Traveling first AC on Indian railways is pure luxury

P1977

Huge, comfy beds – shared cabin with a non-snorer + get fed til’ you drop. All it lacked was coffee.

Nanos, communal tension and kites

I’ve always been quite fond of kites. I remember that I used to think it was a pity that there seldom was enough wind where I grew up to really support any intensive amount of kite-flying. That’s a problem that Ahmedabad in Gujarat definitely didn’t have. In fact, Ahmedabad (as many places in north India) has a holiday (as in day off work) completely dedicated to kite-flying. I decided that this couldn’t be missed.

Arriving with the night train from Delhi, I was met by a big sign saying that this was the home of the Tata Nano – you know that car of cheapo-fame that the Tata group set out to produce a couple of years back. The factory was originally to be constructed in Singur in West Bengal, however after farmer’s started protesting due to what amounted to a forced landgrab by the West Bengal state government, the Tata’s decided to move the factory here to Gujarat. Farmers and workers in Singur, having been displaced, had their land & livelihood taken away for a pittance, as well as been ditched on promised jobs never created, are still facing the fall-out of these incidents.

The Tata factory is not the only industry to open in Gujarat, indeed, it’s one of the richer states in India, and it’s something that can certainly be felt in Ahmedabad. Outside of the older areas of the city stretches great boulevards with restaurants, clubs and manicured parks. One person who’d like to lay claim to these “achievements” is Narendra Modi, the chief minister of Gujarat. This jet-setting politician has been heavily courting foreign investment and has become a bit of a poster boy in for “industrializing India” in investor’s eyes. When I was there he was just about to host “Vibrant Gujarat” a conference bringing together politicians, businessmen and investors from all over the world in Ahmedabad. Even the Economist gave him a rosy sheen recently

However, Modi also represents the very darkest side of this supposedly friendly and manicured place. Gujarat, home-state of Gandhi and the place where his ashram was located, have seen some of the worst ethnic tensions in recent years in all of India. In 2002, over 1000 people (mostly muslims) were killed in religious riots. Modi, who represents the far-right party BJP party and have been linked to paramilitary RSS, oversaw these horrific events and seems to have not only let it happen but sometimes even incited and/or facilitated these events. He has since taken measures to fudge the as of yet unfinished inquiry into the events. This is a picture of Modi that you might miss if you’re reading foreign press – and while it might be comfortable to look straight ahead at the well tended avenues and “developed industries” you don’t have to go very far to find slums of displaced people (again mostly muslims). 

So, what about the kites? Well, I did do quite a bit of kite-watching, but I must admit that tracing the strict separation between Hindu and Muslim districts and slums, as well as imagining the tensions and destruction that must have been there while visiting mosques and muslim meat-markets had me a bit distracted.

Got your Jodhpurs on?

As I’ve mentioned before, I spent New Year’s eve and day traveling and staying in a city in Rajasthan called Jodhpur. For those who might be into horse-riding, Jodhpur is indeed the origin of the classical rider’s pants called Jodhpurs.

It’s also a pretty city with an imposing fort and pretty winding lanes full of blue colored houses. The blue color is indigo, and it was traditionally reserved only for Brahmins, the highest caste in the Hindu varna system. Eventually however, the indigo fashion spread to residents of other castes as well. According to some guide book it’s supposedly good to keep away mosquitos as well as to keep cool. 

The fort in Jodhpur definitely deserves mention, as it had been beautifully set-up for visitors with an audio-guide that is one of the best I’ve taken anywhere (normally audio-guides leave a lot to be desired). This guide was a great aid in doing what I love best when in historical places – trying to transport my imagination back to the time when the place was in use. Apparently the last maharaja and his family had taken quite an active role in restoring and making their family’s heritage available to the rest of the world. And though there was something quite patronizing in his voice when he spoke about his role vis-a-vis his subjects in Jodhpur, I must admit that maharaja had done a good job of making the fort an accessible piece of history. 

Of special note was the recording in the audio-guide of the grandmother of the current maharaja speaking about the experience of leaving purdah. Purdah was the practice of keeping women completely cordoned off from men only allowing them to be seen by their husbands and certain servants. In fact the entire palace, with it’s covered windows was designed to make complete purdah possible. Women would only be able to follow the life of the outside court through the slits in the windows. As grandma narrated you definitely got a feeling for how odd it must have felt to leave purdah and suddenly start living uncovered in the open. Not that neither she nor her family had to live any kind of harsh life – they still had the modern Umaid Bhavan to house them, and seemingly they didn’t experience any hardship when money was concerned. 

Beyond blue-houses and fort, Jodhpur did have some great culinary treats such as saffron-lassi and great Rajasthani curries (none of which I quite remember the name nor ingredients of)…

Holy places #2: Hinduism

Varanasi seem to elicit all sorts of responses even in normally fairly sane travelers. It’s described by guide books as a sort of hell-on-earth cum awe-inspiring, exotic-India in overdrive. Annoying travelers on backpacker forums describe it as “the real India”.

 

With all these descriptions in mind (none of which I was very inclined to believe in), I had a sort of negative anticipation when arriving from Bodhgaya at 5:30 am. Some place described so vividly by all sorts of people can’t be anything but disappointing. Prepared to be screwed by the numerous auto-wallahs at the station, I was surprised to easily find a rickshaw taking me to my intended spot for less than 30 Rs. Furthermore, he only half-heartedly tried convincing me that I wouldn’t be allowed to carry my bag to my hotel and would need an extension of his services.

 

Arriving at this early hour to the city proved to be a great move. Not only could I start exploring without any people around, I also managed to catch the sunrise from the mandatory boat ride on the river.

 

Varanasi is located on the river Ganges, and is the holiest place on earth according to Hindus (less than 8 hours away from the Buddhist’s holiest place on earth…). It is a city you come to be cleansed (by bathing in the not-so-clean Ganges water), be cremated (at special cremation sites from which your ashes is spread into the river) as well as study and practice religion. It’s an incredibly old settlement, and somehow you can feel that in the air of the place – even though the buildings in the old city often aren’t older than 300-400 years (must be something oozing from the river then…).

 

After spending a few days walking the, albeit rather dirty, streets of Varanasi I neither hated nor particularly loved the place. The best part of it is the fact that the streets of the old city are so narrow that they’re practically reserved for pedestrians (and the occasional two-wheeler). The worst part is probably the old raja’s house – Ramnagar Fort – a museum patched together of unlit exhibits showing dusty rifles and the odd object from the life of the maharaja. There was a ban on all photography in the palace – I imagine that the reason must have been to stop people from showing what a complete and utterly horrible state the museum was in.

 

 

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Holy places #1: Buddhism

I must admit, there is some truth to the maxim one of my friends keep telling me – that “the amount of blog posts has an inverse relationship to how interesting your life is” – however in an attempt at not making that entirely true, I’ve got some blog posts coming up now even as my life is quite interesting indeed!

 

So, to start off, I’d figure that I post a bit of my backlog of travel pictures & places. As I wrote previously, during christmas I traveled to Bodhgaya and Varanasi, two holy places for buddhists and hindus respectively.

 

In my first post about Bodhgaya, I might have been a bit irreverent in describing it as a buddhist Disney Land, but that was indeed how it felt when arriving. Even after spending a couple of days there, I couldn’t quite shake that feeling, meaning that I mostly walked around with a bemused smile at all the various foreigners, buddhist monks, asian tourists and backpackers congregating.

 

The “Buddhist Disney Land” also showed it’s “underbelly” now and then – whether it was through 12 year old boys offering sexual services (clearly something they’re used to foreigners buying there) to fake schools that similarly aged boys would bring tourists in order to solicit donations. Main attraction however is not that (I hope), but rather the temples, with the big Mahabodi-temple next to the bodhi-tree being the greatest landmark. This temple was apparently built in 5th and 6th century, but the site was largely left to it’s own devices after the region was controlled by Islamic rulers from 12th century or so up until the British arrived.

 

After having chilled out in the city, eating Tibetan bread and hummus, for the first two days, I eventually ventured out of the city to the caves where Buddha medidated as an asketic for long years. Sure, there’s something special about visiting a place I remember fantasizing about when reading about buddhism as an 11-year old, though, in the end, the cave itself wasn’t at all as nice as the ~10 km rural walk to and from the main road (a walk most people miss as they come in tourist busses / go by rickshaws). I had planned on catching the sunset from the caves until I realized that this after all still is Naxal territory and described by local municipality as ‘unsafe’ post-sunset.

 

Back in Bodhgaya after my excursion, I managed a visit to the last temple (Myanamar) that I hadn’t seen. Starting after independence, it has become a trend for buddhist countries to each build temples in Bodhgaya, in honor of Buddha as well as to host the many pilgrim’s arriving. Each temple styled in national custom, temple-hopping becomes an interesting review of temple-styles across east Asia (see if you can guess all the temple styles from the pictures!).

 

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Best thing of being in a country outside your cultural sphere…

… you lack frames of reference, so provided that you choose to leave
your own at home everything tastes, feels, looks and smells great (at
least for a while until you’ve acquired new preferences, cow dung
excluded)

First day of 2011

One of the traditions I’ve been putting in place is to spend some day in the beginning of each new year thinking about what I want the next year to be like, what I aspire to do and where I’d like to be. This year I decided to seek out some nice spot to do this reflection on, already on the first of Jan. I decided to head to Jodhpur in Rajasthan, and I found a nice guest house with a roof top (and not too many other occupants):

So, from now I’ll just eliminate all distractions and get some time with my laptop 🙂