Tag Archives: India

The Luxury of Recycling

recyle, reuse, recycling, garbage, littering, environment, environmental disasters, slums

Find your own way to Reduce, Reuse and Recycle but don’t use laziness as an excuse not to. Creative Commons: timtak flickr

Long ago I took on the recycling mindset. I didn’t want to litter, and if I’m getting rid of something that’s still usable I can’t just throw it out; I have to find a place or person where it can have more purpose. Vancouver has now had curbside recycling for a number of years. Even before that I would save up items (mostly paper) and take them to the recycling depot. But then I was a book rep and would have boxes of catalogues and order forms that would get outdated.

But when I finally came to realized how much garbarge we produced, I wanted to cut down even more on what goes into the landfill so we’re not living on a giant garbage heap. In amongst all these thoughts and growing awareness, I traveled to India. India’s population wasn’t yet a billion people but it was overcrowded and impoverished. I remember coming into Calcutta and passing fields where garbage speckled the fields. The streets of Calcutta were not just filthy. They included a dead cat, feces and other items not wanted. But much was recycled. People tore up any piece of tin or cardboard or concrete sidewalk to create shanty shacks in the mediums between the roads. It was sad and startling.

The air was so thick with diesel and pollution that a handkerchief held over my nose and mouth was black in two hours. The air garbage, recycling, pollution, Asia, culture, trash, landfillremained hazy and thick. When I walked to see the Taj Mahal at dawn the sky displayed an orangey rosey glow that was mostly pollution. Not only did the Ganges have a dead cow floating along, people doing laundry, ablutions and religious observances, it also had the ashes sifting down from the burning ghats where they cremated bodies. I made sure not to touch one drop of that river water and I already had dysentery.

When I arrived in Meghalaya, one of India’s seven tribal states, and more affluent than the general Hindu culture, I found pollution that was heartbreaking. The Khasis had a sacred grove of trees outside of Shillong. One day we drove up there, and it gave a great view of the city. But everywhere I looked there were plastic bags, bottles, straws and tetra packs. Another day we went to see some sites and then sat on a hillside by a waterfall.  We ate our lunch, which was wrapped in banana leaves and then in plastic bags (there were no neat takeout containers). After we finished the other people tossed the banana leaves and then the plastic bags. I ran around gathering up the plastic and exclaiming, You can’t do that. It’s bad.

These people are educated. They go to school and university and drive jeeps but they had no idea about environmentalism. I triedto explain that not only is it visually unappealing but unlike the banana leaf, the bag will go into the ground, poison the earth, or a cow will eat it and then when you eat part of that cow (the Khasis are not Hindus, who don’t eat cows) you could get sick from the plastic. I simplified it but I tried to impress that they shouldn’t leave garbage in the natural environment. But they also had no form of recycling.

trash, garbage, pollution, India, slums, recycling, recyle, reuse, reduce, environment

In many ways India does more of the Reuse part of the three Rs than we do. But Reduce is something that all countries need to do so that there isn’t so much garbage in the beginning. From: Indianimages.com

For much of India, it would have been fairly difficult to go up to someone and say, Don’t cut down that tree or you will have no trees at all, when that tree might be the only means for them to cook food. Seeing such destitution, filth and pollution in areas made me realize that we in North America have the luxury to recycle. It’s not that easy in a third world country where survival is your first most thought. You want shelter, security and food, and little else matters after that. In fact your full day might be taken up with finding enough food for your family. Such images fill me with despair but I try to hold out hope, from my teenage years example, that things will change for the better.

This doesn’t mean it can’t be done. It can, and when the teenage Khasis boys looked at North America and coveted the standard of living and all the trappings of popular culture that we have, then it became even more of our onus to make sure people don’t repeat the mistakes. India has rampant pollution but then Canada and the US’s shores and land are not pristine. We work at it but there is always room for improvement. You cannot deprive another society or deny them to have what you have, but you can try to show them it can be done better.  Pollution and recycling isn’t just something for some people. Every person and ever nation has to do it and India’s government could at least start the ball rolling, and maybe they have. I haven’t been there in years. One thing I know is I’ll continue to try to lead by example and I have room for improvement too.

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Traveling in India: Bribes and Baksheesh

India’s massive corruption in government has come to a head with Anna Hazare’s hunger strike. However, corruption is not exclusive to India, nor is it new in that country. But India may have made it a fine art.

When I traveled to India, lo these many years ago, I was aware of the bribery (or baksheesh as they call it) before I went. However, due to an ingenuous blend of naiveté and stubbornness I managed not to pay a single rupee. I probably extended my waiting, boredom and frustration but I made it through with the limited funds I had. Mostly, I imagine they left tourists alone who might not know the system or understand what one had to do. There are only two incidences that I think involved a try for a bribe.

When I left the tribal state of Meghalaya, I had to make sure I had a transit paper or visa that showed I was allowed in the state, where foreigners could only enter with a special permit. Because I was traveling into Assam, the neighboring state, I needed to show I was allowed to travel between states. The border was closed at the time because the Khasis and Assamese were fighting with each other (they’re traditional tribal enemies). It was a very long, hot and thirsty bus ride to the Assam airport and then, typical of Indian time, a three-hour wait for the late plane.

I’d probably been sitting there two hours when three men came rushing over, in three different colored suit jackets asking to see my passport. At first I was confused because there was nothing that indicated that they were official in any capacity. And for all I know two of them might not have been. Then I was taken into a back office where they pored over my passport and the papers and wrote everything out, in painstakingly slooooow handwriting. I believe they were trying to intimidate or scare me into paying but I wasn’t sure so I just sat there and let the guy write out everything. After all, I had time to kill until the plane arrived.

The second time was as I was returning from Nepal into India, where you must go through a double border check. Due to the fact that Indians will give you directions even if they don’t know the right directions, I had been told to wait for my connecting bus from the border town of Gorakhpur (near enough to be a major outpost) at the wrong spot and therefore missed it. This meant that I had to take a later bus not meant for tourists. So I was the only white person and only woman on the bus that drove off into the dark of night. Everything was fine and I was sleeping when the bus was pulled over and two men in nondescript jackets boarded and demanded to see my documents and what was in my bag. Note that in India (at least the areas I was in) men and women do not touch in public at all. This doesn’t mean they won’t try to sneak a fondle at a tourist’s expense but it means that a male border inspector won’t search a woman.

I showed them my papers and one bag and then they said, get off the bus. It was not just dark outside but pitch black, barely any lights to indicate a city and nothing but fields around. So I asked them to get my pack off the roof (where bags were stored) and which direction was the closest city. All I could think to do so late at night was walk. They looked at me and said, “What are you doing? Get back on the bus.” So I did, wondering if they had wanted me to pay baksheesh but too bewildered to know it.

The saddest example of seeing what bribery was doing to India, was when I was in Shillong, Meghalaya. I was talking to these bright young men, some in university. They were already defeated because they said that there was little chance of getting a good job without paying baksheesh. They saw no future for themselves and it was such a waste of brilliant minds. Now this was before Microsoft and the IT industry started outsourcing so maybe it got a bit better, but obviously one of the biggest epidemics in a country 1 billion strong, is the rampant bribery that still affects them.

For a bit of fun, here is an artist’s image of Baksheesh Boy.

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Traveling in India: A Khasi Way of Life Part I

When I went to India in the late 80s I spent two months traveling. The first month was in my friend’s home state of Meghalaya, in the northeastern part of India. There is a tiny join at Darjeeling before the country opens up to seven tribal states. These states were never truly conquered by the British and have self-autonomy. This means they are under the governance of India but maintain a unique cultural identity, which is protected. These states are Assam, Nagaland, Mizoram, Manipur, Tripura, Arunachal Pradesh and Meghalaya.

For most of these states, especially at that time, they were barred to foreigners (and sometimes other Indian nationals) or you needed a special visa. I probably obtained a visa only because my friend was from the state of Meghalaya. When we arrived, besides Hanocia’s husband, there was only one other white person, a child (so presumably there were parents somewhere) in Meghalaya.

The capital is Shillong and the most populous people are the Khasis. The Garo and Jaintia tribespeople make up the other majority and this states sports a majority of Christians. Many of those Christian Khasis blend their faith with the traditional animist beliefs. Although once part of Assam state (by way of the British) Meghalaya was made a separate state. Even when we were there, we had to fly out of Assam and the borders were closed because the Assamese and the Khasis, traditional headhunting enemies, were fighting with each other again.

It’s been many years since I was there but I do remember some aspects of Meghalaya that made it quite different from many other places in the world. First off, the Khasi people are matrilineal. This is slightly different from matriarchal where women would be in charge of everything. Western civilization is still trying to throw of the yoke of patriarchy, as well as other cultures, where women are not allowed certain positions because of their gender. This used to pertain more to jobs and still does in some countries, or that women cannot vote, work or be ministers of certain religions. Matrilineal means that the lineage runs through the women, and other certain aspects of society.

The Khasis are a tribal people–even if they live in houses, they still have traditional tribal roles. A child will take its mother’s last name, not the father’s and it’s common for the man to move into the wife’s or mother-in-law’s house. This of course makes more sense because you will always know who your mother is but there is no sure way to know who your father is. The women are the inheritors of the wealth and instead of the oldest son of the oldest son inheriting, the youngest daughter of the youngest daughter inherits and is keeper of the family lands. This too makes a lot of sense in it being the youngest because the youngest will be around longest to support the parents in their old age. The Syiem is the hereditary ruler of Meghalaya, although there is a full government. This is traditionally a man but it is not the man’s son who inherits, but his sister’s son or the next in line. Hanocia told me that it is mostly a figurehead position these days and when one king died he laid in state, in the palace, until his successor stepped forward. No one wanted the position and so he laid in state, rotting for a long time.

The Khasis are a diminutive people and at 5’4″ I towered above most of them. Their language is similar to the Khmer of Burma and the land lies very close to Myanmar/Burma. This language is back of the throat, glottal and akin to swallowing part of a word. At one point, for the month I spent in Meghalaya, I was trying to speak a few Khasi words one night. Something like “ngam thlen.” After a few tries Hanocia turned to me and said, “What are you trying to say?” “I’m trying to say I’m hungry.” She matter of factly said, “Well you’re saying you give blood sacrifice.” Everyone found this hilarious, coming from the foreigner, but should a Khasi have said it, it would have been a serious thing indeed.

The Khasis have a belief that if a person seems to come into sudden wealth that they may be performing thlen worship. I’m not sure I remember this correctly but a thlen is, I believe, a snake-like creature (maybe part cat?) that can grant wealth in exchange for a human sacrifice. The sacrifice must be killed without spelling blood (choking, hanging, suffocation, etc.). In the late 80s, people were still being accused, occasionally, of this.

Just as I mentioned my experience in eating the kwai (betel nut) in Shillong, the experience with the language caused an amusing reaction. What was also interesting was experiencing what it’s like to be a minority but not ostracized for it. Being one of very few white people, in some cases I was the first that many people had ever seen. Watching a school parade one day, of the Catholic schools and bishops in neon orange and gold lame’ robes, I took a few pictures but couldn’t get to where I was staying as there was no way around but through the parade. As every child walked past their heads all swiveled to look at me. Another day, I walked out of one of the shops to about 15 men, women and children just standing across the street staring at me. It became disconcerting and I began to wonder if I was doing something wrong or was under scrutiny. Of course, I was just a curiosity.

There is much more to say about this: the matrilineal structure, the stones, the way of life but that’s all for today.

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Traveling in India: Toilet Terrors

Ancient Greeks had it rough but not that rough.

I have had some pretty interesting toilet adventures when traveling. Mexico City didn’t flush their toilet paper but had open garbage cans beside the toilet for people to put the soiled pieces into, which was especially disgusting. Singapore required you to squat in the right direction and if you didn’t flush they would fine you. Britain used something akin to parchment paper with the absorbency of stone. But India was perhaps the place where I experienced the most travails. I was there for two months and on top of that, contracting dysentery meant I had many intimate moments in the can.

Toilets (or ditches, troughs, or trenches) could always be found but if you’re of a culture used to sitting, the other style can be a challenge. Squatting is something that takes more work if you don’t continue to do it from childhood. The muscles and tendons shorten and it’s not as easy to even achieve a full squat without having the feet jutting out at 45 degree angles. In Nepal, while on the bus, we’d pass people on the side of the road, just squatting right down, arms wrapped about their knees and doing their business, watching the cars go by. I presume they used their hands to wipe as they do in some Arab countries but I never asked. And after seeing one man walking along and blowing a booger into his hand and then flinging it, I didn’t want to know, nor shake anyone’s hands.

On one trip, there was a little shack where they served up rice and dhal bat (some sort of lentil stew that I can’t eat because of food sensitivities.  Behind that brick shack was an old piece of cloth over a very short vestibule. At the back of this was a thin culvert (about six inches wide) of water running through. You squatted over that culvert of water and did your business. Toilet paper isn’t something the locals use and they probably shake their heads at our finicky ways.

My time in Meghalaya was fine since every home had flush toilets with seats and the Khasis tend not to squat at home though I’m sure they’re used to the squat version too. By the time I made to Delhi I was desperately sick with dysentery. I didn’t know if I would puke or have diarrhea or both at the same time. The worst version of toilet is the one that combines the squat with the Western style. These were porcelain toilets with no seats that people squatted over. It’s much easier to squat full to the ground, than halfway as if you’re skiing. And if you’ve ever been so sick that you just want to lay on the floor and hang onto the toilet, well, there was no way to do that with this style of toilet. The floors were filthy with everything including the grunge from using a toilet. And the porcelain rim, without seat was just as mucky. What to do (as they said in India). Try being steady when you feel like fainting and vomiting into the fecal void. I hated this toilet style most of all.

The most adventuresome one was taking a train from Delhi (it might have been Varanasi) to Calcutta. It’s a long train ride and eventually you’re probably going to have to use the toilet. I waited as long as I could, partly because I didn’t want to leave my pack alone. But eventually I had to go. I wore long skirts a fair deal in India because they were cooler and because it was culturally more acceptable. On the train, the toilet is only a hole in the ground, where you can watch the tracks shooting by beneath. In fact, you’d never want to walk along the tracks there because everyone defecates onto the tracks. I can’t imagine it being pleasant at all.

So here I am in this darkish metal box, bunching my skirt up about my thighs and squatting down. What does a train do when it moves? It rocks, so there was a bar to hang onto. But being a Western person I also used toilet paper. One hand is holding up my clothing, one is hanging on to the bar. How do you wipe yourself? It took some judicious bunching of fabric and balance. My fear was I’d fall onto the disgusting floor and contract a disease.

But I managed. And I brought my own toilet paper know it’s not something used by all cultures and it’s a good thing I did or I would have been using my hands. And after seeing the Ganges River, with ashes from the burning ghats, dead cows, marigolds, people washing clothes, themselves and doing spiritual ablutions, there was no way I was going to touch the water. I was raised in the cushy Western society and I’m not used to other styles of toilets. But if I had grown up in Asia  I would probably sport a limberness that aid me in other ways. I still wonder what happens when a person gets too old and rickety to squat though.

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The Sucky World of Being Robbed

In my life I’ve been robbed a few times, too many in fact. My first robbery was in Mexico City, the first place I traveled to alone. Having only a week there, I did a whirlwind tour of three places, starting in la ciudad Mexico and ending there. Returning on a Sunday, I went to Chapultapec Park and the world famous anthropology museum, Museo Nacional de Antropologia where, speaking hardly any Spanish at all, I still managed to carry on a conversation with a Spanish speaking guard and understand most of the signs in the museum.

Mexico City is vast, with a population topping 2o million at that time (over 8 million in the city proper). The subway is extremely cheap and the only way to get around quickly. I had been warned to keep my bags close and where I could see them and I did that, but as I boarded the subway train I was pushed on. Now I know that the crowded cities do this to pack the people on but it was a Sunday and not that crowded. As I was putting my transfer into my bag I noticed the slash through it where the guys who had pushed me on the train had taken my wallet. Lucky for me I had less than $10 USD and one credit card with a very non-Mexican name that I canceled immediately. The rest of my traveler’s checks were in my room. Unlucky for me, it was a Sunday, with no banks open and no place that would take a traveler’s check so I couldn’t eat dinner.

When I was in India, backpacking around, I locked down every pocket I could on my giant backpack, leaving only two side pockets open, which carried shampoo and dirty underwear. At one point I got stuck on a train, which had four open beds to every partitioned but open area. I had asked for the women’s carriage but hadn’t been given it. I couldn’t sleep because I was on the top bunk and my backpack was shoved under the bottom one, way too heavy to have been lifted had it even fit up top. My face was about six inches away from the ceiling fan, which luckily was covered. I kept looking down to check on my pack but at one point I just had to go to the bathroom, the squat toilet on a moving train (and how fun was that). Eventually when I disembarked I found that my shampoo and dirty underwear were gone. I hope they enjoyed both.

I was robbed again in New York City. By now, I was quite aware of the sneaky way in which robbers try to get your goods. I’d had a small pack to carry around with me for the week. But I let my guard down at the airport, at the last minute. My friends had driven me to the airport and we were have a coffee when a man came up on my left and asked us the time. Of course we all looked at him, unaware of the person behind me and on my right who grabbed my purse. We realized it in minutes but it was too late. Off went my purse, $200, two plane tickets, my film, my glasses, my contact case and all my ID (I had only brought the ID I needed though). The airline said they would replace my ticket for free but I had to pay for it first. Of course I couldn’t because I had no money or ID. This was before 9-11 because I can’t imagine how screwed I would have been otherwise. Luckily my friends could cover the cost and I could pay them back later. I don’t know what I would have done otherwise.

The most robberies I’ve experienced have actually been burglaries of my home or car. And they are the ones that have happened more recently. Several years ago I was home on a very hot night with my windows and doors open. My patio door faces the back yard and the other door does not face the street so not visible to anyone walking by. I was packing for a trip the next day and was in my den typing when I smelled cigarette smoke.

I don’t smoke but I looked up to see someone brazenly in my living room. Somewhat in a surreal state I ran into the room as the guy left and was gone by the time I could look out on the street. I called the police but to no avail of course. I believe it was my ex-drug addict neighbor, someone who knew where all the doors were. I searched the neighborhood that night, looking in every dumpster I could find, sure that he had taken what he needed, and dumped the rest.

The next day I had to get a driver’s licence before I could leave on my trip. All I had was an expired passport so I could get the license done but would not be allowed to pick it up until I had my birth certificate. Somehow a photo ID  like a passport isn’t good enough but anyone could walk in with my birth certificate and get my driver’s license picture shot and paid for. That makes a lot of sense. And of course I had to write back to my birth province for the birth certificate and ask my sister what hospital I was born in because I certainly didn’t know.

I made it through, canceling credit cards and paying for new ID. About two months later I received a call from a dumpster company where they had found my purse, complete with ID and even postage stamps. The purse and wallet were disgusting soaked with garbage juices but I reclaimed my ID and now have spares of a few things. But I was out the cost of the replacement ID, the purse and wallet and of course my cash. I’m even more cautious now but on a nice day at home, you’d think you could leave your door open. I have friends that live in a small town outside of Seattle and they never lock their doors.

Personally, I think I’ve done my time being robbed and burgled and that it’s now time to win the lottery. Hopefully I can write about that exciting change some day soon.

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Traveling in India: Transportation Travails

I think there are many great tales that often take place around transportation: planes, cars, trains, buses, elephants, camels, bikes, rickshaws, etc. Especially if you’re traveling (obviously) there are more tales than the everyday commute, but even living in one’s own city will afford you adventures.

India was probably the most diverse in terms of transportation and terror. I already wrote about flying in “Frightful Flights” but the rest was its own adventure. I never did ride an elephant and though I saw one being ridden it was definitely not the most common form of transportation in India. That would be feet, as most people are too poor to afford more.

I took a few buses from town to town. Many of these were Greyhound size buses and usually without incident But a few trips were driven by kamikaze drivers on winding hills through treacherous roadways. These buses tended to be more like school buses with a picture of one or several Hindu deities up from as well as bright color trims or other decoration. The bus could be one where everyone had a seat and was a mixture of tourists and locals, or one that was a reservation only, air-conditioned, elite tourist only bus. Reservations certainly didn’t guarantee the type of bus or a seat.

On one supposedly reserved bus it was jam-packed full of locals with live chickens and other produce. We knew that we’d paid extra for the privilege of riding locally. It was a bumpy, dusty and long ride and we were packed close enough to examine the weave of each other’s clothes. After someone managed to puke on the bus, the answer being to put paper over the acrid mess and continue onward, several of us opted to ride on the roof of the bus. The tourist luggage was up there anyways and this was a good way to keep an eye on our goods and get some fresh nonvomit-ridden air. Of course this is illegal and had we been stopped some baksheesh would have changed hands, probably from tourist hands to police hands.

As it was, it was a fun way to see the country, and not experience the claustrophobia of the overcrowded bus. I had a couple of bus rides in Nepal too but they were calmer and cleaner. Busing to the next town wasn’t that far but the seats were narrow and metal. Metal is fine in a warm climate but at 5’4″ I was nearly too tall to sit in the seats. I would have stood but I was hit so badly with dysentery I nearly fainted and had to sit, thanks to the Nepalese who noticed my state and motioned for me to sit. Three of them can fit on a bench but I could barely jam my knees down and they were pressed against the seat in front of me. I also took up the room of 1.5 Nepalis. And anyone taller than me had to stand because they just wouldn’t fit. Imagine a 6’2″ man standing next to a tiny Nepalese woman.

Perhaps the most terrifying ride of my life took place in a jeep. The Himalayan hill tribes in the state of Meghalaya tended to drive mostly jeeps, which makes a lot of sense when you see the winding, curving roads with nothing but the foothills of the Himalayas framing them (those foothills equal some of our mountain ranges). One day we went out to Cherapunjee with Hanocia’s brother driving us in the jeep. I had tried to the drive the jeeps there but with the handling of a jeep which is somehow different and tippier, and the right-hand steering, left-hand gear shifting, I just couldn’t get it to work. (Oddly in Ireland with the same type of driving but a car instead, I had no problem.)

So we drove up and took the day looking around. We were there in Oct./Nov. and the days get shorter sooner. We ended up driving back in full darkness. There is no light pollution from distant cities in the foothills of Meghalaya. And the roads are narrow hairpins. As we found common and strange in India, cars would drive with their lights off and only turn them on when they encountered another vehicle. Imagine how terrifying this is as we wind through a hairpin, get to the outside curve and then there is a truck barreling at us, and they both turn their lights on to blind each other.

Hanocia’s brother swore he had to do this to save his lights and that the battery was going. Usually driving regenerates the battery but needless to say we were nearly breathless with fright. After a few encounters with oncoming trucks on the narrow roads we insisted he turn the lights on or we were going to get out and walk. We were miles and miles from Shillong but a long walk in the dark was preferable to dying in the dark.

Since this post has gone long enough I’ll leave off the train rides for a another time, but I can say this: after all these years I still vividly remember the transportation and the tales attached with traveling in India.

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Traveling in India: Frightful Flights

When I traveled to India, way back when, transportation in all ways was memorable. Flying though, was something else. We first flew to Singapore on Singapore Airlines, a very classy, clean operation. However from Singapore to Calcutta was Indian Airlines and although the airline was fine, the hygiene was terrible. Here is were we ran into cultural issues. In India people use squat toilets or just squat over ditches and runnels, depending on the area. Even a porcelain toilet will be used to squat over, and often have no seat. So the toilets on the plain would be covered in dirty footprints from people hoping up on the narrow ledge to squat over the toilet.

Cleaner for them yes. They weren’t touching anything that had been touched for others. But for everyone of a Western culture it was filthier. We’re taught (but not all are taught well) to clean the seat if you splash but of course since they didn’t actually sit on the seat, they didn’t clean it. Singapore would have arrested people for doing such and indeed toilets there had signs of large fines for not flushing toilets.

But the flights, that’s what I’m really talking about. The next leg of our trip involved taking a smaller plane through the Himalayan foothills to Meghalaya. There were several small airlines but the most direct route into Khasis lands was Vayudoot Airlines. I don’t actually remember which town we flew into but the flight was memorable. The plane was small, one of those where the wheels stay down. I believe it was a Fokker aircraft designed to hold 28 people. Five of those people were my friend and her husband, their two- and three-year-old sons and me. The seats were small and close enough that I could have reach across the middle row to touch the other side. There were, I believe three seats on one side and two on the other.

I sat with Hanocia and her youngest son. The plane took off and we headed toward the Himalayas. The flight attendant on the intercom just came across as loud fuzzy noise and no one could understand her. Being in India, a largely vegetarian country, we were given a light meal, which consisted of white bread with some sort of oddly green paste in it. Then the flight got rocky as we hit air pockets. We dipped, we twisted, we swooped, and so did our stomachs. Hanocia’s young son lost his green sandwich, thankfully into a barf bag. Hanocia, who had done this trip before, sat tight-lipped and white knuckled (even for a brown-skinned person) clutching the seat. I had the window seat, not necessarily a blessing. We sat over the wing and the wheels and I swear there was a crack running up one of the struts.

Needless to say we made it, shaken up but relatively whole. When it came time to leave Meghalaya, we chose different airlines. I was leaving a month early to travel through India and Nepal so I chose another airline, but that meant traveling into neighboring Assam. Because the borders were closed between Assam and Meghalaya due to another fight between the two states, I had to have signed papers. It was an arduous bus trip of many many hours, and passing a bloated dead man in the middle of the road, who had been hit by a car and who knows how long he lay there with the crowd waiting for officials.

The flight from Assam to Calcutta was relatively uneventful once on the flight. But it was over three hours delayed in typical Indian fashion. I sat there for hours, very dehydrated because I didn’t have water with me and didn’t dare drink the local water. At one point, about two hours into waiting three men flurried over, their jackets flapping and said, come with us. In India you can’t really tell who is an official or not. There were no uniforms or name tags but I was taken off to a back room and asked where I was going, where I had come from. I had to show my papers and the guy took them and laboriously wrote out information. I think the painstaking time was to make me worry and really, I was too naive to realize they wanted baksheesh until after the fact.

But I was glad I hadn’t taken Vayudoot on the way out because we had heard, after landing, that one plane had lost a tail on takeoff and another a wing on landing. I hope all my frightful flights are things of the past.

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Traveling in India: Kisses at the Taj Mahal

It is only be apt that when I was in India I ran into a man intent on kissing me at the Taj Mahal.  Actually, it was while I was walking there, in the city of Agra. The Taj Mahal was built by Shah Jahan in the 17th century as a memorial of love after the death of his favorite wife Mumtaz Mahal. She died in childbirth with their fourteenth child. (That would be enough to kill most people.)

The Taj Mahal houses the bodies and sarcophagi of Shah Jahan and Mumtaz Mahal and is considered one of the best examples of Mughal architecture as well as being a monument to love. Lovers and scads of tourists visit it every year. I did the same, getting up early one morning in Agra and walking to the Taj. I had dysentery at this point and while ill, this particular day left me with a little more strength and a calmer stomach than on other days.

India is so polluted that often the day begins hazy or cloudy and an orangey-gray cast fires up the sky. It turns out to look quite pretty in pictures and the day started like this. As I walked along a Sikh guy on his scooter puttered up beside me and asked the three ubiquitous questions given to every woman traveller: what’s your name, where are you from, are you married? So it went and then he asked if I’d like a ride. I said no thanks; I had got up early so that I could actually walk to the monument.

A little while later, as he kept pace with my walking, he said, “I love you.” Startled I said, “Uh, thanks.” Then he asked, “Don’t you love me?” Put on the spot, somehow not wanting to be rude, I finally came up with, “I love you like I love all my fellow human beings.” This pacified him a bit or gave him something to chew on.

The problem is in India (or was at that time) they only had American movies to go on as to what North American women were like. India is a culture (or the parts I was in anyways) where men and women do not touch in public. It’s common to see men holding hands but you’ll never see this between the genders. A titillating Indian movie often has the wet sari scene that shows off the woman’s curves while still keeping her modestly dress, and kissing just doesn’t happen in their movies. So then you see a North American movie and all women are wearing form fitting clothes, kissing and touching men and often disrobing after some James Bond caper or the moment, in the movie, when the guy says I love you.

It was a naiveté in which I never felt threatened but was kinda cute and sometimes irritating. As I continued to the Taj Mahal, the Sikh man then said, “Won’t you kiss?” I answered, “No, I will not.”

“But why? I love you.” To which I responded, “I don’t just kiss anyone who says they love me.” Eventually he puttered off and I continued to the Taj Mahal, unkissed and happy.

It was unusual to hear of many rapes in India but then I don’t know the frequency of those that were reported.  I have heard these days that there are more happening. I never felt threatened ever in India and there were a few other times that the men tried to come on to me or kiss me. But that naiveté has probably warn off and with the advent of computers in to one of the world’s most populated countries, it is definitely opening the eyes of many.

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Peppers and All Things Spicy

When I was a child the pepper shaker sat on our table like an icon to some ancient belief system. No one used it. Instead we liberally abused the salt shaker, over and over and over again to the point where my mother and my brother salt their pizza to this day. I used to salt cheese and my younger brother would make a bowl of vinegar with enough salt in it to make it murky and then dip his potato chips in…till his lips went white. We were heavy salt abusers but we shunned pepper.  

Then when I was in art college my boyfriend made tacos one night and had a bottle of hot sauce. He didn’t warn me, in fact I think he took secret glee in letting me use this medium hot sauce.  I had no experience with hot sauce, let alone pepper. Needless to say I turned red and gasped at the spiciness. Before long though, I was loving it and would use huge amounts of Tabasco on my food.  

Then I moved to Vancouver and met my friend Hanocia, who is from the tribal state of Meghalaya in India. She had a whole different degree of spiciness and would carry a bag of peppers in her purse. They were usually red but sometimes green and I believe Thai chillies. I learned to eat these chillies with my meal or whenever Hanocia cooked. At one point we were roommates and she, her boyfriend, and I would sit around eating our meal and chomping on chillies till we were all sniffling. 

Hanocia and I once went out for drinks one night and ordered bloody Caesars (for you Americans  it is a cocktail made of vodka, clamato juice, salt, pepper, Worcestershire sauce and Tabasco sauce). We finally just asked the bartender for the bottle of Tabasco. He gave us one of the small, table-size bottles that was about a third full. We returned an empty bottle. The bartender’s jaw dropped.  

After that, Tabasco really was what I called the McDonald’s of hot sauces, lacking flavor and with too much vinegar. I came to enjoy the nuances of the different peppers, even eating habaneros (or Scotch bonnets) where are 10 on a scale of 10 for hotness. Peppers are rated on the Scoville scale. The hottest is the Naga Jolokia or ghost pepper. I have never tried this one. The second hottest is the habanero or Red Savina. This pepper is of course super hot but has a fruity flavor. I doubt many could eat a whole one. When I’m putting it into a meal I probably put in less than a eighth of a teaspoon.  

pequin pepper

 

 I had achieved full pepper assimilation. I always seek out hot sauces though due to now having rosacea (a skin condition exacerbated by cold, spice and histamines) I can’t eat as much spicy foodas I once could . Alas. One does have to build up to it slowly, or risk serious burn. The hotter peppers, like the habanero, can physically burn the skin as well as burning on the way down.Black pepper too has developed from those early days. It’s fresh now, not some ghostly reminiscence of flavor. I have a pepper grinder of course, because nothing but fresh pepper will do. I once made an Irish stew where I put so much black pepper in that it was pretty spicy in it’s own right. It’s not as common to have hot black pepper but you can get there. I’m glad I came to learn about the pepper family and appreciate the nuances of the hotters types. I don’t intend on turning away any time soon, even with rosacea.

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Traveling in India: Betel Nut Adventures

Indian people and many people of other Asian countries eat betel nut in one form or another. It is a hard oval nut that looks an awful lot like nutmeg. It’s true name is the areca nut, and it is almost always eaten with the betel leaf, part of the pepper family and therefore slightly peppery in taste. A special knife must be used to cut the nut because it’s like hardened wood when dry. Imagine trying to cut nutmeg. The nut, cut into small pieces, is placed on a betel leaf, along with lime paste, which is all rolled together and then chewed.

I first encountered the betel nut in Meghalaya. The Khasi people, like many other Asian people, chew this daily. It is called kwai in Meghalaya and the Khasis chew it in a fairly pure form. I imagine that it was something like smoking long before those countries ever had cigarettes. One Khasi woman smiled at me with her red lips and teeth and called it Khasi lipstick. Indeed in some of the Asian cultures it’s been seen as a sign of beauty. The red comes from a combination of the lime and the nut. Everywhere in India, even in government buildings, I would find corners stained red as if someone had been butchered. But this was just the spittle from chewing the nut. India’s idea of clean was much different than that of my western sensibilities.

At the time I was told that the leaf and the lime were needed to break down the hardness of the nut. Some Khasis swallowed the kwai after chomping away on it, while others would spit out the juices. In India proper they call it paan and often mix it with sugars and other spices, making it a sweet concoction.

For the longest time (I was in Meghalaya a month) I just watched everyone chewing it. My friend started to get back in the habit though she didn’t do it in Canada. And a good thing too. Habitual use of betel nut cause severe damage to the gums, eroding them down to the roots of teeth. Not to mention, recent studies have shown that there are fairly high carcinogenic properties in the areca nut. Many places also combine it with tobacco, increasing the carcinogens even more.

Meghalaya was interesting to explore during the days but during the evenings we all just sat around. Hanocia’s mother ran a bar and besides the one drink that was served, and the beef jerky, a lot of people chewed kwai. I finally asked to try it one night and popped a small piece with lime and wrapped in the pepper leaf into my mouth. I think I suffered severe pucker power from the caustic aspects of the lime paste and had to take some sugar to counteract it. I also did something that doesn’t happen to the Khasis. I turned beet red.

The areca nut is supposed to have mild narcotic properties that can sharpen clarity. How this works when one is drinking is more a mystery I think. Coupled with the pepper leaf and the lime, it heated me up. The Khasis sitting around thought it pretty funny to watch me chewing this. I did get into the hang of trying it, working past the bitterness and tasting the flavors of peppery woodiness. I probably chewed kwai for a week or two.

When I went back to Calcutta I bought some paan. There they have a collection of confections to be added. But I was used to the pure taste and didn’t like the sugary sweetness. In fact, Indian sweets in general were far too sweet for my palate, partly because of the use of rose water. So I tried a few varieties of paan, served in cones of pepperleaf but couldn’t develop a taste for it. It’s just as well too as there are many diseases and cancers of the mouth associated with long-term use, not to mention the hardness alone can damage teeth.

So I gave up my betel nut adventures and passed on the betel juice that gives alluring red lips to its users.

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