Monday, April 30, 2007

As usual it's been a while since my last post, so naturally a lot has happened. After Auroville, Sahil and I returned briefly to Chennai. From there I headed up to Hampie which I heard was an amazing place. The trip up was far from amazing however. The train only got me about half way there, and after that it was all local buses. Taking the local bus is a difficult process in India as there is nobody who seems to really know which bus goes where. The ordeal of finding the right bus usually goes as follows: You ask a rickshaw driver which bus you have to take. He gives you a definite answer, that being, "25B". You walk to bus number 25B and ask. "Hampie?" the answer will most certainly be "No" and then something like "72A" So you walk to 72A and ask "Hampie" and the answer will once again be "No" and then "37D". The process continues as such until you ask some nice locals who will tell you that you have to first take the 34F to a town close to Hampie, and then transfer to a new bus. Anyway, by the time I was near Hampie, it was around 10 pm and the chances of getting to my destination and checking into a hotel before 12 were looking pretty grim. In order to speed the whole process up and avoid waiting an hour and a half for the next bus, I started haggling with a rickshaw driver. I wasn't doing too well...80 rupee was the lowest I could get. I was seemingly the only foreigner in the middle of some dark seedy looking Indian town, and naturally wanted to get out of there. I was considering taking the offer when the driver said, "or you could see if that girl over there wants to split with you". I looked over and surrounded by a crowd of aroud 8 rickshaw drivers, bargaining fiercely was a small Korean girl. I went up to her and she already had the drivers down to 70 rupee. We ended up splitting the ride for 35 each.
So we arrived at our room around 30 minutes later, (after an incident with a small fat Indian kid (which is rare) grabbing her breast) and got some dinner. For the following 5 days we explored the ruins of Hampie by bicycle, motorbike and the good ol' fashion healtoe express. Hampie is definitely one of the most beautiful places I've seen (despite the normal grime of India). It was super hot so we did a lot of swimming and just hanging out. At one point when we had the motorbike, Shim (that's her name) pointed out that we were driving by a wedding. I parked the bike and we just strolled in. We were immediately taken to the head table as guests of honour, fed more food than we wanted and stared at and questioned (as usual) by all the guests. So yes George, now I've been to an Indian wedding.
Shim and I decided to keep travelling together, so we hopped a train up to Agra, our next destination. The day we arrived, we found out that it was National Heritage day, so we got to see the Taj Mahal and the nearby fortresses for free. The one day of the year where the visit is free, and we just happened to stumble upon it. Normally it would have cost us 1000 rupee each for both sites. (that's around 30 something Canadian...which is a lot of money here). After Agra we went to another town to relax a bit and see some more ruins. At this point we were pretty ruined out, so we just did a lot of hanging it was deathly hot and Shim got a fever.
The next destination was Varanasi to see the banks of the river Ganges and obviously, loads of dead bodies being cremated. Now it was my turn to get sick. Varanasi was around 45 to 47 degrees most of the time we were there. I got a fever and spent a day hallucinating quite heavily.
The next day I was a bit better and we moved to a new hotel closer to the river. We went to McDonald's, which is something I wouldn't normally do, but it felt like the healthiest choice in the area. On the way there our cycle rickshaw driver was having a lot of trouble, so I offered to change places with him. So I drove the cycle rickshaw, and almost had a few accidents...they're more difficult to stear than they appear, but I got the hang of it fast. We then saw some really stupid Bollywood film called something like "Chan love story hai!". We were both screaming "END!" after around half way through. Unfortunately the film director and actors couldn't hear us.
So we spent a while in Varanasi. Shim got sick again...another fever. I heard later that most travellers who go to Varanasi get sick. The explanation that I heard was that there is "too much death in the air". It seems plausible. We spent the good part of a day in a cafe down one of the labyrinth like back alley streets that surround the river bank. Every five minutes we would hear chanting, look out the window and see a new body being carried by a procession of "mourners" (who are apparently not allowed to cry) towards the "burning ghats".
The thing that's really disturbing is that there are five sewers pumping into the Ganges continually, at least 250 cremations every day (24/7) along with loads of bathers who think that they're purifying their bodies and souls of much disease there.
Anyway, so it's easy to get sick in Varanasi. At around 10 pm I forced Shim to go to the doctors. We had somebody from the hotel show us how to get there. Again, the old city of Varanasi is like a maze of narrow back alleys full of cowshit, beggars, motorbikes, cows, dogs and merchants. It was even more difficult to navigate at night. At the doctors office, the doctor examined her in front of 5 or six local men. When the doctor told her to get on the table, one of the locals who had been chewing tobacco suddenly choked and spewed out a big stream all over the cramped office floor. He then staggered out into the street where sounds of vomit hitting pavement resonated like a soothing waterfall.
So I took Shim back to the room and now had to find the damn pharmacy at 11 pm. I'll spare you all the details, but as usual when I got there, the meds required weren't on the menu, so I had to find another pharmacy. No surprises as this is just how India works.
So yeah, got back, meds were taken, health improved and after a while longer, we said our goodbyes and I started my long journey to the Kolkata (previously known as Calcutta) airport. I was to take an overnight train from Varanasi that upon arrival should allow me 5 hours to get from the train station to the airport...but this is India, so I was prepared for a close call. I got exactly what I expected.
First the train was 2 hours late to pick me up. Then it was another hour late dropping me off. So now it's 10:00 am and my flight leaves at 12 and I need to print off my itinerary. So I frantically find a net cafe, run outside, get a taxi and start the stressful ride there. It's supposed to take approximately 2 hours to get to the airport, so things weren't looking too hot (besides the weather). We started making good time and I was starting to relax and think "yeah, I might make it" when suddenly a loud crunch was heard behind me and the cab lurched forward. We had just gotten hit by a bus.
So naturally this incident is followed by a chaotic scene involving the cabbie out of the cab, shaking his fists and yelling at the bus driver while blocking 2 lanes of traffic with the cab that I'm in, while I'm yelling at the cab driver to get in the damn cab cause I'm going to miss my flight, onlookers and bus passengers yelling at the cab driver or the bus driver, cops blowing whistles horns sounding and dogs barking just for fun. Next he got back into the cab and started driving at a snails pace and swerving so that the bus (and therefore the rest of traffic) couldn't pass. He stopped and complained to 2 sets of cops while still blocking the bus until finally he got back in and took me to the airport. I ran to the ticket counter and the guy said "Oh! Your plane just left!" I said something like "fffwahat?" and he said "no,'s at the next building over. RUN." I ran and did the necessary security checks etc and basically got on the plane just in time.
So now I'm in Thailand and it's nothing like India. I've returned to civilization. There are white people everywhere...which is kind of boring now. The food is AMAZING here though and I'm quite happy to have a break from the chaos that is India.

Monday, April 09, 2007

Just left Auroville yesterday. I spent a total of two weeks just relaxing and working on an organic farm there. My weekdays consisted of getting up at six o'clock, starting work at 6:15 then weeding or planting or mulching various plants until 9 am, then it was breakfast. We were served a different rice dish every morning...usually either curd rice or dal rice. From there the rest of the day was free. I was living in a "capsule" with my friend Sahil. The accommodation was very basic. It was a little cabin on stilts, made of bamboo and such. No electricity, and the restrooms consisted of squat toilets and bucket showers. This may not sound tempting, but the atmosphere and cleanliness of the place was excellent. I could have stayed there longer. Met some really nice people and basically just chilled out for two weeks.
Auroville's really spaced out, so we soon realized that the rickety bikes we rented weren't going to be a good way to get around for two weeks...especially at night without a headlight, so we rented a moped. Auroville is more of a village than anything. It's full of spiritually minded westerners who want to live "free of politics". There is no voting in Auroville, so what they do is appoint a selections committee to choose the next governor or whatever the term for it is they use...only problem is how you select the selections committee without voting. They decided that going door to door and getting people to select via petition was a good way of doing that would follow the wishes of "THE MOTHER". Did I mention that I think something very sinister is going on behind closed doors in this town? THE MOTHER is the deceased founder of Auroville. Her picture is everywhere. It's creepy. Also, in the center of town is "Matrimundeer" which is a giant golden golf ball. Inside the golf ball is the world's largest crystal which sends rays of light cascading from the ceiling across the walls of the completely white "inner chamber". In order to get into the golf ball you have to first go through various people who send you in circles back and forth for a while. Actually before that you need to be upgraded from visitor status to guest status. In order to do that, you have to be staying in Auroville for a certain period of time...I think. So you need a guest card. Then when you finally present your guest card to the right people and tell them that you want to visit the golf ball (did I mention that I think the golf ball is their spaceship?) you have to make an appointment for the next day. You do so by calling them and booking. You can only visit during the designated 2 hours a day...I think it was two many details. If you don't do this, then you can present your guest card at the gate during two designated periods each day, and you can get within around 60 meters of the golf ball. But you MUST stay behind the rope. So, yeah...needless to say Sahil and I lacked the necessary organization skills to get into the "inner chamber", so we had to stay behind the rope. We contemplated running towards the ball, but then figured that some spaceships are best to remain mysteries.
Mopeds played a large part of the two weeks. We had a total of 5 flat tires, 2 runnings out of gas, 2 cases of headlight going outings, 1 lost gas tank lid and one case of stick droppings into the gas bad...just wanted to avoid another runnings out of gas.
The most entertaining of these issues was probably one of the times our headlight went out. I was driving us to a techno party in the forest somewhere. We had to follow the sound of the music to find our way, which proved to be a challenge as we had to drive through narrow and winding forest paths to get there. Our headlamp went out right in the middle of this. I had to drive the moped through the forest at night with the aid of two very weak flashlights which Sahli shined over my shoulders. Every now and again, a strategically placed candle, set in place by the party organizers would guide us. After the party, we had to do the whole thing in reverse, plus find our way back to the farm...keep in mind that there are no streetlights in Auroville either...probably another one of THE MOTHER's wonderful ideas.
Another interesting moped ride was when we drove to Pondicherry (spelled Puducheri...I think) to get Sahil to a bar to watch the cricket match. Driving in big cities here is absolute chaos. Whereas in western society, the horn is used as a warning, or release of aggression, in India (as well as Nepal) it's used to denote your position on the road...this means that everyone honks all the time. Also, traffic rules seem to be ignored in place of the rules of chaos theory. People will swerve into oncoming traffic in order to pass people in front of them. Their only defense against seemingly certain death is the ever sounding horn. So, when in Rome...I was laying on the horn the entire way. Also, we didn't know where we were going, and didn't have a map, so it was an interesting trip. Ended up paying a rickshaw driver ten rupee to show us the way.
The people we met in Auroville made it really special as well. I don't think I've been in a place that's as chilled out as Auroville. When we first arrived, Sahil and I didn't know how to take it, but soon found ourselves sucked into it, and gradually becoming one with the chillness.
Anyway, good times all in all. We also went to the beach and ate lots of cheap cake.