Tuesday, October 2, 2007

India. Lasting Impressions.

Today is Mahatma Ghandi's birthday which is celebrated as a national holiday. It's also my last day in India.

It's been an incredible 5 days in India! There's not a whole lot you can learn about a country in such a short time but I'm glad I had the opportunity to experience what I did. I still have a lot of photos and text to post up - especially of all the sites I visited but I will leave that task for when I get home. For this posting, I wanted to share a few images and thoughts of my short time in India.

Aside from the tourist spots, what I saw was not always a pretty sight. To start with, India is a sea of humanity. It is the second most populous country in the world and there are people EVERYWHERE going about their daily lives. 15 million people live in Delhi alone. Couple masses of people with poverty on a scale that is unimagineable to you and I and what you see with your eyes are images that are painful to take in but that you cannot avoid. At a human level, it is difficult to recognize the fact that people actually live in such squalid conditions.

In Old Delhi, India. In the town of Faridabad, on the way to Agra from Delhi.
In old town Agra.
For the very poor in India, there is no luxury of personal, private space. You make your "home" whereever you are allowed to and if you are lucky, you will have a piece of plastic or some sort of makeshift roofing to protect you from the elements. If you are not so fortunate, home may be the underpass over a busy street. Comforts of living such as pillows and blankets are not afforded to the poor so you lay your head whereever you can. I saw people sleeping in every location and on every surface imagineable. It's a harsh reality of life for the downtrodden in India.

And yes, there are beggars everywhere. Needless to say, it's most difficult to see the children, unkempt and hungry, gesturing with their hands for food. Beggars will often tap at the car window, gesturing for money or food. The guides instruct you to turn your head and ignore them. Eventually, they leave for the next car in line.

As hard as it was not to do, I refrained from giving out any money except for one. I came across this old man selling small bags of popcorn and his blind wife at Fatehpur Sikri in Agra. It was the haunting look on his face and the vibrant colors of her dress that caught my eye. Hamid, my guide, took both photos as I did not feel comfortable doing so. I left them both a few rupees.

Day to day life here is harsh - focused on surviving from one day to the next. Without money and material goods to shelter and protect them, religion is the salvation for most, if not all Indians. This is a deeply religious country and everywhere I went, I found Hindu altars of all shapes and sizes - some in the backrooms of a shop and others on front stoops of houses. The smell of incense is prevalent.

Smell. One of those senses that we often fail to describe in a blog but driving through Delhi with the windows rolled down is truly an experience. Your nose is assaulted by all sorts of smells - some pleasant and some not. At times, the smells intermingle - garlic, curry, and incense anyone?

Animals all share the same space with people. Stray dogs, horses, donkeys, goats, camels, monkeys, parrots, deer, elephants, buffaloes and of course, the iconic cow which is considered to be sacred and therefore, never killed or even harmed. You see these animals not just in the countryside but in the heart of the cities and even in the tourist sites. One of the current news headlines is the story of an 89 year old female elephant, inhabitant of a national park, who recently fell and fractured her legs. The park authorities want to put her down to end her misery but they are facing opposition from animal rights groups. Here elephants are revered so it looks like the debate will most likely go on for quite some time.

I came across this cow in the Shah Jahan Garden that lies adjacent to the Taj Mahal. Goat, Fathepur Sikri, Agra, India. This cute, gentle creature followed me all the way to my bus. Water buffalo, cooling off the midday heat, Agra, India. Small deer grazing in the garden behind me, Sikandra, Agra, India.
Then, there's traffic in India. Cars, bicycles, motorcycles, auto rickshaws (or tuk-tuks), rickshaws, animal drawn carts, buses, trucks.....you name it. If it has wheels and can be pushed or pulled, it's on the road. And, honking the horn is a driving necessity. For me, it was shades of Cairo all over again. Sigh. My "alarm clock" the first morning I was here was the incessant sound of car horns as vehicles rumbled down the street just outside my hotel window.

These green and yellow tuk-tuks are EVERYWHERE. In Delhi, I generally saw one or two passengers in each but on the outskirts of the city, it was not unusual to see more than 8 people crammed into each tuk-tuk and a few more passengers hanging on on the outside.
Then there are the trucks which all sport the same set of instructions, painted on the back panel. "Use Dipper at Night"? What does that mean? I asked my guide Rajeev this very question and he replied by asking the driver to turn on his headlights and flicker them - that's how you get the attention of a truck driver at night!
"Blow Horn". Why would anybody want to encourage more of the incessant horn blowing that you hear EVERYWHERE you go? It wasn't until I got on the road to Agra that I understood why. Here, they drive on the left handside of the road so the right lane is the fast lane. So here's how the horn thing works. If you come up to a vehicle that is driving at a lower speed than you, push on the horn a few times and the driver is to pull over into the next lane. What this means is that if you are behind a truck, you don't have to strain your next out the window to see if you can pass - the truck driver will move over and you can continue to drive along in the same lane. This actually makes sense and surprisingly enough, you get used to the sound of the horns!

Traffic congestion is everywhere and though I saw many a building labelled "Delhi Traffic Police", I rarely saw any traffic police. I don't know how it's possible but I never saw a single accident despite what I would have considered a lot of VERY near misses. Take any driver from Delhi and put them in the heart of downtown Manhattan - I bet you they could beat any NYC taxi cab driver from point A to point B!!

Cars are very expensive here so motorcycles are a common form of transportation for many families. It was not an uncommon sight to see Mom, Dad and two kids scootering down the road.

Helmets are suppose to be mandatory (or as they say here, compulsory) for all motocycle rides except for Sikhs - hard to find a helmet to fit over their turban! Since most of the motorcycles were driven by men, it was common to see men wearing helmets. What was odd was that female passengers, more often than not, did not wear them. Again, I asked one of my guides why and his response was that the woman had faith in God to keep her safe from harm's way. Hmmm. I don't buy that one.

I was a bit worried about how my lungs would hold up in Delhi - they took a beating from the pollution in Cairo and I was concerned I would suffer the same fate here but surprisingly, the air is not as polluted as I had expected. All public vehicles, including the tuk-tuks, run on CNG (Compressed Natural Gas) which is an alternative fuel to either "regular" gasoline or diesel. Walking in the streets, you don't smell the carbon monoxide emissions that we smell back in the US. Given the high number of cars on the road in India, I applaud the government for taking on this "green" initiative.

Heeding the advice of several of my friends who have travelled to India, I refrained from leaving the hotel at night - not a safe thing to do for a woman travelling alone. As a result, I spent quite a bit of time watching Indian TV. I must say, it's quite entertaining!! For starters, Indians seem to maximize every inch of space they can. For example, whereas in the US we post the names of businesses discretely on directoy boards in the lobby of a building, here the business is advertised on the outside of the building. Take that same paradigm and translate it onto a TV screen. Why just show the movie when you can also advertise and show the weather, all at the same time?

Looking for a Physics Class? ....or maybe a home appliance of some sort?
There are also TV channels dedicated to religion as well as astrology - very interesting to see a yogi on one page and then an astrologer reading tarot (?) cards on another.

...and there's one uniquely Indian form of communication that I could not capture on video. I couldn't figure out the pattern but Indians will easily interchange speaking full sentences in Hindi and English in the same paragraph. I caught a few minutes of a show (Jhalak Dhikhhla Ja) that is the Indian version of Dancing With The Stars. When it came time for one of the judges to speak, he started by saying something in English like, "Your energy was very good, but your expression...." then continuing the rest of the sentence in Hindi. A few more sentences in Hindi and then it was back to English, "However, I think you did a fantastic job overall." Time and time again, it was like this - even on the news! It was often frustrating viewing it was like watching a mystery movie and the power goes out just as the detective reveals who did the crime! Fortunately, there's enough English language channels to help me fill the hours at night.

Music and dancing. Indians love it. Turn on the TV and anytime of the day and you're more than likely to catch a musical dance performance of some sort. Sad moments, happy moments - everything can be described by song and dance....and everyone dances - beautiful women and macho men alike. Very entertaining.

Color. There is so much color in India. You see it in the fabric of women's saris - vibrant pinks, greens, yellows, reds and blues - all shades of the rainbow. I even saw women working in the fields wearing beautiful colored and patterned saris. Here, there are no rules about what colors and patterns you can/cannot match - it makes for a wonderful palette for the eye! And it's not just the women who wear colorful clothing. Brightly colored shirts on men are not an uncommon sight.
Street performers, Dilli Haat, Delhi, India.
Woman shopping, old town Agra, India.
Family riding in the back of a tuk-tuk, Palwal, India (on the way from Agra to Delhi).
Even the trucks are colorful - usually painted in a rust colored orange with designs painted in white, green and yellow. Tuk-tuks are green and yellow. Highway pillars, that hold up flyovers are often decorated with tiles in varying designs and bright colors.

Ceramic tiled highway pillar, Pusa Road, Karol Bagh, Delhi, India.
Food. I've tasted the familiar (chicken tikka, masala dosa, aloo gobi, dal makhani, naan) and the unfamiliar - I've fallen in love with the lime juice here. The first sip I had was tangy sweet with a salty undertone. Yum. ....and for the first time ever, samosas filled with meat. I never did make it to Haldiram's for the bhel puri that my friend Smitha recommended - maybe next time. It's also apple season here though I prefer munching on the pineapple - I think I've had my fill for now.

Everywhere I went, I saw people selling vegetables and while I did not have a chance to wander through the markets, the produce looked very nice - eggplant, cauliflower, squash, potatoes, tomatoes, cucumbers, chilis and leafy green vegetables were a common sight on many a hawker cart.

I had a dizzying time in India. Every minute of every hour of every day, my senses and emotions were challenged on so many different levels. I was exhausted by the time I returned to my hotel room at night and yet, every morning I could not wait to get started on the day. There is so much that I did not have a chance to experience this visit. Maybe next time around.