Thursday, October 28, 2010

Allahabad - it ain't all bad =P

Before venturing forth and leaving Varanasi, I'm warned by the friendly bus driver, deep inside a jubilant smile, "Allahabad is dirty city, it congested and full of faces friendly." With mixed feelings, I take the local bus and am surprised to find it not only operating at a functional speed, but not overcrowded either! I'd seen footage and heard horror stories of buses being packed to breaking point, with people forced to stand in the aisle for long journeys.

The town of Allahabad itself is like a subcontinental Penang. It is famous throughout India for food, producing 'pure desi ghee' as well as being home to hundreds of hawker stands and outdoor eating stands. The locals love butter, and don't be surprised to find a full stick in your soup. My tomato soup tasted more like butter and boiling water. Nightfall is no a time to party here, it's a holy city. After dark activities are limited to eating vast quantities of food and staring at westerners or 'goras.'.

 It is rarely seen by western eyes, and as such visitors should expect even more goggle-eyed disbelief to come their way. In the week I stayed here, I saw no other westerner. Not one. The town is difficult to navigate, but a little Hindi opens a lot of doors. I'm very thankful for that rushed lesson I had on a Varanasi rooftop, just a few days earlier. The cycle rickshaws in town, although plentiful, are among the most uncomfortable in all of India. The bench width is fine, but the length is narrow and will have you leaning forward just to keep balance. Your knees will cradle the bicycle seat, putting you in an uncomfortably intimate position with the driver. If you feel self-conscious, exchange names.  They seem to take it all in their stride though, no doubt used to the conditions. Your spine will feel each bump on the road though, and every lurch in traffic will have you reeling in pain.

A hotel that costs $25 a night has room service 24/7 - a bargain! Although you shouldn't eat all your meals in the hotel room, late night ice-cream snacks proved a real mood booster as I struggled with conjunctivitis and the lingering touch of Mother Ganga. The day after bathing in the sacred waters, I awoke to acute pain in both my eyes. I found that itching only made them worse, and it took the chemist in Allahabad all of three seconds to conclude I had pink-eye, or as they say in these parts - 'Madras Eye.' I've never had this condition before, and boy is it irritating. I feel blinded most of the time, and whenever I take my sunglasses off in public, people recoil in a mix of horror and disgust.

Allahabad is famous for nearby Sangam, which is perhaps the holiest site in all of India for Hindus. Yes, it surpasses even Varanasi in terms of mass-pilgrimage. It is here that three holy rivers meet; Ganga, Yamuna and a third mystical (underground) one named Saraswati. The pathway to the riverfront is lined with people from all walks of life, from hustlers to holy men, beggars to buffaloes and everything in between. Sadhus sleep in the shade, sharing their patch of grass with dormant dogs and begging babies.

 There are more beggars on the riverfront than I've seen in all of India. They run the gamut from young and old, disfigured to desperate, and downright dismembered. Amputees are a-plenty, and I also see a man whose face appears to have been hacked off with a butter knife, his eyes are gone and in their place is bright pink flesh. I feel bad of course, but as I can't help them all out, I mutter a quick 'maaf kariya' to those who miss out and find a suitable vessel for my river journey.

A boat ride on the river is best done in the morning, when the weather is cool and the crowds have yet to congregate. Whatever price is quoted to you is at least 5 times the going rate, but what you end up paying comes down to your own bargaining skills and perseverance. The magnificent 'Allahabad Fort' is best viewed from the river, as you can see it in full without your view being obstructed by trees. My boat driver tried to talk me into drinking from the river, even when I explained that I got conjunctivitis just from swimming in it. My explanation involved vigorous hand gestures and winking my swollen eyes. He seemed confused, offended and finally angry but I didn't care, I'd never see this man again and it wasn't worth risking my life for him to keep his cool. A western man died from drinking the water just last year, and besides, when it came time to ask me for yet another baksheesh, he'd dropped his murderous stare and was all smiles once again.
Once you're out in the water, if you're lucky you'll be taken to a real priest or holy man and not just another schemer. This so-called holy man tried to trick me into spending 500 rupees, just for chanting a few magic words and tossing some coconuts aside. What's worse is he didn't tell me the price upfront, heavens no, he waited until he'd completed his 'ceremony.' I paid him 50 rupees and told him that 'ripping someone off due to the colour of their skin wasn't very holy,' I don't think he understood it word for word, sadly =P

* A Sadhu is the 4th stage in an ideal Hindu cycle (pictured below is the real deal). The wandering ascetic, is required to give up all material possessions in pursuit of becoming closer to God. They have a fondness for smoking hash, and usually their only (other) belongings are saffron robes, a walking stick and a small begging bowl. They have been known to eat bodies that wash up from the Ganges, and spend a great deal of their life walking.

There are pretenders afoot though, such as that fake on the boat. These cheats and hustlers have stockpiles of cash, don't think twice about ripping off tourists and are no closer to God than you or I.

1 comment:

  1. hey fry , as you mentioned Allahabad being very dirty city , let me remind you that is much cleaner than varanasi , in varanasi you won't find wider and cleaner roads as you find in Allahabad, overall the piece was very well written