Trains, plains and too many automobiles
04.01.2011 - 16.01.2011
Comparing the first leg of my flight from Manchester to Dubai on the A380 (worlds biggest passenger aircraft) to the second leg from Dubai to Kolkata was like comparing the boarding of a small rowing boat to the boarding of the Titanic. The analogy was however kept away from the rest of the 525 passengers. Don't mention the "T" word, whatever the mode of transport! It took a full hour to board the beast and it was too big to get a perception of through the gate window.
Us lower caste passengers were kept from exploring the private bar, beds, showers, casinos, shopping malls, jogging parks etc that existed above on the first floor, well in my mind anyway. I couldn't however complain as there was at least plenty of leg room. It was a comfortable flight as I settled down to listen to some music and watch a few movies. My grey always seems to suffer due to flight fatigue, although not as much as the extreme ditherers. On embarking the aircraft they seem to loose all concept of mental capacity, spacial awareness or indeed are unable to acknowledge the weary and frustrated queue of people also waiting to put their luggage in overhead lockers. My mental affliction, however was trying to understand the plot of the in-flight movie Wall Street 2. Maybe that was the whole point though. The finance sector doesn't want us to understand what they are doing, that is why the world is in such a mess. As Gordon Gekko would say "confusion ladies and gentlemen, confusion is good". The antithesis of this culture though was formed by the 4 very inspiring retired teachers and nurses who I sat next to on the connecting flight from Dubai to Kolkata.
I was greeted at the airport on 5th On by my cousin Bunty and the family driver (a different world alright), then taken to his parents Auntie Gori and Uncle Nilhu. The are clearly getting on as are my other Auntie and Uncle (Roma and Tapan). Roma is ill at the moment (though getting better) hence It was thought that it be best if I didn't stay in their roof top ensuite guest room. As usual though I have been made to feel very welcome and was fed on excellent A380 sized Bengal meals. I had not been doing much for the first few days other than catching up with relatives and visiting a local market. We shared a bottle of whiskey and a bottle of brandy with Bunty's friends, who I have got to know over the years. We visited a couple of bars also including a bar playing live blues music. The customers were so polite and orderly, showing none of the usual drunken Brit behaviour. It must be said however that the price of a single drink exceeds many Indians daily pay. I also met up with my other cousin Rintu, her husband and her very studious teenage daughters (well the higher educations system is highly competitive).
This is my 5th trip in 14 year and Kolkata is still as hectic as ever. On the busy side streets lined with dilapidated colonial buildings, people play cricket oblivious to the incoming traffic. People still drive 100 metres when it would be clearly quicker to walk. The smog hangs in the air like in some cliched 1930s Sherlock Holmes movie, albeit with the odd cow wandering into shot. At least this time I discovered the quick and efficient metro system (the first in India). I did however hit the rugby scrum of rush hour on my way back.
On Monday 10th I left all this behind to start on a journey that would take me North Eastwards to Amritsar. After visiting family in Delhi and Lucknow I will need to be back in Kolkata for 26th January which is Gori and Nilhu's surprise 50th wedding anniversary.
The debate raging on the first part of my journey from Kolkata to Satna (the 18.15 Shirpa Express) was were we on coach or B1 or B2?. For some inexplicable reason, or possibly a curse from the Hindu god of transport chaos, the coaches had been swapped around last minute. Fortunately, to avoid bloodshed, the conductor confirmed that although it clearly stated B2 on the outside of the coach we were indeed on B1. Only in India!
My 17 1/2 hour journey was delayed in the fog by 5 1/2 hours, meaning that I spent a day on the train. Spare a thought though for those who were travelling to the final stop - Indore. They would have arrived a further 7 or so hours after me. To frustrate matters more there was no buffet car today. There was a solution at hand though. One of my fellow passenger ordered some decent veg Thali takeaway that intercepted us at one of the stops. This is all part of Indian travel. Everyone takes it in there stride. It turned out to be a very enjoyable journey. I was chatting to an eclectic group of fellow passengers (all Indian), ranging from a 50 year old former civil servant (a desirable job in India), who was able to retire at 45 and live a leisurely life of travel and doing as he pleased. On the other end of the spectrum was a textile student who's intense studying, often without sleep for 48 hours, once had him hospitalised. His regular 24 hour (if he is lucky) train journeys home from his University in Bhopal is the only time he gets to relax. He calls the train his second home. That what train travel is like in India though, it becomes one big social club.
I got off at the transport hub of Satna but missed my connecting bus to Khajuraho. I made up time though by sharing a taxi with a Chinese tourist. On the 2 1/2 hour journey he wouldn't stop talking. I wanted to relax. He also had this weird way of pronouncing Kolkata so it sounded like Crocodile. At one point I imagined a Crocodile eating a Chinese and not even leaving a spare rib.
I spent 3 nights in Khajuraho. It is famed for 24 (there were once said to be about 60 more) 1000 plus year old Hindu temples with intricate carvings. Many of these Karma Sutra carvings, feature gravity defying orgies, bestiality and sundry unmentionable acts. These sandstone depictions of post water shed pornography would once have had Mandip Whitehouse draping the temples with muslin.
I tried to escape the endless army of touts trying to sell my guide books. "Which country from?" "Russia". "We have guide book in Russian". Next time I will say that I only speak an rare Cornish Dialect. Its a beautiful place, surrounded by lush countryside as far as the eye can see, hence it is possible to escape such annoyances. One day a visited this 7 km long volcanic canyon. During the monsoon season it fills further 30 metres. The allegedly spectacular waterfall was fairly dry at the moment. The Crocodiles that I hoped to see basking on the rocks (after having fed on that Chinese guy) were not present. I did see antelope, spotted dear and Lemur monkeys in the surrounding national park.
After basking in the ambience of Khajuraho I took a 5.30am bus to my current location, Orchha. From the main road I had to take a 10 minute shared rickshaw drive with 14 other passengers. I am only just beginning to learn to breathe out again. This place is even more atmospheric than Khajuraho. It is a small but significant historical site, once again with a very scenic backdrop. Imposing seventeenth century mhogul palaces and temples surround the narrow streets. There has been a festival to mark the end of winter. It was fascinating just watching the crowds progress towards the river to ritually bathe. The carnival atmosphere was alive with music and busy market stores selling sweets. I was able to see it all happen from outside my BBC (Basic But Clean) hotel room.
I even had TV in my room albeit Indian TV seems to be a succession of adverts interspersed with the occasional programme. They do show western films but are heavily sensored for swearing, sex, nudity (Offended bits pixelled out. This is the country that only allowed the first kiss in a movie as recently as 1977. Have they forgotten about the 1000 year old temple sex! As for the adverts, exclusively aimed at the middle classes, only show a side of India that doesn't exists. Most of the poverty and the dirt are airbrushed out during, for example, an ad for a skin cream to lighten the skin tone (the desired look).
Yesterday I tried some Korean food in a local restaurant. I asked about 4 or 5 different dishes and was told on each occasion that it was like a chappatti. The one I tried did indeed taste like a chappatti although it was very good. Chappattis are versatile things!
I bought a day pass to see the sights but couldn't figure out how to get to the top of the tallest temple for the finest view. This morning, in a premeditated plan hatched before breakfast, I turned up anyway before it even opened. As expected there was a caretaker around whom I bribed to open up. He took me on an exclusive tour, right to the roof top. He fed the monkeys (a little too close for comfort) and showed me a vultures nest complete with egg. I got a snap before it flew off.
I must fly off myself know and get ready for the next stage of my journey.