Monday, 3 November 2008

A feast for the senses; a land at peace

India 10: Reflections on India

So, my three week trip to India is nearing its end. Tomorrow I fly back to Mumbai and on Wednesday back home. As I reflect on my time in India my feelings are overwhelmingly positive. From day one, India has blown away all expectations. I have to confess I was pretty prejudiced about India. I imagined a disease ridden place with rubbish and bodies in the streets and destitute people all around. I couldn't have been more wrong. Yes there is more rubbish than you would see elsewhere - but not in the streets, the people are very proud and streets and highways are regularly swept clean. You have to look hard to see the rubbish - down back alleys and at the edges of towns. There are no bodies in the street either. That seems to be pure myth. The only thing we did see occasionally is sarcophaguses of mummified religious leaders by the roadside, as sort of shrines.

The most significant thing that strikes me about India is the colours. England and the West looks positively drab by comparison. Everywhere you look, bold bright colours can be seen. Women dress in striking coloured sarees to go about their daily business - even the poorest women still look beautifully dressed.

And it doesn't stop at the women. Buildings and office blocks are painted in bright reds, yellows and blues. Store fronts are decorated with fresh flower garlands each day. Even the vehicles are painted and adorned with flowers over their radiators. People decorate the entrances to their homes with intricate rangolis made from flower petals and pulses (and even more so at Diwali).

And it's not just colours, you find all your senses overwhelmed - smells of spices and freshly cooked curries mixed with incense and earthy farmyard type smells as well the occasional smell of bad drains. And vehicle horns mingle with traders and taxi drivers hollering each other along with occasional religious chants and calls to prayer from loudspeakers above temples. Even the temples are varied, a fusion of Islam and Hindu styles. And the taste too - The curries we have at home are not a patch on real Indian food. There is no "curry powder" here. Each dish is delicately crafted with the precise mix of chillies herbs and spices to complement its ingredients.

India is definitely a shock, but in a good way. It is unlike anywhere I've been before. Each place took a while to get used to, and I realised that a big reason for this is that India is really 28 different countries with various climates, cultures and languages - united mainly by proximity and religion. I had not realised that most Indians speak the language of their own state and one or two others - and only if you're lucky a basic level of Hindu and English. Both Hindu and English are the unifying languages but only the highly educated are fluent in either.

The thing that will stay with me most though is memories of the people here. Not are they incredibly warm and welcoming, they are more peaceful than any I've ever seen before. I saw no crime in India. Outside of tourist hotspots I saw minimal begging. What beggars you do see tend to put on an act and do it in tourist areas to earn a living, because they can earn more money that way, sadly. People wave as you pass by and greet you in the street. Everyone here just seems happy. And I literally mean everyone. We are glum by comparison.

It started to dawn on me when I looked at the "slum" outside my hotel in Ahmedabad, and on closer inspection I realised that while these people had little money, they were getting on with their lives. They had very basic rooves above their heads, and electricity and water. They keep their streets between the tin huts clean, and their kids play happily outside. This was not a slum as I'd imagined it, from African famine appeals and Geography textbooks. These were proud people going about their business. Maybe the climate helps, but it just felt like there is a kind of positivity - everyone just gets on with life.

I think it really hit me though when we were driving into Mumbai from the airport and waiting in traffic. I saw a young girl of eight or so by the roadside. She was naked but for a pair of red shorts and had a pail of water by her, from which she was filling a small jug. She was rinsing and squeezing her clothes and then wringing them out on the pavement. She finished one garment and hung it on the railings by the roadside, and started on the next. I didn't feel horrified, and I wasn't sure why - surely I should be appalled at such a scene? But thinking about it afterwards I realised - that girl is not starving or malnourished, she is not begging, she has not given up on life. She was completely at ease with what she was doing. It was just part of her routine. And I think this sums up what the Indian people are about. Whether it comes from the belief in Karma, I don't know, but it seems that in India, you make the best of what life gives you. People don't spend all their time obsessing about how to make a better life for themselves. Which isn't to say they have no ambition - just that they maintain a happy and balanced outlook.

It's a really noble thing in a way, and it really makes you think about how we live our lives in the West. In general, we spend our lives in pursuit of more wealth or better partners, or we worry about fear losing what we already have. We obsess over what-ifs and might-have-beens without ever stopping to just enjoy what life has given us. I know that is probably a great over-simplification but I hope you can see what I am getting at. There is something we can learn from India. It's no wonder they are an up and coming force in the world. It's a country that's going places and which by and large hasn't been sucked into Western capitalist and media ideals (yet - I did see a few disturbing adverts for "skin whitening moisturiser" on the TV, and Mumbai feels quite a lot like other Western cities). I hope that as India grows to join the bigger, more "developed" nations of the world, it retains its vibrancy and individuality.

So that about sums it up, really. If you get chance, go to India, and leave your expectations behind. Go with an open mind and after a few days acclimatisation you will find a friendly place full of happy people, bright colours, great food and a rich history and culture. I know I'll be back.


Goa Goan Gone..

India 9: Goa - Paradise lost?

After a successful week's work in Mumbai, Steve headed home to the UK, and I took advantage of the paid flight to India to take a week's holiday.. beach time in Goa! I'd heard mixed things about Goa - from people saying that it wasn't "the real India" and best avoided, to people saying it's total paradise.

Well the good news is that nature-wise it's beautiful. On the way from the airport we passed fields, palm & rubber plantations, rainforest. Goa is a state on the west coast of India with 63 miles of west-facing coastline - which means beautiful beaches and amazing sunsets every night. I stayed in Palolem Beach in the far south of Goa - which is a sort of alternative/backpacker place like Byron Bay in Australia or Ko Phi Phi in Thailand. I've always preferred the laid back alternative scene than just going to get pissed in the sun somewhere! First impressions were great, a long bay with golden sands and overhanging palm trees. Not complete paradise, the sand is not as clean as it could be, and there just a few too many beach-front huts, bars and restaurants - but it comes pretty close!

I stayed in a very nice beach hut (actually a couple of different ones - the tourist season is just starting up here so it's starting to fill up, I had to move after the first night!)

After a few days I decided it was time to do some sightseeing, so I hired a car with driver for the day (about 25 GBP) and saw Panjim, Old Goa and Fort Aguada, all of which are fine remnants of the Portugese era which only ended in 1961. You can look at my set on Flickr to see some photos of that.

I also took a stop at Baga, which is the "party place" in Goa, and can I just say, it was horrible! North Indian lager louts wander around in their "Goa is Best" bests, drinking beers and hassling girls like some sort of parallel universe Ibiza. All the palm trees are gone and replaced by a never ending strip of bars and shops all aimed at extracting cash from tourists. People hand out flyers to bars that never close. You can't get even a small patch of sand to yourself without being hassled by traders. It was everything that is wrong with commercialism and tourism.

The really disturbing thing is that I saw a lot of development happening on Palolem Beach with businesses expanding to take more tourists. A bay just down the coast has been eaten up by a 5 star hotel resort complex. People say that the entire middle section of Goa's coast has been ruined like Baga - the only places with a bit of peace and charm left are Palolem in the far south and Arambol in the far north. You really get the sense of an unstoppable monster chomping up the beautiful beaches and spitting out Anywhere-On-Sea.

It really brought home to me the ugly side of tourism. I suppose in a way backpackers are like early-adopters of new tourist destinations - and over time as more and more people discover them the inevitable developments happen and the mainstream masses arrive. I wonder how much longer Palolem and Arambol have left before they lose their charm too. I've heard that Ko Phi Phi in Thailand has been ruined since "The Beach". I wonder where will be the next backpacker hotspot to bite the dust? I wonder if anything can be done?


Sunday, 2 November 2008

Rules of the road: Ahmedabad vs Mumbai

India 8: Indian driving styles

I've never seen traffic anything like the traffic in Ahmedabad. Not because it's chaotic, but because they seem to have some set of unwritten rules that actually produce order from the chaos such that people rarely crash into one another. In Ahmedabad probably only a quarter of the vehicles are cars as we'd know them. Most are auto-rickshaws or motorbikes, and the rest are either tiny trucks shorter and narrower than Western cars, or a variety of thrown-together carts pulled by camel, cow, three-wheeled bicycle or even pulled by hand. There is no such thing as lane discipline. Since the average vehicle size is so much smaller, roads are typically filled four or five vehicles across. People cut into whatever gaps are available, bipping their horns as they do so to say "watch out, I've got this space". I never heard anyone beeping out of frustration. The only rule I could discern is that like at sea, smaller vehicles give way to bigger vehicles.

The amazing thing is that there is no road rage to speak of, and while the vehicles seem to all look a little battered and dented, I only saw one bump the whole time we were there. The thing that stands out in my mind is that people seemed to just expect other people to cut them up, and accepted it graciously. I wondered what it would be like if we had such a system in the West - would there be fewer accidents? As we got out of the city I realised that one of the reasons it worked is that the traffic is fairly slow, so people have more time to react. Once you get out of the centre with vehicles at speed it gets a little more hairy. But still, it was very interesting to observe.

Mumbai, on the other hand was a completely different kettle of fish. Mumbai has quite possibly the worst traffic problem I've ever seen. In central Mumbai, auto-rickshaws are banned, as are cows (mostly), and most of the traffic consists of rich financial types being driven around in luxury saloon cars. The local cabs are smaller than the average car, old Fiat 1100s I'm told, but they look straight out of the 60s. There is very little chance to cut into gaps here, there are no gaps. Mumbai is gridlocked from 9 til 11 and 6 til 8 every day. Many Mumbai citizens have given up on road transport and take the train instead, meaning the trains are overcrowded with people hanging out of the open doorways. Many people become isolated to certain parts of the city because getting anywhere else in the city is just completely impractical - taxis and buses being affected just the same as private cars. Our hotel was only a couple of miles from our office, but it took almost an hour to get to and from work every day. We actually moved hotel to reduce our daily travelling time.

And there is road rage here. Boy, is there road rage. Every few seconds people are beeping and honking in frustration at the fact they just can't get anywhere. In short, don't ever expect to travel anywhere in Mumbai by road quickly. I expect it will completely grind to a halt within a couple of years if they don't do something. The amount of businesses and hotels is continuing to grow, and there isn't any more room on the road. If I were them I'd introduce a congestion charge, pronto!


The Mumbai Milk Scam

India 7: The lengths people will go to, to con a tourist

Mumbai, Friday night, after dark.

Our "cool cab" drops us off by the Gateway of India. The moment we get out the taxi, a man with a four foot yellow balloon with green spots asks us if we want to buy one. He slaps it as if to demonstrate what we're missing out on. Unsurprisingly we said no. Moments later, a young Indian women approaches us and introduces herself and starts trying to tie flower garlands around her wrists. We refuse and walk away but she is persistent. We say that we don't want to buy them but she insists, she says don't worry, it's a gift. For Diwali. Ok, we say, thank you, and walk away, but we're sure this won't be the last we see of her. We walk down the seafront and notice she is following us, about twenty paces behind. We walk for a good ten minutes and she is still following us.

Eventually the seafront road turns inland and on our left, shopkeepers sell their wares onto the street, on small tables and stands. The girl approaches us again and says in stilted English "Can you buy milk for me?" pointing at a carton of powdered milk on a shopkeeper's stall. It's for my little brother. I'm tempted to help her, since she'd walked all that way. I ask the shopkeeper how much. 350 rupees (approx 4 GBP). And then it hits me. That's way over the odds. The milk should be about 30 rupees. She's in cahoots with the shopkeeper. Presumably that after I've bought the milk and gone, thinking I've done a good deed, she would give it back to the shopkeeper and split the profits. Nice little earner.

Someone else told us they'd seen a similar scam with rice. The whole incident reminded me that this is a major tourist spot and everyone wants your money. I think how lucky I am that we didn't see any of this in Gujarat. Fortunately, apart from at these major tourist spots like Gateway of India and Victoria Terminal, begging and scamming is not too prevalent. Not as much as some cities like say Barcelona. Still, it just shows, if there's tourists around, don't trust anyone!