Friday, January 28, 2011

There Goes The Fear? - The Vipassana Experience Part I

Right then, I haven’t lost interest in blogging over the past fortnight, no, instead I’ve been sitting around on my arse for 10 hours spending all of my time thinking, doing absolutely nothing productive but trying to look really busy at the same time. No, I haven’t joined the civil service. Having survived the physical rigours of three weeks in the Himalayas on this trip, I decided that it was time to test my mental wellbeing by signing up for a 10 day meditation course, situated in a retreat just outside Jaipur - an Annapurna Circuit for the mind as it were. If you google the words ‘meditation course India’, one of the first results you’ll come across is ‘Vipassana’ and that was my first introduction to the term some months back before even entering India. The concept of meditation has always appealed, anything to help to shut off an overactive mind and just relax can only be a good thing. Signing up for a Vipassana course online is simple and within a couple of days I’d received confirmation of acceptance on a course beginning January 16th.
What also intrigued me about the Vipassana method was the rigorous, no bullshit approach they espouse. For the ten days you’re participating in the course you’re expect to maintain complete silence, 24 hours a day until 10am on the morning of the last day of the course. This is termed - rather grandly - ‘noble silence’. You’re discouraged from making eye contact and all contact with the outside world is forbidden - truly, a misanthrope's paradise. There is complete segregation of males and females lest the proximity of flesh prove too much for a focussed mind. Mobile phones, laptops, books, pens, even vibrators I’m sure are all deposited with management on enrolment day. Nothing is left to chance. It’s just you and your thoughts for 10 days. Quite why that seemed appealing to me at any stage is beyond me now. On top of all this, you’re very much thrown in at the deep end from a meditation point of view. From having never meditated for a millisecond in my life previously, I was now expected to jump headlong into a 10 hour a day shift for the 10 days that I would spend there.
The course participants - about 70 in total - were a pretty even split between Indians and westerners, like me keen to try out something new. Once we had registered we were shown to our rooms for the duration of the course - very basic but clean and with an attached bathroom. I considered asking if there was a wi-fi connection in my room but given the seriousness with which we were asked “Are you sure you’re ready for this?” upon arrival, I decided against it. One other thing about this course - there’s absolutely no charge for it. You spend ten days here being taught how to meditate, you’re given a bed, hot water and as much food (vegetarian of course) as you can eat. You’re welcome to give a donation once the course has been completed but no-one’s there with a begging bowl on the final day pressuring you into it.
The setting is wonderful and utterly conducive to the calm required for meditation. The centre is built in the hills to the west of Jaipur and we’re sharing the same space as the monkeys, peacocks and squirrels which inhabit the area. There are 5 precepts which we must keep during the entire duration of the course and they are as follows;
  1. to abstain from killing any being (right, should manage that one if I really try)
  2. to abstain from stealing (nothing left to steal - management has everything of value)
  3. to abstain from all sexual activity (if only)
  4. to abstain from telling lies
  5. to abstain from all intoxicants
On the evening we arrive we gather in the dhama hall for our pre-course chat, none of which I recall other than a plea that we restrain from killing scorpions and snakes if we encounter them. That behaviour is apparently "frowned upon here". Other than that, we will begin the following morning at 4.30am. The timetable is as follows;

4:00 am Morning wake-up bell
4:30-6:30 am Meditate in the hall or in your room
6:30-8:00 am Breakfast break
8:00-9:00 am Group meditation in the hall
9:00-11:00 am Meditate in the hall or in your room according to the teacher's instructions
11:00-12:00 noon Lunch break
12noon-1:00 pm Rest and interviews with the teacher
1:00-2:30 pm Meditate in the hall or in your room
2:30-3:30 pm Group meditation in the hall
3:30-5:00 pm Meditate in the hall or in your own room according to the teacher's instructions
5:00-6:00 pm Tea break
6:00-7:00 pm Group meditation in the hall
7:00-8:15 pm Teacher's Discourse in the hall
8:15-9:00 pm Group meditation in the hall
9:00-9:30 pm Question time in the hall
9:30 pm Retire to your own room--Lights out

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Bird watching in Bharatpur

Bharatpur is not on most people’s Rajasthani itineraries but it appeals to me for two reasons; it’ll serve as a base for exploring the abandoned city of Fatehpur Sikri, some 22km away, and it’s right beside the Keoladeo bird sanctuary. That’s right, birds. I have come to Bharatpur to be an ornithologist for a day or at least to pass myself off as one. Bird watching has to be up there with train spotting and stamp collecting in the nerd alert stakes and yet I‘m very excited about the day ahead which proves one of two things;

(a) Bird watching is not as nerdy as I had imagined or

(b) I am a nerd

I’ll go with (a). The best way around the park is by bike and there are several bikes for rent by the ticket desk. What you need above all when bird watching though are binoculars and, in a typically Indian twist, there are none to be had because of some form of contractual dispute between the suppliers and the park authorities. I’m assured at my guest house that I’ll be able to rent a pair from the guides but they aren’t having any of it as I don’t want to employ their services for the day. And so, binocularless, off I go into the park, feeling somewhat naked, a nerd amongst nerds.

One of the more fascinating species I immediately spot and have no problems recognising is the classic bird watching type - a bespectacled and pot-bellied Englishman in his mid to late 50’s with a plummy BBC voice (“And to the left you can see the black-necked stork who over-winter here on a 2,000km round journey from north eastern Siberia”) contemptuously disagreeing with an equally nerdy American counterpart over the identification of a stork they’ve spotted at a distance. He’s kitted out in full bird watching regalia; combat pants, fisherman’s vest, notebook and pencil and a pocket reference guide just to confirm that he’s right whenever he and the American disagree. The man is a walking clichĂ© but he’s knowledgeable as hell and it’s from him I gather some idea of what it is I’m looking at. For much of the day though I feel like the guy at the Trekkie convention who asks “So which one’s Mr. Spock?”

Sure I could have employed the services of a guide - at least then I could name some of the birds I’m ignoring - but it’s 400 INR to get in and then 100 INR an hour for a guide’s services beyond that. One hour barely gets you inside the park and all of the avian heavy hitters lie much deeper inside the park and so I plan to follow the bird man of BBC for the day. Not really. In truth I can’t be arsed identifying the scores of different birds, it’s enough being in here amidst the occasional din of nesting storks and spotting the vivid multi-coloured plumage of what I assume aren‘t parrots. I’m just happy being here and cycling around having finally escaped from Delhi for the next month or so at least.

There’s a remarkable monument in the heart of the park which details the amount of birds killed in a day and the guns used to do so back in the days when the park was a duck shoot reserve. One number towers above all others - that of the venerable Viceroy Lord Linlithgow whose party bagged a staggering 4,273 birds on one day using a mere 39 guns. I have no idea how the bird man of BBC will feel about the actions of his fellow countryman but I enjoy the thought of the American bird watcher exacting some small measure of revenge by giving him a hard time over it.

And yet by the end of the day, in spite of any misgivings I may have about bird watching, it is a stunning park and I can’t help but be impressed and drawn in by what I see during the day. For instance I manage to see my first python which I had been happily cycling past until a passing local drew my attention to it. Shit, I love snakes, and so I stood transfixed until the snake grew bored of where he was and slithered away. Birds? Pah.

There are also nesting storks looking ridiculous high in the trees and two beautiful wading birds who’ve got everyone’s attention and all of the long lenses out. I stand there in the midst of them with my point and shoot camera and feel like the kid at school who showers with his underwear on. There are deer, cows, chital, nalgai, snakes, wild boar, monkeys and jackals to be seen at various stages throughout the day. There’s also a solitary tiger roaming in the park - great for hunting, not so good for reproduction - and there are signs warning the public to stay on the main roads once inside the park boundaries. I don’t see the tiger but he’s left his mark behind as I see a freshly killed cow’s carcass being eaten by wild boars whilst some equally hungry jackals lie in wait for the boars to have their fill.


And so I’ve completed my first month in India. Still alive, blood pressure hovering around normal and looking forward to the next two months before heading to pastures new. My first month here has been a best of Rajasthan package really, other than a visit to Varanasi and some days spent in Delhi, mainly using it as a base for further exploration. To date India’s been a breeze to travel through. Sure, there have been cancelled trains or trains delayed for so long that they should have been cancelled but getting around has been wonderfully easy. The people are great, the food is wonderful, I just wish that it was warmer. The other day as I returned to the capital from a 10 day tour around some of Rajasthan’s jewels, Delhi experienced its coldest day in 42 years. Great. Christ it was cold - bone deep rather than skin deep.

One disappointment so far was Jaipur which I found to be not at all like what it says on the tin. Didn’t work for me at all there. Sure, the Palace of the Winds was eye-catching and the City Palace was suitably palatial but dull. Udaipur, however, was an unexpected treasure. Perhaps it was the difference in expectation, perhaps it was the fact that Udaipur offered the best room in the nicest guesthouse (the owner was a greedy, charmless arsehole though) after a night without sleep, whatever, it is a beautiful city with its immaculate lake setting and its genuinely stunning lakeside palace.

Jodhpur was also worth the two days I spent there, if for nothing else than its stunning Meherangarh Fort which absolutely towers above the old city. Much is made of the city’s blue walled buildings but they’re scarcely noticeable once you’re there, many of them painted in a whitewash that might look blue if you stare at it long enough. The second reason to love Jodhpur though was that fact that it served up the greatest samosas I’ve ever tasted and which I practically lived on for my two days there.

Right now I'm in Bharatpur and feeling like something of a celebrity. Being stared at the by the greater Indian population is a given from time to time, even in bigger cities like Delhi but it takes on a life of its own here in Bharatpur when, as I strolled into the city the other day to check out the fort it seemed as if I brought the bloody place to a standstill. Depending on your mood this can either be disconcerting or bloody good fun and for me, most of the time it's the latter.

The hunt for tigers Part I

The global tiger population is estimated to be somewhere between 1,200 and 1,800 and the word is that if you’re going to see a tiger anywhere in the wild in India, Ranthambore NP is the place it’s going to happen. Ranthambore’s tigers are famously indifferent to the tourists’ clicking cameras and the roar of the fleet of jeeps which carry tourists in and out of the park twice daily. The park’s reputation for being India’s premier tiger viewing park is in marked contrast to its neighbour, Sariska NP. In 2003 Sariska’s tiger population was estimated at 28 but a mere 2 years later they had all but vanished. Apparently a famed local taxidermist - clearly confusing himself with a toxicologist - operating in tandem with corrupt wardens orchestrated a mass poisoning, in the process completely eliminating the park’s tiger population. Unfortunately for India’s tiger population this seems to be the rule rather than the exception.

I have done many things on this trip that I’d never done before - diving, white water rafting and telling tuk-tuk drivers in 10 different countries exactly where they can shove their vehicles, to name but a few - but until Ranthambore I’d never been on a safari before and, in typically Indian style, it was a unique experience. In an unusual example of efficiency, it’s possible to book your seats on the jeep (6-seaters but impossible to secure a seat due to demand - they‘re smaller and quieter) or canters (noisy 20-seaters) online, when the website works that is. When I check there are only some seats left on the canters but whatever gets me in is good for me.

Pick-up in the morning is at the Department of Forestry which is some 300m from my hotel. On arrival there you’re supposed to register and pick up your boarding pass but, as ever, there’s no information on where you should queue and, once you’ve managed to figure that out, you have to go looking for your guide whose name is written on your pass. Not easy at 6.30am and in complete darkness. On top of this I’m told, once I’ve managed to find the guide, that our driver will not be reporting for work today. Eventually we do manage to find a driver somewhere and we’re away.

What I haven’t mentioned thus far and what was to be the main feature of the morning was the fog - “very unseasonal” our guide assured us but, regardless, unseasonal fog is as difficult to peer through as the seasonal variety. I imagine it’s difficult spotting tigers in a large national park in bright and clear conditions, but when the entire area is enveloped by a wicked freezing fog which has reduced visibility to about 5 metres, then the task becomes closer to impossible than the improbable I’d hoped for when I booked my trip here.

On entry into the park it’s immediately apparent that there’s about as much chance of seeing a tiger in these conditions as there is of our guide saying something informative or interesting. He spends the two hours we have in the park telling us whenever we near a herd of deer that “Here are some deer”. Nice work if you can get it. In short, we came, we looked, we saw fog and we went home. I could embellish this particular adventure with tales of what I saw along the way but I saw nothing but fog. Lots of fucking fog. By the morning’s conclusion I imagined the park’s tiger population peering down from the heights, toasting marshmallows and warming their claws on an open fire, laughing in Far Side-esque style at the freezing idiots lost in the fog in the jeeps below.

Agra = Dump

Upon visiting the Taj Mahal I can’t help but think that if Shah Jahan had realised what an absolute shitheap of a city would in the future sprout up around his enduring monument to love, he’d have decided “Fuck this lads, let’s build a casino instead”. If the Taj Mahal is an embodiment of heaven on earth then, continuing the Biblical theme, it follows that the city which surrounds it is a modern day Sodom and Gomorrah. It’s a sprawling, polluted and overpopulated mess and it’s home to India’s most persistent and downright beligerent tuk-tuk drivers - the only bunch I‘ve encountered so far who either don‘t understand or choose to ignore the words “Fuck off, I‘m walking“.

Getting to Agra is the easy part, getting in to see the Taj is where the difficulties begin. 99% of the people who flock to see the Taj are Indian tourists and they flock there in very large numbers indeed. This doesn’t initially present a problem as there’s a ticket booth for foreigners, meaning that I have my golden ticket within seconds. The Indian queue, however, stretches quite literally for about a mile whilst I can walk to the head of the tourist queue unmolested. There’s a guy who loiters right beside where the tourist ticket booth is situated and who, upon your arrival, explains to you that you really should join the tourist queue because it would be quicker. Remarkably he expects a tip for this blindingly obvious information. I tell him that if we didn’t breathe then we’d die and therefore feel as if my debt of mutually useless information to him has been settled.

I imagine that I’ve done the hard work upon securing the entry ticket but of course it‘s not as easy as that. I join the queue for admission - alas this time there’s no line for foreigners - and begin the walk to the end of the line quickly realising that there are hundreds of people in this line and - in typically Indian style - there are only three people checking tickets and one of those works solely on the ladies queue. Fortunately there are three gates at which you can enter the site and I move around to the South Gate meaning that the queuing time is cut in half. Skipping the queue in this country is seen almost as a rite of passage but there’s a burly Indian two places behind me who’s not having any of it - if he‘s queuing then everyone else will queue too. Three guys decide to wriggle their way in front of me, hoping to be sheltered by the westerner but The Enforcer is on to them immediately, his meaty finger tapping them on the shoulder pointing to exactly where the queue begins.

It takes about half an hour of queuing but then I’m inside making my way towards the impossibly grand gate in front of the Taj and then……..there it is. Phew. It is every bit as beautiful as you’d imagine, almost surreal in its wedding cake-esque perfection. And it’s very fucking white. So now you know. There are people swooning and cooing everywhere, not that you’d notice as the Taj holds your attention completely for the first five minutes that you’re there.

Once you’ve taken all the money shots there’s also the chance to join a queue to get inside the Taj. Now, initially I’m of the opinion that I don’t need to get inside as I’m here to marvel at the exterior but the length of the queue suggests that I may be missing out on something special inside and so I reluctantly join. Big mistake. If you happen to have chanced upon this page because you’re thinking of visiting the Taj Mahal, a word of advice - under no circumstances do you want to or need to go inside. As with all Indian queues, the closer you get to the front, the further you seem to go back. All I remember about the inside of the Taj is the crush of bodies being hastily ushered to the exit by bearded, turbaned and whistle happy guards.

Of course no visit to Agra would be complete without a visit to its famous fort. Er, except, it would actually. Impressive as it surely is, Agra fort pales in comparison with the forts of Jaisalmer and Jodhpur, both of which tower over the cities in which they were constructed, which is, when you think about it, exactly what a fort should do. But not in Agra’s case. The fort is positioned at what could only be described as the bottom of a basin. Sure the building itself is impressive but with thoughts turning to an impending visit to the Taj just down the road, it doesn’t leave any lasting impression.

Happy New Year

I’d love to recount a tale of how I saw out the old year and in the new in exotic style but I didn’t so I can’t. The march into 2011 this year was marked in Delhi, striding around the city in search of some festivities to mark the occasion - Hindus don‘t celebrate Christmas Day but there seemed to be much chatter about New Year‘s Eve. Connaught Square, we were assured, was the place to be when the clock struck twelve. Clearly it must have been 12 noon because with some thirty minutes to go to 2011, there was no crowd in spite of a heavy police presence who’d obviously turned up expecting a party as well.
Beer was also at a premium. Never the easiest commodity to lay your hands on in India, things were worse, much worse on NYE. The only wine and beer shop we were familiar with close to Pahar Ganj had its doors shut early. Strolling past a shop minutes later, somewhat miraculously we spotted some beer. I asked the shopkeeper if he had any beer and was told that he had copious amounts of alcohol in stock so I ordered myself four bottles of Kingfisher which our friendly shopkeeper seemed in too much of a haste to wrap up in newspaper and place lovingly into my bag for me. The price - 60 INR - also seemed a little too low, given the demand for booze on this most auspicious of nights and so I checked out the labels. Sure enough he put 4 bottles of what were hastily labelled ‘Kingfarmer’ into my bag, each of which had an alcohol content of exactly 0.0% and each of them bearing a passing resemblance to Kingfisher bottles. His weak reply of “But they taste good” didn’t wash and so we headed off, trying to convince ourselves that an alcohol free 2011 was the way to go.
Nothing happening in Connaught Square, we returned to Pahar Ganj with the clock ticking towards midnight. But not a celebration in sight. No fireworks. No crowds. No party. No countdown. We made our way into a café which was indeed selling genuine Kingfisher beer and we had our own little countdown into 2011. Happy New Year.