Tag Archive: religion


With Marija’s enthusiastic streak for hitch-hiking running through us, we decided to head from Novi Sad to Sarajevo by thumb. Five hitches in, we were only 50km away from our starting point – not good. That’s not even ‘not a good start’, that’s just not good. Luckily, as has occasionally been the case on our trip, we got lucky just when things were looking really crap. We got a lift all the way to Sarajevo, or so we thought. A few hours in, they suggested we take a ‘thirty minute detour’ to Srebrenica. Thirty minutes turned into five hours. Literally. We got so lost at one point that the driver had to genuinely ask the border guard whether we were entering Bosnia or Serbia… Nonetheless, the detour was worth arriving somewhat later than expected.

Before we arrived in Srebrenica, our knowledge about what happened there was severely limited and while that is still the case, we now know a little more. Srebrenica and the area around it is the site of the largest mass murder in Europe since WWII, and one of the UN’s notorious failures. The civilian Muslim community at Srebrenica, fearing ethnic cleansing by Bosnian Serbs, fled their homes and sought refuge at the nearby UN base of Potočari. Having declared a “safe-area” to the besieged Potočari, for some reason still unclear to us, the UN stopped protecting these people, refusing entry to many and kicking others out of the compound. In effect, the UN had helpfully rounded up thousands of Bosnians for the Army of Republika Srpska (VRS). Serb forces were somehow allowed to enter the refugee camps where all of the ‘men’ (some as young as twelve) were separated from the women and children. What followed was the massacre of over 8000 Muslim Bosnian men and boys. They were buried in mass graves which sometimes they had to dig for themselves, and many of which are yet to be discovered. Here is a witness account of the massacre from the Guardian archives – http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2011/may/26/ratko-mladic-arrested-srebrenica-massacre

The Memorial and graveyard in Potočari is a hillside covered in thin white headstones. The green markers are for more recently buried bodies. There is an ‘open-plan’ mosque at the entrance, which seems strangely modern and out of place in the countryside. Squares of white marble show thousands of names, and, separated from the rest of the stones is a cross for the only Christian buried at the site. It was quiet, peaceful, difficult to imagine thousands of people clamouring at the entrance to the compound opposite over fifteen years ago.

If you follow the industrial-looking track on the other side of the road in between old factory buildings, you find yourself in what was the UN compound. Once you have found the man with the key, he will let you into a small room to watch a video about the massacre. Some of the most awfully memorable moments are of the women weeping for joy as the UN makes its (in)famous declaration of safety, and of the general who engineered the massacre (Ratko Mladic) openly stating to a television camera that today would be the day that they would take revenge on the Muslims. One woman talks about how she goes to the various graveyards regularly in the hope of finally finding her husband’s name on a marker. A man explains that he was working in the compound and was forced to tell his own family to leave with everyone else – he hasn’t seen them since.

Afterwards you can walk around inside the empty building, past maps of mass graves, communications between Mladic and his subordinates, and personal items belonging to the victims which are accompanied by descriptions of the people – how their wife remembers them, what they were doing when they were last seen…

It wasn’t what we had been expecting from our day when we started hitching towards Bosnia.

From the harrowing experience of Srebrenica we then got lost for several hours to the point where we were no longer appreciating the ‘scenic’ness, but eventually we reached Sarajevo. Throughout our time there it was hard to forget that over 10,500 Sarajevans died and the city was besieged for months on end – a street was even nicknamed ‘Sniper Alley’ as it provided a prime opportunity for distant shooters to pick off civilians trying to cross to safety. From the fortress that gives a superb view over the whole city you can see various graveyards with the same slim white grave markers all around the town. This somehow makes the majesty of the city even grander, particularly as now the churches and mosques stand side-by-side once again. The bustly, beautiful Old Town has been very well restored, and provides the perfect place to relax in the sunshine and enjoy a ‘Bosnian’ (read: Turkish) coffee complete with Turkish delight. Away from the centre, a path stretches alongside the river where locals rollerblade and people come to lead climb the craggy rockfaces.

Unfortunately, we were only able to spend one full day there as we intended to hitch to Prishtine the following day. This turned out to be an abysmal idea, but we’ll come to that later…

Efes

From the Med, we headed to another spot which should have a picturesque quality – Efes. An ancient Greek city, which later fell into the hands of the Romans, Efes now belongs to the Turks. The city dates back to 550BC, and a remarkable amount still stands. You can walk the ancient streets to libraries (the most famous site), temples and very interesting communal toilets. Unfortunately, it was raining really hard when we went there, but on the bright side (ha ha) we managed to find a “cheaper” way in. Extremely climbable fences…

On our way out, we were picked up by one of the most interesting drivers so far on this trip. Although he spoke barely any English (maybe 10 words), we managed to have conversations about religion, family and death. During one of his breaks, he introduced us to the guy who had honked his horn on the way past us earlier. Between them they quizzed us on our religious beliefs, and were astonished when we explained that we are atheists. It all became too much for them when they also found out that we aren’t married. “Ingilterre…” they said, shaking their heads at the absurdly heathen English people.

Bursa

Bursa was another uneventful city. The highlight of our stay with our CouchSurfing hosts was when we got to hang out with the Bright Young Things of Bursa. All the young people, rather than downing cheap vodka and hitting the clubs, doll themselves up for a night of tea and backgammon. The atmosphere was strange, one that we would associate with a bar – dark seating areas, slightly dodgy music etc – but with no alcohol attached. Josh managed to beat our host’s friend at backgammon 4 times in a row, even though he only just properly learnt the rules, much to her chagrin.

Istanbul for the second time

Istanbul again, and we finally left Asia for the rest of this trip – Europe here we come.

Unfortunately, Istanbul was less rewarding this time. We were there during May Day, which is properly celebrated as a workers’ holiday and therefore almost everything is closed. On the plus side, it meant we were able to drop in on the May Day demonstration. This was one of the first times that they had held it back in Taksim Square for about 40 years. The government excuse for not allowing this before was that some crazy had gone around shooting people indiscriminately in the 70s. What was most striking about the demonstration was how party-centric the whole thing was. The sectarianism was incredible. Different hats, different flags… It was so organised, but not in a good way, and of course the Communist Party had a massive presence.
The police presence was staggering. In order to enter Taksim Square you had to go past at least 1 line of police, where unless you were a tourist, you were properly searched by people in normal clothes and high-viz tabards, which suggested that they’d recruited a bunch of people especially for the occasion. There were also police tanks with water cannons, armoured riot vans and lines of riot cops just waiting to put their already overused “shields” to use again. Whether such a authoritarian manifestation would be excepted in the UK is questionable…

Edirne

Edirne was our final call in Turkey. It followed the most abysmal day of hitching we had in the country. While hitching East out of Istanbul is easy, hitching West is much more difficult, particularly when you try to do it from near the bus station. The amount of people who stopped in their cars to tell us that the bus station was right behind us was astounding (‘We KNOW!’). On top of this, so many people stopped to explain that people couldn’t stop there (!) that both of us were on the verge of punching the next person who offered such ‘helpful’ advice. In the end, we caught a lift with a guy who tried to drop us on the only real bit of motorway we travelled on in the whole of Turkey, without even a hard shoulder to stand on. Not the best place… The second guy nodded and nodded when we said we wanted to go to Edirne, so we relaxed when we went to a truck stand to get some tea (truck stops are prime hitching spots), but then AGAIN he dropped us bang on the motorway! This was the point where tethers were reaching their ends, and Lucie left both her hat and the map of Turkey in the guy’s car by accident. Luckily, at the exact point where we walked dejectedly down to the other road, a lorry was sitting that was headed all the way to Edirne. It was the first truck we’d seen which had an autopilot where the driver could sit cross-legged on his chair and make us cups of tea without really paying attention to anything…

We only really went to Edirne because we were unsure if we could make it all the way to Plovdiv in one day from Istanbul, but it turned out to be rewarding enough. Our CouchSurfing host had two budgerigars which provided the first hour’s entertainment as they flew around his sitting room, landing on our heads and making friends. We went out along the river to meet a few of his mates who spoke about their climate change-related campaigning and all the different foods we should taste while in their city. A result of this was our dining on beef liver, which was unlike anything either of us have ever tasted – certainly not like liver! Orhan explained that when you suggest to a friend in Turkish, ‘Let’s go eat’, you always say ‘Let’s go eat bread’, which certainly makes sense in the face of how many loaves you get through in a day in Turkey.

Konya

Konya is the spiritual home of Mevlana, or Rumi as he is better known by English-speakers, Sufi (also known as Dervish), Persian poet, religious leader, ascetic and lover of spiritual food and passion. He believed in music, poetry and dance as means to reach God, and was a great promoter of tolerance.

Come, come, whoever you are,
Wanderer, idolater, worshiper of fire,
Come even though you have broken your vows a thousand times,
Come, and come yet again.
Ours is not a caravan of despair.

The only real reason to go to Konya is to visit his tomb and the museum included within it. It includes the mausoleum where Rumi, his father and many other people’s bodies are interred, a mosque, a whirling dance hall, dervish living quarters and a school. The mosque is beautiful, and full of carpets and ornate copies of the Qu’ran, one of which is so small that the scribe is said to have gone blind writing it.

A student of the Mevlevi dervish school would have to spend one thousand days training – this included music, whirling (of course), studying Rumi’s texts, but also appreciation of food. The first task would be to clean the toilets, so as to cleanse the student’s ego by doing ‘humble’ work.

In the whirling dance itself, the dancer enters in a black robe and asks permission from the master to dance, then casts off their robe to represent casting off their earthly desires. Then with one hand reaching upwards and the other to the floor – ‘whatever I receive from God I will spread throughout the world’ – the dancer pivots on one foot with their white skirts flowing around them.

Other than this and an uninspiring mosque, there was not much to do in Konya…

Antalya

Antalya looks like it might be quite nice. Unfortunately, it rained while we were there and as our host told us, when it rains in Antalya (which it rarely does) it really rains. So we dipped our feet in the Mediterranean for the first time on this trip and saw the harbour. Oh, and we went bowling and played air-hockey. We were told later in our trip that normally at the time we went people are happily swimming in Antalya, and we went bowling…

A catch-up interlude

*We interrupt our Resistance is Fertile broadcasts to bring you up to speed on where we are and what we’ve been doing for the past few weeks…*

We left Bhubaneswar in need of a holiday, and headed to what turned out to be the most touristy place we have been to so far – Mamallapuram. From there we escaped to Trichy which didn’t provide that much of an escape then on to the very southernmost tip of India. Then we officially began our way home, heading westwards up the coast to Trivandrum, then Kollam, Amrithapuri, and now Allappuzha. It has been a fairly relaxing time, and Kerala is by far the most beautiful state we have been in in India.

Mamallapuram

We balked at Backpakistan and the largest proportion of white faces in the local (temporary) population that we’ve seen since leaving Europe, but we did manage to meet up with Josh’s friend David and his girlfriend Tabitha which was pleasant. I got horribly sunburnt on the beach, and we visited a bird sanctuary: I have never seen so many birds all in one place. We tried coconut fish and red snapper, fresh from the sea. Coming out of the hotel, someone came up to Josh – ‘Um, do you know my brother? He has the same T-Shirt as you’. This wasn’t as odd a question as it sounds, as Josh was sporting his ‘I’m with Plane Stupid’ top, and the guy’s brother turned out to be a friend of ours from London. It’s a small world when so many people are plane stupid, eh?

Trichy

There is little to commend this town other than the few temples, although these are definitely a good enough reason to visit. We staggered tiredly from expensive hotel to fully booked hotel until we were found by an Indian man who offered his homestay. So Josh and I squeezed onto a single string bed (no mattress) for the night, and spent the next day realising our train tickets were wrong and dashing around trying to sort them out. Our final day there, having accepted we would need to stay an extra night, was chilled – we took time to just sit and relax in the enormous temple complex, discussing how someone white would be able to convince the people that they were Hindu and therefore allowed into the temples themselves…

Kanyakumari


I have never associated Mahatma Gandhi with the colour pink in particular,  but apparently somebody has. You are now, thanks to a faster internet connection, able to appreciate the incongruity of the Mahatma Gandhi Memorial, all trussed up in pink and yellow… The end of the subcontinent is exciting for its being the place where three seas merge and where an 113ft poet stands looking over the land, but our experience was mainly of queuing. Tip: if you fancy heading out by ferry to the island with all the temples on it, go after lunch when the queue isn’t literally 3 hours long! There’s more queue hidden inside!

Trivandrum


On our first stop in Kerala we realised how green everywhere is. Also, the roads have real markings and road signs and traffic lights, and the rickshaws have metres that actually work! It was like being in Europe or something. We headed for the galleries and zoological gardens, all beautifully laid out in a big green space. The museum is in an enormous building and full of carvings – nothing is explained about any of them, but it’s good to make up stories for yourself. Another gallery houses the history of the area in enormous cartoon-like pictures. The ‘zoological gardens’, where the Lonely Planet claims animals live in what is very close to their natural habitat, was, as to be expected, full of cages and enclosures that are far too small for the enormous animals and birds housed inside…

Kollam


Here we found a canoe tour to take us through the backwaters, amongst the villages, ducking under footbridges. I learnt what cashew nuts and peppercorns look like as they grow, we saw a rat snake dart through the water and a kingfisher sit overhead. Some local people demonstrated for us how to spin coconut fibres into rope, the same rope used to tie together the planks in our canoe. When I arrived I banged my elbow in the bus and a little girl bandaged me up with some multi-coloured cloth. The man at the tourist help centre explained that at the state government guest house there were rooms so big, you could play football in them, and we were not disappointed. The frogs came to hang out in our bathroom in the evening.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Amrithapuri

Quite possibly the most alien experience on the trip so far was visiting Amma’s ashram. Amma basically believes that love will save the world and so goes around the world hugging people. Thousands of people. For hours on end. She believes that there are two forms of poverty in the world: material and spiritual. By curing the latter, she believes we will eradicate the former. On the plus side, as well as a lot of complete nonsense, Amma’s NGO seems to do quite a lot of admirable humanitarian work – they have built homes for many of the Indian and Sri Lankan victims of the tsunami. Though, this NGO also seems quite chummy with the likes of Bill Clinton and India’s president (analysis, anyone?). An introductory video proudly quoted the New York Times statement that Amma wishes to eradicate world suffering “through hugs”. I think Amma’s film makers missed the cynical tone…

I must admit I had been expecting something a bit like a monastery so I was surprised to be faced with several enormous tower blocks upon arrival. They are all pink. We were encouraged to come to the 4.50am chanting session, and were invited for the free (basic would be a euphemism) meals whilst being warned away from “local” food…

Allapuzha

There is nothing really to do here if you aren’t interested in expensive canoe trips/ barge tours/house boats. We walked around a little and Josh ate some very nice chicken.

Kochi

We are now in Kochi. So far we have indulged in dental tourism or whatever you call it when you go to the dentist for cheap when in another country. Luckily neither of us needed anything. The streets are full of spice sellers with sacks full of pepper, nutmeg, cinnamon and many other good smelling things. Today there was an almighty downpour which was a tad unexpected. Keralan martial arts are exciting – they did this bit with whips made from blades!

Visiting the Union Carbide site

Having spent almost a month in India and the majority of that at the Sambhavna Clinic in Bhopal, my thoughts are confused. What strikes me most is the poverty and powerlessness of the people. This may be highly unoriginal, but it is one thing to read about it and another to be surrounded by it. People live in abject poverty. In Bhopal, it is all the worse due to ongoing consequences of the gas leak and Union Carbide’s subsequent negligence.

Last week we went to the Union Carbide site and on our way there and back we walked through the communities who live a throwing distance from source of the greatest industrial disaster ever. A site that 26 years ago leaked 40 tonnes of MIC and Phosgene (better known as Mustard Gas), as well as at least 18 other toxic gases, killing thousands of people. It is impossible not to feel a cocktail of emotions as we walked through the bastis (local communities). On the one hand, you have to have absolute admiration for these people. They continue to fight come what may. But the problem is, they don’t have a choice. They fight, because the alternative would be to die: something which has become all too normal in these areas.

Resting in the shade on the way back – we stupidly decided to go to the factory during the hottest part of the day – we chatted to some local residents. The government states that the communities around the factory now receive “non-contaminated” water. For those that don’t know, Union Carbide dumped all its toxic wastes in its virtual back-garden: in other words, on the doorstep of thousands of people. They claimed this was totally safe as they put what can best be described as a massive tarpaulin under everything. However, unsurprisingly, this did not work and so deadly toxic waste leaked into the soil and groundwater, leading to the solar evaporation pond (a smart way of saying liquid toxic waste pool) now commonly being known as the ‘Death Lake’. The government currently holds a fundamentally contradictory policy, but the important part is that they toe the corporate line, claiming there is nothing wrong with the ground water or soil. They therefore have not attempted in any way (other than by collecting some of it together in a big warehouse on the site) to clear up the toxic mess. Saying this, after mass public pressure they now claim all the communities now receive “non-contaminated” water. It’s called “non-contaminated” rather than “clean” water because the civil and sewage lines often get mixed leading to obvious consequences. How the government can say any of this when they simultaneously claim the water was never contaminated is confusing. However, from talking to the communities we discovered that the claim that “all communities get water” in reality means that they are meant to receive half an hour of “non-contaminated” water every other day. This week they hadn’t received any. As a result, they go to the old groundwater pumps which years ago were painted red by the government to indicate their contamination, and pump for hours to get the poisoned water to drink, cook and wash in.

As the old women were telling us their stories they also asked us what we were doing here. Which was followed by, “What are you going to do about this situation?” What could we say, “write a blog”? “Make a short documentary”? “Just observe your suffering then piss off back home”? Maybe add to that, “Oh, and no thanks, we don’t want that water you’ve just offered us, we don’t want to be sick like you!”

So what set of emotions does one express? Pity? Anger? Astonishment both at the situation and how they continue to survive..?

Our guide, Sanjay, told us a joke as he was taking us around the Union Carbide site. The day before we had all had to go to the Collector’s Office for a dose of Indian bureaucracy (another blog to come). We were on time, but became late due to someone being “helpful” and so Sanjay (one of the few Indians I’ve met who turns up on time) waited outside for us. While there he spoke to the official bureaucrats who laughed at how little he was wearing given it was “only” 25 degrees. They joked that he must have hot blood, being young and all. He responded claiming, “It’s the MIC, it thickens the blood”. Everyone laughed.

He told us this joke shortly before he told us that on December 2nd 1984 he had a mother, father, 3 sisters and 2 brothers. On the 3rd December 1984 he had 1 brother and 1 sister. Now he just has a sister. This type of story is not uncommon. 25,000 people have now died from the leak, so many people you speak to tell us a similar tale…

On the way out of the factory we spoke to the men who are meant to guard the place, but they recognize that given there are numerous holes in the walls, people will come in and graze their cattle, pick up firewood and dry their clothes. They asked us, How had we found it? What did we think?

What could we say? When Sanjay asked us the same question a few days later, I had an answer: Surreal. What can you think when you walk around what is basically a toxic waste dump covered in trees with even a bee hive in the structure of one of the MIC tanks? How can you comprehend that this actually quite calm place had 26 years ago led to the death and suffering of over 100,000 people? Also, why the fuck is it still here? Other than the last question, it distinctly reminded me of Auschwitz. But when the guards asked us this question I did not know what to say.

The guards told us how they had no desire to work there, but they needed a job. They knew they were getting ill because of working there, something their employer (the state) did not recognize, but what were they supposed to do, they needed a job. They told us how they felt helpless to change anything and laughed when Lorraine suggested their employers should come and guard the place instead of them.

My emotions were only made more complicated when we interviewed some of the victims of the gas leak. I asked them if they were angry at Union Carbide and the government. They responded that they couldn’t be angry as it was “God’s will”. Talking to some of the staff here, it seems that this is a common response. What are you meant to do when someone says this? “No, it’s not God you irrational fool. And if it were why would you believe in such a wicked god?” But it’s not their fault they believe this nonsense. Education is for the rich and they are not rich.

Those that are angry burn effigies of Warren Anderson and want him to be hanged. Compensation they claim will not bring back the dead. It will not stop their suffering. In fact, after they have paid off the corrupt middle-men they employ to write their documents because they are illiterate, it might not do anything at all: they are often worse off. One man we interviewed today told us that those responsible should be brought back to Bhopal and be put in front of the victims, who should be allowed to do what they wish to them. The implications were clear.

We are now in Bhopal, and need to start blogging about our experiences here, so the places we went to on our way here from the border will be compressed into one blog.

From the border we made our way by bus and train to Varanasi – the holiest place in India. Varanasi is the larger and more famous equivalent to Pashupatinath in Nepal. Our discussion on the different conceptions of life and death can therefore be seen in a previous blog.

We arrived when it was dark, never a good move, and attempted to catch a tuk-tuk, which the Lonely Planet had stated could be dangerous. So when an extra person got into our tuk-tuk we started to get a little worried, which was only exacerbated when they both claimed they couldn’t take us exactly to our hostel, as the streets were to narrow. This, we thought, is the time we get mugged. But it turned out we were absolutely fine, and the extra passenger was just a hopeful guide.

In relation to Varanasi, this was also not the first time the Lonely Planet turned out to be wrong. Reading their description of the town, we expected a manic lively place which didn’t let you breathe. A place where people try every trick to help part you from your money. Going into Varanasi with these thoughts, we were rather underwhelmed. Other than “masseurs” asking to shake your hand and then attempting to give you a 10 second massage which they then try and charge you for, and the almost constant call of “Boat? Boat?”, Varanasi was no different to any other place we had been in relation to touts.

One very nice thing to do there is walk the winding streets near that Ghats, unless you are either trying to get to a certain place, or need to be somewhere on time. Then it’s incredibly frustrating!

Lucie and I both had our first experience of watching four men simultaneously shit. Toilets are a bit of a scarcity, so people resort to shitting on the river bed, which also happened to be the path we were walking on…

We also treated ourselves to a ‘Lovers Breakfast’ at the lovely Brown Bread Bakery. Here they have over 40 different kinds of cheese, as well as cheese fondue, and many things other than cheese, including a ‘lovers breakfast’. 20% of the profits of this place go to school for disadvantaged (i.e. most) children and a women’s empowerment project. The food is delicious and the staff are fairly paid. All in all, totally good.

After Varanasi, we made the terrible mistake of going to Allahabad. The Lonely Planet describes it as “remarkably calm and laid-back”. Maybe they got the texts for Varanasi and Allahabad mixed up? Allahabad is a deeply unpleasant and very stressful place, or at least it was for us anyhow.

When we arrived, we took the wrong exit out of the train station (if you ever find yourself there, take the exist which isn’t the one directing you to “The City”, as it takes you away from the city…) and were met, as usual, by a flock of rickshaw drivers. What was different about this band, was they proceeded to follow us on their rickshaws down the road for over half an hour.

Eventually, after 2 hours, when it should have taken 5 minutes, we made it to the hotel we were aiming for, only to find they had put their prices up to ridiculous levels. After searching around we found all places either to be full or more expensive, so we stayed at the Royal Hotel. Don’t stay there if at all possible. The rooms don’t have glass in the windows, so you can hear everything going on outside, and floor and bathrooms are filthy.

Having planned to stay 3 nights in Allahabad, we escaped after 1 to a lovely little place by the river called Chitrakut. Unlike Allahabad, this was a truly peaceful and calm place, where the people are genuinely friendly.

After having a lunch on the gorgeous balcony of our hotel (the one Lonely Planet recommends), we went for a walk around a pilgrimage site, which connects back to the Nepali story about Ram. This is where he is meant to have spent much of his banishment from Ayodhya and so people now think its holy. In order to do this 5km route, you have to leave your shoes at the entrance, which after repeatedly stepping in monkey shit, we realised might not have been a good idea. Also, upon returning to our shoes, one of mine was very wet…

When we returned from our walk, the manager of the hotel informed us that “another westerner has arrived. He is French. You should take a boat to the Glass Temple with him.”

So we did. His name was Vincent, and he currently works in a school in Egypt teaching French, but the poor bastard wants to move to Aberdeen as he spent a year there during his degree.

Before boarding the boat, we as usual, had to haggle over the cost. What was so brilliant about this negotiation was that the moment one boatman put his price down, the rest, after claiming they couldn’t put their price down, all suddenly started shouting the same price as the man who had put it down. It was like an inverse auction.

Half way through our boat trip, the boatman suddenly claimed he could not take us any further, for reasons we could not decipher from his hand signals. We insisted that, given our agreed price was to the Glass Temple, that was where we wanted to go. He was probably just tired and didn’t want to have to come back down the river in the dark. After several attempts to convince us that it was impossible to reach the temple, we shored up a little way away. The walk there was a but precarious, involving wet feet and lots of mud.

When we arrived, the temple was full of people. At the front there was a man speaking and occasionally singing over a live musical background. People would join in with clapping and singing occasionally, and he would raise and lower his voice. It was either some sort of sermon set to music, or an Indian version of post-rock… The building itself was like a pimped-up Indian or Nepali bus but on a vast scale – mirrored bits and shiny coloured plastic everywhere. We stood intrigued for a while, but eventually our boatman’s desire to leave overwhelmed our desire to stay, and we headed back. More muddied feet and a relaxing night-time boat ride later, we ignored the boatman’s cry for more money than we had agreed, and went to bed. The day was exactly what we needed.

What we definitely did not need was the next day, which was almost entirely grim. One thing we learned was that you should never plan to take more than one train in any given day in India. The day started potentially well – the owner of our hotel pointed us to a great breakfast spot, and then explained that his brother lived in Jhansi, and we could stay with him free of charge! All we needed to do was call him when we arrived in Jhansi and he would sort us out.

The train was not on time: it seems that it is only naive foreigners who would have the foolishness to believe that any train would run on time here. In the end, a journey that should have taken four hours took, including the time we spent waiting from when it should have departed, eight. The only plus side to this experience was that the mother of the family with which we shared our carriage insisted on feeding us when she fed everyone else – we were treated to home made potato and peas with bread. We also had some sort of weird bitter fruit that is served with chili salt.

So we arrived in Jhansi late and exhausted, but hopeful that we might actually meet some more nice people. Waiting at the train station for an extra forty five minutes turned out to be a complete waste of time, however, as the brother of our previous hotel-owner turned up to guide us to an (overpriced) hotel. Which was not what we were expecting. It’s funny, many people we have met in India will gather round to genuinely try to help you, but often it’s with something that you could do much more quickly and easily by yourself! This was definitely one of those times. Another weird phenomenon is that ripping off foreigners is not restricted to people trying to sell you things, but also to people who seem to have no financial incentive to do so – people offering help through translating for us, or just trying to (apparently) help out, often suggest we should pay about ten times what we know things should cost.

The next day, which was New Year’s Eve, we set off for and arrived in Bhopal. So now we’re here. We’ll get on with blogging about this new place soon.

This is an episode from the Ramayana, a Hindi epic, as retold for children by Milly Acharya.

Before that though, some background – so far Ram has been exprelled from the kingdom of Ayodhya by a jealous step-mother and has gone to live in the woods with his wife Sita and brother Laxman. In the forest, Ram has an altercation with a demon-god, and cuts off her ears and nose, which she doesn’t take kindly to. She subsequently asks the  demon-king Ravana to take vengeance. Ravana and another demon disguise themselves to lure Sita away from the safety of the forest so that Ravana can kidnap her. Ram, aided by the monkey-god Hanuman and his troop of monkeys, head to (Sri) Lanka where Ravana is holding Sita. The monkeys have thrashed the demons and the most fearsome have been defeated by Ram and his brother.

Chapter 12

When the last of his valiant heroes failed to return, Ravana [the demon-king] knew his own turn to confront Ram and finally come. Dressed in his shimmering armour of solid gold, brilliant gems sparkling upon his chest and crown, Ravana mounted his war-chariot. Glossy black horses strained at the reins, ready to charge. His battle-flag fluttered in the wind.

“Be warned!” he thundered, “for today I shall put an end to you  all. No longer will you menace the soil of Lanka!” The forest-folk [the monkeys] sent showers of rocks and trees at his approach, but these merely rolled off his body. He answered with flaming darts that felled thousands of the monkey-people and drove terror into their hearts.

Laxman rushed to assist his loyal friends. As Ravana saw him he vowed, “You, mortal prince, shall bear the full force of my fury!” An earth-shattering thunderbolt knocked Laxman sensless to the ground. Seeing his dearest brother in a pool of blood and barely alive, Ram lost all heart for battle. The forest-folk gathered round quickly to protect Laxman, while Ravana growled and threatened them. For he was surer now of his conquest than he had been since Lanka was beset with these puny invaders.

The monkeys whispered to Ram, “We know of medicinal herbs which restore life, but these grow only on a mountain-side far away in the snow-capped Himalayas.” Who would go such a great distance and return while there was still breath in Laxman’s body? Hanuman! For he was fast as the wind and swiftly he flew off to the lofty mountains. Before he knew it, he was standing on a rocky slope among the clouds. But he was bewildered by the number of different plants which grew there. “I am no wise healer,” he mused. “If I return with the wrong herbs, I will unable to help Laxman.”

But where Hanuman’s wits failed him, his great strength saved Laxman. Wasting no time, the monkey hero lifted the great mountain upon the palm of his hand and carried it to the plain where Laxman lay lifeless. The wise forest-folk selected the right herbs and ground them into a potion while Hanuman returned the moutain to its original place. And no sooner did Laxman inhale the vapours of the herbs than his wounds began to heal.

Now Ram’s courage returned. He sprang from the ground ready to do final battle, fearless of the monster’s ten heads and countless arms. Both the combatants had powerful weapons which were blessed with magical properties. Each was skillful and valiant. And neither one had ever tasted defeat.

Soon the sky was ablaze once again with heat and flames from the clash of arms. Tremors shook the earth, the ocean churned gigantic waves, the heavens darkened ominously. All living creatures trembled with fear; their howls echoed through the island forests. Ram and Ravana fought with all their might while on both sides the other warriors stood by to watch the awesome combat.

Ravana’s weapons released ferocious animals. The heads of lions, crocodiles, vicious serpents and snarling jackals hurled down through the air. But Ram merely froze these beasts into ice which broke into pieces the monemt they touched the ground. Ravana aimed tridents filled with deadly venoms, but Ram’s poisons were equally potent.The twang of his bow could be heard for miles as he drew the string back to his ear and discharged a storm of arrows straight at his foe.

The  demon’s eyes blazed, he breathed smoke through his nostrils, his mouth twisted in rage. His twenty arms wielded twenty weapons at once! “I am no mortal,” the Demon-King reminded Ram. “The gods in their heavens fear me. Do you dare test my superhuman strength?” Ram cut off Ravana’s head in reply. Another head instantly replaced it, and when he cut this one off as well, a new head appeared in its place. The monster was impossible to defeat! Of all the magical arms that Ram posessed, none had any effect on Ravana.

It was then that Ram remembered the one weapon he had never tested. The time had come to use it – the most deadly weapon, the missle which was the gift of the Lord Brhma himself. No being on earth could endure its destructive might. It could tear open the skies or dry up the oceans.

Ram repeated the chant that would summon it, and there in his hand it gleamed in the waning sunlight, invisible to all but Ram alone. He blessed it silently, then hurled it with full force at his enermy. With a thundering roar, Brahma-astram exploded into the depths of the earth, crushing the mighty Ravana on its way. The spot was deeply gouged, like a great wound upon the ground, and poisonous fumes rose thick and fast from its dark crater. Neither tree nor grass nor weed would grow here, and for many years the land remained stubbornly barren.

Their leader was dead! With panic in their hearts and fear in their bones, the defeated demons turned and fled, easily routed by the exbuerant monkey-army. Very soon the field of battle lay empty and silent. The skies cleared, the sun shone cheerfully, gentle breezes cooled the air, the earth ceased to shudder, and the waves were calm once more.

Ram and his friends were safe; Lanka was quiet and serene. Ravana’s brother Vibhisana, who had helped Ram achieve his victory, was now crowned the new ruler of Lanka.

(From The Ramayana for young readers, retold and illustrated by Milly Acharaya)

The bus driver to Tansen (and sorry if any kids are reading this) was a complete dickhead. He initially tried to charge us too much, but that is quite standard practice. We then stopped and I jumped out to ask if there was time to pee.

“No.”

I ignored this and found a loo, which several other men had also found at the same time(!), returning rapidly to a bus which sat stationary for over 10minutes. Lucie was in a bit of a situation as she also needed to pee, but thought she did not have time. As the minutes ticked away frustration grew…

At the next available opportunity, Lucie jumped out, asking the bus driver if there was time to use a toilet. He nodded, so she dashed off. During her pee time (not long), the driver got bored and started to leave. It was only due to my pee companions and myself, that we managed to stop the bus from leaving Lucie with her pants around her ankles!

Then there was lunch.

“20 minutes” we were told when we asked how long this break would be. Enough time to get lunch. However, as soon as our chow mein arrived in front of us the bus started to move. We stuffed our noodles into plastic bags and then waited another couple of minutes for the bus to actually leave.

The icing on the cake was that we had paid to be dropped in Tansen, not the town at the bottom of the enormous hill that Tansen is at the top of. Bastard! Someone could have at least told us this before we started off up the road, oblivious to the huge climb ahead of us.

Once we had huffed and puffed our way up tiny windy paths, we finally reached the actual Tansen bus stop. Tansen is the steepest town I have ever seen (probably even steeper than Durham). At the very top is Shreenagar Hill where there are more great views. Other than that, its almost the lack of anything to do which makes it so pleasant. This is very real Nepali town, with lots of interesting Newari architecture – the windows are covered in ornately carved wood. Being a real town, there are no touts trying to sell you anything, but also no places to eat anything but Daal Bhat, apart from one bakery/restaurant.

After 3 nights in Tansen, we woke up at stupid o-clock and caught a bus to Lumbini, the birth place of the Buddha in 563BC. On what is now the site of the Mayadevi temple, his mother (Maya Devi) bathed and suddenly went into labour – it’s been proven that he was definitely born here. Maya Devi is supposed to only have had time to grasp the branch of nearby tree before the Buddha was born in a stance reminiscent of the John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever (only more wise).  Since then, it has been decided that Buddhist temples from countries all over the world should be built in the “Lumbini Development Zone”. There are the more obvious ones such as a Japanese temple and a Chinese temple, but then there is also a German temple and French temple…

Lucie commented that Lumbini reminded her of going to visit Legoland as a kid. Many of the rides were not yet open as the site was still under construction, and whilst there were a few exciting things, what she remembers most clearly is the jacket potato she had for lunch. Lumbini may not have been quite the same, but it’s the holiest building site I’ve ever seen. It’s fulfilling the “Master Plan” of a Japanese designer from the 1970s – gradually, as donations come in, more bridges are built, more water features created. Some temples are spectacular – the Chinese temple looks like they borrowed it from the Forbidden City, and the German (!) temple could have come straight out of Tibet (if Tibet had more money). However, the majority of the temples are still in their bare concrete form, which is quite interesting in itself.

It was one of these concrete temples that housed us: to rival the Chinese temple, Korea (presumably South) is building its own spectacle across the road. At the moment, it is entirely grey – yet to be painted or tiled, the concrete is quite brutal! Regardless of this, we thought that given we weren’t going to be celebrating Christmas, we should do something “religion connected” for the occasion. So we woke up on the morning of the 25th to the sound of the breakfast gong in a Korean Buddhist temple, which rings far too early in my opinion.

The rest of our Christmas day would be taken up by traveling into India. On the way to the border,  in a massively over-crowded jeep, Lucie had the pleasure of having a man sit on her lap, while I was repeatedly offered drugs – not exactly what you want to be carrying when crossing a border..!

So at 2pm on Christmas Day, we entered India. Onwards to Varanasi!

After a week of deprivation, our next couple of weeks certainly felt like complete luxury. Having left the children’s home, we met up with Merilyn, my mum, who had come to visit us in Nepal for a couple of weeks. After meeting her at her hotel, we had a literal taste of what was to come. My mum treated us – as she would continue to do throughout her time in Nepal – to a meal at the oldest restaurant in Thamel (the tourist part of Kathmandu) KC’s. We even had beer, which generally doubles the price of a meal! Our first beer in Nepal!

Before continuing on with the luxuries we experienced, our experience of Thamel should quickly be mentioned. Back in the 1970s Thamel was home to all the drop-out hippies (of course all hippies in the correct meaning of the word are drop-outs but that’s another discussion), while today it’s home to trekkers. Every 3rd shop is a camping shop, selling a variety of different quality rip-off North Face items (and other such brands). Apart from the camping shops, its basically a cheaper Camden Town. For those of you that haven’t been to Camden Town in London, that means its a market place which sells “alternative” hippie rubbish. With that said, it has its hectic charm, but my advice would be to get in and out as fast as possible! The only real reason I can see to stay is in order to visit other towns and places around Kathmandu.

Back to our luxuries. Having decided that none of us liked Kathmandu, we decided to do some day trips. Stop one – Pashupatinath and Boudhanath. Pashupatinath is certainly a must see, and was the largest “cultural shock” I’ve experienced so far. Its main purpose is to cremate people. However, the way I conceptualise cremating (obviously according to Western practices) and the way it is carried out here are very different. Bodies are burned in the open, for everyone to see (though the bodies themselves are wrapped in a sheet), on massive stone slabs on the banks of a river. There are several different stone slabs depending on your caste and how much money you have. If you are an atheist, you get burnt on the slab for the lowest caste – what in India would be termed “the untouchables”. However, as our guide commented in a subtle jibe at the status differentiation, it doesn’t matter where you get cremated, your soul is still released from your body: some people just pay more for the service. The philosophy behind this practice is (correct me if I’m wrong!) that everyone other than babies and Holy Men and Women dies with sins and by being cremated, your sins turn into ashes and get washed away in the river, where the ashes are scooped. This is why babies and Holy Men and Women get buried instead of cremated as they have no sins to be washed away.

I also found it interesting how public the whole process was. I’ve always seen death as a private affair. But again, our guide explained how death is part of the process of life and should not be hidden away, but celebrated in the open (a similar approach is applied to sex in the tantric carvings on the buildings!). Crying at cremations is in fact highly frowned upon as death is not meant to be a sad thing. The only bad thing I can say about the place is that its smells rather iffy…

Next to the cremation area is home to the Holy men and women (the women are on one side, the men the other). They live completely separately, but are allowed to talk. By becoming holy people, they commit to not engaging in any sexual practice for their whole lives. If they do, all the work they have done up to that point becomes void.  What was also cool was that Buddhist and Hindu holy people lived literally side-by-side.

After this incredible experience, we walked through woods with monkeys playing in the trees and tiny farm villages to a Tibetan Buddhist town called Budhanath. Having come through China and Tibet, this wasn’t as special as it might have been otherwise, but if you haven’t been to China or Tibet and you go to Nepal, this is another must see place. In the centre there is a massive stupa – the largest we have have seen – and down the side streets there are several monasteries, many of which are schools for developing monks. There are also many places to buy the same things that you can pay in Kathmandu, but without the hectic chaos which is Thamel.

The next day I came down with my second batch of food poisoning – again the source unknown. Unfortunately, this meant that we didn’t go to Bakhtapur so we can’t really talk about it.

The following day we left Thamel and Kathmandu, never to return, and settled down for the night in Patan. Patan historically was one of the three city-states in Nepal (the other two being Kathmandu and Bakhtapur), however nowadays it is more often consider to be in the suburbs of Kathmandu. It is now famous for its Durbar Square. In the 17th Century one king clearly had too much money to spend, and built loads of temples all in one square. There are also some nice stories to go with the square. In the centre of the square there is a stone elephant and about 10 meters in front of the elephant there is a ancient water hole. It is said that in the darkest part of the night, when everyone has left the square the elephant leaves its stone pillar and walks down to the water hole to have a good old drink and then returns before anyone has noticed its gone.

Another story was about a king who was much loved. One day he went hunting, one of his favourite past-times, and never came back.  There was already a statue of the king in the square and so they put a stone bird on his head and opened the window to his bedroom so that the king can climb back in.  Legend has it that as long as the bird stays on the kings head, the king is alive, but if the bird flies away, the king is dead. The bird hasn’t flown anywhere yet…

The best experience of being on the square, though, was after all the tourists had gone home. The local kids come out to play football amongst the ancient temples, using the 300yr-old king’s pillar as a goal!

Other than the square there are several nice fair-trade shops where you can get some lovely presents or simply indulge yourself – something we were getting quite used to.