Sunday, 28 November 2010

Let loose into India

Parting from the rest of the safari members was hardly an occasion for fond farewells, or exchanges of addresses; a brief shake of hands with “the group of three” and a short hug from Sylvia, thanking me for the help I gave. A more touching farewell came from the staff members, who all turned out to wish me well. How I wished I could have communicated more effectively with them, but they had little English, and my Hindi remains non-existent. During the course of the safari they’d fondly referred to me as Krishna, Lord preserver and protector; “when Krishna smiles the rains come down,” was one of their quotes for me. It mattered to me that I’d gained their respect.They’d done everything in their power to ensure I got to ride as pleased me, gave me compliments in my riding where it was appropriate, we all felt the same about the standard of riding on the second safari, had a mutual understanding I guess. I was the only western person on a horse Once again, as I sit and write this, a lump appears in my throat, a tear creeps into my eye; the whole experience left a calming, satisfying aura shielding me from whatever else the world could throw at me. However difficult people or situations had been I’d risen to the occasion, without fuss or overt displays of emotions, especially unhealthy ones. Riding into and around the fair blew my mind, I felt I deserved that, felt I’d earned that rite. As we wound between camels, horses and cattle we’d pass gaggles of tourists, cameras out, happy snapping. Amusingly I considered their possible take on our entourage, probably looked like a tourist who’d jumped on a horse for a ride around the fair, that put a smile on my face, it didn’t matter how any onlookers may have perceived it. For us it was playtime, Jesal raced alongside me on Laxshmi at one stage, flat out along the test track, on one gallop I looked up to see all the guys sat in line, pennants in hand watching me fly down the track, it almost felt they were showing me off. One thing is for certain, they all had big cheesy grins on their faces watching me. I must confess to enjoying the whole pose, backing Poonham up and walking her sideways, in and out the tethered animals; I’ve also got her to understand the word ‘stand’, I should have done it in welsh though. (Photos: 1] Urban shanty; 2] The railway children- Ahmadabad, Gujarat, India)

For the first time I’ve been let loose into India on my own, having just realised this little difference has been felt, it isn’t as if it’s that unfamiliar. It has been 26 years since I’ve actually been here, but it is only a bigger, more hectic version of Sri Lanka. Traffic is much worse, walking down any street in the cities is madness, you hardly dare take a sideways step without looking in case a vehicle of one sort or another mows you down. In Ajmer tourists aren’t exactly unheard of, only that very few stop here, most merely pass through on their way to Pushkar. So again, I walk round to the amazement of the locals, which is kind of nice, yet also can be hard work, there is no such thing as me going out without being the centre of attention. The first couple of strolls were the worst, constant hassle from folks wanting to get my attention, not too persistent though, most view me with good humour. Indians seem generally good-natured. The average person only wants to get my attention out of curiosity, there is no ill intent, and at worst wants to make a small amount of money from the tourist. I don’t mind this, it’s only the lying and deceitful people I take exception to. (Photo: A cute beggar girl - Rajkot, Gujarat)

The booking clerks at the rail stations can be the worst type of Indians you are likely to meet. In my mind they are surly, difficult, unhelpful and corrupt. To begin with I was merely turned away, no space on the train I wanted today, nor the next one, in any class. The clerk didn’t offer to see when there might be a space, no alternative offered, a simple, NO! After persisting he actually came up with the next train there was space on, tomorrow morning. Unfortunately I didn’t know about these TAKTEL tickets, one’s held in reserve and can be bought by tourists at a premium price, about 50% extra. He then asked me for 230 rupees, which is so little, only after I realised the price printed on the ticket was only 217 rupees; that annoyed me, really annoyed me. After failing to find any information on a connecting train to take me to Diu I went to book a ticket to the nearest station I could get anyone to admit existed, which they wouldn’t for Delwala, though all the railway maps clearly show it. A different clerk was even surlier, sending me away twice to add information to the form I had to fill in to get my ticket. I guess at least he suggested I try a TAKTEL ticket, though there was no need to sling the ticket across the desk with such contempt. ( Photo: Bemused muslim - Ahmadabad rail station, Gujarat)

Indian railways, only the second largest in the world, almost the highest employer in the world, and I would say one of the most defined experiences in the world. It takes some beating, the people can be so kind and considerate, yet so awkward and arrogant. The trains have a terrible safety record, yet better than road safety within the country. Over a million people are transported every day on the Indian rail system, and much as I’d love to declare it a nightmare, it works, in its own indomitable way. Trains are often late, but not massively, they are crowded, though it depends on which class you’re in, of which there are a multitude. Of the reserved tickets, which are the only way to have more than a couple of inches to park your arse, 2nd class non-a/c, costs about 1 rupee for two kilometers. They’re sleeper coaches, which convert down to three tier bunks by about 9-10pm. In theory three people share the lower bunk during daytime, in practice some folks really abuse the system. A family often only buy two seats then squeeze two adults and two or three kids, supposedly into that space. Which is fine when it comes to sleeping, and not so bad when it’s a mix of kids and adults. From Ajmer we had nine people for six seats, and the group was not giving any leeway as to space. Only two out of seven of them had tickets, but they weren’t budging for anyone. Four fat, middle class Indian women, arrogant to extremes, they knew they were out of order but didn’t give a damn. I held back for a while, eventually exerted the right to have a third of the bench. And this morning I nicely pushed a guy out the window seat I’d been allocated, I showed him I wanted to take pictures out the window, there was only four of us to an eight berth compartment anyway. (Photo: Development for those that do - Nr Ahmadabad, Gujarat)

Middleclass urban women definitely tend to be on the large side, and I do mean the majority of them. Rural Indian women have been seen to have much leaner, lithe, fit figures. In fact I’d have to say urban women in general here lean towards fuller figures. An active lifestyle explains the lithesome figures of countryside women, it doesn’t fuller explain the large, verging on fat figures, of urbanites though, or the reasons these are worn with pride, almost arrogance. I believe like many cultures the fuller figure is a sign of wealth, prosperity, even decadence. It’s a symbol of social standing, which is reflected in the male’s preference for larger women. I do not believe it is necessarily a purely physical attraction, of course I’m biased on this, but in India at least the means to judge people depends on social standing, their relative wealth and future prospects. The higher class/aristocratic members of many cultures display opulence in their physical form, you need wealth and privilege to be able to grow more rotund. (Photo: Plastic sheets for those that don't - Nr Ahmadabad, Gujarat)

As I’ve penetrated further into Gujarat the urban squalor becomes more apparent, more housing developments are clear to see, but so are the shanties surrounding every town, and I don’t think the new housing is for the poverty stricken. Ahmadabad was particularly bad, a jumbled mess of timber and plastic stretching along the railway, roofs a mosaic of asbestos pieces laying higgledy-piggledy in an abortive attempt to make them waterproof. Rusty tin roofs are held in place by boulders, scraps of plastic or hessian provide little more than scanty privacy from neighbours. Most of these shacks are half open to the elements during the day any way, the poor mans air conditioning, allowing air flow through your living quarters, so the stench of the urban squalor can waft through. Top marks for ingenuity, when forced to people are masters of invention, the only stuff that stays unused are the ubiquitous plastic wrappings from sweets and food, whether in the city or countryside they are a constant reminder of our need to find an alternative to non-degradable plastic as packaging material. (Photo: If you can't eat them, you have to work them - Gujarat railway siding)

Gujarat is more industrialized than areas I’ve been through so far, which is hardly surprising considering the weeks I spent in the heart of rural Rajastan. Towns and cities have huge complexes despoiling the skyline, power stations are easy to discern, enormous tanks stood on high metal girders suggest chemical production, which brings to mind Bohpal and makes me wonder whether safety standards are any better now, I have my doubts!Huge areas between towns have been cleared, construction barely started, yet already an army of tented accommodation erected with workers and their families already in situ. Some tents are reasonable, they are in the minority though, around the peripheries of the site are the basic shelters of the labourers, one sheet of plastic stretched over two poles, nothing more than the most basic of roofs. From clusters of these shelters woman range out, scouring the railway line for anything worth picking up. Dried dung, being the main fuel for fires and cooking, is regularly collected, not much gets left to decompose. Tiny bits of metal are gathered, once enough is collected it can be sold for scrap, I don’t think the retaining clips for the actual rails are best destined for the scrap heap. I would hope they are sold back to the railway, though I have sever doubts about this, unless of course they have a budget for buying back pilfered rail parts, it wouldn’t surprise me. Temporary camps are common though, possibly some are of the nomadic tribes, one thing is for certain, times are tough in the unseasonable rains hitting the north of India at the moment. (Photos: Playtime in Rural Gujarat)

Rural Gujarat is highly cultivated, I know there are a lot of swampy areas, sporting very sandy soil, but as I got further south and west the soil is obviously very fertile. There is a lot of water, where it accumulates it looks stagnant and rank, though it fails to perturb the water buffalo, they wallow happily in murky, foul looking pools, almost fully submerged. Their presence has not abated in the slightest, either one or two, the prized possessions of a family living on the breadline, or groups of half a dozen or more driven down the road by a herder. More often they are in small groups, unaccompanied, wallowing in festering pools of muck that pass as water holes. In general the cattle have been much the same in number as in Rajastan, there have been exceptions though.A few herds have been seen, which isn’t usual, some of the tribal groups in Gujarat exist by herding cattle, traditionally nomadic they drive the cattle ever onwards. I believe there has been a tendency for these tribes to start settling in one area, of course there is no way to tell whether or not any specific group is pastoral or nomadic when viewing them from a train window. The difference in dress is noticeable though, fewer Dhotis are worn, the men favour trousers baggy above the knee, laying in pleats, and narrow legged on the calf, a bit like exaggerated jodhpurs but of thin cotton. Rather than multi layered turbans, a red pillbox affair sporting a tail is more usual, a few simple wraps around the head, tucked in leaving a loose end to trail behind. Heavy sequined half tops provide scant cover for their womenfolk, these backless tops barely cover more than a third of their upper bodies. Being hard working country folk, the bodies they expose are trim, athletic and quite sexy. (Photos: 1] Sadhu, or dirty old beggar @ random rail station; 2] Cotton plant ricks- Rural Gujarat)

The first stretch of land was largely cotton growing, whilst I expected to see fluffy white buds most were ragged dregs, looking spoilt by the rain. However it may have looked it became clear it hadn’t wrecked the crop altogether, teams of pickers worked systematically through the fields, gradually clearing the plants of every last bud of cotton, one side of the field colourless, shrivelled plant remains, they other a multitude of ragtag streams of white blowing gently in the breeze. There were acres and acres being grown, for hours of the train ride, undoubtedly being the dominant crop, where already harvested stacks of plant remains stood like hayricks, sheets of plastic draped over their peaks to protect them from the rain, a last ditch attempt to save the winter’s store of animal feed from spoiling in the rain. These ricks of cotton plants can’t be appropriate fodder as they are, threshing machines are brought on site, reducing the plants down to little more than sawdust, then once more left in plastic covered heaps to be used as required. Slowly, gradually, more diversity of crops appeared, first small plots of sugar cane nestled in a small corner of tilled land, or an acre of papaya plants, still in their infancy, in straight orderly rows, luscious green against the deep ochre of the damp soil. Sugar cane stands became more profuse, standing tall and proud beside newly ploughed fields, the colour contrast bringing a brightness missing from the drab overcast sky. Date palms initially achieved no more than forming scanty barriers between fields, then small plantations stood in irregular patches of land tucked between homes and major crops. The presence of palm trees gave the feeling of approaching the coast, way before we were anywhere near, first the date palms, then coconut palms, tropical borders to lush farmland. By the time I neared the coast sugar cane grew in profusion, far outnumbering the acreage of cotton. (Photos: Fertile lands, happy living - Rural Gujarat)

By and large the buildings along the route through Gujarat have been drab and run down, they reflect the utilitarian nature of an industrial region, they have walls and roofs, but only provide shelter. Decoration is almost unheard of, paint a phenomenon yet to be discovered, render a practice of myth and legend. It gives a picture of shabbiness, blackened walls that stand no chance of withholding the heavy rains. The interiors must be damp and uncomfortable during the rainy season, I wonder how their health suffers due to these conditions.An occasional newly built house will be brightly painted, few of these exist in once into rural areas. Piles of sandstone blocks stand apparently neglected, some stacked orderly, most in an untidy heap. I’m sure they are destined for use, maybe when the owners can afford the mortar, or have collected enough blocks to extend their hotchpotch cluster of buildings that form both home and animal shelter. Older blocks are dark and grimey, the new a light yellowy orange. One thing is certain, they are of a porous material, left unsealed the moisture will seep through unabated. At the approach to any town or village the accumulation of trackside rubbish increases, it isn’t just liberally strewn along the verges, it forms a dense carpet, plastic waste of no use to man nor beast. (Photos: 1] Palms lined avenue - Rural Gujarat; 2] St Thomas church, my home - Diu Town, Gujarat )

From Somnath I took a government bus, a chicken bus, for a long laborious ride to the island of Diu, an independent domain within alcohol free Gujarat. In some ways you could call it a booze fest for the deprived citizens of the surrounding dry state. It may sound bad, but it isn’t so in reality, there aren’t hoards of drunken Indians making dicks of themselves. They get over enthusiastic rather than leery, being too friendly, insisting on photo sessions with me, but truly grateful for the photos. I’ve even had a guy come into the Internet cafĂ© followed by pal with camera to be shot shaking hands with the white curiosity. Yes it does try my patience, but I’m not about to allow it to intrude on my headspace. I think I’ve got to the stage where feigned smiles are a thing of the past, I’d prefer them to see an expression of forbearance rather than joy. Three days, in a different hotel each night, to reach Diu, on the north west coast of Gujarat. It’s been wet on and off the whole way, with two days of rain to cope with in Diu town. But I’m here now, it’s sunny and quiet, I’ve a couple of rooms and my own bathroom for the next two weeks. It’s in an old Portuguese church on the quiet edge of town, overlooking a fort, two other huge church structures, and the coast. For less than a ten quid I have a lounge area, with writing desk, bathroom, balcony area and bedroom. It’s twice the price of a box room, with shared toilet! There’s no comparison though, I’m settling well, am comfortable and relaxed, and have as much peace and privacy as desired. Having written loads on my blog, and got up to date, I’m about ready to start writing seriously again. So the maps are out, the Americas journal sits next to me on the desk and my fingers are well lubricated, the end is emerging through the haze! (Photos: 1] The sun shines on the righteous; 2] One of the many Green Parrots - Sunny Diu day, Gujarat)

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