24 Mar - 31 Mar 2015 Bikaner

Among Camels and Rats...
Matt: Getting lost (without losing my bearings) inbetween the markets, temples and havelis of Bikaner's labyrinthine old city, enjoying chance encounters with highly gifted Sikh street dentists, Rajasthani horse shoers and untouchable gold panners, and visiting patriotic brown camels (Camelus dromedarius) and religious black rats (Rattus rattus) in their touristified breeding centres out-of-town.

“This wasn't a strange place; it was a new one.” 
(Paulo Coelho)

Matt: Exploring the narrow alleyways in the immediate neighbourhood of my convenient quarters, the recommendable Shanti House +919461159796, located in Bikaner's atmospheric but crumbling old city which is dotted with a rich array of quirky, early twentieth-century havelis whose idiosyncratic architecture demonstrates "…a fusion of indigenous sandstone carving with Art Nouveau and red-brick British municipal style…", enjoying innumerous very hot tasting sessions at Bikaner's exotic spice-and-pickles market and many similarly hot conversations with the beautiful local ladies at the sari bazaar about my attitude towards crossdressing.

Matt: Learning in Bikaner about some peculiar but interesting professions who still contribute to the contemporary Indian economy: (i) having my hiking sandals stitched up with a sewing awl and twine by a roadside cobbler, (ii) watching how a roadside farrier places pre-loved horseshoes on the hooves of a shaggy carthorse, (iii) asking an unlicensed street dentist who works his magic under the open sky for a fair quote, (iv) haggling with untouchable gold/silver panners who pan for lost bits of jewellery in the old city's open sewer drains in exactly the same way as the treasure-seekers of the legendary Californian gold rush of the 1850s, and (v) turning my back on the innumerous roadside ear cleaners aka kaan maeliye who scrape out dirt and gunk from clogged Indian ears with a very, very long needle…

Matt: Conquering the impressive, heavily guarded 16th-century Junagarh Fort (admission: INR 300.- or US$ 4.80 per paying foreigner), built at ground level and defended only by high walls plus a 10 m wide moat, stepping without being caught in the maharaja's opulent headquarters aka anup mahal on the thick carpet which was made by inmates of Bikaner jail, a manufacturing tradition that has only recently ceased, and discussing the self-immolating practice of committing sati which has been banned for the whole of India by Queen Victoria in 1861 CE.
"...the holy practice of sati, whereby a widow burned herself on the funeral pyre of her husband, to achieve virtue, to secure the honour of her husband's family, and to cleanse that family of the sins of three generations..."
(V.S. Naipaul)

"You who wish to conquer pain,
you must learn what makes me kind;
the crumbs of love that you offer me,
they're the crumbs I've left behind.
Your pain is no credential here,
it's just the shadow, shadow of my wound.

I have begun to long for you,
I who have no greed;
I have begun to ask for you,
I who have no need.
You say you've gone away from me,
but I can feel you when you breathe." 
(Leonard Cohen)

Matt: Meeting up with the friendly and knowledgeable Brahmin priest Shankar at his 16th-century Seth Bhandasar Jain Temple, touring together the innards of the temple which are decorated with a gaudy array of paintings and porcelain tiles imported from Victorian England, and learning that the foundation of the temple has allegedly been made with 40,000 kg of pure ghee and dry coconut (…plus some other ingredients, probably too tedious to mention).

Matt: Counting the free-roaming, well-fed black rats (Rattus rattus) in the Karni Mata Temple (free admission for humans and rats, camera ticket: INR 30.- per camera) at Deshnok (c. 32 km from Bikaner, ½ hour by public bus, INR 20.- or c. US$ 0.30 per person, one way), tippytoing barefooted among the substantial rat droppings, searching together with many agitated Hindu pilgrims for a glimpse of the temple's venerated white rat, listening to the devotees who believe that these rats are reincarnated souls saved from the wrath of Yama, the god of death, and investing in a 60-ml bottle of well-tried Dettol antiseptic liquid for only INR 18.- or US$ 0.30 at the local pharmacy for a thorough clean-up of my contaminated feet immediately afterwards.

“The rat gave birth.
Six little ones ... cute baby rats.
None of them are like Hitler.” 
(Yoshihiro Tatsumi)

Matt: Spying on India's camel-cavalry resources and visiting the National Research Centre on Camel (admission: INR 100.- per foreigner, camera fee: INR 50.- per camera) situated in the Thar Desert c. 10 km south of Bikaner, renowned for its famously sturdy beasts for the once much-feared Bikaner Camel Corps, but these days a rather boring and mercilessly commercialised tourist trap (e.g. camel-milk icecream, camel-leather handbags, camel-hair blankets); round trip Bikaner - N.R.C.C. - Bikaner in a shared auto rickshaw aka three-wheeler aka bajaj: c. 20 km return, ½ hour one way, INR 60.- per person.

 “All things (e.g. a camel's journey through
A needle's eye) are possible, it's true.
But picture how the camel feels, squeezed out
In one long bloody thread, from tail to snout.”
(C.S. Lewis)

Matt: Scouting around for cheap and good local vegan food and chilled flyless beers and hitting pay dirt near the Bikaner Junction Railway Station: (i) the non-luxurious Hotel Deluxe for great lunches for less than INR 100.- or US$ 1.60 per meal (a wide array of delicious vegetable curries from INR 40.- to INR 60.-, plain rice for just INR 20.- per bowl and Indian onion salad for INR 15.- per plate), (ii) the friendly no-name tandoori dhaba with superb thalis for INR 50.- (an unlimited number of crispy-fresh rotis, two to three different unlimited sabji, daal, Indian onion salad), and (iii) the ubiquitous 650-ml bottles of ice-cold Tuborg Strong Premium Beer with 8.0 % alc./vol. for only INR 90.- or US$ 1.40 per large bottle from the reliable English Wine & Beer Shop right opposite Bikaner's well-managed railway station.

“Slow down, take time, allow yourself to be wildly diverted from your plan. People are the soul of the place; don't forget to meet them and enjoy their company as you explore a place.”
(David DuChemin)

Matt: Taking the Bikaner Delhi Sarai Rohilla Express train no. 15,458 in India's filthy three-tier sleeper class (with metal-grilled, locked windows) from Bikaner's Junction Railway Station to Delhi's run-down Sarai Rohilla Railway Station (457 km, 7 ¾ hours, INR 200.- or US$ 3.20 per senior citizen), hereafter a private auto rickshaw aka three-wheeler aka bajaj from the Sarai Rohilla Railway Station straight to the New Delhi Railway Station (c. 5 km, ¼ hours, INR 80.- or US$ 1.30 for the ride), and walking finally to the highly recommendable budget hotel Smyle Inn +911123584076 (see our previous stays: [1], [2]), only a short walk from the New Delhi Railway Station but well hidden at N 28° 38.50' E 077° 12.88' in the adventurous maze of Paharganj's narrow lanes, Delhi's frenetic market and hostel district for both international and domestic travellers.

Beim Reisen begegnen mir immer wieder ganz verschiedene Tiere: Haustiere und Wildtiere, kleine und grosse Tiere, laute und leise Tiere. Ihr Verhalten mir gegenueber haengt von der jeweiligen Situation, einschliesslich meines eigenen Verhaltens, und von den gattungstypischen Eigenschaften dieser Tiere ab. Ganz klar, Tiger betragen sich im wirklichen Leben anders als Hasen…
In Maerchen und Fabeln jedoch werden den Tieren gern einzelne menschliche Eigenschaften zugeordnet. Wenn dann ein bestimmtes Tier in dieser Geschichte auftaucht, koennt Ihr Euch meistens schon denken, wie es weitergeht. Einfaeltige Fuechse gibt es im Maerchen nur selten. Dafuer sind Biber meistens recht fleissig und arbeitsam, Esel sind oft stoerrisch und faul, Hunde in der Regel treu und freundlich, Loewen stets stark und maechtig, Ziegen haeufig zickig und unzufrieden und die lieben Grunzis in Eurer Scheune werden gern als dick, dumm, faul, gefraessig und schmutzig bezeichnet, so dass es den Menschen leichter faellt, sie mit gutem Gewissen zu toeten und aufzuessen. Manche Tiernamen werden sogar als Schimpfworte und andere Tiernamen als Kosenamen benutzt. - Welche Eigenschaften haben die Tiere in diesem Blogeintrag? 
From India, with Love!

Click below for more blog posts about Northern India's impressive but crumbling forts

14 Mar - 24 Mar 2015 Pushkar

A Sacred Junk Shop… 
Matt: Trying to stay sane in Pushkar, one of the places in Western India with the greatest density of international and domestic eccentrics, a funny destination where (i) devote Hindu pilgrims from the East buy religious hope (wholesale & retail) and (ii) dolled up New-Age showoffs from the West purchase pseudo-ethnic hippie clothes and accessories (wholesale & retail).

“We are what we pretend to be,
so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.” 
(Kurt Vonnegut)

Matt: Circumnavigating barefooted the polluted Pushkar Lake, supposedly one of India's most sacred sites, surrounded by decaying temples and fifty-two holy but filthy bathing ghats (one for each of Rajasthan's maharajas), watching interesting encounters between eagerly worshipping devotees and eagerly skimming Brahmin priests and enjoying spectacular sunsets from the Jaipur Ghat. 

Matt: Exploring only a few of Pushkar's c. five hundred Hindu temples and shrines, visiting even less of Pushkar's c. five hundred wholesale and retail outlets for the discerned wannabe hippie, listening to the Hebrew, Italian, French, Spanish and Slavic babel on the street and sticking out like a sore thumb: no funky dreadlocks, no visible tattoos, no sexy piercings, no homespun garments and no sweet potbelly; darn it, I am still too young.

“Those who dance are considered insane by those who cannot hear the music.”

Matt: Heeding faithfully one of the bumming sadhu's counsel about "...a new perspective will come to you...", climbing therefore up to the hilltop Savithri and Gayathri temples and enjoying delightful encounters with fellow heretics.

Matt: Fleeing from Pushkar's psychodelic fancy-dress parade and countless preposterous One World Health Shops, Himalaya Herbs Outlets, Holistic Yoga Gardens, Practical Meditation Courses, Hatha Yoga Healing Classes, Fresh Homemade Organic Food Centres, Ancient Ayurvedic Depth Masseurs, Experienced Tattoo Studios, Body Piercing Workshops, Handmade Sugar Cane Clothing Stores, Unique Silver Art Jewellers, Genuine Rajasthani Massage Parlours, Certified Shiatsu and Reflexology Therapists, Super Healthy Honey Breakfast Homestays, Transformation of Life Energy Certifications, Therapeutic Oil Suppliers, Yogic Drum Purifications, Natural Incense Dealers and Traditional Handloom Fashion Designers, and finding consolation among ordinary Indian mortals (e.g. hair dressers [crew cut for INR 30.- per cut], fruit sellers [fresh mulberries for INR 80.- per kg] and pharmacists [generic over-the-counter-Viagra Vigora for INR 15.- per 50 mg]) in the rugged neighbourhood behind Pushkar's busy and filthy government bus stand.

“You don’t take a photograph, you make it."

Matt: Falling in love with untouchable Camille, a charming Dalit (Kalbelya) snake charmer with green eyes, buying her many strong masala chais at a late hour but resisting the almost irresistible invitation into her home, sharing travel tales and destination tips with fellow senior-citizen vagabonds Varvara & Paul from Owen Sound in Central Ontario and learning about the subtleties of fine jewellery making from my friendly room neighbour Anna from France.

“When a woman teams up with a snake a moral storm threatens somewhere.” 

Matt: Celebrating the Hindu New Year 2072 at the sacred ghats together with the beautiful ladies from Guru Padma Charan Dehury's Ommkar Kalashram Dance School and listening to Kshiti Prakash Mahopatra's classical Indian ragas.

Matt: Ignoring the overpriced food in my otherwise recommendable quarters, the Hotel Lake View +911452772106, with stunning views over the Pushkar Lake and its ghats, and becoming a regular at (i) the down-to-earth Sanskaar Restaurant (excellent unlimited vegetarian thali with unlimited chapattis for INR 50.- or US$ 0.80 per meal), (ii) the friendly, hole-in-the-wall Shiva Café (strongest filter coffee in town for INR 30.- or US$ 0.50 per large glass) and (iii) the only English Wine & Beer Shop in Pushkar whose nonpartisan owner doesn't give a dam about the teetotalling holiness of the place (650-ml bottles of ice-cold Kingfisher Premium Lager Beer with 4.8 % alc./vol. and the usual glycerine flavour for the stiff premium price of INR 130.- or US$ 2.10 per large bottle).

Matt: Getting out of this holy hole and taking a jam-packed R.S.R.T.C. government bus (Rajasthan State Road Transport Company) from the unmarked bus stop opposite Pushkar's busy and filthy government bus stand to my friends Tara & Gouri's highly recommendable homestay Shanti House +9115125443306 in the centre of bustling and rather un-touristy Bikaner (260 km, 6 ¼ hours, INR 208.- or US$ 3.30 per person), a city which is famous for its thoroughbred camels and rats...

For Raoni, Tien and Ronja:
Die kleine indische Stadt Pushkar liegt an einem trueben See, dessen Wasser heilig sein soll; was auch immer das bedeuten mag. Ich habe mit meinen eigenen Augen bloss sehen koennen, dass das Wasser sehr schmutzig war. Trotzdem haben viele Inder verzueckt darin gebadet und beim Eintauchen etwas fuer sich oder fuer ihre Familien gewuenscht: Viel Geld, viel Glueck, viele Kinder, noch mehr Kinder… Beim Wuenschen bzw. Beten wurden sie von Priestern unterstuetzt, meistens schmierige Typen, die fuer ihren Hokospokus viel Geld nehmen. Zusaetzlich gibt es in Pushkar noch an jeder Ecke grosse Stahlkassen (donation boxes), in welche die Pilger ihre letzten Rupien fuer die Goetter einwerfen. Meine Frage, wie denn das Geld von den Priestern zu den Goettern gelangt, wollte mir niemand konkret beantworten.
Beim Umherwandern in Pushkar habe ich haeufig an eines meiner Lieblingsmaerchen gedacht, an Des Kaisers Neue Kleider (The Emperor's New Clothes). Lasst es Euch bitte von Konni erzaehlen. - Weshalb wohl war es ein kleines Kind, das zu rufen gewagt hat "...aber er hat ja nichts an!", und weshalb kein Erwachsener? 
From India, with Love!

Click below for more blog posts about interesting encounters with snakes