Tuesday, October 14, 2008

First Trip To India: My mysterious guide

Chapter Ten - My mysterious guide

On to Shravasti. The trip thither goes past some of the best scenery that Uttar Pradesh has to offer. Agreed, concerning natural scenery UP has nothing to offer , so a couple of hundred teak trees bunched together makes a great sight. The road goes through several small villages and settlements.

There's not much choice if you want to stay in Shravasti. First, you can decide to stay in nearby Balrampur in the UPT Bungalow. This has always been the accepted place to stay. In Shravasti itself, you can either try your luck at one of the monasteries, or you can go to the two-room Tourist Bungalow that has now opened its doors. Previously it was a privately owned building by some official of UP Tourism, but now it's been converted to accommodate tourists. There are only very few foreign tourists, so two rooms strangely enough is sufficient most of the time. The rooms are very good value at Rs 200 for a double. I read about this place in an advertisement of UP Tourism when I was staying in Kushinagar. We arrived there at night and had some trouble locating the place. There are also checkpoints before entering Shravasti, but these didn't pose the problem. The thing was that there was a power failure at that moment, so all buildings were covered in darkness. The Tourist Bungalow too. After passing the entrance a couple of times, we suddenly saw a sign saying 'Fast Food' and something else. We stopped to look. The 'something else' was 'Tourist Bungalow'. When we drove up the drive, somebody suddenly came out of the dark and asked if we wanted to stay the night there. We said 'yes'. This 'guard' also turned out to be the receptionist. He apologised for having to welcome us in the dark. We asked how long the power cut was going to last. He told us it would be switched on again at around nine (it was six at the moment), but "sometimes the power is out for 10 days". That gave us good hope. We were shown to our room. He carried candles, we had a flashlight. Although it was dark, we could see that the room was spotlessly clean and very spacious. It was nicely carpeted. There was a separate (large) bathroom and a separate sitting corner. When we were shown the bathroom, I saw some creature sitting in the middle of the room. When I shone the torch's light on it, I saw that it was a scorpion. "Very rare here", the receptionist / guard assured us. "We always sleep on the floor near the entrance and we've seen one only once before." We ? Yes, there was another guy... The cook. Ah, yes, that's right ! There was a sign advertising fast food. Well, let's try it then. The choice was very limited. So limited, in fact, that there was nothing really more than finger chips (chips or French fries were called finger chips everywhere I went in India) and stuffed paratha's. To drink there was a choice of tea, Thums Up or mineral water. We ordered all but the tea. It was around quarter past six. We had the 'meal' at 8.30. I remember finishing shortly after the lights went on. This was indeed around nine. The next morning we ordered breakfast, consisting of... yes, right... finger chips and stuffed paratha. I wanted to visit the ruins early enough to be able to comfortably drive to Lucknow. There's not a whole lot to see in Shravasti, so I decided not to waste any time there and opted to stay only one night. I ordered breakfast at six o'clock. I got it at around nine. This was really 'Fast Food' with capital F. The people were friendly enough, they just didn't have any sense for organisation. I just waited and watched the monkeys play. There are a lot of them in the morning. In the early morning the whole place is taken in by the langurs. After a while the macaques took over. Meanwhile, I also met an old fellow who was staying in the other room. He was alone and started talking to me in really good English. He wanted to know about me and what I was planning on doing here. Maybe I had started to become a little paranoid at that time, but I immediately suspected this person to be just another guide wanting me to show around the Shravasti ruins. He told me that he was asked as some sort of VIP at the inauguration of a new temple. He lived in Lucknow. It became clear that he was not looking to guide us around, but nevertheless I couldn't help thinking that anyone talking to me would do that without a reason. I was right. He wanted to know if we were occasionally going towards Lucknow. When I told him we were, he asked if he could come along. I didn't mind. We'd pick him up after we had visited the place. He was a nice guy to talk to and when I asked him if he was Hindu he answered me something that made me feel particularly sympathetic towards this guy. He said : "By birth I am a Hindu, but by faith I am a humanist and by thinking I am a rationalist." This was not the kind of answer your normal geek of the street would give, I thought. He coùld be some kind of VIP. When I told him that I was from Belgium, he became very enthusiastic and told me "from Belgium ? Very nice ! I have once met your king ! A great personality !" I thought, "yeah, right. That dude meeting our king ? Probably he wants to secure his ride." I also told him that our king (or the one he was supposed to have met) had deceased and that his son was now on the throne. He said he felt sorry. I asked him how come that he had met the king. He said that at that time he was the deputy director of UP Tourism. Yeah, sure.

After breakfast we visited the ruins. I found them a bit disappointing, although there are some great photographic opportunities with orange robe-clad monks wandering through the complex. There are also plenty of beautiful butterflies, drinking the nectar of the equally beautiful flowers.

Now about the ruins. Although not much recognisable remains, but the most interesting ones were : the Bodhi tree which marks the spot where Anathapindika planted a bodhi sapling, temple 1 & monastery, which are among the latest buildings to be erected at Jetavana, temple 2, originally called Gandhakuti, the Buddha well & temple 3 which marks the spot where the original Koshambakuti stood, built by Anathapindika and personally used by the Buddha, the place for the hawan or holy fire and a nearby tank used by the pupils of the Buddha. Then about a mile away from this complex are another two structures called the Kachchi Kuti and the Pakki Kuti. The former was built in different periods, the earliest being the Kushana period, the latest building phase was in the 12th century. It's a typical Gupta shrine. The latter is probably an ancient stupa, but it's also possible that the remains are the so-called Hall of the Law, built by king Prasenjit for the Buddha. On the way to these two buildings, one comes across an old Jaina temple. The visible dome is a medieval construction over an earlier Jain temple. It is the birthplace of the third Tirthankara, Sambhavanatha.

Other places to visit are the different monasteries in the same style as you see them at Sarnath and Kushinagar. The only difference is that here they are less used to 'normal' tourists, more to real pilgrims who also often spend the night there. There are Thai, Japanese, Burmese, Chinese and Sri Lankan monasteries.

After the visit we returned to the tourist bungalow to pick up our new made friend. We had a nice (but bumpy) trip all the way to Lucknow. On the way, we also visited a really big (!) cattle market at Kaisarganj. Ramnagar, just over the bridge crossing the Ghaghara river, is a good place for a stop and a drink at one of the food 'n' drinks stalls. They're probably OK, because they are heavily frequented by truck drivers.

Just outside Lucknow our 'guide' directed us to the place where the British were defeated by the Indian revolutionaries in 1857 during the First War of Independence. It's located at Chinhat, near Kathauta Tal. A small memorial stone commemorates this occasion. Foreigners are rarely seen here, although some locals told us that sometimes British nostalgics come here. There used to be a rest house, but it has been closed down now because the lake has dried up. In Lucknow we were shown a couple of places that are not in the guidebook but which are nevertheless interesting to see. First there was a nice Hanuman temple, called the Hanuman Setu Temple. It is located at Vishwa Vidyalaya Road (or University Rd) not so far from the river Gomti. It has an interesting Hanuman statue : Hanuman opens his chest and shows that he carries Rama and Sita in his heart. It's really unusual. The are also beautiful bas-reliefs, for example Hanuman and his companions building the bridge to Lanka. Photography was not permitted but I got permission after all because this man was accompanying us. What was it with that guy ? Was he really an important guy ?

Next, we visited the cremation place of Acharya Narendra Dev (1889-1956), just across the bridge over the river. He was the chairman of the Socialist Party in India and founder of the socialist movement in India. The place is only really interesting for the initiated ones or for Indians, but the views over the Gomti River are good. On the other shore, there are (unfortunate, but somehow picturesque) some slums.

To the west, still near the river and almost opposite to the Residency stands the Martyr's Memorial pillar (Saheed Samarak). I think it's quite clear why it was constructed (to commemorate the martyrs of India's struggle for freedom). It was opened on the 15th of August 1957 and is totally made of marble. From this place there's a great view towards the very beautiful arts college of Lucknow University. It's really worth its name 'arts college'. At sunset it is beautifully reflected in the river's waters and makes a great shot !

In a park near the crossing of Mahatma Gandhi Road and Aminabad Road stands a simple but beautiful statue of Lakshman, brother of Lord Rama. Belief has it that this area was given to him, so it is thought that the name Lucknow derives from Lakshman. That's why this statue is rather important. It's the personification of the city. Close to the GPO on Vidhan Sabha Marg stands the Vidhan Sabha Bhavan, the state governor's house. It's a beautiful building with a dome. Not far from the planetarium there's Lucknow Globe, which is just that : a globe, held up by a dolphin.

Now it was time for our friend and guide to go home. He invited us to come along, which we thankfully accepted. We met his family and in particular his son, who was also a well-educated person. We got tea and sweets and talked and talked. While sitting there in the living room, I noticed a large bookcase completely full of books. One of them had the title 'Developing rural communities in mountainous areas', a title that made me think that this guy had been telling me the truth all along. Still, he didn't look that important, nor did his house. In fact, it was just a ground level apartment in a large block. As if he was reading my thoughts, he told me : "Remember me telling you that I have met your king ?" I said I did. "Well", he said, "I have some photos about that, that I want to show to you." He handed me a photo album and there he was together with our former king. He had many shots of the occasion. He was also pictured together with other important people, like the king of Nepal and the president of Burma, the Maharaja of Benares and Indira Gandhi. And many more. He had indeed been a very important person. I felt a bit sorry that I hadn't believed him, but I had been told so many fairy tales along the way. He insisted on giving me one of the pictures of him with our king. I told him that I was honoured, but that he shouldn't give these memorabilia away. He kept insisting so I accepted. I told him I couldn't give him something even close to that but I would make a photo of all of us together so that we all could remember our meeting and so that he could add one more shot to his already great collection. He smilingly accepted. I have sent the two photo's that I made to him about two weeks ago and of course didn't get a reply so far. But I think I will. And even if not, I will still have great memories of this really interesting person who made a total difference from the masses and who made a day's travelling even greater than usual.

In a couple of days I think I was able to visit most of the sights, of course also including the best known ones. We saw the clock tower, the Jami Masjid and the Rumi Darwaza. The Bara Imambara was great. Entry to the whole complex was Rs 10. The ticket is a combined pass by which one can also visit the Picture Gallery, Clock Tower Garden, the Shahi Hammam in the Hussainabad Imambara's grounds and Rumi Darwaza. Guides wanted Rs 135 for a complete tour of the Bara Imambara. When I asked one of them how much it cost to guide me around the labyrinth (I could look around the central hall myself. I had bought a good booklet on the subject), he said one hundred and thirty-five rupees. The same for one third of the complex ! He, nor his colleagues, wanted to come down, so we decided to find our own way. In fact, I was glad I did, because it's great fun on your own, not knowing where you'll end up. There's nothing to see inside the labyrinth so wandering through the maze is the point of going there. There is something else, for the record, but I'll mention it later. The view from the roof is great in all directions and you can pinpoint a lot of the city's important buildings. When we got down again, the guides were awaiting us and said "You see, it is not interesting on your own. You don't know what to look for. There's no interest then." I told him that we had great fun anyway. We made our way to the entrance of the Bouli well. The guide followed us, repeating the same line again and again. He said : "Going inside there will not be interesting if you don't know what to look for. I can show you what to look for." I asked how much he wanted. He said "One hundred and thirty-five rupees." I told him that it was crazy asking the same price for one third of the complex as for the whole lot. He didn't want to come down. He said : "Tourists always pay 135 rupees." I said : "Well, if that's so, they're just plain crazy. I'm not going to pay that amount for this well, if another person can visit the whole shit for the same price. In fact, I wouldn't pay that sum for a complete tour. I can live a day of that money. How much would an Indian pay ? It's not because I am a foreigner that you have to rip me off." The man got seriously annoyed because of my refusal. He started acting so intense, that it started to attract a crowd. I remained calm and said : "Let's suggest that you want to visit this place and someone tells you that it is only interesting if you have a guide, because you won't get the essence of the whole thing otherwise. Well, let's also suggest that if that person asks you one thousand rupees. Well, you'll know that you will not see anything if you don't pay. Will you ?" In the long run, he had to agree with me that he could never pay that amount and even if he could he wouldn't. I said : "Well, it's the same with me. I can pay that amount, but it is my principle that I don't, because I know it's way too much, especially for only one third of the lot. So, no matter what you say, I will not give in." The crowds were closely following the debate, which lasted quite some time, and some people who understood English were translating for the others. Judging from some reactions, the people seemed to agree with me. At the end, the guide was convinced of his being wrong and said : "okay, I'll take you inside. You can give anything you want." Knowing that asking a specific amount never works if they say that, I told him that I would indeed give what I wanted and that it would be much less than Rs 135. He didn't mind and took me by the arm to go inside. The people in the crowds were wondering what this strange foreigner was going to do next and everybody followed us inside. The guide was right, I would probably never have seen what's so special about the place. If you're standing in one of the low-lying storeys around the well, people can not see you from the other side, although they are actually looking at you, because you are covered in darkness. They also can't see you from the entrance of the Baoli, because the storeys are hidden behind the stairs and too low to make you visible. But, you can see anyone who's standing there at the entrance ! It's an ingenious construction, however, I don't know if it was intended to be like that. The reflections of the water in the well are responsible for this. It's something like a periscope with the water acting as the mirror. It maybe sounds simple, but it's not that obvious if you're actually standing there. That's what's so special about this place. The guide told me that there's something similar with the labyrinth and the main gate. If you've seen either of these two (the labyrinth or the well), you know what to look for and you can find it yourself in the other building. We did. I gave the man a more than fair amount for his services. He was pleased and told me something like that he was respecting me for what I had told him during the discussion. I don't know why, but that's what he said. I said good-bye to him and the twenty or so other people from the crowd and left.

We were on our way to see the Hussainabad Imambara. Directly on your left after passing through the main gate is the Shahi Hammam, the 'royal' baths. You should see it as it is included in the Bara Imambara entry ticket, but it's not that interesting. Besides, the guard will appoint himself as a guide which is totally unnecessary. A visit is only a matter of minutes, so the tip is only a matter of a few rupees. He just follows you inside and says something in Hindi which you can't understand (if you don't speak the language of course). I thought he was asking me something about myself because his face was almost expressionless. Afterwards, it became clear that he had 'explained' me about the place (you know, the reached out hand in 'baksheesh style').

The Hussainabad Imambara is beautiful enough, especially with the tombs lining the grounds on both sides. Also the interior is quite a difference from the Bara Imambara. There are a lot of valuables inside and it looks as if they are jostling for space. From the ceiling many chandeliers and lamps are hanging down, many (or all ?) of them gifts. The silver throne is impressive. There's also a model of the Kirbala, the place where the family of Mohammed sacrificed themselves and a footprint of the prophet. When I was removing my shoes before entering the place, a man came standing next to me and asked me if I wanted a guide. I told him that I was fine on my own. He told me that it wouldn't be interesting on my own (sounded familiar) and that he didn't want much money for it. I asked him how much, but I already knew the answer. It indeed was 'as much as you like'. Well, "why not", I thought and agreed. He showed us around and explained about various items. I must say his explaining was clear and rather interesting, but very brief. I think it lasted about five minutes. Afterwards I looked around on my own a much longer time. When I was finished, he blocked the entrance and asked for his tip. I gave him something like twenty rupees. It was the smallest bill I had. I did have some coins, but I decided to keep them for other purposes. He was complaining that it wasn't enough and laughed as if I had given him 50 paise. Suki, my Indian friend who was still accompanying me, told him that it was more than enough, but still he wouldn't give up and started complaining loudly. Some Muslim men who were sitting near the entrance had their attention drawn to us. I got rather annoyed myself because it's always and everywhere the same : always that same bullshit about money. But still, I remained calm. He didn't. When I was indicating that I was going to leave, he called the guys at the entrance for backup, to support his cause. They came up and started bullshitting in Hindi. I got really fed up with these guys, but didn't pay. My pal must have felt that the situation was getting out of hand somehow and paid the guy another ten rupees. I told him he shouldn't have done that. The man greedily snatched the money bill out of his hand. Probably thinking that his technique had worked fine, he kept complaining that it was still not enough. I asked him if he was okay in the head, then said : "Do you want the rest of my money too, man ? Here take it." I handed him all the coins I had. "There," I said, "stick them up your ar*e." I must have looked angry enough because he stopped whining and stepped aside to let me out. Demonstrative, I refused going out through the main entrance and left by the side door. What a place ! I remember at the time advising myself not to hire any more guides in Lucknow. And, as a matter of fact, I can still only give that advice to my fellow travellers. Just outside the grounds, we also saw the Satkhanda which is particularly beautiful in the evening when it's warmly illuminated by the sun.

Residency The Residency was a site where history was still alive and where you could really feel it. It's just great ! I took a long time to visit it (more than half a day), to absorb the atmosphere and to talk to people I met there, especially some university students. One particular guy I met came walking up to me, smiling. I smiled back and we said hello. He reached out both of his hands as to hand me something. The paranoid person that I had become, I was a bit reluctant to accept because I saw the rupee bills flying away again, but nevertheless I did. He gave me a handful of red flowers. I was a bit astonished and asked him "Why?" "Because you are my friend", he said and wandered off. Still rather perplex, I let him go, not even knowing his name. I suddenly realised what made travelling in India so special and so much fun. Just when you think you've had it with all the people hassling you and you're about to give up completely, you meet somebody who makes all these 'problems' so tiny and who gives you - let's call it - new courage to continue. These people are also part of the great differences to be seen in India. There seems to be only light and dark in India and not much in between. The experience of these stark contrasts is what you come here for and is what will make you return.

Entrance to the Residency was free, to the model room was Rs 1. The model room was really interesting because of the good drawings which really bring the hectic period of 1857 to life. The model itself was not so helpful and was covered with a thick layer of dust. Photography in the model room is not allowed. Downstairs in the basement it is. When I was looking for Sir Henry Lawrence's grave in the cemetery I was looking for something rather big. Instead, it turned out to be a very simple white stone slab.

I also went to the zoo, although I rarely do that when I'm abroad. I think the Antwerp zoo (Belgium), which is about 20 kilometres from my door, has a great collection of animals that are extremely well taken care for. But, I am very interested in reptiles, so when I read that the zoo in Lucknow has a large snake collection, I decided to go anyway. Unfortunately, it turned out be a rather poor collection regarding the number of reptiles. Also, half of it is badly visible because you have to look through dirty windows into dirty terrariums. Still, for an Asian zoo it's not so bad and most of the animals looked to be in better condition than some people I saw during my trip. There's a small admission charge.

The last place I visited in Lucknow was the Martinière School.
After reading through the list of places to stay, I decided to stay at Capoor's. When I arrived there, a guard informed me with tears in his eyes that Mr. Capoor had died and that the hotel was closed. A note on the door said the same. Too bad. Somebody recommended me the Hotel Gomti, but it was indeed very shabby. Prices for doubles were Rs 650 with and Rs 350 without air-con (excl. taxes !). I was immediately told that non-AC rooms were not available for me. The people at the reception were very unfriendly, close to being rude and the rest of the staff wasn't much better. A place to spend only one night, or better, no nights.

Hotel Elora is very conveniently located. Doubles, non-AC, cost Rs 350 (all incl.). The rooms are not that great value, but at least the place is clean enough. There's satellite TV. There's an attached bathroom with shower. You have to notify the reception for hot water.

At lunchtime, I went to the hotel's restaurant next door, the Seema. This restaurant is listed in the LP twice as being a good place to eat. I can't see why. The service was fast but bad and the people were close to being rude, not by speech but by their ignorance towards the customers. The food's taste was above average, but not really great at all. They even served chilly chicken without the bones removed. The result is that the whole dish was full of dangerous little bone splinters. It was not edible.

The same evening, around nine, I wanted to take a shower. So, I notified the reception to arrange the hot water for me. They told me they were seeing to it and that hot water would be running in my bathroom in 15 minutes. Around 9.20, I opened the tap. There was no hot water. There were two pipes with taps in the bathroom : the left pipe was about one meter high with a tap on top. The right pipe was about two meters high with a shower overhead and a tap on the same level as the one on the left pipe.

I waited another 10 minutes and tried again. No hot (not even slightly) water. Not having it at 9.45, Suki (my pal) called reception again. They had forgotten about it but were immediately going to fix it for us. Please, wait fifteen minutes for the water to get to the room. Okay ! 10.05. No hot water. Let's give it another ten minutes. 10.15. Still nothing. At 10.30 I started getting really tired of it and went downstairs to the reception. As soon as the man saw me, he started shouting at a room boy. He got really angry at that guy. "Sorry, sir. Hot water is coming now !", he said. The boy signed me to follow him. "Sorry, sir. Sorry, sir." He repeated it over and over when we went upstairs. Instead of going to my room, he went to a room two doors away. "Sorry, sir. Sorry, sir." He pounded on the room door. Repeatedly. After a few minutes a half-sleeping and half-naked Indian man opened the door and was wondering where the fire was. The room boy gazed at me a couple of seconds, said "sorry, sir" again and shot in the man's room. You could really read the surprise in that dude's eyes. What the hell is going on, he thought. And what is this foreigner waiting here for ? I felt a little ridiculous. Water could be heard running inside the room. Apparently, the boy was checking if there was only no hot water in my room. Suddenly, he came running out of the room again and went inside mine. The man was left standing there without any explanation. He shook his head in a way as if he was trying to wake up from a dream, and disappeared inside. The boy was already fiddling with the taps in my bathroom by the time I came in. "Sorry, sir. Sorry, sir." He opened the left tap (the one without shower head) and said : "Look, sir, hot water." I felt it and, indeed, it was warm. I asked him if there was also hot water in the right pipe. He told me there wasn't. I thanked him for his efforts. He smiled widely and left. "Sorry, sir. Sorry, sir." Of course, I didn't get any hot water ! I had been trying the wrong tap ! But, you would normally expect the warm stuff to come out of the shower, wouldn't you ? The time was around eleven now. I could forget about a shower, so I would have to wash up by hand now. I left the tap running while I applied the soap. By the time I had to rinse it off, the water had become so hot that you could easily burn off your skin together with the soap. I could do nothing but open the right (cold water) tap that was on the shower (right) pipe. Oh, I was in luck again. The tap didn't budge. There was no other option than to use the cold shower. I got out of the bathroom at around 11.30. I had been waiting for more than two hours to finally end up like this !
The next morning, I ordered breakfast with room-service. Time was around half past six. Some waiter from the Seema Restaurant came to my room and took orders. I got it 'round eight and half of the order was wrong. He was very annoyed when I brought this to his attention. He would fix it. Another 45 minutes later he came back in.
With all this going wrong, I decided to find another hotel the next night. I went to the Avadh Lodge. This is a really good place, and very nice too. It's like staying as a guest of a family in colonial India. The rooms are great and all different. Everything is clean and the staff is helpful and friendly. We wanted a non-AC double and had the choice of two rooms. One was Rs 220, the other one Rs 250. Really recommended, this place !

A very good and cheap enough place to eat in Lucknow is Meal Weal. It is centrally located (although not really in the crowded area) at the Commerce House, Habibulla Estate. Just take the street almost opposite Capoor's and continue for a couple of hundred meters. It's on the right then. It's a fast food joint, similar to Nirula's in Delhi. I went there several times and it was always good, fast and friendly. Sample prices : fried rice Rs 28.50, chilly chicken complete dish Rs 47.50, Indian vegetarian maxi meal Rs 34, soft drinks Rs 8. In Lucknow I also went to see an Indian movie in the Mayfair cinema, which is located at Hazratganj, along Mahatma Gandhi Road, again not far from Capoor's, on the same side. It's a modern place and rather comfortable. The film was an Indian production called 'Rangeela'. It was thé film of the moment and probably of the year. The film's tunes were played everywhere you went, also in Suki's car.

The movie was in Hindi, but the plot was so simple that I didn't even need subtitles. The film's photography and dancing scenes were good for an Indian film, but as with 95% of them, the story was as thin as a piece of paper. Although it lasted for almost three hours, it was good fun. Entrance for the Saturday evening showing was Rs 25.

No comments: