Thursday, June 26, 2008

Leaving on a jetplan. . .

here I am at an Internet Centre in New Delhi before I take off and leave behind a world of crazy spices, laughter and so much warmth that I'm overheating.

I've never been received by so much kindness in my life. In the past couple weeks, I've drank enough chai (with generous servings of sugar and milk, of course) to support an entire tea plantation and enough food to last week till the end of summer - technically. One kid asks us to their home and then their friends wants us to visit too. A typical chai visit consists of a drink appetizer of orange Fanta and then the main feature chai along with biscuit and salty snacks (namkeen). A recent visit also included samosas and sweets (molassy melts-in-your-mouth squares called bassin). Most of our chai visits are conducted in a mix of simple Englih, Punjabi and expressive hand gestures. As most of the parents do not speak English, most of the time, we sit silently, looking at each other with awkward smiles. Our program day ends at 7pm and then we go straight to one child's home before returning home to cook and eat AGAIN.

We also attended a friend's wedding and had a farewell party at our home ending with good-bye gifts and a dance session of bhangra music. The kids at school have also been giving us gifts from the kitchiest fake flowers to bright and glittery bedazzler type bracelets and gigantic colour radiant earrings with the ability to reach one's shoulders.

Recently, the biggest achievement of my Indian life is surviving under the Indian summer heat. Never having experienced temperatures close to my own body temperature, living in constant sweat with fans (when power is available) that recycles hot air is unimaginable. To battle this heat, my body produces a constant film of slime at all times (more often with a lack of power to generate the fan) as I breathe, walk, sit, sleep etc. Very unpleasant when waking up in soaking clothes and the shadow of sweat pools in the early morning! Sweating through shirts and pants is a common phenomenon. . .

Next stop from the Delhi airport is Hong Kong where the temperature is ~33c, but this time the weather calls for rain. . . can't wait for home!

Friday, June 20, 2008

Ode to the Indian Eve

Roosevelt once said that a woman is like a teabag, the longer she is put in hot water, the stronger she gets (paraphrased). It seems truer than ever for most women of India. For the delicate gender that drops out of school earlier and at a higher rate than the men of the country, girls are brought up learning how to make perfectly round chapattis, move around gracefully in their Punjabi suits and/or saris, bargain for the best deals at the market and to be second to the men in their lives.

Women generally marry by their early twenties to a husband in an arranged circumstance to live happily ever after in stability – meaning good rupees. The time between meeting their betrothed and the wedding can happen in a matter of weeks. After the elaborate and expensive wedding, come the expected children who the women are responsible for raising. During the day, she stays at home cleaning, cooking (roti after roti) and if she is well off, napping and watching TV.

However, the fortress of the home, roti maker, house cleaner, child carer, is not seen in public as often as men in India. As foreigners, we are almost a half-gender, being excused for not wearing our Punjabi suits everyday, and going out to public places greatly dominated by men. These places include restaurants, movie cinemas and public transportation such as trains and buses. In Goa beaches, the only locals found in their shorts are Indian male tourists. Women generally do not go into the water unless they are fully dressed (saris, etc). Generally, Indians do not swim (may not know how), but they enjoy splashing themselves and lying by the edge. The men seem to gravitate towards foreign tourists in swimsuits, an activity that is part and package of their holiday. . .

In the busy urban centres, there are more progressive families, but in general, love marriages are rare and arranged marriages are the norm. Matrimonial online sites are getting popular and there are entire thick sections in the newspapers dedicated to finding a marriage partner divided into class, language and caste, although if you do not have such expectations, you get 25% off your ad. At weddings, the bride is not supposed to smile or else it shows that they are happy to leave their family (to move to the groom’s). And as she is whisked off from the marriage palace, she has tears in her eyes.

On the other hand, Indian Eves are not always so submissive. Unlike in villages, New Delhi and Mumbai, for example, can find more women (mostly younger) who do not wear traditional garb. In line-ups waiting to buy train tickets, some women push up to the front of the line to demand that they buy their ticket first. They can be very tricky especially when you are not looking and the next thing you know, your place has been taken. Once on a bus, I got up to allow an older woman to sit beside me and the next thing I knew, her friend had squeezed in to take my seat also! Fortunately, another seat was free behind mine . . .

On my final week in India, I’m a mix of emotion, mostly from my village experience. You can find more travel photos from me here.

Sunday, June 01, 2008

Finding Nemo (or Allah, or Vishnu, or Buddha, etc.)

discovered during my stay here that unlike the non-committal North Americans with their watered down Chinese New Year celebrations or Mardi Gras, Indians are intense with their religions. Spirituality may be another matter but there are signs, signs everywhere are signs or religious fervour. Instead of Buddhist temple after temples in China/Japan or church after church in the tourist route of Spain or France, there are a smattering of Hindu temple after Muslim Mosque after Buddhist temples after Jain temple after Catholic churches after Sikh Gurdwaras here in this diverse country.

And no, the many religious places are not just half-assed wooden crosses at the back of a building or stone statues of the local Hindu Monkey god. They are elaborate shrines lovingly designed with mirror mosaics, multi-designs of chandeliers or painted in the likeness of the insides of a cow. Fragrant roses, lilies and tropical flower chains adorn creative carvings of revered gods, framed with glowing candles, next to offerings of coconuts with paan leaves and sweets. Indians are serious about religion. In Goa, the second question we were asked from a local server was “Are you Christian?”

The influence of Portuguese traders and settlers in the South of India including Goa and Kerala, where I have returned from holidays, left Catholic and Christian edifices dating from the 16th century around these parts. Hindu temples dedicated to local gods are everywhere with frequent rituals performed sometimes by participants that spill out into the streets. Along some Indian roads are mini shrines big enough to fit one of two people with statues of Hindu gods (or a giant cross in Kerala) where truckers and pedestrians can leave flowers and offerings with prayers as they pass by.

These practices of religion may be a means of fulfilling emotional and/or physical (financial material) needs of India, all 1.1 billion living under Gandhi’s Independent flag. Buddhism and Hinduism offer believers a chance to be released from suffering, and to attain nirvana. To achieve this level, there are meditative practices. The book I’m currently reading “Eat, Pray, Love” says that praying is the act of talking to God, while meditating is the act of listening to God. Perhaps the whirlwind, urban and materialistic lifestyle of the West doesn’t give most of us time and priority to search for the romantic notion of spirituality of religion, organized or otherwise.

No wonder the Hippy Revolution of the 60s found Westerns rejecting the White Anglo-Saxon Protestant mentality flocking to India to find spirituality. Well – if they don’t go home with spirituality, they can at least bring back flower chains from a Hindu ceremony and deadly weed. . .

Friday, May 09, 2008

The I Factor

Since I’ve arrived here, I’ve learned one thing: anything is possible in India. Things happen beyond (or just different from) expectations through a phenomenon called the Indian factor, the infamous I-factor.

My trip to Himachal Pradesh bordering the sharp and breath-taking Himalaya Mountain range showed me why this is so. We visited Dharamsala, and the city of McLeod Ganj where the Tibetan government and community in exile reside. Then we headed over to Manali honeymoon capital of India with the majestic snow mountain as a backdrop. Overall, the scene of the white and blue mountains reminded me of the North Shore Mountains in Vancouver, the extension of our very own Rockies.

At the beginning of our journey we boarded the bus from Hoshiarpur to Dharamsala by fighting our way through tightly knitted Indian crowds. Before I was able to even sneak a peek inside, a man told me to purchase seats so I went on a search for tickets. When I returned to the bus, my friends were still half-seating and arguing for a spot. The locals apparently didn’t know that there was assigned seating and were soon turned down by the conductor. Later, we saw people scrambling for seats on another bus by throwing their bags onto seats through the window as the bus was parking so they could claim the seats upon boarding.

McLeod Ganj was itself a surprise as we felt that we were magically transported out of India and dropped off at a backpackers’ resort with great service and menus that met all the appetite needs of foreigners. Most of the locals were Tibetan or Kashmiri or Nepali – Indians were a minority. This was perhaps a non-I factor.

On the way to Manali, our i-adventure truly began with an overnight bus ride crammed in seats made for two skinny third-graders - we try to tuck our legs to secure ourselves. And then the driver stepped on the brakes. The noise was unforgettable – like the screech of a million seagulls in symphony with intense grinding of metal against metal. As our road took us through hills and winding turns, the bus braked once and again. The bus, dramatically swaying its tail left and right, pulled passengers from side to side. Passengers like me, half perched at the edge by the aisle, I was lifted out of my seat perilously, almost falling into the dangerous aisle of heavy bags and other passenger’s feet each time. To secure myself, I had to hold tightly onto the handle bars directly in front of me throughout the 11 hour journey into the night.

Then we arrived in Manali, where newlyweds start their lives together, where they get to know each other after their brief meeting at their engagement and wedding. The toilet in the honeymoon suite given to us was a hybrid one giving users the hard decision to sit Western style or squat the good old-Indian way. The romantic Hot Springs in nearby Vashisht was so hot that you can only dip your toe in or say a special mantra before going in and out. Most local prefer the shower method, where the water can be adjusted by showerheads by the pool. Other Manali attractions included skiing at the mountain base with no ski-lift. 80s style snowsuits and faux fur were available for rent, hard hat helmets not included.

Looking forward to more I factors to come. . .

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Village People

“Che-lo, Che-lo,”
we say to the children. Like always, they are reluctant to leave the afternoon activities but eventually follow us towards the gate of the government school giggling and whispering in Punjabi. They grab our hands to shake them time and again. “Hello, bye!” they repeat to us, some heading home by bicycle. Most of them walk with us to our home, pointing at buildings and puppies to teach us Punjabi vocabulary. After a month of interaction with the children and youth of Sotla, we feel like we know them although we may not know all their names; from the mischievous nine-year old girl with the short hair who insists on leading outdoor activities to the older boy who cannot let go of the ball in dodgeball games.

We have been preparing to set-up a VIKAS (development) Centre in the village here and testing out the concept at the Sotla Pilot Centre. Bringing along Western summer camp games to teach them basic English, we mostly communicate through gestures when we are without interpreters. They are familiar with their favourite games now and we have just started introducing computers to them with four laptops. We’ve had almost 100 participants come through our “centre” and we are now thinking of way to sustain the centre and how to start provide full-service through programs to the villagers.

There are a few migrant families who relocated to our village from Eastern India to look for work. One of these families has five children, ranging from age 2 to 11. The parents sent the children to the government school in the past but they always returned home and the parents have given up on sending them. Perhaps they find the material difficult or because they are afraid of the teacher. We’ve been encouraging the children to attend the after-school programs that we are initiating but the oldest child, an 11-year old girl has to take care of her 5 and 2 year old siblings while her parents worked in the field. Initially, she wouldn’t come because she had to stay home to care for them. But now, she brings them along.

Initially, Indian time (aka. it will happen at some time. . .) had prevented us from diving straight into the work here, but things are now slowly taking off. I’m looking forward to the marketing and planning work that I hope to accomplish while I am here.

Outside of work, village life had proved to be enjoyable and comforting especially after traveling in hot, polluted cities for days. The fields of green and the tranquil, slow-paced life is comparatively relaxing. Predominantly an agricultural society, Punjabi villages are surrounded by field, worked by farm labourers and landowners. I was invited to my co-worker Jinder’s village where she proudly showed me her land with sunflowers, corn, wheat, sugar cane, spinach, mustard greens, eggplants, mint and coriander among others. Her family owns cows and buffalos that she milks and takes care of everyday.

Dairy is easily available in the village and are consumed as is. Milk from either cow or buffalo is rich as cream, used in curd, lassi and milk straight into chair. Sugar is also liberally used in the diet as is oil when making chapati and butter in dahl. It is the way to gain “healthy” weight although I hope I won’t bring back excess load through customs on my return. . .

To see some of my experiences so far, check out:

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Buses, Trains, and Autorickshaws

the places you will go! And the ways that you will do it! With both familiar and unfamiliar modes of transportation in India, there is never a dull moment especially when a fraction of the 1.1 million inhabitants of this country travels along with you!

My adventures on the buses here so far mostly consists of three buses between Chandigarh and Sotla village in the Hoshiarpur region of Punjab. First bus between Chandigarh and Hoshiarpur, and then to Dosaraka, and then to Sotla. At the bus stand can usually find your bus by hearing the destination shouted by the ticket collector "Chandigarh, Chandigarh, Chandiga-arh!" Before the ticket collector asks for your ticket or the bus fare, non-travellers sometimes hop on with you, including vendors for pens and young girls holding a piece of paper instructing you to give them 15 rupees. Along the highway, buses ring out their distinctive horn as they speed along, with random breaks during long rides (6.5 hours, Chandigarh - New Delhi).

In crowded buses, I've seen a woman who boarded carrying a bright pink baby's walking. As she was left standing, she shoves this big contraption into the arms of a total stranger. He carried it until the end of her journey. One of the interns saw women who shove their own, precious live and kicking babies into the laps of strangers as well!

Train rides are another story, with my own experiences limited to overnight trains, I am only familiar with sleepers with bunks. Without pillows, we shiver seeking sleep. In the morning, around 6am, people walk through the narrow corridors announcing their wares "Cha-aaai, chaa-aaii, chaaa-aai". Other vendors hop on beckoning potential customers as they join the passengers from various stops. When we arrived in Rajasthan, we even had a couple musicians come in with their drums, playing lovely Rajasthani music and singing. Of course, they look for top bucks for their performance. People from other walks of life find their way to the trains as well including a couple with stumps for legs. I remember reading about those without legs and the groups of beggers who work together. I remember that I do not want to support this activity and that no mater how generous, I can never feed all the poor in India.

Autorickshaws are new for me. I was told they have similar in Thailand called tuk-tuks. Three wheeled "put-put" that runs on diesel, more like it. The drivers of the covered vehicle pulls a chain and it sparks to life loudly like a rusty lawnmower. We start to bargain and are always charged more that locals. They always pay 10 rupees, and they start trying to get our business with 100. After the destination we ask "kit-ne?" to get a price and bargain down until we pay close to the locals, when possible, depending on how far they have to go. In New Delhi it's not possible, but it is more reasonable in Chandigarh.

As for cycle rickshaws, I personally do not life to sit uncomfortably under intense sun and heat or during the night totally exposed to any dangers. The cycler is usually small and pedals hard as he carries the weight of the heavy cart and its passengers, sweating profusely.

I am off again as I type this in the computer room of our hostel in New Delhi. Tomorrow we depart for Agra where the Taj Mahal awaits. More on this later. . .

Friday, March 28, 2008

Animal Kingdom India

The highlight of my trip to Rajasthan included a camel safari with an overnight stay by the sand dunes of the Thar desert under the star witnessing the cloudless skies filled with stars, sun set and sunrise, eating chapatis and curries cooked under the shade of fresh green deciduous trees. We visited the grand forts of the Rajputs in the blue city (houses with blue to repel mosquitos and keep cool) of Jodpur with its English style clock tower, and Jaipur, the pink city, famous for elephants.

I've encounted animals in both urban and rural settings. The urban centres are of course crowded with the throng of humankind, bustling, eating, selling and selling their wares. Camels pulling carts, buffalos pulling carts, donkeys pulling carts. As one meanders through busy street side, goats nibble at mounds of garbage stashed at the side of the road. I also saw a boar gnawing at a pile of garbage in Jaipur.

Cows seek shade anywhere they can in the city and eat chapati fed to them by people. They are taken care of a bit more - and I wonder if they are indeed holy cows. Sometimes horned buffalos/cows unexpectantly fight each other as I jump away. I saw one with flowers in its hair. Dogs bark everywhere, some homeless, many hungry, some protective of their puppies. Just like humans, animals in the urban jungle vie for their livelihood in chaos and competition with each other. On the tops of temples overlooking busy streets, monkeys with bright pink bottoms stare down at you curiously.

In the village, buffalos are also present, except they are kept in stables, waiting to provide milk to the villagers. It tastes like homogenized cows milk after it is boiled - add a bit of curd overnight and you get Indian yogourt to dip and eat with chapati or bananas. Every morning I hear crows caw with their grey necks, pigeons also. Dogs also live in random corners here, lying lazily in the shade on hot afternoons.