We were out on the river again at dawn. In the eerie, ethereal light of early morning, the fires of death seemed even more unreal than the previous evening. Someone threw a charred arm bone into the water right beside us as we cruised past on the small wooden rowboat that we had hired to take us on our dawn journey along the river Ganges.
Later that day, Sindee and I went to the government bhang shop where a seven-year old boy sold as two hash cookies and 2 tola (grams) of grass, whispering to us in conspiratorially tones that it was “good stuff.” We sat up on the roof of Shanti Lodge and smoked a joint of it but it was pretty rough. A French guy, who appeared to be permanently stoned, gave us a lump of hash for free so we smoked a hooter of that and it was much better.
Later on, Sindee and I wandered, stoned, down to the ghats to watch, as Sindee put it, “the barbecue.” It freaked us out so much that we didn’t linger for a long.
The train ride was uneventful and Sindee and Sarah joined us in our cabin at about 10:30 a.m. We filled in the day playing arsehole and talking and we rolled into Varanasi at four PM. We haggled with a rickshaw driver to take us to Yogi Lodge for 15 rupees but he took us to a place called Jogi Lodge by mistake! [This scam is common in India. A hotel will give itself a name similar to a popular place, then pay touts a commission to “mistakenly” take people to the wrong place].
So we walked up into the Old City and made our way through the filthy, narrow alleys to a place called Shanti Lodge¹ and booked in there. After a couple of Pepsis each, we went out for a walk down by the sacred Ganges where people were busy bathing, praying and burning their dead. An enterprising kid took us for a trip upstream in a wooden rowboat and it gave us a good view of the ghats and the myriad activity going on around them. We floated slowly past the Burning Ghat where several funeral pies were burning and several corpses wrapped in golden cloth and garlands of flowers lay waiting for their turn on the funeral pyres.
After we finished our boat ride, we went down and stood on the steps above the burning ghat, where the attendants were stoking the fires and turning the blackened husks of the bodies so that they burned evenly. It was a bizarre site: human bodies burning atop piles of wood while people dried their washing by the heat of the flames and young hucksters peddled postcards to the watching tourists.
That night the four of us enjoyed an evening of Arsehole while we were stoned to bits on bhang lassis.
¹When I revisited India in 2020, I stayed at Shanti Lodge once again.
Linda, Sindee, Sarah and I spent most of the morning lounging in the park and eating at the Don’t Pass Me By restaurant.
At 7:30 we went down to the Old Delhi railway station by taxi (an old Ambassador driven by young Sikh) and waited on the platform amongst sacks and boxes next to a steam train brooding on the opposite platform – a grey giant, oiled and hissing.
Eventually, the booking lists were posted and Linda and I found our tatty first-class coupe compartment, while was Sindee and Sarah found their well kept but not too private air-conditioned birth. The train left at 9:50 p.m. and rolled out of Delhi into the Indian night.
The bus got us to Delhi at 6 a.m. and we caught an auto rickshaw to Ringo’s Hotel. We had a shower and changed, then had some breakfast while we waited for a dorm bed. Diana and Kate were both there: Diana back to her usual posh self after having a rabies injection, convinced that she’d caught rabies from the cook at the Peacock Hotel in Pushkar.
Our first job was to go over to the New Delhi railway station and buy two first-class tickets on the overnight train to Varanasi, then we walked back through Connaught Place and bought a cheap camera to replace Linda’s one, which broke down while we were in Agra. Back at Ringo’s, we packed up all of the stuff to be sent home and took it up to the Post Office where we went through the usual rigmarole of sending a parcel from India to New Zealand.
That completed, we returned to Ringoes for the rest of the day. By an amazing coincidence, two girls from our area in New Zealand had arrived. Sindee Beecroft was from Temuka and had worked in a shearing gang at Grampians [sheep station] the last shearing that I was there; and Sarah Thompson, from Tekapo, knew [my brother] Joe and had just been talking to him just a couple of days previously at the Duntroon sheep sale.
That evening we all went out for a meal at one of the small restaurants down the street from the hotel, then to a place called Nirula’s for ice creams afterwards.
First thing in the morning, Linda gave me some presents: a couple of really groovy tie-dyed shirts and a really cool hippie wallet. She also gave me a card with a big-eared mouse on it.
We filled in the day around the hotel and at 5 p.m. we drifted up to the Sunset Cafe for dinner followed by bhang lassis [yoghurt mixed with hashish], which didn’t have a really noticeable effect other than making us a bit drowsy.
Linda and I didn’t get up till 11 a.m. and after walking up to Shivas for a buffet breakfast, we spent a couple of hours wandering up to the end of town and back.
At the top end of the main street, there was a Hindu temple and we went in there for a look. Somehow, though, it didn’t seem all that holy with rows of beggars, perfume salesman, and families taking snapshots in front of the altar.
A rather funny aspect of the altar was the way people gave offerings at a plate surrounded by garlands. If they put a note larger than 2 rupees into the plate, they would be given change – rather like in a shop. Perhaps a Hindu blessing is a commodity just the same as everything else, with a maximum retail price.
Back at the hotel, we sat out on the patio in the sun until it was time to drift along to the Sunset Cafe for the nightly sunset-watching ritual.
JAIPUR TO PUSHKAR. We caught the bus from Jaipur to Pushkar!
At Ajmer, we changed the buses for the 30-minute ride over the Snake Mountains and down to the holy town of Pushkar, which is built around a small, stagnant holy lake.
We booked into a place called the Peacock Hotel and sat around on the patio for a couple of hours talking to a kiwi guy and a girl called Diana, who had come down on the bus from Jaipur with us.
At 5:30 p.m. we all set off up to the Sunset Cafe where we ate delicious apple crumble and watched the rather nondescript sunset. All around us sat a motley collection of wealthy and pretentious Western assholes, making out they were Hindus from the way back while they awaited the next instalment from their trust funds back home.
A girl came and sat with us and she turned out to have been at Rangi Ruru [the boarding school Linda attended] so Linda and her had a good yarn, then we all went to a restaurant called Shiva’s where there was a good value buffet for 20 rupees each.
The rickshaw wallah who had taken us to the movies last night turned up in the morning to take us on a tour of the sights of the city. Once we were inside the walls of the Pink City, our first stop was the Hawa Mahal: the Palace of the winds. We spent half an hour or so in there wandering around the labyrinth of corridors, up and down flights of stairs, and peering out tiny windows which opened onto the sheer walls of the palace and gave two different views out over Jaipur and the barren landscapes beyond. The architecture was quite interesting but the old place was a bit hang dog-looking, with red paint splashed randomly about to keep up the appearance of it being the “Red Palace.”
Next stop, we visited the City Palace where there was an interesting selection of Maharaja type gear, and the two largest pieces of silver ever made: vessels which the Maharaja took drinking water from the Ganges on his trip to England.
Across the road from the City Palace, the Royal Observatory contained some intricate and surprisingly sophisticated devices for observing and measuring the stars and the sun. The huge sundial, for instance, was so perfectly calibrated that it showed the movement of the sun in increments of 4 mm per hour on its marble scale.
We lunched at the Evergreen Hotel on cauliflower cheese and mashed potato then walked back to the Jaipur Inn. We spent the evening on the patio talking with a Spanish girl and burning incense to keep away the mosquitoes.
Agra to Jaipur. We caught the 8:30 AM bus from the bus station and the trip to Jaipur was comfortable and rapid. Jaipur seemed an unremarkable town at first, set at the foot of a barren hill and defended by several old forts perched on the ramparts.
We stayed at the Jaipur Inn, which was very clean and well run. In the evening we went to the Raj Mandir movie theatre. The theatre itself was the model of plushness, but the fuckin’ movie…Christ! It was reported to be a big-budget opus, filmed extensively in Kenya, but it was the usual moronic mix of violence, cliche and singing which characterises all Indian movie-making. We managed to stick it out for about an hour and a half but eventually, we stood up from our plush seats and made our way to the exit.
NB: Somehow, February 13th didn’t exist in my diary!
Friday 14th of February After breakfast, we took a rickshaw to the bus station where we bought two tickets to Jaipur for tomorrow and then went on to the Red Fort.
The fort was huge and impressive with massive walls of red sandstone and amazing rooms finished in marble. The view down the river to the Taj Mahal with superb, especially from the two round marble verandahs overlooking the river, from which the old Shah Jahan, imprisoned by his son, Aurangzeb, lived out his days staring longingly across to the tomb of his beloved wife.
Being a Friday, the place was crawling with tourists, most of them offensive young men who would come near us whenever we sat down, and taunted and touched the girls, so we didn’t linger there long.
When we left the Red Fort we walked through a park down to the Taj Mahal yet again and spent a couple of hours there taking black and white photos. A little girl followed us around and I took a photo of her a couple of times in exchange for 2 rupees and a pen.
The power was off in our part of town that evening and there wasn’t much to do so, as it was Valentine’s Day, we went to bed early and…