Author Archives: siewfan

13 What Goes Up Must Come Down

Kylie and Kathryn decided that they were walking down despite it being 1.45pm in the blazing sun. Mezz and I went for another ride. There were a few families launching about, in an orgy of post luncheon expectoration. The ground at our feet is full of lunch leftovers. There were some ingenious little biodegradable plates made of leaves usually used by street vendors. They should have stuck to those leaves. India is drowning in disposable plastics. The chairlifts would start up again at 2pm said the sign. Promptly, at 2.19pm, a commotion erupted. After much gesturing and shouting “one line, one line”, the attendant was peeved to see people form themselves in to 2 or 3 lines. The chairlifts began to move. 

Somehow we found ourselves at the end of the longest line as whole families of queue cutters blatantly shoved passed. It was quite entertaining to watch the boarding. This time the chairlifts appear to be moving even faster. Coming down is made more interesting as the margin for error decreases. If you can’t co-ordinate all your bits and pieces, or you are wearing an elaborate and fluttering sari, you could very well fall off the platform and go splat off the precipice.

I receive some looks of disapproval. Indian modesty requires that respectable females wear an additional sort of fabric across theirs bosoms, like the top part of the sari or the long dupatta (scarf) of the Salwar kameez (Punjabi Suit). LLBean travel pants, a Migros t-shirt and an IMD baseball cap appear to be beneath contempt. Respectable Indian women are appropriately dressed, groomed and accessorised. And they don’t walk; they swish, jingle and sway. As I later learnt, they also pluck, wax and peel with religious regularity. Personal appearance is regarded highly, notwithstanding the unwashed impoverished multitudes. It’s no wonder that the Goans despised the “freaks’ as the hippies who descended on the beaches of Goa were called. 

Soon it was our turn, and luckily it was without incident. We descended to the other 2 ladies behind surrounded by a bunch of curious Indian guys at the chai stall.

12 Engineering and Chair Lifts

Rajgir – Bamboo Forest Monastery was 100 acres of land accorded to the Buddha by the King Bimbisara of Rajgir in the 6th century B.C. It was the first Buddhist monastery. Budhha lived and taught there for 1 2 years. The site Vulture’s Peak was a favourite place where he enjoyed numerous sunsets. We visit the Japanese Peace Stupa on top of Ratnagiri Hill via the precarious chair lifts. They cost 25 rupees return. The stupa is not really that interesting unless you have never seen a Japanese stupa before. The view from the top is good on a clear day. The chairlifts, however, is an experience not to be missed. 

First, the elaborate contraption one had to go through to get to and from the chairlifts seemed pretty extreme.  It’s a cross between a waterwheel, a revolving door and some gates for sheep going to slaughter. Only one person could go through this contraption per revolution. And it takes about 10 or 12 seconds for each person. Then there’s the one second hesitation before stepping in. Soon a long line of people build up. We joke about the genius of Indian engineering thought who thought this up. 

At first glance the chair lifts were deceptively similar to those commonly found in the Swiss Alps. Stepping up to the platform, the adrenaline levels go up pretty quickly. In Switzerland, these contraptions slow down to a crawl on the long embarkation platform, pick up the passenger and then speeds off again. Not here. The chairlifts here move along at the same speed on a short platform. You step on to a marked spot with your knees bent and you bum sticking out. You clutch your bag / small child / lunch tightly. The chair comes and swoops you up from behind. In case you hesitate the attendant shoves you into it. At this point you retract all you limbs (and your bag / small child / lunch if any). In the next half second, another attendant drops the cross bar in front of you and you are jerked upwards.

11 Nalanda University

Sariputta's (one of the Buddha's principal disciple) stupa   

Shariputta (One of the Buddha's principal disciples) stupa

At the ruins of Nalanda University, 12 km away from breakfast, we engage the services of Mr. Anil Kumar, who is name-tagged and licensed by the Department of Archaeological Survey of India. It turns out to be an entertaining and educational hour. Mr. Kumar has a well rehearsed script with each paragraph prefixed by an address to me. “Sister, this was built in the 5th century. It was excavated in 1915. Sister, look here the start of the stairs for the 9 storey building.” I take it to mean that I am responsible for ensuring he gets a good fee. “The government rate is 100 rupees, sister, but this rate is since 1995. So if happy you pay as you like, sister.” He was a studious looking fellow, a bit rumpled. He used ‘sister’ effectively when he thought my attention was wandering. “Sister, there are 108 monasteries buried by the earthquake and here 11 identical monasteries are excavated, main entrance not yet discovered. Now excavation at a complete standstill by the department. Because sister, over there villages are.”


Nalanda - Stairs built over 3 different dynasties - that's a long time

Stairs built over 3 different dynasties - that is a LONG time

In truth, Nalanda is pretty awesome. Some of the engineering are quite clever. The drains, for example become progressively deeper, from 6 inches to about 3 feet. “Here the monks bathe, sister. Toilet, outside.” So they were mooners back then too. The monastery was built and used between the 5th and 12th centuries. It was then sacked by the Afghans and subsequently buried in an earthquake, thus Nalanda faded into obscurity. In 1861 an English archaeologist discovered evidence of it in the diary of 7th century Chinese monk, Xuan Zhang. It was not until early 20th century that Nalanda was finally excavated.  This is the possibly the world’s largest excavated university. It was also established 700 years before Paris, Cambridge and Oxford. The grounds are well planted and very pleasant.


Beds where monks used to sleep

Kylie on a bed of stone where monks used to sleep

As we leave, a bevy of old ladies and one young girl pursue us to the jeep. Ashok irritably snapped at them and they coolly ignored him. The young girl kept up a pitiful wail while her eyes darted around watchfully, presumably for a more receptive audience.

10 Public Convenience

We’ve exhausted our enthusiasm for debate on the virtues and vices of the welfare state.  It was bound to happen sooner or later. I am talking about the inevitability of having to visit a ‘public convenience’. Here it is labelled simply, ‘latrine’. Visions of rural Chinese toilets flash uncomfortably across my mind. With trembling and trepidation, we 3 girls set off across the street. At the entrance to the Ladies, a young girl hassles us for the toilet fee, “5 rupees each, sister.” It was outrageous. We give her a 10 rupee note for 3. She complains. We march on in. As it turns out, we were scammed by the 13 year old. Toilets in India are supposed to be free. 

Gingerly sniffing, we turn the corner – I’ve got to say it’s not very often that one navigates by the olfactory system. Usually it’s to track down food, not its opposite. In the open courtyard, there is a drain with some taps spitting and dripping quite wastefully. The cubicle doors are brilliant blue and in the beginning stages of rotting. As luck would have it, the loo turns out to be as serviceable as those in Sanlitun, Beijing or the older coffee shops on the North-South highway in Malaysia. We are duly impressed, but that’s not really saying much. Err…. no photos for this post.

9 Playing Tourists

A beautiful dawn in Bihar   




A beautiful dawn in Bihar


Dick had persuaded me to use Chnnu’s car service to do a tour of the local sites. Chnnu owns the tiny Magadh General Store; all shops in Bodhgaya are tiny. The driver Ashok turns up blasting his horn at 5.45 in the morning. Mezz and I were ready but Kylie had a bit of a problem getting it together. She presently crawls into the Sumo jeep with her shoes in one hand and her pillow in the other. We pick up Kathryn at the Root Institute and set off. Rural India had already awaken and attending to the calls of nature in the fields. Mezz, the Aussie cameraman says, “I still can’t work out where the women go to the toilet.” “It bothers you too?” I felt oddly comforted. “I want a cup of tea” whined Kylie who was doing a really bad job of trying to get comfortable.

The Sumo jeep had static benches with no headrests, no shock absorbers, no seatbelts. These shortcomings were compensated with an obnoxiously loud horn that our driver puts to good use. Indians appear to navigate mainly by sound. Ashok uses both the accelerator and the brakes with alacrity and equanimity. After passing through a few horribly dusty towns, we hit the long stretch of road that had more potholes than road. I blew up my neck pillow, put my ear plugs in and tried to relax into it to practice “avoiding the second arrow”.

Bihari potholes, I mean, road

Bihari potholes, I mean, road

Two and a half hours later we pass a sign that read ‘Do not have sex with strangers’ and arrive at a little town where the shops have signs in Japanese and the stonework of yonis and lingams abound. Ashok pulls into a spot under a tree and we slowly unfurl and slide out. Our internal organs feel like they have been rearranged somewhat. Beggars half-heartedly tail us. Accustomed to this we casually stretch our aching parts as we stroll to the Green Hotel for tea and breakfast. Our orders come and Kylie decides that her egg sandwich is foul and feeds it to Mezz. She then orders a Marsala omelette having solicited an ‘all clear’ wrt the omelette from us. Thus satiated, she pulls out a pack of Marlboros. So much for her lectures about brown rice and not poisoning your body with DEET. We argue a little about the virtues of the welfare state.