Anna's first article 'Letter from India: impressions from the south' is available here.
Flying from the south to the north of India, we have traded luscious palm and banana trees for arid desert, rice for wheat, tranquil silence for incessant noise, sweltering humid heat for dry days and chilly nights, a tropical paradise for an Arabian nights-esque adventure complete with camels and royalty. We have entered part 2 of our Indian journey, and it’s a whole new ball game.
We came up north to see the architectural gems of Delhi, Agra and Rajasthan, and we have not been disappointed. We have been dazzled by the beauty and technical prowess of the forts, the palaces, the mausoleums. Despite sharing the experience with thousands of other tourists, my first glimpse of the Taj Mahal took my breath away. But what has perhaps struck me most of all has been the incongruity between these opulent displays of centuries-old wealth and knowledge and the filth and chaos of the cities that surround them today. How can a palace have such an advanced system of water collection, storage and distribution, while many of the city’s current inhabitants don't have access to clean water? The contrast between the intricate carvings on the palaces and the enormous volumes of plastic rubbish littering the streets just beyond their walls makes my mind boggle. Rapid population growth and years, no, centuries of invasion and colonisation have taken their toll.
Equally thought-provoking is the rejection of everything old in favour of the new in the countryside. For example, in the Shekhawati region, we visited a number of intricately painted merchant’s houses called havelis that date back centuries. Their layout around a central courtyard, design to facilitate airflow and choice of construction materials mean that they stay warm in winter and cool in the searing summer, when temperatures top 50 degrees Celsius. However, most of these are falling into a state of disrepair, as locals are instead building large concrete structures requiring both heating and air conditioning, and these only last about 50 years. A negative side effect of most houses in Rajasthan now having running water instead of women collecting it from wells is that wastage is much higher – the water table is already 80m below ground, and is descending by an average of 1 metre per year – and the social bonds of communities are weakening as time spent together in these public spaces is diminishing. Tie dye, wood carving, roof-building with pampa leaves, and other artisan trades are dying out. Farmers proudly showed us their Monsanto seeds. “Everyone wants bling” a number of Indians have lamented to me, those who are trying to run private initiatives to preserve their region’s heritage and traditions. These experiences are making me reflect on what we consider to be progress, and to what extent this is linear.
We now know where all the foreign tourists in India are – right here. This does have the silver lining of us no longer being subjected to selfie requests – we aren't exotic anymore. However, foreign tourism has bred an unparalleled level of harassment, scams and general attempts to rip you off, to the extent that we always agree on a game plan before we step out into a public space. Every auto rickshaw ride requires a bargaining game involving walking away, feigning disinterest, until you get down to half the original price, or to the price that your hotel owner said would be fair. We then make it clear to the driver that we have a map with GPS – we know exactly where we should be going - and that no, we don't believe them when they say the buses from the station we've asked to be taken to aren't running or our train has been cancelled. In extremely crowded places choked with aggressive hagglers – the laneway to the south entrance of the Taj Mahal, arriving at Nizamuddin train station in Delhi – we take the head down, look at no one speak to no one approach. We have been advised by so many people, Indians and foreigners alike, to trust nobody who approaches you – and so we don't. The cold, disinterested bitch face that I perfected through living in Paris for over 5 years is coming in handy. But it's a shame that we are so categorically mistrusting, because there have also been so many locals who have been wonderfully helpful, like the young woman who showed us how to use the Delhi metro system, the man on the street who explained to our rickshaw driver where we wanted to go when the language barrier was insurmountable, the business woman in the train who called our accommodation to ask how we should get there when our phones had stopped working. Kind souls are as plentiful as scammers – it is just a challenging balancing act to judge who is who.
I'm honestly not sure when people manage to sleep here. My theory is that shops open so late here – somewhere between 10 and 11am – because people are trying to catch up on the shut-eye they weren't able to have during the night. If your accommodation is anywhere near a busy road, non-stop honking is guaranteed, piercing even through the most robust earplugs. But residential neighbourhoods and rural areas at not spared. We have learned that now is wedding season, which means fireworks, drums and dance music until 4am. Party over, just as you are finally drifting off, muezzins blast the dawn Islam call to prayer over loudspeakers, with the many mosques in the area guaranteeing surround sound. If you are spared all of this, you will at a minimum be guaranteed the yelps of street dog fights – I am certain I've heard animals dying outside our window. My husband and I have built an afternoon nap into our daily routine just to cope with the sleep deprivation!
Added to the normal level of stress of negotiating northern India as a tourist has been the somewhat perplexing cash situation. In November 2016, to fight against corruption, Prime Minister Modi decided to embark on a demonetisation trail by taking the three biggest notes – 2000, 1000 and 500 rupees – out of circulation virtually overnight. This drastic measure created utter panic and chaos, and cash at ATMs and banks dried up almost completely as everyone rushed to change their suddenly worthless notes into smaller denominations. Realising that such an abrupt transition was unworkable, the 2000 note and a new 500 rupee note have been reintroduced – although, as an entertaining side note, the new 500 note didn't fit in the ATM machines and so the latter had to be replaced.
How anybody thinks that India could rapidly move to a cashless society is beyond me. Payment for almost everything on our travels so far, from accommodation to food to transport, has been cash-only, and hence making sure that we have cash handy is a constant concern and a hot talking point between travellers. In the dusty town of Nawalgarth, we realised that we didn’t have enough cash to pay for our accommodation – and hence the ATM adventure began. We tried to get cash out on Sunday, but all the ATMs were closed, so we waited until Monday morning. The first five ATMs we went to were dry. Just as we were getting worried, we got to one with a huge line snaking out the door – this looked promising. One of the few privileges of being a woman in this country is that you get to go to the front of the queue, and so I did. However, the couple in front of me was mercilessly milking the machine for all it was worth. The maximum one is supposed to be allowed to withdraw per day is 10,000 rupees, but this is easily circumvented by simply reinserting your card and performing multiple transactions. The couple withdrew 10,000, 20,000, 30,000, 40,000 each – clearly concerned about when would be the next time that they would be able to get cash. When it was finally my turn, I withdrew a modest 10,000 and left, hoping there would be enough cash remaining for the dozens of people behind me.
The 10,000 was distributed, as usual, in 2000 rupee notes (about 40 Australian dollars). The next challenge is that nobody wants to take notes this big. The strategic game is figuring out the places that will be able to give you change – large restaurants, for example. On a number of occasions, we have paid with a 2000 note and been asked to wait until the ticket operator, shop owner, restaurant manager etc has had more customers and collected enough change to give us.
Nearing the end of our journey, we are ready to return to the modern comforts of Melbourne, and have a heightened appreciation of how lucky we are to be able to do so. We are weary of the mental effort it takes to walk the streets here, simultaneously ensuring that we don't get hit by an auto rickshaw or motorbike (which occasionally swerve towards you just for fun), run into a cow or step in their poo, fall into an open gutter, hit our heads on a low-hanging electricity cable, get shat on by a pigeon, all the while politely refusing the continuous attempts by people to sell us something. Life here is exhilarating but exhausting – and for us, it is time to bow out.
Coming soon, Anna's article: 'A morning on a Bollywood film set'