Musings from a whistle-stop tour of Kolkata and Varanasi, India

Nothing quite prepares you for the experience that is India.    An indication of what  I might expect arrives early when the Air Asia gate staff announce that the Kolkata flight is ready for boarding.  There is  a sudden surge with eager Indian families milling around the boarding gate pushing other passengers in an effort to be first on the plane.  India is an elbow society – ‘push and shove’ gets. This behavior defies logic though – the boarding passes clearly indicate the seat designations.  But there is mayhem for the hapless flight crew as seating allocations are ignored.  A minor signal of what may be in store.

Taking a yellow Ambassador taxi from the airport to my hotel, the wing mirror on my side is hanging off and the seat belt doesn’t work. The driver spends most of the journey on his mobile phone as he casually weaves his way through the masses of traffic – cars, trucks, buses, bicycles, motorbikes, human rickshaws, bicycle rickshaws and tuk-tuks.  This is ‘in your face’ living –  the blasting of horns, the roar of engines, the masses of people and noise, noise, noise.

Rickshaw advertising

Rickshaw advertising

Coming from a reasonably sparsely populated island on the west of northern Europe, the sheer masses of people  running, walking, talking in every direction in this claustrophobic oven-like heat is quite overwhelming.    The taxi swerves to avoid oxen crossing the road and out the side window I watch barefooted children pulling plastic bottles from a giant rubbish tip by the side of the river.

Next the driver downs his mobile to ask me where I’m from (time to get interested in passenger, methinks).  “Ah Ireland,  small country, cold – but good whiskey!”!.  “I like Christians”, he smiles, looking into my eyes, obviously angling for a bigger tip, as he points out Mother Theresa’s house.     We are now trundling (the car’s suspension is shot) through the tiny streets of old Kolkata  There are animals and people everywhere – an old man squats bare-footed, shitting on a broken sidewalk.  There’s food being cooked on every corner – chai, chapatis, puris in woks full of burning oil – the smell of oil, wood and charcoal is ubiquitously pungent.

Workin' and snoozin'

Hotel

I am staying in a massive old colonial building, the Sunflower Guest House on Royds Street, a five minute walk from the touristy backpacker Sudder Street area – Its all clay pink on the outside and eight storeys up accessed by an old ‘squeeze box’ wrought iron lift.  The reception is at the top of the building on the roof – you walk through a small roof garden to a large brown desk.  The receptionist opens a large dusty ledger to record my stay.  I fill out three different forms, sign the same  – it’s interrogation rather than welcome. Dickensian even. I’m eventually ‘escorted’ to my ‘room’ – its depressingly brown but clean with TV, walk-in shower.  Wifi,  I am told, is on the seventh floor but not in the room.

A quick shower, change of clothes, a decent blast of air con and I’m off out to check out Sudder Street and the Newmarket trading area.  Once again, you step out into a swelteringly humid atmosphere.  The pavement is dug up, broken brick and  treacherous, the buildings ominous, street stalls every few yards.  I pass street food stalls every few steps and notice locals, in what could only be described as a dog hut, eating curry with their hands (right hand, that is).  The noise and heat envelopes you.

Foodie Mission and Nizam’s

I’m on a foodie mission looking for Nizam’s.  Having watched the first episode of Rick Stein’s ‘Indian Oddysey’, I want to check out Kolkata’s renowned  fast food, the Katy Roll.  Nizam’s is five minutes from Sudder Steet by Newmarket, formally known as Sir Stuart Hogg Market – a market originally built exclusively for British residents of Kolkata.   Here you can buy everything from a toothbrush to a sari to a suit – except – you don’t get to do it on your own.  As if out of nowhere, touts emerge from doorways – “Where are you from? – Where are you going – come with me – Don’t mind anyone else, I will look after you“.   The hassle is incessant, constant and intrusive but I eventually find Nizam’s and the friendly, accomodating staff are a welcome antidote to the hovering touts.  The Katy Roll is made up of strong pancake cooked in butter (everything is cooked in butter in Kolkata), then layered with egg, onion, their own sauce mixtures and a choice of vegetarian, chicken or mutton filling. I order a double egg and chicken with a beer. And, if a bit on the ‘heavy calorie’ side, its absolutely delicious.

The Nizam's crew - renowned for Kolkata's fast food Katy Rolls

The Nizam’s crew – renowned for Kolkata’s fast food Katy Rolls

Newmarket, touts and sanctuary in the Fairlawn

Post- Nizam’s , I stupidly relent to one of the touts, mainly because I am on the lookout for interesting rings. We walk fast through the market passing clothes shops, food, saris, silks,  live chickens in cages, and eventually, to a trinket shop. I am given a hard sell as layer upon layer of ring  boxes are laid out.  I show them a ring, explaining that I want something similar, but they’re not listening, being too eager for a sale of any kind.  I frustratingly put a halt to proceedings after the sixth ring box.   The tout is waiting outside and frowns intently following a ‘no sale’. As I step outside, I notice another tout,  a guy who had talked to me earlier, lurking in the background.  Now I have two piranha-like touts on my trail as I try to make my way out of the tiny warren of alleyways .  These guys, never deterred, stick with me.  This is spy thriller stuff turned comedy turned straightforward harassment….the Indian way.  As I make my way out through the warren onto the street, I turn and confront the them:  ‘Right lads,  here’s the story:  I am going to walk this street now on my own’.  They don’t listen, they don’t hear.   They follow me, and follow me.  I turn again as if to say: ‘What part of ‘no’ do you not understand?‘.  Eventually I shake them but its a right royal pain in the arse.

A travel writer explained that if you really want to browse Newmarket unheeded you need to get there before 8.00 am in the morning while the touts are still asleep.

Newmarket, formerly Sir Stuart Hogg market.

Newmarket, formerly Sir Stuart Hogg market.

Fairlawn Hotel sanctury

I find sanctuary in the nearby  Fairlawn Hotel,  an old colonial hangout of the Raj, but run by the irrepressible octogenarian Vi Smith, who has run the hotel since 1962 – it’s a pleasant verdant oasis where young educated Indians hang.   It’s also a popular hangout for creatives – boasting a guestbook of authors, journalists, musicians, painters and poets.  There are photos of Graham Greene and Sting on the wall. The Kingfisher beer goes down well – the surroundings are a stark contrast to the madness on the streets outside its doors.  You can see how the ‘old British boys network’ was set up –  the fine old adminstrative buildings (‘goods in – goods out’ control centres) and then the social clubs, exclusively British – the Fairlawn and the Tollygrunge Hotel and Golf Club to the south of the city.

Fairlawn Hotel in Sudder Street

Fairlawn Hotel in Sudder Street

Rasta Internet Café and Chai, chai, chai

Leaving the Fairlawn I spot a sign for an internet café down a side alley – it’s a tiny room with a bank of  6 Skype head-phoned computer screens.  There’s a good vibe here – Bob Marley playing quietly in the background – the crew here are young, friendly, interested and interesting.  They cook up a chai brew on a small stove and offer me a couple of cups while I browse. This tiny internet café becomes my office and contact with the outside world while I’m here.  I like the vibe and they seem to like me.

Chai stall

Chai stall

Chai pots and the caste system

Chai, the sickly sweet cloying tea brew made up of tea, boiling milk, sugar and spices are served on street stalls everywhere.  On my way back to the hotel I notice the ubiquitous discarded broken chai clay pots strewn around the streets.  The clay pots are an interesting link to the caste system.  The reason the clay cups are discarded is because no higher caste person would dream of drinking a clay pot that’d been used by a lower caste.  But it is organic – the rains eventually wash away the clay back into the soil.  However, an environmental problem has arisen with the introduction of small plastic chai cups at train stations, resulting in tons of plastic cups  discarded out of train windows along railway tracks.

Kolkata Street Food

For breakfast every morning I head around to Mirzra Ghalib Street (formerly Free School Street – (note: many streets are known by their British and their Bengali name)  to a tiny shop for an Egg Vegetable Toasted sandwich (Boiled egg, red onion, green pepper, potato – all compressed,toasted and served with potato chips and a light tomato sauce) washed down with  a cup of hot chai – It’s delicious and cost one euro.

Where possible I am eating vegetarian,  my only exception being the Katy rolls and a lovely Keema Matar (minced mutton) which was so good I went back another night for more.  I also drink nothing but bottled water  (….and bottle cold beer!).

Kolkata street food is omni-present.  There are chai stalls and chapatis, parathas, samosas.   I eat a lot of street food but tend to head to the business/financial district of BBD Bagh for my street eats.  My reasoning being that if higher earning business persons were buying this food daily, it must be consistently good …..and it was.  Vegetarian thalis,  ghugni chat and pana puri were my favourites.

Kolkata Food stall

Kolkata Food stall

Pana Puri

Pana puri is deep-fired puff ball filled with spiced potatoes and dunked in tamarind water – they are  served up one at a time in a leaf bowl – Cost 4 for 15 rupees or about 25 euro cents.  It’s an explosion of crunchy spice and flavour with a burst of bitter watery goodness.

Pana Puri

Pana Puri

Ghugni Chat

Ghugni chat   is made from yellow split peas – the hot peas are added to a small leaf bowl, mixed with tomatoes, onions, coriander , tamarind water and lime juice and are served with a small wooden spoon.

Ghugni Chat

Ghugni Chat

Keema Matar

Keema matar is a minced lamb (mutton) and pea curry and I had this dish in Khalsa restaurant which is situated in a small side street off Sudder Street (turn right out of the Fairlawn Hotel and right again and its 30 metres up on your left).  The depth of flavour in this dish was truly magnificent.  I could taste cinnamon, clove, black cardamon, ginger, garlic.  Served with a light vegetable curry, buttered nan and rice and a large beer, the bill came to €4.   This was an ordinary restaurant serving extraordinary food at keen prices.

keema-matar-recipe

Keema mataar

Park Hotel rocks

Park street is the Oxford Street or Grafton Street of Kolkata and the Park Hotel caters for the young middle class – there are three bars – two nightclubs and a rock bar.  I head to the rock bar- it is dungeon- like with a curved ceiling but chic with air con and blue uplighting – a 33 cl bottle of Stella Artois is €4 and expensive by Kolkata standards but hey, you’re paying for the live rock band.   And they’re damned good – dressed in suits and in their mid-twenties playing standard rock covers – they’re giving it socks and plenty of attitude.  I’m mightily impressed and the band really lifts my mood.

A Saturday walk through a north city meat mart

A Saturday morning walk through Kolkata’s north city streets inadvertently leads me into a meat market.  Here I witness goat carcasses hanging over white tiled shed fronts, skinned and bloodied, eyes bulging out of skeleton heads, guts and entrails in gutters, red blood streaming in rivulets into gulleys and rats scurrying into holes as I swat bluebottles buzzing around my head.  Huge bladed knives hacking into meat and not a sign of refrigeration anywhere  The sun beats down creating stifling heat and a stench that is suffocating almost to the point of wretching.  My stomach is turning acidic – I’m gonna get sick – I can feel it rising. I’m finding it hard to breathe – in fact I’m trying not to breathe in – this  process just about stops me from throwing up in the alleyway.   I start to move quickly and eventually find myself out on a wide street where I find a chai stall.  I sip the warm cloying milky tea vowing to get back to the guesthouse quickly to  wash the stenchy meat odour from my body and clothes.

Sense of space

Earlier I mentioned that for many Indians this is an ‘elbow’ society – in Western society if you ‘don’t ask you don’t get‘ – in Indian society ‘if you don’t push, shove and elbow, you don’t get’.

There is also a different sense of personal space or lack of it.  With such teeming populations personal space is minimal.  I witness young men, children, but also women in saris washing themselves down with soap by the side of the road.  They drench their saries,  then apply a suddy soap massage and wash themselves down – all in full view of passers-by.  Their access to space sparse – their personal space  non-existent.

Sunday stroll

Sunday afternoon, before the long train trip to Varanasi, is spent near Maidan mainly watching cricket and soccer in the local park.  At the soccer game,  the locals are friendly, smiling and share their street snacks with me, as the two teams limber up before kick-off.  The all-male spectator group remark on the referee – its a she!

Female referee takes no nonsense from the boys

Female referee takes no nonsense from the boys

Sunday afternoon cricket

Sunday afternoon cricket

Preparing for train trip to Varanasi  – the taxi driver – his sleeping partners, his brother, his piss 

The next stop on my trip is Varanasi but I hadn’t reckoned on the hassle involved in booking a ticket.  To fast-track the process and avoid having to head to the Foreign Tourist Office,  I get a travel agent in Sudder Street to  book the overnight train.  It was worth the few euro commission he charged to leave it in his capable hands.  Only problem here is you have to wait until 4.00 pm on the Sunday of the projected departure, which is 8.00 pm, to be certain of your seat allocation – this goes live online at a specific time.  However it’s green to go and I’m on my way.

I ask the travel agent what the average taxi fare is from Sudder Street to Howrah Railway Station and go looking for a taxi. Agreeing the fare, the driver beckons me to a side lane where his taxi is parked.  But as I walk up the lane I notice three guys fast asleep inside his taxi.  He knocks on the door, wakes them – but they stir lazily and seem in no hurry to be removed. At this stage I’m looking at my watch as I am told it helps to be at the station an hour before departure.   Coming from the West,  this is bizarre behaviour and yet the driver seems in no hurry at all.   Getting into the back of the taxi, at the last minute, just as the driver starts off, a guy hops into the front passenger seat.  ‘Oy, says I,  what’s this!’  “Oh, don’t worry, he says,  he’s my brother”.   “He could be your grandmother for all I care, I’m outa here”.  I opened the back door of the moving car and am about to jump, when the driver shouts – ‘OK, OK’ and his ‘brother’ gets out.

The  Lonely Planet, what with the serious and rising incidences of rape across India, warn women to take down the name, registration number and licence plate, of all taxi drivers, and to never enter a taxi with two persons in the front – the regular excuse being – “Don’t worry,  he’s my brother”!

Howrah Bridge across the Hooghly river

Howrah Bridge at night

We slowly make our way through the burgeoning street throngs and move slowly through the traffic toward the infamous and massive  Howrah Bridge.  Here thousand of young children live rough among detritus – they are the impoverished street kids and they appear like ants living among among mounds of rubbish by the bridge.   Suddenly, my driver, without explaining what he is doing, hops out of the car beside the street kid camp and for what?   – a long unhurried…. piss.

Howrah Station

Howrah train station is the largest station by area in India with 23 platforms and is situated on the west bank of the Hooghly river linked to Kolkata by the massive Howrah Bridge.   Its dim neon-lit interior is teeming with travellers. With tannoy blaring, trains arrive and depart every few minutes.  I spend my time observing the rats scurrying under the platform tracks.

The train journey to Varanasi lasts 14 hours with no catering car and an alcohol ban.   While food sellers do hop onto the train at various stops, the food is not substantial – mainly snacks and, of course, plenty of chai. It’s simply impossible to sleep what with the creaking train noise, train stops and the incessant footsteps of passenger hordes alighting and boarding.  I’ve booked 2 AC which is a two-sided bunk carriage,  that is, two bunks, one up, one down, each side. After an arduous journey the train eventually trundles over the Ganges river and into  the mad heat and hustle and bustle that is Varanasi railway station.  The first thing you notice as you arrive into the main hall are the hundreds of people squatting and slumbering on the floor – all in front of the giant information board.   Outside, a tuk tuk driver whizzes me off in the direction of the Ganges and Dassaswamedh Ghat.

Downtown Varanasi

Downtown Varanasi

Varanasi

Varanasi or to use its old name, Benares (City of Life), is the spiritual capital, and one of the holiest places in India– it is known, according to the Lonely Planet,  as the ‘beating heart of the Hindu universe and a crossing place between the physical and spiritual worlds’. On the banks of the Ganges (or Ganga as the locals call it), with a history of over 2,000 years, it is where the most intimate rituals of Hindu life and death take place in public, on the city’s ghats.  The ghats are the tiny jetties with stone steps reaching down to the river – over 80 of them dot the riverside with the most prominent being Dassaswamedh Ghat and the famous Manikarnika or ‘burning’ cremating ghat.

 

Downtown Varanasi

Downtown Varanasi

I have taken an overnight train, having spent two bewildering days trying to get an angle on Kolkata.  A 14 hour trip – leaving Kolkata  at 20.00 hours Sunday night and arriving into Varanasi at 10.00 am the next morning.  I had, for many years, dreamt of travelling across India by train, however the romantic vision was a million miles from the ‘actual’ experience.  Unlike most other countries – and I enjoyed a great long train trip a few years ago from Bangkok up into the northern mountains of Thailand – there is no dining/catering car, no bar, and you are forbidden from drinking alcohol on the train.

Sleeping was difficult as the 18 carriage train trundled from station to station – offloading and loading passengers – I managed a meagre four hours  and was eventually awoken as the train pased over the slowly meandering Ganges.  However, as the train rolled ever slowly across the Ganges bridge into Varanasi, the image of the rising sun beaming down upon this ever wide but grey slow rolling river  – the truly magnificent contrasting colours  – the beautiful upriver view of Varanasi and its dotted tiny jetty ghats – will remain forever .

I’m soon jolted back to reality though.  Mayhem, of course, ensues alighting from the train, bodies moving in every direction, roars, shouts, whistles, tannoy announcements and heat, heat, heat.

In Varanasi, I get lucky with my choice of guesthouse which was right on the Dassaswamedh Ghat (note:  although it is the biggest ghat, it is still really quite small) where nightly, the ganga arti, a spectacular ceremony offering prayers to Ganga at sunset,is the highlight of the day.

Lighting a candle

Lighting a candle

Tourists and pilgrims pay to sit in the boats on the river to watch the ceremony – the ghat is awash with old and young, families and friends who travel right across India for the ganga aarti.  I had a privileged view of proceedings each evening from the steps of my guesthouse  as they performed the “Agni Pooja” (Worship to Fire.) It’s a fascinating ritual – full of colour, incense, chanting, drums, the works.

At Dassaswamedh Ghat on the Ganges

At Dassaswamedh Ghat on the Ganges

Ganga aarti

After my first night, I was early to bed, mainly because, one – there are no bars as such – no natural area to congregate and meet other travellers and secondly, the guesthouse owners and tourist information advise foreigners to be back in their hotels by 10.00 pm, claiming it is unsafe. Most lock up their doors by 10 so there’s a virtual curfew anyway

The following morning I am awoken by puja prayers at 6.00 am on the ghat and decide to explore the tiny dark alleyways of the old city and experience the famous burning ghat of Mankarnika.

Incidentally,  early morning is the best time of the day – nice and cool – I come across Indian teenagers playing cricket – they are ‘cricket mad’ here and play it with anything – a plank of wood, a box as a wicket and a tennis ball. I also spot older men playing outdoor badminton.

I head through the tiny alleyways – detritus everywhere, cow shit, dog shit, goat shit, human shit?… goats in home doorways, men coughing and spewing vile onto the path, a guy pissing in a doorway  – its visceral, shocking stuff for an urbanised Westerner.  Everything and everyone is so ‘in your face’.

Candle/Flower sellers prepare for ganga aarti

Candle/Flower sellers prepare for ganga aarti

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I get to a spot where you can overlook the cremation funeral pyres. It’s an old temple overlooking the body burning.  There are mounds of logs stockpiled in a mumble jumble yard stacked high ….and I notice wooden boats arriving along the Ganges wharf with more wood from upriver ready for unloading.

Log Boat arriving at Marikarnika Ghat

Log Boat arriving at Marikarnika Ghat

As is out of nowhere a young Indian steps into my path and tells me he can take me up the levels of the temple where I can get a better view – no need to worry, he says, ‘I am a volunteer and I work for the hospice here which looks after old women’.  He tells me there are different kinds of wood for the burning and your spending power or social economic status will decide the type of wood you use for your relative’s burning.

Family gather to buy wood for cremation

Family gather to buy wood for cremation

There are five exemptions from cremation – holy men, lepers, animals, women two months pregnant and babies.  The families pay for the wood by weight and I notice a stack being shifted onto this medieval looking iron scales. I get a great view of the bodies being laid on the wood pyres and the smoke rises in plumes giving off an oily pungent aroma.  Next thing I notice two dogs up on an already burned pyre and I ask the guy what they’re doing.  ‘Oh, they’re trying to pull out and eat the bones.’ And they are eating them!

Body wrapped in yellow cloth heading for cremation - Note the wood piles on right of picture

Body wrapped in yellow cloth heading for cremation – Note the wood piles on right of picture

Body on the way

Body on the way

Next thing he hits me for a donation for the hospice. It’s a scam but I have 50 rupees ready and hand it to him.  He gets aggressive and wants 500 at least. I tell him what to do with himself, turn my back and walk…. but it’s not nice – it’s a bad vibe, and a bit nasty.

Retracing my footsteps through the alleyways, I hear the pitter patter of quick footsteps – around the corner come 6 guys carrying a bamboo stretcher – they are known as doms . Domare not even categorised as a caste – they are outside the caste system –  the untouchables.  Their job is to carry the bodies down to the river where they are dipped in the Ganges water for ‘purity’ before being placed on the pyres.  The bodies are rubbed in butter ( I’ll never enjoy a buttered nan again!) and this one is laid out on a bamboo stretcher, the head wrapped in plastic and covered in yellow colored cloth strapped with cow dung on each side.

I eventually get out of the alleyways and head back to the guesthouse for breakfast but notice groups of Indians all bathing by the ghat – they are not so much bathing as dipping – it’s all part of the blessing and purity ritual. Except for one important observation – while the Ganges, or Great Mother as it is known to Hindus, provides an important and essential part of their spirituality, it is so heavily polluted at Varanasi that the water is septic – no dissolved oxygen exists yet on average 60,000 visiting Indians take a dip every day – along this 6 kilometre stretch 30 open sewers flowing into it. Samples from the river estimate 1.5 million faecal coliform bacteria per 100 ml of water – the World Health Organisation (WHO) recommends a safe bathing figure of less than 500!

Taking a dip

Taking a dip

The other aspect to Varanasi is the industry that has built up around its reputation, and everything from silks, cottons, saris, spiritual artefacts, the hospitality sector, tourism, tuk tuk and rickshaw transport are all here vying for your money.  You walk down any street and seemingly out of nowhere touts are trailing you asking you ‘where are you from, what are you looking for, do you wanna come in my shop and buy sari for wife’ – even street kids look at you straight-faced and ask you if you would like to come to their shop. And I have not even started on the beggars and the homeless.  I began to think – maybe this will wear off after a few days …..and eventually it did.  They got to know my face.  But even that only meant the approaches were reduced from thirty to twenty a day. You have to be firm – mix it with a little smile and a wave away of the hand.

Sarnath

So you have spiritual Varanasi at the ghats, the old city and alleyways and the burning ghats, the hustle and bustle of selling along the main streets and then, unusually, about 12 kilometres outside of town is the Buddhist temple of Sarnath.  It is one of only four sacred Buddhist locations – a kind of Lourdes for Buddhists.  Budhha came to Sarnath to preach his message of the middle way to nirvana.  He gave his first sermon to a few followers in a deerpark, which is recreated here.  I hire a tuk tuk driver for the afternoon and spend a few hours wandering the verdant grounds and visiting the temple where Buddhists spend their days chanting.  Again it is a welcome oasis of calm from the madness that is Varanasi.

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On the way back I get the tuk tuk driver to stop and buy me a couple of cold cans of Kingfisher beer.  So here I am in the back of a tuk tuk, having come from one of the most sacred of Buddhist temples,  and I’m contentedly sipping away at my revered cold beer in 35 degrees of heat (95 Fahrenheit) as my tuk tuk driver weaves his noisy way through the traffic chaos and back into Varanasi.  Irish or what!

I meet a Belgium girl on my way back to the guesthouse and each of us seemed pleased to spend some time together – there are few Europeans around this time of year (July).  Having traveled extensively she said that there was an anacronym used to describe Nepal and India – Nepal stands for Never Ending Peace and Love and India stands for I’ll Never Do It Again!

We find an air-conditioned café and drink chai and humorously swop experiences.  I offer her the chance to view the ganga arti from the steps of my guesthouse which she readily accepts.  After a fascinating ceremony, we retire upstairs to the guesthouse restaurant where we share a cold beer and a curry.  It’s now getting near curfew time so I walk her through the old town to the roundabout.  Her  guesthouse is a few kilometres away and I warn her again of the curfew and advise that she hire a tuk-tuk. 

I don’t know whether it is bravery or foolishness but I do admire the resilience of young Western women and their strength and ability to take on solo travels of this nature, given the ever-present saga of violence against women in this fascinating country.

Getting out of Varanasi

The following morning I approach the guesthouse manager and ask him if can arrange a return train ticket to Kolkata. At lunchtime I ask him for a progress report  He casually shrugs his shoulders and tells me the earliest I can leave is July 17th.  This is July 4th!   I explain that my flight out of Kolkata leaves on July 12th.  He shrugs and tells me maybe I could get a flight.  I gently but forcefully tell him there must be another way and he casually suggests that maybe I could call up to the Foreign Ticket desk at the train station and see if they might sort me out.  He has hardly finished his sentence as I turn on my heels and head out the door.

The guy at the Foreign Ticket desk could not have been more helpful  and arranges a ticket for the 17.00 hour train the next day.  He warns me that it is always advisable to book at least two days before travelling anywhere in India.

The next day I arrive a good hour before the train leaves but notice that, according to the massive info board in the main hall, my train is not leaving until 6.00 am the following morning. I immediately head for the Foreign Ticket Office only to be told by my erstwhile helpful friend that my train has been delayed by 13 hours.  I’m now hovering somewhere between exasperation and sheer panic but he moves quickly. Once again, I experience the bureaucracy kicking in.   He gets me to buy a standard Indian ticket, that is,  a local’s ticket, for a few euros, but now I need to apply for a refund of my original ticket.  But the only way they can process a refund is by feeding my details into their computer system – and guess what?  ….the system is down.  Finally and just as my train arrives into the station, the computer system comes back online. My refund is processed quickly and on the platform I pay the ticketmaster for the return journey  – they even escort me to the allocated seat.  Panic and last minute –  but I am mightily impressed that they looked after me so well and managed to get me on the train. After all – this IS India

Late into the evening on  my return train journey, to Kolkata, late into the night, I hop off at one of the lazy stops along the way to buy food from a platform vendor but for some reason he’s gabbing on and waving his hand – ‘not enough rupees?,  I say to him’ – I look around and the train is leaving the station.  I never moved so fast as I ran down the platform, eventually grabbing the rails, pushing me up into the carriage.  No whistles, no flags, no electronic arrival and departure board – what a ‘wits about you’ country!

Another India?

Taking the train out of Varanasi at sunset for the night journey back to Kolkata, I get a glimpse of another India – a rural one – verdant fields of vegetation, workers picking tea,  beautiful landscapes with people walking man-made paths through trees and fields wearing brightly coloured reddy pinks which looked amazing at dusk.  The scenes I am watching are really quite awe-inspiring – the contrasts of dwindling early evening light…and how the bright coloured cloths speckle the dimming dusk light.  Its shadowy but sharply brilliant as the sun sets and the moonlight hovers.

It allowed me the thought that, through Kolkata and Varanasi, I had embarked on a ‘bare knuckle ride’, and maybe experienced some of the mad and crazier aspects of India and that there is another – a more peaceful, tranquil friendlier one that I’ve yet to experience.

Journey home

The 14-hour return journey to Kolkata starts well leaving at a slow grinding pace around 17.40 and within a couple of hours there was the experience of contrasting colours as the sun went down.  I had packed my travelling bag under my bunk bed chained to the leg.   It became impossible to sleep what with the noise of the train, the stopping and starting, the shouting of food hawkers and the general hustle and bustle of travellers getting on and off at stations.  It is usually when you try your hardest to sleep that the brain goes into overdrive and resists and so it was  – 10.00 pm no sleep, midnight and no sleep and still 8 hours to go.  I think I eventually went into a deep sleep ten hours later around 4.00 am.   The train eventually trundled back into Howrath in Kolkata in the early morning sunshine, a taxi hailed, I climbed back into my hotel bed for a proper long sleep.

By a thread

India like many countries is full of contradictions.  A rising GDP, an IT and software powerhouse and an ever increasing educated middle class.  It also suffers from extremes of overpopulation, pollution and destitute poverty.  You get the feeling that the caste system is the social glue that somehow keeps this diverse society dangling by a thread.

This has been a whistle stop tour and one that has not done justice to the real India – there are so many aspects to this vast and complex mix of religions, dialects and regions.    Should I have arranged a cultural attaché to accompany me and interpret my observations? – hard to know but……… sometimes it helps to just ‘go with the flow’ and ‘experience’.

One thing’s for sure – I can not and will never, ever forget India.  I vow to return.

Notes

 

Presidential candidate Seán Galllagher has been ‘less than honest’ about his strong ties to Fianna Fáil

Presidential candidate Sean Gallagher has played down his role as a staunch, loyal and highly active member of Fianna Fáil.

He claimed that his membership of Fianna Fáil was ‘sporadic’.  It was anything but.  In fact, to all intents and purposes he may still be a  Fianna Fail member.  He claims he left Fianna Fáil in 2009 but in this video clip he is seen addressing an Ogra FF summer school in August 2010.

Right up to January 2011 when the party was in freefall and, despite wave after wave of crisis within the Government and the party,  this man stood loyally  on the decks of  the Fianna Fáil Titanic right up to January 5 last, even  as FF Minister after Minister resigned or announced they were retiring on massive pensions.

His resignation letter to FF General Secretary Sean Dorgan was not a resignation as a member of Fianna Fáil, but merely as a constituency delegate to the National Executive.

In fact, it has served his purposes to remain a member in order to gain the support of his many Fianna Fail colleagues and friends on county councils across the country to ensure he secured a nomination.

H e claims that the President should be ‘above politics’ yet he does not mind not being  above Fianna Fáil politics.  This is what he said about some of the decisions that Brian Cowen made:  “I guess what Brian Cowen was doing and his Cabinet were doing was based on what was in front of them, they were making the best decisions they felt at the time…….” 

Interestingly, neither he, nor his campaign team nor Fianna Fail headquarters can confirm when he officially left the party.  This might suggest that he has never actually left.

When asked to explain his strong FF associations, associations he has continually played down, he rebuffs them by saying that ‘people are tired of negative campaigning’.    Yet, the electorate are entitled to know the truth about his political associations and his staunch support for a party and Government that brought the country to its knees.

It was also telling that, when asked in the Late Late Show Presidential debate to name any piece of significant legislation introduced  over the last seven years,  he could think of none.

How could it be possible that a  Presidential candidate could fail to notice the massive impact that the bank guarantee,   the bank bailouts and NAMA have had on ordinary citizens, communities and businesses the length and breadth of the country?   It just does not wash.

And,  without wishing to totally castigate FF, he could have easily cited the excellent anti-smoking legislation introduced by current FF leader and former  Minister for Health,  Michael Martin, in 2004.   But he could not think of any.

This man needs to come clean and step up to the plate.

Visiting the Friendship Village, Hanoi, Vietnam

Friendship Village,  HanoiVietnam

 The Friendship Village  is set on a five  acre site approximately 20 kilometres from Hanoi city centre where it houses over a hundred children suffering from Agent Orange dioxin and 40 war veterans.

The Village was founded in 1992 and is the brainchild of the late George Mizo, a former US soldier who served in Vietnam, a hawk turned dove and prominent member of Veterans for Peace, an organisation made up of former male and female soldiers.   Mizo’s main aim was to help repair the damage done to the Vietnamese people and to Vietnam-US  relations following the war.  George died in 2002 but his German wife took up the cause and continues to fundraise on behalf of the Village.

I am here to meet with the director, Dang Vu Dung and carry out a tour of the teaching and training facilities.

Director  Dang Vu Dung  explains,  “We have 102 children residing here.  The age range is between 6 and 20 years.  The vetting system for entry is that they must be the offspring of former Vietnamese soldiers and they must be affected by Agent Orange in some form.  Having said that, the children we enrol here, while suffering a disablement of one form or another as a result of dioxin, are those that, with the right training and rehabilitation, can re-enter society with a skillset to help them survive.

Meeting the Director of the Friendship Village, Hanoi

 The younger children attend school here like any normal child except that here we employ special needs teachers.  The older children receive training in IT/computer skills, weaving and sewing to make clothes, souvenir making (note:  the souvenirs are used as a fundraising tool to generate extra income) and tend the organic vegetable and fruit garden.

 We appoint one mother (supervisor) for every 20 victims and they supervise, guide and encourage an ‘esprit de corps’ among the children with a goal of making them as self sufficient as possible.  We also encourage sports, for example, badminton and football.  Another important aspect is outreaching into the local community and we encourage direct contact and communication to ensure the children’s time here is as normal and productive for them as possible.  All our dioxin children spend a maximum of three years here before returning to their families and villages.

 i

In the classroom
Ain’t she sweet!

Our income support is split 50/50 – 50% comes from Government funding and the other 50% from fundraising mainly carried out by the Union of Veterans which includes mainly former French, German, Japanese, US and English soldiers. The veteran’s fundraising efforts, their enthusiasm and vision for what we are trying to achieve here is the essence of what the Friendship Village is all about  – turning the negative legacy of war into a positive one where children are given a second chance and the ability to live some from of normal life.  This was George Mizo’s vision.  

Computer training
“Peace Man”
Making souvenir flowers

There are also 40 veterans resident at the Village at any given time.

Two of the veterans resident at the Village

Vietnam Travelogue: Hanoi – First Impressions

Hanoi – First impressions

Travelling from Hanoi airport into the city what becomes immediately apparent is that the city is surrounded by agricultural lands,  mainly geared toward rice production.  I pass vast swathes of rice fields with farmers in conical hats, along with buffalo, tending the fields.

The French influence is everywhere – the houses are narrow but tall with verandahs,  green wooden window shutters and balustrades.

I am staying at the Hanoi Legend hotel in the heart of the Old Quarter – a quaint warren of tiny streets full of hotels, restaurants, tourist offices and hordes of street vendors selling everything from food to trinkets to old Viet Cong army caps with their Vietnamese red star emblem.

The tourist offices are everywhere selling trips up into the northern mountains, out to the karst rocks of beautiful Halong Bay where, for a $100 or so you can book a two day trip touring the islands, swimming, eating and spending the night on board in splendidly furnished wood panelled bedrooms. You can also book an overnight train south along the coast to the old imperial capital of the Nguyen dynasty at Hue.

In the Old Quarter, there are motorbike taxis, car taxis and cyclos everywhere all looking for your business  – “You wan moto bike, you wan taxi”

A crowd drinking Bia Hoi on a street corner

There are food stalls where you can snatch a quick Beef Pho for 50 cents,  order your own sit down BBQ for a little more or simply sit on a street corner bar on foot high tiny plastic stools sipping Bia Hoi, the local draught brew which sells at a mere 15 cents a glass.

Vegetable seller along a Hanoi street

Why do they let cars up these tiny streets?

And if you want you can go upmarket to a Grafton Street-style area that sells all the top international brands.  There you’ll also find  five star hotels, excellent restaurants in an area resplendent with attractively dressed men and women driving Porsches and four wheel drives accentuating the obvious gap between rich and poor in this new open market-led economy.

Those motorbikes again!

Wow, I travelled three thousand kilometres and this is what I'm confronted with - where's that Louis Walsh fella?!

What differentiates Hanoi from HCM city, among others,  is its lake system, in particular nearby Hoan  Kiem lake, which, as a centre-piece, tends to have an overall calming affect on this teeming city.

This second instalment of my trip will concentrate on environmental issues, meeting up with environmental and forestry expert Dr Phung Tuu Boi at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, then a 20 kilometre trip out of the city to visit the Friendship Village, ending with a meeting at the Catholic Relief  Services Agency office in the suburbs of the city.

Vietnam Travelogue : A Night Off in Ho Chi Minh City

A Night Off in Ho Chi Minh City

“The youth of a nation are the trustees of posterity” – Benjamin Disraeli 

Wandering from the hotel one evening after a meal of BBQed buttered scallops, fresh crab and salad washed down with a cold Saigon Red beer, all for a mere three euros, I headed up Bui Vien Street (the trendy backpacker tourist area just a few minutes from the hotel)  for a stroll, passing a crowded pavement bar.

The street bar was full of young Vietnamese in their late 20’s/early 30s.  They immediately beckoned me over and insisted I join them.  They were in party mood, in great form and enjoying a few drinks.

They were friendly, welcoming, well educated, spoke perfect English, were interested and interesting and full of chat and bonhomie. These young people represent the new Vietnam, a country with a  successful market-led economy, for example, in 2010, Vietnam’s  nominal GDP reached $104.6 billion, with nominal GDP per capita of $1218.  They have a population of seventy seven million, 80% of which still live in the countryside.  Most Vietnamese businesses are SMEs.

This crowd were having a blast the same way that any group of young Irish or Europeans would do.  Positive in outlook, a good sense of humour and with expectations for a good life – this is the new Vietnam – tech savvy, educated, open to new ideas, gregarious, Generation Y, the iPhone generation?

Mr Ha

I got talking to Mr Ha, who runs his own gentlemen’s outfitters, the life and soul of the gang.  Gay, he cracked jokes, clinked glasses for toasting but was well read, well spoken and interested in why I was visiting.  I talked with Jen (28) who is fluent in English and Japanese, who is now considering a career in the hospitality industry and was eager for my advice based on her skill set.  There was Tuan with a career in IT, Mi Lan in the fashion industry and Jill from Cambodia, into catering.  The group eventually enlarged to include Indian, Catalan, American and German.

These guys gave me a night to remember full of insight and laughs.

Jen, fluent in English and Japanese hoping for a career in the hospitality sector

Jill from Cambodia

I’ve encountered a friendly and vibrant city and people, experienced some revealing moments, ate some great food and now leave for Hanoi just when I felt I was getting an angle on this fascinating city and its people.  I leave with a heavy heart (and my $12 Sopranos full series DVD box set).

Footnote:

I stayed in the Saigon Mini Hotel 1 – a group of five small boutique style hotels.  My double room cost around $20 a night – clean linen, comfortable bed, WiFi in the room  – but the real gem here was the young friendly staff of Ha, Miss Vicky and Christy – they couldn’t do enough for me and made the visit special.

Also Tuan Anh, my Ministry of Foreign Affairs translator who went to tremendous efforts to ensure my trip was a pleasant and successful one.  And it was.

Tuan Anh - Vietnam Ministry of Foreign Affairs

Goodnight Saigon!

Vietnam Travelogue – Part 3 Interview with Dr Phuong, Peace Village Dioxin Ward, Tu Du Hospital, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

The Tu Du Hospital is the biggest maternity hospital in South Vietnam and the Peace Village, a two floor ward at the back of the hospital was set up and supervised by Dr Phuong, who started her career as an intern at the hospital.  She is retired now at seventy two but still holds incredible influence and has been a passionate and tireless campaigner for Agent Orange children.

I’m picked up at the hotel by Tuan Anh, my translator, our driver and the assistant Press Secretary of Vava in an old brown Opel saloon that has definitely seen better days.

A drive through the usual chaotic HCM city traffic gets us there for 9.00 am and I’m greeted with a smile by Dr Phuong on the steps of the hospital.

Meeting with Dr Phuong at the Peace Village ward at Tu Du Hospital, Ho Chi Minh City

I’ve met people like Dr Phuong before – the characteristics are always similar – incredible strength of purpose and a passion and belief that emanates. She is the opposite of strident, overpowering.  She is softly spoken, firm, eloquent, but oozes humanity with a gentle smile.

She apologises for missing yesterday’s meeting and we conduct an interview which is in stark contrast to yesterday’s one at VAVA.  She thinks carefully before answering my questions, speaking good English and only occasionally leaning over to Tuan Anh for clarification on technical points.  And then she smiles, nods, pauses to reflect and replies rapidly but concisely.

Here are some of the points she made:

  • The chemical companies were put under pressure by the US administration to produce Agent Orange in vast quantities within a very short time frame.
  • This led to a far greater concentration of dioxin in the manufacturing that would not normally have been allowed and led to ‘complications’, that is, the temperature produced used in the manufacturing process created a far more lethal product.
  • You could take two views on this – it was either pressure to supply quickly and genuine mistakes were made or corners were cut for commercial reasons by the chemical companies.
  • Either way the companies were in business to supply a product – a product that had a high level of dioxin – and a chemical that has been described by scientists as ‘the most deadly poison known to humankind’.
  • The companies and the US administration continually claim that there is no evidence to link Agent Orange with the kind of cancers, diseases and deformities we are constantly dealing with.
  • But there is a vast amount of scientific evidence and interestingly,US scientific research, which lists over 15 cancers and diseases which are consistently  found in the children we look after here in the Peace Village..
  • And if there is no evidence – why has the US Environmental Protection Agency completely banned the manufacture and use of AO in the US?
  •  They also claim that it was only used as a defoliant to clear the forests. If that is so, then why, and this is in the US administration official data and records, did the army use it to spray 25,000 villages and hamlets.  This was an outright attack on ordinary people, on rural village communities. It was a crime against humanity – a war crime.
  • You can eventually contain and treat dioxin spread and leaching into the environment.  It may take decades, ingenuity, and a lot of money but you can never, ever rid it from the human body. It gets passed on from generation to generation. It may not affect the first generation outwardly and physically. It may even skip a generation and then affect the third generation.  The only way you can halt its toxic spread is to stop reproducing.  That is why we are still trying to cope with its devastating affects today, a full 50 years after the first spraying
  • This is not just about Vietnam, it is about American soldiers who suffered as a result of constant contact with the dioxin during the war – it is about other countries, other soldiers, other nationalities who came into contact – this is not just a story about the Vietnamese.
  • If I have one message it is this – for the sake of all humankind we must rid the world of toxic chemicals. Please get this message out.

I am then given a tour of the wards.  This was the aspect of the trip I was most dreading.  But its fine, I am fine.

We shake hands and I wish her good luck – she smiles but she’s got another appointment and must head  ………and it’s time for us to drive out into the countryside of Cu Chi in our old brown Opel saloon to visit the families.

Arrive in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

It’s a 4.00 am wake-up call in Bangkok for the 7.00 am flight to Ho Chi Minh City.  I’ve booked the same taxi driver who got me to and from the Vietnamese Embassy.  He’s one of the good ones and to avoid the madness of the BKK traffic he skipped through the university and hospital grounds to get me there on time, so I book him for the airport trip..

It’s a 5.00 am pick-up and I’m standing in the dark outside the hotel listening to cocks crowing and observing the ‘last men standing’ at the all night bar along the alleyway.  It’s pungent, warm, very warm, humid and the food stalls are already being set up for breakfast.  Sooprah, the taxi driver is late.  I’m beginning to get edgy when eventually his car arrives around the corner.  He makes up for it by hurtling down the highway to the airport.

Arrive into the spankingly new Ton Nhat airport  (this is where the first shipment of Agent Orange was unloaded in August 1961 when the Americans started ‘tests’)

Heading into HCM city centre

A half hour taxi ride into the city and the motorbikes are swarming like mosquitoes – it’s unbelievable.  Ho Chi Minh City wows the senses, Not since Phnom Penh have I seen anything like this, The motorbikes are everywhere – thousands and thousands of them – horns beeping, weaving, swerving, riding up on pavements, going the wrong way (but then there is no wrong way!) and the air is pungent with food being cooked on sidewalks….and as Phil Lynott observed – “it’s so goddammed hot!”

I’m staying at a small boutique hotel called the Saigon Mini Hotel 1,  its in a quiet alleyway away from the noise  just next door to Bui Vien  – think Temple Bar, think Covent Garden –  no don’t – its so much funkier – full of art houses, restaurants, bars and alive with young Vietnamese and a rainbow of nationalities.

I check in, shower and get a call to say my translator from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has arrived in the lobby.  He is Tuan Anh (pronounced Too’in Ang).  He’s well dressed, smart, perfect English and only 28.

Tuan Anh, the Vietnamese Ministry of Foreign Affairs translator

We have an hour long briefing and then its over to meet Major General Tran Ngoc Tho, Vice Chair of the Victims of Agent Orange Association (VAVA). The meeting with VAVA will be informational but the person I really want to meet, Dr Phuong, a tireless campaigner on behalf of Agent Orange victims, has promised to meet me at the offices as well.

Then tomorrow morning it’s a visit the Peace Village Agent Orange ward which spans two floors at the back of the Tu Du Hospital, southern Vietnam’s main maternity hospital. This will be followed by a two hour car ride out into the country, up to the Cu Chi tunnels area, north of the city to visit three families.

Major General Trans Ngoc Tho – Vice Chairman of VAVA

We take a taxi to the VAVA offices to interview Tran Ngoc Tho.  Ngoc Tho appears to be an old style apparachik dressed head to foot in grey. We pose for photographs with the official VAVA photographer and Ngoc Tho is joined by two colleagues.    The meeting, which lasts over one and a half hours, does not go particularly well.  Each question put through Tuan Anh receives a wordy and long reply but with seemingly little substance.  As the interview wears on, apart from some of the obvious facts and figures that are in the public domain and I already know, it appears that I am not getting straight answers to questions.

I change tack and I am now trying to ascertain the level of increased cooperation between the US and Vietnam through funding and resources for  clean up in the dioxin hot spots.    I feel I am being stonewalled but then realize that it is not just me who feels this.  I notice his colleagues grimacing and moving uncomfortably as he talks.  He finally produces some interesting figures that the US Government eventually released to the Vietnamese Government outlining the provinces, the populations and the quantity of chemical sprayed during the ten year period.

Eventually I get a breakthrough when he tells me that there has been a giant leap forward in the US funding for clean up.

Nontheless, I am just slightly disappointed on two fronts – its taken me nearly two hours to get information  and a call has just come through to say that Dr. Phuong cannot make the meeting.

We shake hands, take some more photographs and head back to the hotel.  Tuan Anh knows it has not been a great but there is good news – Dr. Phuong has just called him on the mobile to say she can meet at 9.00 amtomorrow morning at the Tu Du hospital.

Today has been an early start and a long day.

Tomorrow I visit the hospital, interview Dr. Phuong, meet some of the children and then head up the country to to visit three of the families.

VAVA have agreed to supply a car and driver and I agree to provide monies to buy foodstuffs for the three families.


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