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The David B Adair What-Am-I-Still-Doing-Traveling-Newsletter
(May 15, 1992)
Thereís song by the group Depeche Mode that goes, "let me take you on a trip. Around the world and back,Ö let me show you the world in my eyes." Thatís what I try to do in these letters, but I find it hard to really describe travel in India, because it is unlike anything Iíve ever seen. An Indian asked me, "how is India different than your country?" At first I thought it was an impossible question, but then realized itís pretty simple Ė everything is different. Another Indian said, "as you travel in India, you must remember that everything is very simple, but we like to make it a little difficult." I donít know about the simple part, but to difficult I can relate. Travel here isnít always fun, but it is always interesting.
But Iím getting head of myself. When I last wrote, I was still in Sri Lanka with Ann from England. She was flying to India on one day and I was flying the next day to the Maldives. After saying goodbye to here at the airport, I did errands all day and didnít get back to my hotel until the evening. The man behind the disk said, "whereís your friend?" I said, "she flew out today." He looked surprised and asked to where, and I said to India. He said, "sir, sheís here." I said, "no, sheís in India." He said "sir, thereís a woman in your room! Sheís been eating food and everything!" Sure enough, she was, and the hotel clerk said, "see, I told you." Sheíd flown to India and been denied entry because she didnít have the right visa. She was hustled back on the plane and flown back to Sri Lanka, where she could get a new Indian via. So, 10 hours before my flight I decided to stay with her while she got her visa, and spent another two weeks there. We visited some impressive ancient cities and spent some more time at the beach. The buses there are some of the most crowded Iíve ever seen, and on one short ride, a regular family-sized van had 43 people in it, including five of us standing on the running board and hanging onto the roof rack. In the "Funny English" category, I saw an ad for a secretary where one of the job requirements was "a command of the English language that is a lot better than good." What would that be, way good? In the restaurants it is rare to get proper napkins. Usually you get a bowl of water and cut-up newspaper to dry your hands. One place had used bus tickets.
I finally flew to the Maldives, southwest of India, and went on some nice dives. The island I was on wasnít very nice but at least it was expensive. I was successful in spending in four days what I would spend in the next six weeks in India.
I flew from the Maldives to a town called Trivandrum in the far south of India. There are 850 million people in India and there is incredible diversity. There are 14 major languages and 200 dialects and luckily, English is widely spoken, especially among the educated. Thereís great variety in peopleís physical features and dress, as well. Average income is about $30 a month. I was told that the minimum wage had recently been doubled to 75 centsÖ per week. The people are hard-working and itís not an easy life. On a road project I saw people, mostly women, making gravel. They sit on the ground by the side of the road with a hammer, breaking big rocks into little ones. Apparently they make about 35 cents a day for their 10-12 hours of labor. Child labor is a norm. A 14 year-old kid at a restaurant last nigh said he works from 7 A.M. to 10 P.M. (15 hours), seven days a week. The literacy rate is only 50%, and many children are expected to work as soon as they are physically able.
There are some funny occupations here. On the street you see people with a bathroom scale, where theyíll weigh you for one or two cents. There are men who walk around with bamboo slivers and a bag of cotton wool who will clean your ears. I made some joke about having it done and one of these guys followed me two blocks, saying, "Just let me look in your ear, no touching just looking, just let me look." The scariest business I saw was a sidewalk dentist. Heíd laid down a blanket and had his tools all laid out. Talk about weapons of mass destruction. He had big rusty wood files and cleavers and pointy things. But you could get a tooth pulled for eight cents.
Like Nepal, India is predominantly Hindu, so cows are sacred, and donít they know it. They are absolutely everywhere, and I canít think of India without thinking of cows. They walk down the middle of the street, on the sidewalks, inside temples. Some of the bulls are huge things, the kind you see in rodeos with a big hump. I was watching a festival in a town where a procession was moving along a very narrow street. People were packed in watching as I saw this bull come up from behind the crowd and ram his way through. My friend saw a cow run through a restaurant, in one door and out another. India has a big film industry, and I heard about a "western" with a twist. The cattle ranchers are the bad guys, and the good guy rides into town and sets all the cows free. (Based on my own observations, all it takes to be a male movie star here is a mustache and a double chin. In this very poor country where every beggar is skinny, thin isnít in.) I was in a restaurant the other day and looked out the door to see a cow defecating (taking a dump). A minute later a little girl came by with a bowl balanced on her head. She scooped up the manure in her hands, plopped it into the bowl and went on her way. They are valuable as fuel, and youíll never see an unclaimed dry cow turd.
I met up with Ann again and we started traveling up the west coast. One day we were riding in a taxi and we passed a woman seated in a fancy throne-type chair with people around her. We said "she looks like sheís dead," and the driver said "she is dead." Like the Hindus of Bali in Indonesia, people are cremated on an open funeral pyre. In the old days it was custom that when a man dies his wife throw herself on the fire. Sometimes it took four or five strong men to convince her that it was the correct course of action. Another kind of strange Hindu belief is that after you go to the bathroom, you canít "admire your work." I guess everyone is different, but to me thatís half the fun. I suppose thereís virtue in deprivation.
One of the great things about traveling in India is the food. It is really delicious, and like everything else, cheap. Iíd never really had it before I came here, but Iíll miss it a lot when I leave. One night we ate at a nice restaurant where I had an all-you-can-eat meal for $1.25, that was some of the best food Iíve ever eaten. We were so excited about the great food and were still talking about it as we walked outside and saw the most gruesome leper Iíve ever seen, or could imagine seeing. It was the best and worst of India jammed so close together that it made you dizzy. This poor man had lost all his fingers, both feet, and his eyelids, which gave him an awful ghoulish look. He was sitting down begging and I couldnít stop looking at him. When he saw me, I turned to walk away and he got up and started stumbling after me. I felt like I was being chased by a monster and then later felt guilty for feeling that way. I wished Iíd had the guts or compassion to just walk over to him and give him some money. Of the worldís three million lepers, two million are in India. What is so frustrating is that it is 100% treatable in the early stages. Similarly, you see hundreds of people in India who had polio, and are now without the use of their legs. Youíll see them dragging themselves along the ground and begging. Beggars are constant in India, and between them and insistent shopkeepers, you have to learn to be assertive. Iíll give money to the obviously needy beggars, but you canít give to everyone, and you have to be able to look them in the eye and say no. Thereís an art to dealing with all the many hassles and frustrations in India and the people who canít deal with it donít last very long.
As we continued north we stopped at some beautiful beaches. I didnít even know India had any beaches, but they are excellent. Itís a good place to recuperate and recharge your batteries after the hassles of cities. We went to the beaches of Goa, and I was determined to only stay three or four days, and we stayed two weeks. From there we went to Bombay, which was a pleasant surprise. Itís really a quite modern city, with wide streets and modern buildings. The extremes of wealth are more obvious here, with Mercedesí and Rolls Royces driving past the thousands of people who live in tents on the sidewalks.
We next went to the popular travelerís destination of the state of Rajasthan. What a beautiful place. The land is primarily desert, and many of the cities are built around massive, 300 year-old forts perched on top of steep hills. The Rajasthanes were known to be valiant warriors. When facing certain defeat, a huge funeral pyre was built and the women and children would immolate themselves on it as the men rode out to face their death. There were cases of thousands dying this way. I said valiant, I didnít say intelligent. The people today are colorful, with the men wearing bright turbans and sporting thick mustaches, and the women also brightly dressed and wearing up to five pounds of silver jewelry.
One evening at sunset Ann and I were watching these large, three-foot-tall monkeys (which are very common in India) as they leapt from roof to roof across the town of Udaipur. There were three about 15 feet away from us and Ann said "look how funny that one is sitting," and imitated it. All of a sudden this monkey charged Ann, baring his teeth and about scaring Ann to death. I stood up and he came running over at me, and I said "hey, sheís the one that imitated you, go get her." After taking a little swipe at my leg he left. Normally they arenít dangerous, but theyíll come into your room and steal things or take food from your table if you are eating outside. My friend had camera equipment stolen and said you should have seen their faces at the insurance company when he had to explain it.
From the town of Jaisalmer we went on a four day camel safari through the desert. There are huge numbers of camels in Rajasthanis, and they really are amazing animals. They donít sweat except in extreme circumstances, they donít breathe hard even when you run them, and they have almost no smell, except when they break wind, which is often, so I sort of take that back. They can go 14 days without water. We went with two camel drivers, Byra, 28, and Pabu,13. Ann and I had our own camels and our drivers shared one. Pabu was a full partner in the operation and carried his share of the work and responsibility. There are six kids in his family, mostly younger, and his father is disabled, so his work supports the whole family. We rode for about four hours each day, trotting quite a bit of the time, and we slept in the desert at night. It was great, though we were getting pretty sore by the end. The day after we were coming back there was a big festival called Holi, where people throw semi-permanent water colors on passers by, and our drivers were so excited about it they couldnít stand it, especially Pabu. When we got back they found out they had to go back out on another safari and would miss the festival. I felt so sorry for Pabu, heís not getting the chance to be a kid. In his broken English he said "now no one will make color for me," meaning no one would throw color on him.
We went out on Holi and it was a once in a lifetime experience, I hope, because it was awful. The local thugs go nuts when they see a tourist, and it got pretty rough sometimes. We were sitting in the safety of a restaurant, colored in bright red, purple, silver and green from head to toe, and I saw two female tourists getting pretty roughed up and having a hard time getting away. I saw a local woman with a length of garden hose and I though how nice of her to come to their rescue. Then she starts whacking the tourists with it! Apparently thatís allowed in the rule book.
In a restaurant I had something pretty amazing happens. I recognized an Italian guy as someone Iíd met on Mt. Kilimanjaro in Africa two years before. Wow! We had a nice chat and agreed to meet again in a strange place by chance.
From New Delhi, Ann had to fly to Hong Kong, where sheíll be living with her brother. I had to decide which direction I would go, and decided first to got to Dharamsala, where the Tibetan government-in-exile resides.
A brief history lesson Ė Tibet was an independent country for many hundreds of years until 1949, when it was invaded by China. No government thought China belonged there, but there wasnít any oil like there is in Kuwait, so the situation remained and most governments turned a blind eye. There are statistics showing that as many as one million Tibetans have died since the occupation. Of the 6,200 monasteries in existence at the time of the invasion, 6,000 were destroyed during Chinaís Cultural Revolution. Tibet became, unwillingly a part of China, and the Tibetan government, led by the Dalai Lama, fled into exile to the town of Dharamsala in the foothills of the Indian Himalayas. The Dalai Lama won the 1989 Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts in freeing Tibet.
Dharamsala is a wonderful place, and completely unlike any other place Iíve seen in India. The Tibetans are the cheeriest and most beautiful people and remind me a lot of the Nepalis. Every once in a while the Dalai Lama holds an audience, and I got to meet him. All it amounted to was shaking his hand, though some people react very strongly emotionally, even bursting into tears. To the Tibetans he is almost a living god, and to see their reaction to him is astounding. He came to a performance of Tibetan opera and it was amazing to see all the Tibetans with their heads bent and their hands together, trying to get close to him. There was another celebrity in town, Harrison Ford. I guess he was vacationing, and I saw him once walking around.
The U.S. Government talks about human rights a lot. But when it comes to delivering they fall short. They are quick to impose sanctions on Libya, but the thought of one billion Chinese drinking a Coca-Cola prevents them from getting tough there.
While in Dharamsala I heard about a 12-day retreat at a Buddhist monastery on meditation and introduction to Tibetan Buddhism. I did the retreat, and it was more like an intro to Buddhism and meditation on Buddhism. No mom, Iím not a Buddhist. Of course we did have to shave our heads, -- Iím kidding , already. It was a good experience, and I met some really nice people from all over. There were quite a few Americans, too.
I went with a few people Iíd met into the Kulu Valley, and once again was amazed by Indiaís diversity. The people there look very different from any Iíd see before, kind of like a cross between and average Indian and an eastern European. We went on a short trek to a village call Malana that has some very strange customs. Itís about a six hour hike from the road to this village at 9,000 feet, and outsiders, particularly foreigners, are not allowed to touch anything, You can walk on the main path, but you canít touch people, goats, cows, houses, stone seats, nothing. There is one house at the end of town where you can stay, and there is a little shop to buy things. To buy something, you point to it and he puts it on the floor, then you put your money on the floor and he picks it up. If one of the locals is on the path where you are walking, they donít just move out of the way, they move about 10 feet out of the way. Some baby goats came over by me and everyone started yelling, afraid theyíd touch me. Because they rarely allow someone new into their village, there is a lot of inbreeding and you can see it in their faces. They also donít fight off disease well, so only one out of five children live beyond 10 years old. Some of the kids are really cute, but some are wooly-haired, wild-looking things. Fortunately they love having their pictures taken. By the way if you do touch something, you have to pay for a goat, which they slaughter and pour some of the blood where you touched. Their version of justice was described in a paper written by a school teacher in a nearby town. He says "if a Ďhuman killerí enters Malana "they will put big stones on his back. They will carry him where it is very down steep and they will kick him and he will be no more."
I forgot to mention that after Delhi I went to see the Taj Mahal in the city of Agra. It really is beautiful, and not just at a distance. Thereís a lot of inlaid marble that shows great attention to detail. Inside the building I didnít see any signs about photography, so I took a picture of the inlaid marble. As I took it, I saw out of the corner of my eye someone watching me from about two feet away. When I looked, I saw a policeman with a rifle on his shoulder. He said "photos not allowed. Fine - 50 rupees." (Thatís about $1.75.) I said "but you watched me take it!" He said "photos outside no problem. Inside not allowed. Fine - 50 rupees." We went back and forth a few times, and I finally said "Iím sorry I took the picture, I wonít take any more, but Iím not paying the fine," and I walked away, kind of zigzagging and hoping he was a lousy shot. But he just stood there with a frustrated expression and let me go. He was just going to pocket the money. There is tremendous corruption in India, and everyone knows it. Thereís a bridge in Goa that is being rebuilt after the original one collapsed two year after completion, killing several people. They are always short of materials on the new bridge because the project manager sells off the material and keeps the money.
Today Iím writing this from the city of Amritsar, near the border to Pakistan. This is the latest planóIím leaving tomorrow into Pakistan and traveling north by way of the Karakoram Highway into China. Once in China Iím going to try to get into Tibet, which my visa doesnít allow, but I know that people have done it. If I donít get into Tibet I donít know what Iíll do, while if I do get in I also donít know what Iíll do. Either way it should be exciting. My health has still been really good and Iím looking forward to the mountains of Pakistan and China. The highway is supposed to be very mountainous and rough, with a pass around 16,000 feet.
Hope all is well, See you soon. Dave
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