse-like building near the city center. I tried to find it and could not as well. We used our respective maps to try to coordinate its position, but the tower was nowhere in sight. It had fallen.

The Sundhara was probably ten stories tall, and (if I recall correctly) had been rebuilt 150 years ago after the old Sundhara had fallen during an earthquake. That means that the earthquake we just experienced had been strong enough to topple a 150 year old building designed to withstand earthquakes.

I remembered when I went up the Sundhara a month ago. There had been dozens of people standing on the platform wrapping around its top, plus dozens more inside. The earthquake had happened during mid-day on a Saturday. I’m sure it was crowded.

It was about that point that the magnitude of our situation began to dawn on us. A massive earthquake had just hit an impoverished country. Phones were off line. Electricity, plumbing and internet were also almost certainly compromised. The quake was so strong that it had destroyed century+ year old monuments. And here we were on the side of a hill with no idea where to go or what to do.

For the next hour we stayed in the clearing while we tried to figure out what to do. We were still experiencing aftershocks but at ever wider intervals, so it would likely be safe to go to the city soon. We couldn’t just sit on the side of the hill forever but it wasn’t clear where we should go.

Our objective was to find Internet access so that we could inform family in America that we were alive, but of course we didn’t have a data plan in Nepal and the Internet was likely down everywhere. Our hotel was in the heart of the city, where shabby 4-6 story buildings leaned on top of each other over narrow roads, and therefore was the single most dangerous place in all of Kathmandu. According to a bystander who managed to get his phone briefly working, the airport was closed.

I proposed the American Embassy. I figured the building was probably well-built, and equipped with Wifi and phones. In a worst case scenario, the Embassy could possibly even evacuate us from Nepal. At the very least the Embassy would tell us what the hell to do.

Unfortunately the American Embassy was on the opposite side of the city. The fastest route there was through Thamel, the city center, where our odds of getting crushed by a building were highest. Instead we opted to take a long route around the city center wherein we would travel along with flat river until we cut accross a more remote, and therefore smaller building-filled part of the city.

With images of 9/11 flashing through my mind, I advised my mom and brother to get masks for the walk (I had one from my last visit to Kathmandu). Given that we were far above the city, we didn’t actually know how much damage or carnage there was, but if there were collapsed buildings throughout the city there would be all manner of dust and debris in the air. Even if we managed to dodge the falling buildings, we didn’t want to die of mesothylioma or something in a few years anyway.

As we were preparing to leave, we bumped into a guy who seemed to know something about what was going on. He turned out to be a UNICEF employee based out of Burma who had come to Kathmandu for a few days on a training exercise. Now he was returning to his UNICEF camp to begin aid operations in his new disaster zone.

The first sentence out of UNICEF guy’s mouth was, “lots of people have died.” Then he explained that the next few days will probably be OK, then everything will go to shit soon afterwards. Given how awful Nepali infrastructure is at the best of time, it is surely in shambles now. The power is out, the water won’t work, and the local emergency services will be almost nonexistent. He advised us to stock up on food, water, and clothes as we tried to get out of Nepal as soon as possible. To that end, he concurred that the US Embassy was our best bet.

My mom noted that when a disaster like this occurs in America, the affected region is swiftly filled with helicopters and other emergency services. We didn’t see a helicopter until more than 40 minutes after the first shock. As we walked down the stairs to enter the city proper, we didn’t hear ambulance or fire engine sirens, we heard regular car horns and a dull background cry. We were in a Third World disaster zone.

We walked down the hill and set out for the American Embassy. We didn’t immediately see any collapsed buildings, but the streets were filled with people. They formed groups at every available clearing, ranging in size from a single family to over a hundred individuals. Older women and younger children were usually sitting down, while the men paced and tried their cell phones with little luck.

Every two or three blocks we would see a fallen building. Sometimes the foundations had collapsed, other times it was the walls, and in extreme cases, I couldn’t tell which part had given out. With most of the city built on bricks, huge piles of clay rubble formed alongside the roads. People gathered around the ruins. Some took pictures, others mourned.

The river area was flat, with a road on either side and only one or two story buildings along the roads. It was safe territory. We walked for thirty minutes, passing by dozens of groups huddled by the side of the road. Not all were mournful or even worried. Some of the younger individuals even seemed excited. Occasionally we weren’t even sure if the earthquake had been much of a disaster at all, but then we would pass by another collapsed building and see another hundred-man group parked at an intersection, and the devastation would become real again. More importantly, if this is what it was like on the safer city outskirts, how bad was it in the city center?

As we walked, we would still get hit by the occasional tremor. Whatever pedestrians accompanied us on the streets would sprint for the middle of the road, where we were least likely to get hit by debris. The earthquake was still not over but it was clearly subsiding. We hoped it would come to an end soon.

After walking for an hour and a half we came upon a main road which lead to the embassy. This street was packed with pedestrians walking in both directions. Some people were trying to find their respective embassies like we were, others were headed for the nearest hospital, and some were trying to find their own safe clearings.

The Thai Embassy is in a wooded area along a side street which branches out from the main road. Alongside the embassy lay a collapsed brick wall, roughly ten feet high and maybe 100 feet long. The entire wall had fallen over onto the street. This was the first of many fallen brick walls I would see on the day, and I no longer trust brick walls as a stable architectural creation.

While walking down the main road, I noticed that nearly all of the stores lining the street were closed. The gaps in the building normally occupied by shops were covered with metal sheets and padlocked. Oddly, I saw a few groups of people crowded around some closed stores and I heard a loud, sharp banging emanating from the group. As I got closer to one, I saw a young guy using a rock to smash a padlock on a pharmacy.

On this street was one of the main hospitals in the city. Through a driveway opening I could see a large courtyard packed with people milling about. Outside the hospital on the road was one of the few instances of organized Nepali government action I saw that day. About ten Nepali police officers were standing around and shouting at pedestrians and random cars to move away from the hospital entrance. As far as I could, tell they were superfluous since no one seemed to be hanging around the entrance for long anyway, but these men and women were still shouting angrily at the top of their lungs.

After thirty minutes on the main street, we finally arrived at the American Embassy. It’s a sturdy-looking, one or two story marble building behind a parking lot and a metal fence. We showed the guards our passports and made our way to a help desk outside. A few minutes later, we were sat down in an outside waiting area, along with about ten other Americans who arrived shortly after us, and an Embassy employee told us the situation.

The guy said the earthquake clocked at a 7.2 to 7.4 on the Richter Scale. It had been felt at least as far away as Delhi. Kathmandu was hit especially hard, and Thamel, where our hoetl was located, had been hit the worst, with numerous collapsed buildings. He took our passport information and promised to contact a family member (we chose an uncle) but there wasn’t much else they could do for us at the Embassy. Instead, we would have to walk towards Thamel to another US Embassy compound called the “American Club,” where we would be provided with some type of shelter.

Though we were already exhausted from walking, we set out for the American Club, which was an estimated hour away. We walked silently and didn’t see anything new along the way with one exception.

At an intersection there was yet another collapsed brick wall. Two police men armed with assault rifles were standing near the wall for some reason and a small crowd was gathered at one part taking pictures of something. I got closer and saw a shape on the ground behind the collapsed wall, covered in a white cloth. It was a dead body.

The American Club turned out to be a rather large compound right at the heart of the city. It’s basically a living space for the hundreds of US federal government employees who for some reason are staffed in Nepal. We flashed our passports again, and after going through a security checkpoint, proceeded inside.

We were shepherded to a baseball field filled with close to 100 individuals who on any other day would appear to be having a picnic. There were more than a dozen young children playing around with medicine balls, adults standing in circles talking, and even a table with snacks and drinks. We were told that we could hang out here for the time being, so we sat on the grass and took advantage of the free food.

An hour later, an Embassy employee asked us to gather around for an announcement. He said that if we felt no earthquake tremor for 24 hours, then it was officially over. Until that point, we were all welcome to stay here on the field. Dozens of US citizens and a few non-US citizens had already flocked here and set up mini camps. US government employees would be taken to the Embassy, but the rest of us were free to make use of this safe haven.

Unfortunately, there was also a good chance of rain, so everyone who was here would have to pile under a tent set up in the field. Fortunately, this is the American government we are talking about here so we got about as nice of an improvised set up as we could ask for. The Embassy delivered absurdly warm, fuzzy blankets by the van load. They gave us super-efficient mats to out on the ground that were allegedly water and cold proof. They couldn’t provide Wifi because the Internet was down everywhere but they did set up ample power strips for charging phones (and my camera). They even got us MRE rations (Meals Ready to Eat) for dinner.

At one point, after we had already laid out our cozy pseudo-beds, the Embassy employee announced that if it did rain, the tents would not be sufficient to stop the ground beneath us from becoming soaked. So he invited us to get heavy wood palettes from a nearby storage area to sleep on top of. At the moment I’m opting out of the palette and hoping for the best.

Both my mom and the Embassy employee jokingly referred to us as “refugees,” and at the moment that seems pretty accurate. All of our luggage, except for what we carried on ourselves during the day, is still at our hotel, which may or may not still be standing. We are trapped in Nepal as long as the Kathmandu airport is down. Even if Nepal’s mountainside roads weren’t in shambles, we couldn’t take a bus out of the country to China or India since we don’t have visas. We managed to get one email out to my uncle and we are hoping he can work some magic to get us on a flight to Mumbai or Delhi relatively soon. If we ever do leave Nepal, we will just have to head back home, since all of Nepal seems to be in bad shape and tourist activity has certainly ground to a stand still.

Some people have managed to rig a radio or catch some bits of phone time and collect some information. We are now hearing that the earthquake was between a 7.8 and 8.0 on the Richter scale, which even I know is enormous. (As I write this at 10:12 PM, I am feeling the first tremor in about six hours.) The quake was felt from Bangladesh to Delhi, though the epicenter was Nepal, with Kathmandu getting the worst of it. We’ve heard that Mount Everest had a major avalanche, and it happens to be peak season for climbing. Worst of all, the death toll as of 7 PM was already up to 700, and that’s in the major cities alone.*

About an hour after we had all settled into out comfortable blankets under the tent, and some people had managed to use their phones, I heard a weeping from the corner. I looked up and saw a girl, probably a traveler in her mid to late 20s, kneeling with her hands on her face. After a moment she stood up and muffled her cries into a friend as they embraced. She seemed to be trying to hold back her tears but clearly couldn’t, even as she squeezed her friend with all her might. Nobody had actually heard what happened, but it was obvious.

This is an odd end to a crazy trip. I feel bad for my mom and brother for not being able to see much of Nepal. It’s a beautiful country well worth visiting. I’m guessing I’ll be home within four or five days, though with all of the people trying to leave Nepal right now, I could be here for weeks.

*Irfan: As of April 26, 7 pm EST, the estimated death toll had reached 2400.

Postscript, April 26, 2015 (Irfan): More first-hand accounts of the earthquake, as reported in The New York Times.

Matt Faherty in Nepal Earthquake

I’ve just gotten news that Matt Faherty and his family are currently in an emergency shelter in Nepal, having been caught in the recent earthquake there. They’re unhurt, but trying to find a way out of Nepal. Unfortunately, the airport has been shut down.

NEW DELHI — A powerful earthquake shook Nepal on Saturday near its capital, Katmandu, killing more than 1,800 people, flattening sections of the city’s historic center, and trapping dozens of sightseers in a 200-foot watchtower that came crashing down into a pile of bricks.

Officials in Nepal put the preliminary number of deaths at 1,805, nearly all of them in Katmandu and the surrounding valley, with 4,718 people injured. But the quake touched a vast expanse of the subcontinent. It set off avalanches around Mount Everest, where at least 10 climbers died. At least 34 deaths occurred in northern India. Buildings swayed in Tibet and Bangladesh.

The earthquake, with a magnitude of 7.8, struck shortly before noon, and residents of Katmandu ran into the streets and other open spaces as buildings fell, throwing up clouds of dust. Wide cracks opened on paved streets and in the walls of city buildings. Motorcycles tipped over and slid off the edge of a highway.

I’ll update as I get news. Glad to hear you’re safe, Matt, and hoping you can get out soon.

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)

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.

Dargah of moinuddin chishti.jpg

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: Down on the Nepali Farm (by Matt Faherty)

[We continue with Matt’s adventures in Nepal. Last time, we encountered him vomiting his way through Kathmandu. In this post, we encounter him, however briefly, at the telos of his journey: the Nepalese farm, sponsored by WWOOF, at which he was to work, and for the sake of which the whole trip had been planned. Despite the praises sung of the agrarian life familiar to us from the examples of Cicero and Thomas Jefferson, it turns out that farming is, as Matt put it to me in an email, “pretty fucking boring.” Accordingly, Matt makes some authentic existentialist choices in this post, which begins with his arriving on the farm and leaving it within a day or so.]

Pohkara Day 2: Farming and Some Existentialist Choices

I’m not on the farm anymore. I was on it for two days, nearly died of boredom, and took a bus to Pohkara, the second largest city in Nepal. My current plans are to make my way throughout Nepal in an ad hoc manner over the next month until my mom and brother arrive. I will probably go to a few more farms, but never for more than a few days. Mostly I’ll hop between ever smaller cities and try to go on self-guided hikes, hopefully without dying on the side of some mountain alone. Here is a brief account of what happened during my two days of farming.

Pradeep’s farm is in a tiny farming community about 90 miles to the south west of Kathmandu. I took two busses to get there. The first took about 5.5 hours and cost $3.50, the second took 1.5 hours and cost $1.20. I ended up in a massive valley which was uncharacteristically flat for Nepal, though mountains could always be seen on the horizon.

Pradeep was not actually at Pradeep’s Farm. He was in Japan, presumably working, so the farm was being looked after by his brother (Balram), Balram’s wife, his mother, and a Nepali worker. The center of the farm is a cluster of buildings with a dusty stone ground in a lightly wooded area. Pradeep, his brother, and the wife live in a three room concrete structure. Next their house was a two room building where I and the other WWOOFers stayed, and the mother’s one room house. The trees provide nice shade and it’s a pretty relaxing area if you can tolerate the swarms of flies.

I’m not sure how big the farm is, and I since I don’t know how big an acre or hectare is, I couldn’t really estimate. He grows mostly corn alongside lentils and some mixed vegetables. There are also ten goats, 1,000 chickens, a cow, and a whole lot of bees (which are also incalculable). A few days before I arrived, three new goats had been born so I got to hold and play with some adorable tiny goats which could barely walk. On the other hand, adult goats never shut the fuck up and their weird humanoid bleating does not get more pleasant with time.

The two other WWOOFers were a French 23 year old guy, and a 28 year old French girl who didn’t know each other prior to arriving the day before I did. They were nice enough and I spent most of the two days with them. Unfortunately, they confirmed every one of my worst prejudices about WWOOFers by constantly blathering idiotic anti-wealth, anti-American, noble savage worshipping nonsense which it was my duty to challenge. If they weren’t constantly smoking pot, they probably would have gotten quite angry with me.

What little work I did was boring and tedious. The first day the work was actually kind of fun but it lasted a total of 30 minutes. First I dug some ditches to create a flood plain for future corn crops and I admit it was quite satisfying to see a field fill with water because of my work. A few hours later I stacked some eggs in a carton. That was it for the day. The following day I literally shoveled goat shit and carried it in sacks out onto the same field for about two hours. That was about as fun as it sounds.

I’ve always been under the impression that poor farmers are hardworking people, but now I have to call that belief into question. Balram seemed to work for an hour or two after sunrise, then eat lunch at ten and declare it to be “too hot” to work again until 4 PM, even when it was only about 70 degrees out. He spent most of the day lounging in the shade, talking to neighbors, and eating food prepared by his wife. Granted, I wasn’t at the farm for long and Balram seemed relatively well off (likely due to charging WWOOFers $5 per day for the last eight years), but still, this was not the desperate farming I expected. Maybe because farming occurs all year round in Nepal, the work is more gradual and spread out compared to the seasonality in Europe that I typically picture.

OK, so the farm was beautiful and the area was definitely off the beaten path, but there simply wasn’t much to do. I walked around the equally beautiful surrounding area for a total of about eight hours over the two days and saw everything I needed to see. What little work I did was tedious and the experience would not be improved by more work. So I thanked my host and got out of there.

Pohkara Day 1 was just a long bus ride and sitting in my hotel, so I’ll move on to Pokhara Day 2. By the way, it’s pronounced “Po-kuh-ruh.” If, like me, you naturally say “Po-car-uh,” the natives will not understand you.

Pohkara is a case study in why Nepal is better than India. If this same city with the same function existed in India, it would be a loud, dirty, overstuffed metropolis filled with swarms of scammers, beggars, and annoying merchants. Here in Nepal, Pohkara is a quiet, clean and rather pleasant small city filled with merely a manageable level of beggars and annoying merchants.

Pohkara is the second biggest city in Nepal, but I’m not sure if it exists for any reason other than tourism. The city is a base of operations for hang gliders, sky divers, parasailors, off road drivers, safari goers, hikers, and most of all, trekkers. For the uninitiated (i.e. me two months ago) trekking is long range hiking with equipment for mountain climbing and usually sleeping bags. Most treks in Nepal are organized group ventures with local guides that also require porters, guys who carry all of the equipment. Treks are quite expensive, usually costing between $50 and $100 per day. Pohkara is right in the middle of a mountain range famous for trekking.

The perfect place to be shoveling goat shit for a few months (photo: Wikipedia)

I only briefly walked through the center of Pohkara, so I can’t speak for the rest of the city, but the touristy area, known as Lakeside, is great, easily the most comfortable place I’ve traveled to on this trip. As the name suggests, Lakeside consists of a few rows of streets on the side of scenic Phewa Lake. The streets consist entirely off cheap lodges, western restaurants, trekking agencies, souvenir shops, bars, and convenience stores, but it’s all remarkably clean and classy. It has the feel of a decently luxurious ski resort, like Mount Stratton in Vermont. I guess trekkers tend to be pretty wealthy, and the locals have done their best to accommodate them.

Speaking of locals, Nepalis are much better than Indians by pretty much every metric. They are more polite, provide better customer service, have less aggressive merchants, have better style, and are more attractive. To be fair, Nepal still has a lot of the same annoying crap that India has, like beggars and merchants who hound me while walking down the streets, but they are less common, and even the merchants hound a lot softer so I feel less like a walking wallet.

Style might be a strange point of comparison, especially coming from me, but it’s hard not to notice it here. As best as I can describe it, young Nepalis tend to dress like Asian greasers. There are a lot of leather jackets, cool jeans, and that crazy puffed up Asian hair Japanese people sometimes have (it might be gel, but I’m not sure). The women dress more Western Indians too, with few saris and a lot more standard jeans and sweatshirts.

Today I used my favorite wandering tactic, pick a vague, faraway place and just walk to it. The location of choice was Lakeside itself, but my plan was to walk around the entire circumference of Phewa Lake, which has a surface area of 5.23 km. This was easier said than done. It took me almost six straight hours of walking to fail.

Phewa Lake is phenomenally beautiful. Its water is dark blue and folds into a mountain range covered with terrace farms and small farming villages. When the sky is clear, taller, snowcapped mountains can be seen in the distance. I don’t know how to describe it any more. Most of my walk was uneventful, so I just enjoyed the stunning scenery. Not that it has too much competition, but this has been the most beautiful natural place I’ve seen so far during my trip.

Early on, I took a detour to a field that jutted out into the lake. As I walking toward the water, a parachuter came out of nowhere and landed about fifty feet away from me. A bystander told me it was training day and asked if I had parachuted. I said “no, it’s scary.” He questioned my manhood. Moving on.

Rather than re-cross the field to return to the main road, I decided to cut through some farm land adjacent to the field. I thought I could walk around the flood plain segments by staying near the lake, but by the time this plan failed I was too far away from the field to walk back. Instead I had to try to make my way across the flood plains. This was surprisingly fun. The ground was a mixture of mud and weeds, and entirely soaked with water. But some parts of the ground were more soaked than others. If I stepped on a dryer spot, I was fine. If I stepped on a wet spot, I would sink into the ground. If I sunk too far into the ground, I could legitimately lose my shoe, or at least get my foot covered with mud.

(Random Note: I am writing this in a restaurant in Lakeside, and the guy sitting at the table next to me just seriously described the Appalachian Mountains as “wise.”)

It took me about half an hour to traverse 100 yards. I had to backtrack repeatedly as I ran into water logged areas. I got pretty good at figuring out what patches were wet and which were dry by looking at them rather than testing with a step, and on more than a few occasions I made a bad step and had to jump away while I was sinking into the ground. For once, my two years of long jumping in high school came in handy as I made some fateful leaps across water logged stretches.

An hour after getting back on the road, I was approached by a random woman and asked to volunteer at a nearby orphanage. I politely declined.

Doesn’t that landscape just scream ‘lentil farming’ to you? (Wikipedia)

A few hours later, I passed the lake and tried to cut my way across a much larger flood plain and save myself a few kilometers on the longer main road. I’m not sure if this land used to be part of the lake too, but now it was divided between farm and grazing land, and was fed by a couple of canals. The canals proved to be my main obstacle. They were too long to jump and I didn’t want to get my shoes or feet wet so I was trying to find a bridge or boat to take me across.

I came upon a remote bar-restaurant on the edge of the flood plain and asked if the small road jutting out from it would take me all the way across. The presumed owner said it would if I could find the boat in the canal 300 meters away. A boy about eight years of age cheerfully offered to show me the boat and I agreed.

The kid and I made some small talk for about five minutes of walking. He spoke some broken English but didn’t seem educated in it. Then, with no prompt whatsoever, he asked me for money. When I refused, he asked for chocolate. This was weird. It was he and I alone on a dirt road in a massive field in the middle of nowhere. I was basically being extorted by an eight year old. I politedly declined to give him money or chocolate. He turned around and walked back the house.*

The kid really did screw me over. I never found the boat and ended up walking along a windy canal for a kilometer until I ended back at the main road at the floodplain-lake’s most distant point from Lakeside. My attempt at a shortcut probably saved half a kilometer at most.

The best part of my walk occurred shortly after. I once more attempted to cut across the floodplain, but this time on a path that I could see made it to the main road in the distance. About half way along the path I stopped and just marveled at my setting. I was on a small grey dirt path in the middle of a dark green field surrounded by mountains covered in terrace farms. And I was completely alone. There were a couple of cows million around, but otherwise I may as well have been on an alien planet. It was unforgettable.

Then came the worst part of my walk. Thus far the road had stayed mostly flat along the base of the mountains, but now it inexplicably went up and down over the side of the mountains. I had already been walking for something like 4 hours without rest and didn’t really feel like starting to walk up hill.

About two hours later I began to get worried that the road was actually going to start going up and into the mountains rather than stay near the lake. Technically I didn’t actually know if the road wrapped around the lake as I hoped it would, and I didn’t want accidentally to walk to some nearby town away from my destination. So I made the daring (or some would say, stupid) decision to leave the road and enter a nearby cluster of terrace farms with the blind hope that I could keep circling the lake on some local paths.

This didn’t work. I said hello to some confused Nepali farmers,** stumbled down a path on the side of a mountain which I’m fairly certain was abandonded, and ended up on a beach occupied by a dozen young boys roughly between the ages of 12 and 15. Equally confused, they approached and asked where I wanted to go. I said, “Pohkara.” They said, “What?” I said, “Pohkara” correctly. They laughed and said I couldn’t get there on this side of the mountain. Ugh.

Miraculously I had a way out. The boys offered me a boat ride to the other side of the lake where I could walk back to Laketown. Yes it occurred to me that they were lying about the lack of a foot passage to Laketown to sell me this option, but I didn’t see a road on the mountainside and these kids seemed fun and honest. We briefly bargained until I agreed to pay 400 rupees ($4) for a ride across the lake. Since three of them rowed me, I basically paid each one $1.30 per hour.

The relevant boat was basically a 12 foot canoe and not especially stable. There were a couple of times when I was genuinely afraid of capsizing, which would have destroyed my camera, and possibly the $200 worth of Nepali rupees in my pocket.

These kids were fun. They like Eminem and Rihanna, and played music on their cell phones. They asked me a whole bunch of questions about America and seemed confused by our lack of a caste system. One kid was the de facto leader of the group; he had an earring and wore jeans. He had spearheaded the negotiations on the beach and was now constantly shouting orders to the other two rowers, though it was hard to think of what those order might be besides “row straight.”

When I got to the beach I fished through my wallet to get their money and they caught a glimpse of some American money. Their eyes lit up and they asked to see it. I showed them a one dollar bill and I got the idea to let them have it. I offered it for 50 rupees ($1=97 rupees). There were three kids and they saw I had more, so we ended up settling on 250 rupees for $3. The kids were thrilled.

I have one more observation about Pohkara. I don’t know if this occurs everywhere throughout Nepal, but there is only electricity here for about twelve hours per day. My hotel even has a daily schedule, since the times when the electricity is on varies ever day. I walked down Laketown’s main street last night at 9 PM when the power was out and it was pretty strange. Most places had generators to keep the lights on, but a lot of restaurants were completely dark despite being open. With so many generators running at once, the whole street had a constant low rumble which occasionally grew louder as I approached a store with a bigger, or maybe just louder generator. For a tourist town filled with young athletes, it was pretty dead by 9:30 PM.***

*Irfan: In the interests of family values, I’ve taken the liberty of deleting the rest of Matt’s tirade against this eight-year-old.

**Irfan: None dare call it trespassing.

**Irfan: Exactly the same phenomenon exists in Pakistan, where it’s called “loadshedding.” (Americans call it a “rolling blackout.”) The issue turns partly on the nature of public ownership of the energy supply, and partly on riparian law and the politics of water access and usage. I suspect (but don’t know) that Nepal and Pakistan face a similar dynamic, and possibly, similar sorts of water disputes with India.

Guest Post: Perfumed by a Nepal Night (by Matt Faherty)

[We resume the journeys of Matt Faherty, from India to Nepal. The literary allusion in the title of the post–if you didn’t catch it–is the Rush song, “A Passage to Bangkok.” I found one stanza of the song particularly appropriate to Matt’s somewhat pathos-inducing entry into Nepal:

Pulling into Kathmandu
Smoke rings fill the air
Perfumed by a Nepal night
The Express gets you there…

I mean “perfume” in a somewhat broad and metaphorical sense, as you’ll see from reading the post.]

Perfumed by a Nepal Night: Projectile Vomiting in Kathmandu

I arrived in Kathmandu at about 5 PM. I made it through customs and caught a taxi to my hostel, the Alobar 1000. The staff was young, mostly in their mid-20s, and not super professional. They took a while to actually set me up in my room and seemed more concerned with laughing and-or flirting with each other than customer service. At the time I didn’t mind because it fit the generally laid back manner of the bar. Now I mind.

Eventually I was led to my bed in a shared dorm room with about twenty other people. I sat on my top bunk for a few minutes before heading up to the bar-restaurant on the roof top.

From the restaurant I ordered a Chinese chicken and noodle dish plus a bottle of water. At about 7 PM, I ate my meal and talked with some other travelers for the next hour. At 8PM, I started to feel nauseous and had stomach pains. Around 8:15 PM I went to the bathroom and had bad diarrhea. I hoped that would be the end of it, but the nausea and stomach pains only worsened. I usually go to sleep around 11:30 PM or 12 AM, but at 9:30 PM I decided to go to bed because it was too painful to sit against a wall and talk to people.

For the next couple hours I tried to go to sleep but was kept awake by stomach pains. I stayed on my back since it resulted in the least pain. Whenever I tried to turn on my side, I immediately felt like I was going to throw up and nearly did so a few times.

More what?

At around 1 AM, I tasted something in my mouth which indicated that I was going to throw up. I stumbled off my top bunk and made it to the bathroom ready to puke. Nothing happened.

I waited ten minutes and then decided to go back to bed. Five steps out of the bathroom my nausea was so bad that I leaned against the wall and slumped into a seated position. I stayed there for five minutes before again trying to make it to my bed.

I fought through the nausea for about 15 steps, then climbed up my bed and tried to lay on my back. The final movement of laying down finally did me in. I sat up and vomited in my lap in numerous waves for about a minute. A few people around me woke up and tried to help. I was given a bag to catch some of the vomit, toilet paper to clean up what I couldn’t contain in front of me, water for re-hydration, and some anti-nausea pills.

After a few minutes I jumped down from my bed and went to the bathroom to change my clothes. My boxers and pants were covered in vomit, but my shirt was OK. I left the shirt on, changed into the first pants I grabbed (it turned out to be my bathing suit), and put on a jacket. At this point nearly all of my stomach pain and nausea was gone, but I felt extremely weak and dehydrated.

I staggered down a flight of stairs and through a few hallways to the front desk. Nearly every hostel I had ever stayed at keeps a staff member awake at the front desk for emergencies but Alobar 1000 was an exception. There were three staff members wrapped up in blankets, asleep around the room.

I’ve heard the food is awesome. 

I nudged one guy awake and told him that I had vomited on my bed and that it needed to be cleaned up, plus I needed a place to sleep. The guy rolled over, said there were no vacancies, and promptly went back to sleep. I woke him up again and said the same thing. He fell asleep again. I woke him up again and said the same thing. He told me to go to the rooftop restaurant and sleep on the floor (which was padded and people usually sat on while they were eating, so it’s not uncomfortable). Then he fell back asleep. I had to wake him up to more times to figure out where I could get a spare blanket until he pointed me to a sleeping bag.

I staggered up four stories to the rooftop restaurant and slept on the floor in the dining area. It was not an enclosed space, so it was quite cold, but I managed to get somewhat warm between the sleeping bag and my jacket. To the best of my recollection, I fell asleep around 2:30.

I was awakened at 6:30 AM by some cleaning ladies. After trying to go back to sleep for a few minutes, I walked down four stories to the front desk to see if they had responded anyway to my illness.

The guy I had nudged awake was sitting at the front desk with two other employees. At first he didn’t recognize me, but then I reminded him about last night. He asked me if I had cleaned up the vomit. That is, he wanted to know if after being food poisoned by this hostel, and being barely able to stand after profusely vomiting, I had staggered back to my room at 1:30 AM, climbed up to my top bunk, rolled up my vomit-soaked blanket and sheets, and put them… I don’t know where, he never told me. I told him that I had not cleaned it up.

He replied that if the blanket, sheet, or bed were damaged, I would have to pay for it.

My anger was only abated because I still felt completely exhausted and dehydrated. I told him that I would not be paying for damages caused by being poisoned by this hostel. What followed was a five minute long series of evasions and dodges by which the guy did everything he could to deflect blame from the hostel.

First he asked if I was sick from my recent flight. I fly dozens of times per year, including eight times in the last three weeks, and I have never gotten sick from it. Plus I didn’t feel sick until well after I had left the plane.

Second, he suggested that I had become sick during my previous travels. I had been through Bangladesh and northern India over the past three weeks, and I had never gotten anything worse than a cold which ended a week ago. I took antibiotics daily. Then I arrive in Nepal and a few hours later I get violently ill.

Third, he suggested that it was something else I ate that day. I had eaten a lentil soup doha at 10 AM, which is pretty much the most mild food in the world. I had eaten some chicken and rice on the airplane. When I arrived at Nepal I felt perfectly fine, even well rested. Then an hour after eating at the hostel I began to feel sick.

Fourth, he suggested that I was drunk. I had no alcohol that night, nor the night before, nor any night before for two weeks, when I had consumed a single beer in Calcutta.

Fifth, he suggested that I got sick from consuming food elsewhere in Nepal. I consumed nothing in Nepal outside of the hostel. The only time I had spent outside of the hostel was arriving at the airport, the taxi ride, and a five minute walk to an ATM.

Sixth, he threw his hands up and said we can never really know where these things come from and the hostel can’t be held responsible. All of the facts presented and the distinct taste of Chinese chicken noodles in my mouth as I vomited beg to differ.*

I can understand if someone has read up to this point and thought the hostel employee sounded reasonable. But here’s the rub: I was not the only person to get sick. Someone else had thrown up a few hours before me. That morning I spoke to two girls who had been staying at the hostel for more than a week and they reported that people were constantly getting sick after eating at the rooftop restaurant. They were so angry with the hostel that they offered to go with me to the front desk to confront the employees directly.

My schedule has been completely fucked up by this. I was planning on getting on a bus this morning to go to the farm to begin working, but now I felt awful and I had vomit all over some clothes (including my most worn pants). I asked the employee how long it would take to wash my clothes and he said it wouldn’t be ready until that night at earliest, but likely next morning. So I could either carry my backpack and vomit-filled clothes on two long bus rides to the farm and hope I recovered along the way way enough to be able to work tomorrow, or I could wait another day in Kathmandu to leave.

Because the hostel had poisoned me and messed up my schedule, I felt entitled to compensation. I considered my position and made the front desk employee an option. I asked to stay at the hostel another night for free, but I would sleep in a sleeping bag in the hotel restaurant so that I didn’t take up a bed and cost them money. Meanwhile, I would pay the 60 cents to clean my clothes. So I was basically asking them to take responsibility and compensate me at pretty much no cost.

They refused.

I ended up paying for the night I stayed and leaving a few hours later for another hotel. There isn’t much I can do now except write the worst review they have ever or will ever receive on and perhaps try to get a refund via Hostelworld.

Irfan: You can read my CO 350 students’ comments on Matt’s experience here. I used his post as a teaching tool in a unit of my applied ethics course on money.

Matt wrote the preceding post more than week ago. He’s much better now.

*Irfan: I’m very grateful to Matt to not having spared us any of the forensic-physiological details involved here, so that we can all think more carefully about the epidemiological and legal-liability issues raised by his experience.

Postscript, March 31, 2015 (by Irfan): I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that yet another secular-minded blogger has been hacked to death in Dhaka. (This comes about a month after a previous attack, mentioned in one of Matt’s earlier posts.) One machete attack is bad. Two is copycatting. Three, I suppose, would be a trend.

Meanwhile, a teenager in Singapore, Amos Yee, has been arrested for criticizing Lee Kuan Yew, the country’s authoritarian “founding father” (who deserved everything that Amos Yee dishes out in the video and more). Lee Kuan Yew was a dictator, just as Yee says. But he didn’t fool everyone.

I actually found Yee’s video exceptionally impressive, especially for a teenager. Props, Amos. You should be blogging for PoT. To close with Amos’s words:

There ya go, Lee Kuan Yew, an overrated, overglorified person, a dictator, and exceptionally Machiavellian in nature. Good riddance, Lee Kuan Yew. I neither hope [that you rest in peace] and neither will you rest in peace.


Postscript, April 1, 2015 (Irfan): Matt sends along this item, from “the missed disaster list” for his trip. As I’ve said elsewhere, so far he’s just narrowly missed a machete hacking, a bombing, a ferry accident, a train accident, and arrest for offensive blogging. We can now add a fatal rhinoceros attack to the list. I suppose the rhino in question was not one  in name only.

Postscript, April 8, 2015 (Irfan): Matt sends along the following update:

You are not going to believe this. My credit card just got charged $550 by Alobar 1000. They are actually doing it. They are charging me for damages caused by them poisoning me. Someone may have to restrain me when I return to Kathmandu.

That strikes me as a straightforward case of fraud. I’d report it as a disputed charge to the credit card company and have them hash it out with Alobar 1000. A cautionary tale.

Anyway, if nothing else, this will be an interesting case study in non-governmental adjudication of private commercial disputes. Stay tuned!

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).