Next stop was Bikaner famed for its rat temple. It made my stomach turn seeing the diseased-ridden, ugly, smelly things scampering around the temple but enough about Mark's feet.. It is quite extraordinary the lengths some Hindus will go to for a bit of luck. Apparantly spotting a white rat at the temple or having one scuttle over your feet is good luck as is eating the food left out for the rats which is covered in their 'lucky' saliva. Just in case any of these or other fool-proof methods should fail a savvy Hindu will routinely bribe multiple Gods. We also visited a camel farm but it began to chuck it down (the first rains they have had in years) so we necked a couple of camel milk lattes and jumped the night train to Delhi.
We only had one full day in Delhi which gave us enough time to sort out our Vietnam visas and squeeze in a visit to the Red Fort. We realised we couldn't quit India without having seen the Taj Mahal so we nipped down to Agra for the day, were duly impressed and stayed on to watch the England-Portugal game. We returned to Delhi by traveling through the night in a taxi, Woody in the front and me lying low in the back with shattered dreams and the onset of an early hangover.
We flew from Delhi to Calcutta, where I had volunteered for a small NGO back in 1998/9 and was looking forward to revisiting old haunts and catching up with old friends. We arrived early evening and I don't know whether it was because it was a Sunday or perhaps we had caught the tail end of a festival but the streets were charged with a carnival-esque atmosphere. Couples and families wandered around monsoon-cleansed streets carrying balloons and snacking on sweets and the scene, in spite of the ubiquitous poverty, exuded a strange kind of warmth absent from other big Indian cities.
I have definitely enjoyed our time here in India. We have visited breath-taking sites, lapped up the abundant cultural offerings and met some lovely people yet I would find it difficult to describe myself as an Indophile. India remains very much an enigma to me, a country full of contradictions. Middle class Indians talk glibly about social mobility and the diminishing gap between rich and poor yet demonstrate an extraordinary tolerance of inequity and suffering as the vast majority of their fellow citizens continue to subsist below the poverty line. The debate rages on in the papers about the issue of reservation ie the policy to set aside jobs/student places for people from the lower castes. It is derided by many as being unmeritocratic but few alternatives avail themselves in a society defined by its rigid hierarchy, the mentality and prejudice of which is evident in everyday life. The problems seem intractable yet India barely pauses to draw breath in its quest for recognition on the global stage, equipped with nuclear weapons and the promise of lucrative opportunities in IT.
Packing up for our flight to Vietnam I reflected on the randomness of life and how lucky I am to have been born a pampered Westerner rather than an untouchable. Which reminds me I must stop at a temple on the way to the airport and give a little backsheesh to Shiva, Ganesh and Vishnu.
I was browsing through The Travels of Marco Polo the other day and was struck by how little things had changed. He travelled around the south coast of India c.1290.Some of his observations;
'I will tell you that in this kingdom there is yet another custom. When a man is dead and his body is being burnt his wife throws herself on to the pyre and lets herself be burnt together with her husband' (a handful of such cases are still reported to this day from remote villages).
'And you must know that when they eat they only use the right hand, nor do they touch any food with the left' (this is still the norm).
'And when they drink, they do not touch the cup with their lips but hold it high so as to pour the liquid into their mouths' (young and old throughout India still drink this way).
'I will also tell you that the greater number of them abstain from drinking wine' (particularly in the south, drinking is still very discreet).
'And you must know that no form of lechery is a sin for them' (Marco is at his most perceptive here).
Travelling in India has been a lot of fun. As long as you have a bottle of cold water with you at all times, some loose change, and about $30 for a decent room for the night then you dont need too much else. I think the Rough Guides/Lonely Planets of this world often give very weedy advice e.g; bring earplugs, mosquito nets, padlocks etc. I am guessing that the 'Rough Guide to the UK' cautions foreign visitors to bring a balaclava for the weather and a catapult in case of a badger attack.