Sunday, 11 May 2014

India Ink

If I had a single word to sum up our experience in India, I thought I would use ‘intense’, but that doesn’t really sum it up. I think ‘bipolar’ would be more accurate. Our tour included accommodation best described as palatial, and each night was spent more or less in the lap of luxury. However, the minute we stepped out into Delhi, or Agra, or Jaipur, all illusions of comfort, or even reality, seemed to evaporate. India is different. Vive le difference!

I thought I’d skip the classic travelogue format for this blog: then we went there, and then we saw that and took some pictures. Trust me when I say we saw the usual sites and smelled the usual smells one would expect on a trip like this. There were lots of forts, funky buildings like the Taj Mahal, and variations on the house of worship theme, although the Christians were woefully under-represented on this outing (Hindu and sikh temples, and mosques got top billing).  I’ll give you a few shots just to convince the conspiracy theorists my photo-shopping skills are unrivalled, or that we were actually there. You decide.

Sunset at the Taj Mahal

Someplace I can't remember exactly.

Jaipur - the pink city

Instead, you can try to follow my scattered thoughts on those components of Indian life which startled, baffled, confused, or amazed me.  I'll start with the first thing that I saw and heard: the traffic. Stepping out of the airport, I was pleasantly surprised to find the sense that was first assaulted was not my sense of smell, which I would have expected, but instead my sense of hearing. India is loud, and nobody puts their horns to good use better than the Indians.

One of our guides told us you need three things to drive in India: Good brakes, a good horn and good luck. He also said that, as a driver, to stop is to admit defeat. After many hours of riding in the shotgun seat on our travel days, I began to realize how true his comments were. Our driver, Sumer, curiously, managed to appear half asleep and completely attentive at the same time. I also noticed he had a strong aversion for taking the vehicle out of third gear, although he was perfectly adept at doing so if necessary (clearly my definition of necessary clearly differs from his). So ingrained was the generous use of a horn into his driving psyche, that I noticed he would give a few toots even when there was no vehicles anywhere near us (Perri confirmed my observations later, so it wasn’t a curry-induced hallucination). Simply put, the traffic rules are just suggestions, and unexpected driving behavior is … well, expected. I didn’t think I’d have to worry about any weirdness out of our driver. Until early one afternoon, as we were on our way from Ranthambore to Jaipur, and I had finished a large Kingfisher Strong with my lunch, thus I was less attentive than I might have been, something suddenly felt …wrong.  Part of my confusion stemmed from the ‘drive-on-the-left-side-of-the-road, driver-sits-on-the-right-side-of-the-car’ English roadway system the Indians use, and part of it stemmed from the fact that we were driving the wrong way up a highway off-ramp, into oncoming traffic on a divided highway. The beer helped me understand this was normal driving behavior. Without blinking, Sumer took us about a kilometer along the shoulder of a two lane highway, against fairly heavy traffic, until we reached a clearly unnatural break in the divided highway barrier, where we cut across oncoming traffic to the right (that is, left) side of the road. Just a regular day on the road. You'll see overloaded trucks, elephants, camels, modern combine harvesters going the wrong way, and tuk-tuks loaded with 16 people where 5 people would seem like a reasonable capacity. After a week, I stopped saying to Ann and Perri “Holy Crap! Did you see that?!” because something just as interesting would be along in a minute if they didn’t. My favorite item was something called a farm cart, which was an old truck chassis with the engine replaced by a modified water pump. Apparently no license or insurance is required for them because they are legally required to stay on the farm. We only saw about 1000 of them on the roads and highways, usually overloaded and going dangerously slow. Still, you must give them some credit for ingenuity.

A classic farm cart.
Always room for one more. Really?

A fine looking camel, sir.

Careful on those right turns.

Nice elephants, but no signal lights.
We learned to love our driver, as he kept us alive each and every day, a non-trivial task in that place. He did his best to be helpful in spite of his suspect English.

Typical discourse with the Sumer :

1st attempt by Ann: “Sumer, is there some significance to the garlands of marigolds?” Answer: “Yes, marigolds and roses.” 2nd attempt by Ann: “Sumer, I know they are garlands of marigolds and roses. But, do they have some special significance? You know, do the garlands have some special meaning?” Answer: “Yes… Marigolds and roses.” No third attempt.

Question:“Sumer, is that tall smokestack over there,  with all the red clay and piles of bricks, is it a brickworks?” Answer:” No, no, no. That is where they make the bricks.”

From then on, we pretty much relied on our own guesswork.
Overloaded truck called a baby elephant.
Real elephant (rear view).
Outside the national park, the wildlife was consistent: dogs, cows, pigs. I won’t bore you with stories of cows being in unlikely and potentially fatal places. After a while, you start expecting them to be asleep in the middle of the highway, or obliviously straddling the highway divider as trucks roar by with inches to spare.  Dogs were everywhere. I now think I completely understand the term ‘mangy cur’ when referring to dogs of suspect pedigree. Pigs were mostly in the smaller towns, and were pretty much exclusively ‘free range’. In the national park, we were lucky to see a few tigers, one of which was a mama with four very small cubs. These tigers looked just like the ones at the zoo. Also, there were a bunch of deer-like things, some monkeys, and a few crocodile. The tigers really made the day a success.

Time to get back in the jeep, I think.
The people in India appear to work really, really hard, out of necessity. The rural women especially were working every second, and not just a little bit. In the fields, the people we saw doing ridiculously non-ergonomic manual labor were inevitably women. When not in the fields they were often seen carrying impossibly large loads on their heads. Groups of men, on the other hand, were often seen hanging around together in the middle of the day, in the shade, doing what appeared to be nothing. You can draw your own conclusions. I want to be clear: the men in India work pretty hard as well, it’s just that I never saw any women lounging. Ever.

Harvest time. Where are the men?

Typically, a tourist can never really get a firm grip on a culture by hitting the tourist hotspots and staying in nice hotels. Twelve days hardly qualifies anyone for expert status on this complex hodge-podge of religious and ethnic diversity. The election takes almost two months because there are 800 million voters and countless political parties. They started the Indian cricket season in Abu Dhabi (a different country than India, for those of you unfamiliar with geography) because they, the cricket league officials, were worried about election violence at the cricket matches. I have no idea how one has anything to do with the other, but safety first, I guess. Ann kept mentioning her personal disconnect between the India presented in tv ads in our hotel rooms, a very modern, very western, middle-class India of air conditioners and hair-care products, and the India we experienced between tourist sites, where the items on the tv ads, and perhaps the tvs themselves, were utterly out of reach for most people. Where were these air-conditioned masses, purchasers of high-end hair gels and whitening, breath-freshening toothpastes? Somewhere in India there must be a few hundred million middle-class nine-to-fivers we never saw.

The entrepreneurial spirit lives.
Bike repair, on the fly.
Keepin' it clean for the tourists.
Aspiring Bollywood stars?
Also, I had heard about and read many examples of the bribery culture in India. With the exception of having to tip for everything, and the minor shakedown of our driver by a low-level Delhi traffic cop, I didn’t see much evidence of it. However, everyone in the tourist trade seems to get a cut of the action. If we bought something at a shop while on a day tour, the guide would get a small kickback, which makes sense, I suppose. He steered us there, after all. Our driver stressed the importance of not buying anything on the tours, so he could take us back to the same shops later, in theory for a better deal, but more likely so he could get the kickback instead of the guide. In the end, we wound up buying stuff when we felt like it.  Although we did get our driver to take us to non-touristy tailoring shop in Jaipur so Perri and Ann could get fitted up for some pajamas. I was impressed with their efficiency. I think the finished goods were delivered to our hotel about four or five hours later. 

Fitting out the princess.
The last, but not least, aspect of our trip was the cuisine. If you don’t like spicy food, you might give this subcontinent a pass. Personally, I pretty much subsisted on a diet of rice, naan bread and a variety of spicy lamb, chicken, or vegetable dishes, for twelve days. Some days we found ourselves eating with tourists, and other days we were chowing down with the locals. Other than the rare lame hotel breakfast, I can't say we ever had a bad meal. After a few days, we upped the ante and started asking for medium spicing, and the food came with a good spicy edge, but well within eating parameters (the possible cause of a negative reaction on Ann's part).  It only now occurs to me that the golden triangle region is not even considered very spicy by Indian standards. Perhaps next time we’ll include Mombai as a true test of our spice tolerance. Also, we only drank bottled water or beer, and tea. We even brushed our teeth with bottled water, in spite of the high standards of our hotels. Sadly, this strategy did not prevent both Ann and Perri from getting a minor bout of Delhi-Belly (the Indian equivalent of Montazuma’s revenge). It appears that the intestinal parasites I picked up in Tanzania and Morocco were compatible with Indian chow, so I was fine. There were times when I saw pasty white tourists (like us) helping themselves to very tasty-looking street food. Vendors sold all sorts of finger foods like veggie samosas, and they looked and smelled great. I expect giving in to such temptations is a simple crap shoot (no pun intended, or maybe a little) in terms of potential medical disasters. I didn’t want to risk another Moroccan experience. Live and learn.

Point of interest unrelated to all other discussion points: Canada is known as 'Little Punjab' in certain parts of India because of the steady stream of people emigrating from the Punjab region.

All told, India scores very high on the “culture, food, and stuff to see” index. Pretty good considering I threw it together a mere month before we arrived (I won't talk about the anxiety I experienced wiring a few thousand euros to what I hoped was a legitimate tour company in Jaipur). We only scratched the surface of this magnificent country. I can't wait to go back and explore more.

No comments:

Post a Comment