There is no ‘bucket list’ - Lynne and I are both well, thank you – but we have arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time, the money and the good health to indulge in a passion for travel. We know how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this, and we know it won’t last for ever, but while it does…..

Saturday, 23 February 2013

Allahabad (2), A Bit of Foot-slogging: Part 6 of Delhi and Uttar Pradesh

Mohammed was as good as his word, shortly after breakfast a car and driver arrived to take us for another run at the Kumbh Mela.

Crossing the site of the kumbh on the road to Allahabad

We bumped back over the field, but this time turned right towards the main road; without Seema to talk us through the roadblocks we had to take the official route. It took ten or fifteen minutes to reach the edge of Allahabad where city-bound traffic heads up over a flyover and Kumbh traffic filters left on a single lane threaded through the piers of the flyover towards the riverside suburb of Sangam.

A lot of traffic wanted to get down that single lane, and the usual Indian drivers’ response is to generate more lanes. A single lane can easily accommodate two cars and a third can be made by co-opting the dusty verge. As we arrived a fourth lane was being created, causing several stallholders to hurriedly re-locate their pitches.

Four lanes of traffic worked well enough until they came to squeeze between the concrete piers. The gaps allowed one, perhaps two smaller cars to pass at a time. The traffic locked solid. Every driver knows that to solve this problem they must edge forward while leaning on the horn.

Inch by hard-won, cacophonous inch we shoved and jostled our way through. On the other side sanity returned and we set off for Sangam only to find our way barred by a policeman. Without Seema to smooth the way we had to do as directed and ended up in a car park within sight of the flyover.
Garlands for sale on the walk to the Kumbh Mela, Allahabad

Before we left the car the driver wanted to give us his mobile phone number, but although our phone was happy to show a welcome message from India Telecom, it refused to make or take any calls or texts so there was no point. I am not sure what we would have talked about anyway as we had no words of any language in common.  Instead we synchronised watches and, by turning hands and pointing, agreed a time to return.

With no real plan, we decided to follow the general drift of the crowd. We did this for an hour.

We became absorbed in the colourful, good natured crowd, strolling along in sunshine that was warm but gentle enough for it to be ideal walking weather. Our companions were all sorts and conditions of people of all ages, united in their pilgrimage. Some were laden down and obviously planning to stay for some time. We saw food, cooking equipment and mats to sit on all bundled up in a sheet and carried on peoples’ heads.
Passing a temple and a fort on the way to the Kumbh Mela

We passed through tented areas lined with stalls, some on trolleys, some laid out on the ground, and small business sections with makeshift banks and police stations. We passed a temple and a fort dating back to the days of the raj.

At the Kumbh Mela, Allahabad
Eventually we reached the river. Looking at our watches we realised we could stay for ten minutes before starting the long trek back.
Bathing in the Ganges at the Kumbh Mela, Allahabad

We wandered round, soaking up as much of the atmosphere as was possible in the time, then set off towards the car.
Starting the long walk back
Kumbh Mela, Allahabad
The driver was waiting. Back at the flyover the congestion was as bad leaving as it had been arriving and we soon found ourselves solidly jammed between concrete piers. To our right was a handcart piled high with fruit, its pilot resting against the pier breathing heavily. To our left a bevy of sari clad matrons sat in a trailer behind a large green tractor. Nobody was moving, the air was loud with the sound of horns and thick with the fumes of diesel, particularly around the unfortunate man with the cart.

Then our driver did something remarkable, and I am still not sure how he did it. He reversed out of the traffic jam. It was obviously impossible, but somehow his determined application of the horn prised open a small space and he just backed out. We returned to the car park and set off again on a slightly different trajectory. Amazingly we slipped through with relative ease and came out on the main road only thirty metres down from the earlier impenetrable jam. We could still see the green tractor and the bright colours of the women’s saris; they had not moved an inch.

The remainder of our return trip was reasonably swift and we arrived in time for lunch. We had been out for just over four hours and spent ten minutes at the kumbh. It should have felt like a wasted morning, but strangely it did not. Our experience was similar to those of many ordinary kumbh-goers and it somehow felt right and appropriate.

We paid off the driver, had lunch and enjoyed a rare afternoon of inactivity, sitting outside our 'Swiss cottage' and reading until the sun forced us to read inside.

A relaxing read outside our 'Swiss Cottage' 

At dusk we walked down to the Ganges.
The sun sets over the Ganges
Near Allahabad

I became involved in a deep and serious discussion with these two, but I have no idea what it was about.

Serious discussions beside the Ganges
The next morning we walked to the village that lined the road to the highway.

We arrived on dung cake day - or perhaps every day is dung cake day. Buffalo dung is the main fuel for cooking and it has to be collected, patted into appropriately sized cakes and set out in the sun to dry. Outside every house a woman was engaged in this activity. The girl in the picture had been working alongside her mother until we arrived, but she stopped to pose for a picture. When we passed again at the end of our walk she was sitting on the wall eating a bowl of rice with her fingers. I like to think she washed her hands in between.

Taking a break from the dung cakes
Village near Allahabad
The camp, filled largely with middle class Indians but with a good sprinkling of foreigners, had been nearby for over a month, but we caused so much interest it was clear that few, if any, of our fellow campers had bothered to investigate the lives of their temporary neighbours.

A young man invited is into the village temple and exercised his limited English showing us round. It was very basic, but if it lacked the grandeur of the great temples we had visited, no one could question the devotion and piety of those we saw there.

In the village temple

Leaving the temple, we continued up the street. Any child not hard at work on dung cakes insisted that we take their photograph.
A girl who really needed to be photographed
Village near Allahabad

A man dragged us into the courtyard of his home, sat us down and called his wife and many children to come and greet his unusual visitors. Language difficulties meant the conversation was stilted, but we smiled, said what a fine collection of sons and daughters he had and generally tried to exude goodwill.
Lynne with our host, his wife and two of his children

Outside we met a lad who assured us his brother was Sachin Tendulkar. He did not fool me, and I thought of telling him I was Ian Botham, but he was probably too young to have heard of Ian Botham.
Is this Sachin Tendulkar? No

We took more photographs…..

Plenty of material for dung cakes
Village near Allahabad
….. and were invited in for a another sit down by a man with fewer children, but with a bent and aged grandmother who emerged from the deepest recesses of the house to have a good look at us. She did not seem very impressed.

A child we had photographed on our way up grabbed us again on our return and insisted we photograph her friend and little sister (or brother?) too.

We have seen this girl before!
We were a novelty and everybody who could spare a moment from their dung cakes came to have a look. It was all very friendly, many hands were shaken and much goodwill expressed all round and we returned to the camp with the warm glow of knowing the world is filled with nice people who want nothing more than to get along with each other.
The village street
In the afternoon we took another walk, strolling for a mile our two beside the Ganges. We met a man taking his camel for an airing..
Walking a camel beside the Ganges
Near Allahabad

...and a group of women carrying sacks of rice on their heads. I do not know where they were going but they arrived from the distance before us and disappeared into the distance behind. It was a long carry for heavy bags.

Carrying rice beside the Ganges
Near Allahabad
Litter is the curse of India. The detritus of the Kumbh, decaying garlands and the pressed leaf cups used to hold candles offered to the sacred river, will soon decay; plastic bags are another matter. And then there is the other pollution, industrial and human; pollution that cannot be seen but can sometimes be smelt.

Beside the Ganges
Near Allahabad
The secular authorities know there is a problem, the religious authorities recognise it too, but little is done. Swami Chidanand Saraswati wrote of the Holy Ganges in the Times of India 'it is time to pay back and protect and preserve her precious and pristine waters.' The waters may be precious but it is many decades since they were pristine. Action needs to be taken urgently.

We met this pair on their bicycle who demanded I take their picture, and a rather pleasing picture it is too. It is a shame they could only see it on the scratched and battered screen on my aged camera.

Beside the Ganges, near Allahabad

Dinner was another unimaginative vegetarian buffet, memorable only for causing Lynne to make the short journey to the toilet several times during the night. I slept well - except when something jumped on me. It then went under Lynne's bed and scrabbled out the door of the tent. I shuddered and hoped it was not a rat. There had been a little rain and the beast left a muddy footprint in the doorway of the tent. It was definitely no rat, you might think it was a dog, I prefer to believe it was a leopard.
Obviously a leopard. Surely.

In the morning another driver turned up to take us the 200 kilometres to Lucknow. Indian roads do not make for fast travelling and it took all day, but that mattered little - there is always something to see, and we are usually moving slowly enough to see it.

On the road to Allahabad
We stopped at 11.30 at an open fronted tea shop packed with customers. Traditional Indian tea is made with condensed milk and is strong and sweet. Provided you do not think of it as being tea, it makes a surprisingly refreshing drink on a warm day. As in most street tea stalls the tea came in earthenware cups, the ultimate recyclable material; throw it on the floor when it is no more use and it returns to the dust from which it was made.
A very Indian cup of tea
Teahouse between Allahabad and Lucknow

Later we came across a working party cutting down a tree. The traffic had been stopped by men with red flags but this being India the cars and motorcycles behind him had spread over both sides of the road and were starting to colonise the verges as well.
The massed ranks ready to charge.
On the road from Allahabad to Lucknow

After much sawing and pausing and pondering and sawing again, the tree crashed to the ground as the sawyers dashed for safety.
The tree crashes and the sawyers run
On the road from Allahabad to Lucknow
I had watched from the middle of the road so I was in prime position to observe the cavalry charge as three lanes of traffic each way headed for each other down a two lane road.

To the accompaniment of blaring horns the tide swept around me and battle commenced. Our car pulled up, I stepped inside and we joined in.

We reached Lucknow in the late afternoon as drizzle started to fall. The city of 6 million people is the capital of Uttar Pradesh; it is also the birthplace of Cliff Richard, though other important events took place there which will feature in the next two posts.

We checked into our hotel in Hazratganj, the city’s main shopping area and had time for a stroll before darkness fell. Our first impressions were not very positive, which may have had something to do with the weather. Many of the rather dowdy shops had security guards outside, some with aged firearms, others with lathis. There were beggars, too, several of them quite persistent, though the lathi wielding guards were quick to chase them away.

Hazratganj, Lucknow
We dined at the nearest restaurant to the hotel. It was a ‘family vegetarian’ restaurant which meant another day without meat and beer. It was, we realised too late, a perverse choice. It also did little for Lynne’s stomach problem.

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