India 4: Strangers in a strange land
From the first night Steve and I went for a walk around Ahmedabad, we noticed that people were looking at us a little strangely. Not with any kind of negativity or judgement but more a sort of genuine fascination - the way you might find your eyes drawn to a person with bright green hair or an unfortunate birthmark. It took a little getting used to. After a couple of days it struck us - we were the only white people in town - even in the hotel. It seems the local people rarely see any non-Indians.
It turns out that Westerners rarely come to Gujarat, so in a way it was the ideal introduction to India. We realised just how rare it must be when we asked a rickshaw driver to take us to Le Meridien and he'd never heard of it or been there, even after we got there (Le Meridien is the most expensive hotel in town).
But it was also interesting to realise that we'd been there a couple of days without even realising we were in a minority. I found that quite weird at the time - my last experience of being in a minority was in Atlanta, Georgia, USA where everyone was black. I felt quite nervous and like I stood out, I was acutely aware of being different. Not so here. There's something about the people and their attitude that makes you feel very safe and at ease. It would take me a couple more weeks of being in India to really be able to put it into words.
On our first evening as we sat in a restaurant a little Indian girl of 10 or so years old and said in her best attempt at English. "Hello. What is your name?". Her mother stood behind her and looked on proudly. We introduced ourselves, asked her name, exchanged smiles and she went away happy. This sort of thing happened all the time.. Children would call out "Hello How Are You" in the street as we walked past. We even had a few shouts of "Welcome to India!" which was really touching. But this was nothing compared to what happened to us at Lothal.
Lothal is a remnant of the Indus Valley civilization which existed around 2600BC - comparable to ancient Egypt. There is not a great deal left, lots of floors and walls - kind of like visiting a Roman fort on Hadrian's Wall. What is impressive is that they had shipping and docks with a form of lock all that time ago - and the dock is still water bearing. Also the kiln-fired red bricks they made over 4000 years ago are still intact and look even better quality than those we use today! (Apparently the British thought so when colonizing the area and helped themselves to plenty - as did local farmers etc). Anyway I digress. Not long after we'd arrived at the site, a school bus pulled up. The kids spotted us and started hanging out of the windows cheering and waving. Lothal is out in the countryside and these kids must rarely see anyone outside their own village let alone from another country.
He had one of the group take our photograph with the schoolkids on an ancient-looking film camera, a picture for their classroom. He also asked for our autographs and asked if he could "interview" us. The interview consisted of one question, "What do you eat for lunch in India?" I'd actually had a lot of local foods and Gujarati Thali so I thought I'd say something more unusual to them - I said "burger and chips". He had literally no idea what this was, and asked me to write it down. It's nice to see that there are some parts of the world where fast food culture has not yet arrived! After a while, a few more handshakes and a few more photographs, he managed to tear the group away from us and get them back to their historical education.
We went to a restaurant in Ahmedabad for lunch, and a group of college age girls asked us where we were from and what we were doing here. We explained we were from England and were working here. They said they were studying for MBAs - which explained their good English. Generally we observed that the more educated people in India spoke English (hoteliers, teachers, students etc) but the more menial workers (drivers, shopkeepers etc) rarely spoke any.
Throughout the rest of our time in Gujarat, and to a lesser extent in Mumbai and Goa, people would come up to us and ask where we are from. We'd say England, and they'd walk away smiling. I found it a bit odd at first that people would ask our country then that would be the end of the conversation. But an incident at the airport gave me an insight into this. Steve spotted a very dark skinned man who stood out from the Indians, and asked him where he was from. The man said Nigeria, and Steve smiled and the conversation ended. I just realised I'd seen the same conversation in reverse - it's simply that we are so out-of-the-ordinary to the local people, that they are just compelled to find out where we are from!