Wednesday 16 February 2011
On my last morning at the Hotel Rainbow in Jagdalpur, I ate alu paratha, curd and coffee for breakfast, paid my enormous bill and took an auto rickshaw to the station. I was early for the slow train to Koraput and then the train was nearly an hour late, but the vibe on the platform was relaxed. I spoke to a woman who told me she lived in Jagdalpur but her husband lived in Jeypore, since they had different jobs. She was a teacher, hence intelligent, and, unlike many people in central India, spoke good English. She had only been married a year and was constantly travelling down on the train to see her husband. This must have been frustrating because the train was very slow, although the view was pretty. There was plenty of space and I bought a general ticket for only R17 and had a whole compartment to myself.
[At the time the exchange rate was about R81 to £1. Nevertheless, it isn’t a good idea to convert everything into your own currency. It’s much better to gradually work out what things cost in India, and compare prices. Even by this standard, the ticket was cheap.]
After about two hours we stopped in Jeypore, a possible base from which to travel to Onkadelli, the village I wanted to visit next day, and I considered getting out. Awesh Ali had given me the name of a friend of his there, who was a good guide, and he said it was a better place from which to start. However, the Lonely Planet claimed it was much cheaper to stay in Koraput and it was “just a few kilometres” down the road. The LP had so far been fairly unreliable for central India, but I took a chance, fondly (in the Shakespearean sense) imagining a relaxed backpacker scene (in the end it was much better there wasn’t), and stayed on the train. It was scheduled to take two and a half hours to reach Koraput from Jagdalpur, but in the end it was more like four hours, after nearly an hour’s sit at a small station beyond Jeypore. Thankfully, I felt quite serene, the weather was sunny but not too hot, and I didn’t really mind. The ticket office was closed when I arrived so I couldn’t buy an onward ticket, as I’d planned. I walked out into the forecourt and huffed and moaned at auto drivers who asked for R50 to take me to the temple hotels.
‘R50, I’d rather walk,’ I snapped, outraged, stalking off without looking back. Trouble is, I had no idea how far it was from the station to town and there was a long walk up a slope ahead. Luckily, in India someone will almost always come after you, and someone did. They offered a reduced rate of R30, which I agreed to, and this was just as well because it was about a two km ride.
There’s a Jagannath temple in Koraput that also runs a couple of cheap hotels. The first, and apparently better, temple hotel I tried was full, but in the second – Yatri Nivas – I got a tiny, just about clean, room with a small bathroom, and a window, for only R150. The first thing to do was eat, so I asked in the other temple hotel and was directed through to the dining room, where a tin tray of thali was silently plonked in front of me. This was all they did but it wasn’t too bad: rice, three types of gunky curry, an excellent seeded poppadum and a sticky sweet. I ate it all because I was hungry and was again pleased with the price: R45. The people in the hotel were a little grumpy, mainly because their English wasn’t good, but they told me where the tourist information was and I got there after a twenty minute walk through the town, asking more directions en route.
I was hoping they could help me find a driver and car to take me to Onkadelli. I hadn’t seen a single other foreigner and it looked as if I’d be paying for the whole thing alone, but I still wanted to do it. I was now regretting not staying in Jeypore where, I reasoned, the money I lost paying more for a hotel may well have been regained by a less expensive taxi (because closer) and people to share it with. It didn’t look like there was much going on in Koraput. The tourist information had nothing to offer except a leaflet about the attractions of the area. They couldn’t book a car but they gave me the address of an apparently reputable travel agency which, they said, was near my hotel. So I trailed back to the temple and found the travel agency, luckily only just before it closed. A friendly man here told me that a taxi, driver and fuel for the day would probably cost R1600 altogether, and I agreed and booked it. The man then obligingly zoomed me around a few blocks on his motorbike, looking for internet. The ride was fun, but everything was closed. He said this was because the local Muslims were celebrating the birth of Mohammed.
He dropped me off back at the agency and I bought a Sprite and walked back towards my hotel, then up the stairs to the Jagannath temple. I liked this place: it was calm and relaxing – and I liked Jagannath. He’s like an Indian South Park character: coal black and cartoonish, with big white eyes. He was in the temple together with his smaller yellow sister (in the middle) and his white brother. One of the temple priests was lounging on the ground playing an instrument, and he spoke pretty good English, and told me their names:
‘The female deity is Subhadra and the brother god on the other side of Jagannath is Balabhadra.’
Jagannath means ‘Lord of the Universe,’ and he is considered by most Hindus to be an avatar of Vishnu, if not Vishnu incarnate. His original origins are ancient, however, and possibly tribal, and the Jagannath cult has included Buddhists and Jains. I looked around all the smaller shrines and then rested at the edge of the temple, looking out over the roofs of the city.
By the time I left it was almost dusk and I wandered down what turned out to be pretty much the main street of Koraput, and discovered that much more was open here. I bought fruit, drank tea standing up with a group of men and then – joy – found an open internet cafe. Facebook and emails cheered me up and I realised how much I needed a bit of contact with friends from time to time. I’d entered the place feeling a little gloomy, and wary of my surroundings, and left feeling happy and confident, friendly towards my fellow man, even though it was dark by then. I bought cherry-sized tomatoes, but a woman stopped me to ask what I was doing with them and said they’d be bitter and I should have bought the large ones.
‘Maybe add a little salt,’ she said. I smiled thinly at her but was dismayed to discover later she was right, besides which they were mostly over-ripe. I ate a plate of odd street food that seemed to consist mainly of beans and tomato sauce, ladled on top of cornflakes, and was almost at the end of the road, back at my hotel, when I spotted two tall foreigners at another street stall, and ran over to them.
‘Foreigners!’ I said, patting one of them on the shoulder. A youngish man with longish hair turned around and smiled at me pleasantly. His friend had dark, cropped hair and seemed a little more reserved, at first. They also wanted to go the Thursday market in Onkadelli next day and quickly agreed to share a car with me. They had intended to catch a bus but went off the idea after I told them (as informed by Ali) that it would take at least four hours from here. They would have to get a bus to Jeypore first and then change. They walked me the short distance to the end of the street so I could show them where my hotel was, and we arranged to meet next morning at 6am.
I was friendly to the man on reception, who was reading a book about astrology, and this worked wonders. He got a cross eyed boy to fetch me a bucket of hot water and I had a good wash.
Thursday 17 February
I was up at 5.30am and ready by six. It was cool enough outside to warrant wearing my fleece and woolly hat. The driver turned up just afterwards and the boys appeared at the same time, so all was sorted. There was no problem about them joining the car and the price didn’t go up (in fact it came down, and was only R1500 for the day in the end – cheaper than in Jagdalpur). He took us to the bus station first so we could get a quick cup of chai and the longer haired guy was soft spoken and friendly to the man at the chai place. His name was Simon and he sat in the front of the car so I mostly spoke to what turned out to be his twin brother, Chris, who sat in the back. They didn’t look at all like twins – even their facial features were quite different – but they did look about the same age.
The Onkadelli market, which was the point of the whole trip, seemed quite disappointing when we first reached it, after more than a two hour drive, albeit in comfort through some lovely countryside. It was a small town and a not very long street was lined with ladies selling fruit and vegetables. However, we had arrived soon after the beginning and things soon got busier and more interesting. It wasn’t like in Chattisgargh, where the local people weren’t used to having their picture taken and enjoyed the novelty. Here they didn’t like it at all and immediately asked for money. Soon I understand why. Half an hour or so after we arrived a couple of buses and several private vehicles drew up, disgorging a whole crowd of foreign and Indian tourists, most wielding giant SLR cameras. All these tourists clogged up the small village and were incredibly intrusive, yet they bought little from the traders. So what did the local people get out of it if they didn’t ask for money?
Nevertheless, R10 per photo, which was the amount demanded, seemed quite steep. (I was comparing Indian prices where, for example, R5 would buy you a large bunch of bananas.)
Tiny Bonda tribal ladies walked among the tourists in their traditional bright clothing, and tried to sell home-made clothing and jewellery, some of which was stunning. I ended up buying a set of earrings made from wire, a bead necklace and a metal neck ring. There were also people from the Gaba tribe there, slightly less colourful than the Bondas. These latter were all very small, and mostly old and female. The young girls and men mainly stayed away from the haggle of the market, although I did see a few men hurrying past.
The tribal people, or adivasis, were mahogany brown and had features more akin to Indonesians than Indians – more attractive, to my eyes. They wore very little clothing apart from a short piece of cloth wrapped around the waist, and a second piece of material tied around the neck to make a shawl. Besides which, both men and women had multiple strings of colourful beads draped around their necks, entirely covering the front of their bodies, and many also wore numerous silver metal neck rings.
Jewellery and decoration were clearly very important. Almost all the Bonda people wore large hooped earrings and beaded turbans, and many were further adorned with nose rings and tattoos. They were impressive and beautiful to look at.
Because of the demands for money, and the lack of a common language, I didn’t feel I really communicated with any of them, except perhaps an older lady who sold me the neck ring. We had a prolonged haggle over the course of my time at the market, each trying to bargain the other down every time we bumped back into each other. She smiled over this, as did I, and I eventually got the prize for R180. It seemed a decent amount but, all the same, it’s just over £2 to me and represents the commodification of their culture in a not altogether positive way
After walking several times slowly up and down the road, the boys and I decided to try out the local brew and together bought a bottle of clear alcohol that we first tried by drinking through a funnel made from some kind of tree. The drink was called garumba and it wasn’t very nice, nor that alcoholic, but we continued to drink it on our way back to town. Perhaps it was made from mahuwa flowers, but I couldn’t be sure. I also spotted some salpeer, which I’d drunk before (it’s made from the leaves of the cashew tree) and got the boys to try this too, and they much preferred it.
We probably stayed for about three hours and then woke up our driver for the return trip. On the way we passed a controversial dam, one which has apparently caused several villages to be cut off completely from the ‘mainland,’ without electricity or schools.
Back in Koraput we paid the driver and gave him a tip, which elicited a big smile from him. It’s so easy to make people happy when they don’t have much.
Partly because of his reaction, I decided that from then on I would have a beggar allowance of at least R10 a day. I can then give R2 to five people. This is a tiny amount, equivalent to less than two pence, but it’s about what the Indians give, and it satisfies the beggar, who expects nothing more. I had about 70 days left in India and that worked out at only about £10 total. It was nothing, to me. Even the most shoe string backpacker can afford to give to beggars. Doing this, rather than ignoring them, as I had previously done, was much less tiring and stressful and it suddenly allowed me to drop my veneer of hardness and feel genuine compassion for these people, rather than fear and guilt. I told another traveller about my practice and he asked me what I’d do if I used up my daily allowance and people kept asking, and I said I’d keep giving. There are plenty of days when people don’t ask, and I could spend a whole £20 in two months on it, and not suffer.
Simon and Chris didn’t want to hang around and had bought tickets on a night bus heading to Bhubaneswar on the east coast that very evening. I had more time to look around than them, however, and I decided to wait and catch a train next day. The train passed through the Araku Valley and the Eastern Ghats, and the views were reputed to be well worth it.
Friday 18 February
The slow train to Visakhapatnam (Vizag) on the coast wasn’t due to leave until about 2pm, so I had time to see the tribal museum behind the temple. The tribal part was excellent, but there was also an enormous exhibition about the many different varieties of rice, which was less riveting. I was glad it was open because I had earlier drunk a small ceramic cup of chai from a chai man on the corner opposite my hotel and he told me that all the shops were closed because the District Collector had been kidnapped. The whole town had gone on strike and it was big news.
‘Kidnapped by the Naxalites?’ I asked.
Indeed that was the case. I had planned to eat a temple thali before the train but they weren’t serving them until 1pm, so I walked through town hoping to find something open. Koraput had grown on me hugely since my first afternoon, and found the fruit sellers still in their places. When I reached the street with the internet cafes, I coincided with an approaching demonstration, asking for the release of the Collector. I saw a very similar picture to mine in one of the Orissa papers a couple of days later.
Apparently, road blocks were up on the Bhubaneswar Rd, so the boys only just made it out on their night bus. The tea stall I’d visited two nights previously was shut, but there was a place a little further along that appeared to be selling food. I ventured inside and was invited in to sit on a stool in a dark, mud floored building, surrounded by dirt and dust. Opposite me was the chef, next to a large stone slab, heated from below by a wood fire. He was making onion dosas and I watched as he expertly flicked batter onto the stone, shaping it into a large, thin crepe, which he then sprinkled with raw onions and cooked for a little longer before turning in half, then in quarter, and depositing onto a tin tray. Another man took my tray to the pots outside and scooped some spicy potato curry into one compartment in the tray, and some mild, coconut based, ‘sambar’ into another. Despite the unpromising surroundings, the food was fresh and delicious.
I took an auto down to the station and had plenty of time to buy tickets on the sleeper from Vizag to Bhubaneswar and from Puri to Kolkata. I’d already got the dates and times from a handy website called makemytrip.com, and I filled in a form and handed it to the clerk. It is often better to make reservations in advance, particularly on sleepers, because trains fill up fast. ‘Hard’ (non AC) sleepers are much cheaper than AC and I greatly prefer them. I would rather sleep next to an open window than in a cold, smelly box. Often, you can hardly even see out of AC carriages because the windows are tinted, thus spoiling one of the main reasons to travel by train. If you book far enough in advance you can also choose your birth: top, bottom or middle.
Women are entitled to go to the front of queues, so nobody minded when I queue jumped. In Jagdalpur, when I’d stood at the back of the queue I’d been asked by the man next to me to go forward. I suppose this is because there are far fewer women buying tickets. Bigger stations often have a window just for women, while they have several open for men.
Women in India are almost invisible compared to the men.
In the streets of Kolkata there were people everywhere on the pavements, but they were mostly men. Men washing themselves at the pumps, men pissing on the street or in the gutters. I saw at least twenty men pissing a day – they just do it wherever they feel like it, which means that certain places start to stink, particularly near bus stands. Men hawking and spitting, shouting and arguing and beeping their horns. Men making a noise. The one downside about my room in Kolkata, despite it being on the second floor, spacious, clean and in possession of a window, was that it overlooked a small lane below that contained a public pump. These pumps are the life-blood of many people in Kolkata. They are ubiquitous and at every one there are people washing themselves or their clothes, or filling up containers, no matter what time of day, although the activity around them reaches a peak in the early morning.
Yet I rarely saw women washing, so when do they do it? In the dead of night? Where do they urinate? There must be secret, stinking corners, presumably where everyone craps too. You find women selling stuff, sitting beside their fruit and vegetables, their saris or their flowers, but they just don’t seem so visible as pedestrians on the street or as passengers in trains and buses. Women are outside the caste system – not quite as low as dalits, in orthodox Hindu methodology, but not as revered as cows. They’re not allowed access to the Vedas so they have to worship their Gods in a more direct, personal way, by visiting a temple or setting up a shrine at home.
Hinduism, I’ve come to understand, is more than a religion – it’s an entire social system, of which religion is inextricably a part. Religion underpins it and gives it authority, but really it’s all about power struggles. Between those who worship Krishna and those who call Shiva or Vishnu supreme (‘Shaivas’ or ‘Vaishnavas’). Between those who follow Shakti or Devi or those, like the Dravidians of the south, who invert the Ramayana and say that Rama – a Brahmin from the north – is the villain, and Ravana, the demon, is the hero. It seems there are many Hinduisms, all interrelated, but in all of them women are marginalised. Nevertheless, on a day to day basis men, when not being lascivious, sometimes treat women with a lot of respect. I sat on the train to Vizag opposite an old lady, perhaps the mother of one of the men sitting nearby, and her male companions were attentive to her every need.