India 1985 is part of a larger trip that includes China and Nepal. Following a month in China Craig, Donna, Debbie & I return to Hong Kong, spend a few days there enjoying the amenities of civilization, and then carry on to India. While Craig flies directly to Delhi, the three of us women route through Bangkok.
We stay on Khao San Road at Sunnys Guest House, based on Craig’s recommendation. He’d been there in September and thought it good value for the money. By the time we get there at the end of January, it is much hotter and the beg bugs, lice, & mosquitos have multiplied. We sleep with smoking insect coils precariously burning on the bed. The shower drains are so sluggish that we end up standing ankle deep in scummy, hairy lukewarm water. Thanks Craig!
Out on the street, at one of the many outdoor cafes, we meet Jonathan, a Eurasian gem dealer with a red Toyota and a desire to spend time with three Canadian women. Ironically we have read “Serpentine”, a book about Charles Sohbraj, a sociopathic killer preying on tourists in Southeast Asia, including Thailand. Should we be worried, we wonder?
But there is only one Jonathan and three of us, his car is a lot more comfortable that riding in a tuk-tuk, he knows his way around Bangkok, and we are having such fun! Sade’s “Diamond Life” has just been released and Jonathan plays the cassette tape as we drive around the city. I can’t hear a song from that album and not think about him. I still have the loose ruby he gifts me on our last day together. Sometimes the most memorable travel experiences come with taking risk.
From Bangkok we fly to New Delhi to meet Craig, where he has been for a week, without a proper visa, and looking for a man he meets on his flight there who asks him to carry a couple of bottles of whiskey and two cans of cheese through customs.
Because Craig gets into the country on a short-term transit visa, he spends his first few days making numerous trips to government offices trying to get an extension that would allow him to stay for two months. Line-ups, long waits, inefficiency, vagueness … typical Indian bureaucracy characterize his quest. Somehow he eventually gets the right stamp on his passport.
Equally worrisome is the whiskey and cheese. He has told their owner that he’d be staying at the YMCA, but has not been able to get a room there and ends up in a different part of town. The cheese and whiskey owner has no way of getting in touch with him. Hard to believe in this day of cell phones, text and email, but back in 1985 these were non-existent.
Craig makes a trip to the Y, hoping that the cheese and whiskey owner has left him a message. No luck. But as he is walking away a man he doesn’t know approaches him and asks “do you have Mr. Kaur’s whiskey and cheese?” Bizarre! Craig tells the stranger that he will meet Mr Kaur the next day. The guy never shows. We drink the whiskey and carry the cheese for the next month.
Debbie, Donna & I arrive late at night and are ushered to a hotel Craig has scoped out: the Ashok Yatri Niwas. A solid 3 stars and centrally located. A short walk to the International Coffee House, where we unwisely eat too many salads and I end up with a bout of dystentry. The first of many.
It is difficult to describe India without resorting to cliched adjectives. Crowded & chaotic, mysterious & uninhibited, shocking and soothing. We are naive to the wily ways of the Indian men who greet us as we exit our hotel. “Change money?” “Something to buy?” “Something to sell?” “Need a tour?” “Need a guide?” It takes us a while and a few scams to realize that, for them, it is about survival. We stop taking their betrayals personally after a few too many trips to my uncle’s house for breakfast turn into carpet shop visits.
In Agra, having met brothers Kalik & Kamil on a train and Craig somehow bailing them out of trouble with the police, we find ourselves staying at a hotel they recommended that goes down in history as the worst ever. It is a concrete block shed. Small, damp, mouldy, musty, bug-infested, air-less and dark.
A trip to their uncle Bansal’s results in us being too stoned to get out of the tuk-tuk to see the Taj Mahal in full moon light. On the way to Bansal’s carpet shop Donna admonishes Craig about his willingness to accept cold beer from strangers and warns him of the dangers. Once there, Craig, ignoring Donna, accepts a beer. We three women decline. Then the hooka pipe appears and all bets are off. Donna enthusiastically puffs the stinky hashish. Debbie & I wait and watch and, seeing Donna get silly and happy, we decide to join in. Craig, I’m sure, gets high from the second hand smoke. We all buy carpets. I buy two. They are gorgeous and inexpensive and grace our home to this day.
We drive to the Taj Mahal, but are too incapacitated to find our feet, get out of the tuk-tuk and take photos. Oh well, it’s a fun night and makes for a great story.
Seeing the Taj Mahal is the fulfilment of a life-long dream, borne of a puzzle I got for Christmas when I was 9 or 10 years old, featuring the mausoleum in soft evening light. Perhaps that puzzle was the first spark of a desire to travel and see the world beyond the small prairie town where I put those puzzle pieces together?
The Taj Mahal, on the south bank of the Yamuna river in the Indian city of Agra, was commissioned in 1632 by the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan to house the tomb of his favourite wife, Mumtaz Mahal. It is a UNESCO World Heritage site and one of the most visited sites on the planet.
From Delhi, we head north-west into the state of Rajasthan, taking the train to Jaipur, the capital, also called the pink city, owing to the numerous pink sandstone buildings. The numerous forts and palaces in the area are the main attraction.
Our next stop in Rajasthan is Udaipur, the white city, known for its sparkling white marble buildings. We are there mid-February, just before Valentine’s Day and learn that it is an auspicious time to marry in the Hindu culture. The streets rollick with wedding celebrants and we are treated to much colour and festivity.
A day trip to a Jain temple with a private driver in an old Ambassador automobile gets us into the countryside. The circling vultures remind us that we are in a harsh land.
From Udaipur we take the train to Mumbai, where we board a ferry south to Goa, a state on the south western Arabian sea coast. Goa is a strange mix of hippy haven, fishing villages and Portuguese history. The Portuguese first landed in the early 16th century as merchants, staying for 400 years until they were kicked out and Goa became part of India.
The overnight ferry provides another great travel story. Donna & I opt for a suite on the top of the boat. At $25 it seems like a great deal. A comfortable bed, shared bathroom, small deck. Luxury! Craig opts to spend the night on the deck, partying with other budget travellers. Maybe sleeping a bit too soundly as a result of the beers consumed. The ferry makes a stop in the middle of the night. Craig sleeps on. He wakes at dawn to discover his back-pack is long gone, probably taken by an opportunist getting off at the stop. He’d been using his daypack as a pillow so his money, passport, camera, etc are still with him. But his wardrobe takes a major hit.
In Goa we rent a small two-bedroom bungalow a block off the beach. We score a bag of ganja from our hotel man and join the other hippies tripping out on the beach. Paranoia has us imagining that our hotel man is in cahoots with the police and we are soon to be arrested. We bury the bag in the sand in our front yard and end up spending an inordinate amount of time digging it back up.
To get around from town to town, beach to beach, market to market, we rent small 100cc motor bikes. The helmets provided are hilariously flimsy and look ridiculous perched askew on our heads. Nevertheless we roar along the country lanes, between rice paddies, feeling a bit like Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper in Easy Rider. Yeah, right!
Tired of trains we splurge on a flight from Goa to Kathmandu. However Indian Air is only slightly more comfortable than Indian Rail. There are cockroaches in the bathroom and my seat is broken. But it’s fast, allowing us to cross the country west to north-east in under 3 hours.
A month in Nepal is a good way to take a break from India. We hang out in Kathmandu, trek and river raft in the Himalayas, and take a day trip to Everest. But, Nepal is another country and the focus of it’s own bog. See “Nepal 1985” to read more about our Himalayan adventures.
From Kathmandu we take a bus south to Darjeeling, a hill station surrounded by tea plantations, in the foothills of the mighty Himalaya. It is cool and foggy. Our hotel is a roomy old mansion with only the three of us as guests. Debbie departed the trip at Goa. The hotel caretaker is hunchbacked and barely literate. We nickname him Quasimodo. It is all a bit eerie and surreal.
From Darjeeling we board another overnight bus heading for Calcutta. By now we have figured out that it is possible to buy Valium over the counter for about 5 cents a tablet. They are lifesavers on overnight expeditions. This bus is especially bad: crowded, broken seats, windows that don’t open, bad movies blaring on the TV all night. Donna & I pop a couple Valium and pass out, Donna on the floor in the aisle in order to get away from her unsavoury seat mate.
Craig has thus far been too virtuous for the Valium fix but on this trip he capitulates and takes one, eagerly anticipating a peaceful, restful night. Instead he suffers a paradoxical reaction and is wide awake all night. He jokes that at one point even the bus driver was snoozing and it was just Craig and the TV movie with any signs of life.
The bus breaks down in the morning, a few hours away from Calcutta. We haul out onto the road, stick out our thumbs and wait for rides. No one stops and we are stuck roadside until a replacement bus is dispatched. We are late into Calcutta, weary, grubby, hungry.
Another splurge seems warranted. This time it is for rooms at the Fairlawn Hotel. The 200-year-old building in the city centre is a green-painted refuge of calm from the noise and dust, fringed in its front courtyard by palms, and offering old-fashioned pleasures such as gin-and-tonic taken at sundown on the verandah. It is an oasis of quiet and sanity. Much needed!
Violet Smith, confidante of many celebrities, was the eccentric grande dame of the Fairlawn Hotel. She inherited the house from her mother, an Armenian businesswoman, and would hold court with her guests, displaying the quaintnesses of a British colonial memsahib of the days before Indian independence while shrewdly getting to know their every preference. Although she is long dead by the time we arrive at the Fairlawn, her ghost remains and we feel like we have stepped back in time to when the British Raj ruled India.
At this point in our travels – we’ve been on the road for two months – it is well worth the $35/night. By now we’ve all, except Craig, experienced nasty bouts of diarrhea and are tired and run down. And although Craig has been healthy, he’s lost at least 20 lbs because of lack of protein.
Calcutta is over-the-top poor. The slums, the begging families, most of them maimed in some way, the skinny, tubercular rickshaw drivers, the lepers, the dead body we see one morning prostrate on his rickshaw, men in business suits walking by naked beggars. I take many hours of refuge on the verandah of the Fairlawn rather than bear witness to the gross injustices on display on the streets. Perhaps that is why I have so few photos?
Another train, this one to Varanasi, is an ordeal of heat, smoke, coal cinders, chaos and crowding. I pay an extra $10 for a seat in the second class coach. Donna & Craig tough it out in third class, jostling for a seat on a hard bench.
It is an overnight train and for the first half of the night I am alone in a private compartment with four soft bunks. The other 3 are empty. Until a 3 AM stop. A family noisily enters the compartment, bearing a stretcher that they place on the floor. The half dozen family members crowd onto the bunks and sleep for a few hours.
Because we are headed to Varanasi, where the holy take their dead to be cremated and tossed into the Ganges, I assume the body on the stretcher is dead and am mortified to be spending the night with a corpse. But in the morning the family start ministering to the body, that of a young woman in a coma. They tube feed her, bathe her and empty her urinary catheter bag. I pretend to still be asleep for as long as I can. Eventually I sit up on my top bunk. The matriarch kindly offers me tea and a sweet bun. In her perfect British English she explains they are taking her daughter to a clinic just beyond Varanasi for treatment.
Once off the train I find Donna & Craig on the platform looking bedraggled and complaining about their sleepless night. “Wait until you hear about my night …” I begin.
Varanasi, on the banks of the Ganges river, is a major religious hub in India, it is the holiest of the seven sacred cities in Hinduism and Jainism, and played an important role in the development of Buddhism.
We spend our time here by the river, watching the various pilgrims bathing, praying, and burning their dead. Seeing several dead animals floating in the river, we judiciously avoid contact with the water.
A tout on the street corrals us to the river early our first morning, guiding us to an ancient wooden rowboat captained by an equally ancient looking fellow. We have to bail as we cruise the river and we worry about river water touching our skin, but the views we get of the activity at the ghats is remarkable.
From Varanasi its back on India Rail to Delhi, and then another train to Srinagar, the capital of Kashmir, in northwestern India. The train passes through the Punjab and makes a short stop in Amritsar, home of the famed Golden Temple. We’d love to get out and spend some time, but since Indira Ghandi’s assassination and the bombing of the Golden Temple, it is off limits to tourists.
Kashmir sits in the western foothills of the Himalaya. In the 19th century and first half of the 20th century it was a popular summer destination for the British wanting to escape the heat of southern India. Because they could not own land, the Brits had houseboats built and moored them on Lake Dal. We rent one of these elaborately carved sandalwood watercraft, complete with a houseboy who cooks, cleans and does our laundry. It is a decadent week!
Much of life on the lake actually occurs on the lake. Floating markets comprised of wooden boats laden with all manner of products nestle close to the shore. Other boats ply the lake and make stops at our houseboat in order to hawk their wares. There are colourfully decorated shikaras meant for romantic cruises. Young children paddle their tiny canoes, selling candy and flowers.
Geographically Kashmir is close to Pakistan and Afghanistan and for this reason, culturally and religiously, the area is distinct from the rest of India. It is predominantly Muslim. We see women in burkas for the first time and are quite shocked at the sight.
Kashmir is now off-limits to all but the most intrepid tourists. Muslim sympathies, border disputes, autonomous political movements and spill-over terrorist activities from Pakistan and Afghanistan conspire to isolate Kashmir from the rest of India. We’re fortunate and grateful to have traveled there when we did.
As if we are not already far enough off the beaten track, we decide to go farther still, north to Ladakh, the most north western province of India, a territory whose borders are disputed by Pakistan and China, and whose culture is so similar to Tibet it is called “Little Tibet”.
We fly over the Himalaya mountains and drop suddenly onto a short airstrip just outside the capital city of Leh. Our first impressions are of a moonscape. Nothing is green. It is arid and rocky; the buildings appear to emerge from the craggy landscape.
At 11,000 ft the air is thin. We fatigue easily and experience some headaches and stomach upset. At the airport we are greeted by a few touts offering accommodations and guided tours. We pick Tashi a rugged-looking, well-dressed older man. He has a jeep and a driver and takes us to a basic guesthouse. By basic I mean cold showers, electricity for 4 hours a day, no heat. By now we are fairly accustomed to this level of discomfort, so it is no big deal.
A Canadian couple and their toddler are our housemates. To call them odd would be an understatement. They send their child to our room as often as they can and leave her with us for hours. She is very pale and a bit emaciated looking and we cannot figure out what they are feeding her as there is very little to eat at the local restaurants. Ladakh doesn’t seem an appropriate place for a little kid. We are so hungry that we finally bust open the canned cheese that Craig has been carrying around since Delhi. The little girl devours the stuff like she hasn’t eaten in days. Maybe she hasn’t? Again, we wonder, what are they feeding her?
For the next week we tour the countryside around Leh, visiting various monasteries. The Canadian couple join us, leaving their toddler in the jeep with the driver while we are gone for hours hiking. Their seeming indifference to her safety stresses us out.
Our time in this remote mountainous region so very far from anywhere is difficult to describe. The harshness, barrenness, timelessness, strangeness of it can only be experienced. Words alone just don’t capture the other-worldliness of Ladakh. The photos don’t even do it justice, but here they are.
From Leh we fly back to Srinagar in Kashmir. Back on our houseboat, I begin to feel very ill. Headache, nausea, vomitting, fever. We assume it is another bout of dysentry.
From here we are moving on to the middle east, with Craig flying directly to Amman, Jordan and Donna & I routing through Karachi, Pakistan. The plan is to meet in Amman. But I won’t get that far. Craig will show up at the Amman airport with flowers, a bottle of wine and a haircut and shave, eagerly anticipating our reunion, only to be greeted by Donna saying “those flowers for me? What kind of wine? Yeah, Bev’s not here. She got hepatitis and had to go home. What kind of guesthouse did you score?”
End of story for me. It takes me two days and four stops – Abu Dhabi, Istanbul, London, Toronto – to get from Karachi to Saskatoon. It takes many months for my liver to get rid of the infecting virus and it takes many years for my health to fully recover.
Craig & I will survive as a couple and thirty three years later, on January 26, 2018, we will return to India. Of course I am apprehensive, but at the same time I look forward to exploring the country with more maturity, a bigger budget, a better camera, internet and access to bottled water. Namaste!!