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.

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