Making sense of India

It has been said that one is not a “traveller” until one has been to India. I don’t have a lot of patience with that sanctimonious observation. India is challenging and confounding and unfathomable and it will take us weeks to process everything we experienced, but good grief – travelling through India has not earned us a special traveller’s badge.  What it has done is knocked down a number of  preconceptions and stereotypes we had about India that were inaccurate and simplistic. It’s also served as a solid reminder of how lucky we are – we knew it before, but we really know it now.

I’ll begin this posting with a train trip – the famous Shimla-Kalka UNESCO toy train to be exact.  Built in 1898 to connect mountainous Shimla to the rest of India’s rail lines,  this six-car “toy train” runs on 30″ narrow-gauge tracks, and takes five and a half hours to travel 96 km. The tracks climb 4660 feet by running through 107 tunnels and crossing 864 bridges. It is an engineering marvel and it is also hugely popular – the trains are booked months in advance. We missed out on our trip up to Shimla, but luckily for us, our host was able to pull a few strings and secure us two seats on our return trip.

Our train left at 10.25 a.m.  with a gregarious family as our seat mates and open windows for A/C. We got the full Indian rail experience.

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The scenery was beautiful for almost the entire trip and punctuated with sweet little train stations.

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A toy train can feel less like a train and more like an amusement park ride. Our connection to our surroundings was vivid and a bit disconcerting – travelling over a high stone bridge felt like being suspended in thin air.

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This video will give you an idea of our toy train adventure. Please note the carefree, safety-first approach to train travel in India – each door was filled with passengers who sat, stood or chatted on their phones as the scenery whizzed by.


This was a memorable way to end our trip before flying home – 14 hours of binge-watching movies, listening to passengers snore and eating breakfast at 3:00 a.m. We arrived in Toronto at 5:30 a.m.,  and waited for an hour while Indian families hauled multiple massive suitcases off the conveyor belt until finally our two backpacks swirled up and dumped down. We walked out into the cold, snowy air and thought, “what the heck just happened to us?”

We’re still digesting our experiences but so far these are the impressions that have stayed with us and we’d like to share them with you.
India is not for everyone, and after three months of travelling by tuk-tuk, bus, train, plane and ferry across rivers, backwaters, lakes, mountains, cities, villages, desert, jungle and forest, we’re still not sure if it was for us. Our friend Sheila had warned us about the obvious challenges – the garbage, the dirt, the poverty, the beggars – but said, “you must go.”  We don’t disagree and we’re not sorry we went, but we’re not sure if we would go again. Travelling through India is not relaxing. It requires constant stamina, flexibility and energy and there are times when the rewards are not immediately obvious. We met a Canadian woman of Pakistani descent who travels to India every 10 years to see family. She was aghast to discover we were in India for three months. “You don’t come to India for a vacation.

We met many other tourists who had been to India multiple times and loved it. There is only one way to know how you will react – to borrow Sheila’s phrase, “you must go.”

We met an Indian gentleman who wisely said, “there are many Indias in India”. Munnar was  one of our favourite Indias.

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I was nervous about travelling through India, and one of my biggest fears was rats. Where there is garbage, heat and humidity, rats will follow and I envisioned  legions of rodents, outnumbering Indians 2 to 1. The first week we arrived, I saw four rats (all of them dead), and with the exception of one healthy rat running down the stairs at a railway station, that was it. Not another rat in three months of travel.
One fear down, a few more to follow.

We were concerned about the poverty we would encounter and it was far worse than we had imagined. India has the highest rate of undrinkable water in the world, the second-highest rate of TB in the world, and 140,000 children die of diarrheal-related illnesses every year. We saw so many people with foot problems – club feet, inward-turning feet, even feet with high arches and thinly-stretched webs of skin from toes to ankle. We wondered if these were birth defects that could have been fixed in the early years, but for lack of money, resources, whatever, were not.
We were shocked by the number of beggar children on the streets, the wizened and frail older people, and the sheer numbers of people who were not beggars, but were still in dire need. It became a defining quality of India, and it coloured a lot of our positive impressions of the country.

That, and the garbage.  We had been warned about the garbage before we arrived, but with one or two exceptions, the garbage is everywhere…and it’s hard to understand why. It is a problem that is complex and multi-generational, so the desired solution of a clean India seems near-impossible to achieve. The view from our toy train ride from Shimla should have been pristine, but it was marred by miles of foil, plastic, and food wrappers that have been thrown out the windows of eight daily trains for years.

We met an articulate young woman who offered her perspective on the Indian attitude and behaviour around garbage.  “Indians are very clean in their homes, but they will sweep out onto the street and expect someone else to clean up. Traditionally, it is the lower caste who pick up garbage and sweep up public spaces, so Indians consider handling garbage is dirty and not their job.”  After listening to her, this sign we had seen posted in Panaji made a lot more sense.

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Of course, the image of cows wandering free in India is an iconic one, but at first it was an unnerving and almost comical sight.  I’ve been told that cows are fed to ensure milk production, but bulls, who have no value, are left to their own devices.
Many animals can be found rooting through the garbage; I once saw a cow with ribs protruding, listlessly chewing on a plastic rope.

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Dogs fare little better – possibly their only consolation is companionship – they tend to congregate in packs. We had just one hostile encounter with dogs; mainly they are either searching for food or sleeping.

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There are so many religions and gods in India, often with much tension between them.  We’re not naive enough to think that a religious person is only capable of good, but the gap between devout belief and appalling violence or disregard for others ( humans and animals) is very hard for a foreigner to comprehend.

Our friend Shelley recommended William Dalrymple and I am currently reading his excellent book “Nine Lives: In Search of the Sacred in Modern India.”  He writes without judgement and I am keen to gain at least a partial understanding.

Sanitation in India is an ongoing challenge – with crumbling infrastructure, unclean water supply and a massive population straining the systems. We had heard the stories before we arrived – ” Be prepared to squat. Make sure you bring your own toilet paper.” No big deal and no different from many other countries in the world. Toilet paper, hand sanitizer – good to go.

Our reality check  was a little less cavalier. Fifty-three percent of Indians do not have toilets in their homes.  We never witnessed open defecation, but the sight of men peeing in public became so common we no longer noticed.

Away from hotels and guesthouses, the condition of toilets is unpredictable. Sometimes squat, sometimes, western, usually no toilet paper or soap. Almost always dirty. If I entered a squat toilet, I would roll my pants up around my knees to avoid dragging them on the filthy wet floor. That became normal. A clean toilet with soap was noteworthy and in this case, a selling point.

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Based on inaccurate information I read about the difficulties of obtaining a SIM card,  we chose not to bring our phone with us.  Big mistake. Everyone in India has a cell phone – and not just a cheap flip-phone, but a smartphone.  In fact, one can get a SIM card in 48 hours – activate it one day and return with your phone the next  and voila – you can now order up UBER cabs, and have GPS and operate like any self-respecting Indian would. Don’t even think  about coming to India without your phone.

I was concerned about what to wear in India, both for modesty and to cope with the heat. Here’s the best advice I can give you – bring a very few things to tide you over. Unless you  are staying exclusively in Goa, where anything goes, you will want to cover your shoulders and legs, and it can be done easily and comfortably.  Hit the markets and you can outfit yourself for a few dollars, refrain from offending anyone and most importantly, remain cool in the heat and humidity. I bought palazzo pants, harem pants, and a few loose tops with three-quarter sleeves. It felt counter-intuitive to cover so much of my body, but the light cottons protected my skin and kept me much cooler than a sundress would have.
Men can get away with almost anything, but in some places shorts are frowned upon, so a pair of light cotton pants would work well – you’ll stay much cooler, fit in better and not look like such a tourist galoot.   

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We got used to the crazy traffic, used to losing our “personal space” and became quite comfortable with the staring, which was rarely hostile.  We were asked to pose for countless selfies – we were as much of a novelty to them as they were to us.

The one behaviour we could not cope with was butting in line – this happened all the time. It is quite remarkable to watch. You are standing in line – waiting for the ATM, or to buy your groceries, or to go through security at the airport. Suddenly someone appears beside you, then noses in front of you. We silently fumed until we watched Indians  tell the miscreants to move to the back, and we realized, “This is not an acceptable Indian behaviour, this is the behaviour of someone with bad manners.” Interestingly, most queue-jumpers will comply quite easily once they have been confronted.

So, with the annoying, confusing and upsetting aspects of India out of the way, our final impressions are still very positive.

The best part of India? The people, without question. We had so many memorable encounters with Indians we met along the way – conversations in restaurants, open-hearted welcomes in guesthouses, casual chats on the street. We found Indians to be funny, curious, warm, helpful and engaged people, and almost to a person, they wanted to know how we liked their country.

India is so incredibly diverse that it is not possible to pinpoint a favourite place, although that following places stand out for us –  Munnar (mountain trekking), Goa ( beautiful beaches and sublime swimming), most of Rajasthan ( forts, camels, desert), Pondicherry (French influence) and Amritsar (Golden Temple) and Shimla (finally – cool, clean air).

In three months, we missed way more than we saw – you can’t see India in one trip. We didn’t go to any of the large cities (our choice), missed the Taj Mahal (a disappointment – I was sick), and did not get up into the high Himalayas or on to Nepal. We missed the many tiger reserves and bird sanctuaries. Who knows – maybe we will go back again.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Pondicherry’s spiritual aura

Although French rule ended here in 1954, the small colonial city of Pondicherry is still very much under the influence – in architecture, food, and street style. The French Quarter is solidly French – right down to street names and door signs.

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There are many shopowners, hoteliers and restauranteurs who are French nationals and the vast majority of tourists are also from France. (You can pick them out – they are insouciant and lean. The men with expensive loafers and sweaters tossed over shoulders; the women with glossy bobs and fabulous bags.) Well, once again I have proven to myself that whatever capacity I had for speaking French has vanished. My clumsy high school French was no match for their effortless and charmingly accented English, so I gave up.

No matter – Pondicherry (or Puducherry, as it is now called; Pondy for short) is welcoming to all and well worth the visit – a feast for the senses. One can find a genuine croissant as well as a path to spiritual enlightenment.  Pondy draws thousands of visitors to the world-famous Sri Aurobindo Ashram and to the experimental village, Auroville, which is just outside of town.

The French Quarter is the main tourist area; several blocks of leafy streets fronted by a gorgeous stroll along the Bay of Bengal. The Gandhi Memorial is situated mid-way along the water, providing an eternal image of the great man in mid-stride.

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The French Quarter is divided by this particularly odiferous canal, with “real India” happening noisily and chaotically on the other side.

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If you come to Pondy, be sure to book well ahead to snag a room in a charming heritage building right in the French Quarter. We waited too late and were lucky to find a room at all. Our hotel is in a new building a couple of blocks away from the canal, and down a side street, so we glide through the many faces of India several times a day. We move from this tranquil and lovely room…

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… to the main street, filled with traffic, markets selling cheap western clothing and an eye-watering blend of smells. We cross over the canal and enter the rarified world of the French Quarter once again. This hotel is beyond our range – rooms run about $300 a night, but the structure is typical of the lovely buildings that line the streets.

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Even the tuk-tuks match the decor.

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More street colour. This makes me wonder why we favour such drab, “tasteful” colours for our exteriors in our cold countries – the greys and blacks and tans. In the middle of February in Canada, wouldn’t we all feel perked up with these yellows and oranges and pinks?

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Although we are still in the south of India, Pondicherry does not feel as oppressively hot and humid as we had been experiencing for the past several weeks. It is a great relief to simply enjoy what we think of as “summer weather” – hot, with a breeze, and cool at night. Apparently the dogs don’t share my view – they still spread out for naps during the day. The dogs in India appear to have sprung from the same gene pool – mid-size, light-coloured, short-haired and relatively benign.

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There are plenty of cows wandering the streets on the Indian side of Pondy, but on the French side, we have seen just this one stopped outside the gelateria. Perhaps some cosmic connection between her milk and the finished product  filtered through to her bovine brain.

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Pondy is undergoing quite the facelift – we are curious to know what it will look like in five years. Currently, for every beautifully finished building, there is a derelict one – often they exist side by side.

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Several important buildings are also under renovation, with bold banners showing the before and after shots.

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If you saw the movie Lion, you will remember that the boy’s mother moved rocks for a living. I didn’t know what that meant until we saw this woman at a work site. In India, very hard manual labour still exists, with many people doing the work that would be done by one machine in Canada. A reminder that so many people work so hard for so little.

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This is another common sight – less drudgery to be sure, but I’m quite sure no-one is over-paying this gentleman for those immaculately pressed shirts.

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Back to the French influence here in Pondy. There are many French organizations and institutions here, including a number of French schools. Here, La Lycée Francaise:

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Rav Nivas, the Governor’s residence, with a gendarme riding by:

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The Alliance Francaise, with its attentive guard. I peeked inside the gate, hoping to grab a photo of the luscious courtyard beyond, mais non. He did agree to pose for a photo.

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Even the hospital looks inviting:

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Our second day here, we left our hotel in search of breakfast, only to discover there was a one-day strike on and everything was closed. One-day strikes are common in India. So far we have had three – taxi strike, water strike and now GST strike. We can’t imagine they have any effect, other than to inconvenience the locals, lose money for the business owners and annoy the tourists.

We came upon this lovely hotel, with the gate open a crack, so we ventured in to see if they would consider feeding non-guests. At first, we were promised coffee, but that turned into fresh juice, fruit, eggs, toast, and pancakes. We returned again at lunch, since most of the French Quarter was closed until the evening. This is the courtyard of Villa Helena, our strike-day saviour.

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On a whole other level, we made the obligatory visit to The Indian Coffee House, a Pondy institution that was the birthplace for Yann Martel’s Life of Pi.  Martel began his book with meeting an elderly man who tells him, “I have a story that will make you believe in God….” Far from having an uplifting effect on us, we found it dirty with so-so food. But, they’re carrying on without us – the place is packed and buzzing.

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We bought coconut water a number of times from this gorgeous woman. We stopped to watch her hack away with her machete – hack off the top, scoop out a bit of flesh, insert straw, repeat. She had a few customers on the go; a big personality and a bigger smile. “Here you go, mama”, as she passed  me some fresh coconut.

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I don’t know why I like this photo – I just do. Three gents having a good ole chinwag.

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And onto Pondy’s spiritual life – the many faiths and belief systems that co-exist here.
We really like the kolams, found outside many homes and businesses. Each morning, the women draw them with rice flour or chalk – usually quite simple designs to bring prosperity and good luck. Sometimes bowls of flowers or small offerings are added.

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There are many churches and temples in Pondy – Notre Dame des Anges covers the Catholic side of things. The interior was simple, with life-size sculptures of Jesus in various states as he made his way to the cross. Accompanying inscriptions were in French – Jesu est tombe pour la premiere fois.

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We were allowed to visit the Hindu temple Manakula Vinayagar, but interior photography was forbidden. This exterior shot is an example of the lavish and colourful friezes.

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And…Sri Aurobindo Ashram – the internationally-known ashram founded by Sri Aurobindo and “The Mother” – who also founded Auroville. The ashram attracts thousands of visitors each year; many of whom stay for a period of time. Tourists were only allowed to enter a small part of the building, following a flower-lined pathway to a centre “stage” where we were invited to pray. I prayed for our family and friends, and then moved to join others in quiet contemplation. My challenge was I could not get the image of Julia Roberts in India (Eat Pray Love) out of my head, so meditation was out of the question. Still, a moving experience to observe others; many of them in raptures.

The ashram

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And on to Auroville, the utopian community about 10 km. outside of Pondy that was founded in the late 60s by Sri Aurobindo and The Mother. The vision of Auroville was to realize human unity through diversity and is the only experiment of its kind in the world. There are about 2500 residents – 60% of them from other countries and of all ages from infant to 80. The community is dedicated to peace, sustainability and divine consciousness and depending upon with whom you speak, has been a resounding success or a shady, self-indulgent escape from reality.

It is possible to visit for an hour, a day, a week or longer. We chose to go with a tour, which was a mistake, as we were rushed through and did not have a chance to visit properly.

First, we visited the excellent Visitor’s Centre and watched a 10-minute video before walking down the leafy 1-km. path to the main attraction, the Matrimandir.

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Along the path, there are stone markers depicting each of the twelve flowers The Mother chose for their significance to Auroville’s intentions.

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This 10-sq. km. area is beautifully planted, with two million trees and many gardens. As you approach the main area, there is a sign asking for silence, as this is a meditation area.

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And there it is – the Mothership. The Matrimandir  (or “soul” of Auroville) has been compared to a giant golf ball or a space ship, and you could be forgiven the comparisons. Inside is a large crystal, and the whole interior has been designed for individual silent contemplation. You must make reservations a few days in advance to be allowed to enter, so we just contemplated from outside.

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Visiting Auroville was an otherworldly experience. I wish we had more time to talk to people and get a better sense of the place. There are accommodations in the area for those who wish to explore the concept a little more.

Et voila! Another side of India that we had no idea existed. Our spiritual tour is far from over – next we head to Varanasi, one of Hindu’s holiest (and most colourful) cities.  We met a Scottish gentleman a few weeks ago – he travels to India frequently and is a huge fan. We asked him about Varanasi, and in the words of everyone’s favourite Donald, he replied, “It is a stinking shithole. But you MUST go.” We can’t say we haven’t been warned.