May 11, 2002
Prologue: Stromness, Orkney
From Dog Biscuit to Dum Dum (the first bit)
When I was hitch-hiking around Scotland I sometimes asked the driver why they'd given me a lift. To my tremendous disappointment, the answer was usually along the lines of "because you didn't look as if you were going to kill me."
Some nights I'd find myself around a kitchen table in a hostel talking with other hitch-hikers about their experiences. One of those nights was spent in Stromness, 800 miles north of London. It had taken me two days to hitch there, and one of the other guys there had done exactly the same journey. It had taken him two months.
Again and again, he said the same thing: "man, I just never seem to get lifts." To hear him say this seemed inexplicable. He was a sweet, charming man, with an angelic smile and an engaging manner. But on first sight, he made you wonder if he was going to kill you. He had long, spectacular dreadlocks, and a taste in clothes that dated back to the time of the Black Plague. He was wearing a sack. A fairly dirty sack. The kind of thing more commonly seen housing large quantities of rice and flour.
He seemed to have no idea about how his appearance influenced his chances of getting rides. And this lack of awareness started to irritate me, and gradually I started to regard everything he said as completely ridiculous.
One of the places he was very curious about was Iran, but he was quick to acknowledge the big problem about going there: you could only get a five-day transit visa. And Iran is a big country. If you were going all the way across it, you'd have to spend all five days on buses. "But it would still be worth it," he said, "just for the experience."
And I remember sitting there, looking at this man in a sack, wondering which planet he came from, and if he'd ever manage to score a lift back there. And I thought: what a fool. Spending five days on buses going across a fundamentalist Islamic country would have to be the most ludicrous idea I've ever heard.
Even so, it was an idea ...
Two months later. Dog Biscuit, Eastern Turkey
Yes, there really is a place called Dog Biscuit. It's a small Turkish town a few miles from Iran. Across the border the first Iranian town you come to is Maku, the Persian word for "cat food." And somewhere in the mountains is the capital: Mousetrap.
Yes, my very good friends, for you very special price and the best best special highest quality: one small bit of truth and several lies thrown in free! Hey! Where you going? Wanna buy nice carpet, too? Only 3,000 American dollars but many many cups of sweet nice hot warm tea thrown in free!
So. Let's do this properly. Yes, there really is a place called Dog Biscuit. But it's actually spelt Dogubeyazit, and somehow that just doesn't seem as romantic. And romance is something that, to be blunt, is in short supply in Dog Biscuit. I walked around its dusty streets for hours, and found no romance at all. Dog Biscuit, it seems, is a romance-free zone. If you're fleeing the romantic life, come here. If you're worried that a lingering romance might follow, rest and be peaceful. Bring your unwanted romance, and watch it die. In the dust. Horribly.
In the absence of romance, I had to find something else to do in Dog Biscuit. I walked up to the famous castle, and had a nice afternoon clambering all over it. That exhausted Dog Biscuit's entertainment possibilities. So I started wondering if the town had some kind of motto or famous phrase. Something along the lines of: "If in Dog Biscuit, do as the Dog Biscuits do: eat dry food and woof." I thought about the town's location, on one of the crossroads of Western Asia, and came up with this: "All roads lead to Dog Biscuit, and then keep going to their real destination."
My real destination was India, but that was across three difficult and lonely borders. I was in the process of taking public transport from London to Calcutta, and being in Dog Biscuit made me wonder, for the first time, about the sanity of this itinerary. It was dry and dusty and lacking in romance. And I'd underestimated the time and distance involved.
I'd left London some time before, and had already travelled several thousand miles, and I felt completely exhausted. But India was still a long way away, and the next stop was a large, fundamentalist Islamic country. I had a five-day transit visa, and a disturbingly clear memory of a conversation with a man in a sack in Scotland. "It'd be worth it," he'd said, "just for the experience."
So here I was in Dog Biscuit, paying the price for listening to a man in a sack.
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May 13, 2002
The Turkish/Iranian Border: The Who in Cincinatti
(the second bit)
Leaving Turkey was easy enough, but getting into Iran proved insanely difficult.
There were about a hundred people in the Immigration Hall when I walked in. When I crowdsurfed my way out, several hours later, there were several hundred people more. There were no signs, no queues, no information posted, nothing. Just one door going in and another door, at the other end of the hall, going out. This other door had already attracted a lot of interest. Around it was a crowd at least a hundred people, all of whom were yelling at it. Every few minutes it would open and a very tired looking man in a uniform would appear, only to have a hundred people start yelling at him - only much, much louder.
This seemed puzzling. But I didn't think I was in a strong position to ask questions or give instructions. So I joined in. I started off with some light vocal warm-up exercises, and soon moved on to thermonuclear yelling. But something didn't feel right, and I soon realised what it was. I didn't know what to yell.
So I improvised. I happily yelled whatever I could think of: I yelled jokes, I yelled insults, I yelled complements, I yelled all the words to Bruce Springsteen's "Born in the U.S.A." (which none of the locals recognised), and finally I yelled "why are we all yelling?"
There was a brief pause when everyone stopped and turned to look at me. "Hi," I said into the sudden pause, and cheerfully waved. Incredibly, everyone waved back. Well, everyone except for the tired man in the uniform. He just closed the door behind him as he snuck back through it.
Then there was a lot more yelling, but now a lot of it was aimed at me.
I gave up. I walked away to figure out what I was supposed to do. I was alone in a foreign country, or near a foreign country, and I couldn't even get in.
If in doubt, try neurosis
Eventually I realised that Iran is the kind of place that rewards patience. All those people were yelling things along the lines of "let me in. Let me in now." So I got back to the door, and did everything I could to get closer to it.
This seemed like a good idea for a few minutes, but then more people arrived and started pushing from somewhere in the crowd behind me. Things started getting ugly. At one point I got shoved to one side of the door by the mob, and ended up dangerously close to a very solid looking wall. Luckily there were piles of rice lining the walls, so I had some kind of soft buffer. I was also wearing a large backpack on my back and clutching a smaller backpack to my chest, and these offered a bit of extra protection.
This feeling of protection only lasted until people started climbing on the sacks of rice and started yelling at the door from a position directly above me.
I'd never experienced claustrophobia before, so it seemed like a good time to start. After a number of very anxious minutes the door opened again and my passport was handed back to me. I was free to go.
But I had one last test: I had to get past the hundred or so yelling people in my path. But by this time my personality had changed from mild-mannered Australian tourist to an enraged Incredible Hulk. I just wanted to breathe. Really badly. I charged through the crowd and got to the safety of the door.
Only when I got through it did I realise I was shaking with fear and anger. Why did I have to endure this to get into this country? I was suddenly very conscious that eleven people had been crushed to death getting into a Who concert in Cincinatti. Getting into Iran was a bit like that, except for the absence of the band.
And the fun wasn't over. I still had to get through Customs. From past experience, customs officers tend to look for guns and drugs, so I was unprepared for the question I got: "magazines?" "Why, yes," I said, happy to admit that even though I was from the infidel West, at least I could read.
"Give," he said, so I pulled out a copy of The New Yorker. I gave. He opened it, and flicked through a few pages, and found an advertisement which had a picture of a fully dressed woman with long, shiny hair. "Banned," he said, and threw the magazine on to a large pile of other banned material. "Welcome to Iran," he said, "you may enter now."
Iran, I later discovered, is a wonderfully civilised country. In many ways, it's a paradise for tourists: there's a lot to see, it's clean, safe and incredibly cheap. And the people are warm and welcoming and very friendly.
But they really have a problem with women's hair.
They also have a problem with their television. They have the homicidal telethon problem.
The Homicidal Telethon
A few hours later I was in Maku and obliged to spend a few hours waiting for a bus. All the yelling and claustrophobia had made me hungry, but Ramadan was on, which meant that it was hard to find a restaurant that was open during the day. Eventually I found one, and ordered some food, and tried to pretend that everything was normal.
It wasn't. I was in Iran and the television was on.
The first thing I saw was footage of an enormous, insane crowd jumping up and down and screaming. Everyone in the crowd was wearing long white robes, and they seemed to be venting a stunning amount of hostility. Every few moments the camera would change angles or provide a close-up of one particularly deranged section of the crowd, but insane crowd footage was all we got for what seemed like the next substantial bit of eternity.
At last the scene changed. Next up was a senior military man with an oiled moustache and a chest full of medals. He was sitting at a desk, and pounding his fist on it, while yelling and screaming and venting a stunning amount of hostility. This went on for a few minutes, so we got to see just how battered his desk was, and then the cameras went back to the insane crowd.
I sat in that restaurant for nearly three hours, and the only show on TV was this homicidal telethon. It went on and on, without commercial breaks, for the whole time I was there. For all I know, it's still on right now. For all I know this is the only kind of thing Iranian television ever shows. Perhaps there are high powered television executives who are proud to be bringing their nation live hostility 24 hours a day.
But as a newly arrived tourist, I longed to see something, anything, that would give me more information about this country. I was particularly keen to see a commercial: after all, what does a fundamentalist Islamic nation advertise? (Probably not shampoo, I surmised.) But I hoped in vain. No guy with a smooth moustache ever appeared to say "and we'll be back with more fundamentalist insanity after these messages." There was just a lot more footage of an insane crowd. And there was no climax to the thing; just hour after hour of heavy breathing.
After I finished my meal I got out my notebook to try to get some thoughts down on paper. I opened it, took out my pen, looked around the restaurant, and immediately put the notebook and pen away. It just didn't seem safe to be seen in public in Iran, making notes. It seemed a great way of saying to the people around me: "look, potential screaming mob, I'm an imperialist spy. I've come from the infidel West to do a little research on how to destroy your ancient Islamic culture. Perhaps you could make me the subject of your next homicidal telethon."
And to complicate the situation, I couldn't even find out exactly what all these people were going insane about. Only when I got to Esfahan, a few days later, did I find out: it was a protest against the existence of Israel. But at the time I didn't know that, so I did what any normal person would do. I immediately started paying a whole lot of attention to the people around me, searching for any signs that someone was ready to get a few friends together and start screaming at me.
Only when I did that did I start to relax. I obviously had nothing to fear from the Iranians in my immediate area. They were all very calm and relaxed people. Especially the ones lying down in the bus station, fast asleep.
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May 17, 2002
What the outside world looks like from Yazd
I seem to have spent the last two days trawling through archives of stuff that I wrote while travelling around. I've realised - to my deep alarm - that I've written nothing about some of the key events.
In some ways that's not a problem, because my memory works like a jar of Brazil nuts. Eventually, the biggest chunks rise to the top.
On the other hand, it's nice to be able to read over small details that I may have forgotten, and which might come in handy. Here's a little something that I seem never to have recorded anything about ...
There's a city in Iran called Yazd, which is classified by UNESCO as the oldest continually inhabited city on earth. It's a pleasant place, with an above average tourist hotel, intriguing architecture and a lovely mosque.
Yazd was memorable for another reason, though. It was the only place in Iran where foreigners could access the internet.
Armed with a guide from the hotel, a small group of us bundled into a taxi and were driven a few kilometres to a nondescript door. There was no sign on it, and no indication anywhere of what lay inside. Our guide tapped on the door and we were ushered in. It was all very secretive and strange.
Inside were a couple of brand new computers, and they were connected.
We were only allowed to use them for an hour, so I sat there and typed a dozen emails very, very quickly. They were all variations on a simple theme: "Hi. I'm in Iran and I'm safe. It's beautiful and interesting and the people are lovely. The only serious problem I've had is getting access to the net so I could tell you that."
Then our time was up. Our presence was making the people who ran the business nervous, and that in turn was making us nervous.
Our taxi was still waiting outside, but I was in too good a mood to use it. I asked our guide in what direction the hotel was, and walked back alone.
Night had fallen in the oldest continually inhabited city on earth. I did not see another living soul in the next hour. But I felt alive and empowered and very, very happy. After two weeks in a tightly controlled country, which severely limits people's access to information and the outside world, I'd managed to get a message out. It felt great.
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May 18, 2002
Iran: The Tap Water in Esfahan
From Dog Biscuit to Dum Dum
(the third bit)
Ahem. I haven't finished this bit yet.
But when I do, it'll go here.
Posted by Sean Hegarty at 11:42 PM | Permalink
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May 21, 2002
The Iranian/Pakistani border: Something is better than nothing
(The fourth bit)
The next border was at a place called Taftan. Taftan is on the Pakistani side of the border, and it does look recognisably like a small town of some kind. On the Iranian side is desert. This area isn't important enough to Iran to bother with building anything. Even with the deprivations of the Khomeini years, Iran is still far wealthier than Pakistan. So Taftan hangs like a barnacle on Iran's gilded sailing ship.
I had a terrible time in Taftan. I think I'd rather go back to school than come back here. One of the guidebooks describes it as a "depressing, fly-blown den of smugglers," which is putting it very, very mildly.
To my great embarrassment, Taftan tops my list of "places that I often think about." Despite having been to many of the world's most beautiful and fascinating places, it's this depressing dump in Pakistan that most occupies my thoughts. I loved the Taj Mahal, and Oxford, and Paris, and New York, and I'm lucky enough to have very fond memories of all these places. But a memory of Taftan is like malaria: once you get it, you never truly get rid of it.
I arrived there on foot, having walked across the border from Iran. I carried all my worldly possessions in two backpacks. Every step I took kicked up a tiny cloud of dust. None of my friends and family knew that I was there. I felt, for the first time in my life, totally alone. If I'd gotten sick there, no help was available. If something had gone wrong, I could've died there, and no one I ever cared about would ever find out. I couldn't wait to leave.
I asked about onward travel, and there was one option. Once a day, a lone bus would trundle across the Baluchistan desert to Quetta, the closest city. It left in four hours. I couldn't wait to leave, so ... I waited to leave. And waited, and waited. It was the longest four hours of my life.
Taftan: dream of death
There's only one thing to do in Taftan, and that's wonder why you're there. The answer I came up scared the hell out of me. I realised that I'd been running away from things for a long, long time. At some point in my teenage years I'd started running, and then I'd kept on running, and eventually I'd ended up in the most miserable little town in the most miserable desert on Earth.
So I did some penance: I thought about all the relationships I'd ever left, all the jobs that I'd spontaneously quit, all the situations that I'd ever run away from. I realised that I had, as the Americans put it, "a problem with responsibility." And that problem had led me, in time, to Taftan. To my surprise, I wasn't enjoying myself very much. All it took to end my romantic attachment to a lifestyle of running was an anxious stroll around a frightening town.
After four hours of fervently hoping that I didn't get sick, robbed, or shot at, the bus arrived.
I'd love to report that it was a charming bus. That would be stretching the truth so far as to challenge the laws of physics. But on it I was surprised to meet a highly educated man who was working in the area as an engineer. I asked him if the journey we were taking was safe, as there had been many recent reports of hijacking, kidnapping and killings. My question had a hidden agenda: I was looking for was overwhelming reassurance that all would be well, and that we would be whisked across the Baluchistan desert with maximum comfort, safety and speed.
Having asked if the bus was safe, there was an incredibly long pause.
"Well," he eventually said, "something is better than nothing."
There was another incredibly long pause, but this time from me. He meant that yes, the bus could be hijacked and yes, we could all be shot. But in the middle of this bleak landscape, there was some good news. At least there was a bus.
Pakistan is not a great place to look for overwhelming reassurance that all will be well.
And it's not a great place to look for comfortable bus rides. It was an awful bus. It was cramped and crowded and very, very cold.
I had to spend the next fifteen hours on it. I tried to cheer myself up by smiling and thinking happy thoughts. This didn't work, and I suspected that this was because I was in Pakistan. Who was I kidding? This was a dangerous place. All around me were angry people with guns. It seemed a safer plan to just lie low and look inconspicuous. So I tried being miserable, and that worked a treat. I had the feeling that I'd really achieved something, and that I'd found a way to immerse myself into the Pakistani lifestyle.
The Baluchistan desert of misery
This bus ride permanently embedded the phrase "the Baluchistan desert of ... " into my mind. When I saw Titanic, which bored me to tears, I naturally described it as "the Baluchistan desert of entertainment." I've also had the misfortune of being in the Baluchistan desert of relationships, but that was another time and another kind of Taftan.
After the Baluchistan desert of bus rides, I finally made it, alive, to Quetta. The bus pulled in around 6:30am, in the pre-dawn darkness, the very coldest time of day. The marathon bus ride meant that my circulation had stopped some time before. Getting off that bus and walking into the bracing sub-sub-sub zero temperature was ... interesting. As soon as I reclaimed my rucksack from the roof of the bus I immediately put on every single item of clothing I owned. I had a fairly strong feeling that if I didn't do that immediately, I would die.
It was cold. I was cold. I was very, very miserable.
And then, as I stood there in the bitterly cold darkness feeling very, very sorry for myself, a young boy casually strolled past. He was barefoot. This is not the wealthiest country in the world, but the people here are pretty tough. Even through my misery, I had to admire that.
Because it was still dark, and below freezing, I decided that it would be foolishness itself to try and find a hotel. I figured the sun would be up in an hour or so, so I decided to warm up by going for a walk around Quetta.
I set off in a random direction, and was happily lost within a few moments. Undeterred, I kept walking, and walking, and walking. Slowly, very slowly, the sun started to rise, and I discovered that I was walking along the railway tracks at just the time of day when the hundreds of people who lived next to them were waking up. There are very few public toilets in Pakistan, and none around that area. "About time to find a hotel," I thought, and left them to it.
The security blanket
After the marathon bus ride, I realised that I needed to vary my travelling itinerary. So I took a marathon train ride.
Pakistan worried me, and I wanted to get out of it as fast as possible. It seemed to have all of India's problems, and none of India's benefits. India has a working democracy, a culture of non-violence, and not very many guns. Pakistan is different in every way. I'd only been there a few days, and that was an adequate sufficiency.
So I booked a seat on the twenty-eight and a half hour ride to Lahore, close to the border with India. The first-class tickets had sold out months ago, but I managed to get one of the last available seats in the economy section. I got to the station an hour ahead of time, found my seat, and sat down.
The seat looked like a wooden bench, but this was some kind of optical illusion. It had obviously been carved out of a piece of living rock. It was the hardest thing I'd ever encountered. In the event of a nuclear war, even one which razed this country to the ground, this seat would survive unscathed. It was designed to last thousands of years, and it probably already had. It was hard and uncomfortable and I raced out of the station to buy myself a beautiful Persian blanket from a vendor just outside.
I got back to the train with a few minutes to spare. I sat down on my warm, fuzzy Persian blanket and immediately felt far more comfortable. Just at that moment the train made a very satisfying whistling sound. It was right on departure time.
What happened next was a bit more depressing, because nothing happened next. The train didn't move, and the whistle didn't blow again. But, I thought, at least there was a whistle.
And eventually the train did start moving, and ten minutes later it reached the end of the platform. I realised that at this rate of travel, we would be spending a lot more than twenty-eight and a half hours on the train. I was suddenly absurdly pleased that I'd had the foresight to buy myself a beautiful blanket. And to take my mind off the possibility of spending the rest of my life on this train, I suggested to my travel companions that we pass the time with a game of chess.
This turned out to be the kind of silly mistake that only tourists of our calibre were capable of making. Within a few moves of the game we were surrounded by several hundred Pakistanis offering wild support and encouragement to whichever player had the next move. This was pretty amusing for the first few seconds, then we realised that (a) it was getting difficult to breathe, and (b) westerners have a very different concept of "personal space" and "privacy" than Pakistanis. The main difference is that we have these concepts.
So it was a very long and very uncomfortable ride, but we kept encouraging each other with comments like "at least the train is moving" and "at least we haven't been taken hostage yet" and "something is better than nothing" and then I sat down and read War and Peace and Moby Dick and got a few days' uncomfortable sleep and counted to 47,713,531,084,381 and then we eventually arrived in Lahore.
I don't really remember much about Lahore, though this may have been the town where I lapsed into a coma. I did discover that Lahore has a very good museum which you should visit if you're ever in town. Otherwise, my advice is not to go to Lahore. The museum is worth seeing, but as Samuel Johnson said about a place far more desirable than Lahore, it isn't worth going to see.
The next day we crossed the border into India, and I found myself looking at this from the perspective of a cow.
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May 30, 2002
Looking at this from the perspective of a cow
(The fifth bit)
The next day I crossed the border into India at Atari, the only border post in the world named after an early model of computers. The first thing I noticed about India was one of the senior customs officers. She was the first woman I'd seen in a position of power since leaving Italy. And she had long, beautiful hair, which I suddenly found myself intrigued by.
The second thing I noticed about India was its smell. This was clearly a different country: there were flowers everywhere, and all kinds of exotic smells in the air. And when I changed some money into rupees, I noticed something else: some of the smaller notes also smell. India obliges you to consider your health, and it remains the only country that has made me wary of its currency.
The interesting thing about the this border is what it must look like from the perspective of a cow. Pakistan is a meat-eating, Muslim country, and it also makes and exports leather products. India is a largely vegetarian Hindu country, and it regards cows as sacred.
So, to a cow, this border represents a cataclysmic divide. I'd never really considered what the world looks like to a cow, but this seemed an appropriate place to delve into bovine metaphysics. I started looking closely at all the cows around, and on both sides of the border. To my surprise, they demonstrated a curiously calm cowness. The Indian cows weren't celebrating and the Pakistani cows weren't cursing. Every cow I saw was just getting on with the business of being a cow.
The delusional illusion: the Golden Temple is not India
From Atari it was but a short ride to Amritsar, the Sikh holy city famous for its Golden Temple, an incredibly beautiful place. I'd timed my journey to be there for the full moon, and it was an astonishing sight to see it rising over the water in the centre of the complex. I found myself sitting there barefoot looking at it above the temple. I was surrounded by pilgrims; beautiful music was playing (albeit on a Casio keyboard), and the whole journey seemed to have been worthwhile.
What I loved about the Golden Temple was having absolutely no idea what was going on. I watched the sunset ceremony in which senior religious figures, assisted by several very beautiful young women, reverentially put their holy book to bed. Having done this, the large crowd were then gently ushered outside, which seemed reasonable. How could anyone, even a book, get to sleep with so many people around?
The Golden Temple was clean and well ordered and very beautiful, which led me to the outrageously misguided conclusion that the rest of India would also be clean and well ordered and very beautiful.
As far as illusions go, this one was appealing, and I was certainly keen to live under its comfort for as long as I could. But I was robbed of it by the simple act of not closing my eyes and leaving for somewhere else immediately.
In the street a few minutes later I was spotted by an old, bearded man who was clearly exceptionally pleased to have seen me. Really exceptionally pleased. He was over the moon and far away. On a scale of happiness from one to ten, he was rapidly approaching infinity, and threatening to go nova.
But, when I said hello in English, it also became obvious that he couldn't communicate his immense pleasure using any language that I could understand. And his intergalactic level of excitement was starting to unnerve me, so I started to walk past him. This forced his hand: he had to do something to express his feelings, and quickly. So he suddenly moved towards me and ... rubbed my stomach. I managed to give him a smile as I kept walking, but a very strange feeling remained for a long time. I had arrived in India, and a local representative had rubbed my stomach.
It was a useful indication of hard it would be to completely insulate myself from this country. A little later I saw an auto rickshaw being hit by a truck, which luckily I got to see from inside the auto rickshaw.
When I realised that the truck was going to hit the rickshaw, I panicked. I shot out my hand and grabbed the rickshaw's solid metal frame. A second later, the truck hit. Because I was holding on so tightly, a shock went through my hand and snapped something in my shoulder. Meanwhile Alipali, my travelling companion, had taken a different approach. Realising that we weren't moving all that fast, she simply relaxed and waited to see what would happen.
She responded to the crash by bouncing a little in her seat and then calmly brushing off all the broken glass. We asked each other if we were okay, and then she said something that I've never forgotten: "quick! We're tourists! Take my camera and get a photo!"
It's now years later, and my shoulder still hurts. If I ever write a self help book, I'm going to call it "How To Stay Tense and Increase Your Pain."
This episode happened in Chandigarh, the one place in India that I was determined to dislike, and which I ended up rather enjoying.
Huge chunks of sterile concrete
Chandigarh was designed by the famous French architect Le Corbusier, and by his standards it's an incredibly rare piece of work. Not because it's good, but because he actually got it built.
The main part of the city is a typically misguided sterile arrangement of hideous blocks of concrete. In the West this would be regarded as "ugly" and "inhuman," but in India the effect is somehow different. Sure, it was still astoundingly brutal, but the huge chunks of sterile concrete were somehow managing to impose a sense of order on India. Several decades after Le Corbusier's concrete was opened for traffic, India still hadn't found a way to reduce it all to chaos. In a perverse kind of way, I somehow came around to admiring that.
Chaos is the key word to describe India. And soon as you arrive in the country, you become aware of the presence of a vast, ancient culture that stretches in all directions before you. You also rapidly discover that the twenty-first century has arrived in India: its ancient culture is no longer isolated. So being in India raises the obvious question of what happens when an ancient culture stumbles in the era of cyberspace.
Well, the main result is an incredible amount of noise. India is the noisiest place on the planet. By the time I left, I was firmly convinced that India had invented noise.
It would be calmer to go for a stroll inside an erupting volcano. Just walking down the street here is an open invitation for hearing loss, psychological trauma and a sudden desire to go somewhere intensely, profoundly boring. Every single vehicle on the road is constantly blowing whistles and beeping horns. Even the little cycle wallahs - who can't afford bells or whistles or horns - just yell at the vehicle ahead of them. It's ridiculous.
I wore earplugs the whole time I was there. I even needed them in some of the hotels: one continued to provide noise of a slightly musical variety at every hour of the day and night. So India is like the Goon Show, as produced by an entire country, and broadcast at the same volume as a Deep Purple gig. My ears were still ringing by the time I got back to Australia.
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August 16, 2002
The long bus ride to the Dalai Lama
(Dog Biscuit, part something. I've lost count.)
On my second night in India I did the old lose-a-lot-of-weight-quickly trick. I ate something in a local restaurant. Within five hours I had lost nearly a quarter of my body weight. I had, almost instantly, become slim and sexy. I was also too weak to stand, but the world is a rich source of compromise.
My hotel wasn't ideal for convalescing. It was one of those places where cars can drive right in, and rev their engines for the rest of the year. After a truly dreadful night of noise and fumes and illness, I gingerly packed up my stuff and set off for somewhere quieter. I walked to a much nicer hotel I'd seen the day before, but couldn't find anyone there who wanted to help me. This was the only place in India where I went to spend money, and couldn't.
Frustrated, I left and noticed a rickshaw driver outside. I looked at my watch, and realised that there might still be time to catch the bus to Dharamsala, the mountain village where the Dalai Lama lives. I quickly negotiated a price, and was whisked to the bus station in record time. By the time we'd arrived, my driver had lost nearly a quarter of his body weight. I'd never seen anyone put so much effort into pedalling, or, for that matter, anything. I sat in the back of the rickshaw and watched him in awe. By the time we arrived at the bus station he was completely covered in sweat, and I was completely covered in embarrassment. I apologised for being from the sedentary West, gave him a handsome tip, and felt guilty for the next few years.
Then, slowly, gingerly, I waddled ten paces to the ticket office. With the last of my strength, I waddled another twenty paces to the bus, leaned vaguely in the direction of a seat, and collapsed. I did this as gracefully as I could, but it wasn't very graceful.
I sat on the bus for the next seven hours, neither eating nor drinking, and being only vaguely aware of the passing scenery. I was still very weak, but it felt surprisingly satisfying to be doing something useful while I was ill. At some stage, after darkness fell, I eventually arrived in Dharamsala. I took the first room I found, because it had a bed. I was asleep within minutes, and I slept for a long time.
World's greatest living garden gnome
The key attraction of Dharamsala is the chance to meet the Dalai Lama. Private audiences are difficult to organise, but his palace is open to visitors most Saturday mornings, and you can go there and shake his hand.
It was a great thing to do. I queued up with several hundred Westerners, and several hundred Tibetans, and we all got a moment or two with him. Before he appeared we'd formed an orderly queue on the drive leading to the front steps of his palace. It seemed obvious that he would arrive through the front door, so most eyes were looking that way. I'd struck up a conversation with the people around me, and we came to the conclusion that he would probably make his entrance in majestic style.
But when he actually appeared, his humility was immediately obvious. He seemed genuinely surprised at the vast turnout, and delighted to have so many people to greet. He seemed the essence of light and warmth, and his presence tangibly altered the mood and energy of the crowd.
And he didn't come swishing through the doors of his palace. Instead, he arrived from an unexpected direction, suddenly materialising out of the garden. The Dalai Lama looked a little like a garden gnome, infinitely amused by the world and his place in it. I was very glad to be able to see that up close, and to have the opportunity to pay my respects. I found his warmth and good humour infectious, and I walked away smiling.
Posted by Sean Hegarty at 10:50 PM | Permalink
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August 28, 2002
India: International Conference of the Deranged
(Yet another Dog Biscuit bit. Part x in a series of y.)
I didn't just meet the Dalai Lama in Dharamsala: I also met Alipali, a lovely English girl. We decided to travel together to Calcutta via Delhi and Varanasi and Agra. India being what it is, we did get to all these places, but that's about all I'm sure of.
Delhi, in particular, takes bewilderment and confusion to new heights. Hundreds of years ago, when it was a mere slip of a village, it was only slightly confusing, but the place has changed greatly since those days. Delhi has relentlessly pursued a hardline policy of continually expanding confusion. Every week the city council meets to devise new ways of adding, improving, refining. Specialists are flown in; experts from different countries are consulted; chaos is carefully plotted. The visionary attitude and hard work has paid off: Delhi is now officially the third most confusing place on earth, and is gunning for top spot.
My clearest memory of Delhi is arriving at the train station late at night, and being warmly greeted by one million people.
Just outside the station was the International Conference of the Deranged. It was a vast scene of unfathomable chaos. Hundreds of rickshaws had crammed into a space which could comfortably fit a few dozen. Rickshaw gridlock had set in, and, by order of the city council, was obliged to remain. Everyone was shouting. There were beggars everywhere, of the hardest, most experienced, professional kind. It was hot and dusty. A vast assortment of potent, life-threatening smells filled the air. And a vast assortment of Indians filled the lower reaches of this very same air. And a vast assortment of panic-ridden thoughts filled my head.
I turned to Alipali to see if she was okay. "I'm fine," she said in a calm voice, "I've been here before." "In which case," I replied, in my strongest voice, "I'm going to start whimpering."
Alipali knew where the cheap hotels were, so she made a practical suggestion: I would stay at the train station and guard our luggage, and she would dart through the crowd and find a room. It was the best plan I'd heard since arriving in Delhi, and also the only plan. I immediately agreed. She gave me her rucksack and disappeared into the rickshaw insanity outside. I watched her go, a clever girl moving quickly, and then closed my eyes. The enormous crowd inched ever closer to me, but I couldn't bear to watch.
Illusion never changed
When I came to, the sun was shining. Alipali was singing "Torn," as she always did in the mornings, and I was surprised to discover that I was still alive. And, it seemed, in a hotel room. With a lovely English girl and everything. I realised that this was Delhi at its finest, that it would never get any better than this. "How about we go somewhere else," I suggested. "Anywhere else. Whenever you're ready."
"Sure," she said, "let's go to Agra and see the Taj Mahal."
Outside the safety of our hotel room, the International Conference of the Deranged lay in wait. We let it wait a little longer, then we made a run for it.
Apparently, there are real tourist attractions in Delhi. I can't be entirely sure, but it's possible that I'll never see them.
Posted by Sean Hegarty at 09:32 PM | Permalink
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August 29, 2002
The Taj Mahal
(Yet another installment. We're definitely getting closer to Dum Dum.)
When I first saw the Taj Mahal it seemed surprisingly small. By the time I left, something like five hours later, it seemed huge. It's the most beautiful building I've ever seen. If you're anywhere near it, go and see it. Take someone you love. Stay as long as you can. It's a long journey to get there, and it's worth it.
The river of life, death and washing
Varanasi was wonderful. Alipali found a sensational hotel right by the river, which meant that we had wonderful views and no traffic noise. I think that's what I most liked about Varanasi: the absence of traffic noise. The old part of the city has very narrow streets, so anything much wider than a motorcycle can't get in.
As a result, Varanasi still looks much as it did a century ago. Which is as it should be: it's India's holiest city, the place where devout Hindus come to die. The Ganges flows through Varanasi, and carries away the corpses that are burnt in the ghats on the banks. It's very common to see charred body parts floating downstream. Despite this, the Ganges is also the local swimming pool, and the local laundry. Every morning thousands of people bathe in the river, and hundreds of people do their washing. All of life is in India. And all of death. And most of the world's washing.
One night Alipali and I were coming back from a restaurant when the entire city was hit by a blackout. At the time we were about halfway back to the hotel, but it suddenly became impossible to find it. We stood there for a moment in pitch blackness - a very uncomfortable sensation in an Indian city - and then tried to find our way back by touch.
We stumbled slowly forward until we touched a wall, and then we followed it with our hands. "How do we know we're going in the right direction?" I asked, and Alipali immediately said "Sean, we don't. We're in India. We don't know where we're going in the middle of the day."
One of the walls I touched seemed unusually warm. It also seemed unusually mobile, and unusually furry. It turned out to be a water buffalo. Calmly, I leapt backwards forty or fifty feet, and managed to land on the doorstep of the right hotel. The owner was just inside the door with a supply of candles, so I borrowed one to go out and find Alipali. She wanted to know how I'd gotten past her, and I had to tell her the embarrassing truth. Inspired by my ancient fear of accidentally touching a water buffalo in a darkened Indian street, I'd flown.
Posted by Sean Hegarty at 11:54 PM | Permalink
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August 31, 2002
The overnight train journey to Calcutta
(The second last bit. Next stop Dum Dum.)
Some of the trains in India are so bad that the only sensible, rational response is to start weeping. Alipali and I stood on the platform at Varanasi and watched in horror as our train slowly pulled in. Even from a distance the overcrowding was obvious: there were people hanging off the roof.
The train already contained enough people to fill a stadium, and a similar number of people were waiting on the platform. The train stopped, and we watched in more dismay as exactly two people got off.
People started fighting each other to get on board. A minor riot brewed. I took another look at our tickets, only to discover that Calcutta was sixteen hours away. "Wow," I thought, "sixteen hours of densely overcrowded rioting. Should be great."
We clawed our way on to the train, found our seats, and climbed up to them. We'd had the foresight to book top bunks, so at least we could get up out of the way of the fiercest fighting. I chained up my rucksack and looked down. My tiny compartment had been designed to seat eight people. There were twenty-two people in it.
Faced with these sorts of conditions, it's amazing what the brain can do to cope. I found myself being tremendously comforted by the movement of the train. Its gentle rocking at least meant that we were getting somewhere. And it meant that fresh air was coming in, which helped to cool everything down.
But I found the best coping mechanism was having someone to share the journey with. Alipali's presence meant that I couldn't just wallow in my own misery. Whenever it all seemed too much to bear, I could see if there was some way of alleviating her misery. It's possible that without her presence I would've joined in the riot, and never made it home.
Commerce by the blatant use of volume
But if the train ride gradually approached the realms of the semi-bearable, the stations along the way were a different story. The stations were the International Conference of the Deranged all over again, on a fractionally smaller scale.
As we pulled into each station the noise of the engine would lessen, and the wall of human noise would arrive. People selling things would board the train and swarm through the carriages, making about as much noise as World War I. Bells would ring and horns would honk and ear-splitting cries would fill the air. The most frequent offerings were chai and frootys (a pre-packaged mango drink), but many other things were available: omelettes and books and lentil dishes and torches and children's toys and the full smorgasbord of all things peculiar. No matter what your real needs and secret hopes are, it's likely that you can purchase them on an Indian train.
To my genuine amazement, I got more sleep on this train than seemed likely or plausible, and I woke up feeling fantastic. That morning India seemed wonderfully beautiful. The train had largely emptied through the night, none of our luggage had been stolen and we had a panoramic view of a unique, exotic country.
"This is the life," I thought, conveniently forgetting the trauma at the start of the journey. I made a list of everything we had to do when we pulled into Calcutta. Here's the list, in full:
1. Find hotel.
A few hours later we arrived, and we found a hotel. It was an immensely satisfying day.
A few days later it was time to leave India. There was only one more obstacle, and it involved a bucket.
Posted by Sean Hegarty at 09:49 PM | Permalink
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September 1, 2002
Tension seeking behaviour
"There was only one more obstacle, and it involved a bucket."
The suspense builds ...
Posted by Sean Hegarty at 01:48 PM | Permalink
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September 2, 2002
Ignore good advice and wait
(In which, months after we started, we finally get to Dum Dum.)
In his wonderful book The Tropical Traveller John Hatt says that if you have the choice between taking a reputable, slightly more expensive airline, or an unreliable, slightly cheaper airline, pay the extra money. This is valuable advice, as the ever more sensible Alipali can tell you. She flew to Bangkok on Air India. Her plane arrived on time, left on time, and took her smoothly to the right city.
I, however, was determined to save the equivalent of three Bolivian pesos. So I flew Air Nirvana, the new name for the airline formerly known as Panic In The Sky. The good news is that Air Nirvana did eventually reunite me with Alipali in Bangkok. But only eventually ...
The bucket driven economy
Calcutta's airport is called Dum Dum, which seemed to make sense. When I arrived there, right on time, I was assured that my plane would also be leaving right on time, no problem, sir, everything very good, nice weather, lovely to see you, no problem at all. Three or four hours later, there was still no plane, and no rumours of one. Even the guy responsible for passenger reassurance had vanished.
I walked over to the window to investigate possible sources of the delay. This was a mistake, because as I looked across the tarmac, I noticed that they were still building the airport.
Of all the problems that the tourist can encounter, the "unfinished airport" scenario is one of the more serious. I considered my options. I had a grand total of one option: I could sit there and watch them finish the airport.
The Indian way of building things is fascinating. It starts when a suitable patch of ground is located. Then a hose is turned on and water is sprayed all over it. That's Step One. So far, it's all quite straightforward. Very low-tech. The eventual result of water on the hard Indian earth is the appearance ... of a puddle. Ladies and gentlemen, we have reached Step Two.
Now the real action begins. An old, old man arrives, wearing old, old shorts over his old, spirally legs. The old man carries a bucket. The bucket appears to be the crucial element. Our senior citizen then approaches the puddle and scoops up some mud. He walks a few paces away, and throws the mud somewhere else.
India seems very relaxed about this sort of thing, and the tourist often gets to see mud being flung. Eventually our senior citizen repeats his scoop-and-fling procedure, and after more time passes, the sun goes down. By ancient tradition, no mud is flung after dark, so everyone can take a break and get something to eat. This also makes it much easier to appreciate the Indian night: only then can you walk around free of the fear of being hitting in the face by a bucketful of mud.
At Dum Dum airport I watched this bucket-and-mud dance for hours, without ever seeing a real connection between it and the activity known in the West as "building." And I'm no time-and-motion expert, but I'd say that what we have here is the world's slowest way of digging a hole. But that's India. It's a low-tech country, which means that almost everyone has a job and there's an amazing amount of mud everywhere you look.
Until next time: farewell, good night
And, if you wait long enough, and look far enough, you eventually see your plane arrive. When mine touched down, the man who'd made the earlier announcement made a triumphal reappearance. The long delay had vanished from his mind, and he took pride in announcing that Random Flight Number would be leaving from Gate One in a few minutes. "No problem at all," he added. "Nice weather. Lovely to see you. Everything very good."
As I walked through the gate I suddenly remembered my arrival in India, when a local representative had rubbed my stomach. And this memory gave rise to a spontaneous urge. "Sorry about this," I said, and leaned forward and rubbed the announcer's stomach.
To my astonishment, he looked at me without even a flicker of surprise.
"Did you like India?" he asked, as if tourists rubbed his stomach every few minutes. "Yes, I did," I replied, "everything very good. No problem at all. Lovely to see you."
He smiled. "Come back one day," he said.
And as soon as he said it, I knew that I would. India had bewildered, frustrated, exhausted and intrigued me. I couldn't wait to go back.
Posted by Sean Hegarty at 10:04 PM | Permalink
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