As the uncle who disappeared for lengthy periods, usually in winter time to India, I was curious about what my very young nephew thought I might be finding in such a place. It may have been his exposure to the enigmatic Scottish poet Ivor Cutler, but he only had to think for a second or two and announced that there were probably egg trees.
In the slightly rising gloom outside I could hear a muffled coughing and grumbling, and the background clatter of hooves on the road nearby. As I had so many times before, I dragged myself out of bed in the dark and tried to wake myself to appear as if I knew what I was doing. What followed was quite an eye-opener.
Few things have simultaneously puzzled, intrigued, tortured, enraptured, dominated, bedevilled and promised enlightenment and salvation to the hapless human race than religion.
When we travel, many of us will at least pay a nod to the old saying “When in Rome, do as the Romans do”. I guess that this is generally useful advice, in particular paying attention to socially acceptable dress and behaviour, and I have heard numerous instances of people thrown out of places of worship for wearing shorts, hauled off for kissing in public, and of course being obnoxiously drunk. It seems to me rather odd, even disturbing, that so many people will demand that visitors to their country adhere to the current views, but obstinately refuse to adapt their own behaviour when abroad. However, the choices we make once out of the office and ‘into the wild’ can be surprising, even to the participants. I’ve lost count of the number of people who have told me ‘I’d never have dared do that before’, and am glad I was able to help them go off the rails a little, its good to get out of your comfort zone.
I am on a sandbank in northern India. There is a full moon. The Ganges is the most sacred river of India if you speak to a Hindu for whom it is a goddess itself, bringing spiritual power from the abode of Shiva, creator and destroyer. It is a monumentally important river to an agriculturist, as its floodplain feeds a third of India’s population, to a geographer it transfers water and nutrients from the Himalaya in its flow, to an economic or military strategist it is a vital supply route, to an anthropologist is is part of the cradle of a civilisation that is twice as old as the pyramids.
Over the years I travelled many thousands of miles through India by rail, mostly hauled by diesel engines, but when I first went there, a lot of venerable steam engines were still in daily service, a honeypot for rail enthusiasts and history buffs alike. As is often said, the ‘Golden Age’ is never the present one; would one see the age of steam as being a golden age for India, or is that just for the hard bitten nostalgic ?
‘Water, water everywhere, nor any drop to drink’, as the Ancient Mariner bemoaned. Of course he was surrounded by seawater, but for a large number of the world’s people the same issue of lack or inability to use water dogs their lives. Simple bonds of hydrogen and oxygen (H2O), create one of nature’s most incredible substances. With properties so constant in some ways that our metric system of weights and volume is based on it; one litre of water weighs a kilogram, one cubic metre of water weighs a tonne.
The BBC recently broadcast a series of one or two hour films on #slowtravel, one was a canal journey, another a reindeer sleigh trip in north Norway and another entitled ‘The Country Bus’ featuring a local bus journey through the narrow lanes and wide landscapes of the Yorkshire Dales. They recalled a time not long past when travel wasn’t really about timetables, or at times, even specific destinations ! The early forerunners of modern adventure travel almost all operated on the basis that the traveller was not guaranteed to get to, or to see all the sights along the way, but they would do their best to attain a final objective. Thus, London to Kathmandu, Cairo to Cape Town became ‘routes’ followed by a steady stream of buses, converted trucks filled with hopeful wayfarers happy just to take things as they came.
There is a humourous anecdote I recall from years ago, where a somewhat puzzled child asks their father why Grandma spends such a lot of time reading just that one book. “It’s the bible, son, there are lots of lessons for us all in there.” A beam of enlightenment crosses the child’s face; “Oh, I understand, now, thanks; I guess she must be swotting up for her finals !”
In India there are uncountable religious festivals, drawing in devotees, pilgrims and other people from all walks of life, in uncountable numbers. One such is encountered at Pushkar, in Rajasthan, a desert state. From all over India and elsewhere, hundreds of thousands gather at the full moon in November, around a temple dedicated to Brahma, the creator in Indian cosmology. It is said to be the only such temple in all India, and is sited in the centre of the village.