Friday, April 29, 2011

India - the final leg

Bangalore Airport, Friday 29 April, 6:30 pm.

Am now waiting for my international connection on Singapore Airlines to take me back to Australia. Well – I’m waiting for the check-in to open at 8pm, for an 11pm departure. My fellow travellers, Peter and Gabriel, insisted on seeing me off from Delhi airport even though they then needed to go back into New Delhi for their overnight train to Varanasi before heading to Nepal. I’m sure they pleased not to be carrying my bag anymore, and I am certainly grateful that they did. How could I travel more lightly? Did I really need the 4 sets of hot-weather clothing and the 2 sets of cold-weather clothing? I wore them, and appreciated having clean clothes every day. Did I need the camera tripod? It helped me take some good low light mountain shots, but I could have improvised. Did I need the travelling set of medicines? Some of them were useful.


Our final morning we had breakfast in one of the kinds of places frequented by back-packers all over the world, and with much the same sort of international breakfast menu.  We then wandered the narrow lanes in Paharganj, too narrow even for an auto-rickshaw, as store-keepers were opening for the day and small single-room neighbourhood temples were offering the morning puja. We looked in one and I was struck by the atmosphere of calm cleanness. The priest did his best to explain who the deities enshrined there were, while a woman gently and lovingly washed one of the statues.


Thursday’s arrival was uneventful. The security in Leh included yet a further frisking while leaving the terminal for boarding the plane. We also had to identify our luggage piece by piece and match it with luggage receipts before it was loaded onto the plane. I was entertaining a number of disasters, none of which eventuated. When Korean friend made the plane reservation there was confusion over my name, and so my ticket had me as CHRISTOPHER /MR. And in the confusion of checking in in Leh my much lugged about bag, labelled in my name, was checked in on one of the Koreans’ tickets. When surrounded by soldiers toting automatic weapons it’s easy to imagine what might go wrong.


The flight out was spectacular as we zig-zagged our reverse path out through the mountains.


Travel from Delhi Airport to New Delhi Station was in the air-conditioned comfort of the newly opened airport express. A lot of Delhi seems to be under construction, as if preparing for some major international event. Well – if it wasn’t finished in time for the Commonwealth Games last year, then perhaps it will be ready for whatever’s next. Emerging from the metro station there was a total absence of taxi touts. Where are they all we said to each other. We walked a bit further and suddenly they appeared. We eventually haggled our way through a succession of auto-rickshaw drivers, practicing the technique of walking away and waiting for them to follow with reduced offers. Delivered in  Paharganj we found a hotel, haggled over the rate, dropped our baggage and went out exploring. The National Gandhi Museum is not one of the major tourist attractions, but its simplicity and its devotion to preserving the teaching of Gandhi were a powerful evocation of his spirit. It preserved not only his teaching, but also seemingly every item ever used by him. Dentures, sandals, nail-clippers, ear-wax removers and two of his teeth were just some. But the powerful witness was given by the blood-stained clothing he was wearing at the time of his assassination. Nearby, at Raj Ghat, was the place of his cremation.


We then decided to walk to the Red Fort. On the map it didn’t seem far, but it was near 45 minutes of walking alongside a busy highway. Even the taxi and auto-rickshaw drivers gave up on us, realising how these crazy foreigners were intent on demonstrating that it was not only mad dogs and Englishmen who would go out in the midday sun, but also Koreans and New Zealander.


The narrow lanes of Chandni Chowk, west of the Lahore Gate of the Red Fort, are crowded with markets. The section we explored was the place for dental instruments, fireworks and ball-bearings. The nearby Jama Masjid is a huge mosque, beautifully built by the Shah Jahan in the 17th century. Nearby is a Jain temple, with a bird hospital. (Perhaps we too could establish one at one of our friaries?). The Red Fort is large but nowhere near as impressive as Agra’s Red Fort (also the same Shah Jahan – of Taj Mahal fame). On a hot day we could imagine life here when the many water-ways and fountains were operating, and the shah and his family could bath in rose-scented water. Such thoughts prompted the desire for iced-coffee, and after a frantic auto-rickshaw drive to Connaught Place we eventually found just that, before an easy walk back to the hotel in Paharganj (the word “hotel” perhaps suggests something like the Hilton with crisp cotton sheets, spacious lounges and lobbies, obsequious staff – none of which describe the Hotel Arupat, although it was perfectly clean and adequate, and also popular with many of the backpackers who wash up in Delhi.     



Thursday, April 28, 2011

Leh to Delhi

Thursday 28th, 7am

We went to Leh airport yesterday morning for our Air India flight back to Delhi, but the flight was cancelled because of a pilot strike. We were re-scheduled on Jet Airways the following day. An extra day in Leh rather than the noise and chaos of Delhi was no loss. Now we are waiting for our departure, already delayed from 7:25 to about 8:00 am. Check-in was pure chaos, mixed with intensive security screening (2 separate x-ray checks, 3 personal scans and frisks), bureaucracy (each scanned bag individually tagged, numbered  and written by hand in a register) and a check-in procedure which took about 10 minutes for each of the three people in our party. Jet Airways had a poster for their staff, but in full view of passengers, exhorting their staff to make eye contact with “guests” since “eye contact exudes warmth and sincerity”. How about trying warmth and sincerity itself? And what’s wrong with us being called passengers?    


The last day in Leh was a gentle wandering round the markets. Lunch at a multi-ethnic restaurant with a menu including Tibetan, Nepalese, Indian, Korean, Chinese, Italian, Russian and Israeli food. The proprietor was Nepalese, and his uncle married to a Korean woman. Always ready to try Korean food as it takes shape in different countries I ordered sujebi (it’s a soup of small dough strips or shapes), which came with the hottest kimchi I’ve ever encountered – made with a locally grown radish, cabbage and ginger).


We seem to be ready for boarding.  



Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Leh - final day

Tuesday 26 April


The final full day in Leh – and stricken down by a touch of Delhi belly (or whatever the local equivalent is) I have been resting all day. It’s spring here and people are preparing for summer crops; digging out gardens, watering the soil. Store keepers are cleaning and painting their premises, preparing for the summer influx of tourists. But I prefer it like this, quiet and with most of the tourist traps closed. But next time I should have warmer clothing.


The skies have been perfectly clear, dark clean blue, bright sun. This afternoon some cloud came in and a sudden gust of wind blew up a dust storm.

The first day it was a struggle to climb up to my second storey guesthouse room but with 24 hours rest I was able to get about and by yesterday morning sufficiently acclimatised to be able to start walking and even climbing without getting short of breath. Leh is on the side of a hill, and so any walking involves going up and coming down. We had an early morning climb to the Shanti Stupa, built by Japanese monks as part of a movement for world peace; then after wandering round the market took a taxi up to the vertiginous heights of Namgyal Tsemo Gompa and then a slide down the mountain to the Leh Palace.


People here are certainly fit and clamber round as agilely as mountain goats.   


The “Oriental Guest House” is a friendly place, run by a large family who spend the day pottering round – cleaning, preparing the garden, carrying children, cooking. And a grandfather who occupies himself sitting in the sun, spinning his prayer wheel and generally keeping an eye on things. It sprawls over three traditional style houses. We are in the cheap rooms – about $5 per night with shared bathroom promising running hot and cold but more usually dribbling warm and very cold. But that’s no hardship when you can lie in bed and look out at the Himalayas. In any case, water is scarce here and we shouldn’t waste it. In the same ecological spirit we are offered the use of a traiditional Ladakhi toilet – a hole in the floor, falling into a chamber below – open to the outside and from where the farmers take their manure.


From here we fly tomorrow to Delhi, back to noise and chaos.    

Sunday, April 24, 2011


Sunday April 24th, 4pm.

We flew into Leh from Delhi, crossing increasingly jagged mountain peaks and making a landing which required zigzagging over mountain passes. Here it’s 3500 metres above sea level – the highest I’ve ever been except in a pressurised aeroplane of course. Spend the first day resting is what the books tell you and they are right. Even the effort of walking up 2 storeys to get to my room in the guest house is more than enough exertion and leaves me short-breathed. There’s a lot to see just by walking round here but for now the magnificent views from my window of the Himalayas are plenty enough and call for no more exertion than keeping my eyes open.


Leh is a popular back-packers destination in the summer season, but now, in early spring, the streets are deserted, and most of the restaurants and guest houses still “closed for winter”.  It’s easy to greet the other tourists you see in the streets  since the same faces keep coming round.


Time to rest again.


Agra - Delhi

Sunday 24 April, 3am

(and I’m totally confused where I should be liturgically here – perhaps halfway between those who do evening vigils of the resurrection and those, such as at Stroud, who do dawn ones.)


Our arrival in Agra at midday the usual confusion of railways – touts, beggars, grannies with bundles of luggage, railway officials. We decided to change plans and hire a taxi for the day to take us round the planned itinerary of lunch, Taj Mahal  and Agra Fort, then drive us on to Delhi airport, rather than muck about with individual taxis, a late night bus, and the uncertainty of getting an honest taxi drived to deliver us safely from the Delhi terminal to the airport. Our taxi driver included the inevitable craft markets for inlaid marble and hand-woven rugs. Sadly we disappointed everyone, and certainly our driver who I am sure gets a commission on those sales.


A change of driver and car gave us air-conditioning for the 4 hour, 30 minute ride to the airport. He dropped us off at the domestic terminal – we were catching a domestic flight after all – and sped off into the distance before the security guards told us that we were in the wrong terminal. Kingfisher domestic flights go from the new international terminal. Obvious really. It’s 6km away but fortunately there was a free shuttle bus – even at 1am. So we are now checked in to the 5:20 flight right up to the far north of India, to Leh in the Ladakh region. It’ll be refreshing to be out of the 40C temperatures of the last few days; but I hope I have enough for the chilly nights.


Agra – well every tourist in India washes up at the Taj Mahal sooner or later and it really is worth the hassle of heat, tour guides insisting that without them you’re totally wasting your time, postcard sellers, and the purveyors of the ultimately unlike scene – the Taj in snow. It really is magnificent and nothing like the former public conveniences in downtown Wellington, nicknamed the Taj. Photos to come later when I get a better internet connection.


And the Agra Fort, especially round twilight, was a memorable end to the day’s sightseeing. It would have been more remarkable if the water still flowed in the fountains and cisterns, but easy enough to imagine the beauties of its former days. And of course it gives a splendid sunset view of the Taj.  


In a few hours I’ll be at an altitude of 3500 metres and resting and acclimatising to the thin air, no doubt marvelling that this also is part of the same India I’ve been seeing the past few days.  


Saturday, April 23, 2011

Somewhere in the State of Uttar Pradesh

Saturday 23 April, 10:30am.

Nearing the end of another 20 hour rail journey – this one from Mumbai to Agra. The usual chaos of families, children, vendors, ticket inspectors. The landscape is mostly flat and rocky with little green life apart from some spindly bushes and a few trees. Mountain ranges in the distance and the occasional village, cattle sheltering from the heat under the trees.


Mumbai was busy and chaotic and our time there too short except to see a little of the Colaba district – around the Gate of India and the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel. Our plans to have coffee there were thwarted by the news that the coffee shop didn’t open until 4:30pm Or at least that’s what they told this rag-tag group of backpackers. The leafy streets behind there are full of decaying imperial splendour – 4 or 5 storey houses now rotting back into the ground.


In 2 hours we arrive in Agra and join the queue to see the Taj Mahal.   



Thursday, April 21, 2011

Bengaluru to Pune

Where to start writing in the few minutes available online? Travel by bus, crowded, noisy, chaotic, from Krishnagiri to Hasur, then another bus (the same) to Bengaluru. A chaotic auto-rickshaw journey to some market area to eat lunch, then another auto-rickshaw trip - the three of us crowded in the back along with luggage (principally mine) - to the railway station where we boarded our nearly 24 hour journey from Bengaluru to Pune.

We were in air conditioned class fortunately - although at times in the evening when the air con was excessive I was grateful for the layers of clothing in my luggage. Accommodation was in a curtained-off 6-berth compartment, one of many along one side of the corridor. Arranging the bunks a feat of co-ordination as the other 3 passengers (travelling with huge suitcases which first had to be lifted down from the top bunks) plus ourselves lifted up the backs of the seats and hooked them into position to form the middle level of bunks. Getting up in the morning an equal feat. And without everyone ready to get up at the same time and rearrange bunks into seat backs a lot of waiting about. Still - in a 24 hour journey there's nothing much else to do other than wait for the coffee or the chai vendor to come along.

Arrived in Pune at midday and now settled at the Christa Prema Seva Ashram - the buildings formerly occupied by the Christa Seva Sangh which was instrumental in forming one of the strands of SSF.

Time for dinner and to go offline.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Passage to/in India

Not so much my passage to India, because that was by plane, and, inside a plane, indistinguishable from the passage to anywhere else, but the beginning of a passage in India. What began as a suggestion that I visit a Korean friend currently working in a children’s home in Krishnagiri in Tamil Nadu State will be a journey from here to the far north of India. The itinerary looks exhausting. Some of the “accommodation” will be on overnight trains or buses; but at least we’ve booked sleepers and are not travelling on the roof.


I arrived last night in Bengaluru (Bangalore) and was met by Hee Kyung who then took me back to the Trinity Children’s Home in Krishnagiri. Our driver wove his way between container trucks, regarding any more than a metre’s clearance as wasted space. At one stage when he was tired of doing that on his own side of the motorway he popped over to the other side to do it with the oncoming traffic. We arrived at about 2:30 am and I finally got some horizontal sleep, until being woken by all the sounds of neighbourhood life from about 5am. Our own establishment made its contribution with loud gospel choruses through loudspeakers at 6am, followed by the exercise music which used to be played loudly in Korean schools, offices, factories, villages - pretty well everywhere – when I first stated living in Korea in 1995, but which I hadn’t heard for a few years. I felt I should have been out in the yard doing jumping and stretching to the shouted out “one two three four” of the exercise instructor on the recording.


This is Holy Week and instead of the usual community religious exercises I’ll be on trains, or sightseeing, saying my offices as best as I can while on the go. I miss the experience of being in community this week, but will be forming a different sort of community with Hee Kyung and another of his fellow missionaries from here. I told the brothers at Stroud I would be like St Clare who, when prevented by illness from being present at Christmas midnight mass one year saw it all as it happened in a vision and was able to tell the sisters what they had experienced. (For which she is patron saint of television). So in my mind’s eye I will see them at Stroud going about the daily office and the liturgies of the Triduum.


Hee Kyung (or Peter as he has adopted as his name in India) has been a friend for a long time. He was one of my students when I was teaching English at Sungkonghoe University in Seoul, and since graduating from there in social welfare has entered a Presbyterian seminary and is taking a year in India as a mission placement. We’ll be joined for our travels by another of his fellow workers from here, Gabriel.


We depart tomorrow – and about 24 hours later arrive in Pune.