Incredible India? A group divided

Firstly, to my friends and family who I’m sure (I hope) have been following this blog with unwavering enthusiasm for the next installment I apologise for the length of time it has taken to get this one up, I am now so far behind I fear I will never catch up!

Secondly you may notice that I spent my time in India with a rather diminished group of peoples. As you may well gather from the title of this blog our time spent in the sub continent was not always an easy or a happy one.

With our time in Nepal marred by bad planning and time management we had subsequently decided not to allow our time in India to go the same way. Please do not misunderstand, as a group of intelligent and, by now, experienced travelers we understand that travel through volatile and troubled countries is unlikely to pass without difficulties. Route changes are likely to be a part of any extended period of travel and we do not hold the management responsible for this. We do feel however that a certain amount of foresight wouldn’t go amiss, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, for example, provide a very handy email service alerting travelers to potential hot spots of brewing disquiet allowing said travelers to make alternative arrangements ahead of time.

Moreover we were quickly becoming very concerned about the apparent lack of support our guides were being provided with. The absence of local guides since leaving Tibet has been worryingly noticeable and we constantly find ourselves geographically and metaphorically lost, unsure of where we are or why we’re there. We voiced our concerns to the management but rather apologies and reassurance that our hard earned and eagerly spent cash has not gone to waste, we are met with hostility and excuses. For the record Odyssey, not having traveled through Nepal and India for the past four years is not an excuse for poor and lazy route planning and non existent trip notes, this is what we paid you for.

And so it is that we find ourselves in Varanasi, home of the Ganges, a spiritual haven for Indians and Hindus alike, preparing to embark on our first solo adventure in four months. Our welcome to India has not been a pleasant one, women have been sexually harassed in their hotel rooms, we’ve been ripped off, stared at, gawped at, leered at and within two days more photos of us exist in India than anywhere else in the world. India is a country of conflict, an absolute assault to your being that can only truly be felt by experience. Remembering dredges up the hurt and anger felt over those short three weeks, this is a difficult blog to write.

The streets of Varanasi are lined with poverty, the likes of which I’ve never seen. Communities of street children band together begging over their distended stomachs, filthy hands out stretched, bulging eyes pleading for any morsel we can provide. Despite all we know about not giving money to the street children these tiny humans are difficult to ignore. Certain that their delicate tummies cannot handle any of our rich western or Indian food we hand out uneaten plain food when we can, no longer sure if this is a help or a hindrance.

Behind the street beggars sit opulent Hindu and Buddhist temples, decked in gold and marble. Exasperated by a Government and religion that treat their buildings better than they treat their people I’m already finding India a difficult one to handle. When I witness a stray dog chewing on a bit char grilled flesh on top of a funeral pyre I feel vaguely queasy but sure I have seen the worst India has to offer…

Urban cattle, goats, The Ganges and crowds on the streets of Varanasi

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Crowds that gather whenever Calypso is in town

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From Varanasi we jump on an over night train to Agra, 12 hours later we rattle into the station at 7am. Tired and hungry we walk the few kilometers to our hotel, grab some breakfast, a shower and head straight back out to Fatehpur Sikri, the highly recommended capital of the former Mughal empire. Due to water shortages the city was abandoned soon after emperor Akbar’s death. Now home to a few stray dogs the city is apparently a peaceful ghost town, perfect for a quiet wander. Unfortunately we arrive at the end of Ramadan and find the city not quite as deserted as we’d hoped, in fact most of the population of India appear to be here. We spend a very frustrating few hours being groped, leered at, followed around and having yet more cameras shoved in our faces. We are fast becoming the most exciting tourist attraction in India. With tempers fraying and the girls becoming increasing uneasy about the hoards of teenage boys following us around we decide to call it a day and head home for the night.

Overnight train and the deserted streets of Fatehpur Sikri

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Day two in Agra starts more promisingly at 5am. Assured that this is the best time to visit the Taj before the other tourists turn up we drag our weary bodies out of bed and make our to the entrance. We spend a few hours with the worlds most symmetrical building, marveling at the beauty of it all but mostly pleased to be away from prying eyes. We head for breakfast at a nearby roof top restaurant where we can appreciate the Taj from another angle.

The Taj Mahal

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Roof top view of the Taj

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With just two days to explore everything Agra has to offer we are on the move again, heading this time for the Agra Fort. Once the palace belonging to Shah Jahan this building is not only beautiful but it also comes with a rather thrilling story of love and betrayal. Consumed by grief when his favourite wife dies during child birth Shah Jahan commissioned the Taj Mahal to house her body. He positions the Taj on the river so he can watch over her from his bedroom. Rumour has it that he was also planning a second Taj, made completely from black marble, to house his body when he died. Fearing his father is spending his inheritance the eldest son of Shah Jahan imprisons his father in the fort. Eventually laying him to rest, against his wishes, in the white Taj, next to his late wife. Our fantastic guide Asif makes this fort one of the best and most fascinating sites on the trip so far.

Asif our guide at the Agra Fort

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The wonderful mirrored room at the fort

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We rise at 5am again the next day in order to jump on the bus to the bustling city of Jaipur. After the relative calm of Agra over the past few days the sites and smells of this city so early in the morning are a little over whelming. The smells of India are quite something to behold. Instead of the multitude of spices I was imagining we are greeted with rubbish, sewage, a plethora of farm yard animals (yes even in the city) and the overwhelming stench of human urine. Never wanting to miss out on a days site seeing it is rare to find us tucked up in our hostels but this is the only place we can escape the constant noise and smell. Convinced that all we need is a good nights sleep the Taj 6 as we are now dubbed head to bed early ready for a full days sight seeing in the morning.

Our day starts with a visit to the Amber fort, very similar to the Agra fort we are suitably impressed but find that it misses some of the magic without the tragic love story! From the fort we ask to be taken to the women’s development center, instead we are conned into entering a local craft shop. Dav and Felix each buy a wonderful bed spread so all is not lost. From here we make a short jaunt over to the observatory and manage to cram in the Albert Hall museum before dinner.

The Amber fort

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The observatory and stumpy urban cows in Jaipur

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Next comes one of the highlights of our time in India. We spend the evening watching latest Bollywood smash; Chenni Express. As we enter the theatre we are greeted by the pastel blue and pink walls. The Lonely Planet describes this place as a giant cupcake, not a wholly inaccurate description. We enter the enormous auditorium and find our seats. As the noisy audience find their places the trailers for up coming productions begin to roll. The audience begin to cheer and applaud their favourite actors. The noise levels only increase as the film starts. The film is shown on Hindi but there is enough English thrown in for us all to have a good idea of what’s going on. During the musical number the cheering and hollering reaches a new level. This is certainly not the reserved cinema experience we get back home. We leave the cinema elated.

Inside the giant cupcake

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We leave the following day for Delhi. Yet another 4.30 wake up call. Unfortunately we are arriving in the capital just in time for Indian Independence Day meaning most of the city is shut. We still manage to cram in one of the countries newest and strangest temples along with a fantastic southern Indian feast before heading home to our enormous “triple” beds for the night.

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We wake on Independence Day to find absolutely nothing open. We wander around the city fruitlessly before getting ourselves dressed up for high tea at the five star Imperial Hotel. The most British of past times enjoyed on the day India celebrates kicking us out, at The Imperial no less, could not feel like more of a contradiction. We brush these feelings aside and dig into the wonderful array of teas, cakes, scones and sandwiches laid out before us. All too soon it’s time to leave. We make a mad dash for our train grabbing yet more food along the way in preparation for the 17 hour journey to Kolkata that awaits us.

High tea

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Our time in Kolkata is blissfully short. We meet up with the rest of Odyssey. Although we get the impression that not everyone is keen to see us return but decide not to dwell on the tensions. Lou and I head out to explore St Paul’s Cathedral, modeled on Canterbury Cathedral it makes me feel quite home sick. We also stumble across the Queen Victoria memorial museum, a rather sympathetic look at the British occupation.

St Paul’s Cathedral and the Queen Vic memorial

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Yellow taxis Kolkata

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After three crammed and exhausting weeks of sight seeing we are pleased to find our time in India at an end. Whilst there is no doubt that we have been to some of the most interesting and inspiring sites in the world I have also found the country of India as insulting as it is assaulting. The women of India are as oppressed and subjugated as any we have encountered. Whilst we are here the trials of the Delhi gang rape perpetrators are taking place, a female journalist is raped whilst her colleague is tied up and beaten, and we also find out a girl has been raped behind our hotel. As a young woman I am scared to leave my hotel alone, between us we have been propositioned for sex, followed home, groped in the streets and shouted at. On the other side of the same coin we are also ignored in shops and at restaurants, when accompanied by a man all questions and answers are directed through him, no matter who the addressee is. Anyone who knows me well will, I’m sure, realise just how thrilled I was to need “rescuing” by my male counterparts!

So thank you India for reminding me that although feminism has a long way to go in Western Europe it could also be a
whole lot worse.

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