I continue to marvel at three very common assumptions that I find being made all the time, most recently by my friend Oskar when we were talking late into the evening last evening:
Science has made life progressively better for us. People in the past had things so much worse off.
Whatever problems we face, science can and will find a way to solve them.
It is all but inconceivable that humanity could become extinct.
First, no one has an agreed-upon way of measuring scientific progress. I dearly love science, but my feelings about what it delivers for us are decidedly neutral. Even the things that seem most innocently positive can end up having unexpected negative consequences. Science is not ultimately a good or a bad thing; it's a tool with no inherent moral bias, opening some doors for us while closing others. Most importantly though, I consider myself something of an armchair historian, and I find things both to value and be repulsed by in most time periods. I think I would be just as comfortable or uncomfortable living in any period -- and it wouldn't really have much to do with the period itself. We are hardly living in the worst of times, but we're not living in the best, either -- whatever "best" might mean. Witness the "primitive" hunter-gatherer societies that have more leisure time than "modern" industrialized peoples. Witness the European settlers, captured by Native American tribes in various skirmishes, or the escaped slaves who joined some of these tribes, who desperately wished not to be returned to "modern" civilization.
The idea that science will fix it for us strikes me -- in the present context especially -- as what the ancient Greeks had in mind by hybris: a kind of drive-anyone-else-crazy cheerful-to-the-point-of-manic optimism in the face of all but certain catastrophe. The speciesis facing certain unique challenges at the moment: as in, challenges that it has never faced as an entire species before. We really are in this one together; no human population is sufficiently isolated that it doesn't need to worry. Climate change aside (and there are massive changes in the pipeline, including the disappearance at some point of the polar caps), there's the massive extinction of species that's been going on for some time now, the lost of diversity within species, the loss of forest cover, the substantive loss of terrestrial biomass, the unsustainable extraction of resources and production of toxic (in one way or another) waste, and so on. All have the human signature on them. Any one of these, on its own, one might hope (if still perhaps somewhat naively) to be solved through some quick fix from science. But all of them together? Our relationship with the environment, as a global civilization -- truly, the first global civilization Earth has ever seen -- is drastically unsustainable along various dimensions.
...Which brings me to the third and final point. There comes a point in the lifespan of every individual and species, so far as I can see, when the individual or species must change/adapt/become-other-than-what-it-has been... or die. Life is defined by change, by openness to change, death by lack of change. (That perfectly captures death, for me: a state in which one does not change.) And this period, I think, represents one of those distinctive turning points for our species. If we do not change voluntarily -- either because we refuse to, or because we are unable to -- then change will happen regardless. It might be change that "merely" decimates our numbers -- or it might be change that wipes us out entirely. We are far more vulnerable to changes in our environment than we seem inclined to allow, and -- ironically -- our very adaptability to change is one of the things that makes us most vulnerable. We adapt to things that really are not in our long-term (or even medium-term) interests to adapt to.
Estimate 24km today, all but the first two km and a bit at the end above treeline with strong continuous wind; really took the energy out of me. Also gave me a bad headache and, of course, despite the dry conditions and air temperature, a touch of hypothermia. At least it seems not as bad as I'd feared. Forgot and made my tea inside the (fairly small) cabin (though it's bigger than my former home!) but the stove was only on for a minute and I airated the room well after. Will cook breakfast on the steps outside.
Slept last night at a shelter directly by the side of the road as I'd worked out, correctly, that I'd taken the wrong way out from town. Problem was that I'd ended up on the old Kungsleden because someone had neglected to take down the signs from town pointing to it. So I found a path on the map leading where I wanted to go, leading off the old trail at the summit of Njallavaratje. Turned out to be no path at all the 1 1/2km from the summit back to the treeline: just a line of snowmobile / cross-country posts across very boggy ground, with the exception of one one-hundred-meter stretch complete with blazes, path, and bog bridges -- then nothing again.
Funny: all the people I'd stopped and spoken to, including locals, assured me that I was indeed on the Kungsleden. But the almost complete lack of appropriate markings -- once I was actually on the footpath, I only saw one, very weathered and ancient-looking sign saying Kungsleden. My map, supposedly updated December of last year, only showed the old route. The wildlife reserve maps here and there showed the new route, but in excruciatingly low resolution, with no topographical info. Using my topographical map, I could only guess the approximate route I should have taken from town. That I got a little lost is probably allowable.
God a very bad opinion today of ATVs, if it wasn't poor already. The Kungsleden hugged the boundary of the ATV exclusion zone: at least, that's how I interpret förbjudetområde för terrängforden. Their tracks were everywhere, crisscrossing my way. They are amazingly environmentally destructive. Everywhere there's wet bog -- which is pretty common around here! -- they leave behind a churned mass of mud.
Sun has now set but it's still, of course, broad daylight, and will stay so throughout the night.
So, to continue and expand upon that rant, a bit :-), I thought I might profile a few important figures and moments from my life.
I first got to know Greg when we were both students in a church membership class: the equivalent, in our offshoot of the German Reformed Church, of confirmation classes. Greg had an absolutely wonderful way of querying the pastor on nearly everything, but especially matters of theological detail. Greg didn't take any answers for granted. And I -- though I could never have framed it that way to myself at the time -- fell pretty quickly and helplessly in love. I was 11. Greg was 13. Up to that point in my life, I'd done my best to be a dogmatic born-again Christian. Greg woke me to the possibilities I was missing: maybe one didn't need to belong to our church to be saved. Maybe one didn't even need to be a Christian (or traditionally religious) at all.
Greg got me involved, too, in a game with the pastor (a friendly but very traditional sort) that carried on right through to the end of the dozen or however many sessions we had. The pastor went strictly by his middle name, though he always signed correspondence with his first initial followed by his middle name. So, naturally, Greg and I tried to guess what the initial ("A.") stood for. Only many years later, as an adult, did I ask the pastor again and learn the answer (which, anymore, I forget, though I think I have it recorded somewhere :-p).
Greg loved to write. I loved to write. He showed me a story of his he'd written, though I can't remember anything about it any more. We were both obsessive readers. He had freckles back then (I think) and kind of curly hair and a laughing manner about him. I couldn't wait till I was a little older and would be in the same class in Sunday School. (Junior and senior high were both grouped together three grades at a time.) Sadly for me, he stopped going to church (at least to our church) by the time I got there.
We were/are both queer. I don't think he knew at the time; I certainly didn't. I just knew the wonderful way he made me feel -- still makes me feel, when I meet him, as I do every now and again, every few years, on my way back through my home town. I'll mention my feelings for him; he'll laugh scornfully and say "I was waiting for you to bring that up!"; and then he'll say again why it would never work (because I'd never want to move back, because I'd be bored -- all the things I actually wouldn't be; but then, in hindsight, I suppose that, even when we were children, I was perhaps more into him than he into me).
All this wouldn't bother me so much except that -- again, when I meet up with him -- he complains about his "dead-end" job (unless that's changed by now?) and sounds quite dissatisfied with his life. He's lived with his parents most of his adult life, taking care of his mother through her extended illness. (I'm guessing she's passed away now; for all I know, his father may have, too.) He's never had a steady boyfriend, so far as I can tell, never mind lived with one (not that I've done that more than once). He talks as though it's not even a possibility. He seems lonely, those occasions when we meet; but that scornful laugh is very much like stepping into a cold shower: nothing dampens enthusiasm quite so quickly!
I'm past due for getting back. It would be really great to find out that he has found somebody. In the meantime, I will always carry my love for him.
So... to spill a little and explain a bit of what I was going through this summer (and am going through still as I write).... Without exception, every single person I have been physically or romantically close to in my life, and quite a few friends besides, have either walked away refusing further contact or said things that I found spectacularly awful: things that would have been comical under any other circumstances. The first man I ever went to bed with (yes, I've still never been to bed with a woman, late bloomer that way, I guess) joked about passing me along to his other gay friends for their sexual gratification. My first boyfriend accused me of using him as my sexual plaything. He also complained that I had terrible personal hygiene. My second boyfriend declared me dangerous (he didn't specify how) and said he wanted no further contact. Last I heard he was studying to be an Orthodox rabbi, having burned out on Burning Man. My third boyfriend ended our seven months of living together by telling me, as we were settling down for the night, that he couldn't help dwelling on all of the things he loathed about me. He's still the only person I've ever "lived with". Best thing I remember about him is how beautifully and peacefully we slept together. My most recent boyfriend accused me publicly of rape. Still haven't worked through that properly. Didn't help that the police treated me like the "one who got away".
And then there's my friend A., mentioned earlier in these pages, whom I had an unexpected and unsought and truly fantastically wonderful encounter with the night before I left for three weeks in India. He wrote, just before I left India to return to Sweden, to say that he was "sorry" if he had "misled me", but he "didn't want to date" me "or anyone". He came over for dinner one evening, after I returned to Sweden and seemed to enjoy himself, but he has refused all contact since then -- other than a truly cryptic message on Facebook and one evening, a couple weeks ago, when he came by where I was working, hung around like he wanted to talk -- but of course I was working, I couldn't really. I dropped by his flat last evening, on my way home, just because I was tired of making assumptions about what he wanted, having only heard from him what he didn't want. It... wasn't very pleasant. :-( I said I wanted to talk. He made clear that he didn't.
Got another friend, who I've been openly but quietly interested in for years, and I know he says he's not into me at all that way, which is cool... or would be. ...Except that the last time I saw him the ground seemed to have shifted, and he really was acting interested "that way". He invited me back for a visit, told me to go ahead and book the tickets. Then he informed me that "maybe" I shouldn't come because "maybe" he'd like to go to a party that weekend. When pressed, he told me to cancel the reservations.
There are so many other stories like that, back over the years... I should write them down sometime. It's as if I have this remarkably wonderful effect on people, but it always -- and I do mean always -- turns awkward and ugly afterward. There was a friend in Lund, when I was living there, Middle Eastern guy (don't remember where he was from originally).... We interacted so well that people asked whether we had been together months or even years. He came over to my student room, made out, complained about being allergic to cats (I had one at the time) and disappeared to sleep in the kitchen. Beyond a vague SMS response about maybe meeting up for a drink again, I never saw or heard from him again.
And then my family... my father (dead now) and brother both accused me of pedophilia -- my brother, bizarrely, for being friends with a younger guy, a college student (well above the age of consent) named Brad, whom I wasn't even dating. We'd met at a trail shelter in the White Mountains when I was through-hiking the Appalachian Trail. The truly sad thing about that situation was that Brad, as it turned out, was going out with me in his mind -- wrote to say that it was all going much too quickly, he wasn't gay anyway, and he disappeared from my life. Sucks to have someone dump you when you didn't even know you were going out. I looked him up one time; he's working for the Boy Scouts at one of their regional headquarters.
I've had family members accuse family members of being "too tolerant" toward my sexuality. I have relatives who have cut me from most contact and had their teenage sons (one now in his 20s) not just de-friend me but block me on Facebook -- as if I was going to contaminate them. (I have been blocked a number of times on Facebook -- once in the middle of a conversation with a friend. Still don't know what happened.)
I had an undergraduate roommate (and friend) my senior year who (apparently) accused me of rape (or attempted rape) to all our mutual friends. (I never got the details -- only a shocked look and a "I never *really* believed..." from people. Got that after the most recent rape accusation, too.) My best friend from undergraduate days (whom I still hear from occasionally, actually) got to know me when I was away for a year on exchange, from, she said, all the extraordinary and awful stories people told about me. (I never got the details from her, either. Looking back, I rather wish I had pushed her for details, if only to satisfy my morbid curiosity.)
My working life has not been a whole lot better. I've had professional colleagues accuse me of complete lack of academic substance, despite my ability to get published in international, peer-refereed journals and get cited. I was laid off from my last "permanent" job not for the reason I was told at the time -- that they had no money -- but because I "wasn't doing" my "job" and "wasn't being a team player", despite never having had a negative performance review, never having been told of anything I needed to do better -- over four years. Yes, that was, apparently, the official reason that was recorded. (The one performance review I had for that position, after my first year, was extremely positive.) Damn, I poured my heart out for those folks. I have been consistently underpaid, relative to my colleagues (that's been an ongoing problem), and have never had an easy time holding down a good-paying professional job, despite private comments about what a great job I do.
I feel like a lot of things have been piling up on me lately: a couple of jobs I got turned down for in rather messy fashion, a pedagogy course it took me a month to get into because they weren't happy with my bachelor's degree credentials (WTF?! I have a doctorate!) only to get into after it had already started, some very messy unpleasant email exchanges with a student (don't even know why he's angry). There's very, very little I feel good about in my life at the moment.
The sound-and-light show was entertaining, if not especially informative, full of over-acted dramatizations and references that passed me by. I sat with a couple, originally from Delhi, and their 100% American :-) grandchildren, who spoke not a word of Hindi -- hence the English version of the show.
Back at the hotel, I seemed to have no power still for my room. I asked at the desk; the cook-cum-handyman came; turned out there was a power switch for the whole room, locate outside the room, by the door.
Set the alarm for five. Six I'm checking out, receive the SMS from OLA with the cabbie's details. No phone call from the cabbie though; that's strange.
Six thirty I get another text message saying that the cab might be ten minutes late. Fifteen minutes later, still no cab, no call. I have the hotel attendant call the cabbie on my mobile. The cabbie cancels the trip. So I end up getting a slightly more expensive auto-rickshaw instead.
I get to the station and join what passes for a queue at the ticket counter. For no obvious reason (he didn't speak English maybe?) the man at the window directs me to the next window. Finally I'm in the process of buying a new ticket -- can't use the old one of course! -- when a woman appears from nowhere behind me, pushes past, and insists on being served first because she's trying to get on the same train I'm trying to get on. So I end up missing my train; it's pulling out as I'm coming onto Platform One.
I go to Enquiries to find out about the next train. I reach the window only to have people keep pushing me aside. One of them knocks over my suitcase (with the laptop in it!); making a grab for the suitcase, I fall over. By this point I'm pretty seriously annoyed. So finally when I get pushed aside again, I successfully push back, get the attention of the woman behind the glass, find out that the next train is at 8:35 and, yes, I can use the same ticket (with a surcharge if I don't want to ride unreserved).
Breakfast was two dosas and a coffee -- somewhat spoiled by the well-fed rat that ran past when I went to wash my hands after. Discovered that the station has quite a collection of rats.
Conductor is waiting even as I look for where to board the train. The unreserved cars look like cattle cars, truly standing room only, if that. I buy a seat in sleeper class. AC2 this is so not: there are eight bunks per section, not six, and no curtains; plus, for most of the trip, we are far more than eight: maybe twice that. I retreat to the upper bunk, half filled with luggage, for a little breathing space. Someone gestures at me quite angrily; seems he wants me to take off my shoes. The train makes lousy time the first half of the way -- moving fast enough (100 km/h), but with long stops at small stations -- then does much better, seemingly, the rest of the journey. We left Agra at 9:05 -- 50 minutes late on the scheduled time -- and arrived just about 50 minutes late into Hazrat Nizamuddin Station, Delhi.
Taxi to the metro, which is a surprisingly new and more modern line than the yellow line I've ridden before -- also less crowded! It's still early, so I catch the train to Rajiv Chowk, have an Americano at the Coffee to Go in the station -- man, the one thing I've been missing is good black coffee! -- then chill out for a while in Central Park with its general sunbathing crowd by day, popular gay cruising area (or so Abishek tells me) by night. On a whim, I buy a Superman T-shirt in the bazaar across the street. DC Ts in general and Superman Ts in particular are huge here, Marvel Ts nowhere to be found.
After a second helping of Americano :-) I headed down the escalator to the yellow line. Started out standing, but a man gave up his seat for me because "these seats are reserved for senior citizens" (!). I protested emphatically that I am not a senior citizen, but at the same time was tired and hot enough I gladly took the seat anyway. Too, the man who nearly grabbed it from out of my clutches :-) before being restrained :-) was rather further from senior citizenship than I am -- as was the guy next to me, who received his BA in 2011. After saying I'm from Sweden -- which I more or less am at this point! -- I get quizzed by him and his friend (the one who gave up the seat, I think) on all things Swedish: the currency, form of government, etc.
Got to MG Road 6:30: still early so, out of a morbid curiosity, I took a look through the adjacent shopping mall which, apart from one store name in Hindi, could almost have been lifted out of the US (or many other places around the world).
Frist auto-rickshaw driver wanted 150 rupees to Section 17A Market. I laughed and walked away, despite his efforts to call me back. The next one wanted 100. I bargained him down to 60 only after I started to walk away. He essentially spoke no English, so I was rather nervous whether he knew where he was taking me; but, unlike the last time I tried this, I got dropped right at the market. (I was quite nervous because, after driving for five minutes, he stopped right back at MG Road Station saying something incomprehensible about 500 rupees: was it how much he wanted me to pay now?! I started to walk away in disgust till he called me back. Turned out he just needed to make change for 500 rupees.) Anyway, traffic was heavy, so I gave him 70 rupees. Got myself a bottle of coconut water and walked back to Snigdho's place, where I waited 20 minutes till he got home. He made a really fine, moderately spicy, very garlicky paneer for dinner while I repacked for the morning.
Today was my one and only day on this trip of playing pure tourist -- and what more obvious place to do it than Agra, which is even more of a tourist trap (arguably) than Rishikesh! I snapped close to a hundred photos, bought things I wasn't intending to buy (bookends, a carved marble (?) elephant), hit the two biggest sites, and am going back for a "sound and light" show at Agra Fort tonight.
Was sluggish before I went to bed last evening and sluggish getting up. Had breakfast in the little restaurant area outside my room then ordered a taxi. Had to walk the last half kilometre because of motor-vehicle restrictions around the Taj Mahal.
I remember nothing about this part of my father's trip other than one classic shot of the Taj Mahal. I'm not sure how much time he spent here but I'm guessing not much. Most people seem to do Agra on a quick in-and-out basis.
I hired a guide for, doubtless, way more than I should have paid, but I was pure tourist today, and he was pretty good. Wonder how the (much cheaper) audio tour would have compared though.
The most striking thing about the Taj Mahal, besides the white marble and perfect symmetry, is the sheer scale. It's a bit like Chartres Cathedral that way: even from a distance it dominates.
We were given shoe covers for entry into the mausoleum itself. When I realized though that all the Indians were just taking off their shoes, that's what I did as well. The marble felt... not cool, exactly, but nice.
The false tomb itself was somewhat anticlimactic: a constant flow of people and, of course, no photography. The actual tomb, below, is open only a few days per year. The central chamber with the false tomb is surrounded by eight smaller chambers with a cool breeze from well-designed cross ventilation.
The surrounding mall has a good view down to the river and over the city. An LED display gives precise details on the air pollution. On the one hand, it's good that the motor traffic near the Taj Mahal is limited, and that no industry is allowed within something like 50 km. On the other hand, there is a lot of pollution from all the cars in Agra, and that's doing neither Taj Mahal nor lungs any good.
I visited the small museum in the Western Water Palace: excellent examples of calligraphy, several-hundred-year-old sketches of the Taj Mahal, again not very much for climate control.
My guide told me the well-worn tale of the matching "Black Mosque" "that was never finished". From what I've read, there's no archaeological indications of any such foundations nor historical records even to confirm it was planned.
We exited via the South Gate rather than the West (where we entered): to let me visit an ATM and, it turned out, an emporium "run by the 17th generation of descendants of Shah Jahan". Besides some fine-looing semi-precious stone inlay work, they had the usual selection of carved marble elephants, etc. I said only that I would think about it and maybe return. I went off to find a soda and, compliments of Jimmy at Hotel Raj, a spicy vegetable curry for lunch. (I asked them to make it as fiery as possible. It was somewhere between mild and moderate. :-p) I did go back to the emporium, where I bought a couple of granite bookends and a carved marble elephant to match the wooden elephant I got in Rishikesh in memory of Dad.
Then I went in search of the West Gate, which despite being close at hand proved surprisingly complicated to reach. Taj Ganj (the area outside the South Gate) is, truly, a warren of alleys. A small boy adopted himself as my guide and demanded 10 rupees on our reaching the West Gate, which I gladly paid.
I hired a cycle rickshaw back to Agra Fort Railway Station for, I thought, 50 rupees. Once I'm on board though the driver says that 50 rupees is only for Agra Fort and that he needs 100 rupees to go "all the long way" to the (adjacent) railway station. I offer 60 rupees; he says "pay what you like"; but, on arriving, he is again demanding 100 rupees. Worse, I have only 57 rupees instead of the 60 I had offered -- and that he outright refused. So I go make change, which turns out to be all hundreds, and so I end up giving him 100 rupees and leaving him half a kilometre short of the station.
I went back to the hotel, dropped off my purchases, brushed my teeth, and headed back out to Agra Fort. Again, I hired a guide, one Sunil. The fort is in much worse shape than the Taj Mahal, despite its similar historical importance, the result of repeated ransackings and the elimination, by the British, of roughly half the structures to make way for barracks. What remains are parts of two palaces; in best condition is the tower where Shah Jahan's son imprisoned him for the last eight years of his life, after trapping him in the fort and cutting off the water supply from the river. Most impressive was a bathtub used by Shah Jahan or one of the other sultans, looking like an insanely oversized soup bowl, with three steps on the outside, three on the inside. There was a chamber with hollow walls once filled with water, to produce a kind of air-conditioning effect; two halls in the shape of palanquins (one original, the other a reconstruction), the sultan's sleeping chamber, the assembly grounds for nobility/VIPs and for commoners, a private women's mosque, and -- bizarrely -- a giant wooden set of doors raided by the British from some other part of India with no connection to the fort whatsoever. The British made up some fanciful story about the doors "being returned to their rightful place" to justify their original military occupation.
The tour finished after the promised "45 minutes to one hour" (closer to 45 minutes actually, and I kept stopping the guide so I could take pictures). Then the guide left and I walked the same circuit again, to refresh myself or what, exactly, all the things were that I had taken pictures of. I got many, many requests to take children's pictures, and I got asked to pose with people many times as well.
On the way out, I stopped to look at the audio guide booth and toyed with the idea of going through one more time, with the audio guide. I didn't, but the young man at the window offered to sell me a map of the fort for 30 rupees. I thought I was getting a decent quality, tourist-trinket-type map, but what I got was a crumpled scrap of paper that came with the audio guide (obviously used), showing all the places to stop and listen.
Leaving the fort, I am, once again, set on by taxi drivers like flies. A cycle rickshaw offers 50 rupees then raises it to 100 rupees when he hears I want to go to the railway station. (What is it about the railway station?!) I start to walk away; an auto-rickshaw driver offers to take me for 50 rupees; the cycle rickshaw driver calls me back and accepts the 50-rupee rate. Then, on the way, he starts going on about how I really should pay him 100 rupees; and, when we arrive, he attempts to refuse the 50 rupees I hand him. So I point out that we had an agreement, hand him back the 50 rupees, and walk away.
After an early (6:30 pm!) -- by Indian standards -- dinner at the hotel, I'm getting ready to go back to the fort for their evening "sound and light" show (the English version, an hour after the Hindi version, itself a half hour after sunset) when I get a text message from Indian Railways saying that my train for the morning, back to Delhi, "has been cancelled due to unavoidable circumstances. Inconvenience caused to passengers is deeply regretted".
I like AC2 (2nd class AC), I decided. You definitely see more of the ordinary people, and things are reasonably secure: my main concern. Only problem I had was figuring out how to get food, once I figured out it was (of course) available for sale. The Meals on Wheels folks would come through so quickly, calling out what they had... in Hindi. It was also apparently possible to order lunch and dinner, though I didn't manage either. Thankfully I had some -- albeit snack -- food with me.
The crowding -- six people to a section, with curtains to block you off from the narrow corridor -- really wasn't bad. Space was well used.
Woke this morning to the train running seven minutes behind schedule: not bad. It increased gradually over the course of the day (I'd downloaded a schedule to my mobile phone) till it was two hours forty minutes late out of the last stop before Agra. Then we magically made time up, because we were scheduled with three hours to go the remaining 122 km. For a while I thought we'd just be an hour late. But four kilometers out we sat and waited for 10-15 minutes, then crawled the rest of the way in. So we arrived about an hour forty minutes late.
The exit from the station was not obvious -- you'd think it would be. I ended up going down a very long very dark alley. (I could have tried sneaking through a locked but mostly broken gate, which would have been much quicker, but it would have been awkward with my baggage.) Agra Fort was beautifully lit up; I should have taken a picture, but I was waiting for a better view, and a better view never came. Saw a hotel with a neon sign through cracks between the buildings; I made for that, as I had no enthusiasm to get a taxi ride anywhere despite having taken down a list of hotels, addresses, and phone numbers from the Swedish gentleman's LONELY PLANET.
Yes, Tropp: he lives in Stockholm, originally from a small town north of Hässleholm. He came on at Allahabad and, like me, was planning a stopover in Agra before flying out from Delhi back to Sweden. We spoke in Swedish for a while till I wasn't sure how to say something, then slipped inevitably into English. He'd come on board with a ticket for 2nd class non-AC and took the opportunity to upgrade -- which I can appreciate. It's not that the AC itself is all that important, but the AC cars are, I think, in generally much better shape. Anyway, he'd lived and worked in southern India some time back, but he'd never really seen northern India, so the present ten-day trip meant to remedy that. He wasn't actually meant to be in our section; he swapped bunks with a young woman I was happy to get rid of :-) as she talked, and giggled, incessantly. She had a friend with her, so there were three of us sitting in a space normally meant for two -- but that giggling, oh man!
Back to writing in the notebook and transcribing later; the laptop is acting convincingly dead. I used it as normal last evening and put it to sleep; when I woke up this morning, the eternally blinking white light was off, and nothing would rouse the machine. I plugged it in to multiple outlets, tried removing the battery for ten seconds and replacing it -- that worked when my old laptop got into a similar state -- all to no avail. The data on the solid-state hard drive should be fine -- thinking in particular of my mostly rewritten paper -- but accessing it, at least for the next few days, looks vanishingly unlikely.
Can't remember if I woke on my own or to my alarm. Can't really remember waking up actually, though I was awake by five. Taxi driver called while I was taking my bucket bath. When he called back, I put the porter on the phone to explain where I was. Still took him something like an extra 15 minutes to get there.
Bought my "up down" (return) ticket for the local: that part was easy. Then I spent a half hour working out what platform I needed, since I couldn't look it up on my laptop in Pastor Singha's email, and the platforms only indicated final destination. I tried waiting in various queues only to have people continually push in front of me; Indians do not like waiting in queues. Someone in the Enquiries queue finally took pity on me and told me where to go; but when I got to the platform, I was told emphatically that the train did not go to Ulubaria (or so I thought). Went back and found my informant, who went back with me to the platform and confirmed that the train was indeed going to Ulubaria. Yay.
The local train (10 rupees to Uluberia, 10 rupees back) was certainly basic but surprisingly comfortable; just nevermind the continuously open doors. Several people conspired to let me know when Ulubaria was getting close. The person across from me started reading my book, got about ten pages in. When he handed it back, he pointed to the line on Page 9 about "love whom you will but marry your own kind" and said, "that's very true, don't you think?" to which I had honestly to reply that I wasn't sure quite what the author meant (and, having finished the book now, I'm still not).
Getting off in Ulubaria was like stepping back in time. There were no auto-rickshaws at the station for starters, only a line of bicycle rickshaws. So I had my first and, perhaps last, ride in one. I could have walked about as fast.
Got to church about ten minutes late, but things seemed just to be starting up. Solomon and Betty Biswas came in in wheelchairs; I think I drew my breath when I saw them. Solomon looked relatively good, but Betty, wow. Her left hand looked permanently crippled from arthritis; she shook when she moved, probably from Parkinson's; and her presence clearly seemed to come and go.
Much of the service, besides the usual scripture readings, prayers, offering, and sermon, consisted of singing and dancing from the children. When the children all left, the age of the people who remained was striking: mostly my age and older, I'd say. At one point, visitors were to stand up and introduce themselves; I managed to sit when I was supposed to stand and stand when I was supposed to sit, but I got a greeting in English, and I suppose I made it through okay.
I avoided taking photos in the service and only took one of the children's choir after I saw someone else doing so. I planned to stay afterwards, both with the intention of talking to people and taking more photos, but I got whisked away in remarkable haste to see the pastor's wife. I just had time to help Solomon with Betty's wheelchair when he had difficulty -- or rather start to, till someone stopped me and took over. Afterward Solomon said to me a simple but very respectful "thank you".
The rest of my time at the mission was strange, to say the least. People were clearly very uncomfortable with my being there, and for the life of me, I have no idea why. There were a few polite questions about why I had come, but no apparent interest in the answers; no questions about Dad or his visit; and, in general, a palpable air of awkwardness. The pastor's wife offered tea, biscuits, and bananas and disappeared offstage. I met the intern, Morgan Scott, who chatted politely but rather distantly. She's from Penbrook originally and attended Penbrook Church of God as a PK, apparently. Her father is now head of the Allegheny Division and living in Latrobe, which she pronounced as LAYtrobe. I apologized for mispronouncing it all my life, to which she replied that she wasn't sure herself! (...Despite having lived there for ten months after finishing at Findlay with a joint degree in teaching English as a foreign language and comparative religion -- to which she hastened to add that meant studying different Christian traditions and not different religions.) She asked of my plans for the afternoon; I spoke of my desire to spend some time walking around the grounds and wondered if someone might show me the school (it turns out that the school is closed tomorrow for holiday, so no point returning then) -- to which she replied that she was in no position to decide such things, which seemed an odd thing to say. When I brought it up again, I think in response to her returning to the question, she said she would try to find someone, returned with one of the other two ministers, besides Pastor Singha, who live on the compound, and then disappeared for good, quite abruptly, no goodbye.
The pastor -- whose name I didn't quite catch -- gave me a brief walkaround if not exactly a tour. His English seemed fine, but he didn't really engage in much conversation. I asked about looking around the church but was told firmly that it was locked up now. When the "tour" ended, I tried saying goodbye, thinking that I would spend a few more minutes strolling around, but that clearly was not in the cards. He saw me to the gate, but I distinctly felt escorted, and it was clear that now was the time I was meant to go.
I have been a visitor in churches many times (plus twice in a synagogue, twice to Muslim prayers, and now to a Hindu temple). This was the strangest reception I think I've ever had. ...Which left me wondering if something I wrote in one of my emails had been taken the wrong way. No other explanation comes to mind. The lack of curiosity alone was odd.
Well, I wrote that I had expectations for the visit that were unlikely to be met, and that much was right. For all of my very complex relationship with my father, I miss him, and I miss the months of going around with him to different churches, presenting his slide show of India and Bangladesh. (Looking back, I can't think of any other time I remember him using a camera.) I wanted to find some trace of my father in Ulubaria, and I think I did, in the faces of Solomon and Betty; but, damn, it would have been nice to have had the opportunity to talk about him and my memories of his visit.
I think that, in some important ways, I was (and am) too much like him for his comfort; I showed him a side of himself he was not eager to see, and in that way I disappointed him, even as he disappointed his own father.
What strange undercurrents I found very possibly had little to do with me and everything to do with things I know nothing about. Still, it's hard to avoid thinking that somehow you've done something wrong.
Walking back to the station -- you can't take a direct rickshaw anyway, apparently -- I saw more windows into the past: trucks with people hanging off the sides and top, such as my father so colourfully described, and which one no longer sees in the cities. So this is what people mean when they talk about the widening gulf here between urban and rural areas -- even though Ulubaria is not truly rural.
I stopped for a simple lunch of rice, broth, and anonymous vegetables for 18 rupees; again, another world from Kolkata, such a short distance away.
I got on the wrong platform and missed a train I would have caught because I took the advice of two young men, also heading into Kolkata, who clearly were confused! Got the next train on the right platform with literally a split second to spare -- and so, I saw, did they. The car I rode was even more basic than the one I rode out -- more of a baggage car, really -- but I thought that, even if my visit to Ulubaria was a disappointment, here was an experience I'd remember and a story -- as the saying goes -- to tell my grandchildren: watching the merchants repack their goods, watching a young man hang out the open car door, watching the animated expressions on people's faces. Too many people in other places have forgotten how to be alive.
Back at the station, out of sorts, I charged my eternally draining mobile phone -- currently my only connection to the wider world -- and waited to see if I would clear the waiting list, which I did at 17:35. Celebrated by hiring a taxi to take me to the Victoria Memorial Hall, which I'd been told was quite lovely at sunset; but first the driver took me to a luxury hotel, declaring it to be the Victoria Memorial; then he picked a spot, roughly half a kilometer away from the Victoria Memorial (according to my Google Maps app), and declared that to be the memorial hall. By now it was quite dark, and the museum itself was long since closed, so rather than hiking the remaining distance I just chartered another cab back to the station, figuring that at least I'd gotten a tour of the city. :-)
Asked about getting a print out of my eTicket, since I can no longer access it on my laptop. Apparently the seating confirmation SMS on my mobile is enough. Got something more to drink as it's been insanely hot and humid today -- and now I see it's pouring. My mobile is finally almost charged; now if it can just hold that charge until midnight, when I'm on the train and the ticket gets checked!
[TO SET A WATCHMAN (click to open)] TO SET A WATCHMAN was ultimately disappointing. It's a much less polished work than TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD; were I the editor, faced with such a manuscript, I'd ask for significant revisions. Sometimes the writing is lovely, other times remarkably clichéd, clumsy, amateurish. Both Scout and Atticus come across much less sympathetically; but at least I understood how much Scout is Harper Lee; and the evolution of Scout from this book to TKaM -- though TKaM is set more than a decade earlier -- doubtless reflects Harper Lee's own evolution, not least on the issue of desegregation. I remember my father's own evolution on issues of "race" relations, and it gives me some considerable encouragement wehn looking at all the very real racial tensions the US continues to struggle with: police brutality, unequal justice, the deliberate restriction of voting rights. Jim Crow Lives. But, at the same time, people and societies can, and do, change.
Woke up this morning to the train running (officially) two-plus hours behind schedule. Apparently it had stopped and sat, somewhere, for an hour in the middle of the night; my compartment mate did not know why. Even though the train driver drove the train like a bat out of hell for most of the day, we still managed to arrive Kolkata... *three* hours late.
Yes, it's dark. Yes, I know no one in Kolkata. No, I cannot stay at the station hotel (yatri niwas, the option recommended to me by the techie, Anirban) because my outbound ticket has not been confirmed as yet. (It's up to Waiting List 2.) Apparently you need both an inbound ticket and a confirmed outbound. I try messaging Anirban, who gave me his number in case I ran into problems, but his mobile is switched off. I try messaging other people -- Snig and Abishek -- end up pulling a hotel name pretty much out of a hat: only requirements were that it not be too expensive, and that it be near the station. (It's not. The website lied. :-p) Otherwise, it's decent enough: AC that I won't use, minibar that I won't use, TV that I won't use, heavy blanket that I won't use, but most importantly, a clean bed, a working ceiling fan, and a clean toilet!
Actually the deciding factor for taking the hotel was a comment someone had posted on one of the websites. Some guy had stayed here when he was sitting his school exams and really liked it.
We passed Uluberia an hour before arriving Kolkata. (The few express trains that stop there are scheduled to take *30 minutes* to arrive from Kolkata.) Pretty non-descript looking place viewed from the station. My grand plan to stay in a guest house there fell through: the only guest house in town, the Pujali, can only be booked weekdays; you can stay there on the weekends, apparently, but you have to book in advance. Found this out when I had Anirban call them for me from the train. (Good thing, too, since -- as I suspected -- the person at the other end spoke limited English; Anirban quickly switched to Bengali.)
Afterwards, Anirban asked me if I didn't understand Bengali. Um, no. Well, you understand Hindi at least? Um, no, not that either. That's why I had you make the call!
I love train rides, but the last few hours of the meant-to-be-29-hour-actually-turned-out-to-be-32-hour journey were getting rather tedious. For starters, as I discovered on the train down from Delhi, they only provision for the meals they're expecting to need to provide. If you're on the train a few extra hours, it's your tough luck food-wise. They kinda tried to make up for this by serving lunch a couple hours late. It didn't help. :-) I couldn't check properly for Kolkata hotels because the mobile data signal was way too unstable. I couldn't read for more than a few minutes at a time given the way the driver was driving. (Heaven only knows how late we'd have been otherwise.)
Still, I made it over half way through Harper Lee. I answered Blay's two emails of the day, relating to the switch from driving on the left to driving on the right in Sweden, the Czech Republic and other places, and how (still don't quite have the connection actually) this relates to the demise of the tram in many a European city.
The final part of the journey was an adventure in its own way. The driver clearly did not know where he was going and had to keep stopping and asking for directions. (When we finally arrived, he tried to demand 50 extra rupees. Since I had prepaid for the ride -- and pointed this out to him -- I did not give him any. The irony is that, if he hadn't asked, I'd have given him the tip for all his troubles.) The streets were, and are, filled with festive Eid celebrations. Apparently there's a competing Hindu celebration, which would explain the occasional rather more Hindu-sounding music. :--) The combined cacophony will do interesting things to my sleep tonight, and I need to be up early, as I've scheduled the taxi to the station for six. (I've no idea how often the local trains go -- they're not listed on the Indian Railways website -- and apparently they take about 50 minutes to reach Uluberia. The service begins 8:20.
The day's regrets? The awesome scenery I couldn't appreciate from my top bunk, because the woman in the lower bunk was still sleeping or resting. The two bottles of water I accidentally left at the yatri niwas reception. The dinner I did not have at the station because my mind was fixated on finding a hotel (I am lousy as hell at multitasking), so I had to settle for two small chocolate cakes from a kiosk around the corner.
Postscript: Holiday Inns were my idea of the height of luxury when I was growing up. We stayed in one once or twice as a family, and the standard was way above anything we stayed in normally. (Think roadside mom-and-pop-type motel or string of cottages.) The other time I stayed in a Holiday Inn was as an adult, arriving late evening on a bus into Utrecht, en route to the UK for my Junior Year Abroad at the University of Sussex. That visit I remember only for the impressive buffet breakfast the next morning!
A melancholy mood at the start of my final week in India: a trip my feelings about which have been dominated by the unexpected events the evening before I left, and the job news I received shortly after arriving. I have never been so close to settling down in or to abruptly leaving my adoptive country of the past six-and-a-half years. To steal a line from one of my least-favourite American poets, “two paths diverged in a woods, and I….” Meanwhile, at least one friend here has pointed out, I think, that if what I really want to do is teach and research philosophy, then it’s not unlikely I could find something here (among many other places). Just a matter of broadening one’s horizons; time for some mind expansion. My world has, in far too many ways, gotten way too small.
And, of course, I’m wondering what I will find in Ulubaria. Hard not to have expectations I cannot possibly fulfill. One of my three compartment mates, a techie from Kolkata, working in Bangalore (the other two are elderly women) strongly recommended that I try booking a hotel online, given just how small Ulubaria is. (Snig, too, said it was very small.)
Kaush and I were both late to bed last night – Kaush, I think, because he was still stressed out by my (if quite unintentional) late evening arrival back. Actually I got back around the time he was expecting me (we had been discussing my taking that bus tour the day before); the problem was really my lack of responsiveness when he tried checking in. So he would like me to message him when I arrive Kolkata/Ulubaria, and that I should easily be able to do, since the power outlets on this train, again, work beautifully. That won’t be the case on the local train I’ll probably take to Ulubaria, but my phone should, I pray!, hold out that long.
Kaush woke up right before six, so it was easiest just to get up as well. I went for breakfast at the place I’d eaten yesterday morning. I tried booking a taxi ahead for 8:30, but the system wouldn’t let me; “all of our advance booking slots are full. Please wait until 15 minutes before your planned departure and try again”. Kaush suggested trying from eight as it might take a while to get a taxi, given the rush hour; in the end, the system gave me the option of paying a “premium rate” of 1.8 times the base rate to “increase my chances” of obtaining a taxi, and I just went with that. In terms of kroners, what’s an extra 40 SEK or so?
Kaush rode along as far as his office. Then we followed the Outer Ring Road around past (I think) the new airport and arrived at Yesvantpur Junction railway station at about a quarter past nine – just before the Duronto Express pulled in arriving from Kolkata. People disembarked and then – at least in first class – we couldn’t embark until a quarter past ten. So I walked the length of the platform, finding things to photograph; then remembered that I’d wanted to pull out more money, so I went and found an ATM.
It is, certainly, an adjustment having compartment mates – especially the two elderly women. Needless to say I went to the toilet to change clothes. One of them complained when I was going out into the corridor barefoot, so I’ve taken to putting on my shoes every time. Odd that I was so reluctant to take off my shoes in the Hindu temple and so equally reluctant to put them on for moving about the train! They (and the man as well) decided to take naps after lunch, so I had to retreat to my upper bunk. And most frustratingly, perhaps ;’), they pulled the curtains, so that I have to go into the corridor if I want to watch the scenery going by. But, well, I have a mental block about not wanting to offend women of my mother’s generation; and there is the whole “cultural sensitivity” thing, too.
Meals on this train do not come with tea or coffee, much to my annoyance! I tried asking for coffee with lunch and was told that I could have it for “tea” at four thirty. Then they brought a large thermos of hot water but only one small packet of instant coffee; so I had one small cup of coffee. :-) The food is… fine, good even, but not of the same impressive standard as I had on the Bangalore Rajdani Express. I fear I was spoiled!
I spoke a while with the techie about car congestion in Delhi, the unfolding Greek tragedy, what he sees as well as the intransigence of Angela Merkel, the overall strains within the monetary union and EU, the rising tide of Islamaphobia in Europe, political corruption, income disparity in the US and India and worldwide, the size of the US military budget, climate change, Kyrgyzstan (from a list of all the countries that I’ve been to): its religious leanings (strongly Muslim and relatively ethnically homogeneous in the south, religiously laid back and much more ethnically diverse in the north, especially around Bishkek) and political instability, the dangers of dogmatism, the political climate in India (at which point one of the elderly women chimed in that “Modi is doing some very good things!”), the nature of American and Swedish compared to Indian trains.
Oh -- I started reading Harper Lee's GO SET A WATCHMAN, which I picked up on my walk yesterday. It is... quite enjoyable, though not the polished work of TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD. The very different outcome to the rape trial stands out, of course, along with the very different narrative structure (a series of flashbacks to Scout's early childhood). As reviewers have pointed out, Atticus Finch becomes a rather more complicated figure. For all of our quite different reading styles in our adult years -- his tastes in high school remain a large part of my tastes today -- this is one my brother John would have definitely picked up, read, enjoyed.
Kaush needed to spend most of today preparing for a job interview that he just found out about yesterday afternoon, when we went in to his office; it's with the biggest player in the industry, and apparently there will be a lot of competition. Adish couldn't meet because he just found out yesterday (his first day back at work) that he needed to travel today for a week's work in Kerala. So I was on my own. I thought about doing the local tourist bus tour, but it departed eight thirty from the main bus terminal. Thought I might still find something, so I caught a bus in to the bus terminal; but with the traffic so insanely heavy, it took an hour and a half to get there. The woman at the information counter talked about something available from Corporation Circle, but both her directions and the details of what were available were unclear, dampening my enthusiasm somewhat. :-) So I started walking. Over the course of the day, till nine thirty at night, I walked back to Dodandekundi.
First stop was Bangalore City Junction railway station, where I had arrived yesterday, which turned out to be almost directly adjacent to the bus terminal. Since I like the dosas I had so much yesterday, I stopped by for another, plus a coffee (pre-sweetened and quite remarkably sweet, but what are you going to do?). From there it was a matter of finding the right way out from city centre. I made one wrong turn leaving the railway station and another leaving Cubbin Park (which took me back past the parliament and the high court, so I got a picture of the high court this time!) then -- with a bit of help from Google Maps on my mobile phone, with its already rapidly draining battery -- did fine until I was nearly back in Dodandekundi, when a side street I was taking, next to the busy main street, ended up dead ending in a building site.
Along the way I stopped for mango juice in the park, a Thumbs Up! soda from a petrol station (along with a pack of peanuts), and a cup of Americano coffee from one of the several Coffee Day bistros. After the soda I toured the city museum, which had quite a remarkable collection of stone age artefacts and some truly stunning friezes, but not very well organized or presented, and with no climate control whatsoever. Given the combination of less than ideal temperature/humidity and pretty bad air pollution, I fear that much of the collection will not be with us much longer. Perhaps they should at least charge foreigners more than the four rupees (about fifty öre at the current exchange rate) they charged me? There was an adjacent art gallery featuring the work of one K. Venkatappa, who worked in the early part of the Twentieth Century. He did some remarkably modernist landscape paintings and some truly awesome plaster-of-paris reliefs.
My stomach started making serious complaint-type noises at the coffee shop, so I went looking for a toilet. There was one in the adjacent shopping mall parking basement, but the stalls were inexplicably locked, and a urinal was not really what I needed. Found another a little further on, again in a parking basement, and had my first -- and will not complain greatly if it's my last for a while ;') -- experience of an Indian-style (non-Western) crouching toilet (with, of course, no toilet paper, only water). My stomach felt much better afterwards but the rest of me was somewhat put off.
Reaching Old Airport Road, I was confronted by sprinkles that fairly rapidly turned into a series of relatively short downpours. I still managed to get soaked, though I was dried out again long before I reached Marathahalli. Puddles of water were everywhere though, with cars spraying water everywhere; my jeans are in need of a wash before I try wearing them again!
I stopped to see the big Shiva statue that Kaush had told me about. (When he first lived in Bangalore, you could see the 20+-meter statue from the road. Now it's behind a McDonald's, a Kentucky Fried Chicken, and God knows what else.) This proved a much more complicated and time-consuming, but educational, experience than I was expecting. I'd never been in a Hindu temple before and didn't know what to expect. I needed to give a donation for an offering on the way in (a bag with a bunch of dried flowers, I think, and a couple of bananas that were mine for eating after). I was expected to remove my shoes and was reluctant to do so, given the muddy ground and floors I was traversing; I started to leave, but the woman at the ticket table insisted that I should carry on in to the temple, and escorted me past the still loudly objecting (and quite reasonably so!) shoe caretaker. I think she misunderstood the nature of my shoes and took them for a form of socks instead -- which, of course, they're not. For what it's worth, I tried explaining, and I carried on only at her urging. That said, once inside the temple, I really wished I'd just gone ahead and taken them off, but by that point it was too late. Hopefully I did not cause any offense to the gods, and I will know better what to expect, and how to conduct myself, when I am in a Hindu temple again.
It was a moving experience, perhaps profoundly so, even though I did not understand the greater portion of the rituals I saw or was asked to take part in. Of course I recognized Ganesha, who had a sizable statue of his own; and I think I recognized one or two of the other gods/goddesses.
I spent longer in the temple than I thought, because it was getting dark already as I was leaving; it must have been about seven. In the dark, I had to slow down, since the pavements were often blocked or non-existent, and where one needed to walk on the street, one had to be quite careful about the oncoming traffic. Worse, my phone battery was all but entirely drained, down to 1% charge. Shortly thereafter it switched itself off.
Nonetheless, Marathahalli Bridge was a straight shot and really quite impossible to miss, even in the dark. Turning down the road toward Dodandekundi, I looked for, and finally found, a fast food shop where I thought I might be able to recharge my phone enough to confirm my position and get in touch with Kaush. Unfortunately, the shopkeeper either did not understand me correctly or insisted that I should use his charger, which I could not get to work with my phone; I had just enough charge left, when I restarted the phone, to reconfirm Kaush's address; at that point Kaush tried calling -- a couple of times -- and I had to reject the call or the phone would just have shut down on me immediately.
Clearly, I need a new battery. Actually, I need a new phone, because this one -- even though it is only three and a half years old -- has been seriously acting up for some time now in a whole bunch of ways. Sometimes it shuts itself off even when it has plenty of charge; oftentimes you can't switch it off without removing the battery -- otherwise it just restarts; sometimes the data or voice connection will stop working until you restart the phone.
Anyway, I found another fast-food place a while later with -- thankfully! -- plenty of power outlets around the walls. Turning my phone back on, I found 22 missed calls from Kaush, ouch. Called him up and he had, indeed, been quite worried -- especially when I had refused his calls earlier (something that a thief might well be expected to do). Fortunately I was only 10-15 minutes from his place by that point. (I could see the Samsung tower block from the restaurant.) Arrived to find him waiting out in the street and, yes, he had been about ready to go contact the police. I really do need a new phone!
On the whole, the day -- though it was not planned at all, from the beginning -- turned out quite well, and gave me my first -- and likely only -- extensive walking tour of an Indian city. If the train is on time reaching Kolkata, I will proceed directly out to Ulubaria; and when I leave Ulubaria, I will need to do so fairly directly, if I'm to have any time to stop in Agra. Delhi the distances really are too great to walk -- at least in the time available -- and the air sufficiently grim and polluted to not make that such a fun prospect, anyway.
I knew, by the time we arrived to the last station before I went to bed last evening, that we were running about two hours behind schedule. I finally got a compartment-mate at that station -- if only for a few minutes. He disappeared just after saying hello (in very good English) and dropping off his bags, then a while later the conductor apologizes to me (!) for having placed someone else in the compartment and assured me he'd been moved to another compartment. I tried saying that I really did not mind sharing the compartment (indeed, would have been glad for the company), but by then it was too late.
I mean, it was a lovely train ride, but 34 hours in a compartment on your own feels distinctly antisocial.
We did not make any time up overnight. The crew clearly weren't provisioned for an extra breakfast, so I had to settle for a morning coffee (about an hour later than I had it yesterday morning) and wait for breakfast till I reached Bangalore City Station.
The attendants came for tips last evening -- 100 rupees felt a bit cheap, so I gave them a 500 note (the only other note I had besides a 1000-rupee note) -- then came again for tips this morning. :-) They had (with the exception of the very late coffee this morning) provided very good service, so I gave them the 100-rupee note, but still felt a bit odd for tipping twice. They looked a bit askance at the 100-rupee note (I think), but I wasn't prepared to hand over a 1000. ;') (On the other hand, given the exchange rate to SEK, it's not like I couldn't have.)
I was going to take lots of pictures around Bangalore City Station to make up for my lack of photos around the station in Delhi, but Bangalore City Station is remarkably nondescript. I settled for a quick photo of a train sitting on platform one, then went to find breakfast, which proved quite easy: two dosas from the shop in the main hall.
Kaush had suggested my taking a bus out to his place, but when I messaged him this morning, he suggested taking a taxi instead, and directed me to an app to install on my mobile phone -- which took care of arranging the taxi, told me the taxi's license number and the name of the driver, and informed me (incorrectly!) that the taxi would arrive in three minutes. (It took fifteen.) I quick threw my things back together to be outside within the three minutes; the driver called me, but I couldn't understand a single word he said, as I kept repeating to him; so I simply texted him my precise location and waited.
The taxi (a very nice, modern car) was cheap, especially after substracting the 100-rupee discount I received for being a first-time customer of this taxi service. Apparently this is a serious issue locally, as it is putting pressure on the auto-rickshaw drivers, who are used to charging higher rates. :-) Other neat things: the metering was done entirely by a GPS-aware app that the driver had on his mobile phone, and as soon as we'd arrived and the driver was paid, I received a receipt on my mobile.
Dropped off my bags at Kaush's very nice "hostel" accommodation (really, a short-term rental one-room apartment with toilet) and took a shower, then got a tour of his office (ten minutes walk) and lunch in the building's cafeteria. Came back to his place for a while; he went back to his office for his laptop; then we took another of the mobile-phone-app taxis downtown to one of the main upscale shopping streets: very Western-oriented, with brands like Krispy Kreme, Dunkin Donuts, KFC, McDonald's, Pizza Hut, etc. We wandered fairly aimlessly, then a very persistent auto-rickshaw driver (looking to be of mixed Indian/African ancestry) sold Kaush on a quick tour. This involved a pass by the (extremely impressive) state legislature building (I took a couple photos through the high iron fence), high court, and post office -- plus a visit to three high-end tourist shops, where we weren't obligated to buy anything (and didn't), but the auto-rickshaw driver received coupons of some description for bringing us there. (At least, it worked for him at the first shop. The second shop didn't give him any, apparently because we didn't stay long enough; and I don't think that the third gave him any, either.) Oh, he's the auto-rickshaw driver who was telling us all about the pressure being brought to bear by Ola Cabs and its mobile phone app.
Most impressive thing about Bangalore, besides the somewhat slower pace than Delhi :-), is the temperature: about 20C all day. I had an email from someone in Sweden saying that it must be much hotter here but, nope, it's actually much hotter in southern Sweden at the moment. :-) From what Kaush says, the temperatures stay pretty much like this all year round, a consequence in part of the relative elevation. Some people don't care for it though, "because we tend to think that, if you're sweating a lot, you sweat out all the bad things you might pick up". Hmm, I don't think it works like that. ;')
Heard from Pastor Singha in Uluberia this evening, having been nervous at not hearing from him all day. (I'd written him this morning as soon as my waiting-list ticket had been upgraded to confirmed -- as he'd asked me to do.) He's suggesting that, since he needs to be away from Uluberia on Sunday (baptizing converts in a neighbouring district, if I understood him rightly from a previous email), he meet me in Kolkata on Monday morning and bring me by train to Uluberia. (He had previously talked about meeting me at the station on Saturday when I get in, if he was able to.) That doesn't work so well for me, both because my whole purpose in going to Kolkata is to visit Uluberia, and because I need to be off in quite good time on Monday if I'm to have a chance to stop at all in Agra. So I wrote back to suggest that I make my own way to Uluberia on Saturday (presuming the train is on time), stay locally (there appear to be a number of local hotels), attend church in the morning (in Bengali) -- presuming I'm welcome to -- and meet up with him at the mission on Monday morning. Since that's more the sort of thing I'd been trying to suggest all along, I'm a bit nervous why the suggestion for this alternate arrangement. So I'm back to waiting to hear again.
I'd known all along that getting to Uluberia was important to me, of course, because of my father's visit there long ago, but I hadn't realized quite how important it was to me till this evening, or how nervous I am that thinks might not come off okay. Hopefully it will all work out.
Had to throw off my blanket in the middle of the night because, I think, they turned down the air conditioning. Consequently did not need my jacket this morning but, as the day has gone on and the A/C has pumped away, I have needed to add it back.
Morning tea came at 6:30, as promised, followed by breakfast at eight, with the promised omelette. I’m no great fan of eggs, but it seemed best to accept the default option than to try to discuss alternatives with friendly and helpful but not very English speaking attendants. Breakfast was followed by selection of newspapers: The Times of India, the Hindustan Times, and a Hindi paper whose name I won’t even try to reproduce. Allowed me to catch up on the situation in Greece, which sounds increasingly grim, despite or because of the latest agreement paving the way for a new bailout plan.
No shower on the train – was expecting that – so I “sponge bathed” as well as I could. I went to shave only to discover that my final disposable razor had finally broken. On the other hand, even unshaven for a day and a half, I can’t sport a fraction of the whiskers my father did.
Managed to get camera, laptop, and phone all recharged: not only does the (one) outlet in my compartment work well, but the current is steady (often not the case on trains in other places like Sweden). Indeed, I think it’s the first outlet I’ve met in this country that is entirely unproblematic. :-)
Lunch started at noon with, like dinner last evening, a soup starter. Indeed, other than for the nature of the soup and one of the side dishes in the main course, it was precisely the same as dinner last evening. :-) Still, very good food. “Tea” came at 5 pm: sandwich (on white bread, blah), vegetable samosa, spicy peanuts, a honey-based crumbly floury dessert, and, of course, tea (and coffee).
The people in the next compartment are rather less silent than last evening, which is good. From the sound of the one voice I hear most of the time, I think he’s on his mobile phone a lot. Myself, I’ve had considerable problems with mobile coverage today, which primarily means that I haven’t been able to check email very regularly. The only fairly guaranteed time to connect is when we pull into one of the larger stations (which are, generally, the only places we stop).
Otherwise I’ve at least seen the family in the compartment on the far end, next to the attendants’ quarters: a couple in their 40s/50s, a young child, and a man in his late 20s. Whether the other compartments are occupied or not I can’t guess, since all the compartments have polarized glass in the door windows. Snig’s friend yesterday was right: you don’t really talk to anyone in these first-class carriages, and the people you see are not particularly ordinary.
Someone – a female voice I did not recognize – called just now. Between the accent, the shakiness of the train, and the connection, is was difficult to hear. I mentioned the problem with the connection, hoping that she would slow down, speak more clearly, and explain who she was :-), but instead she hung up. Since only a few friends plus Pastor Singha have my number here, I wonder if it wasn’t some telemarketing thing. (Or maybe it was Indian Railways about a train cancellation or one of my waitlisted tickets. Despite Pastor Singha’s assurance that a waitlisted ticket pretty much never gets upgraded to a confirmed ticket, I noticed that my ticket from Bangalore to Kolkata has risen from WL4 to WL1. If just one more person cancels, I’m in! …Which I have mixed feelings about, because it means not getting down to Kochi to see Abishek Chandra: five more hours by road or train beyond Bangalore.)
The attendant came just now to sweep again, which was fine, even though he swept and wet mopped just a few hours ago. What was rather less enjoyable was the air freshener he sprayed!
Sunday, 12 July
Took the metro on my own to Rajiv Chowk to see Abishek Kapoor. Wasn’t sure how much time to allow: Snig suggested leaving by 11:30, but given the accuracy of Snig’s time estimates on other occasions :-), and given my desire to have a breakfast supplement en route, I left instead at 10:45. Even with a food break at MG Road station (two anonymous-veggie-filling samosas), I reacheAd Rajiv Chowk by 12:15 or so, 45 minutes ahead of schedule. So I cooled my heels having a rather expensive but quite nice (given the instant coffee you generally get otherwise) Americano in the coffee shop in Rajiv Chowk station.
Abishek showed up with his sister Priya. They asked what I wanted to do first; since I was still hungry, I suggested beginning with lunch, which we did, at another of these big cafeteria-type places. Much water under the bridge since last we engaged in any extended conversations online (I hadn’t seen Abishek face to face since 2009 in London). Abishek is publicly out. His sister is very supportive; his parents “don’t really understand”.
I mentioned wanting a new phone charger, lens cap, and duct tape, so after lunch we went looking for these through various markets (some of which required entry through an airport-type scanner). The lens cap was easy, as was the charger – although I’m quite annoyed! because I paid considerably extra to get a genuine Samsung charger, and it doesn’t work – at least, not properly. It charges for a few minutes or a few moments then – without the phone or cord being disturbed in any way – stops. One of the pins appears to be missing. My guess is that it’s a well-made counterfeit. Meh!
The duct tape proved as elusive as ever. I’m sure it must be sold somewhere around those markets – they seemed to be selling nearly everything else! – but the problem, as Priya said, is knowing what it’s called here.
Abishek and Priya insisted on buying me a shirt at a rather trendy-looking shop called The People Tree. I settled on a batik with a bicycle design; it seemed appropriate. They’d have bought me another but I wasn’t that taken with the other designs, the way I was with this one.
Otherwise we looked for Asian foods so I could make Snig the Thai red curry he wanted (as interpreted by an American, trained by a British man trained at a cooking school in Thailand). This proved as elusive as the duct tape. The only place they were sure I’d find the ingredients I needed was at a shop an hour away on the south side of the city, which I really couldn’t see doing.
Left just after six to head back, not wanting particularly to be travelling after dark. The auto-rickshaw driver at MG Road station at first wouldn’t bargain down at all from what was, really, an inflated price. He came down a little – though not as much as he should have :-) – so I got in. Then he dropped me at the wrong place! As I was paying him, I asked “are you sure this is Section 17a Market?” thinking that maybe I was just seeing it from an odd angle. He assured me it was. It was not. I asked around till I found someone who could give me directions; but then he decided that the directions would be too complicated, so he just walked me there, five or ten minutes.
I never got a fresh rose nor a aloe-and-mint-oil facial wipe when traveling Amtrak. And the train attendants -- some of them -- their uniforms, oh my! Then came a hand towel. Then a bottle of water. Then dinner: tomato soup starter, with breadsticks, then rice and chapatis with dal soup, paneer, and mixed vegetables, followed by strawberry ice cream for dessert. I managed, with a little friendly asking and patience, to follow that up with a coffee.
There is no comparing this with Amtrak food service. The very juxtaposition of images in my mind borders on the obscene. Airline-style presentation aside, the quality of the food was that of a fine restaurant. I glanced in the kitchen car on my way to find my car. It looks amazing.
Trying to write though is an interesting exercise in patience. The train is going pretty fast most of the time and the tracks are awfully bouncy. Pastor Singha called from Uluberia just as I was pouring my tomato soup. Trying to talk with him and keep the soup in the soup bowl proved an impossible task. :-) ...As in, the soup ended up across the table, and on the floor, and on my hands.
I expected all the first-class cabins to be four berths, but two of them on this car, including mine, are just two berths. For the time being I don't have a cabin mate. I don't hear anything from the neighbouring cabins, so it's rather eerily quiet.
With Abishek's private driver it still took two full hours to reach the station (Hazrat Nizamuddin). Delhi desperately needs to do something like institute a congestion charge -- there are way too many private vehicles on the road for the amount of space. Then I had a small panic because my train wasn't listed on the departures board and I couldn't figure out what line to queue in to find out what, if anything, was the matter. Thankfully some other passengers waiting in the queue next to me had a look at my ticket and assured me everything was fine, and a few minutes later the train did appear on the departures board. Why it wasn't there in the first place I have no idea. (There weren't that many trains departing this evening, period, so they had all the arrivals and departures listed.)
Waited in the waiting room for a while -- amused to see that there was an ordinary waiting room and then an "upper class" waiting room. Spoke with a gentleman from Mumbai, who wanted to know where I was from, and who enjoyed himself telling me what he could about Sweden: namely, that Stockholm is the capital and the currency is the Swedish kroner. :-) Walked out of the station, had a copy of my electronic ticket printed in case I might need that, topped up my mobile phone credit, thought about getting something to eat in the quite elaborate cafeteria-type restaurant next door but decided to wait for dinner on the train.
I took just a couple pictures in the station -- one of the "coolie" charges for carrying luggage, another of the reservation charts for my train -- being unsure of the legality of taking pictures around the station. I say this because I took a number of pictures around one of the metro stations only to discover that -- technically, at least -- any picture taking in the metro stations is illegal and subject to fine. I should have relaxed a bit and taken more shots; the naive foreigner excuse doesn't always get you out of trouble, but it can go a long way. And Indian people seem remarkably chill, despite their occasional attempts to come across otherwise.
I headed to the platform shortly after eight, having been told that the train was usually available for boarding half an hour in advance. That proved to be somewhat optimistic. It actually came in a bit after eight thirty. I had another minor panic as I could not for the life of me figure out how the cars were ordered, or which one was mine, and it didn't help, when I was asking people, that most of them confused my ticket class (1A) with my coach number. As it turned out, the first-class cars were way at the back of the train, with a handy computer print out taped up next to the door to say who went in which cabin.
What I did for the rest of the day, until the car came to fetch me at twenty past four, is clean up my emails and think about submitting -- without actually getting submitted :-) -- one or another job application. The problem was that I don't have my current resume with me, and the resume I found online is seriously out of date and needing updated. :-) I tried logging onto Micaiah (my backup/mail server) to get the CV from there, but it wasn't accepting the login password for SSH. I also admit to not being in a proper job-hunting mood. Went out a couple times to the market -- first time for supplementary breakfast, the second time because I was thirsty and decided that I'd rather liked the coconut water I had in the morning. Ended up being some spiced buttermilk as well: seriously weird taste (what did they use for spices?!), but good.
Passing one of the train stations now: wow, there are a lot of people asleep in rows on the platform. No idea where it is, as all the signs I've seen so far have been in Hindi.
Saturday 11 July
Had a breakfast of muesli, coffee, and an almond slice at Snig's favourite breakfast place in Rishikesh, a German bakery just across the pedestrian bridge over the Ganges from where we were staying. Can't say I ever expected to be eating muesli in India. I watched the monkeys play around the bridge, treating it like a jungle gym, and waited for Snig to join me.
Whilst doing some accounting back at the hotel -- where had all my money gone? :-) -- I had another weird episode, this time with my eyes going off in two different directions. I could control one eye by closing the other, but I could not get them to coordinate. This lasted for 30 seconds to a minute before -- again -- disappearing just as mysteriously as it had come on. Looked it up online and, apparently, it's not that unusual of a thing to have happen, though I never could have imagined it happening before it did; I've just always taken for granted that whatever my eyes do, they do together.
In the shops just down and across from the hotel, I bought a wire-frame model of a bicycle and a carved elephant with tusks -- the latter in memory of the one Dad brought me back from his trip in '73. That one (or was it a set of them?) had tusks, too, originally, but I managed to break them off fairly quickly. I'm hoping that this elephant is wrapped well enough to make it back to Sweden, tusks intact.
The Delhi bus stopped at a couple of stations en route where vendors came on board selling chips and sodas and frest coconut slices -- which was nice, as that bowl of muesli was feeling like quite a while in the past. That made waiting for the late-afternoon "lunch" break much easier. The bus took seven and a half hours to reach Delhi; or rather, five and a half hours to reach the city limits and then two hours, in stop-and-go traffic, to reach city centre. (Much of that way we were following what will be, when it gets finished, quite a major extension of the "red" line out to one of the northern suburbs.) So, no, it wasn't actually any faster than the train, in the end, and we likely would not have been in time for the party Abishek was inviting me to -- if it had not, in fact, been cancelled due to the rain.
So I went back with Snig to his place and stayed up till three in the morning figuring out how the heck to book train tickets online. Turned out the Indian Railways website would not accept any of my Swedish credit cards. Thankfully there are a number of online booking agents that interface with the Indian Railways website and do take foreign cards. Thought I got myself a confirmed seat on all the trains; turns out that only the first one (to Bangalore) is confirmed; the others have me on waiting lists.
<rant> My annoyance at Snig boiled over today, in my generally quiet and understated way. We arrived Rishikesh 3 pm after a very tiring bus journey. Snig gets in heated words with the bus ticket/baggage handler, then runs off to hire a tri-wheeling taxi ("auto-rickshaw"). All I can get out of him is that we need to get to the other side of the river. We take the taxi for maybe five minutes, and he darts off through the rain, me struggling to follow. When I finally catch up to him -- or, rather, when he finally allows me to catch up -- I ask him what the plan is, and he snaps, "to find a hotel -- that should just be obvious! I shouldn't have to explain that to you" and dashes off again. Next time I catch up I try pointing out that that which is obvious to him may not be to me, and he comes back with, "if you wanted someone to explain everything to you, you should have hired a guide for 20000 rupees" -- which, to me, was intentionally missing the point.
We walked for a full hour through driving rain, passing various hotels and guest houses, Snig stopping to inquire at only a couple before passing on. We finally found a room for a good price at the Hilltop Hotel, but just as I'm settling in, Snig announces that he doesn't like it and leaves. "We can do much better for the same price. There's not even a view of the Ganges from the room." So I feel little option but to follow him out. When the poor receptionist asks why we're leaving, Snig just says "I remembered something that..." and I can only say, "I have no idea". So it's back out into the rain.
Thankfully Snig does find the next place acceptable after, so he says, bargaining the price down to the same level as the Hilltop; we'll find out when I go to pay in the morning. The room is if anything rather run down compared to the Hilltop, and dirtier, with the redeeming feature of a view from the hallway balcony of the Ganges, plus an air conditioner we did not use. (I am not much a fan of air conditioners in general.)
Through all of this, my passport and vaccination certificate are getting soaked, because I had them in the top compartment of my pack, having not realized we'd be walking for an hour in the rain. It's been like this the whole week. I don't mind so much that Snig makes nearly all the decisions -- he's the local, after all -- but I have to drag out of him any indication of what he's decided. I've just had to trust his judgment time and again, and I'm not sure his judgment is always sound. ;-')
After checking in at the hotel, Snig wants a bath, then we go to check on train tickets. But it's quickly clear that Snig doesn't want to do the train, and although I could do as he suggests and take the train alone, it doesn't feel like the way I want my week with him to end, so I reluctantly agree to take the bus -- which, he says, will get to Delhi in five hours; but then, he said the bus to Rishikesh would take six and, landslides aside, it took eight (roughly the same time as our private driver took to cover the distance), and only because the driver drove like a man possessed. Oh, and Snig tells me I'd need to leave at least two hours for getting to the train station, because there is no train station in Rishikesh -- which is not what he'd told me before. Now, it's "in the next city".
I had dinner and Snig coffee in his "favourite restaurant" -- and that proved a fairly pricey proposition! Then he went to use the ATM and come straight back, only he didn't, so I went back to the hotel, and he's come just now an hour and a half later.
Thing is, Snig knew I wanted to spend as much of this weekend as possible with Abishek Kapoor, who is only free on the weekends. I'd have preferred getting back tonight, whereas he'd have preferred getting back Sunday, or even Monday I think. And maybe he's right that the bus, leaving much later than the train, will get to Delhi a great deal more quickly. But I also think that he really doesn't want to take the train. :-) And when I mentioned wanting to spend the weekend with Kapoor, his response was to say I shouldn't bother, that Kapoor screwed up the dates for my visit (which, okay, he did), that if Kapoor really was serious about seeing me he'd have taken days off work. But the whole reason I'm in India is because of Kapoor's repeated requests, over the years, for a visit; and, of all my friends in India, Kapoor has been, by far, the one who's stayed in touch. So, yes, Kapoor can be flaky. :-) But that doesn't change the fact that he's been the one to maintain the friendship, whereas Snig only reappeared really when I said I was coming. </rant>
At the same time, I never would have seen the Himalayas without Snig's prompting. That part of India is beautiful in no small part largely because it has been neglected by government and international aid alike. There are advantages to being relatively forgotten. And Snig's judgment and instincts have often enough been good.
Anyway, the day did not start out so great, either. Snig said we needed to be up by 4:30 to catch the 5:30 bus to Rishikesh. The hotel guard/handyman came banging on our door at 4:22. :-) I was ready to go by a quarter till, whereas Snig dawdled about various things till ten past. And, yes, he was right, it still did give us plenty of time to get to the bus; but then, why did we get up so early?!
I'm not sure what, if anything, was open at that hour, but I didn't try buying any food, in part because I was fixated on catching the bus, in part because Snig assured me that the driver would stop at least a couple of times, including once for breakfast. Heh. We didn't stop till after twelve, by which point I was famished. So I'm stuffing my face, but I could have eaten more; Snig didn't tell me till after we left that it was all-you-can-eat. Another thing that was, apparently, just supposed to be obvious. :-)
The first part of the journey, down to the Ganges, I was pretty much gripping onto the seat for dear life as the driver literally careened around the hairpin curves. (Snig told me later that "all these Himalayan drivers" don't drive unless they're seriously drunk. Actually the way Snig expressed it was to say "like this" and hold his hand palm down in front of his neck.) I was fighting to stay in my seat. Once we reached the Ganges, the road surface improved significantly, but not the ride, as the driver took the excuse to speed up. And remember that stretch with the something-like-1000-meter drop straight down, that I said would be absolutely terrifying in the rain? Well, the rain started with a 5-10-minute torrential downpour at the afternoon "breakfast" stop and continued intermittently thereafter -- until we reached Rishikesh, at which point it became a continuous, moderately heavy rain right up till now. This time around we were on the side of the road with the immediate jaw-dropping drop off, and now and again I made the mistake of looking down into the chasm with a kind of morbid curiosity. But, really, the straight drop of 200-300 meters we'd had most of the way previously would have been plenty enough to kill us, if the driver had misjudged just one of those curves, or met an unexpected car. So I did my best to relax and enjoy the ride -- and, to an odd degree, I think I succeeded. I even did better at staying in my seat.
We met two rock slides along the way. Snig says he's had them "9 out of 10" times he's taken this road. The first took less than five minutes to clear; an earth mover was already at work on it when we arrived. The second, which washed out a major pit in the road, sloping down into the chasm, took well over an hour.
Friday 3 July - Dehradun
Left Snig's place just after 9. He wanted to take a taxi but I preferred metro so -- this time at least -- we went with my plan. The metro was really, really nice, if kinda slow -- plus it was weird going through airport-type security to get into the station. Snig says that's new since the bomb blasts in Mumbai and Delhi. I wondered what Dad would have made of the metro: a far cry from his time in Delhi, from what I remember of his pictures of it.
Bus left Delhi 11:15 and arrived Dehradun 5:30 pm, with one mid-afternoon break for "lunch". We checked in at the hotel (which, it turned out, Swagata had paid for) and waited for a taxi to come take us to her house.
Arrived 8 pm, didn't eat till well after ten. Tried taking a photo from the roof, looking out over the city; but my camera battery was too low. Swagata's father told me all about the benefits of being retired from the military and offered me a shot of Indian whiskey that came as part of his benefits. I politely accepted, but the whiskey was surprisingly sweet; I really struggled to politely decline when he tried, repeatedly, to pour me another shot, until finally Swagata came to my defense. Oddly, both he and Snig diluted their shots of whiskey with copious mineral water, apparently the standard practice here. To me, the point of drinking whiskey, if one is going to drink it at all, is for the taste..
Swagata's husband was away but I met their two sons. The older, 13, was big for his age and could have passed for 14-15. He was into stereotypical boy-type things; I think he and Snig were running around with a toy gun for a while. The younger, 7, I would not have realized for a boy if I'd not been told so. He had a long ponytail -- only one I've seen here so far, on anyone -- and was of quite different temperament to his older brother. Swagata told me proudly that he writes with his left hand: still, I guess, largely frowned on here (although people will, unlike in Ghana, handle food with their left as well as right hand; but the left hand is still, so far as I can see, the toileting hand).
All I remember of dinner was quantities of food, consumed rather quickly. Swagata told us of a female friend who had recently told her she'd found and was happy with a female partner. Otherwise she worried about the weather for the drive to Joshimath. Afterward, she and the older son walked us part way back to the hotel.
Striking my tent this morning (still wet, nothing to do), I discovered that the tent bag had been torn, likely abraded by the ropes holding it onto the mule. I was thankful that it was the bag not the tent, still. Ramesh offered to hand carry it once Snig explained the problem to him -- indeed, he looked quite downcast! -- but I thought it simpler in the end just to take pack, tent, and all on my back, hoping not to offend Ramesh.
Breakfast was chapatis made by Ramesh's wife in the village, with curried potatoes. No white rice, no ramen, so thankful!
Snig made it the 3 km. down to the bridge well ahead of me; Ramesh and the guide were catching up just as I crossed the bridge. Snig paid Ramesh, and we bid him farewell with a handshake and hug. The driver was waiting -- presumably at a preset time, given the lack of mobile coverage. The ride back was as bone shattering as I remembered it. The guide pointed out the village, perched on the side of a mountain, where Ramesh's wife came from. We stopped at a small kiosk -- for a break? -- where I had another of my spontaneous Earth-is-moving-under-me-totally-losing-my-sense-of-balance spells: not when I got out of the car, which might have made some sense, but out of the blue several minutes later as I was moving around. I stumbled to the car, sat down, and moments later it was gone, albeit with a lingering sense of nausea.
We stopped again at a hot spring, with a weak but noticeable smell of sulfur. The plan had been to take lunch in the village of Lata with the guide's brother, who had arranged the trek for us after Swagata put Snig in contact with him; but he wasn't available. So we went straight back to Joshimath. I used an ATM so I could pay my share to the guide: substantially above what Snig had estimated as the maximum possible cost before we started out, but I wasn't surprised :-), and it was still quite reasonably affordable in terms of SEK. Too, from what he said later, it seems Snig left various things out, so the actual cost was even higher, and he swallowed the difference. On the other hand, with all the many little things I've been paying for him....
Back on email, I found... nothing that exciting. No word from Judy, which worries me a bit; but the connection is so weak, it could just be that my phone is failing to pull all the messages across before it times out.
Greece voted "no" in the referendum on Sunday, by a much wider than expected margin, setting the stage for a likely exit from the Eurozone, since I can't see the rabidly pro-austerity forces in the EU -- Chancellor Merkel in particular -- backing down and admitting their mistakes.
Snig was certain we'd find duct take in town, to mend my torn shoe, and possibly a lens cap. We found neither, despite Snig asking for the tape at at least a dozen shops. We found cellotape, packaging tape, electrical tape, medical tape: each time I shook my head no. It did not help that Snig didn't know what duct tape was, despite his assurances to the contrary! though he worked it out in the end and even remembered his mother using it once to mind his suitcase. I was actually a bit surprised not to find it, given the much shoddier materials I'd seen being used e.g. to mend leaky water pipes.
It was a gloriously sunny afternoon; I set the tent up in the hotel yard to dry it, and by the time I'd set it up it was already dry. Recharged my phone a bit until the lights went out -- which, I get the impression, they do on a schedule every afternoon.
Tuesday 2 July
It was a long, longwalk through a remarkably deserted-looking airport to reach passport control. I waited in the wrong line -- electronic visas had their own desk. Waited at the wrong carousel for my suitcase and only realized my mistake when the last of the bags was coming up, and mine wasn't there. Seems another flight had arrived from London at roughly the same time.
Abishek did not have a driver waiting for me. (It turned out later he'd gotten my arrival date confused.) Both my laptop and phone batteries were drained, so I had to do my best to recharge both before I could message Snig, who recommended I take a taxi and said which company to use. Later I discovered that I could have taken the metro pretty much to his place, but he thought it would be too tiring or too crowded or somesuch. Otherwise I pulled out my first 3000 rupees (just over 400 SEK) and got a local SIM card for 600 rupees.
The taxi took me to Sahara Mall in Gargaon, where I met Snig's roommate Abishek, who directed the driver back to his and Snig's apartment. He was just coming from work. I did email and worked on corrections to my cognitive semiotics paper until Snig arrived from work, around eight. I nearly finished them all: just two reviewer's comments left, plus some references to add probably when I get back to Sweden, plus the last half of the paper to review, which the reviewer basically didn't comment on. (I had a second reviewer, but all he did was to gush praise for the paper. :-p)
The apartment is a basic three-room, rather run down, for which Snig and Abishek each pay around 9000 rupees per month, after electricity: noticeably more than I pay in Sweden, though I do have a remarkably good deal. Abishek apparently struggles, as his salary as a medical salesperson (?) is much lower than Snig's.
Dinner was just before bedtime, something I would very much be getting used to!
Back in Ruin for the night. Weather has been generally trending toward clearer most of the day -- with notable exceptions! -- with occasional periods of bright, hot, welcome sunshine. Snig says though that there's a monsoon red alert for this region, with high flood risk.
Woke to voices around 5:00, so I got up, did my morning toileting, discovered the other tent still closed up, tried unsuccessfully going back to sleep. Gave that up, so I packed my bag and waited for people to stir.
Breakfast was another round of ramen -- I am so not wanting to see ramen again any time soon -- followed by a sweetened rice/milk mixture (Snig says that Indians have a crazy sweet tooth, and for once I think he's right) -- followed by a couple of chapatis with dal (lentils). This was the part I actually enjoyed eating. ;')
People were unusually slow moving this morning, so rather than loading the mules at eight, as we did the other mornings, it was nearly ten. Snig had been weighing whether to do the (supposedly!) 2 1/2 km. hike to a nearby mountain lake, given the heavy fog and unsettled weather; but, in the end, he decided -- fairly optimistically at that point! -- that things were clearing enough to go for it. Since it sounded like an easy enough stroll (ha), I agreed. Ramesh left with the mules, and Snig and I followed the guide up the mountain ridge immediately behind the school.
I was in for a hasty surprise. Although we did initially follow a path, of sorts, most of the way we were just cutting across country, through some pretty seriously challenging terrain. One stretch we were making our way among some bear-sized boulders, with grass growing up through the spaces between, so it was bloody hard to tell where was safe to step. I stepped wrong once, stumbled, and scraped up my leg a bit. It started to rain lightly, and I slipped a couple more times, twisting my left nee and ankle the one time: not much, but enough to notice it later on. After a couple hours of this, I asked the guide how much further. He understood that much English: 500 m. And the going did get much easier for a while, with even a proper path for 100 m., till we turned away again.
Then we came to a field of much larger boulders. They weren't so hard to navigate, but most of the time I couldn't really see where I was going. And at that point the guide took off like a shot. Using voice navigation, I managed to find him and catch up, just as he was approaching the drop off into a deep valley. Then he took his backpack off, indicated to "wait here", looked around for a couple of minutes, then disappeared.
Snig shows up, having taken a much more circuitous route. As the wait for the guide grew longer, I added an extra layer under my rain jacket against the chill. As the time got on to 15-20 minutes, both of us were growing concerned. I said I could wait up to half an hour more, then I (we) would need to start down, or I would get too cold. Snig found a narrow overhang/crawlspace and suggested I stay there while he scouted for the guide. It took me all of a minute to realize that that was a bad idea! Not only was the crawlspace small enough that I couldn't really move -- thereby making me colder much faster -- it also meant we were separated in a situation where visibility was, for reasons of boulders and fog, close to nil. So I crawled back out, called for Snig, and we waited together.
Five minutes later, the guide showed up. Apparently he had some bad stomach problems and had gone off to toilet. The lake, apparently, was out of sight buried in the mists in the valley below. I was none too thrilled at the prospect of a steep descent we would then need to re-climb, and Snig seemed genuinely spooked by the guide's disappearance, and the weather at this point was pretty shitty, so we turned back. I said, half jokingly, that we should just take the path down -- but that's just what we did! It took us down precisely to the school, where we had started -- needless to say, much more quickly, leaving us both to wonder why we hadn't just taken the path up. We didn't even have to go through much of the boulder field. It was so much laughingly simper. Unfortunately I dropped my lens cap stopping to take a picture of a wildflower and didn't realize until I stopped to take a a picture of what clearly seemed to be -- if bizarrely -- an old military bunker, perched on the hillside. So I am, much to my annoyance, without a lens cap for a couple of days.
Leaving the school we passed a plot of cultivated lavender and -- perhaps because I had mentioned how nice a cup of tea would be -- the guide negotiated with the owner for a round of tea. We sat in her front courtyard in what was, for a few minutes at least, blazingly hot sunshine, and my feet got a chance to begin to dry out.
From there on, we were on the beautifully constructed trail we had followed up, 8-9 km. back to Ruin. I had to take it slow because my knee and ankle complained bitterly if I didn't, and because much of the initial descent across the scree field is over loose sand, which was, at that point -- of course -- very wet. But the guide, whom I'd been so annoyed at earlier for not keeping me in line of sight -- kind of essential when you're not following any path -- stayed religiously close in front of me, pausing frequently for me to catch up, the entire way to the campsite -- ironically, when I truly did not need him to. There was nowhere to make a wrong turn, even if we hadn't come this way just two days ago.
Whenever I tried speeding up, my left knee and ankle -- and right middle toe, oddly enough -- told me to slow down again and enjoy the stroll. I stopped a few times to take pictures, but this was problematic, because the moment I stopped walking, my legs ere crawling with flies, insanely uncomfortable. They must have been new-hatched with the rains. At least they didn't bite. Perhaps they were something like what my mother called, when I was a child, sweat flies.
Reaching the campsite I found my tent already set up: uh oh. It was a lovely gesture but Ramesh had gotten nearly everything together wrong. I mean, it looked right till you looked too close, and then I was just shaking my head, muttering to myself, and pulling everything apart. According to Snig, Ramesh had gotten in an hour earlier -- of course -- been bored and tried to make himself useful.
On the way down to the campsite I met the "forestry" official again -- who turned out not to work for the forestry department after all but rather the department of public works. His and his team's task, if I understood him correctly, is to maintain the "road": i.e., footpath. He invited me for tea; I said, quite honestly, that I would be happy for but would be back once I had more clothes on. The flies were totally driving me nuts. I almost forgot to go back -- given the whole tent fiasco -- but remembered when I walked up to the village to fetch water. (I had accidentally put my hand in dog poo on the way down, so I used the last of my water carefully washing my hands, concerned not least about the possibility of hook worm.)
I'm running some low-grade fever this evening but otherwise not feeling unwell. I'm hoping it's just the aftereffects of our aborted lake trip.
I wish Snig had said earlier about the flood/monsoon warning. Although we're unlikely to be directly affected where we are, it could very easily leave us stranded for a few days -- I with the rest of my trip fairly carefully planned out! ...Not to mention I have no intention whatsoever of taking that road we journeyed here on -- with no guardrails, lots of hairpin curves, and a straight drop for 1000 meters -- in the rain!
Snig did stay in the guide's tent -- officially because it was "cozier" there with the heat from the stove. I didn't think that the stove gave off much extra heat, but I was worried about carbon monoxide, even with the open tent flap. Perhaps not surprising that Sning complained of a headache this morning and wanted to know if I had something for it. At least it was nothing worse.
Noticed after I wrote yesterday that my right shoe has started to tear through along the seam. It's much worse now. I think the shoes will get me down to the road, but they won't go much further. Oh, and the left shoe, though it looks okay, is now definitely leaking around the toes, as I discovered when crossing a shallow stream. Something about either the design or the construction of this particular model is crap -- the previous pair never was waterproof from the very beginning despite being advertised as such. It's a pity because, having backpacked now with Five Fingers, I don't ever want to go back to regular hiking boots. It's like all the benefits of walking barefoot without any of the drawbacks -- even with a weight on my back.
I heard a cuckoo bird in the late evening yesterday. I didn't even know they were native to the Himalayas, but it couldn't have been anything else. Today I saw something that was a close relative of Jack-in-the-Pulpit and some bushes that reminded me of mountain laurel. Oh, and the lavender along the path smelled heavenly.
Ramesh just brought over a huge plate of ramen. I never liked ramen anyway: empty carbs, which is why it's so damned cheap; but yesterday, just as I was tucking into a plate of it, Snig tells me it's been banned in India because of the high lead levels. Apparently it's impossible to find now in Delhi. I doubt that a couple of days of being fed ramen is going to give me that much lead -- any more than drinking the water in Palmerton, PA, on the AT -- -but the story did not help my appetite. I can well believe that students all over the country are up in arms -- students everywhere love a cheap meal -- but in this case I think the government made the right choice.
Took me half the night or so to get warmed through, bundled up inside my sleeping bag with the hood puled tight. Then of course once I got warm I was suddenly quite warm! Tossed and turned a couple hours at least trying to get comfortable until I got back to sleep.
Woke up with camp stirring around six -- same as yesterday. Forlornly tried to get my rain fly dry before packing it away.
I had tried following Snigdho up to the village last night, but after walking maybe twice the distance he said it was, I turned back. Looked up and saw the village lights though before I went to sleep, strong out along the hillside: beautiful. Now this morning it turned out that I had given up not more than 100 meters too early.
First we came to the public toilets, then to the water pipes. Climbing through the village, I was confronted by a bewildering mix of decay and new construction. Surprised not to have anyone behind me, I turned back to find Snig and the guide in animated if not heated discussion with several men from the village. This went on for a good half hour. The word I heard again and again was "permission". Pressing Snig for details afterward, all he'd say was that we would need an additional permission to carry on to the next village but that we'd be able to get this "no problem" by radio, at ten o'clock.
After another round of discussion we start on our way -- not the way I had been taking! -- only to be called back moments later. The guide went up the steps to what, I suppose, was the village head's house, rummaged through his pack for something he didn't seem to have, and disappeared inside. When he came out, it seemed that the plans had changed. According to Snig, we had permission to proceed but only if we set up our tents by the village school and left all our equipment behind. Moreover, we could only go as far as base camp for the glacier; the glacier itself was closed since yesterday, due to the weather.
We pitched camp, waiting around a bit, then Snig and the guide took off like a shot up through the pastures, with Ramesh asking whether I was going or not. Both my passport and wallet were in my tent -- I had left them there on Snig's express assurance that Ramesh was staying behind with the tents -- but at that point I had no choice, if I was going to follow, to follow at once.
Being concerned about our lack of tent or sleeping bags above tree line, I asked Snig, when I caught up to him, to confirm that it was just 4 km. to the next village. Oh, there is no village, he said, more of a hamlet: one or two houses. Reassured that at least there would be shelter of some sort, I carried on.
Just after crossing the river on a footbridge, we passed three bright yellow tents across the river: a Swedish geologist apparently, whose group was the only other group to have permission to be up this far.
My apprehension increased when we reached the "hamlet", which turned out to be no hamlet at all -- just a camping spot between two huge boulders, with adequate protection from the weather, provided you had a tent.
I've done the AT over Mt. Washington, 25 km. continuously above treeline. But there, at least, the treeline is (in principle anyway) never so far away below you. Still, plenty of hikers have died on Mt. Washington even on the most seemingly hot of summer days, caught by a sudden change in the weather and their lack of adequate equipment. The roll call of the dead in the (monstrosity of a) state park visitors' centre on the summit is quite sobering. Here though, the treeline was some distance behind us; we left it when we crossed the scree field.
We carried on along an increasingly rough path perhaps half the remaining distance to the base camp. We stopped for tea where someone had thoughtfully built a primitive shelter -- more of a crawl space really -- by erecting a dry stone wall in front of the overhang of another huge boulder.
At this point -- we had come perhaps 5 1/2 km from the village -- Snig decided, thankfully, that we should turn back. It had started to rain again lightly, and pretty much everything was socked in, with visibility not more than 200 m. With the glacier closed, the point of carrying on to the base camp would be for the mountain vistas. (Apparently you can't actually see the glacier from there.) Today, he agreed, there would be no vistas. Tomorrow, he thought, we could catch some vistas from the peaks nearby the village before heading back down. Well, I thought to myself, we can if the weather permits.
After the aforementioned mountain of ramen, I heard no voices. I saw no one in the tent (Snig was buried asleep in his bag apparently), so I wandered down to the front of the school, where I found the guide and Ramesh, then on into town. Despite the language barriers, I had some wonderful encounters and got invited for coffee -- which, I figured, would be rude to refuse. I just hoped they'd properly boiled the water. :-)
Leaving the village though, I stopped to look at one of the construction sites. A well-dressed man, speaking heavily accented English, called me up for a closer look at what you could call, I suppose, his summer house. Though he was based in Mumbai, he was originally from this village and tried to spend some time here each year.
Then he asked about my passport and visa -- I assured him I had both. What about my permit, where was that? I said it was with the guide. He said, oh no, we asked him about that this morning and he couldn't produce anything at all. Beyond the importance of obtaining a permit to be here, I couldn't understand much more of what he said, but I promised to talk to Snig, and also said we were headed out in the morning.
I spoke with Snig, who was just waking up when I got back. He didn't have much to say except that we definitely did have the village head's permission to pass the night. Oh, and this is not, apparently, part of the national park where we are at the moment. But on whether the guide had, indeed, obtained "all the necessary permits" as had been promised -- or, indeed, any permits at all -- he was silent.
I am hoping for dryer weather tomorrow. My right shoe really is looking in bad shape.
P.S. Snig reminds me what I had forgotten, and apparently he as well: it's his birthday today, happy 32!
Woke around six and made a mad dash for toileting. Came back to a cup of chai, then coffee, and curried cauliflower and pancake-type things for breakfast. Last night's cook and the might-be-son both said goodbye -- turns out they were only along to get the luggage as far as the first night's village. Snig paid them and they headed off to Jumma, the town before where the car dropped us.
Loading the first mule went quick. The second on the other hand -- no sooner was he mostly loaded up than he reared on his hind legs and bolted, trailing my backpack and Snig's and the sleeping mats behind him. Loaded up a second time, he did the same thing. So the guide and the mule handler -- Ramesh -- told us to go ahead, with directions to Snig on how to leave the village.
The first couple kilometers out of the village we followed water pipes -- both an old one that had obviously sprung leaks and a new one. Unfortunately, as we soon discovered, the new one had a bad leak as well at one point. Several times we passed elderly ladies with the most beautiful jewelry and bright-coloured skirts. Unlike the boy from the village last night, they were always happy for me to take their picture -- and eager to see the results!
The sky started out clear and quickly clouded over, threatening rain. We passed countless lightning-strike-blackened tree trunks. These mostly stunted trees would provide scarce cover in a thunderstorm. Oh, the other thing we passed in countless numbers: election posters plastered to the various rock faces. These people may be mostly ignored the rest of the time, but not around elections!
The pack mules caught up with us after an hour. We stopped for a short break -- Snig, I, guide, and mule handler, plus the mules -- at one of the periodic bad-weather shelters. The walls were covered in graffiti, as one might expect, with plenty of evidence of earlier trekkers strewn around outside. Meanwhile up the trail there were bright green wrappers from someone's favourite biscuit or sweet -- and, a while later, a scattering of squashed paper cups.
I met the ranger again that I'd met in the village last night -- sitting with four women. He asked where I was from and how many days I was out. We took another break here, long enough that I had to pull out my wind breaker from Snig's bag.
At this point we left the woods altogether and slabbed across a vast field of scree, then across a waterfall, then up across more scree and loose sand. At this point the rain started -- thankfully just sprinkles at first, picking up as we reached the campsite at the top. I sat up the tent quickly, worked out that no one seemed to need help and crawled into the tent to get dry. Ramesh just brought over a coffee - sweetened, ugh! -- but at this point anything tastes good. And, and my right shoe is certifiably no longer waterproof. Holding out otherwise though -- so far!
One of the mules came and nudged against the tent pretty hard -- twice. Took a moment to figure out what was going on. Thankfully he found better grazing elsewhere -- though not far, judging by his bells. Otherwise I hear the patter of rain on the tent roof and the quiet murmur of voices from the guide's tent. Snig hasn't brought over his stuff yet -- perhaps he's staying with the guide and mule handler? He was complaining again about the smell of my feet -- though, honestly, I don't think they smell worse than the rest of me. After nearly two days without a shower, even I can smell me, more than I can remember from the Appalachian Trail -- or any other backpacking trips I've done.
Snig was going on about the majesty of the Himalayas, spreading across four countries -- and they are majestic, in no small part because they're relatively so young. Snig was skeptical, but the Appalachians -- with traces on, I believe, four continents -- beat them hands down for age. They've been raised up, worn down, raised up again, and worn down to the stumps we see today.
Woke when Snig got up, 7:15 -- two minutes before the alarm I set for myself. Snig was afraid that the guide would come, so he didn't want to leave to get breakfast; I didn't want to on my own, as I don't know what I'm ordering, and most people here don't speak English. So I had my last two Swedish apples and we waited. The guide called; he was going to be delayed; so we went for breakfast after all. I had bread stuffed with potatoes, hoping again that it would go easy on my stomach -- which has not been altogether happy! We went back to the hotel, I paid the bill, and we waited some more. The guide came 10:30.
I had the impression from Snig that the guide would come with all the provisions and extra equipment we needed -- um, no. So we went to the market to take care of that. I'm sitting alone in the car with the driver, who speaks no English, when he takes off suddenly down the road, high speed, I wondering very much where we're going. Several kilometers down the steep mountain road, I work it out: he needs to fill the tank, and apparently there's no station in town.
When we got back, it took another hour to get all the provisions, and twelve noon we're finally off. I had understood from Snig that we would be hiking from somewhere near the village, but no, we drove for two hours down a very sketchy track with lots of signs (in English) saying things like "life's a journey -- complete it!" and "this road's no rally, enjoy the valley!" There were lots of past rock slides along the way -- all cleared well enough, thankfully, for us to sneak through. About half way we stopped for the cook and someone -- 20 or so? -- who might be his son.
Arrived our destination 2 pm and waited another hour while the cook went with the driver to get our permit to enter the park. Snig smoked a joint and chatter with the guide. The man who might be the cook's son texted on his mobile phone. I couldn't get a signal on mine though, so I switched it off and took some pictures.
The hike started with a walk across a footbridge high above the river gorge. I was just waiting for it to start swinging in the wind but, thankfully, it did not. The trail then climbed, sometimes steeply (up to 1 in 4). My feet sweated like crazy inside my Five Fingers and consequently slid around a bit inside them.- Otherwise they worked well -- only that, when we got to our destination after 3 km -- the village of Ruin (20 houses), I discovered that the seam is wearing badly on the right shoe. That's exactly the problem I had with the previous pair that got warranty replaced. So whether the next three days' hiking will work out or not, I do not know.
The trail so far is built with some truly nice trail work -- Weathercarrot would be impressed. Only thing that surprised me is that I only saw one water bar for guiding water off the path --- and I understood from Snig (or Swagata, actually) that it can rain quite heavily here. Strange.
We're camped in a meadow overlooking the river gorge. It took me a few extra minutes -- and the cook's help -- to set up the tent in the wind. Haven't used it since last summer with Jamie. Sitting in the tent to write as the bugs are too distracting outside. The cook brought over a cup of tea. He speaks some English; the guide speaks none, I think.
There's a water pipe in the village. Looks like well water, so I probably don't need to filter it, but I did just to be on the safe side. Drank nearly a liter to replace what I'd sweated out on the short walk here. Must be after six now and it's still bloody hot -- yet the cook and his might-be-son were both wearing jackets on the way here!
I've just been in the country a little over three days, but it feels somehow much longer. Sweden and my employment problems -- and the other questions hanging over me -- could be a world away. Ah, to stay or to go -- and where in the world do I fit in?