On the sacred river

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Boats seem to be a mainstay of the kind of tours I end up on. There was the felucca in Egypt, and my upcoming tour in China includes two full days on a tourist boat on the Yangtze. So it’s no surprise that my Delhi to Kathmandu trip included some time on the water – specifically the sacred Ganges river. This time though, I was in a much better mood than on felucca day, and I’m also now fortified with long underwear brought from home by Patti, so a night roughing it in a tent on the banks of the river didn’t seem so bad. Camping this way – when you spend the day lazing on the deck of a tiny sailboat for hours, then pull ashore where someone else sets up your tent, cooks you dinner and does all the cleaning is a far cry from those dismal, rainy, dish-flapping days in Africa.

Even so I was a bit apprehensive when I saw the boats. They were… very basic. I thought the feluccas were primitive, but they were comparatively huge had a small, low cabin where you could change clothes, and a tiny kitchen area, and even a cooler full of beer. These boats were wooden hulled, with a patched shade cover and a bamboo main mast. Each boat took three passengers and had two crew who sometimes manned the sails and tiller, and sometimes rowed when the wind was not favourable.

Here’s a look at one of our boats.

Along with the two passenger boats, we also had a kitchen boat with four crew on board. They pottered along with us, periodically pulling alongside to deliver cookies and hot cups of chai, or a massive lunches with four or five different dishes. Then they’d collect the dirty plates and leftovers and float off to do the washing up and get ready for the next meal. The food was really good. It was all vegetarian, because you’re not allowed to eat meat or drink alcohol within one kilometre of the sacred river. The vegetarian thing was fine with me, because I’ve decided to experiment with eating only vegetarian while in India. This turns out to be laughably easy (there has only been one moment when this was even slightly annoying and I had to wait a bit, but this was at a kebab resaturant, which was kind of all about meat). The first lunch we had rice, dal (lentils), spinach and paneer (plain cheese), cauliflower, potatoes, and salad. And chai, of course. Just like in the rest of India, I did not go hungry.

And what did we do on the boats besides eat? Not much, which was just fine. I may have thought Orccha was relaxing, but it was a positive maelstrom compared to life on the boat. All we really did was lay about waiting to be fed. I read a lot, and here I have to give thanks to the Good Times hotel in Delhi because they had a take-one-leave-one bookshelf in the lobby where I quickly abandoned the book I had been reading and grabbed a knock-off publication of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. I also did a bit of blogging, and some napping.

Another in the series of Pam blogging in unlikely places.

It felt decadent to be rowed along while we lazed and napped and ate, but it was also a bit uncomfortable being one of six people waited on by eight others. I don’t know how much our crew was paid, but I’m confident that jobs with Intrepid are considered a good gig, so I suppose that our crew were not a lot different than the women in the paper factory or the ones knotting carpets where the point is to employ as many people as possible. I hope that a good number of my tourist dollars ended up in the pockets of those guys.

I also took a lot of photos, and my love for my new camera continues to grow every time I click the shutter.

Here’s a favourite.

And here’s another one, this of Sheila.

The sun set and we continued to glide along until we got to the place where we were to camp. The crew laid out a big tarp and blanket on the sand and we sat and talked while they put up the tents and lit fires and cooked. Akshay is really good at giving us a lot of information about India – the history, religion, politics and culture. On that night we ended up talking about Mahatma Gandhi and I was surprised to learn that he’s not universally revered in India, as I’d expected (as as you might think from the fact that his face is on every denomination of bank note in the country). Akshay said that a lot of younger people – generally in the twenty to forty year old set – feel that he gets a disproportionate amount of credit. Apparently there were other people fighting for independence too, and Gandhi wasn’t very good at acknowledging their contribution. It was in interesting discussion.

Camping overnight on the banks of the Ganges was reasonably comfortable once I’d put on my new long underwear, and sweatpants, and two pairs of wool socks, and three shirts, and gloves and a toque and cozied up in my silk sleep sheets under two blankets. It wasn't exactly warm, but I only woke up once or twice in the night. And I have to say that being greeted with a hot cup of chai in the morning really takes the edge off the whole rough camping experience.

We spent the rest of the morning on the boat, and I devoured another few hundred pages of Harry Potter and watched India slip past. A lot of life happens on the banks of the Ganges – people washing their clothes and themselves, or fishing, or ferrying things across. It’s like that everywhere in India – all of life is lived right out in the open, and that takes some getting used to.

Morning ablutions on the Ganges (I’m getting more shameless about taking people pictures, mostly because now I’m hiding behind 12x zoom capabilities.)

In the end, I was reluctant to leave the boat. My trepidation when I’d first seen the vessels was long gone, and I was dreading leaving the warm and sunny deck of the boat and plunging back into the madness of India. But plunge I did, and ended up in Varanansi, the most sacred city on the most sacred river, and just as insane as Delhi or Agra. But that’s another story.


FLF said...

And again... wow, what an experience you are having. I missed the new camera discussion... what are you shooting with now?

Unknown said...

Your photos before were very good, but with the new camera there is a noticable improvement.

Maybe technology is a good thing.

Happy Trails...


jaki said...

i just stumbled across your blog and am so intrigued. i am 25 and trying to do the world tour myself unfortunately don't have a house to sell to fund my way, but making my way slowly and surely. you empower me! i am book marking your page. keep it up and safe travels

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