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Somebody once compared the street kids of Bombay to me to its pariah dogs. They did not mean this in a derogatory way, in fact the exact opposite. If you take a pariah dog and a domestic dog down the road and a car comes along, the pariah dog knows to get out of the way and will do so at the last possible moment. The domestic dog however, will not have a clue, it is soft and only responds to orders and food, it doesn’t realise the danger. It becomes a piece of road kill – another statistic if statistics were kept for dogs killed on the road.

 

This highlights the problem that faces a child when they run away from home to live on the streets of Bombay. They have run away from poverty or abuse, or are forced to be leave – they are seeking a life of their own.

 

I found myself sitting with a bunch of street kids watching the pariah dogs. One of them pointed to the dogs and said “That’s the clown, the comedian amongst them, and that one is in charge, he rules this street and the one over there is weak, he will not live long,” I looked around my friends, and as if as a direct reflection there was the  clown, the one in charge and the one that could not move from the gutter because he was high on glue.

 

Mumbai though is cleaning up its act, it has reduced the number of pariah dogs down from 700,000 to 70,000 through a cull. However, an order has been passed that this is against animal rights. A bit of a debate rages. The dogs are calm during the day, but can be vicious and deadly packs at night. There is now a no smoking ban in public areas inside and out, posters have been put up stating fines for spitting, urinating and shitting in the streets, you can’t even wash your car without being busted.

 

The Marathon is on too, in which I am competing in the half marathon at the slowest possible pace, a 13 mile walk. My excuse being that my training did not really go as planned, to which I am sticking to. The reality, I am a lazy sort. They have cleared the streets of beggars and the Marathonplanners have ensured that the route does not go by any slums. They want the world to see Mumbai as this lovely metropolis and want no dirty washing out there.

 

I finished the half marathon in a record 4 hours, quite an achievement, but what I am most impressed about is that I am not last, infact far from it. I am surprised that there are thousands of people doing exactly the same as me – walking it. I don’t know if this is really in the spirit of marathons as we know it, but heh this is India and things do work a little differently. Things that really got me are the number of people that go out and run, not for a charity, but for their company. Corporate branding proliferates like an allergic rash. I bet there are bosses out there forcing their staff to do it with the threat of the sack or worse promotion and responsibility if they don’t. Also some of these groups only do a bit of it, the bit in front of the cameras, cross the road and head back again. That so isn’t cricket.

 

We have taken a group of 28 children to do the 7km run, which they completed with great fervor. It gave them something to look forward to, an ambition, a goal in life. What is more they were given a goodies bag of stuff by the marathon sponsors. Soaps, shampoo, that sort of thing. It did amuse me though that there was Nivea face whitening cream in the bag (Oh how our cultures differ), something I did not really need. So for a while the street kids of Mumbai will be smelling good and whiter than white.

 

After we had completed our respective runs/walks I did a photo shoot at VT station, home to bullet holes courtesy of our fundamentalist friends. At first the boys were a little suspicious of me, probably thinking this is another white guy taking photos of poor people, poverty porn at this time of recession. But, after they realised I had done the half marathon too I was welcomed into the pack, I was allowed in, I was the domestic dog gone wild with his street brethren.

 

Proof of my monumental walk can be found here:

 

 http://www5.marathon-photos.com/scripts/event_entry.py?event=Sports%2FCPUK%2F2009%2FMumbai+Marathon&match=laidlaw

 

Anybody need some skin whitening cream. 

 

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My preparations for the Mumbai half marathon are well under way. Well, I have bought trainers and have come to the realisation that I am really unfit, so if that is well under way then so be it. I have in the back of my mind the image of Rocky running through Philadelphia, chased by the kids and running up the steps to to the crescendo of that timeless theme. Dada, da, dada, da, dadadadada……or something. However my reality is very different. I am a gangly, sweating mess, breathing heavier than a stalker in a phone box. And my streets, well they are the waterfront, or ghats of Viranasi, India’s holiest of cities. And the things I have to deal with…Mr Rocky sir, well you had it easy.

 

Cow shit. With Holy Cows comes Holy Cow shit. They are everywhere and so is their shit. Take your eyes off the path for a second and you are at risk of a slippery and rather smelly fall or nasty groin injury. Fortunately hordes of children are clearing this shit up and drying it out for burning, recycling at its best.

Click on picture to see the full Noir collection of Varanasi.

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Sadus come at you from all angles with their palms outstretched. Religious holy men who have given up all possessions to walk the earth. Fascinating and colourful characters – however, I can’t help but question how holy are you Mr Holy man? I am sure there are varying degrees of sadus. There are the blatant fake ones that hang around at tourist spots awaiting for some punter to take their photo and then demand money, these sadus are usually really over the top, and probably go home, wash off the ash and sit down in front of their widescreen TVs. Then there are the ones who live in a doorway, mumbling religious verses to themselves, and then there are the dreadlocked groups that hang around by a fire under blue tarpaulin smoking grass. My favourites though are the loin cloth wearing yoga sadus that contort themselves into rediculously impossible positions, I admire them because I know the discipline that it takes to get those positions, and the nerve you have to have to walk around in essentially what is a thong. How many of these sadus are searching enlightenment, how many of them have found it or how many have simply found an easy way out of  a hard day’s toil and discovered an opportunity to make money by doing bugger all. An “idiots guide to Sadus” would be handy. 

 

Dead bodies. Often as I am running along I have to make a swerve to avoid a dead person being carried down to the Ganges. Now if you are going to die, Varanasi is the place to do it. Straight to heaven for you, no stopping at GO. Your body will be immersed in the Ganges and then placed upon a pyre. Watching the burnings at first tweaks the “Is this morbid” conscious in your brain. However it is a big crowd puller. Locals warm themselves on the fire, dogs and goats walk between the pyres eating…….eating what I am not too sure.

 

It is surprising what you get used to – faces peer out of the fire seeming strangely serene, as if they know they are on their way to a better place. The body contorts and twists as muscles contract, an arm or leg may raise and whole bodies have been known to sit up. The air is filled with a slight tinge of burnt hair, but not of burning flesh. The most unnerving thing for me was the sizzling, like a sunny Sunday afternoon’s barbeque. Often though the process gets a little crude. An attendant who is tipped handsomely to ensure the body is properly burnt watches and tends to the fire. This often means beating and poking the body with a stick, snapping thigh bones and breaking the skull and intestines pushed back into the intense heat. After all is done the attendant carefully sifts through the ashes, just in case the deceased had gold teeth. On a busy day, as I run past, I must be careful as the bodies start to pile up along the ghat, awaiting their firey fate. There would be nothing worse to hurdle one, trip over the next and end up face to face with someone’s late auntie Agnus.

 

To add to this, anyone dying of smallpox (does this still exist) is put straight into the river without burning to save upsetting the smallpox goddess (does she really exist), also the same for children who die of a really high fever.

 

Someone told me a story about a tourist that was led into a room of dying people, they were then asked if they could contribute money for the firewood, as the  people could not afford it. Do they have to hang on till enough money has been collected I wonder?

 

Drug dealers – running alongside of me.

 

DD“What do you want – weed, grass, dope, hashish, coke, china white, charlie, extasy, pills man, heroin you want heroin, Afghani, good shit, the best, anything you want”

COL “No I don’t want any drugs”

DD “No, this is not drugs, this is good shit”

COL “Have you got any asprin”

DD “What?”

COL “Then piss off”

DD “Where are you from”

COL “Germany”

DD “Fucking Germans”.

 

 

Children sell you small leaf boats, inside a candle and flowers to send down the river for good karma. I figured that you cannot have too much good karma so I purchased a few for friends and family and sent a flotilla of flowery floating flotsam down the Ganges. I felt it as a lovely sentimental gesture to my loved ones back home, till, about 20 yards away this flotilla came under a barrage of stones from the local oiks. Two candles were sunk instantly, another extinguished, but two made it through the barrage. I was moved by their resilience and vowed to come back with more candles and a greater nautical strategy. I reckon they would take about 3 years to reach the bay of Bengal, where they will probably be eaten by sharks. 

 

Boat men every ten seconds asking if I want a boat as I run past the conversation generally goes “Boat!!”, “No thank you”, “Cheap price”, “No I am running”, “Why are you running when you can have a boat” (Fair point), “No!”, “Boat!!”.

 

Varanasi is nuts. It takes a few days to get into its vibe, its dark lanes and spiritual ways. It is a lot of hastle, as you are a tourist in one of India’s main attractions and the two go hand in hand, but something I like most about it, that even in the most touristy of touristy bits I did not hear Bob Marley being played once. It has survived becoming that generic backbacker centre. The tourist and local exist in a beautiful symbiotic relationship, the city has the strength to survive the leering visitors and respectfully carry on its duties to the deceased.

Varanasi – its a good place to die.

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