Tag Archives: India

Watch. Listen. Learn. (India 6: Pushkar)

Wed. and Thurs., Nov. 9 and 10, 2011, Pushkar

Why is there never a camel when you need one?

The lake at Pushkar is one of the most sacred Hindu sites in India. It came into being when Lord Brahma, the Creator (Brahma being one of the the top three Hindu gods, along with Vishnu, the Preserver, and Shiva, the Destroyer) dropped a lotus flower to the earth. Where the three petals landed, three lakes appeared in the middle of the desert; of these, Brahma signified that Pushkar would be the most important by convening the entire pantheon of Hindu deities (90,000 at the time) for a meeting there.

But then Brahma made a big mistake. He married a shepherdess instead of Savitri, his intended. It was not entirely his fault: it was augured that he should get married at a certain moment in time and Savitri, busy getting dressed for the wedding, showed up late. He grabbed whomever was available instead. Savitri was beyond enraged, and to punish Brahma, she decreed that henceforward, instead of being worshipped everywhere in the world, he would be worshipped only at Pushkar. This was a big punishment because it means that, in order to worship Brahma, Hindus can’t just build a temple near where they live, as they can for the 3.5 million or so other Hindu deities that now exist: they have to come to Pushkar. And they do: they travel from all corners of the earth to make “Pushkar Puja” — to bathe in Pushkar Lake in order to cleanse their souls. According to my trusty Rough Guide, nearly 500 temples have been built around the lake and the ashes of such famous Hindus as Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru have been scattered from its bathing ghats (steps down into the lake).

The most auspicious day of the year to bathe at Pushkar Lake is the day of the full moon of the Kartika month — the exact day that our group arrived in Pushkar.

In addition to the thousands of pilgrims who come from everywhere to have their souls cleansed on this important day, thousands upon thousands more travel there during the week preceding the full moon of Kartika to attend the annual camel sale, during which event up to 18,000 camels and their owners from all over Rajasthan are in town. In short, Pushkar is not its normal peaceful self — the population having swelled from the usual 30,000 mostly devout Hindus to more than 150,000 people, not all of whom have Brahma-worship on their minds. The event is called the Pushkar Fair, and it includes the usual attractions of a regional fair anywhere in the world — cultural and arts displays, ferris wheels (4), rides for the kids, fireworks, hawkers, games of chance, competitions and contests, food vendors in the street, and even a guy demonstrating an amazing gadget that will slice and dice your vegetables “very fine.”

For a western tourist who is neither a Hindu nor a camel trader, this is perhaps not the best time of the year to visit Pushkar. Especially at night, the fair is crowded beyond belief, to the point where pedestrians press against one another and can only inch along, and many of the attendees are young men looking for trouble or “fun” who have never before set eyes on a white person, and — perhaps fuelled by alcohol and drugs — appear to have less than the best intentions when it comes to meeting this strange new race of people — especially its young female variety.

Still, I’m more than delighted that our tour (by a coincidence of time that might have pleased Lord Brahma himself) ended up in Pushkar when we did. It was a great lesson in what it’s like to be a visible minority. When we sat down in the stands at the fairgrounds, which were comfortably outfitted in mattresses, blankets and even sofas, to wait for a cattle competition to start, dozens upon dozens of men stood in the grounds and stared at us, as though we were the entertainment. We felt quite safe and relaxed at this point, and thought this was amusing, but the attention turned scary later as we made our way back on foot from dinner to our campsite after dark. We were unable to flag down a taxi, a tuk-tuk or even return to our camp by camel wagon, which was how we’d come out in the first place, because of all the crowds, which were so thick we needed to push our way through them at some points. The families had gone home, and the young men were out in droves, laughing and shoving and ogling the young women in our group. A few of the women were deliberately bumped and touched. I was glad for their sakes that we were in a group, and that we had such an assertive and diligent — and obviously Indian — leader).

(More photos from the Pushkar Fair are here.)

But there were also many other experiences we would never have had if we’d come during any other week. Three examples:

  • Since hotel rooms are not to be had during the Pushkar Fair, a whole encampment of huge tents with power, running water, toilets, showers, guards and even internet had been set up for us and several other tour groups, and aside from the heat which can be managed only by fans and patience (it gets cooler at night), it is a great way to “rough it.” There is a large dining tent, and wagon-equipped camels depart on request for the town, and to take tourists on tours.
  • As more-than-adequate compensation for the less-than-friendly-looking men at the fair at night, during the day many people, including couples young and old, and families with their children, grinned at us, waved and said, “Hi!” With equal pleasure, we waved and grinned and said “Hi!” back.
  • All night, Hindu worshippers chanted by the lake, their prayers magnified by microphones to carry throughout the town and beyond into the desert: it made a lovely, haunting sound that I found particularly poignant as I fell asleep in my tent in the light of the full moon.

Other once-in-a-lifetime events form part of all the company’s tours to Pushkar, no matter what time of year:

  • A local Hindu priest trusted by our tour guide (there are many fake Hindu priests around who will restore good karma to tourists, for a price) offered those of us who were interested a small Hindu rite of purification on the ghats of Pushkar lake near sunset, following which we were given marks on our foreheads and “Pushkar Passports” — strings tied around our wrists. Hundreds of devout Hindus were bathing in the lake at the time, which increased the sense of gravity of the moment (we did not go into the lake. We are not Hindu, and besides, the waters may be holy but they do not look very clean);
  • We had a one-hour camel ride, each of us on our own camel with our own camel driver, out to a desert site where, just after sunset, we watched a dance performance by a local family, and were fed a most delicious traditional meal in the moonlight, then transported back to our camp by jeep.

The family that danced for us (it included musicians, singers and a fire-eater as well as dancers, plus a baby who crawled around in the dark on the sand and banged on the drums and added to the vocals) used to catch snakes for the snake-charmers, but since snake charming is falling out of favour in India, they now help the universities’ herpetologists catch and manage snakes, and supplement their income by performing traditional dances for tourists.

As far as the camel ride, well… camels are not like horses. They give you a look that says, “I’ve got better things to do than to be carrying you around, and if my owner weren’t right here right now, I would be rolling on the sand and you’d be wherever you landed: your fate is no concern of mine.” Aside from the camel attitude, which made me wary throughout the ride, probably wisely, I had a great time and quite a comfortable trip. And when the camel driver got up on the camel behind me and urged him forward at a near-gallop in an effort to beat another couple of camels ahead of me, I looked down at the red bracelet on my wrist and remembered that my karma was in good order, and decided that it would all turn out okay.

Which it did.

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Watch. Listen. Learn. (India 5: “On Dirt”)

Some thoughts on dirt (a confused and meandering aside) —

Two of our group left today for home, halfway through the tour. The rest of us are disappointed that they didn’t love India as much as we did.

In fact, I think they hated it.

Both of the two who left had been suffering from stomach ailments off and on for several days. It’s been hot and there have been long bus trips, and am sure that experiencing that when you’re unwell is no fun. But they complained that India was too dirty and too crowded, and that they didn’t like it.

I am now feeling badly for complaining about the dirt myself for I have been wondering what those two thought they were going to find in India. Certainly the dirt has been no surprise to me, and certainly the open sewers and poverty are hard to handle. But anyone who has read about India and is planning to visit here must surely know what to expect. The dirt I complain about in the hotel rooms and buses is caused by the dirt in the air which gets on everything. It is caused by ancient crumbling cities and dry topsoil being blown around, and all the pollution and industry that relate to a developing nation. It is not that the people are dirty: those who can afford to be are very clean.

Indian innkeepers are learning the expectations of westerners, but slowly. We are on a budget tour, and a “sustainable communities” tour, and the hotels we are staying in are cheap. They are old and run down, don’t always have hot water and lose their electricity regularly. This is not Toronto. But the hotels have been secure, the staff helpful, the food excellent, and the prices right.

There is certainly garbage everywhere — in the streets, in the fields, by the highway, near the beach. But this speaks more of hundreds of years of inadequate or non-existent municipal garbage systems than it does of intent. I also have to admit that I have never in my life seen so many men peeing outside as I did in India, and I gather that teaching people to use bathrooms for defecation in the slum areas is a challenge. There are certainly cleanliness problems to deal with here, and it is going to take a lot of work.

The other day I used some soap and water and cleaned off the faceplates on the light switches in my hotel room here in Udaipur — the light switches have been black from ages of use in many of the hotels we’ve stayed in. With clean switchplates, suddenly the whole room looked much better.

All of the care-taking staff everywhere have been men and it has long been my opinion that men do not see dirt, so that probably explains everything.

And yes, it is crowded here: it’s India. But there are quiet places too.

And besides, as I told our tour guide (who was feeling very badly that two of our number had disliked his country so much that they had bailed mid-tour — first time in five years it’s happened to him, and certainly not his fault), when I visited London, that city seemed pretty dirty and overcrowded to me too — compared to Canada.

So it’s all a matter of perspective.

Sunday, November 13, Udaipur

Garbage on the beach, Goa

(Update: November 29, 2011, Toronto — I keep editing and re-editing this post and the more I think about the subject, the more I realize that I don’t know what I think about the subject. India is dirty. That is a given. It may always be dirty. And maybe that matters in the big picture [because it spreads disease and signifies poverty], and maybe the whole world needs to do what we can to help address this situation. But in the meantime, if you want to go to India, just accept it, try to avoid stepping in it if you can, but don’t let it spoil your trip. If you can’t hack dirt, don’t go to India.)

Another update: Just noticed this article: ‘Ugly Indians’ Clean Up Bangalore

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Watch. Listen. Learn. (India 4: Jaipur)

Nov. 7-8, 2011, Jaipur

In which I take a wrong turn and visit a fort atop a mountain rather than one that is far more accessible and elaborate and therefore the usual destination of tourists.

Agra to Jaipur

We took a local bus from Agra to Jaipur at noon on November 8. Our group had 17 seats in the middle of the dirtiest bus I have ever seen in my life (not surprising, as the air is full of dust and dirt — and since the fans that are positioned over the seats every few rows don’t work, the bus travels with the windows open). There is no bathroom on the bus: an ongoing concern for those members of our group who have been coming down with various stomach ailments, although the drivers have been quite agreeable to stopping by the side of the road when we feeble-bellied foreigners absolutely need them to.

“This is India,” we keep reminding one another when something or other is not up to our usual standards. At least the bus was running….

Famous last words.

After we’d travelled for about ten minutes (we were still in the madness of Agra traffic), the bus rolled to a stop. I thought perhaps we were taking on a few more passengers, but the driver stood up, turned to those already on the bus, and yelled something at us in Hindi. Our guide translated: the bus needed a push. So all the men got off (clambering over a few suitcases in the aisles on the way) and pushed. The engine caught almost right away and we were off again, without further incident in that department.

The highway traffic was like city traffic except more spread out: there were trucks, other buses, motorcycles, tractors, a few SUVs, pedestrians, camels (mostly led by their owners) and cows and bulls (not apparently owned by anyone). The vehicles’ horns are used as frequently and as with as much purpose on the highway as they are in the city, and the traffic lines are ignored as often. The only real difference on the highway is that everyone is going faster. It is important not to try to watch the traffic coming toward you when you are a passenger on the bus any more than when you’re in a tuk-tuk: you have no control over what is going to happen to you, so there is no point in looking.

We stopped regularly in towns to let local people on and off, and we drove by very poor, crowded, stinky semi-urban areas as well as more rural scenes. The image of women crouched in fields at work in their brightly coloured saris will not soon leave me. (Neither will my encounter with an aged woman at the one scheduled lavatory stop we made. She was handing out strips of toilet paper to the tourists, dressed in a bright yellow sari, nearly toothless, wizened, talking cheerfully on a cell phone. I gave her a small amount of money for her efforts. She pocketed it [? Are there pockets in a sari?], gave me a long look and then offered me another piece of toilet paper, which I declined. It is not common practice to say “thank you” if you’re Hindu. So we were cool.) The farming methods I saw were very primitive compared to those I’m used to: I saw one group of people sweeping the grain off stalks of wheat onto tarps, using long poles. Many of the towns have high towers rising from them which are the chimneys of kilns for making bricks.

I was seated next to our guide for this leg of the journey and as we travelled down the highway (it was about a six-hour trip), I asked him questions. From him and a highway sign, I learned that:

  • the reason there are so many unfinished buildings in India is that they are works in progress for practical reasons — the owners only start to get taxed when the buildings are complete;
  • the low stone fences around large sections of fields that have nothing growing or grazing in them are there to keep out squatters;
  • the common myna bird likes to wander around under trucks and other vehicles that are stopped at the regular toll booths on the highway;
  • several of the highways on this route have improved considerably since our group leader started working for G Adventures five years ago — the bus trips used to take much longer; and
  • if you are driving a police vehicle or a funeral van, or are a member of parliament or the winner of a gallantry award, you don’t need to pay a toll fee (see complete list of those who do not need to pay toll fees, and other photos from the bus trip between Agra and Jaipur, here).

I also learned a lot of cool stuff from our guide and my books about the state of Rajasthan and its feisty chiefs, who — unlike those from many other states — fought off or figured out ways to work around or with various would-be conquerors over the years and in 1947, when the country was officially divided into states, they were able to have their state named after them. Here, the rajas also retain stature and respect.

The descendants of Jai Singh II, for example — who built the city of Jaipur starting in the mid-1700s, naming it after himself — are still considered heads of state by the people of the region. The royals maintain a residence at the magnificent City Palace, which I toured, and the Raj’s flag is raised over the palace when the royal family is at home… sort of the same way as the Windsors’ is at Buckingham.

(My photos of Jaipur and area are here, on Picasa)

Jaipur is known as the Pink City, as many of its buildings were painted pink in the late 1800s to reduce the glare from the sun, and many still retain a deep peach-pink cast, but aside from its historic buildings, it is the architecture of the city that is its main claim to fame. Jai Singh II survived being supplanted by the Mughals because Akbar recognized his brains and creativity when he was still a boy — giving him the honorific name “sawai,” meaning “one and a quarter” — and left him to do his thing. Sawai Jai Singh certainly fulfilled his promise, proving not only a wise, kind ruler of his people but also a scientist, mathematician and architect. He built the city of Jaipur according to a very precise set of measurements so that all the streets intersect at exact angles around a central circle. Even the stores on the main streets were built according to strict specifications, and all are exactly the same size.

Other highlights of Jaipur include:

  • Jantar Mantar, one of five observatories built by Jai Singh which contains a fabulous array of huge instruments used during the medieval era for measuring the sun, the planets and the stars (click to see photos here);
  • the Palace of Winds (Hawa Mahal), really only a facade behind which, in the 18th century, the women of the palace were able to see the activity in the city without being seen — an amazing sight when the morning sun is on it;
  • several forts and palaces built by several Rajputs over the centuries, including Jai Mahal in the middle of the Man Sagar Lake; and
  • the Amber Fort and Palace.

I will need to go back to Jaipur to see the Amber Fort and Palace as I missed it completely, having inadvertently had another adventure instead (see below), but I will not complain about this as I loved Jaipur and would be happy to go back any time.

To other prospective travellers to Jaipur, I highly recommend staying at the Jaipur Inn which is almost European in its wide stone hallways, mosaic tiles, screened windows, balconies, and a bar on the rooftop that overlooks the city. It is VERY clean, and friendly: the owner offered to take any of us along who wanted to accompany him on his daily hike to the top of a nearby hill to watch the sun rise over the city. Having done my own hike, I did not join him, but I felt safe and happy in Jaipur and highly recommend a visit there.

Bollywood!!

In Jaipur in addition to the sights, we took in a Bollywood film, which is an adventure in itself, and only INR70 (about $1.50) per head. You get a reserved seat and everyone is let in just before the movie starts. The theatre was huge and ornately decorated, and the film that we saw has had the largest take of any film in Bollywood history, and it’s only been out for a few weeks. It is a science fiction film named Ra-One (for “Random Access Version 1.0”) and it is the story of a video game that goes badly wrong and starts wreaking havoc on the life of its inventor (Shahrukh Khan), his wife (Kareena Kapoor) and their very cute son (Armaan Veena). It was in Hindi without English subtitles, but it was easy enough to follow. The movie was terrific but the audience was the best: they shouted encouragement at the good guys, yelled and booed at the bad guys, cheered the hero, sang along with the songs, calmed their screaming babies when necessary, danced to the music, and talked on their cell phones. It was amazing.

I am going to take in a Bollywood film in Toronto (maybe the same one. Wouldn’t mind seeing the subtitles because I missed a few jokes and other language-based plot points) to check out the atmosphere created by the Indian-Canadians who attend. Now that I’ve seen it, I wish I had attended some of the Bollywood Film Awards festival that was held in Toronto earlier this year.

The Wrong Turn de Jour

So. I took a tuk-tuk to the Amber Palace and Fort, 11 K from Jaipur. The complex, built by a series of rulers over a period of two centuries, is considered a major highlight of a trip to Jaipur. My driver warned me not to buy anything at the Fort because it would be too expensive (“I will take you to a place later where the price is good.” This is a common tout by tuk-tuk drivers: they get a commission if tourists buy from their friends’ shops), and also not to accept the offer of a ride up to the Fort from the road where he dropped me because “It’s easy for you to walk. Ten minutes,” he said. “No more.”

I descended from the tuk-tuk and headed up toward the fort. After a ten-minute walk, I realized that no one had offered me a ride, and only one vendor — whose hopes I’d raised by asking the price of a hat he was selling, then dashed when I decided not to buy it despite the way he cut the price from his original high of 600 rupees to about 200 — had tried to sell me anything. The wide path was essentially deserted.

Thinking that perhaps all the rest of the tourists had been suckered into the offer of a ride, not having access to the wisdom of my tuk-tuk driver (where do I get such crazy ideas, anyway?), I kept going. Fifteen minutes after that, I stopped and looked around me and realized that the palace I had been heading for was now below me. Above was another intriguing looking fort. But it was far, far above, and it was very hot out (about 32 Celsius, I think, and hotter in the direct sun). I had my backpack and no hat. But when I saw the extensive battlements above, and realized that I was half way there, I could not turn back.

Three young people, two European-looking and the other Indian-looking, all three of the age and appearance of university students, were sitting in the road in the shade of a tree. I asked them how much farther it was to the top of the hill and the Indian person said, “Two or three kilometres.”

More???” I asked.

“Yes,” he said. He suggested I walk with them, but I didn’t want to slow them down so I declined.

“Walk slowly,” he advised as they started off. “You’ll get there.”

A few minutes later a trio of teen males came by and also gave me encouraging signs and signals, although they spoke no English. They suggested that I follow them up a rocky shortcut but I acted out how I would tip over if I tried that. They laughed when they realized what I was “saying” and carried on.

Where I ended up was worth the hike but it took me about two and a half hours to ascend to the upper fort, which is called the Jaigarh Fort, and make my way around it, and by then I was worried that if I didn’t go straight down — without a detour to the Amber Fort — my tuk-tuk driver would give up and return to Jaipur without me.

Jaigarh Fort was where the royal family went when there was a threat of war, and according to a pamphlet I read, “is one of the few military structures of medieval India preserved almost intact, containing palaces, gardens, open and closed reservoirs, a granary, an armoury, a well planned cannon foundry, several temples, a tower and a giant mounted cannon — the Jai Ban, which has a twenty feet long barrel” (Go Jaipur). When the Amber Palace below was threatened, drums would sound and the royal family would beat a hasty retreat to Jaigarh Fort.

There, I saw intriguing and amazing artifacts including weapons, farming implements, tools and cooking vessels. I saw:

  • where the servant women cooked and the royal men and women ate (separately, due to their being under seigr when they were at Jaigarh);
  • a royal bedroom that can only be compared in size to an assembly hall;
  • secret passageways to protect the royal family from unwanted intruders;
  • a water system that mainly involved elephants and camels bringing water up the hill from the lake below;
  • a fantastic view of the cities of Amber and Jaipur.

I also astounded the two guides who showed me around when I told them I’d walked up. “That’s a long hike!” one said. “How old are you?” He obviously thought that I must look much older than my age if I had managed to scale that mountain on my own.

It was a long hike and, tired and sun-burnt, I took a tuk-tuk down to my tuk-tuk. As is the usual outcome of my misadventures, I had an experience I’d never have had without my little mistake, got a spectacular view of Jaipur and a great chunk of exercise. And really, I did see the Amber Fort — from a bird’s eye view. It looked fabulous.

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Click to see more photos here

Watch. Listen. Learn. (India 2: Delhi)

Saturday, Nov. 4, 2011

Delhi

Delhi airport

Delhi. The only way I can describe Delhi at this point is, Yikes! And I can only begin to imagine what it would be like in July — “Yikes times ten,” perhaps.

Today I set off on my own to see two Mughal-era landmarks the Rough Guide insisted I should not miss: The Red Fort and the Jama Masjid, “India’s largest and most impressive mosque.” I did not see either, but I did get a personal tour of a Hindu prayer site and I also got whacked by a woman in the street as hard as she could hit me. So it’s not like nothing happened.

The major problem with Delhi for me is that a lot of people really don’t speak English very well, and I speak Hindi even less (namaste being the only word I know). So I set out for the Metro with only general instructions on how to get to it and no real sense of what the hotel manager had told me to do when I did get there. It’s about 80 degrees F. today, and the streets of Delhi are just like you see on tv — an absolute maelstrom of vehicles of all kinds, from bicycle rickshaws to trucks, none of them adhering to any of the lines that are painted on the street (a woman on the plane who is originally from Delhi and was coming back here from Brisbane for FOUR weddings in the next two months told me that in Delhi, the lane markers are considered no more than decorations on the streets. No one pays any attention to them). Our tour guide, who I met just an hour ago for the first time, told our group that the reason there are so few accidents in Delhi are “good brakes, good horns and good luck.” As I sit in my hotel room here in Karol Bagh (an area of many inexpensive hotels) the sound of horns in the streets outside my window is incessant. The sidewalks are few and far between, and usually jam packed with people both horizontal and vertical, hub caps, motorcycles, garbage, dogs, you name it. So the pedestrians kind of just walk around the vehicles (and through/between them, when it’s an intersection) on the edges of the streets themselves.

So I made my way to the Metro station about six blocks from the hotel, darting through the traffic as best I could and attempting to follow close behind other pedestrians when crossing busy intersections, and then I faced the challenge of finding someone else to ask about how to get to where I was trying to get to. The ticket seller at the Metro seemed not to have heard of the Red Fort so I pointed it out to her on my map, and that didn’t seem to help her much, but she did sell me a tourist ticket for INR20 or thereabouts that would get me around the city for one day.

I entered the station (which has a security system where you need to get patted down before you can go through, then send your bags through a scanner. Women go in a different patting-down line than men, as I found out by trial and error. 😉 ) When I got onto the platform I asked two other people (I chose people in uniforms wearing guns who were positioned as security around the station, thinking that they seemed to be fairly safe bets) and by the time I actually got on the train I had learned that I’d need to go two stops then get off and transfer.

I did that, and then went through the same rigamarole at the station I got off at (a pretty central one named Rajiv Chowk), trying to find someone to tell me where to get another subway for the Red Fort in Old Delhi, and finding almost no one who could help me. I also appeared to be the only Western female in the entire city today, so I was trying my best to act like I knew what was going on but I’m sure no one was fooled.

I disembarked at the correct station and emerged into a very busy market area, crowded with shoppers, vendors and street people. I walked steadily in the direction I thought was correct (and probably was) but there were no signs in English and at a certain point the market thinned out and there were more street people than shoppers and as always many many more men than women.

I grew unsure of myself so I turned back and near the Metro I stuck my head into an intriguing-looking building, dark pink with small towers and many rooms containing (it turned out) statues of various holy men and gods that Hindu visitors were coming by in droves to honor. Despite the fact that the place was packed with devotees, a woman at the door welcomed me in, asked me to remove my shoes and wash my hands, and then gave me a tour of the premises, explaining who each of the statues depicted and showing where I could drop a bit of money into that deity’s coffers. I understood almost nothing of what she said and she didn’t know where the Red Fort was (although she did know of Canada. Lots of people here know of Canada and have relatives and friends in Toronto.)

As I was leaving the prayer centre another woman came over and pointed to a narrow arched lane nearby and told me to go down it and turn left to get to the Red Fort. The lane was standing room only, accommodating at most four people across, who were all basically pushing their way along the lane. It was lined down one side with with tiny shops selling brightly coloured fabrics and other goods which people paused to check out, slowing progress further, as did those who struggled against the tide to go in the opposite direction.

Finally, I emerged from the tunnel to the light and turned left. The streets here too were crowded and noisy and there was no sign of other tourists. After a few blocks when I could still see nothing resembling a red fort or any minarets, I decided it was pointless to go farther: I felt that I could not stop to take out my guidebook and look for a map or even dare to take a photo, as revealing my “tourist” status would just reveal me as a mark. There were no signs to the landmarks I was looking for — at least not in English — and there seemed to be no one official anywhere to ask. So I turned back, and this is when a woman in a sari, about 40, maybe about five foot three, came across the sidewalk at me with her fists raised. I thought she was shouting angrily at a man nearby but she kept coming at me at and she struck me hard on the chest and arms with her raised fists. It hurt but not a lot: mostly I was just amazed. I just kept walking, trying to appear as though nothing had happened, and the woman didn’t follow me.*

I made my way back to the tunnel lane and pushed my way back up it toward the Metro. A couple of children attached themselves to me, asking for money, but I refused — concerned that if I gave them anything, swarms of other children would emerge from the crowds also looking for money.

Back on the Metro, which was now more crowded than it had been earlier, I decided to get off at Rajiv Chowk and have a look at Connaught Place and maybe see India Gate and some of the more upscale market promised in the Rough Guide. But up top when I emerged from the Metro station, it was store after store (many western ones there) and again few tourists, so again I was unsure how to get to the sights I wanted to see.

I decided to admit defeat, and to take the Metro back before rush hour got any closer. By then I felt like a pro at using the subway system and I think the achievement of my day was going as far as I did without much signage I could read, through all of those crowded confusing streets, and then making it back safely to my hotel — because if I’d got lost in Delhi, I’d have been really lost. It’s amazing what a little fear does for my sense of direction!

*Please note that I don’t attribute the woman’s behaviour in any way to the fact that she lives in Delhi: there are crazy people everywhere. And if she does live on the street in that city, she probably has a right to hate me on sight anyway.

Into India (1)

India has fascinated me for as long as I can remember. When I was given the  incredible opportunity a few months ago to choose the “trip of a lifetime,”  it didn’t take me long to commit to India for my destination. I have now booked a ten-day, small-group excursion in November that begins in Delhi and tours northern India for several days, then takes an overnight train to Mumbai for a quick look at that city before winding down on a beach in Goa.

I know that to say “I am fascinated by India” is simplistic, and sounds naïve. India is not a single thing—it is a blend of cultures, religions, economies, perspectives—and I also know that many of the things it is are likely to repel rather than appeal to me. I realize that India is nothing an outsider like myself can even begin to understand.

Maybe it is my perception of the impossibility of defining the subcontinent that attracts me to it. “I am fascinated by India” is a very different kind of statement than is “I am fascinated by Belgium,” or “I am fascinated by Kenya,” or even (to choose a larger geographical space) “I am fascinated by Australia.”

Being fascinated by India is like being fascinated by garam masala: I have no idea what it’s made of, and even if I did, I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t be all that familiar with the constituent parts; the mystery of the parts as well as of the whole is a lot of what makes it appealing. I know that India can be a dangerous place to go, and its dark side may be part of the attraction too. It ain’t Switzerland, and I know it.

All in all, I am beside myself with excitement at the prospect of going there.

It has become my goal to conquer in advance as much I can learn about India from books and other media – to gain intellectually what I can before I face the country emotionally and physically. What I already know about India’s cultures and its history I have learned primarily from novels (by Salman Rushdie, Vikram Shandra, Amitav Ghosh, Vikram Seth, Arundhati Roy, Rabindranath Tagore, E.M. Forster, and several others) and films (Deepa Mehta and Satyajit Ray, for example), but I have never made any attempt before to gather these bits of knowledge together into any kind of historical framework. After consulting several sources, I decided to start by reading India: A History by John Keay.

So far I have read the introduction and first chapter, and already I have learned some fascinating stuff:

  • Despite evidence left behind since at least 2000 BC by several highly evolved civilizations in the geographical territory encompassing what we now call India (and Pakistan, Bangladesh, Afghanistan, etc), no one set the history of the area down in writing until about 1200 AD;
  • The story of the flood that is found in both Christian and Jewish scripture may have come from a inundation that entirely wiped out the Sumerian city of Shuruppak, possibly around 3000 BC and/or from another flood or series of floods around 2000 BC that submerged the highly productive and sophisticated Harappan civilization, an agriculture-based society in the region of the Indus river basin;
  • While the Harappan civilization left no written record of its existence, it did leave a legacy of artifacts and ruins that have been uncovered since 1920 in a wide swath extending (in terms of current-day geographical reference points) more than 1800 miles from the southern shores of Pakistan, down the coast of the Arabian Sea towards Mumbai, and west beyond the city of New Delhi;
  • The first and most extensive archeological evidence of the Harappans is located north of Karachi at Mohenjo-Daro. Although this civilization left no written record that can yet be deciphered, it was evidently a sophisticated culture that used imprinted soapstone seals for trade, and created figurines, pottery, tools and jewelry from precious metals such as bronze and silver, and other materials like lapis lazuli and soapstone. Their buildings, including homes, granaries and public buildings, were constructed from brick;
  • The Harappans are conjectured to have been the first civilization in the world to have planned their cities, woven cotton, and used wheeled transportation;
  • Incredibly, at the same time as the Harappan civilization evolved and then disappeared without (apparently) leaving a single written word describing its existence, another whole civilization, the Aryan, was also flourishing, possibly in the same geographical areas and at approximately the same time. The Aryans, by contrast to the Harappans, have been thoroughly described in Sanskrit in the Vedas; also by contrast, there is no physical evidence that they existed.

It appears that the second chapter of India: A History will focus on this Aryan contribution. I’ve been hearing about Sanskrit since I took a course in English etymology in university, and I am looking forward to learning more.