India: scientific approach to a mystery

I am already at home in Russia, yet there is so much more to write about India. I'll continue posting here, so keep an eye on this blog. I set up my old-and-new blog about Russia HERE - you may also check out that one now and then. Also, slowly but surely I am uploading the pics from the travels on which I haven't posted yet at the upgraded (hurra!) Yahoo.

Location: Russia

Friday, December 01, 2006

Mumbai: first stop Santa-Crus

Santa-Crus where Bea lives appeared to be slightly to the north from the legendary Bandra, both being in the north of the Greater Mumbai area. The flat was located in the same building with a bank on the ground floor, so gates getting closed by night and a guard at those.

Once I entered the apartment I got astonished - it looked like a proper flat! This one was not provided by AIESEC and probably that was why.. Bea was sharing it with the two other girls all working for NGOs. The spacious living room had got a gorgeous bureau with a big round mirror and two oval ones on each side and with lots of drawers accommodating mysterious girly possessions. A TV, sofas with covers, some paintings on the walls, an antique round vase on the floor, a small table with an issue of “Good household” on it and a thick book with a photo collection. All those details make up for a notion of a proper room, a one that has been habituated and somewhat taken care of. The living room was continuing into a dining room with a big round table and another massive oldish cupboard. The latter with its encrusted doors looked like a perfect place for the girls’ accessories and small things – all those stones, chains, beads and glitter looked great in the combination with the massiveness of the cupboard. And the pictures of the Swedish Royal family fixed on it organically fitted the piece of furniture.

The kitchen was characterized by Bea as microscopic and it was. So was the bathroom too. Yet, they also had the laundry room housing a washing machine (a real one, with no manual intervention!), drying stand and lots of clothes with all sort of destinies… The girls’ bedroom was spacious enough for three people.

Not only was it great to be in a proper flat inhibited by the people like yourself after quite a travel; but also I was happy to know there are ways of existence alternative to those that we, AIESEC trainees in Delhi, know about.

Thursday, November 30, 2006

Welcome to Mumbai

I arrived at about 11 pm, two hours later than the scheduled time. The last hour on the train was pretty anxious as my Bangladeshi sojourners have also never been to Mumbai; vast mass of the lights would appear outside clearly signifying a major city and one of the men would exclaim, “Acha! This is Mumbai?!” Yet the station that would follow would be called X junction.. The majority of the passengers loaded off at Daddar and only a few reached the final CST.

I was supposed to stay at Bea’s, a friend of Kate working for an NGO in Mumbai. Actually, Kate herself as per the initial plan was going to come to Mumbai the day after and lots of fun could be shared by the three of us. Yet, evil police and Kate's campaign that was about to culminate in a protest by India Gate did not make it happen: I was leaving for Goa on the night Kate was flying to Mumbai.

I called Bea’s mobile and she appeared to be out downtown, so she suggested I come to the Gateway of India where she would pick me up so we could go to her’s together. I walked off the railway station and immediately sensed humidity that made me realize how much south I moved. Strangely enough, I found a typical by-railway type area outside: the exit brought me to a rather deserted street with incredibly clean, smooth and even shining in the moonlight road. Then I saw a gothic building that looked like a Boll so inappropriate it seemed in an Indian town. Newish looking buses were one of the first impressions too. After a few enquires that did not lead anywhere due to the lack of the shared medium language (on my side, assumingly English). However, I found two nice gentlemen who got me a dark-green taxi with a yellow stripe, asked the driver to bring me to the Gateway of India and told me not to pay more than 20 Rs. In a moment I was delivered to the place.

How should it feel to find yourself by the Gateway of India overlooking Arabian sea next to the grand Taj Hotel – right upon your arrival in Mumbai. It did not take long to be found and identified by Bea (in the meanwhile, I experienced some minor attacks by the hawkers and “Cheap hotel, mam” chap who got discouraged and puzzled when I explained, “I am staying here” and pointed at the Taj. Bea, a dressed up girl with long light red hair, came up, exchanged her purse for my backpack and walked me somewhere. In a few moments I found myself at an incredibly private party in an astonishingly posh bar. Bea introduced me to a couple of friends, including the Bday guy roaming around with a glass and a thick cigar who immediately promised me that “it would only get better”. And it did: I got some red wine served in a huge pot-bellied wine glass, I was sipping in to Katie Melua bizarrely singing “Lilac wine”, I was chit-chatting with the newly introduced people and they were shouting through the loud music, “Welcome to Mumbai”! I without shower for a week (fever in Kalimpong and then 2 days on the train) in my stinky cottons was around all those dressed-up people in this way-too-nice place in the very heart of Mumbai – this looked like the biggest prank ever to me.

We were gloriously driving to Bea’s in the old fashioned dark green puffed taxi… along the Marine drive (else called Queen’s necklace by the virtue of being curve-shaped motorway in the dark demarked with the twinkling lights). To your scenic drive we were discussing Delhi vs Mumbai, the girls were singing Sinatra’s “New York” changing NY for Bombei and I thought there must be a camera somewhere and we are filmed for a new Bollywood fairytale.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Kolkata II: again a set of unrelated impressions….

My second visit to the town was “same same but different”. Again: one train station, trip to the other, ferry and fish curry, tea in a clay pot for 2 Rs, morning rush of the starting a new day city.

It took my bus from Sealdah to Howra a while before it moved from the railway bus pit: sandwiched between the multidirectional flow of people and vehicles, it froze in the flow of thinnest I ever saw men carrying gigantic baskets topped with bananas and pineapples loaded in right here from a small-scale wholesaler.

We passed a shop where a musician from a wedding orchestra was putting on his bright-yellow jacket akin to a funny solder’s attire and on the fence dividing the opposite directions on the road a line of the similar jackets was hanging as a Christmas paper garland made by a schoolboy. I spotted a tiny open window leading to an empty hollow flat in the 3-4 storey building.

The waiting room for ladies at the old railway complex of Howra was deserted: wooden benches and cupboards with big mirrors made it look like a clock room in a female gymnasium. I was so glad to change back to my short-sleeve cotton kurta, cotton pants and plastic flip-flops.. when already walking on the street I felt so great that so few clothes was needed to keep me warm and so close my feet were to the ground . I could not wish any better weather after all…

I headed off to the famous Kolkatian flower market at Jagarnath Ghat to find out a totally different concept of flower selling from the one you find elsewhere in the world. Mostly, flowers here are used for devotional purposes and even when gifted to people – tend to be arranged in the sophisticated compositions. At the wholesale Jagarnath Ghat you can buy long fat snakes of marigold garlands, baskets of roses, piles of huge palm leaves and clearly more.

The bus I stopped on a flyover and a conductor who helped me in the already moving buss grabbing my waist, no sexual harassment this time though ;o)

I realized how much it matters here to be a local: as a foreigner you are in a double disadvantage here – as a non-Indian and as a non-Bengali. If some community can pride themselves on acting smart, it is Bengali. At the market they may quote 5-6 times the price for you (unspeakable in many other however touristic parts of India) and if a local enquires the price from the same chap the latter would make sure he quotes for him in Bengali (while for the rest of the communication they can use mixture of English, Hindi and Bengali, so you can make it) so that you are left wondering.. Another thing is that as a tourist you would never figure out all those run-by-day amazing food stalls unless you bother to walk around, or rather walk to the smell.

Before leaving Sudder Street, this backpackers’ area, I stopped by a lassi shop. I had a small chat with the lassi man while he was making the shake. Among the rest, I told him I was on the way to the train station, he asked when my train would depart and told me I was too early. I said you could never be sure here and it is better to provide for the contingencies. He said indifferently (I am not kidding), “What to do!”- the phrase many of my Indian co-survivors and myself jokingly used when facing peculiarities of the Indian life - and the most astonishing part was he meant it…

Leaving Sikkim

We made it back on time – the guy kept his word. I found a jeep ready to head off for Gangtok with only a back seat free. I tried to play a capricious madam and announced I would get sick if I take the back seat. The driver promised I would be there alone, so I can be comfortable. I generously agreed somewhat knowing that, as any other promises people give her, it was just an instant way to calm you down. Indeed, on the way we picked up some more people. Yet, the driver, a Tibetan man, was a sweetheart to me: he shared a clementine with me at one of the stops where among the rest he had his vegetable shopping done, and at the next stop he treated me to a sweet roll. After all, I was very ashamed of my behavior.

I got to share the journey with a Punjabi man residing in Silliguri who was very talkative and with good English, so after he got to know I had been in India for some time, he stopped his lecturing about the country and we had a meaningful discussion when I had a chance to present my views. Precious experiences with sojourners that I treasure: when I am not just an exotic creature who, wow, takes Indian food (is it not spicy for you?) and looks decent in salwar-kameez, but primary a human being. The other sojourners were a Bengali family- parents and a young couple – that was entertaining me with the yet more peculiarities of a joint family. In particular, it was amusing to watch them bargaining for clemetines, ending with a dozen each and then discussing the price for the same in Kolkata, respective price differential and more…

Needless to say, before-the-sunset views were eventually stunning and one more time I had a chance to appreciate the magnificent beauty of Sikkim…

Once at NJP I walked in to a joint, one of the of numerous eateries lined up vis-à-vis the railway station: I was desperate for some chavel and subzi. I enquired about the menu and the chap there announced he was a menu himself. I asked for chavel and subzi, enjoyed my food, and then paid 20 instead of persistently asked 30: all three totally astonished men at the dhaba took turns in shaking my hands. Tata, guys.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Changu lake

…….. I did not want to write this post until I started….. Give me a topic, I’ll do a page…….

As my strange fever in Kalimpong held me back from my ambitious plans for Sikkim, the stakes once I arrived there were incredibly high: for whatever I wanted to do in this fairytale land I had 2 days: I had an important train to catch from NJP to Kolkata and then to make it to an super-important train from Kolkata to Mumbai. As much as I hate booking transportation in advance I had to due to the high season: even 10 days beforehand I got my ticket to Mumbai with much difficulty and using a small lie. In fact, getting tickets on a short notice in India is not a big deal if you are a tourist: in most of the instances you can apply for the Tourist Quota and you normally get it. Yet, those being in India longer than 6 months are not considered to be tourists any longer and therefore are not eligible for the Quota. Logic is there, but why do you try to charge me sky-highed entry fee to the historical monuments that foreign tourists are to pay? Consistency is never there in India.

Anyway, Gangtok, however nice, does not offer much to do and see. Sallies like going to the awe-aspiring Pemayangtse monastery looked too optimistic in the given timeframe. So, we took half an hour drive to Rumtek monastery which was a great experience I must say.

Yet, no trip is good without risky plans and some thrill. So, Nele and I agreed that however much we had already liked our journey we needed a concluding sally that would possibly become a gem of our North-East adventure. As humble as that our plan was. Quite a good candidate for the role was Changu lake, a beautiful place at 3700 meters up in Himalaya. The difficulty was that as a foreigner you need one more permit (on the top of the one you got to enter Sikkim) to go there and it takes at least a day to get it issued. Moreover, as a foreigner you can go only accompanied by a guide. Therefore, any travel agency in Gangtok offers this trip (including the permit) for a small remuneration (“Just this much pounds”, as one smart chap put it). So, getting permit ready, having it reasonably priced for two of us and most importantly – getting back on time so I jump into a jeep to NJP (no taxi, no taxi, baysab, I’ll go by shared jeep) and make it to the train on time. After roaming around the town we collected three and a half scenarios of the same little trip from various tour operators and it was up to our gut instincts to decide on which one to bet. We opted for Sikkim Holidays – a bunch of young guys who organize trekking and tours in Sikkim – and I am so glad me met them.

Next day we walked up so early that could not find any hotel serving breakfast. We walked in a dhaba and to the joy of all the guests there we had some aloo-puri and chai with sweets. On the agreed time our guide showed up with all the permits ready and the cab at the door. We headed off up in the mountains. I thought it was the most cloudy day in Gangtok and after some time we could see nothing but a grey mass all over – up, down, behind, to the left and to the right. I hoped for the best and expected the worse – what a misery it would be to arrive to 3700 meters all covered by fog. Me and Nele were both silent and is if frozen in the anticipation – we were driving higher up. At some point I saw a hole in the foggy mass around us and exclaimed, gradually the mass turned from grey to white and the sun appeared to be just somewhere nearby. Soon we stopped for tea: military camps all over did not look ominous and almost merged with the brown and orange hills. I was sipping warm tea, munching frozen (even better!) cashew nut Good Day biscuits, looking at the neighboring hill – all blue with black leafless trees touched by white rime and knowing the decision to come here was all right.

It took 40 more minutes to the lake and we found it in its best – sunlight being generously poured out on its surface, colorful prayer flags flutterring in the sun rays and the snow on the hills around dazzling cheerfully. Our guides hurried us up, “Quick, lets go for a hike while the sun is there”. I never knew how disastrous my shape has been in India until this little climb… how many of those I used to do and here right after the start I could feel strong beats in my temples…Half an hour of suffering was fully rewarded on the top of the hill – we took lots of pictures at the official 4000 meters – personal record for both Nele and me by far – and could not take our eyes off the snow-covered mountains spreading all directions without limits and…. we were at par with those formidable heights. We were facing Tibet and in the valley down along the shores of a narrow river was the border. Strong wind brought the clouds back, gradually hiding the sun; when we got back to the lake we found it grey and dull. I do not know whom we shall thank – the luck, the timing, our adventurous spirit, our guides or mountain gods, but I would bow to them all. These few hours high in the mountains with the clearest possible sky were the greatest reward for us after the ten days of omnipresent fog.

Gangtok youngsters

In Gangtok I got surprised by the number of young people around. In comparison with Darjeeling and Kalimpong, full of pupils and elderly people, Gangtok was a truly youthful town. Westernized aspirations of the new generation no-how restricted by the traditional considerations (as elsewhere in India) were sufficiently fulfilled by the affordable clothes brought from so-closeby China. Jeans, sweatshirts, sneakers, ballerina shoes, boots, fancy bags were all wearable essentials for the youngsters. And there was a notable difference between the sort of clothes people wore here and the cheap quazi-Western clothes that at times you find in India when girls and boys wear these T-shirts with the print phrases bizarrely constructed of the Latin letters the Chinese designer happened to know and the jeans made of what some people think jeans fabric is. I could not help myself and pulled Nele into a shop where I jokingly tried a pair of clearly fake DKNY jeans and having discovered an amazing fit that no Levi’s would ever give me I bought them for 580 Rs (roughly 10 Euro)

Particularly, I got amazed by the young guys (all below 25 y.o.) who worked at the hostel where we were staying (very much recommended by the guidebook, yet a bit disappointing – at least off-season – Modern Central Lodge on Tiben Road). They all had this cool Western clothes (well, Chinese version of it, but so what?) and by the Delhi standard it automatically described them as upper middle, upper class (western equals rich, a rule of thumb in India). Yet here in the North East it works differently: they themselves were doing all sort of work in the hostel – cleaning, cooking, doing dishes, wiping floors, waitressing etc. The notion of a cooking man made me cry in principle. First, when he announced it was him who cooked here I thought it was a sort of bravado people demonstrate here at times (e.g., all those shop-keepers who claim they themselves make the stuff (by the way, standard for many shops) they sell). Yet, later I got to chat with him and he told me how he had been working as a porter and a cook in Darjeeling, Gangtok, Nepal etc. I cried second time when later I was eating Sikkemese soup he cooked – so yum it was… The other guys of this lot were those working in the travel agency we tied up with for our trip to Tsomgso lake. Again, the very guy who we were discussing the deal with and a friend of him were our guide and driver respectively. I was totally impressed with these chaps so concerned about being cool yet not avoiding any sort of work.

Monday, November 27, 2006


Gangtok welcomed me with a dopy feeling of spring after a long-long winter. Still a bit sick, wearing a scarf and a hat, I put on my huge sun-glasses and let the sun pour out its tender kisses on my face.

Gangtok welcomed me with its light-colored buildings looking like big flat rectangular chocolate bars with the huge blocks of windows dividing them into segments.

Gangtok welcomed me with greetings of the French couple that I met in Kalimpong – they told me Nele was still in town. I found the girl shortly – guessed the place she was staying at. We met as old friends – it felt as if we shared months not just a week of traveling.