Tag Archives: Shillong

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 But then I was a book rep and would have boxes of catalogues and order forms that would get outdated.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.

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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: 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: 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: Memories of Meghalaya

When I went to India, I was poor. I saved up every penny, including sitting on the street corner and selling used books and ornaments (you could still do that in the West End at that point). My friends lent me the money for the plane ticket, which I paid back over the next year.

I was gone for two months and the first month was in the state of Meghalaya. There are seven autonomous states in northeastern India. They are: Assam, Meghalaya, Arunchal Pradesh, Mizoram (known for eating dog), Nagaland (known for eating these giant spiders I saw), Manipur. Meghalaya’s capital is Shillong, where I stayed but we did travel around some.

Hanocia, my friend from Meghalaya who had lived in Vancouver for years, was of an old family. There are last names, which denote some aspect of nobility or lineage that has carried on for generations. There are three major groups in Meghalaya; the Khasis, Garo and Jaintia with the Khasis being the largest. They are a rare thing in the world, a matrilineal society. Few cultures follow matriarchal culture and fewer matrilineal. Hanocia was the only daughter of a youngest daughter.

Instead of the oldest son of the oldest son it is the youngest daughter who traditionally inherits the family lands, partly because she will be around longest to take care of the aging parents. She also would oversee the family lands and riches. Children take their mothers’ last names and a divorced man moves back into the home of his mother. Clan leaders tend to be male but voted in by the women of the clan. Women handle the money a lot and men hunt. The Siyiem, equivalent to a king in their traditional society, will not see his son inherit but the son of his sister. The position does not have as much weight as it once did and Hanocia said one Siyiem lay in state, after he died, in the royal estates for a very long time because no one would take up the job, and he could not be buried until there was a successor.

The Khasis are a Himalayan hill tribe, traditional hunters with the bow and arrow. I saw the equivalent of horse races one day when we went out to a field where archery butts (stacks of sticks or reeds tied in an upright cylinder were set about a field. Then many men would kneel and shoot as many arrows as possible within a set time. I believe they then counted how many arrows were closest to the center (demarcated by lines or string) and the person who had bet closest to that number would win. Although the Indian government tried to discourage gambling, this was a very popular form for the Khasis.

They are a diminutive people, with the average height of women being under 5’4″ and men around 5’5″. There were a few taller people but often mixed with other blood and at 5’4″ myself, I towered above many of the people. Although many Khasis are now Christian, their traditional religious beliefs are animist. They believe there is a spirit in most things and we visited a scared grove of trees.

I was there in late October and November and was lucky enough to attend the seasonal festival. It ran three days and clan chieftains came from all over to meet. There was a dance that did not necessarily have prescribed steps and reminded me partly of Native American dances. In the sun, three Khasi women, sisters of the Siyiem I believe, danced very slowly, either holding parasols or someone holding one over their head (lighter skin is a sign of nobility). The women were done in the Khasis robes, (a nongkrem–this might actually be the name of a place and I’m misremembering), like a silk sari but folded in such a way to be pinned in a sheath over each shoulder. A longer sleeved top was worn beneath and on their heads stood tall and elaborate headdresses made of gold. Many Khasi women wear a gold necklace with a large ruby in it. In a circle around these dancing women men would dance running and moving quickly. It’s been a while so I don’t quite remember the details.

The animist Khasis also hold the rooster as a sacred animal as they believe that it conveys their messages back and forth to U Blei Ka Blei. U denotes masculine and Ka, feminine (spellings could be off a bit, so if I remember correctly it translates as “the god” or “he god she god”). At this festival there were men who did chicken divination, wringing the necks of the birds and using their fingers to pry the bodies open and remove the entrails. I’m not sure if the bodies were first cut or if they were actually pried apart.

I also went to a night festival that few women frequent but there was no rule against it. It took place in a building made completely of wood; even pegs and joins were of wood. Within was a fire and a tall pole. The men would get up and dance near or around the pole and high pitched pipes were played. I’m not sure what the purpose was and think that in some cases they were reluctant to tell me. It was probably something to do with fertility but I’m just guessing. I was also in some discomfort because I’d eaten some sort of preserved bamboo shoot and the preservative was causing a bad reaction (there was also no toilet on site so it was a bit of a conundrum).

I will write more on the Khasis of Meghalaya, but although Wiki says that permits were not needed by foreigners past 1955 this is not true. I went in 1989 and I had to get a permit. I was one of three white people that I saw, one other being Hanocia’s husband and one being a school child. I’m sure there were a few others but people tended to stare because tall white people were a rarity. Meghalaya is culturally protected, meaning that only Garo and Khasis can own land. They are not Hindu and in fact, eat beef quite regularly, which is cheaper than chicken. I believe that now permits are no longer needed though they may be for some of the neighboring states, which are also self-autonomous.

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Not Throwing in with the Crowd: Litter

Once upon a time, in my teenage years, I used to wander around with my friends. We’d go to school, we’d stroll to the University of Calgary lands, we’d go to the mall. And like most teenagers, we would buy our share of gum and chocolate bars. I never littered and this was before “Going Green” had ever been heard of. I’d take my wrapper and put it in my pocket.

One day a friend asked, “Why bother, everyone litters?” I replied, “Just because everyone does it, doesn’t mean it’s right. Today it might just be me. But tomorrow it might be me and someone else and then it might be four people who don’t litter. And someday maybe everyone will change.”

Well, not everyone changed but as years went by it became more of a concern; recycling wasn’t just a word for the conscientious few. Green meant more than just the colour of grass. Of course, I wasn’t the pioneer, but even as a kid I valued my world and I read about the Gaia hypothesis at a young enough age. I was also reading science fiction at twelve and the possibilities of what-if were already working in my mind.

Move to 1989 when I went to India. I was there when the Berlin wall came down. For the first month I was in the tribal state of Meghalaya, one of very few white people (maybe three) in the predominantly Khasi lands. My girlfriend was from this Himalayan hill tribe and her relatives would drive us around to different sites. The Khasis are traditionally of an animist religion though Christianity is also prevalent these days.

Overlooking the town of Shillong was a high point and a sacred grove. It was sad to see tetra packs, tin cans and plastic bottles littering their protected area. One day, Hanocia’s cousins took me to see this site. We had some “take-out” from a local restaurant. This consisted of a meal wrapped in a banana leaf and then put in a plastic bag. We ate our lunch overlooking this beautiful, small waterfall. When we were done we threw our banana leaves into the bush. And then the two cousins threw their plastic bags.

I gathered them up, aghast, and said, “You can’t do that.” They looked at me, puzzled, and asked why. How to explain it. These guys weren’t stupid but just lived a different way of life. Like many Indians, they saw pictures from magazines or a few movies that revealed fairy tale glamour lives and ways. They wanted what North America had; the riches, the lifestyle. How can anyone deny what they already have? But how can you get across that it’s okay to try and achieve that life without making all the same mistakes?

I tried to explain it this way: If you throw the plastic on the ground, it will go into the plants and the water. The cows will eat it and it will make them ill and then you’ll eat the cows. (Khasis are not Hindu and do eat beef.) It was a simplified version and I didn’t have the knowledge to explain the full process but I tried.

It saddened me. India holds at least one-sixth of the world’s population. Being third world, they didn’t have all of the technology (cars, factories, etc.) as we have in N. America. But they already had their pollution problems. I received a valuable education in India and that day was just one reminder of how much work we still have to do, how far the world must go to still save itself. Like that day long ago when I put the wrapper in my pocket, I continue to try and stay green and become greener.

I have a long way to go still. But I still believe that if we try and even encourage one other person, we’ll continue to work against the tide.

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