One of the most amazing things about India is the sheer diversity of the place, not just geographically but demographically. The north is completely different from anywhere else, the south different, the east, the west and everywhere in between. Different languages, cuisines, landscape, religions, ways of life and even climate. No where on earth is quite like India in regards to diversity and difference. However, one thing is consistent throughout the whole country and whether you are on the Southern tip of the country looking out to the end of the world, or deep in the villages of the north in the shade of the Himalayas, one thing remains absolutely consistent throughout. Something that the Indians have to an intricate art, something so perfected it is clearly the result of decades of hard work and effort – bull shit. The Indians are kings of bull shit, and not bull shit as in dishonest. Bull shit as in hassle, but beyond hassle, on a completely different level, a level so high you have to gaze toward the sky to get any idea of the high level of bull shit the Indians purvey. Bull shit so complex there are degrees in bull shit, and anyone that works in any sort of civil service role have to take a masters in bull shit, any managers must do a PHD in bull shit. Bull shit is a subject taught in schools, beginning with kids in primary school studying mini bull shit. Its the Indian national sport and something taken very seriously. So for a foreigner turning up it takes some real effort and patience to try and cope with all the bull shit that comes flying your way.
As a result India is hard work, I met a guy named Yash and we spoke for hours about the subject. He said that the reason, is that India is slow to make changes. Computers are still running windows XP and this is not because the country can’t afford to upgrade, it’s like most things; fear of change. But not fear as in genuine fear, the system in India works, albeit painfully and slowly, but it works. It could work a heck of a lot more effectively and efficiently but no politician will sanction the change or take a grip because if they fail it will be political suicide and since politicians are out for themselves (same as most countries) they would rather just surf on the back of what is already working. The Indians are masters of failing and this is mainly due to their own bureaucracy, but again we take full circle as it needs someone to take charge…
A perfect example – we had a train leaving Allahabad at 12.10pm taking 8 hours to get to Agra. It was shown as an hour delayed at 12pm. Then 2 minutes before it was due to pull in it was shown as a further one hour delay. Again, 2 minutes before the next hour and it was shown as an hour delayed again. No information as to why, but every single train coming in and out of the station was heavily delayed. No one in the station speaks English and nothing is written in English and so so we had absolutely no idea of what was going on. I got speaking to a guy who explained that the Indian government who run the railways set themselves a policy. If a train is late by 2 hours or more then you can obtain a full refund on your ticket. However, there is a difference between late and delayed. The departure time is the estimated time your train will leave and any extension of this is a delay. By delaying the train in one hour increments your train will always leave within one hour of the estimated departure time, you are unable to get a refund and it means that statistically every train leaves within one hour and is great for PR. in other words we was completely at the mercy of the railways, as was everyone else.
Being in Allahabad, a place that rarely sees foreigners we were like aliens. People would stand and just stare at us. People were taking photos and filming us and despite my efforts to avert this it was simply not possible. It felt like we were animals in a zoo and went to speak to the manager to find out what was going on. It turns out that the state we were in Utter Pradesh was all without power. That’s 200 million people all without electricity. Suddenly things were put in perspective and we headed to the first class lounge to chill out. After about 5 hours we’d had enough and so I went to change our train to the next day, however because we had avoided the bull shit of buying tickets at the station we now were faced with more bull shit as tickets booked online can’t be changed or even cancelled in any case. The train arrived some 7 hours late and life continued as I sat up drinking chi and playing game of life on the iPad with Yash, a forensic scientist from the South. We laughed as every hour throughout the night his mother would call and ask if he was safe.
In any case that was just one of the billion daily challenges in India, I worked out that by the time we leave India after just one month I will have filled out passport and visa details along with address etc approximately 100 times.
We had arrived in Allahabad the previous night. The train stopped at a station some 5km away broken down. I had spent 12 hours chatting and sharing samosas with a guy called Rav who had just been for selection for the forces. We spoke about many things and I got a real insight into life of a young person in India, he spoke better English than English people I know and at 21 didn’t realise just how much possibility lay before him.
We bailed the train and waded through the masses of spectators to an auto which is like a large tuk tuk designed for about 8 people. He felt like he was slick as he asked for 50 rupees for the 5km journey. Anxious to just get to the hotel I offered him 100 if he didn’t pick anyone else up and just set off. Knowing he would get the leg over with the misses off the back of a decent wage he sped off.
The roads were in serious need of resurfacing and I soon realised what a hole we were in. Most of Northern India is dirty, grimy and dusty but this was above the norm. It was a real skank hole of a place. The hotel I had phoned ahead to had decided that the price had increased by over 100% which is actually very uncommon in not just India, but Asia as a whole. An agreed price is almost always, with rare exception the price you pay. By now it was 10pm, pitch black and the monsoon had arrived. The obvious reason for the price increase, I called him a scum bag and we left. As we waded knee deep or in Abi’s case waist deep I was fuming, we were tired, hungry and had just had enough. The kids we fantastic, Charlie had a rucksack that weights about 25% of his body weight and Abi the same. It’s the physical side of travelling and when combined with the mentality of it all it is here that as a family we excel. I can honestly say I doubt many kids are as resilient as Charlie and Abi, despite the tiredness, exhaustion, bags, hunger, humidity and monsoon they both quietly followed me hoping that soon things would be ok. I am immensely proud and so fortunate to be a part of their lives and to call them my children.
In the end we stumbled upon a hotel called the Royal Palace which is probably the most unsuitable name for a hotel ever. It was an absolute dive and if we had been charged for the king size ants and mosquitoes we’d have paid a fortune, however, the owner was a spot on bloke who comped us sprite, gave us a room at just £6 and offered us to his home for food since the power was out. I politely declined as we were just too tired and in need of just a quick fix. Late, we walked through the blackness trying to avoid the cows, pigs and elephants that roamed the streets. Now this is absolutely genuine, we walked along this particular lane looking for a famous Indian restaurant chain called ‘Indian Coffee house’ cheap and reliable they are always a quick, safe bet. We found it but continued to walk for a few minutes to see what else was available. When we turned around and walked back, we heard absolute mayhem. A huge tree had fallen, luckily it seemed like no one was under it but the small building was crushed and the path completely demolished. We had been exactly under that tree less than 5 minutes earlier. The monsoon was causing flooding and damage and so after a quick veg pakora and chips we headed back to the hotel to become mosquito food for he night with Charlie notching up a cool 20 bites.
Allahabad is a place that all Hindus must visit once in their lives due to its significance at Sangam, a place where the three most important rivers in Hinduism converge. The reality is its a poverty stricken place that is probably the poorest place I have ever seen in a city in India. Children begging for life as their parents try and find enlightenment amongst the muddy banks of the river living, in nothing more than a make shift tent built from things people have discarded. There were elephants roaming about, cattle and even an anorexic donkey. On the banks of the so called holy place a kid was taking a shit wiping his arse on his hand, the elderly and infirm lay there simply waiting to expire and the pilgrims all pay to head out to the murky water on a boat. Beside the ghat is a fort which is really a poor example of what India offers up. We gave it a shot anyway and found a snake charmer who tried to convince me his cobra was safe and an underground temple. We headed down the steps and soon realised that everyone down there was a guide looking for baksheesh. It was a really intense place and I can honestly say we was glad to leave. Sometimes when travelling, the really obscure places are the ones you remember the most, the ones that hold the fondest memories, but I can say with almost certainly that both the kids and I really didn’t feel Allahabad, and when the train finally left the station we were all glad. It is definitely not a place well be heading back to anytime soon.