Archive for the ‘India 2012’ Category

Emerging questions about cows

September 18, 2012 2 comments

Cow on street

Cows are, of course, one of the things everyone knows about India.  That’s why I wasn’t quick to mention them: why reinforce the cliche?  But I did make some discoveries on the subject.

I was in India for a day and a half before I saw my first cow.  That’s because our cohort was staying in the new, highly corporate part of Bangalore.  It was when our guide for the Walking Tour took us into the streets and alleys of the older part of the city (meaning >10 years old!) that we saw cows like this meandering along.

Since we were on foot, they posed no problem (well, except for the obvious.  We watched our step.).  The local people didn’t pay them much heed.  We watched a grocer cutting stems off cabbages and throwing them on the street for cows to consume.  The cows also chewed away on piles of unidentifiable garbage.  The guide told us they have their routine spots to graze, and they know they way home in the evening.

That was a surprise to me.  Home?  Someone owns these cows?  I’d never thought about that.  But they are milked twice a day, just like all cows.  Later on we saw a motorcycle riding slowly behind a group of five cows.  It took me a minute to see that the motorcycle rider, presumably the owner, was herding them–urban cowboy style.

We passed by some cows grazing in a vacant lot and our tour guide engaged a nearby woman in conversation.  It turns out that her house had stood there until the week before, when she had had it razed.  She owned the cows that were hanging around there, and she was doing well enough from selling milk to build a bigger house; she wanted to have a place for the cows and her on the ground floor and an additional floor for each of her two sons to use when they got married.  The woman was all smiles, and we got the impression that she’s doing quite well for herself.  Here’s a bit of video that shows the action on the lot where the house was (and will be).  The woman in blue is the owner.

Who owns all those cows wandering the cities of India?  That’s a question I never thought to ask before.

Categories: India 2012

In and Out of the Tourist Bubble

August 9, 2012 1 comment

(Still catching up on a few posts written in India. This one was drafted en route to Kerala from Udaipur on Aug 20).

We’ve been tourists before in our lives, but only for short stints; usually our travels have been to visit friends and family. Certainly we’ve never had a formal program such as the one our travel agent, Surya Kathpalia, put together for us here in India. All hotels, transportation, guides, and “transfers” have been seamless. “Transfers” involve a person meeting us at a given point and accompanying us until we’re checked in to the next hotel or house boat, or in the case of the train, until we’re seated in our cabin. It feels a bit like we’re children being handed off to the next responsible adult. It’s odd but not unpleasant.

In the train station, though, it was essential. We had wanted to experience the famed Indian train system, so our travel agent booked us on an overnight train from Jaipur to Udaipur. The ticket said 1A class–the top level of service. But the station was overwhelming. We arrived at 9:45 for a 10:30 departure, and there were people everywhere. Many of them were sitting or lying down in various places; they appeared to be there for shelter rather than transportation, but there were lots of people there with suitcases, too. We were taken to a lounge for first class travelers. It was somewhat better, perhaps equivalent in ambiance to the Durham bus station. After a while we were led to a platform that looked to be a quarter mile long. Our guide found the correct place for us to stand, and there we stayed for 3 hours as the train was repeatedly delayed in small increments. After a while we got seats on the platform, so that part wasn’t too bad.

For a good part of the time, we were reluctant to call attention to ourselves by taking pictures, but after a couple of hours I did snap this one.

From time to ttime, people would walk over to the track and throw trash on it. And at other times, people would go down onto the tracks and pull things out. It was disconcerting to see rats running around down there, but at least they didn’t come up on the platform. The guide stayed with us the whole time, and I must say we did feel like children who needed adult guidance. Here he showing Pakis some pictures of hs son. The boys in the background were just curious, perhaps about the I-phone.


When the train arrived, there was more confusion. It turned out we had to walk a little ways down the platform, and then the guide found a paper plastered to the side of the car. It had names and compartment numbers on it, and though we initially missed ours in the list, we later realized it was there.

We climbed aboard and found that our compartment had 4 bunks. There was a young American couple already in it. They solved the awkwardness of sharing sleeping quarters by never acknowledging our presence. Since it was 2:00 am, we went to sleep quickly. By mid-morning we arrived in Udaipur and were met by another guide. The hotel he took us to was perhaps the most luxurious of the whole trip. Such a transition from squalor to luxury! In a way, we’re glad to have gotten out of the “bubble,” albeit briefly, but it was definitely more than we bargained for.


Categories: India 2012

A Mitzvah Story

August 4, 2012 3 comments

A few days before Pakis left Durham to join me in New Delhi, Our neighbor Jennifer, gave him a $10 bill and said, “Give it to a worthy cause (mitzvah) and bring back a story.”  So here’s the story.

It begins before Pakis arrived in India, when I toured a low cost private school in Bangalore with my colleagues in the TGC program.  (I described it in some detail in this earlier post).  I remember asking who the clientele was for that school, and the answer was “Drivers, very small shop owners, people who have little education themselves but have made it into the lowest rung of the middle class.  These parents can barely afford to pay for tuition, books, and uniforms (all of which are free in public schools), but they see English as the key to a better life for their children.  Public schools use the local language as the primary medium of instruction, while these private schools use English.”

They advertise that they use English, that is.  There’s little accountability, and we heard at least as much Kannada as English in the classes we visited.  It’s really not clear that the education being offered is worth even the small amount of money being paid.  Still, the parents pin their hopes on it and send their children.

Business CardA couple of weeks later, Pakis and I were visiting sites in New Delhi and Jaipur (northern India), and later in Kerala (southern India).  We had a driver in each place, and each one was sending his only child to an English medium private school.  The Delhi/Jaipur driver, Avtar Verma, had picked up a significant amount of English, and he was quite enterprising.  He talked to us and made excellent suggestions for things we could do with time not filled by our official itinerary; he kept cold bottled water and helped Pakis negotiate the purchase of a SIM card for our cell phone.  He hopes someday to open his own tour company, and we believe he will.


Girish seeing us off as we depart on boat ride

Our driver in Kerala was named Girish.  He was with us (or we with him) for five days.  Like Verma, he was an excellent driver and a caring person.  He, however, saw no possibility of advancing to a higher position in his life; as he said, “I am a poor man. I not know English.”

He saw possibilities for his daughter, though, and he was scraping together money to send her to a private, English medium school.  The new school year had started June 1 (we were there in late July), and Girish had managed to purchase three of the five textbooks his daughter needed.  (Don’t picture glossy new hardbacks here; these textbooks are small format paperbacks about 1/4″ thick).  With the money he earned in five days of work for us, Girish planned to meet immediate family needs and buy his daughter one more book.

The mitzvah opportunity was clear.  While we were away fro Girish on the house boat, we asked the crew to translate a note into Malayalam, the local language in Kerala.  The next day,  Girish was waiting for us on the dock and drove us to the airport.  There we gave him a tip plus Jennifer’s $10 in a card.  We would have liked to explain the mitzvah concept, but it would have been too much.

Note for Girish

I don’t know how many books Girish can buy with $10, and I wish I felt more confident that his faith in his daughter’s school is well placed.  But mitzvah is about doing a good thing, not fixing everything.  Courtesy of our friend Jennifer, I think we did that. I wish there were some way to reconnect with Girish in a year or two or even in five years.  I’d love to know how things unfold in his life and his daughter’s.  But travel is full of open endings, and this is almost certainly one.

Categories: India 2012

Power Outages

In the last couple of days, there are some incredible stories of power outages in India. Yesterday it was 350 million without power (more than the entire population of the US!), and today it’s half the country. Pakis and I feel fortunate not to have been caught up in that scene, but our daughter Sophia is still there in New Delhi. She’s fine for now. We just hope her flight back to Philadelphia on Thursday won’t be affected.

Here are Pakis and Sophia on the grounds of the Red Fort — our last day in Delhi.

Pakis & Sophia
Categories: India 2012

House Boat High Life

(Written July 25)
Bus Stop

Bus stop – children wait here for the boat to school

Our last stop in Kerala is a house boat based in Aleppy. We boarded shortly after noon, and we’ll stay aboard till tomorrow morning. The boat has been chugging slowly along canals between rice paddies and houses. This is the world that Arundhati Roy wrote about in The God of Small Things: people seem to live on the water as much as on land.  Here are pictures of a bus stop and a convenience store, both accessed by water.

Convenience Store

We have quite an intimate view of village life from here. People just 15 feet away are washing clothes and themselves in the canal, buying fish from a man in a canoe, and walking along the narrow path between houses and water. These houses don’t have plumbing; drinking water is trucked in and canal water is used for everything else. I can’t fathom what happens with sewage, but there’s no unpleasant smell.

Fish for sale

Man in orange shirt selling fresh fish to neighborhood women

The boat that we’re on is one of 700 tourist houseboats on the lake. It has two bedrooms, but the other one is unoccupied. So Pakis and I are the only guests aboard. We’re struggling to comprehend that the two of us are to spend a day and night being served by a captain, a chef, and a helper. We already ate a delicious lunch of “pearl spot” and had these prawns for dinner–all served to us along with about nine vegetable dishes.
Prawns for dinner

Prawns for dinner

Chef serving dinner

Our chef, Jimmy, serving dinner (yes, that’s really his name–he’s part of the Christian minority in southern India

The weather is warm and rather humid, but the breeze keeps it very pleasant. It feels absolutely magical!

Categories: India 2012

Books, Tapestries, and Theater

“Oh wow! I’ve read about that!” is something I’ve said quite a few times on this trip. The Ramayana and William Dalrymple’s Nine Lives have come to life several times. One was in the city museum in Kochi, where I saw tapestries depicting many scenes in The Ramayana and the Epic of Pabuji. The former I teach in World Literature, and the latter was featured in a chapter of Nine Lives. There’s something really exciting about being in such a foreign place and getting a glimmer of recognition.

Nine Lives came to my aid again when Pakis and I attended a traditional dance/theater performance called Kathakali. We were taken to the theater half an hour early to watch the performers’ makeup process, which seemed like a rather strange idea. It turned out to be fascinating, though.

We entered the theater to find a couple of performers sitting cross-legged and one lying down on the small stage. The seated ones were applying their own extremely colorful, extensive makeup while looking in hand held mirrors; a fourth person worked on the face of the prone actor. There were several people already in the audience when we arrived, and others filed in over the next 30 minutes.

Villain in makeup

Villain in complete makeup

When each actor’s makeup was finished, he stood in a dignified way and looked out at the audience, wordlessly inviting people to take their pictures before the show began. (No flash allowed later).


Decoration in front of stage

Once they were all ready, one of them came out and made decorations on the floor and the stage, lighting incense and praying to an idol before approaching the microphone.

What followed was a very helpful explanation of plot and technique.  Accompanied by the drummer, one of the actors gave an absolutely extraordinary demonstration of the eye and face movements that convey important elements of the story. It’s hard to imagine the stamina that would be needed for a traditional, all-night performance. We saw just a one-hour excerpt of the epic that was tailored for tourists. It was perfect, transporting us to an alien world without straining our attention span. Having just read about the related Theyyam tradition in Dalrymple’s book made it all the more accessible and fascinating.

Arjuna in performance
Categories: India 2012

Coconut Land

Kerala Jungle

Kerala plant life

(This post was written July 22)

We’re in the state of Kerala, the southwesternmost state in India. It’s a place with a strong communist party, clean streets, and more civilized drivers than we saw in the north. Incessant horn honking does not seem to be part of daily life here–a welcome change.

The name “Kerala” translates to “land of coconuts,” and indeed there are palm trees everywhere–along with banana trees, rubber trees, and dense, tropical foliage that I can’t name. Neither Pakis nor I has ever experienced an environment like this. Reaching for parallels, my mind goes to the aviary at the North Carolina zoo, the tropical birds puzzle that my family used to do at the each, and Gilligan’s Island, the ridiculous 1970’s sitcom that my brothers and I found hilarious at the time.

We took a long drive up to Periyar, a game preserve in the “hill country” inland from Kochi. On the way we saw a lot of coffee and tea plantations. Women harvest the tea, trimming the top three leaves of new growth from bushes. Working all day, they can harvest 20 or more kilograms and get paid $2.35. That’s a living wage by Indian standards, but a tough way to earn it. I guess there are a lot of tough ways to earn a living in India.

Tea Pickers

Tea pickers taking a rest

The hill country in the central south is also where all the spices are grown. We took a tour and saw cardamom, cloves, allspice, vanilla, ginger, nutmeg, and several kinds of pepper growing. The pepper was especially interesting. It’s a vine that climbs on other trees; often it’s planted in the middle of tea fields, which have trees spaced out to serve as windbreaks.

Many of our “tours” or demonstrations, including the one at the spice planation, end with a sales pitch. We find ourselves in a place with chairs or couches and are invited to sit down and drink tea. Then they start bringing out rugs or scarves or spices and telling us about the ways the “others”–the shysters down the road–cheat everybody, whereas they themselves are totally honest purveyors of superior products. It’s all quite enticing, and you wish there were time to think, to do some comparison shopping, etc. But you’re going to be moving on to the next place and you won’t be able to return. It’s a cleverly designed system that is widely used around the world. And of course they don’t leave you alone to think clearly or talk about things, they just keep bringing out more products. At least Pakis and I have one thing going for us: we can discuss our options in Greek without them understanding. It helps a little.

Categories: India 2012