dream of shangrila


A Train crossing in Kanpur, U.P.

Mumbai is one of the largest cities on the globe. It leaves an unforgettable impression behind. In daytime the streets are bustling with activity, the stench of car fumes, the ever present pollution, the traffic jams, are all but pleasant surprises in this overcrowded city.

Jet Airways, always late, Modi-Luft has just taken off to an unknown destination, I observe the frantic activities inside the airport.

People rushing, uplift their Ego in front of the Airline counters, a normal sight in Indians airports. Everyone is a Tycoon, everyone displays a show of force to attract attention. In a country of 1,3 Billion, a vital technique of survival.

After a mere 3 hour delay our plane finally takes off, in India 12 hours delays are common.

The plane is a 737-300 extended version, on the way to Lucknow, U.P. En route we touch down in Delhi, taking on new passengers. We reach Lucknow airport around 3PM.

My contact in Kanpur has not shown up. Lucknow airport is not an International airport, its facilities are limited. Bring your own Rupees, there is no Bank to change your foreign currency. Taxi touts swarm around me.

Hello Sir, Taxi to Lucknow Sir. I decide to wait show lack of interest. I will only gain using this tactic. When all the passengers have left, after haggling with their drivers, I walk out of the terminal and find quietly a Fiat cabby, who agrees to take me to Lucknow for a decent fare. After years in Africa I find the same rules apply here when it comes to negotiating. I ask to stop at the first communication center, ISD, or IDD telephone center, to call my contact.

It appears the driver would not come and instead he asks the Cabby to take me to Kanpur, 150 km from here. The first impression of Lucknow is, a market with street side shops in which Sarees are being sold.

The craft of manufacturing sarees in Lucknow is known throughout India, and represents an important part of business. We pass the streets of this city, the usual scenery with cows strolling through the streets, people respectfully giving way to them. Nobody would touch a cow here, a clear taboo. Donkey carts, with the driver asleep in the carts, are plying the route towards Kanpur.

The immense heat of the afternoon sun radiates a melting 45 degrees I notice by a thermometer located on a public building, it comes as no surprise to me. After 3 hours drive we reach Kanpur, my destination. The driver takes me to my hotel as instructed, after paying the fare, which is reasonable I am shown into my room.

Thirty floors high, the hotel is the best lodge in the city, and stands out from the low level buildings around. I notice the large numbers of red kites circling above the hotel, using the thermals to their advantage. Still the afternoon sun is high, the air condition helps me to cool down a bit. At 18.30 PM I am to meet Mr. Rakesh the rep of the company who I will visit.

A very pleasant man, he apologizes for the inconvenience of not being picked up. We leave for dinner in his car, the obligatory Fiat, in immaculate condition.

Kanpur - The Railway crossing We pass through the now darkened city, as everywhere we see whole families moving by scooters, bicycles. Cars are still a luxury here, the traffic mainly consisting of scooters and bicycles, and by passers on foot. The heat now subsiding, Mr. Rakesh explains the various sights of Kanpur, its history. We enter the restaurant, and the following dinner is a delight. The baby Naans (tiny flat breads baked in the Tandoor), Navratan Khoorma, (Nine Jewels), Rogan Josh (Lamb Stew), various Indian dishes I savour frequently. If one thing strikes me of India, it is their cuisine. The Indian kitchen is one of the best this world has to offer.

A visit of the famous Hindu temple in Kanpur is on our next Agenda. The temple is known amongst Hindus for its unique design . We reach the railway crossing, just when the barriers move down, accompanied by loud ringing of the warning bells. People rushing through the barrier, lifting up to cross to the other side, crossing from both sides of the tracks.

No one cares about the oncoming train, as Mr. Rakesh explains, each year people are being killed by the trains. As the minutes pass on, and no show of reduction of human traffic across the rails follows, I am getting anxious. Yet the people still no sign of stopping to cross. The tracks are now vibrating, the trains whistle blowing hysterically, not far, there, one motor scooter with family, man, woman and child, cross with their scooter. I want to close my eyes, and there yet another type with a bicycle enters the danger zone. Then, in a flash the train speeds through the crossing, at great speed, well over 100 mph. I can't see a thing in the dark, almost I am certain those people have been hit by the rolling train, well over half a mile long.

When it is all over, the train has passed, I notice the bicyclist, who holds his bike across his chest, as he stood there, only inches away from the train's carriages. An unbelievable experience, one thing will stay in my memories forever. I was breathless so to speak, not being able to comprehend the situation. Yet, my guide was unimpressed, noticing this is an everyday experience with the resulting consequences for those who can't make it. If something ever struck me about this country, it must have been this incident. The feel of Kharma ever present. The show of disrespect for life over, we carry on to see the biggest Hindu temple in Kanpur.

White marble from the onset, every one removes his shoes, and I am thinking if I should leave my pair of Moreschis or not.

The temple entrance is a haven for rats, and the rats are everywhere in here, crawling and running around in masses. The temple worships rats, they have a sacred status and are fed and looked after by the temple's keepers.

Donations are also accepted for their upkeep. Apart from the rat infestation, the temple is a complex of marvel.

Built to the highest standards, with no expense spared white marble throughout, I look stunned. In contrast to the outside world, the Kanpur temple represents the most lavishly built structure I have seen. The stark contrast of everyday poverty visible is amazing. And as it is Friday night, people are streaming to pray, lighting their brought incense.

The scent of exotics, the scent of India is all present wherever you go. Mr. Rakesh has completed his prayers, and we leave. These impressions linger with me till this day, and Kanpur will be in my memories forever.