Dear Pater and Mater,
It seems some time since the last instalment of the Odyssey - almost, if not quite, a week. During that week I have been almost constantly travelling and leisure and inclination to write have not coincided.
I am sitting on the grass under a tree in a sequestered part of the gardens surrounding the Taj Mahal, gazing with rapture at its graceful form (it really is beautiful!) and hiding from Indians and the scorching midday sun. I feel that I have left my visit to this part of the world just a bit too late in the year.
The trip across the North of India has been mostly very hot, very dusty and very enervating. The countryside is very flat and monotonous, dry and poor. We can't stop anywhere without attracting a surging crowd of Indians who stand around the doors and windows and gaze at us as though we had just landed from the moon. One begins to believe there really are 3,500,000,000+ bodies in the world, even if Calcutta were not convincing enough proof.
Our Fearless Leader (Jacqueline, the insane French woman) is obviously a driver cut out for handling Indian conditions - she has all the hide in the world (drives straight past frantic little policemen vainly trying to assert their authority) and has an extremely acerbic tongue (to sit behind her is to receive unforgettable lessons in swearing in French). The bus is old and decrepit and I can only hope it will last to Istanbul, or at least to Tehran. We travel with - and sometimes in - an even older and more decrepit truck, which also carries the baggage. Both of them have broken down a couple of times. The bus lost a king-pin at one stage which rendered it rather pigeon-toed. The wonder is that we haven't broken any leaf-springs - she says she generally counts on about ½ dozen leaves between Istanbul and Nepal. The road is mostly single-track and we have to do battle all day with Indians, bicycles, detours, bullock-carts, TATA trucks, buses and the occasional "Ambassador" motor car (I believe they're still making these in India from old Morris Oxford-type presses.)
We are a very motley crew, made up of many types of Europeans, North Americans, etc. We've even had a few Nepalese and one Indian smuggling Chinese opium into India. We've slept a couple of nights in cheap hotels and on the other nights those of us who couldn't find space in the bus or the truck slept on hard dusty paddy-fields and roads, under the Northern stars with the fireflies and mosquitoes. These last were most vicious last night on the lawn outside the Taj Mahal grounds. When combined with oppressive heat, they make life very difficult.
In Varanasi, the Holy City (whose streets were paved with dirt rather than gold), we found our way to the burning ghat and watched the bodies being cremated (women in coloured robes, men in white) but decided not to take close-up photos for fear of having cameras confiscated or being clapped in irons. We felt, too, that bathing in the holy river was rather more than the occasion demanded, especially as we had some notion of how many (live and dead) bodies were already being immersed in the Ganges upstream.
Standard fare here has been chappati, curry and dahl with tea and sometimes cool drinks (they use Coca Cola bottles for their own variety and bend the tops back on). Their curd can be very nice (rather like our yoghurt) and a milkshake-like drink they make from it (lassi) can be delicious. We drink quite a lot of well-water as we go along, though I usually try to put some purifying tablets in it. I still have a constant, undefinable malaise, though Streptomagma tabs seem to have put a temporary stop to that problem.
I've just had inquisitive Indians come along and ask me: "What are you doing?" I just kept my head down. The best way to deal with them is to jump in first and ask them (in sing-song voice of course); "What is your country?", "What is the purpose of your visit?", "Would you like to change money?", "Would you like to buy a sitar?"
We've started seeing lots of camels by the way, though very few elephants yet. Many trees are full of ugly, brooding vultures. They are not the only predatory creatures around - many roads have gun-slinging bandits. The truck-drivers are obviously scared and travel only in convoys. We had armed police patrolling up and down past where we slept by the road the other night.
No development yet in my travel plans.