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“Whatever you think or say, you’re wrong; it’s the opposite,” said our 14 year-old guide as we walked the lanes of Varanasi. Attempting to describe this multifaceted nation and my relationship to it is impossible. India is a country of paradoxes where extremes are at play.
Writers often apologize for not being able to clearly explain the intricacies that make up this country of over one billion people, where the middle class now constitutes one quarter to one third of the population and English is the common language in cities and tourist areas.
India’s draw is complex; we can’t understand it within the frame of reference of our Western minds, and that is part of what pulls us in. Once our constant internal analysis abates, we’re more open to flowing with what is unfolding around us. To say that the environment there is over stimulating would be an understatement. People, vehicles, cows, even the colours are de trop, but my approach has been, “bring it on”. I was thirsty for India after waiting for her so long and I wanted to soak in every tiny little detail.
India is very rich and very poor, spiritual yet also extremely material, beautiful but also ugly. The welcoming hospitality we felt everywhere helped to counteract the overload, the frustrations and the oxymorons of the country.
For as long as I can remember I’ve had a preoccupation with India and its people, feeling drawn to go there. Life intervened, and my first visit did not take place until I was well into midlife. It was worth the wait, and I viewed it with different eyes than I would have at a younger age.
I’ve always felt quite certain that numerous past lives have been spent in India, and my immediate affinity and strong connection to the country and to the Indian and Tibetan people living there pointed to this. Later a friend, a talented professional psychic, confirmed this for me.
My partner Don and I are very fortunate to be on the same page when it comes to travelling. With our childraising years over and career transitions underway, my desire to see India overtook my homebody routines, and our first six week trip to the Indian continent was in 2007. The adventure was so successful we decided to return two years later for a longer period of time, one that would involve volunteer work as well as travel.
For three months we lived, volunteered, soaked in the culture and breathed the often arid, dusty air of the country. India turned out to be everything I imagined it would be…and more. The women and men we met, almost without exception, in both the North India Tibetan and Indian communities and in South India, embraced us with their warmth and friendship, and a sincere desire to understand more about our country, our lifestyle and us as individuals.
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This excerpt from An Indian Sojourn describes our time in Shekhawati, Rajasthan, northwest of Jaipur. Upper caste women are all but invisible there and I found the energy to be odd and repressive.
We’re driven through the outskirts of Nawalgarh, near the resort. The community appears plain and arid looking, a working desert town, not gentrified in any way for the tourists. On arrival at Apani Dhani Eco Lodge we’re greeted by Ramesh, the owner. The resort is beautiful; it consists of one-story terracotta huts built in a U-shape around a central courtyard. Flourishing bougainvillea bushes
in a variety of colours creep up to the roof of the central pavilion where guests gather to read, chat, or listen to harmonium concerts. At the end of the courtyard is a building that houses the dining room and kitchen.
A slim, attractive sixty-something man wearing simple white cotton pants and shirt, Ramesh wears traditional Rajasthani white stud earrings in both earlobes. His bearing is aristocratic. Ramesh is a devout Hindu and a member of the Rajput caste, the second highest in the state; he’s multilingual in English, French and German, as well as Indian dialects, having lived in Europe for several years. There he became interested in the environment and Swedish and German ecology, he explains. Our host still spends a third of each year in Europe and half of Apani Dhani’s clientele is French. Ramesh’s altruistic values, common among higher caste Indians, are reflected in the fact that 5 percent of the resort’s gross earnings are contributed to a school for handicapped children.
I initially find Ramesh’s manner somewhat superior and off putting; while clearly used to being in charge, he does prove to be a congenial host. Later I experience something similar with our Goa hotel owner. This may be reverse snobbery on my part, having little to do with Indian culture and more bearing on my own class background and politics…
The cosmopolitan Ramesh reverts to tradition when at home, and each room of the lodge has a binder with an exhaustive list of traditional Hindu customs and guidelines that clearly demonstrate this. Both males and females are advised to cover most of their body: “No sleeveless t-shirts or shorts, transparent or revealing clothing, no braless look; wear a long sleeve t-shirt or shirt covering the buttocks for women”, (the last is traditional in most of India, even in the more progressive South).
Some of the French tourists, perhaps unable to read the English-only guidelines, bare their legs and arms. Always attempting to dress modestly in India, respecting the cultural norms, I feel controlled by “the book of rules”, and by the atmosphere in this ultra conservative setting. There’s a sensation of being watched and I likely would have opted not to come here had we known more about the place beforehand.
Alcohol is strictly prohibited: “Don’t bring it to your room out of respect; it is against our way of living and you would deeply offend us”, I read in the book, hearing Ramesh’s voice in my head. The Prince Polonia Hotel in Delhi is run by devout Hindus; however the atmosphere there feels calm, not constrained in any way.
Please register at the library: 886-2130
Travel Author Presentation: India An Indian Sojourn by Ellen Besso
April 27, 2013 1:00-3:00pm
GIBSONS & DISTRICT PUBLIC LIBRARY
Join author Ellen Besso and her partner Don Smith at the GPL in a two-part event. Ellen will read from her memoir about volunteering in the Tibetan refugee colony of Dharamsala and travelling in other parts of India in 2009-2010. Following this Ellen and Don will give a slide presentation of their time in Dharamsala last fall, their relationships and the events that unfolded while they were there.
Please register ahead at the library by phoning 886-2130 Hope to see you there Ellen
Jaipur, the Pink City, is our introduction to the semi-desert state of Rajasthan. A beautiful, colourful and geographically varied area, it is also one of the poorest, and consequently most backward states in India. Women and children suffer the most from this.
It’s Friday now; since it’s our only full day in Jaipur, we decide to check out the Old Jaipur market downtown and buy some books for the next leg of the trip. Our driver, one of the regulars who hang about outside Madhuban waiting for fares, is an anomaly…a good driver, he’s friendly too. Today I wear a surgical mask, purchased in Paharganj for city travel, it helps with the dust problem.
The driver knows the downtown core and locates the English language bookstore easily. The tiny store has an excellent variety of both fiction and non-fiction reading. After purchasing a couple of books, we begin walking to the main market, forgetting once again the difficulty posed by long walks in the heat and the tumult. Those who can afford transportation for relatively short distances, either by auto rickshaw or in their own vehicle, know what they’re doing, they’re not being lazy.
It takes a while to locate the market entrance and it’s getting warmer by the moment. We’re on the wide, noisy main street of the bazaar whenI realize I’ve forgotten my ear plugs, an aid that can make a significant difference to one’s level of relaxation. We try to purchase some at one of the medical kiosks along the street, but are told no one uses them here. The Jaipur market is enormous and has some interesting stalls, but it seems less organized than others we visit. Some areas are designated for particular products, but for the most part goods are jumbled together, with bicycles and tricycles alongside fabrics and saris. A young man approaches as we inquire about earplugs, asking in perfect English if he can be of help, and we stop and chat with him for a while. He’s a college student, studying Spanish so he can work in his family’s gem company; this industry is big business in Spain and Italy.
As we stand on the street corner, I happen to glance down the lane and notice a number of men urinating against the wall of the building,into a cement trough running alongside and out to the street. I avert my eyes; I can get by without seeing this sight. What is it about all this male public urination? It’s not as if there are no toilets, (though I suppose this is considered a toilet). In her hilarious book, Holy Cow, Sarah MacDonald jokes that many men have weak bladders and urinary problems in India! We bid the student good day and locate a quieter side street, where we explore for a while.
My word for Jaipur is erratic; the city has its own unique brand of chaos; it’s hotter and noisier here than in Paharganj and vehicles go much faster, even in the market. Motorcycles and cars speed by pedestrians as they move into the roadway to avoid broken, garbagestrewn, kiosk-filled sidewalks. By the time my body says “enough” we’re deep in the market, and the temperature is thirty-two degrees. I love to walk, but don’t tolerate the heat and noise well. It’s no fun for Don either when I crash, or declare “I’m not doing this anymore, let’s go back to the hotel”, as happens on rare occasion. At that point he usually comes up with a workable plan.
As we leave the bazaar, I get a flash from the past, suddenly understanding how I walked out of the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul, Turkey in 1975, hot, hungry, on automatic pilot, and made the mistake of eating chicken from a street rotisserie, making myself extremely ill. After several failed attempts to secure an auto rickshaw, we walk the rest of the way, finally spying the restaurant we want on the far side of the road. All bets are off when crossing busy roads in India; traffic patterns are different from those in the west and rules not enforced. Drivers are not trying to hit you, although it sometimes seems that way. The best plan for reaching the other side without mishap is to cross when the Indians walk, staying as close to them as possible.
By the time we start back to the hotel the traffic is even heavier, and it takes a while to cover the 2.5 kilometre distance. We have an opportunity to people watch as our auto rickshaw crawls slowly along the street. A motorcycle rider makes a phone call at a traffic light, shoving the phone under his helmet, something we never see at home! Two teens, a boy and girl, run along the road, each carrying a crutch that serves as a begging prop, reminding me of our acquaintance in McLeod Ganj with the bandaged, but uninjured hand. There are fewer beggars in Jaipur than we expected in a big city, but the ubiquitous “mothers” with babies are present. We see a few child beggars and I notice an entire family of sidewalk dwellers, with an apparently able bodied man sitting with them. In large cities beggars are usually organized by mafia bosses and must give the greater part of their earnings over to these men. All the NGOs say “Don’t give them anything, it’s a scam, the money donated goes to liquor and drugs for the pimp bosses.” Additionally the beggars are often supported by charities.
Today, when our vehicle stops at a red light, a beggar approaches, appearing suddenly from her position on the centre island of the roadway, holding her “rental baby”. As the woman nears our auto rickshaw, I pull the canvas blind over the open back window, forcing her to remain at the front. This aggressive beggar stands with her hand out, staring at me, for what feels like several long minutes, trying to wear me down. ..