Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Travelogue 2017, Episode 2, Gujarat, feels like the first time

Our trip through Gujarat was very intense. All the impressions and adventures were overwhelming at times. It felt like the very first time I had visited India.

Some parts of the journey went smooth, the people were very friendly and helpful. Transport was easy, and (in the beginning) the distances were shortish. The food was superb, espescially in Junagadh. The weather was sunny and dry. Midday temperatures of about 25 degrees, nights and mornings were cold (15) and windy.

Sometimes we’d encounter Indian bureaucracy or lose track of what was going on. Especially the shortage of cash was an issue. Credit cards were rarely accepted.

Junagadh

Junagadh is a medium sized town in the middle of Gujarat, full of palaces and mosques in Islamic architecture, a 23 centuries old fort, a mountain with holy Hindu and Jain temples, and lots of people. Lots. I don’t know whether it was because I was more familiar with southern India, or because I was so tired, but everything felt as overwhelming as the very first time I had been in India. The lively colours, the countless people that greeted us, the crazy traffic, the fantastic shops, the cows in the street – it was just too much.

We picked a hotel in the old town, but the air pollution in the narrow streets was so bad  we had to move to the newer part of town, next to the bus station. It was slightly better. And just as noisy. It made you wonder how long this could go on. The smog entered your throat, eyes and head.
The old town was an endless collection of old palaces, mosques and mausoleums, surpassing each other in how neglected and crumbling they were. In between the vibrant city life. If you are afraid  good old India is disappearing, go to Junagadh.


Sasan safari

It was an enchanting and magical sight in the headlight beams. Trees, bushes, giant leaves, trunks, boulders  - everything looked like an animal. Later, in the morning fog, they looked like grey ghosts. It was dry forest, not very dense, with some slopes, creeks and tribal villages.

With all our sweaters and coats on, it was still cold in the back if the open Jeep. We saw a rabbit, deer and peacocks. Then, some Jeeps that were parked on the side of the road. Something had to be there. Yes, very vague behind the bushes was a lion’s head. Then a lion got up. They walked closer to the road and we got a better view. As grayish-brownish as the  shrub and dirt, and above all, huge, gigantic. One adult female and four adolescent children. Ignoring our presence they strolled around, laid down for a moment, walked on. Majestic!

The second half of the safari the sun came up and we saw lots more deer and peacocks. Also an antelope, some black faced monkeys, a crested hawk eagle, a common hoopoo, and two spotted owlets. One female on a branch and one male opposite hidden in a tree trunk, really you just saw its eyes.

Somnath town

Somnath is an important Hindu temple on the Arabian Sea that draws pilgrims from all over India. 

The old town of Somnath was a maze of narrow alleys. Most of the houses were made of concrete, the older brick ones often run down and deserted. Cows and pigs roamed the streets or the open sewers. There were just some small shops, until we reached a wider street with a street market. Old women sat on the ground with vegetables in baskets in front of them. The veggies looked good and varied. Old men sat in tiny rooms, open to the street, with a sewing machine or performing other crafts.

We visited an old mosque with an ancient Persian stone inscription. In the back was a beautifully tiled room with a grave, covered in clothes as tradition wants it. The caretakers were most welcoming and friendly. Down the road was a Hindu temple with a silver fa├žade and a black marble statue inside, hardly visible underneath all the cloths. Men were performing rituals, women were praying. A little further again was a big Jain temple, beautifully maintained, colourfully painted, with decorated pillars and coves with statues of wise teachers. A group of women was performing rituals but could spare us a friendly nod with the head.

This street had some larger, older houses with wooden balconies, maybe of merchants. The old town was pleasantly quiet without traffic, and the pilgrims for the big temple didn’t bother to come down here. No other Western visitor even considered visiting this faraway corner of Gujarat.

Portuguese Diu

Diu is a small island on the south side of Gujarat. Until 1961 it was a Portuguese colony, and the Portuguese had left a far better legacy than the British. The contrast with the mainland was huge. Everything was better kept, cleaner, neater, quieter and more peaceful. The architecture was quite different, in Portuguese style, with churches, monasteries and chapels. A welcome change after ten hectic days.

The street pattern and the curved shoreline provided total disorientation, and we regularly lost our way. Thanks to the wonders of GPS all ended well. We did see several other western tourists, but in the end it turned out to be only a handful who were there for a long time and who we bumped into again and again. On weekends it was very busy with domestic Indian tourists, coming to get that drink that is illegal in Gujarat.
We fully enjoyed the "holiday within the holiday" with, among others, a motorcycle tour around the island and a walk on the city walls.

Palitana

Palitana is a provincial market town, a regional centre where people from all over the region come to shop. Farming tools, rope, cables and provisions.



Money troubles

November 8,  Prime Minister Modi declared almost all banknotes invalid, as per immediately. It was a move against black money and corruption. However, without additional structural measures, it was a senseless action which inflicted a lot of damage to the Indian economy, which runs primarily on cash. Especially the poorer half of the country does not even have a bank account. Farmers cannot buy seeds and miss a harvest. It means bankruptcy and starvation. Since then, new banknotes have been distributed sparsely.  There are way too few, and people can only withdraw very limited amounts.

We could take small amounts from the ATM, at relatively high cost. The first two days that sort of worked, after that we didn’t see any ATM's that worked for a week. Slowly I began to worry. We tried regular ATM's and bank offices, but all we got was zip, zero. In Veraval we were referred to Somnath. In Somnath we were referred to Veraval. One bank pointed  to the other, and vice versa. Credit card and even cash were refused by  the banks.

In Diu I walked into an office of ICICI Bank, and the manager said at half past one the ATM would be filled.  We happened to walk past the office again at 12pm, when the guard waved us over and said  the ATM would open in ten minutes. So we started queuing. After twenty minutes, the shutter opened and a man came crawling underneath. An hour delay, he said. We decided to split. Two of us went for a bite to eat. After twenty minutes the others came over: the machine was broken, it would take another hour. While they had  lunch, I went to look at the SBI  across the street. There was a queue and something seemed to happen. I joined and was immediately waved forward. White privilege. That helped me jump at least 15 places, only 10 people left in front of me, inside the booth. Then came an Indian lady in sari who was immediately allowed all the way to the machine. Ten minutes later it was my turn, and sure enough, I got money. Wow!

When the others had finished their lunch, they tried the SBI. But they were not waved to the front and the line barely moved.

We walked back to the ICICI - there too was action. We joined the queue, but were directed to the front by the guard – after all originally we had been the first in the queue. Two of us took money out. When the other two moved in, the machine was empty. All in all it had been operational less than half an hour…

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