Wow! I thought the streets of the big cities were chaotic but nothing prepared me for the onslaught of pandemonium which awaited me on the streets of Varanasi, where I spent a day taking time out from work. Bicycles, tricycles, tuk-tuks, mopeds, buses, handcarts, cars, humans, dogs, goats, touts, hawkers and, of course, the holy cow all battle for every available square inch. It took me a good half an hour to walk the few hundred metres or so to get to my hotel which was on the banks of the River Ganges overlooking the famous Varanasi riverside steps known as ghats. And when I finally managed to leave the streets and wandered through the labyrinthine network of alleyways I was confronted by a new and rather unpleasant obstacle of post-rain slushiness underfoot mixed with wall-to-wall cow dung; some not so fresh but some very much fresh! Anyway, it was all a great experience and seeing the ritual of burning human corpses at night-time at the Manikarnika ghat was a real traveller’s moment, and the smoke and flames combining with the foreboding temple backdrop making it feel like I was on the movie set of Mordor from the Lord of the Rings movie.
After Varanasi I stopped off in Delhi, the capital city of India, to do a bit of sightseeing as well as collecting data. I was last in the city only in October so nothing has really changed with regards to the shopping environment. Delhi seems to have a much better choice of goods for the expat, which is not too surprising, and there are several exclusive suburbs of the city where you don’t have to wander far to find your expensive soy sauce or the latest innovation from Apple. I was only in Delhi for a day but am heading back there later in the week to finish off my research before heading back home to London.
One aspect of life I came across in Delhi, as well as all of the cities I’ve visited so far, is the prevalence of security. At every shopping mall you have to empty your metal items and walk through a detector like they have at airports and then you are frisked before being allowed in. The situation is the same at hotels and entrances to train stations and metro stations as well as at the airports. It can be a bane at times but it’s good to see that they place so much importance on the issue of security. All of the top end neighbourhoods I have seen on this trip where the expat houses and apartments are have been heavily guarded with checkpoints and armed guards, which helps to ease the mind and I’m sure makes living here a little easier knowing that some form of protection is in place to help combat the purveyors of anarchy who are hiding out there. Only last Monday an Israeli diplomatic envoy was attacked not far from Khan Market in Delhi which is a popular place for expats to stock up on their imported Oreo cookies and Heinz soup and the like. All of the roads and passages leading to the market are heavily barricaded with the omnipresent yellow police blockades and you don’t want to be messing with the police who are mostly armed with guns.
After Delhi I took a train heading south to the city of Agra, home of the famed mausoleum, the Taj Mahal. I’ve been fortunate enough to see many of the world’s ‘great places to see before you die’ and the Taj is rightfully high up on the list, although the hordes of fellow tourists and day-tripping locals meant it wasn’t exactly a serene experience like the one Princess Diana had in 1992. Another aspect which lessened the enjoyment were the incessant unscrupulous touts and rickshaw drivers. I mentioned in a previous post how the Indian people generally had a gentle nature but those in the popular tourist areas are a different animal altogether. The constant tooting can also start to wear you down after a while and after a day spent walking outside it’s usually a great relief to be getting back to my hotel room to clean off the layer of dirt which seems to form an extra skin out on the streets.
The constant stench also becomes overwhelming at times. In most countries walls are used as supporting structures of a building and the like but here it seems that they were actually constructed as men’s urinals. The stink is almost ever-present and the open drains and piles of litter mean that your olfactory organs take a bit of a bashing. It sound like I’ve almost had enough of the place! Well, not quite, but the initial buzz of the splendid chaos has waned a little and I’m looking forward to getting back to those air-conditioned shopping malls for a few days respite!
From Agra I took another train to Jaipur where I arrived this morning and went on a whistle-stop tour of the sights, as it’s my first time in the city. Tomorrow I’ll be back on the data collection trail in earnest, starting with the new Triton Mall, so if it sounds like I’ve just been holidaying for several days then you can look forward to my next post which will hopefully be a tad more relevant to why I’m here!