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From Calcutta to Delhi

India has a busy and bizarre street life

India - Ghats along the Ganges River in Varanasi

Traveling from Calcutta to Delhi you can see many cultural highlights, in Bishnupur, Agra, Dhanbad, Bodhgaya, Varanasi and Jaipur. Street life is busy and bizarre, but outside the crowded cities are paddies and villages without cars. The poverty is just like you see on tv, the only difference is that you can't zap away from disturbing images.

Travelogue & photos: Chantal Nederstigt

After a long flight we arrive in Bombay early in the morning. The ride in a cab to the city center is unreal. Slum after slum, people (also children) are sleeping in the streets. We know about this, of course, but seeing it is still shocking.

The next day, street life is still bizarre. Cows in the middle of a busy road, Indians pulling heavy carts, the streets are covered with people everywhere, some are rolled in blankets from head to toe, making you wonder if they are even alive. We see a baby drink from a bottle of milk, while he lies on his bare back on the asphalt.

People are friendlier than we expected. Beggars are somewhat tenacious, but after a while they walk away smiling. Unfortunately we can't give money to every beggar we meet, there are too many of them. We give a few beggars rupees every day.

We fly to Calcutta in the afternoon. The rickshaw rider who takes us to the airport, asks way too much money. We bargain, but not enough. We don't have experience with this. In any case, this guy can buy himself a good meal tonight.

We resolved not to be bothered by these things, we consider it charity. Their income is only a fraction of ours at best.


The bazar is an unending maze of narrow streets

The next morning we visit the Victoria Memorial, a marble building that houses a museum, in a park in Calcutta.

When we leave after our visit, girls in uniforms want to have their pictures taken with us. A passer-by is willing to take the picture. Before we know what's happening, we are surrounded by Indian tourists who take pictures of us.

In the afternoon we take the subway to the bazar. After getting off the train, we pick a random street. It's very poor. We would like to take a picture, but we find it too embarrassing, because these people have it so bad.

In one of the buildings something is made with machines. One of the kids who are working there, invites us in. They try to explain what they are making, but we don't understand them. They are round pieces of glass and suddenly Saskia gets it: they are lenses for glasses!

India - Colorful woman (in Delhi)

The bazar itself is an unending maze of narrow streets. Crowds of people walk in the narrow streets which are also used by cars, handcarts, man-drawn rickshaws, motorized rickshaws, scooters and cows that push their way through the crowd. And loud honking everywhere.

When we are tired, we want to sit down. There are no benches anywhere. I ask the owner of a children's clothes store if I can sit on his stoop for a while. Immediately he gets two stools for us from inside his store.

We see lots of man-drawn rickshaws. Calcutta is the only place where they still exist. It's a little cart that seats two people and is drawn by a man, usually in bare feet.

They have been banned officially, but this is apparently not enforced. We think it's degrading. They often run with the carts. It's hard to believe that anyone could sit in such a thing without feeling embarrassed.

When we walk on, we see a stall that serves Indian tea, "chai". It is steeped in milk instead of water and is rather sweet. It is served in a clay bowl which is afterwards smashed on the pavement.

This morning we are on our way to bring pens we brought for a "poor" school, where the education is free, but not the school supplies.

We meant to give the pens to street children, but they will only bring them to their "boss", who then will sell them. Not a great idea. We take the subway, which is the perfect transportation for this city. When we arrive at the school, people who live in the neighborhood tell us that the school is closed for holidays.

The tourist office told us yesterday that the Mother Theresa House is also a good place for charity. So we head there. But first we visit the Kali temple next door. We give money for the poor and receive red dots on our foreheads and ribbons around our left wrists.

Outside some kids are playing a game on a square table. Each corner has a hole with a net underneath and on the table are black discs and one white disc. The idea is to use the black ones to shoot the white one in one of the holes. I play a game and I win. At least, I think I do, the kids don't speak English.

India - Farmhouse in Bishnupur

We feel extremely uncomfortable in the Mother Theresa House. Everyone is sick and skinny and here we are with pens. Still they're happy with them and will take them to the right school.

We get a tour. It's exactly like you see on tv, only then you can zap to another channel, to avoid seeing the disturbing images. Unfortunately, we can't do that here. There are many volunteers here from all over the world, one strokes someone's head, another cheers up a patient and people are getting massages.


With our luggage, we just fit in the bicycle rickshaw

India - Bishnupur, main street

We rise before dawn to take the train to Bishnupur. On the way we see a big rat scuttle away in an alley. When we are about to get in a cab, a kid who is sleeping on the back seat, is woken. He'll have to find another place to sleep.

During the first hour of the train ride, it's foggy and we don't see the surroundings at all. But then the sky clears up. Soon the landscape changes and we are looking at a jungle. Paddies, tropical crops and a mud hut with a thatched roof. It's after the monsoon, so everything is green.

After we get off the train and walk for a short distance, we see bicycle rickshaws. We just fit in one with all our luggage. The guy has to work hard, sweat gushes from his face. In the village are no cars, only bicycles, bicycle rickshaws, carrier cycles and every now and then a bus. Cows, goats, pigs and dogs roam free everywhere.

India - Temple in Bishnupur

We rent bikes at the train station and visit the main temples. It's nice to be on a bike (breeze), it gets hot only when you get off your bike.

It turns out that tonight there is a festival. There are song, dance and music performances. Many of the singers use a kind of accordeon in the shape of a box with drawers that are opened and closed.


Paddies, buffalo bathing in lakes, thatched houses

This morning we take the train to Bankura. It's only a short ride. In Bankure we want to transfer to a train to Dhanbad, but unfortunately that is not possible. There is a train to Ranchi, however, only a little detour from our route.

On the train we are told that the trip will take nine hours. But we enjoy the views of the tropical landscape with people working in the paddies, buffalo bathing in lakes, thatched houses.

It turns out that in Adra, where the train stops, we can transfer to a train to Dhanbad. We find seats next to a family. Grandfather, moeder and two sons. The woman, Anu, speaks English well. I ask her if there are hotels in Dhanbad. Yes, there are. After a short silence, she asks if we want to stay her house, because the hotels aren't safe.

Her husband picks her up from the train. We take a cab to their house. They apologize that it's so small. We think it's not that bad at all. A bedroom, living room with bed (for grandfather), a large kitchen and a dining room. We have to take their bedroom, it doesn't matter how much we protest.

In the evening we first have something sweet to eat (a kind of cake) and then a kind of spring rolls with extremely spicy filling. I eat only a little of it. Anu asks at least three times if we had enough to eat and doesn't believe we're full.

India - The surroundings of Bodhgaya look tropical

We wake up at four in the morning. At 4:30 AM Anu is making coffee for us, she is such a sweetheart. She gives us a special coin with images of two Hindu gods.

Anu takes us to the train and we take our leave. We thank her another time. The train trip takes three hours and on the way the landscape changes from paddies to wooded mountains and back to paddies again.


The pyramid-shaped temple towers over the village

India - Buddha in Bodhgaya

When we arrive in Gaya (province of Bihar), we still have to take a motorized rickshaw (tricycle) to Bodhgaya, 12 km farther. It's quite a ride. The road is riddled with potholes and we bump and shake during the whole trip.

Buddha found enlightenment in Bodhgaya. We stay in the Buddhist monastery. One of the most important temples is only 10 meters away on the same property. It has a large golden Buddha statue. There are colorful frescoes everywhere.

India - Bodhgaya, market

Bodhgaya is a small town, almost everything is at walking distance. The women here wear colorful saris, sometimes bright enough to hurt your eyes.

The river is a tributary of the Ganges and dry for 70 per cent. During the monsoon it's a big stream, but in the summer hardly anything remains. People wash their clothes, cars, oxen and themselves in it.

India - Bodhgaya, Marabodhi temple

For dinner I have thali, India's most popular dish, with rice, curry, sauce, a salad and lentils. After dinner we take a walk, until someone warns us that the monastery is about to be locked for the night.

It 10 PM. The fence is locked already, but when we rattle it, a guy comes out to open it.

The next day we visit the pyramid-shaped Mahabodhi Temple, which towers over the village. It is decorated from top to bottom.

Inside, monks are singing prayers. Someone gestures to me. It turns out we have to leave, so others can take a look. Outside is an old tree where people have brought their offerings for centuries.

In the afternoon we rent bicycles. We visit a monastery where frescoes are just being renovated, a job that requires the patience of monks. We also pass the 19 meters high Buddha statue on the edge of the village, a gift from Japan.

India - Bodhgaya, temple Monastery of Bhutan

When we leave the town, we pass hamlets with mud huts. We cross a bridge over the river, where oxen are washed, they are such huge animals. When I saw one from the train, I even thought it was an elephant.

A kid asks us if we want to give rice to the poor in a village 3 km from here. The water well is almost empty and their situation is very bad. He is going to buy 100 kilos of rice and divide it over a hundred bags, one for each home. We are suspicious. When we turn down his offer, he remains very friendly.

Because we're too early for the train to Varanasi, we take a stroll in the town of Gaya. This is the worst we've seen so far. There are mounds of garbage on every corner and the smell is terrible. Nobody does anything about it, cows and dogs search it for something edible.


At this ghat six hundred bodies are burned every day

Late in the afternoon we arrive in Bhugalsarai, now it's only 15 km more by motorized rickshaw to Varanasi. It's a complete chaos on the road. Too many vehicles on a road that is too narrow. The smog, smoke and exhaust hurt my throat.

The next morning we take a stroll in the bazar with its narrow streets, a pedestrian zone, which seems to include cows. Saskia is attacked by one in an alley. It has a calf it wants to protect. Fortunately the cow's horns are blunt.

This morning, at dawn, we are in a rowing boat on the Ganges to see people bathe. Every Hindu hopes to bathe in the Ganges at dawn. Some people save money for years to be able to buy a train ticket to Varanasi.

India - Varanasi, bathing people in the Ganges


People are bathing and washing clothes on the ghats (stairs leading into the water). We take lots of pictures and notice it is a real tourist attraction. There is a line of tourist boats and cameras are clicking all the time.

On the way back we see a women's rally, maybe there is a revolution of women coming? In the afternoon we take a last walk along the Ganges. Unexpectedly, we see a number of cremations. Every Hindu wants to be cremated in Varanasi, after which their ashes will be scattered in the Ganges.

India - Varanasi, ghats

Some people cannot afford a whole funeral pyre; they are half-burned and then thrown into the Ganges. The sick, children and Saddhus (holy men) are not cremated at all: they are thrown into the Ganges as they are.

Six hundred bodies are cremated every day at this ghat. Old people are covered with a gold-yellow sheet, men with a white one and women with a red one.

We are sent to the balcony, the ground level is only for relatives. It's boiling hot on the balcony and the smoke is directly in your face. We see a half-burned corpse on a pyre; someone pokes the fire up. Lugubrious, but to Hindus the body is no more than a container for the soul.

We walk along poor women who are waiting to die and meanwhile receive money for their pyres from tourists. Then we go to the train station, where we take the night train to Agra, city of the Taj Mahal.


The Taj Mahal rises mysteriously from the morning haze

Our hotel in Agra is only 50 meters from the gate of the Taj Mahal. Agra is quieter than Varanasi in terms of traffic, but it is very touristic.

We bicycle to the Red Fort. It's huge and has 16 palaces within its walls. The builder of the Taj Mahal, Sjah Jahan, was incarcerated here, but had a view of his Taj Mahal. Some palaces are decorated with elegant archs and look somewhat Arabic.

India - Agra, Taj Mahal at dawn

After we have returned our bikes, we take a look at the Taj from the roof terrace of a hotel, a drink at hand. We enjoy the beautiful view and see monkeys jump from roof to roof. Unfortunately they don't come near us.

Because we're up early the next morning, we can see the Taj at dawn, before the tourist crowds arrive. The Taj Mahal rises mysteriously from the haze.

Walking towards it, we are increasingly charmed by the beauty of the building. Everything is symmetrical, including the annexes. What's so special about the Taj Mahal is that it wasn't built for religious ends or as a show of power. Sjah Jahan built this mausoleum out of love for his deceased wife.

We walk around the Taj and look at the marble mosaics. For every color in a picture there is a piece of marble in that color. Inside the building are the two tombs of the couple.

Corbett National Park

We cross the Ganges via a huge pedestrian bridge

The next day we travel to Delhi, from where we will take a train to a town near Corbett National Park. We arrive in New Delhi afte a long and complicated trip. It turns out that there won't be a train to our destination in the next couple of days.

India - Ramnagar, ox wagon

The guy in the tourist office proposes we rent a car with chauffeur. We are certain that we are being bamboozled, but we are too exhausted by the trip to bargain. We take the offer.

Early next morning the car with chauffeur picks us up. It's an Ambassador, an English old-timer and the most popular car in India. It takes an hour to get out of Delhi. There's a lot to see on the way: monkeys on the road side, farmworkers, ox wagons.

When we pass a village, we ask the driver to stop: we want to stretch our legs. Children surround us, screaming and shouting.

One man speaks English and offers us a cup of tea. He uses a newspaper to keep the children at bay, as much as possible. It's a Muslim village and the man asks if we know Osama Bin Laden. We pretend we don't understand him. Fortunately, he drops the subject.

This morning we take a jeep to Corbett National Park. It's freezing cold. Unfortunately the only exciting thing we get to see are tiger footprints in the sand. We see deer, monkeys and a hornbill. Maybe we should count our blessings, though, because we meet a jeep that was attacked by a male elephant.

In the afternoon we go for a drive by car. We stop in a small rural village with thatched huts. It's quiet and peaceful here. Women are harvesting sugar cane in the fields.

India - Ramnagar, thatched hut

When we are back at the car, the chauffeur is sleeping on the back seat. When he wakes up, he asks us if we please can go back to the hotel. But no, we won't, we want to see more. He doesn't understand what we want and what we like.

Today we drive to Rishikesh and Hardwar, two religious sites on the origins of the Ganges river. In Hardwar people bathe in the fast-flowing Ganges. The water is noticably cleaner than in Varanasi, here it arrives straight from the mountains.

We stroll through shopping streets that are festively decorated for Diwali, Hindu New Year. There are also fireworks for Diwali.

India - Rishikesh, the Ganges river originates in the Himalayas

Rishikesh is beautifully located between two foot hills of the Himalayas. There are temples everywhere, which are visited bij orange-clad pilgrims, who pass this village on their way to Varanasi. We cross the Ganges via a huge pedestrian bridge.

The whole village caters to spiritual seekers with yoga and meditation centers everywhere. Some people stay here for months to "find themselves". Hippie types, obviously.

We drive to Delhi, a six-hour trip. When we stop at a railway crossing, a "real" Indian train goes by. That is to say: people hanging from the doors and masses of people on the roof.

In the evening in Delhi everyone wishes everyone "Happy Diwali" and people light fireworks with matches. If it doesn't explode within a few seconds, they pick it up and stick a burning match in it. When we say it's better to light fireworks with cigarettes, they don't understand us. They ask if we want to smoke.

Following Indian tradition, we buy "butter-dough balls". They taste like undercooked dough.


The Palace of the Winds has hundreds of neat views

India - Jaipur, gate Pink City

This morning we take the bus to Jaipur. In the pink part of the city, all houses were painted pink in 1883 to welcome Prince Albert of Great Britain and ever since it remained that way. Inside the pink walls you will find mainly shops.

Jaipur is part of the state of Rajasthan, the most touristic state of India. Rajasthan women are famous for their colorful clothes. It tops everything we've seen so far.

India - Jaipur, store

I buy a drum made of mango wood in the street, it makes for a nice souvenir. I bargain and am proud of myself. Until the guy tells us we can buy a second, larger drum for the same amount. I don't care, he is happy and I am happy with my drum.

In the evening we see a little store near the hotel that sells patchwork and embroidery with little mirrors. The owner explains that every piece is unique. She has a story about everything in the store. I buy a 45-years-old cloth that was given as dowry to a groom.

India - Jaipur, City Palace

This morning we visit the City Palace, which houses several museums. The traditional-costume museum has clothes and accessories of the maharadjas who lived here. Some of the maharadja's wive's dresses for festive occasions are decorated with pure gold.

We also see the kind of embroidery (with the mirrors) that we saw yesterday in the store. In a courtyard sit two enormous silver jars. They used to be filled with Ganges water, so the maharadja could wash himself with the holy water if he was traveling to England.

India - Jaipur, Palace of the Winds

Next we visit the Palace of the Winds, which has the nicest gable in Jaipur. It has hundreds of little openings through which the harem women could watch what was happening in the street without being seen themselves.

We take a bus to Samode, a picturesque town 40 km from here. The bus is packed, but we have seats in the front. The gear protrudes from a large hole from which smoke rises.

The trip takes one and a half hours; the landscape is desert-like, very sandy. On the way we see many camels, which are characteristic of Rajasthan.

Some houses in Samode have 150 years old paintings. The houses are called havelis. We visit the palace, where you can also spend the night. It has a mirrored hall with small mirrors from walls to ceiling and beautiful frescoes.


The puppeteer makes his puppets dance to the music

The train to Delhi turns out to be a local. At one of the stations it's a madhouse: many people enter with so much luggage that every imaginable space is used. Even the fans are used to hang luggage from. Saskia gets a child to sit on her lap and a woman sits on the edge of her seat.

After a long trip we arrive in Old Delhi late that night, but New Delhi is supposed to be the final station. We are amazed to see another wave of people enter the train. Suddenly a man says that the train doesn't stop in New Delhi. It takes a lot of effort to get ourselves off the train.

India - Delhi, puppet show

Today we visit the Red Fort of Delhi. It is quiet, because we are early. It is disappointing: the marble mosaics were stolen in the past. And whatever else is worth seeing, is closed.

The Muslim district with its mosque is at walking distance. It is very different here, the men wear skull caps and the women are veiled. No holy cows in the streets. The mosque is so large that we hardly can fit it in a picture.

We take a motorized rickshaw to Katpulti Colony, an art district. We don't know exactly where to go. A man speaks English. He is an artist himself, a puppeteer, and shows us the neighborhood. The district (actually just one street) is poor and there are swarms of flies. Probably because of the open sewers.

In a shed that first gets a thorough sweep, a blanket is laid out for us. People play music with a drum and two other percussion instruments. The puppeteer makes his puppets dance to the music. The puppets are made of wood, their faces are painted and they wear beautiful clothes.

Before we leave India, I buy a Ganesha figurine, one of the most important gods in Hinduism. We will miss India, except for two things: the constant honking in the streets and the constant hawking and spitting.

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