Noi6 means "the 6 of us" in Romanian.

We are five, you are the sixth one.

We thank you for joining us in our trip around the world...

Monday, January 16, 2012

India, take two

There are occasional good moments on a trip like this

Maria turned 17 in Agra

There were some moments when something clicked and some insidious, indescribable change that happened during our five weeks of India. After getting almost sick to see the misery of Old Delhi, things got only better. There was misery in Agra and a glimpse or two during the rest of our trip. There were the eyes of my son and the younger girl who was begging to take his chips from his hand. The lady who stood next to us for several hours on the ground in the Agra station. It was her home, there, on a piece of plastic with two bags around her. And maybe a few more images. 

I didn't discover the magic of India. I did not get enlightened or amazed or reborn. Slowly, things that were incomprehensible when we arrived, started to make sense and a while later I didn't remember if there is any other way. 

Driving in India can be terrifying. My suggestion: go to Nepal first, it will all seem better after that. I had an epiphany in Agra. At night, coming back from Fatehpur Sikri, high beams, low beams, no horn? What's with that? Our driver is going very carefully, uses the lights not the horn and it seems that some other drivers are doing that too. They might be mindful of the late hour and not want to disturb the locals? It's not that late, it's just that they all seem to work together to get wherever is that they are going. It impresses me and makes me see things from a different angle. It's not that they are all crazy and want to make me loose my bearings with these roads and this traffic. They only have one road and they all have to make a living, they understand that and the horn is their main way of communication. Suddenly I see everything around me as an immense ants hill, we all move on our trajectory regardless of what others are doing. So radically different than the western, centrist way of seeing things through our own eyes. Play with ants if you want, see how they go by their business, you block their way, they go around it without hesitation. One of them is killed, others pick its load and keep going. Destroy the hill and they will keep going, going, going. They will never stop to argue with each other, to debate or watch others working. I am usually on the passenger's seat, and I am amazed as they keep coming, in the main road, without stopping, on the wrong way, there is never one second of hesitation, they all go forward at all times, one inch, one yard, one turn of the wheels at a time. They never seem to get really angry at each other. When they stop, they can wait patiently for minutes, occasionally there are blocked roads, stop signals or policemen in the way. If it's completely blocked they relax. If there is one tiny opening they get going. People on foot, people pushing carts, huge carts (their mobile store of vegetables or crafts or anything else). Then bicycles, mopeds, motorcycles, bicycle rickshas, motorized ones, carts pulled by a horse or a couple of oxen, small cars, bigger cars, vans, SUVs, buses of all sizes and trucks. Lots of trucks. Then cows, pigs, sheep, goats, dogs and cats. We haven't seen elephants or camels on the highways in India, just on the smaller roads. In Agra we were in a new car, just 10000 km "old" (6000 miles). It didn't have one of the mirrors, the other one was always folded so it wouldn't be clipped in the traffic. I start checking and it seems that most other cars don't have mirrors or carry them folded. They all have horns. I saw a little accident. Live. Two guys on a bike, one riding, the other holding upright a huge wood panel, the size of a mattress, in between them. An SUV cuts their way crossing the highway, on the wrong way! The bike jerks and comes to a stop. They readjust the panel, take a quick look at the back of the SUV, now there is a broken signal panel hanging by a wire. They get going, undisturbed, like my ants. And since that ride at night back from Fatehpur Sikri, I see myself as a spectator at their ants work and I am impressed and humbled. I feel lucky and grateful to be here now. It might be hard when I return to my job as a psychiatrist to continue to treat and medicate American people for "road rage." And I realise I cannot drive in India until I learn to honk.

The train station in Agra 
The return from Agra was a nightmare. Three hours ride, train at 6.45 am, a backup train option at 10 am and a plane to catch at 5 pm. Both trains were really late and unfortunately they didn't tell us from the beginning. The delay kept growing by 30-45 minutes and at 10 am the 6.45 express was just entering the station. The trains arrive in Agra after a long 20-40 hours ride from all corners of the country and during this time of the year the morning fog is very thick, no surprise that the trains have to stop or go really slow. We took a cab to Delhi, $65, and I would advice anyone to do just that instead of relying on the trains in Agra. The prepaid taxi booth is in front of the station and they have fixed prices for many destinations. They gave us a good car in just a few minutes. I remember those 4 hours in the cold and dirt of an Indian train station, I was just looking at my wife and my children and admiring their patience and their resilience. They were reading, jumping, joking, supporting each other, after just a few hours of sleep. I felt bad because I didn't plan this better and I felt fortunate that I have such wonderful travel partners.

The poverty of India makes many people "uncomfortable." It is unfathomable, it hurts to witness it and it hurts to feel hopeless and helpless. Last year I was reading in the Economist about the beginning of a social scheme. One of the difficulties in helping the 400 million people living in dire poverty in India is that most of them have no way of proving who they are. There are cities with thousands of people with the same name and no identity papers. The local officials enlist giving help to many people who do not exist or never get their subsidies, they pocket huge sums and this only makes the central government more reluctant to give these handouts. The new program was using private companies and the highest computer technology for fingerprints and retina scanning and was connecting it with bank accounts for the poor. The technology is way ahead of western countries and an experience that other governments can learn from. I just read the one year update. It is a tremendous success, they already enrolled 200 millions people and they hope to have 400 millions by next year. The money goes directly to the accounts of ones in need, with no way to divert it and there is finally some hope.

When we arrived in India, there was a lot of talk about the rupee. It lost maybe 20% of it's value in the last several months. Even so, on many occasions India was not as cheap as we were expecting. We stayed in nice hotels and apartments and obviously they were more expensive. The long term rentals in Goa and Delhi were payed in dollars at $90-100 per night. We saved some back getting squished in public transportation and buying and cooking our own food. The cost of private transportation with the five of us in a bigger car or van was a major expense, but definitely worth the money. We covered huge distances. The one overnight bus ride to Hampi was expensive. We flew twice and we found the low cost Indian airlines very efficient and comfortable. It was nice to see people traveling in the good old ways, checking all their luggage without much concern for the weight limits. We only took the train once, the ride in itself was fine, but we lost about $100 on unused train tickets. Overall we spend $30 per person per day, without the flights. It could have been much less with grippy accommodations and some frugality, but even so it was the same as Nepal and half the cost of Japan.
Tatoo on a beach in Goa

Old Goa trees

A street somewhere in India

People in Hampi

Children in Hampi

Monks in Hampi

One of those moments

Women in Hampi

Visiting students in Hampi

Indian girls

Changes over the centuries

Somewhere in India
Somewhere else in India
By the temple

Mysore Palace
There is clear difference between the North and South of India. Kerala is fantastic, the way of life, the people, the way things get done. Soon after we arrived I realised that the ricksha drivers are asking for reasonable prices. They were all consistent and once or twice I paid them more because I just felt that it was right. When we arrived in Delhi we were primed to be wary of everybody and anybody trying to take advantage of us, charging us twice or trice, scamming us and so on. We avoided talking with strangers who approached us trying to help. Even with beggars or touts, it was unnatural for us to ignore them, not make eye contact or look through them, just pretend that they do not exist. At some point, I don't remember when we gave up that behavior and just started to act naturally. Nobody fooled us or I never found out and that is just as good.

The last few days were a bit hard, the leaving of India was coming so fast. We were just warming up to it, we all liked Kerala the most. I felt that the whole trip in India was a crescendo, liking it more and more and more, day by day. The most extraordinary thing that I am trying to understand is why did we think of it as different. What was to be scary about India? Why do people not like it, or even feel threatened here? After a while it is normal to see cows on the road and on the beach. I missed them in Kerala, where everything is a little bit different. Instead I got used to see men in skirts, long or short, or even more, short skirts which they pull with one hand, giving the impression that they would take them off only to have them double in size so they can sit on them. I got used to women in sari-s almost being shocked to see some western girls in jeans. But more importantly, I got used to the interaction with the average Indian to the point that we made friends with the ricksha driver or the restaurant waiter or the shop owner who sold me a 5 rupee glue. The hesitation, guarding and mistrust from the beginning now turned into simple, calm, relaxed communication. I often wondered in the last few days, where and when did I feel so mellow and safe before the South of India.

Seven a clock in the morning. The six men, in their fifties, walk in formation, driven, like any group of guys headed for the basketball court. They are barefoot, sparsely dressed, each carrying a small bag, like the sport equipment. Then I notice that two of them were completely naked. I mean completely. It is one of the main streets in Mysore, by the Palace, in front of the luxury hotels. I watch. I look for a sign of protest against fur coats. I look for the photographer that was setting this up. I look for the police patrol with tasers and water guns. Nothing. They keep going by their business and then I realize that it is India and anything and everything is just normal here. And for some strange reason I am happy that I live in this world.
Students in Kerala

Tuk-tuk in Kerala

Feet with silver bracelets

Singing tuk tuk driver

Fresh juice

Last night in Kerala

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