Thursday, 30 October 2008

Look at the strange cow-eating white men!

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.

It was our weekend off and we had a driver for the weekend. On the Saturday he'd taken us to some nearby sights - Akshardam Temple, Adalaj Step Well (which is a truly unique kind of below-ground temple or baoli which I had never seen before), Indroda Nature Park and Gujarat Science City. On the Sunday we headed further afield, south to the ruins at Lothal, and north to Modhera Sun Temple, both of which were well worth visiting.

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.

Not long after they were off the bus they ran to see us - they were far more interested in us than the ruins. They swarmed around us all wanted to shake our hands - at one point I had about 15 hands on my arm as they all tried to touch me! They all wanted to be photographed, taking great pleasure in being photographed - as do most of the children in India, they often ask to be photographed and giggle when you photograph them. A world away from the UK where photographing children is so heavily frowned upon. The school teacher with the group was just as excited as the kids, but spoke reasonably good English and talked to us about the children and his school. As a teacher he earns 2000 rupees a month (approx 23 GBP) but said that the children come from very poor farming families where there parents earn a fraction of that.

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.

It was an unbelievable experience I will never forget. You hear people talk of people in remote parts of the world getting excited when they see white people but I'd never seen it for myself first hand. I gave a few of the kids some English 10p and 20p coins I had left in my wallet - something from the West - it made their day! The whole experience left us feeling warm and fuzzy for the rest of the day!

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!

Another bizarre celebrity-type moment happened to me at Shanku Water Park, where a group of boys dragged me into the "wet disco" (basically an outdoor room with loud music and water jets spraying from the floor. They proceeded to dance around me cheering and jumping around like I was a rock star and making "rap fingers" gestures. At the other side of the room, a group of girls danced in their own little huddle, wearing long sleeved pyjama-style swimsuits. It was a very very weird experience!