Tuesday, 29 June 2010

My Diary of India: Eighth Extract

Right now, I’m writing from the bottom bunk of another sleeper train. It has been our last day in Varanasi and after a really nice lie-in, we checked out of the hotel to find that the monsoon had come! In our wet weather ponchos, Mehboob took us to an amazing bead factory with the largest selection of beads and jewellery ever! I nearly cried with happiness! My first basket came to 13,000 rupees, so I had to edit it and after some hard negotiating, spent 4,300! Everyone is so happy because the rain has finally come and now there is a new energy amongst the people. We had lunch and waited to be picked up to catch the train, which was delayed. Once we finally got to the train station, it was smelly and packed. There were even cows on the platform! But now it has become too wobbly to write anymore!

01/07/09: Had a good night’s sleep, surprisingly, on the sleeper train. We weren’t stared at too much. After freshening up at Hotel Ganga Ratan(!) we went to visit Agra Fort. I began to realise how overrated Delhi was; the fort was beautiful, the carvings were so much more intricate than in Delhi, everything was so green and lush, despite the heat. Sellers clung to our bus, waving their hands through the bus windows as the barrage began. Through one side of the fort there were distant views of the Taj Mahal standing like a big, white, marble colossus. Although the heat was deadening, the architecture was so beautiful that it didn’t matter. Afterwards we went for a walk around the local jewellery shops. Big mistake. After much bartering, I came out with a silver and pearl ring and Rob’s wooden elephants! After some more shopping, we made the short bus ride to the Taj Mahal. There were very few tourists and thousands of natives, although I later realised that they were probably tourists from different parts of India. The mausoleum itself is so majestic and stunning, the detail and scripture in the marble beggars belief and the grounds are so well-kept. There are two mosques either side of the tomb and three gateways, which you never see in pictures, so I was quite surprised at how crowded it seemed. However, inside the Taj is tiny, you aren’t allowed to see the actual tomb and it is packed, noisy and dark. We were groped from every angle and it was a relief to get outside again. Despite the building being impressive, my experience of it was horrible as there were groups of young guys who followed us around with their cameras and phones. Whenever we stopped to take pictures of each other, crowds of men took one too. It was like the Red Fort but even worse- so disgusting. I got really angry because I really wanted to enjoy myself but couldn’t whilst being followed and watched from every angle. I was covered from head to toe and was wearing a headscarf for most of the time. The more polite ones asked for photos, to which you have to say no. I cant describe the revolting looks on their faces or the lecherous way in which they sneakily took photos but it was really abhorrent. Some even left their wives and children to follow us. I don’t understand why they think they can treat guests to their country this way- it wasn’t like they didn’t have anything better to look at! Anyway, it tarnished the whole experience, but I suppose that this is what all westerners can expect.

Friday, 18 June 2010

My Diary of India: Seventh Extract

When we got back, everyone went to nap but I just cant shake off the feeling that I shouldn’t be wasting a single moment of my day or night, whilst I can still stand. Me, Alison and an Australian couple from the group went back to the dolphin restaurant and then watched the Ganges ceremony from the start. The sweltering heat (we watched facing the city, backs to river) was unbearable and despite the music and excitement I was falling asleep whilst being pestered by the girl who had held my hand the night before. The heat from the fire and the crowd of people made me feel so faint, so we left after the main part was over. The traffic on the way home always feels worse than the previous time, but I just wanted to go back to the hotel. Couldn’t wait to sleep.

It is now the 30th June 2009, my fifth day in India. It turned out that we didn’t go to bed last night! When we got back, the others were sat round having a drink, so we joined them. Alison told me and Jackey about her travels in Ecuador and Tiffany was chatty as always. After about half an hour, I went to go to the loo and when I came back the others had gone to the pool because there was a pool party so I joined them. We did some crazy ABBA dancing and I let go with being drunk! It was so much fun, then we jumped into the pool with our clothes on, it felt so free and lovely!

Wednesday, 16 June 2010

My Diary of India: Sixth Extract

We docked in Varanasi’s Old City, near to another cremation and many vendors selling wood. Kids played in the water. It was an indescribable experience and so surreal. We walked up the steps into the twisting, narrow lanes, where shopkeepers leaned out of every hole, nook, cranny; you can’t look anywhere without being harassed. Occasionally hitting the sides of the streets so a moped could pass, trying to dodge dogs, cows, raw sewage, red ants and grasping hands was uncomfortable, but I felt as if I was obliged to appreciate it as a cultural experience, however revolting. The stench was unbearable. We stopped in a silk shop where a man gave us masala chai in clay mugs and afterwards, we were led through the most ridiculous security to Vishwanath Shiva Temple- the most holy spot in Varanasi. But it seemed like the least spiritual place ever; the floor was covered in mud, people barged past down the narrow alleyway. I felt like I shouldn’t have been there, like an intruder, what I don’t understand is why they allow their Gods to reside in such disgusting conditions. It was probably the least welcome I’ve felt so far.

After this, we were led to a silk weavers, where we could see what happens in so many small firms in Varanasi. Nothing was mechanical and I couldn’t fathom how long it must take to teach someone this process. The intricacy was incredible. It can take months to make a single scarf. The amount of workmanship was astounding. Men sit, suspended on planks, working on the silk weaves all day. Afterwards we were taken to Paddy’s commissioned silk shop and shown some of the most amazing tapestries and furnishings ever. They were, however, priced in dollars and it was difficult to know whether they were honest prices or not. I bought some presents. We were feeling so empty once we got back that we headed straight to the restaurant for anything that wasn’t curry, like falafel. I was curious to go back to Mehboob’s silk shop, where I bought the beautiful things I wanted to buy in the morning, such a silk scarves, but for a lot less.

The American Dream

In President John F. Kennedy’s famous 1962 speech, he told Americans to know no bounds. He told them that they choose their own destinies when he said ‘We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win’. People have choices. They choose their aspirations and they choose their fates and anyone who says they don’t simply isn’t trying hard enough. Maybe it’s their inspirational leaders, maybe it’s the kudos which comes with being a part of the world’s biggest superpower, but Americans have something we most certainly do not. I’ll call it a ‘can-do’ attitude; the central component of the American Dream.

In Britain, we are downcast. When people achieve success, we are envious. When we spend our days in a job we aren’t particularly fond of, we get depressed. And when ideas crop up, we are not willing to try them for fear of change. This is the British diagnosis. We don’t see people with things we want and say “Hey, I’m going to work hard so I can have one of those one day”. We don’t strive forward in order to get promoted into a job we love and we don’t try new things cos “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”. What we don’t see is that hope, in this country, is a broken concept. We need to learn from the Americans, and gauge inspiration from our western counterparts.

A most important lesson can be learned from Maurice in the film Coming to America: "Oh yeah, I started out mopping the floor just like you guys. Then I moved up to washing lettuce. Now, I'm working the fat fryer. Pretty soon I'll make assistant manager and that's when the big bucks start rolling in." Looking to the future is central; whilst now might not look great, we forget that it is us who will decide whether things stay like this forever or move onwards and upwards. This attitude is the reason why America made it to the moon before anyone else, and the reason why you always get a friendly “You’re welcome” in MacDonalds. They can dream. And they act on their dreams. In this country we don’t like hard graft, and we don’t see why we should have to do it. That’s why we never get anywhere. There is an enormous sense of entitlement here, but what needs to be realised is that the world doesn’t owe us anything. As JFK said, Americans “intend to win”, and we haven’t even begun the race yet.

Monday, 14 June 2010

My Diary of India: Fifth Extract

This morning the group got up at 4:30am for a sunrise boat tour of the River Ganges. It was hazy but still boiling as we scraped ourselves out of bed and were ferried down to the waterfront by minibus. It was really surprising to see everybody up, awake and selling at 5am. Trade was bustling and the same street kids from the previous night were up to greet us as we walked to the gnats. Traffic never stops. India is so alive. We sat round on our riverboat and listened to Paddy talk about the Ganges. It was truly beautiful, bobbing along the water, watching the Hindu community in morning prayer to the sun and bathing in the Ganges waters. The same waters which would probably kill our weak constitutions. All the gnats are on one side of the river facing the sun; the other side is a sand spit for fishermen, although none of us are eating fish, because they probably feed on corpse?!

Further on, there was a man chanting into a microphone and we soon realised that below him there were about twenty children practising yoga; this was an ashram. It struck me that the discipline these children showed was nothing like anything I had ever experienced. It was as though they were putting on a show, but actually I was just their morning ritual. We were soon told to put our camera away and, as the smoke rose, we realised why. A family was cremating a man on the bank, and the further we looked, the more piles of ash and still burning beacons we saw. The man’s legs were on view from the pyre; it was probably the most disturbing and emotional thing I had ever seen. I felt sorry for the family having a boatload of tourists watching the funeral of someone they loved. As we floated back, everyone was silent for a few minutes as we let flowers into the river. Ironically, as this was happening a boat with traders in, trying to sell us stuff, followed.

Saturday, 12 June 2010

My Diary of India: Fourth Extract

Varanasi is famous predominantly for two things; silk and the River Ganges. Hindus believe that those who die are bathed in the Ganges before being cremated on the banks and then their ashes thrown in. All Hindus should make the pilgrimage to the Ganges at least once in a lifetime. We witnessed the aftermath of this ceremony after dinner. A white knuckle tuktuk convoy took our group to the Mazda cinema. From there we had to walk to the ‘Dolphin’ restaurant through the traffic. There are no pavements, so people walk around roundabouts, cows drag carts and mopeds carry families of four or more all in one flow, with additional cars and tuktuks for good measure. As we walked, we dodged cowpat, fended off stares and avoided stray dogs. We couldn’t find the restaurant so a group of bored and pervy police officers showed us the way. One of our drivers, Raj led us through those alleyways that were too narrow for traffic, with shouts of ‘when I fuck, I fuck for one night only’! After walking around an impossible maze of shack vendors and up six flights of stairs, we finally reached the Dolphin Rooftop Restaurant. It was picturesque as the sun set and the colours and lights danced at the ceremony below. We drank the best mango juice ever and watched the candlelit boats float down the Ganges. It is a magic moment until you realise what is happening. The music was so loud and the lights so bright that after dinner, we walked down to where the rituals were taking place. There are steps down to the bank from the old city, where people sat but we found a rock to stand on which gave us a better view of the colours and the six men dancing with lanterns on stands along the bank. It was perfect because it felt like we were finally here, it was so spiritual that everyone was moved by its beauty. We accidentally put ourselves on a pedestal by jumping onto the rock and like a moth to a flame, street kids plagued our white wallets with their wares. You see their faces and wonder how they can possibly be so carefree and happy. I always thought photos of street kids were a bit sick but they beg to have their picture taken. They were so desperate to sell that they followed us, again through the traffic, to sell their bindis and dye. One of them held my hand the entire way and another told me how he desperately needed money to fund college. You can’t justify saying no but as soon as you buy something from one, fifty others jump on you. It is heartbreaking to be a part of. On the ride home (our drivers had waited all night for us) we saw two wedding processions. It’s strange when traffic stops because people get a chance to stare at you, then they either shout or carry on staring!

Sex and the City 2: The magic is gone

Imagine the gut-wrenching feeling you get when you drop your blackberry in the loo, or run over a small, petulant bird in your car, or even get caught peeing in the gents’. Now imagine that feeling lasting for nearly two and a half hours and you have my experience of going to see Sex and the City 2. As if this feeling wasn’t bad enough, our four favourite calamitous females now proceed to shred what the past one hundred years have done for women with one foul stomp of a Manolo.

Not to mention the utter obliteration of the legacy of one of the wittiest, most thoughtful, controversially sparkling television programmes of our times, or the blatant disregard of any moral or religious humility in the face of an unknown environment. Each scene slaps you in the face with a cold, hard dose of ignorance. I felt embarrassed on behalf of western society watching Samantha whine about being arrested for practicing her unique brand of overt promiscuity on a beach in Abu Dhabi. The scripting was dire (“Abu Dhabi-doo”) and the stereotyping so cringeworthy that one ends up sitting and thinking that we bloody deserve all that we get from the noble Arab culture.

The problem with this film is that it turns the Sex and the City brand into what misogynistic male columnists always said it was; a bunch of vacuous, self-obsessed slags making easy money and indulging themselves in pointless and solely aesthetic activities. But the truth was, and has been up until now, that Sex and the City taught women to be sexually liberated and largely independent. Women didn’t need men to teach them any more, they had themselves, and they had each other. It is now as though women have been disempowered by the same franchise that once emancipated them.

In one memorable episode of the television series, Samantha tears off her wig whilst giving a speech at a breast cancer conference in a declaration that she would not submit her entire self to the disease which caged her body. In the second film, she is seen desperately plying herself with drugs to stave of the menopause. The loss of Samantha’s moments of sexual brilliance and hilarious put-downs has given rise to a total lack of self-awareness, something one could never accuse Samantha of. She has been reduced to a crass, pitiful, fraught shadow of what she once was (“Lawrence of My-Labia”). Carrie becomes the high-maintenance, nagging wife, Charlotte is now unable to cope with the incessant difficulties of a perfect lifestyle and Miranda gives chauvinists everywhere a leg-up by buckling under the pressure of her job and finding domestic bliss in the haven of the home.

Gone is the magic, the wit, the glitter and the individual characteristics which we loved so much in each of the original Sex and the City foursome, the dimensions which enabled women to relate to the tribulations of a group of friends trying to make their way in New York City. What we are left with is a bunch of offensive, disrespectful, cackling headstones, leaving us to wonder where it all went wrong.

Thursday, 10 June 2010

My Diary of India: Third Extract

We are now on the night train to the spiritual heart of India, Varanasi. So far the seats are plastic and sweaty and sleep doesn’t seem possible as Paddy teaches us about socio-India. What he says is merely demonstrated by the legless man who hobbled the 2 miles back to the train station in the burning head, just to lead us to the Delhi metro earlier today. After a long and uncomfortable night on the train, we arrived in Varanasi yesterday morning. I was on the bottom bunk and everytime the train jolted, I woke up. Nevertheless, when we got to the hotel, ‘Hotel Surya’ it was more perfect than Hotel Perfect (massages and swimming pools!). after dumping our stuff, we went to the hotel’s restaurant which was really nice and not too spicy for once (slow service though)! In the afternoon, Alison, Renata and I went to visit the archaeological museum which held the relics from where the Buddha gave his first preaching. Really, really phenomenal detail meant that there was lots to be engaged by. Our tuktuk driver, Mehboob advised us on all the sights we were seeing along the way. He also told us not to buy from the silk shop that Paddy was to be taking us to, because he took 40% commission, but to buy from his friend’s silk shop as he only took 2% and gave it to his children! I’m beginning to realise how everyone is out for your money here, everyone tells you that their product is ‘best price, best quality 200 rupees no problem’, but you never know who to trust; we don’t know if we can even trust our own tour guide! After the museum we visited the deer park where the Buddha actually gave his first sermon. The remains made me imagine what the scene must have been like; it was an expanse of grass with protruding red-brick ruins, and lots of ants. On the way back we stopped at the silk shop under Mehboob’s persuasion, and got hard-sold until screaming poin. He also took us to a silver shop where an unprepared man with his flies undone showed us around before we made the bumpy ride back to the hotel.

Tuesday, 8 June 2010

My Diary of India: Second Extract

Woke up this morning feeling far better! No signs yet of ‘Delhi belly’! Six of us went to the heart of New Delhi, Connaught Place. The market hadn’t begun so a man walked us to a shop where they charged ‘fixed prices’, ie high prices that are non-negotiable. Was a shame about the market because they are far more fun, as is travelling by tuktuk as opposed to metro, but we like to try everything! We moved on the colossal Red Fort, a huge military base with beautiful, intricate architecture inside. It was difficult to appreciate with hordes of male teenagers following and taking pictures of us, touching us at every opportunity and clicking. It was like being a celebrity, people just do not care. They kept pushing and crowding but eventually they stopped and we could admire the beauty and majesty of the individual buildings, surrounded by grass area which was too hot to sit in. The shopping was good too. I bought some jewellery and will hopefully have the chance to buy some more. Next was the most death defying rickshaw ride ever. People are desperate to make money from tourists so we got bundled into 3 and motored off towards lunch at Karim’s. The journey was so terrifying at times (holes in the road meant that we nearly fell into traffic!) that we really needed lunch when we got to India’s largest mosque, Jama Masjid. More boiling stones stung our feet but when in such an excitingly different place the sights and the smells distract you. Me and Kath even climbed the mosque tower, which was exhausting but the views were astounding, watching the crazy market street adjacent to the calm mosque was such a contrast. And that is what I think India is, a country of diversity and contrast. They are divided; rich and poor, despite the poor being on the doorsteps of the rich, veg and non-veg, North and South, where the two can’t even understand each other.

Sunday, 6 June 2010

My Diary of India: First Extract

It’s my first full day in Delhi and I’m exhausted already! Having an amazing, amazing time even as the sweat clings to every pore of my body, sticking my clothes to my skin. It was 47 degrees Celsius today (the 27th). Saying goodbye at the coach stop was a good idea, it felt like a proper adventure by myself. After a traumatic flight and not a lot of sleep, I arrived in Delhi yesterday morning. The first thing I noticed were the people staring, even in the airport, and then the ludicrous traffic system. There may as well not be any lanes, and a horn is as essential as wheels. Rickshaws and yellow green tuktuks fight for space in the Delhi bustle. As well as cars, there are buses, lorries, tuktuks, rickshaws, taxis, carts and even people dodging on the sides of the roads selling rubbish. After pulling over four times, my driver finally found my hotel; aptly named ‘Hotel Perfect’. I walked in, and apart from the raw sewage and beggars, it lived up to its name. At reception, I bumped into Alison, a 47 year old woman from Glasgow and Renata, aged 27 and from Brazil. After I had dumped my stuff, we went to explore Karol Bagh. We changed money in a ‘bank’, where you wouldn’t even dream of keeping animals; a woman was mixing concrete on the floor and there were rabied dogs, holes in the roof and walls and wires hanging from the ceiling. The exchange rate was negotiable, as is everything in Delhi.

We went back to the hotel to decide what to do next but also to seek salvation from the excruciating heat. We agreed on visiting Birla Temple, the local Hindu monument. Travelling by tuktuk is a nailbiting experience as you hang from the edge, clinging onto a rail with one hand as your driver beeps and weaves his way through the traffic. We arrived at the temple and the selling began, barged by postcards and keyrings and even a vendor who tried to sell us a ‘pregnant’ elephant made from ‘marble’. We were to later realise that these elephants would become synonomous with the Indian tourist fare. The temple itself was beautiful and much larger that it looked. We went inside as another family gathered around us and shook our hands and asked us questions. Everyone is friendly here, it’s just that some are friendly for the wrong reasons.

Felt like a bit of a fraud wearing a red dot on my forehead and gazing at Hare Krishna but it was an experience. Our feet were burnt walking barefoot on the hot stones, but these sights are worth it. We met up with the rest of the group when we got back to the hotel. They are all lovely and I am the youngest by far. Sharing a room with Tiffany who is a loud, Arizona- based restauranteur who takes entire summers off! We got on really well and had a nice chat in our heavily air conditioned room. After our introduction where we met Paddy, our tour leader, we went out for our ‘safe’ Indian meal at ‘Crossroads’ restaurant. Went straight to sleep afterwards which wasn’t hard!

Delhi market stalls