Delightful Indian Encounters
Travelers do get sick in India. That’s a known fact. In downtown Bangkok, I walk into a pharmacy:
“Sawas-dii khrap, I will travel to India soon.”
“Oh, oh, oh!”
The pharmacist gives me a shocked, and pitying, look. What a bad fate for me, his face says. I will get sick, his face says, that’s a known fact, plus all the other impositions of a non-Thai environment. I leave the pharmacy with a heavy bag of Imodium, disinfection and antibiotics.
In seven weeks of traveling around Indian hinterlands, I never get sick. In Darjeeling, Sikkim, Kolkata and northern Kerala, not once do I feel uncomfortable.
In his office, I meet the guide mentioned in the guide book and book a private, guided walk through Darjeeling’s hill side villages, starting next morning at 8 a.m. It’s 500 rupees (10,9 USD) all-day.
Next morning, even at 8.25 a.m. the guide has not yet arrived at my hotel to pick me up. I don’t have an Indian phone number yet, so I can’t call him. In my mid-range hotel, I ask the receptionist to call the guide. The guide doesn’t reply on both mobile numbers given on his business card. The receptionist makes a worried face as if I was set-up.
Five minutes later, my guide arrives with a smile: “We go?”
“Where have you been”, I ask? “Why didn’t you answer the phone calls from the receptionist?”
“Why answer? I was already close to the hotel.”
I should have fired the guide there and then.
But I would have missed the ensuing, exceptional walk. I had told the guide to show me no temples, no palaces and no museums; I was only after village sites, family homes, tea plantations and nature. And – unexpectedly – the guide exactly followed my unusual wishes. He takes me on a wonderful walk through steep, narrow village foot paths and friendly relatives' kitchens, through tea plantations with wild cardamom along shady creeks; we taste Iskus and other bizarre fruit, play football with a grapefruit (as he did in childhood) and see a clay cardamom drying oven; the guide even digs out a village friend who takes us further into “bhusty”, rural Darjeeling, discussing the latest tea auctions’ results; on his kerosene cooker, the guide prepares a nice meal complete with fruit from the last village and a cup of Darjeeling tea on a grassy lookout. We stop in a private kitchen to taste very agreeable home-made “orange tequila” for a nominal fee and stumble home somewhat elated.
My guide has a son, a dog, a daughter and a wife – in that order, seemingly, from his subtones. Then again, what is unusual in Darjeeling, his was not an arranged marriage.
“This was a love marriage”, he says proudly! “We are old school friends!”
“So did your parents approve of her?”
“They didn’t. So we eloped!”
According to my guide, the procedure then is this: Three days after the couple eloped, the parents have to send an emissary to the fugitive love birds; the parents also have to agree to the connection. And so it happened. The parents agreed, finally, and the guide and his schoolyard sweetheart married. Interesting also: In the Nepali culture of Indian Darjeeling, the wife’s family does not pay a dowry to the husband – very much unlike in the Indian plains.
The guide sends his son to one of Darjeeling’s big English language schools. Anybody in Darjeeling is proud of the English heritage, the Big Ben melody is regularly heard on the Chowrasta square, Darjeeling's showcase. The guide says he chose a co-ed institute for his boy. “Boys-only classes are a mess!”
It is rare to find a guide who actually understands and follows my desires and does not simply drag me along the default tour. So despite the disappointing delay in the morning, I book my guide for a bicycle day trip two days later, starting at 8 a.m. again.
“And be on time”, I warn him! “If you happen to be late, call me! I will have a mobile number then.”
Two days later. At 8.15 I still stand on the street, guideless. 8.20. I have a mobile number now and my guide knows the number. Actually, yesterday, for almost no reason at all, he had called me three times. Talk is cheap in India. And now it is 8.25 – and still he doesn’t call. Should I call *him*?
8.30. Locals stare at me, the only foreigner, standing around in the boring, cold street for half an hour. I have to call him.
“Where are you”, I bark into my Motorola?
“Why, Hans sir, I am near the jeep stand to get service for the second bicycle. I am about ready.”
“You are 30 minutes late! Why don’t you call me!”
“But why! I am about to come. Just get more air into the second bike and I will come.”
I rush to the jeep stand and he smiles at me.
“You are 30 minutes late and don’t call me”, I frown. “Yesterday you called me thrice for about no reason at all just when
1) I flirted with a gorgeous Tibetan lady
2) I saw “Rocket Singh” in the Inox movie hall
3) I was eating vegetable biriyani
and now you’re 30 minutes late and you know I don’t like that and still this time, when you could and when you should, still, you *don’t* call me!”
“But Hans sir! See, yesterday I worked until midnight to get the first bike in working order. And today morning I still had to fix the second bike, so I am here at the jeep stand.”
“Whatever, you are late, so you have to inform me.”
“But why, when I was about to come anyway!”
Unfortunately, I had just finished Aravind Adiga’s novel, “The White Tiger”. The brilliant page-turner shows present-day India from an Indian underdog’s perspective: one lone string of nagging humiliations, with the main character waiting for other people all the time and they are always hours late, if they show up at all.
“If you were a rich Delhi wallah”, I fume, “and if I were your driver, ok, you could make me wait for hours. But it’s not like that, you know?”
“Why, the bike is ready, we can start now!”
I can’t. I call the tour off and pay him 90 percent of the agreed salary for that day. He refuses to take that money. But I will stay in Darjeeling town some more days and wish no open bills. I force the money upon him and leave him standing there with a bewildered face. One of the best guides I ever had.
My next bicycle guide in Darjeeling is on time, but only by accident. Then he has to go again, to buy a phone card to call his agency boss before we can start. He returns after 15 minutes and unfortunately the phone card shop had been closed. So he needs *my* phone to call his boss (1,5 rupees, 0,03 USD).
He himself carries no bag, so he gives me the heavy dirty bicycle tool to carry in *my* daypack.
He himself carries no drinking water, so I have to feed him *my* drinking water.
My left bicycle pedal almost breaks away; he tries to fix it with his tool from my bag, but the tool has the wrong size.
This service stop is next to a fence with a sign saying “Zoo Land”. We are near the Himalayan Zoological Park. The guide points to the sign “Zoo Land” and says: “Zoo land”.
At lunch time the guide has no clue where to find something to eat, but finally discovers a private kitchen dishing up Iskus-filled momos with a spicy sauce on the side. Upon special request, they have a fork for me. Quite ok. Twelve rupees (0,26 USD) per person.
We stop at an army quarters. The guide tells me to go inside “to look”. I walk to the gate and may not enter.
We walk through the Happy Valley tea estate. I share the last biscuits from my bag with the guide and stuff the biscuit paper back into my day pack. “Sir! No need to carry that biscuit paper any more! Throw it into the landscape. I know, in your country you cannot do that. But India is a good and free place! Just throw the paper away!” Encouragingly, he points around: The wayside is full of trash.
We reach a tea pickers’ village. He should know clearly that I came to see village life (and not army barracks). He says: “Sir, I will walk into the village *alone* to meet my friend. You can’t walk into the village. It has too many dogs.” I follow him of course. We see one half-dead cat and no other animal. His friend is not there.
I have a small electrical problem with the external loudspeakers for the laptop. If I had a soldering iron and my tool box, I’d fix it myself. I bring the speakers to Mb Computers in Fancy market on N.B. Singh Road, recommended by my first tour guide.
The shop needs one day and 225 rupees (4,9 USD) for the repair, including a cable extension. I check the speakers and both sound fine. A week later, the connection breaks again. And foreseeably so: When I open the speaker containing the electronics, I see that after the repair, the fixed cable had been under permanent strain. Amazing it didn’t break earlier.
Salaries I am quoted:
68 – 75 rupees per day (1,5 – 1,6 USD): tea picker in Darjeeling
80 rupees per day (1,75 USD): minimum wage 2007, depending on state and work done (source: Lonely Planet)
200 – 250 rupees per day (4,3 – 5,4 USD): farm worker in Kerala
3000 rupees per month (65,2 USD): bad private cook in Kerala
3000 – 4000 rupees per month (65,2 – 87 USD): nurse in state hospital in Kerala
5000 rupees per month (108,7 USD): mid-range resort worker in Kerala (paid throughout the year)
7000 – 8000 rupees per month (152,2 – 173,9 USD): nurse in state hospital in Delhi
10.000 rupees per month (217,4 USD): good private cook in Kerala
In a mid-range lodge in Yuksam, West-Sikkim, I forget a very nice and rather expensive jacket. When I notice the loss, I am already in Kolkata and even about to leave that town for Kerala at the other, southern end of India.
I call the hotel manager who remembers me. He says he will send me the jacket free of charge to any place in India: “As you are our valued customer, this is our pleasure, sir.”
Unfortunately, it’s not at all clear where my travels will take me. It’s not even clear I will stay long enough in the country for the jacket to reach me.
Says the manager: “Sir, then I will send the jacket to your home in Europe. Just send me your home address by e-mail, please.”
Hans: “Oh, that’s very kind and convenient. And of course I will pay for the delivery service. Please tell me a way to forward money to you.”
“Sir, that’s not necessary. It’s our pleasure to help our valued guests with any service they may require.”
A few days before I fly out I call him again and mail him my home address. I offer again to cover the costs. He replies by e-mail:
Warm Greetings from Sikkim Lodge Royale.
Thank you very much for the mail and the address of your home .
For your kind information, I haven't forgot your jacket and the word
I had said.
it is always my pleasure to give the best of services and about
sending your jacket to Europe, I heartily consider this as a service
and I on behalf of entire Sikkim Lodge Royale staff,will be glad for this
I expect the jacket to arrive within one month.
I want to send a parcel with winter clothes and souvenirs to Europe. At the local post office I ask, “how much are six kilograms to Europe by sea mail?”
The resolute post office headmistress opens her computer and says, “ok, six kilograms by SAL to Europe, let’s see… that was Europe, you said, right?”
“Well, it’s Germany, to be precise.”
“Now what?! Is that parcel for Europe or for Germany?”
In local fashion, my wares have to be sent in a stitched bag. They recommend a tailor next door. He needs 120 rupees (2,61 USD) and one hour. During that time I walk away, even though the tailor now could replace my things with worthless stuff.
I had sure believed that the items go into a card box first and then get stitched into cotton. But not so: I receive a hulking hunch with seams that will likely burst before I reach the post office next door. When I take the hunch, my shirt changes to off-white color. A cloud of off-white dust rises from the cotton. How can I offer that to the post office. I hit the hunch that was meant to be my overseas parcel and another off-white cloud rises into the tailor’s nose. He coughs. My hand is white.
“Not good”, I say.
“Not good”, he asks?
I shlep to another tailor and get another, this time decent cotton wrapping (90 rupees/2 USD, 20 minutes).
The post office mistress in her sharp green saree now embarks onto a 40-minute procedure, even though I don’t have to fill out a single form.
It is 1300 rupees (28,26 USD) for 6,3 kilograms SAL (a combination of ship and air transport) to Europe.
“And 20 rupees (0,43 USD) tip for baby”, commands the post office mistress, pointing to an employee of very small stature.
“Oh, she’s your daughter?”
“No, she’s just so small. 20 rupees tip for her!”
The packet reaches my home roughly three weeks later, nothing lost.
I had booked the private, guided north Calcutta neighborhood walk with a reputable agency at the princely sum of 800 rupees (17 USD) for two hours. By e-mail the agency had told me to wait at the Lal Mandir temple at ten a.m. Unlike with the previous colonial Calcutta walk, I had not been given the guide’s personal phone number and I had not been asked to call the guide upon arrival at the meeting point.
Lal Mandir temple is a very tiny affair on a noisy traffic island where I stand in the hot sun for twenty minutes. When local busses stop at the traffic light next to the temple, people toss coins at the temple and the caretaker in sarong picks them up. As I stand within reach of the fuming old-timer busses, some people press the coins into my hand and I forward them to the caretaker. Unlike me, he seems to be used to that procedure.
At 10.30, there is still no guide in sight. At this tiny temple front, no-one can miss the only foreigner in a mile. On my Indian mobile number I receive a phone call from the agency: “Sir, where are you, your guide is waiting for you!”
“Why, I’ve been standing at the temple since 9.55 a.m. and no guide came”, I shout against the roaring traffic, one and two rupees coins flying around me.
“Oh, you are at the temple already?”
“Yes, of course, as you told me so by e-mail!”
“Wait two minutes, sir!”
Two minutes later, my guide picks me up at the temple. “Why didn’t you call me”, he asks indignantly? “I’ve been waiting for you since 9.25 a.m. in the shade on the other side of the road.”
“Why, the agency told me to come at 10 a.m. straight to the temple and didn’t give me your number or asked me to call you. I was very easy to spot as the only foreigner in front of that tiny temple.”
My guide to the north Calcutta neighborhood walk is a very erudite and moustachioed, elderly Bengali. As we enter the narrow lanes of north Calcutta, for no apparent reason he starts discussing the tradition of burning widows.
“I don’t know why there’s such an outrage about this old custom, especially from you foreigners. See, if a widow had children under 16 or if she was still at an age that allowed to give birth, she was spared from burning. If she was burnt, though, she was given drugs and alcohol; she passed out before the first match was lit. So the custom had these social aspects, it was all reasonable. Mind if I smoke?”
At the pedestrian traffic light on Park Street near Music World, there is the usual pedestrian traffic jam. Hundreds of pedestrians, pressed onto each other, wait until they can relatively safely pass the fuming ocean of buzzing motorcycles and belching yellow Ambassador old-timer taxis. That’s ideal hunting ground for the street begging boys. They stand in front of the human wall and demand piasters, threatening to touch the pedestrians.
“Hey, ten rupees”, one dirty little boy below me commands (0,22 USD).
I notice he is eating ice cream while begging.
“Is it a good business model to beg with ice cream in your hand”, I ask?
From the very dirty Millik Ghat, where Hindu bathers descend into muddy Hooghly river, I watch Howrah Bridge. Looking closer, I notice that this urban space with stairs into the water is indeed used as an all-purpose public toilet. And not only for humans. Suddenly I have a bird’s dropping on my shoulder, this never happened to me before.
The South Park Cemetery has some old, peaceful English graves and greenery. You pay a donation to get inside. On some tombs, dogs sleep. On others, laundry is dried.
What an absolutely tremendous trip report! When I read something like this I want to go there and experience it first hand. And well done with the photos which do a great job of really drawing you in!