Agra-essive India: 10.09.2013

What a full on day we’ve had here in Agra; I can safely say that after what we experienced – rather, endured – today, I am never coming back here in my lifetime. The Taj Mahal really will be a once-in-a-lifetime for me.

Our day started wonderfully, we took a tuk tuk to the station (after one ridiculous driver tried to charge us 300 rupees for a 15 rupee ride!) and boarded the one train I have been waiting enthusiastically to take in India! The Shatabdi Express! – once described to me as “luxurious, by India standards.”  It was pretty awesome; we had comfortable upholstered seats, leg rests and the train was clean and spacious. We had room to store our bags above us, a tray table, and staff who served us with a news paper, water, tea, breakfast, candy, buiscuits and chai. Very luxurious, I’ll say. I felt like I was on India’s version of the Japanese Shinkansen, and I was almost a little disappointed that the train ride was to be only three and a half hours – it was so lovely!

On the train, I sat admiring my surroundings and wondering if I’d made the right decision to book us flights to Japan… then I heard a little voice say “Ah-gu-ra?” I turned around instantly, recognising that cute accent. A little Japanese man sat down in the seat behind us, and I had to smile. By the time we exited the train, we had an offer from the Japanese man to show us around Osaka when we arrived, and I was feeling 100% sure we’d made the right decision.Thank you, to who ever sent me that little sign of confirmation.

Stepping into Agra Fort train station, we dumped our bags in the cloak room and were immediately preyed upon by a rickshaw driver. We were cautious – evidently not cautious enough – and tried to shake him, however, he oddly seemed like maybe, just maybe he was being a little less schemey than the rest of them… We took him up on his offer for a days sight seeing, and hopped into the rickshaw where his son was very helpful in telling us what scams to look out for in Agra. He forgot to mention the one him and his dad were running.

We arrived near the South Entrance to the Taj, and proceeded to walk through a lane way packed with shops and touters, all begging and pleading and trying their hardest to hassle us into their shops. I kept my backpack on my front, with my arms hugging it tightly.

We lined up for our tickets, which cost us 750 rupees each (just a little more than the 20 rupees that the locals pay for their entrance tickets) but absolutely worth it.
We were then waved through to the front of the security line, passing through and being patted down by officers before they went through every section of my bag, wallet and possessions. They accepted my bulging pack, but declined my lap top, a tiny torch and a deck of UNO cards entrance into the Taj, so it was back to the cloak room to store my goods. I’m not sure what was so dangerous about my UNO cards, but it was all made clear to me when they said gruffly “Government Policy.”

Stepping into the Taj was exciting! It was crowded with people, but it didn’t matter, we were here and it was incredible! The entrance gate was magnificent in its own right, and walking through gave us a glimpse of what was to come, with the Taj coming more and more into view with every step towards it. I had butterflies!

We stepped through the entrance gate to see the Taj in full view, and it was really exciting! People were everywhere, lots of domestic tourists taking hilarious photos of themselves in strange poses. It was a big competition to get a photograph without several men posing with borrowed sun glasses and arms folded, but we succeeded eventually; I guess everyone wanted a piece of the Taj.

We spent a good hour or so wandering about the grounds, around the Taj and inside it, where we were speechless. It was beautiful, spectacular and just so massive! How amazing it was to be here…
I was left speechless again when I watched a man very obviously and intentionally grab a female tourist’s bottom. Not good.

It was very special to be there, but eventually we left and wandered back through the lane of touters, where I had to yell at a small child to leave me alone, after he followed me for way too long trying to drag me into his 1-rupee per-post-card shop, grabbed my arm and harassed me aggressively almost to breaking point. The Taj Mahal was indeed beautiful, but stepping back out was simply walking into a feeding frenzy.

Back in our tuk tuk, the drivers took us to see the Agra Fort, which we decided not to enter and instead, marveled at from the outside. Seeing as 75% of the fort is inaccessible to tourists and is used by the military, the Red Fort was pretty impressive from the outside without the hefty foreigner entrance fee.

Tuk tuk driver then took us to a chai shop where he assumed we would pay for his drinks, and spent a lengthy amount of time explaining to us in detail, with lots of “true stories” to back up whatever he said, that apparently every guest house with a restaurant in Agra has a network with tuk tuk drivers, doctors and the local hospital, and intentionally poisons tourists in order to get commission from each of their networks, and earn more money from sick tourists who are forced to pay use a tuk tuk to go to the doctors, then to the hospital, then pay to stay extra nights in their guest house recovering… Whilst we’re not sure how true this is, he was very persistent about just one restaurant in Agra being safe to eat at, and ensured us it was in our guide book (it was not). Driving past the place to “just show us,” I was pretty sure that if any restaurant in Agra was actually out to make tourists sick, it was that one, and we gladly declined his ‘generous’ offer.

After originally promising not to, and then attempting to lure us to a Government shop , which I flatly and continually refused, tuk tuk driver must’ve realised we were in no mood to “shop” just so he could get commission. I think he got a bit shitty, as he then declined my request to take us to an orphanage I wanted to pay a visit to, to donate some stationary and colouring books for the little children. He had originally agreed to take us there, but suddenly 5km was “too far,” and just like that, our “seven hour tour of Agra” with the tuk tuk driver was over – just two hours later… Furthermore, when I asked for my 100 rupees change, he refused and basically shoved us out of his tuk tuk, telling me how wonderful his shit service had been and that he deserved that extra 100 on top of the already ridiculous fee, simply for doing not a whole lot.

That bitter taste in my mouth was becoming unbearable, and it was only 1pm. We still had 10 hours to spend in Agra, in the heat, with the thousands of sharks (touters), before our train to Lucknow arrived.

We decided to walk through the train station to cross over to the local bazaar, hoping it would entertain us for a while. Fending off monkeys with my backpack, we crossed over and through a filthy area where dozens of men were urinating and shitting on piles of filth. The bazaar was jam packed and traffic was heavy, congested and dangerous. Wandering about was difficult, and it wasn’t long before we made the attempt to walk back to the near- by fort area, passing cows, dodging rubbish, poo and touters and dogs mating in the street.

By the time we walked to the top of the road, we were hot, stressed and sick of having to duck and weave and dodge hectic traffic and constant touting. We attempted to hail a rickshaw, but no one wanted to use their meter (of course not), let alone give us a price anywhere even near reasonable. 300 rupees for a 1km distance was out of the question. Declining one driver who refused to use the meter, he quickly changed his tune and immediately tried to repair two very obviously severed wires. Whilst doing so, we were suddenly surrounded by at least 20 men who all wanted to know what was happening, and why we hadn’t chosen their rickshaw. One man was particularly aggressive, and demanded we get into his tuk tuk for 100 rupees. Declining him politely, he quickly dropped to 80 telling us that this was the local price. Then again dropping to 70, all whilst I was politely saying no thanks, no that’s too much, that’s not a fair price, no, no, no, please – no, listen – no!…NO!”  He continued to yell “70! Okay! Get in! 70!”, and we were stuck in a circle of men who seemed to be really enjoying the show whilst I tried to escape. I thought it had ended with me screaming at them and pushing through the crowd… but then the aggressive man got into his tuk tuk, drove after us and screamed at us to get in. It officially ended with Jacob screaming – and I mean, screaming (never had I heard him scream before!) at the driver in Hindi to leave us alone. It was an awful experience and left me almost in tears from sheer exhaustion; I was sick of this bull shit and we’d both had enough of the horrible treatment we were receiving from everyone we came into contact with. We walked away in silence, feeling rotten and wanting to get out of this city as quickly as possible, yet knowing we still had hours to go.

Eventually, we found a tuk tuk driver who finally agreed to a price that was only a reasonablye rip-off, rather than just simply ridiculous, but before we could get in to his vehicle, we witnessed a hit and run accident; a tuk tuk on the wrong side of the road smashed into a young boy on a bike and immediately sped off at a ridiculous speed, leaving locals chasing after the driver and running to the boy’s aid. He was fine, but after seeing that and the distress written all over that poor boys face, I was now at almost breaking point.

Our driver took us to a café – but not the one we’d requested; one much closer and more convenient for him. We argued that we did not want to go to this cafe, and a passing cycle rickshaw driver told him where to take us, but not before offering us some “very good weed,” which we declined angrily. I was expecting to have to fight with our driver to get our agreed price, after he drove for several minutes more to take us to the correct café, but it came as a sheer relief when he accepted what we had agreeed upon.

Entering Café Coffee Day – the Indian version of Gloria Jeans or Hudson’s Coffee – we simply needed respite. It was just 4pm, and we still had 7 and a half hours until our train arrived. We dragged our packs up the steps, dumped them by an empty table, slumped into our seats, and did not move from there for another seven hours. Yep. That’s right, we, along with many other tourists, bunkered down and hid from Agra for seven whole hours until our night train arrived.

Whilst whittling away the hours, we spoke with a girl who’d just come from Lucknow – our next destination. Jake and I had heard great things about Lucknow, and were looking forward to a less touristy area with great food! However, had left her with memories that were obviously less than perfect; she’d been quite distressed by her experience there, and she really put fear into me about our next destination… after today’s events, I didn’t feel I could handle anything else distressing… This meant our last few hours in Agra were spent with me worrying about what was to come, and wishing we could just go to Delhi and fly away.

Still cautious about the possibility of food poising, we hadn’t eaten all day, besides our bits of bread, biscuits and tea on the Indian Shinkansen at 7am. Outside the café, still within the distance of our safety net, was a vegetarian street stall cooking up great food and packed with locals. Food we could trust; Jake had some sort of Indian street food, and I ate a piece of naan. That would do.

Around 11pm, we braved the streets and I bartered a tuk tuk driver down from 200 to 50, my first (little) win in Agra. He took us down  narrow bumpy streets and dropped us at the station, just as another tourist got out; another Japanese boy.

On the platform, surrounded by thousands of staring eyes, we and the Japanese boy found another pair of tourists and congregated near them. Then another few tourists found us, and soon we were one big group on a platform surrounded by families on blankets eating and drinking and staring and sleeping and pooing over the rail tracks.

We had sleeper class tickets to Lucknow; we’d taken a few sleeper class trains when we first arrived in India, but had switched to taking  3AC class berths after discovering they were a little safer and nicer, and not packed with people on waiting lists for a seat. This train was really dirty,  the worst we’d come across, and I missed the luxury of having a sheet to protect me from the grime and several sets of staring eyes. I lay awake for ages thinking about India and Japan, whilst attempting to block out the strange noises coming from the train.

I really hoped Lucknow would be as great as we’d originally hoped.

Confirmed India: 7 – 9.09.2013

Arriving into Jaipur, we were exhausted from a nights broken sleep, thanks to one very loud crying baby. We had pre-booked accommodation (more so, Vijay had contacted his friend who owned a more luxurious hotel and basically guilted him into offering us a room there at a very discounted price), and I’d spoken with the manager the night before to organise pick-up for this morning, but no one bothered to turn up. As a result, we were hounded by auto drivers wanting a sale and spent more than an hour driving around from guest house to guest house with a tuk tuk driver who constantly spun bull-shit about how he was so honest and fair and how we could trust him, but said nothing and made a very guilty face when I pulled him up on a very clear lie.

Welcome to Jaipur.

Eventually, after visiting guest house after guest house and turning down ridiculous priced rooms with either very rude owners or dirty sheets, and getting tired of tuk tuk mans attempts to make us book a tour of Jaipur with him, we finally demanded to be taken to the hotel we’d originally booked.

In our room, we spent some time abusing the free wi-fi, like all good travelers would, before heading out around 9:30am to see what Jaipur had to offer. We caught a cycle-rickshaw into town, which was a nice and different experience; traffic is certainly hectic in this big, big city.

We headed straight for the Lassiwala; a hole-in-the-wall famous for it’s fresh lassis that are served in large ceramic cups. Delicious.

After breakfast, most of the shops along the main road were still shut, so we walked to the Raj Mandir cinema – a famous attraction because of its beauty and grand details – and booked ourselves a ticket each for a latest release Bollywood movie that opened just yesterday. We adore the Indian Bollywood movies, and it was a must to experience Bollywood at this very grand place.

With a few hours to enjoy before our movie started, we walked to Old City – also known as the Pink City (even though the buildings are more of an orangey-red colour). We walked through the bazaars; past textile shops, shoes, jewelery and bits and pieces galore; touters trying to sell us things constantly, frequently purposely blocking our path and attempting to physically push me into their store; it got to the point where I had to force them out of my way. Regardless, I really enjoyed the short time we spent there, and we planned to go back and take more time.

In the cinema waiting are, we were in awe of the buildings interior and beautiful detailing. It was stunning! Entering the actual cinema, we were blown away by how massive it was; it must’ve seated more than a thousand people!
Once the lights dimmed and the curtain lifted, the trailers began and, almost instantly, the crowd went WILD – screaming, laughing, whistling, cheering, shouting. This happened continuously throughout the movie; when the tough guy performed a stunt, when the bad guy got caught, when the beautiful girl entered the room, a first kiss… it was hilarious! We loved the experience as much as the movie, and the dancing and singing  scenes were pretty awesome! Everyone seemed to be in the cinema; from the very young (babies and toddlers who loved to cry) to the elderly, and plenty of people in between; many who seemed to be taking phone call after phone call or holding important conversations during the movie.

On exiting, having stuffed our bodies with too much pop corn and not having slept much during the overnight train ride, we were exhausted. It was late afternoon, and we decided to head back to the room for a rest, but were intercepted by a man selling hand-made Jaipur puppets. He was eager to sell one, as he hadn’t made a sale today and needed some good luck, apparently. He was pushy, trying to get us to buy these terrifying puppets that we did not want nor need, dropping his price almost instantly from 300 rupees for one, to 100 rupees for two. After continuously saying no, he dropped his price again to 80 rupees and performed briefly with the puppets, whilst we continued to say no and tried to get away. He dropped his price again to 50 rupees for the two (less than a dollar) and folded them up and shoved them into my hands; I was ready to simply give him some money to leave us alone. After more pleading from him to buy, and more nos from me and Jacob, he finally gave up on me and asked Jacob one more time – to which he was met with another no. With that, puppet man gave a growl, screwed up his face in anger and flicked his hand at us with such ferocity and aggression, before furiously walking away. It was an oddly distressing experience.

We took solace in our hotel room, and made plans to go to a popular Indian grill/kebab restaurant this evening, but tuk tuk drivers refused to take us there and back for less than 800 rupees (almost half our daily budget!) We decided instead to go into town and eat at a kebab restaurant there, but once there, we found prices were way out of our backpacker’s budget, and we had to leave. This happened again, and again, and we were losing all interest in eating. There were a few street kebab places, but I refused to let Jacob eat there for fear of death by Delhi Belly.

Instead, we spent ages walking along the main road, avoiding the drunk men and beggars who sat, screaming very aggressively  at us. Traffic was hectic, and the dusty, dark footpaths made me feel very unsafe. It became a really stressful experience, and by the time we got a tuk tuk to the hotel (with a driver who surprisingly used the meter, and then refused to give us change when he saw where we were staying) it suddenly, after more than a month here in India, all became a bit too overwhelming…

I was genuinely starting to wonder if I wanted to stay here another two months, and we spent our evening chatting about possible options, and hoping tomorrow would be a different story.

Waking late and strolling into town, we declined every tuk tuk driver who refused to use the meter; we knew now after using a metered tuk tuk yesterday, that they absolutely do work and do get used here in Jaipur, and we are sick of being ripped off. We chose to walk, which led us to a little street food stall selling delicious Aloo Tikkia; the first meal I’ve had in a while that didn’t make me feel unwell the moment I ate it. It was there we met Firoj; a tuk tuk driver with a big smile who “would love to take us to Amer Fort”… We got him to take us to Anokhi instead; a beautiful textile and gift shop which, more importantly, had a café selling organic salads, coffee, fair trade teas and amazing carrot cake.

Jake and I spent a good two hours in Anokhi café, drinking coffee and devouring salad whilst we talked about how we were feeling regarding our travels in India.  I don’t know exactly what the plans are, or if any plans are made at all yet, but the idea of cutting our India travels short and heading to Japan for a couple of weeks is certainly being entertained.

With our stomachs full of coffee and salad, we moved away from Anokhi to our waiting tuk tuk driver, who was ready to show us some of Jaipur’s beauty.

We visited an area of Maharaja tombs which were stunningly beautiful, before moving on to Amer Fort, some 13 odd kilometers away. This was the first fort we actually went right into, rather than staring at it from a distance (with the exception of Jodhpur, where we almost went in). The papping wasn’t too extreme here, to my surprise, and together we were able to enjoy the climb up to the fort. Inside, a film shoot was taking place and lights and cameras were everywhere; every one seemed to want to get in on the action and the crowds around the film sets were huge. Lots of props and colourful cloths filled the massive open area, and it was all a bit exciting, and very, very beautiful.

Amer Fort was magnificent, that’s for sure, and those who lived here once upon a time would’ve had a pretty sweet life. We spent a while here, and it was incredibly beautiful, but one thing will stand out in my memory of our visit here.
This fort had a pool room. Yes, a pool (Billiard) room. Thoughts of “This is goin’ straight to the pool room” were echoing in our heads (any Aussie should know what I’m referring to), and made us smile.

Climbing stairs that lead to the unknown, we explored the hallways and lanes of the fort as though it was a maze. We were stopped at one point by an Indian man who was delighted two whities had found their way to him, and forced both his hesitant wife and us to pose for “just one photo” (which is never, and was not just one!) with him.

On exiting the fort, we were met again by our driver who drove us all the way back to Jaipur’s Old Pink City, where we stopped for chai before heading back to the same Aloo Tikkia street food stall we started at this morning. We had another 40 rupee dinner there, then stopped at the near by convenience store for some bottles of water before heading back to the hotel for the evening…

Late at night, when Jake opened one of the bottles of water we purchased, a foul smell filled the air. On closer inspection, the water was a murky colour and filled with inconsistant specks of stuff, which had not been visible when the water had come straight from the fridge covered in condenstaion. We’d checked the seal at the time of purchase, which had been perfect, but hadn’t ever thought to check the bottom of the bottle, which in this case, had been punctured, re-filled with toxic water, then sealed with a dollop of glue. We’d heard of this type of thing happening, and had been cautious to always check seals the whole time we’d been here in India, but seeing this in our own hands put a knot in my stomach. It made me angry that there could be such a sheer disregard for the health of others, and that we’d come very close to getting very sick.

We hoped our last day in Jaipur tomorrow would be better; we had no set plans, but another trip to Anokhi for salads, coffee and carrot cake was definitely on the cards.

 …

We woke early on our last day in Jaipur and spent a few hours discussing and researching flights, countries, budget options and places to visit in Asia that could be possible options if we did actually decided to leave India earlier than planned.

Eventually deciding we needed to leave the hotel at some point, we walked down around 10am to the same Aloo Tikkia place for breakfast again, where Jake ate dodgy looking panni puri and my food was luke-warm. Hmmm… we were definitely getting a coke to kill any nasty lurking bacteria.

We arranged a tuk tuk driver to take us to Anokhi, but I guess he got impatient after a few minutes and drove off. Instead, we flagged down another tuk tuk driver who agreed to take us to Anokhi, and even better, agreed to use his meter that actually, we discovered, didn’t work. When we gave him 50 rupees for the short drive (way more than it should’ve cost), he demanded more and we got out of the tuk tuk and simply walked away whilst he yelled at us for more money. Sigh… coffee will cure this deflated feeling, surely?

More coffee, more carrot cake and a brie, tomato and basil baguette was enjoyed whilst we talked more and more about what the next couple of months of travel would mean for us.

Buzzing from caffeine, we headed to Old City – Pink City – to explore a little more of the bazaar area. It was hot, crowded and noisy; we discovered it is Ganesh’s birthday today – Happy Birthday Ganesh! – which meant lots of people were busy preparing for celebrations and the sights and sounds were really interesting! We explored for a while, but by mid afternoon we were eager to look into our travel options, make some sort of decision about what we were going to do (and possibly where else we were going to go) and also start planning for Nepal – if we are leaving India early, Nepal will be coming up very soon.

Well after midnight and just hours before we need to wake up to take the train from Jaipur to Agra, we booked our flights. We are going to Japan. We are leaving India early, and welcoming a new country into our Asian Adventure.

After seeing our flights confirmed on the screen, I felt oddly relieved to know that we would be leaving India soon, and at the same time a bit ‘shocked’ by the idea that our time here was now only going to be a few days more. Our route would no longer include the very North of India; instead, we would travel from Jaipur – Agra – Lucknow as planned, then from Lucknow to Varanasi, then either fly from Varanasi to Nepal, or to Delhi by train, then fly from there….

For now, tomorrow we’re off to Agra at 7am: the Taj Mahal is in our sights! To make things even more exciting, we are traveling there on the Shatabdi Express – apparently a very nice Indian train indeed…

Let’s see what Agra has in store for us.

Rat India: 5 – 6.09.2013

The train ride from Jaisalmer to Bikaner was tiring; overwhelmingly loud noises, the incredible speed of the train and the fact that I frequently had to hold onto the rails to stop myself falling off the top bunk had me wide-awake for most of the journey, fretting that our train was going to de-rail. Maybe a tad over dramatic – who’s to say?

We had planned to Couch Surf here in Bikaner,  however, when we got off the train, some random guy by the name of Ali was there waiting for us; turns out his friend from the hotel we stayed at in Jaisalmer had made a call to him to say we were coming, and Ali was well prepared at 6am to take us to his friend’s hotel he was sure we’d prefer. Oh, India.
It’s not like we were difficult to spot on the Bikaner train platform either; two whities amongst a crowd of thousands of Indians: not one other tourist stepped off the train…

Our couch surfing plans fell through, and we headed instead to a guest house I’d read great things about: Vijay Guest House (around 4km out of town). Vijay, the man himself, wearing a full set of white Kurta Pyjamas and bright orange crocks, with a curly Rajisthani mustache and a big smile welcomed us.
He was generous and kind, and knew how to treat tourists. What a relief. He offered to take us into town with him around 11am, when he was going in to the market area. We took him up on his offer, and traveled by car to the old town area.

Bikaner is a desert city – right in the middle of the Thar Desert – but its jam packed with people; it’s not such a big place, but it’s damn busy and has a population of around 600,000. Once you take into account the number of cows, camels and dogs walking the streets, that number probably doubles or triples.
It is hot here; so hot that the heat exhausted us quickly. We found solace in a very local-only sweet shop, Chotu Motu Joshi Hotel, and filled our empty stomachs with delicious lassis, puris with potato and the apparently “must have here because it’s the best in town” rasgulla – another Indian sweet we couldn’t stomach.

We had an hour and a half to enjoy before meeting Vijay, but the heat, the constant hard staring from people, the photo photo going on and the hectic traffic made us feel the need to retreat. It felt as if this place had never seen a tourist before; we were something everyone needed to get a very good, long look at: something that is really starting to exhaust me.

Back at Vijay’s, we slept the afternoon away, emerging eventually to get chai from the vendor outside the guest house. The many men drinking there were fascinated by us, and every time we went there we had a crowd of people wanting to talk to us, stare at us, call their friends over to see us, shake our hands… Funny.

We spent our one night in Bikaner in our safety bubble – choosing to eat dinner at our guest house and watch the night fall over the town whilst I strummed my ukulele and looked back on our travels in India to-date.

I’m beginning to have mixed feelings towards India, and I’m starting to find traveling here more of a challenge each day. There are so many factors that make each day in India incredible, interesting and lively, yet at the same time unbelievably challenging, frustrating and distressing. I have found myself becoming less patient with those who try to take advantage of us, try to rip us off, those who stare and photograph us, those who try to cheat us. At the beginning of this trip I was able to accept it, laugh it off and say – Oh well, I guess we have to expect that here! – but now, I don’t feel like I have to accept it. I’m growing a bit tired of having to argue with people to treat us fairly, and argue with people to leave us alone. It’s exhausting to feel so skeptical and not be able to trust people around us. It can be stressful worrying about our safety every time we get into a tuk tuk, walk the streets, meet someone new, travel by train overnight, eat anything….
It’s upsetting to feel that I can’t trust those around me; even more so those who may be genuinely nice (it can be very hard to differentiate between genuine and not-so-genuine offers of “may I help you?”). I find myself having to talk to people aggressively, or sternly, simply because I feel here it is necessary at times. I don’t go around yelling at everyone, of course, but I’m starting to find it difficult not to get angry when people feel they can harass us to almost-breaking point, and take advantage of us simply because we are white, and therefore, must be rich and happy to hand over our hard earned money.

I still love India, that’s for sure – it’s a country I want to come back to, explore more of, become captivated by over and over. We were like children in a candy store when we arrived here; the chaos and traffic and people and sounds, light, colours all captivated our attention. Now, trying to constantly dodge shit, pot holes, deadly traffic, cheating touters and upturned or missing pavement isn’t so wonderful. Perhaps what I am trying to say is simply, whilst this country is truly incredible, and never ceases to amaze me, I’m starting to get a bit tired…

I think it’s quite common for people traveling in India to feel this way; I hear and read a lot about this whole “loving India – hating India stage” process that people seem to go through; maybe I’ve reached a new “stage?”

On our second morning in Bikaner, we walked from Vijay’s guest house to the bus stop, which was about a 50 minute walk down the road. Tuk tuks offered us many ridiculously priced rides which we declined on pure principal; preferring to walk in the extreme heat on the road and dust (no footpaths), rather than be ripped off.

We took a bus (after Rock, Paper, Scissoring whether or not we actually wanted to make the trip) out to Deshnoke, a town about a 40 minute bus ride away through dusty, sleepy desert towns. Apparently when people come to Bikaner, it is rare that they don’t make a trip out here, simply to visit one place: Karni Mata Temple: The Rat Temple. I guess Rock, Paper, Scissor was right – we had to visit.

The idea of a temple full of thousands of rats, for me, does not bring about the most pleaseant thoughts. However, it does intrigue me…just a little.
Karni Mata is worshiped as the incarnation of the goddess Durga; she was a Hindu woman who lived a very elegant and revered life, and is known for her temple in Deshnoke, for which she laid the foundation stone.
Karni Mata temple is not like any other temple we’ve visited, for the fact that it is home to around 20 thousand-odd (very sick looking) rats, which are considered to be sacred animals and highly respected by the thousands of pilgrims (and curious tourists like ourselves) who visit this temple daily.
The story behind this temple goes something like this: Karni Mata’s son, Laxman, died, so she asked Yama – the god of death – to bring him back to life. Refusing to do so, Yama instead allowed Laxman and all of Karni Mata’s male children (she must’ve had a lot of them…) to be reincarnated as rats.
The rats here are fed daily by the thousands of worshiping visitors, who bring with them bowls upon bowls of India sweets and milk for the rats to enjoy.

On arrival, we got off the bus to be greeted with touters, tuk tuk drivers, beggars, dust and dirt and a LOT of staring. Covering my head with my scarf barely made a difference.
We walked over to the area where we had to deposit – very unwillingly – our shoes, and demanded some sort of material slipper; there’s no way I was walking bare footed through a temple where thousands of rats live, eat, poo and die.

Looking like absolutely ridiculous tourists, with material bags covering our feet, a thousand people stared as we lined up to enter the temple. Staring back at the thousands of bare feet around me, I felt sick already by the sheer thought of what we – and they – were about to stand on. I’d love to see the results of a bacteria swab of the temple floor; or maybe, I wouldn’t…

On entering the temple, we saw a rat.

Then two…
Then a thousand. Oh, fuck, get me out of here now.

Apparently it’s good luck if you see a white (albino) rat, or if a rat runs directly over your foot. Even more so, it’s considered to be a prestigious honour to eat food nibbled by the rats themselves. Oh, I’m about to be sick.
I was more concerned about what diseases I may contract during my five minutes inside the temple than I was spotting a white rat, and someone help me if one even so much as came near my foot!

Whilst bare footed pilgrims fed the diseased looking rats bowls of sugar and Indian sweets, I tried to stand as still as possible for fear of stepping on any more grainy rat poo. I watched as two women scraped the grey-black dusty, oily rat-germ infested grime from the floor and touched it to their foreheads, leaving a greasy grey mark. I almost vomited, but then stopped myself for fear of attracting rats.

We wandered around the temple, avoiding the rat poo and many cameras shoved in our faces, to see a group of pilgrims touching their hand to every rat-waste-covered step as they ascended to another rat-infested area. So many rituals seemed to be taking place, none of which we could comprehend, and we were shocked by all of what we saw, to say the least.
The fascination and shock that India offers us never seems to end.

After the eight hundredth person had photographed us – instead of the temple they had come to visit – and a rat came remotely close to me, it was time to leave. We escaped into the sun light, unscathed and without an albino rat sighting. No eternal good luck for us, I guess.

What an experience.

At the shoe stand, it was almost impossible to get our shoes back, let alone put them onto our feet, which were now thankfully free of the bacteria-sodden slippers. A massive crowd had forgotten they were meant to be visiting the rats, and instead was more fascinated with these two terrified whities. The crowd formed around us while the shoe guy demanded we pay him, right underneath the sign that said “free service.” Whilst I argued that no, actually, this is a free service and just because we are white-skinned doesn’t mean you can rip us off  (a rant I am getting very well versed in, and a little bit sick of having to repeat), a screaming baby was shoved into Jacob’s arms. I tried to escape from the pappping, but it was no use; still trying to put my shoes onto my feet, a plump woman grabbed my arm with such a grip she left a bruise. I was forced into the photo with Jake, standing a few steps up from everyone else, feeling like some sort of mistaken celebrity on a podium. The huge crowd had doubled – all with cameras out – as Jake and I made ugly faces and the baby cried some more. It was a very weird experience, to add to what we’d already just seen, and I continue to wonder how many hideous photographs are now floating around Indian Facebook of these two Aussie tourists.

Escaping the crowds, we emptied an entire bottle of hand sanitizer onto our hands and ran to the nearest Bikaner-bound bus. We were safe.

Back in Bikaner, we headed for Chotu Motu Joshi again; we needed a lassi. There was a lot we wanted to see today, the Fort, Old Town, the Havelis… but we ended up simply walking to The Garden Café where we happened to meet Ali, the same guy from yesterday morning who met us at the station. Strangely enough, he knew we did not stay with the couch surfer, and furthermore, he knew where we WERE staying… he proudly told us that he knew exactly how many tourists had and were arriving in Bikaner today, where they were arriving from, where the tourists were staying, and conversely, how many tourists were leaving Bikaner today on the buses and trains. He explained he “has connections, and anyone in India that does business does too.” This makes me incredibly uncomfortable about traveling here , as though we are being constantly watched, followed, observed by those in the tourism industry, and all in a very sinister sort of way. It’s something I’ve started to suspect recently, after noticing sometimes people just seem know things about us, when really it seems impossible… but, Ali confirmed it, explaining the people at the station see the tourists leaving one destination/arriving at the next and make a phone call, then someone makes another phone call, and then another phone call, and then another… “That’s how we do business,” he said.

Chatting with Ali was an experience; he was able to answer our “taboo” questions about India, but I never felt quite sure what his motives were. It’s funny; he was proud to say that if we want to travel well here, we should lie about everything; who we are, what are names are, where we are from, what are jobs are, where we live, how many times we’ve been in India, where we are staying… basically, he explained “anytime someone talks to you, they want to know where you from, how long you be in India, where you come from, where you stay… simply so they can calculate how much money they can get out of you; how badly they can rip you off.” I felt really saddened by this, and my deflated feeling about traveling here was starting to come back.
Of course, I know this is absolutely not true of all Indian people – we have met some incredible people here – but it’s a shame that he was able to confidently – and proudly! – make such a generalized statement like this.

He showed us his shop – of course – but he was adamant he did not want to sell us anything. He then gave us a hand-made bag as a gift, but then explained that every one in town will know where this bag came from – his shop – and made us promise to tell every touter in the street who asked us the price, that we bought it for 600 rupees… Not sure what his intentions were, but when someone did later ask us, we didn’t tell them anything.

We left Ali eventually, feeling still unsure about what our meeting with him had been like; we just never were really able to trust him, even when he was being seemingly generous – or, is it that we just can’t seem to trust anyone here anymore?

We wandered about the old town, taking photographs and dodging cows and touters, looking at the beautiful havelis and old buildings, the market stalls and food being cooked. People all seemed to want a photograph of them taken; funny, how opposite it is for me.
Passing by a women’s clothing shop, I wandered in and ended up buying myself some Indian-style clothing; I’ve been told several times by locals and tourists alike, that wearing Indian clothing will take a little bit of the ‘edge’ off of the unwanted attention I draw in from way too many Indian men. Whilst some times I feel this attention is purely innocent and sheer interest, more often than not I am starting to feel very uncomfortable from the staring.

After my little shopping spree, we ended up walking all the way to the Bikaner Fort, where at night it was lit up and looked quite impressive. We never made it inside, but it was pretty impressive from a distance regardless.

From the fort, we flagged down a tuk tuk who drove us back to Vijay’s Guest house with his neon lights flashing and Hindi music BLEARING. I could barely hear when we stepped out, so naturally, I needed a chai from our favourite chai joint, complete with all the local men who loved to stare and were oddly desperate to know how much a chai would cost in Australia.

Back at the guest house, we were treated to a home cooked meal again before collecting our bags and waiting for our tuk tuk to the train station. Of course, minutes before we needed to be at the station, Jacob had a small accident; smashing a glass bottle accidentally and sending glass flying into his leg. Finally, our enormous medical kit came in handy! A smothering of betadine, some steri-strips and a piece of opsite and we were good to go, Jake a little worse for wear…

We boarded our overnight train – our 3AC sleeper class bunks were both top berths again – and lay under the thick covers whilst the air conditioning pumped full blast.
Bikaner had been an interesting destination, and I wondered what Jaipur would have in store for us.