Just like the summer of 69!

We’ve been back in the US now for a couple weeks. Tonight we are sitting at the food court at O’Hare Airport waiting for our connection to San Jose to visit Mrs. WMG’s sister and nephew who was born while we were in India (the nephew, not the sister). To kill some time, I’ve been using Picasa to go through my photos of the last year in India. Looking back on our trips to Amritsar, Shimla, Kerala, Bombay and Sri Lanka made me realise something. I thought I would come to this conclusion only after much more time. But here it is, staring me right in the face right here, right now – we had the time of our lives in India!

Really, in just a few minutes of looking at the photos, the work issues and hassles seem to have melted away and I am left only with a feeling of accomplishment and wonder at the things we saw and did over the last year.


Wind Beneath our Wings

The westerly breezes that bring the hot desert air and dust from Rajasthan have not yet begun their job of turning this cool Delhi winter into spring. So chilly has it been that this week public schools were shut on account of the cold. On this morning, the last morning of our year-long Indian adventure, the winter skies are heavy with clouds that reach right down to the ground. Delhi winter mornings are often hazy, so famously so that experienced business travellers know not to schedule early flights because they are often delayed, but the air on this morning looks particularly dense making the view from our balcony window like looking through your bathroom mirror after a warm shower.

I suppose having a warm shower is not something we will miss about our time here, the under-engineered Indian plumbing here tends to only allow for scalding hot or icy cold trickles of water and any attempt to mix the two is met only with wild swings from one body-shocking extreme to the other. While I was hopping in and out of the flow this morning like some kind of naked Irish dancer, I thought about how these frustrating, infuriating experiences mingle with the magical, beautiful and wonderful experiences in this nether land called India in a way that simply makes one fall in love with it.

For someone who had never been here, the best way I think I might describe this place is that India is like a woman. She is beautiful, charming and alluring yet mysterious, unpredictable, frustrating and often utterly illogical and unmanageable – and it is the combination of these “good” and “bad” traits that make her irresistible (Note to Mrs. WMG – these are generalities about women and do not represent any particular woman especially the one that I am married to). One often hears the expression, “You either love it or hate it” applied to people, places and things, India is not such a place. I think that to know India is to love it and hate it.

We had some large sheets of cardboard in the flat that were taped together in such a way so as they could be used to protect furniture during transport. When our housekeeper was here last week and I was moving the unwieldy mass of paper through the house toward the door, she stopped me and asked me to save it because she wanted it. My great fear at that moment was that she was going to live in my cardboard box headed for the rubbish bin, but fortunately that was not the case, rather she wanted to use it for a kind of carpet in her home – an alternative only made less shocking because we have grown somewhat used to the poverty we have seen here.

Arriving two hours early, our housekeeper Deepali rang our doorbell at around 9:30 this morning. Together we loaded up a large suitcase with a few household goods, some of the foods and oils that were left in our kitchen and some dishes and glasses that we had bought while we were here. I walked to the front gate with Deepali’s husband who was dragging the giant suitcase behind him with one hand, cardboard now rolled in a large bundle under the other. The low clouds had turned into a very light drizzle now and the tarmac was splotchy with damp spots here and there. I smiled and assured the guards at the gate that it was OK for my housekeeper to be leaving with so much stuff, put the package I was carrying for them on the ground, waved a hearty goodbye to them one final time and turned back into our apartment compound.

As I walked down the driveway that encircles the great grassy garden in the centre of our complex, I recognised that something was different this morning. The edge of coolness was gone from the air, there was a breeze blowing but it wasn’t brisk and northerly as on other mornings, it was more pleasant and coming from the west. Rajasthan is in the air, another cycle begins, another season, another adventure.

We arrived here one year and three days ago today. One of my first observations then was that this is a complex society. Little did I know of the complexity of emotions one would have upon leaving it.

Yesterday was the 60th anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi’s assassination and martyrdom. The papers were full of ads marking the day and reverently remembering Bapu. There was a really good piece in The Hindustan Times called “His faith, our faith” by historian Ramachandra Guha author of the book “India after Gandhi“. In the article Mr. Guha makes the case that those who have tried to secularise Gandhi’s lessons, that is to separate them from his faith, have done so to the detriment of their understanding of what Gandhiji stood for.

About Gandhi’s faith, Guha says,

From the scattered clues, it appears that Gandhi’s faith had five core components.

First, Gandhi rejected the idea that there was one privileged path to God. Second, he believed that all religious traditions were an unstable mixture of truth and error. From these two beliefs followed the third, which was that Gandhi rejected conversion and missionary work. Fourth, Gandhi advocated that a human being should stick to the religion that he or she was born into and seek to improve its ‘truth and content’. Fifth, Gandhi encouraged inter-religious dialogue, so that individuals could see their faith in the critical reflection of another.

I think one could say that in the end, Gandhi’s professed tolerance for all religions led to his martyrdom. The irony of this can be lost on no one, but in these times of growing religious intolerance and tension between so-called Muslims and so-called Christians, we could all stand to review his thoughts. Ramachandra quotes Gandhi from a 1919 encyclical,

With God as witness we Hindus and Mahomendans declare that we shall behave towards one another as children of the same parents, that we shall have no differences, that the sorrows of each will be the sorrows of the other and that each shall help the other in removing them. We shall respect each other’s religion and religious feelings and shall not stand in the way of our respective religious practices. We shall always refrain from violence to each other in the name of religion.

Guha’s article really resonated with me. I’m now reading one of the currently popular books that explains how God does not exist and how people of faith are stupid and superstitious (my next blog will be dedicated to my comments and thoughts on this book, stay tuned). As I read this book it strikes me how little that author understands of faith and perhaps this is why he seems so angry. Mr. Guha’s point in his article is spot-on, to try and separate anyone’s words and deeds from his deeply held beliefs is foolish. It is very clear to me that Gandhiji had much to teach us about all three, words, actions and faith.

Like Not Having Money

In any of the poorer or developing countries I’ve been to, the worst thing you could have in your wallet is a large bill, India is no exception. Here, 10 Rupee notes (about 25 cents US) are the currency of choice as far as I can tell. These are used to pay rickshaws, for tipping and general baksheesh. They come at such a premium that I have given away 50 Rupees in order to hold on to my 10s. The worst thing to have though is a 1000 Rupee note (about $25 US) – as far as I know this is the largest bill here. No one wants them.

When we were in the Czech Republic there was a similar bill worth about $20 that I found couldn’t be used. We discovered there, and here’s a trip for travellers, that McDonalds was an excellent place to dispose of this ungainly currency. Buy a cheap hamburger, get the change. You can throw the burger out if you want, it’s worth it to get the spendable cash. But here in India, even the guys at McDonalds ask you for smaller bills when presented with these big pink elephants. I have discovered however that a furrowed brow and shake of the head is sufficient to force them to come up with change.


DSC_3319 Our last overnight trip within India is over now and we spent it in Darjeeling (if you enjoy being pedantic like us, remember that Darjeeling rhymes with “gargling” when ordering your Darjeeling tea).

Once again we have defied death with a hair raising ride down from this 7000 ft Himalayan village and tea capital. On the dash of his car, the driver of our 4×4 taxi had an icon of Krishna, Ganesha, and a Buddhist monk that I didn’t recognise and 2 small statues of the Virgin Mary with baby Jesus – one painted the other in jade. Together with a string of chili peppers, a cross and a goose or swan in flight, all hanging from the centre rearview mirror, these good luck icons I assume were meant to compensate for the lack of seatbelts in this vehicle which had a sign in large script across the top of the windscreen, “Lord Have Mercy”. Well the Lord was indeed merciful once again and we made it back from our trip safely.

Darjeeling is in a rather remote part of northeast India in the state of West

Map image

Bengal. It’s sandwiched between Nepal and Bhutan and doesn’t really feel like India at all. In fact, Raj, a young semi-lucid local man that chased us down to speak with us, told us in conversation that, “we’re not like them at all.” We had come to a similar conclusion as well just based on gut feel and the fact that the local inhabitants, who are mainly of Nepali ethnicity, look and act so different from the Indians we are used to seeing in the rest of the country. There is apparently a certain bit of enmity here with the Indian and Bengali governments as there were large rallies and protests on each of the 3 days of our visit, the last one holding up our downhill jeep ride by 30 minutes as the Gorkhaland movement members, apparently including their armed wing, peacefully marched down the main road.

Generally we avoided the daily rallies by trying to get views of the mountains in DSC_3280 hopes of seeing Everest. One is led to believe that it can be seen from here on a sufficiently clear day – I’m guessing a certain amount of optimism, akin to winning the lottery or spotting a garden fairy is required also. Well we believe we’ll win the lottery one day and in garden fairies so we kept trying but to no avail. We did however spot some beautiful snow covered Himalayan peaks such as the very unmemorably named Mount Kanchenjunga.

We also met a group of Americans who were staying in the same hotel as us. They were with a venerable organisation called MercyCorps. A Part of the MercyCorps organisation is called the Phoenix Fund which does seed funding of locally managed projects in third world countries. The people we met were associated with Phoenix Fund and they were in town inspecting and considering funding some local businesses. We had some nice conversations and in talking to Joni Kabana who was photographing their trip (and who showed us some of her amazing photos) found out that we would be in Nepal again at the same time. We’re going to try and meet up with her then in Katmandu just for fun.

DSC_3345 We stayed at the Mayfair Hotel which we thought was quite nice. The food was good as was the service. For some reason on the way up the hill upon our arrival I told Mrs. WMG that I was wishing for a hotel room with a fireplace, and sure enough we got one complete with a porter that came in each night to light it. Alas, because our overnight train from Varanasi was 8 hours late, we missed our connection and didn’t get to ride the Toy Train up the hill, but we did take a joy ride from Darjeeling to Ghum which takes about an hour and is worth the 5 bucks.

While our Toy Train ride was stopped in Ghum we had one of those “India Moments”. The locomotive is a coal-fired steam engine. When is stops in Ghum DSC_3360 to turn around, they open two trap doors underneath the boiler and dump the ashes out. As soon as they did this, two men crouched over the small piles of smoldering coals and, using their bare hands, started picking out still-burning chunks that had not been completely consumed. When I asked our train conductor what they were doing, she said that those bits would be, “for domestic use”, in other words the men were scavenging these unburned coals to heat their homes.


Trading Places

Our train today rolled toward Darjeeling through the Northeast Indian countryside at a pace somewhere between “slow” and “parked”. As is normally the case on Indian trains, the four doors, two in the front and two in the rear, were left wide open allowing a 180 degree open-air view of life in rural India. My sneakers planted firmly on the metal platform and my toes hanging out over the edge, I grabbed the rails on the sides of the open door and swung myself out as far as I dared. What freedom! Freedom from rules (“Please keep your hands and arms inside the vehicle at all times”), freedom from regulations (“These doors must be shut while the train is in motion”), freedom from cautiousness (“Now you be careful”). At that moment my hope for India was that it would never change.

As I savoured my freedom, being mindful not to get my block knocked off as we passed over bridges where the girders seemed to come right up to the edge of my perch, I watched acres of farmland go by like a panorama in motion. This wasn’t farmland run by some giant conglomerate whose shares you can buy and sell in New York without ever really knowing what they do, it was farmed by people in fields. People carrying armloads of fresh-cut aloe, people with great bales of sticks on their head, people up to their knees in muddy water digging wells. The livestock was plentiful but not dense, a cow tied with a piece of string to a stake in the ground every few hundred yards, a couple goats here and chickens there. This was dirt-poor farming, the people you hear about that are living on just a dollar or two a day.

The wind on my face was filthy from the dust kicked up by the train and the soot from the diesel engine, now belching out smoke as we hit a slight up grade. The air smelled of diesel fumes and a bit of the latrine, the vent for which sits just in front of the open exit door. I studied the people that flew by for just a few seconds each, what was life like for them? How would it change over the coming years as India changes? I thought about the word “prosperity”, what does it mean? Politicians promise it, economists predict it, newscasters tell us it’s what people want to share in, but I wonder what it will mean to these people. Will it bring them dependable electricity? Washing machines? Microwave ovens? iPods? Satellite TV? Will it mean that corporations with money to invest in equipment and vertical integration will buy the land and “increase productivity” by employing of few of them on their now mega-farms? Will that improve the lives of the women drying seeds on the tarmac road? Will it bring happiness to the man squatting in his field? Will it make the future brighter for the kids playing cricket in the vacant field?

The train passes a muddy pond, no more that 10 yards in diameter. The sheen of a thin film of oil covers part of the pond around which a half dozen men sit with their fishing poles dangling above the water. How could there possibly be any fish in that pond I wonder, and who would eat one if there was? I don’t think I would like to trade places with any of these people I see from the comfort of my train but I also wonder, if given the chance, would any of those guys really want to trade places with me? Ah, the mysteries of India!


Today we take the overnight train to Darjeeling which we are quite excited about after having just seen the film “The Darjeeling Limited”. Even though that film actually took place in Rajasthan it adds romance to this trip. But yesterday morning we arrived in Varanasi so let’s write about that first.

We travelled first A/C on the Shiv Ganga Express (better known to us as the “Roach Motel on Wheels” for reasons that I will expand on shortly) from New Delhi station to Varanasi, leaving at 18:00 and arriving at 7:30 the next morning.

DSC_3041 As mentioned previously, we wisely took the Metro to the train station saving tons of time in go-nowhere-sandwiched-between-a-rock-and-a-smelly-thing traffic. This gave us plenty of time on the platform to people watch which we did comfortably seated on The Times of India spread out on the dirty concrete. Lots of people wanted their pictures taken and many obliged my requests so we passed the time quite enjoyably. Unlike our Bombay-Goa train fiasco, this time both our names (along with our gender and age) were on the passenger list that they posted on the door of our carriage.

We boarded our carriage about a half-hour before our scheduled departure and started killing roaches from the first minute or so after we got to our cabin. I think we managed to bag about a half dozen using old Dominos Pizza napkins that Mrs. WMG was carrying for some reason and torn shreds of The Times of India, many of the pages of which are better used for insect extermination than information gathering. While not chasing roaches around the cabin I spent the balance of my time writing my Goa blog and attempting (eventually successfully)DSC_3084 to upload it. Blogging from the train give me an enormous thrill for some reason. As we turned out the lights I remember hoping that I don’t sleep with my mouth open.

The Holy City

Varanasi is the holiest Hindu city in India and claims to be one of the oldest cities on earth with the earliest inhabitants believed to date back to the 7th century B.C., the time of Babylon. If you have to die, and while it has never happened to me I am led to believe this is inevitable, this is the place to be if you are Hindu. It is believed that dying and being cremated in Varanasi your soul is liberated from its cycle of death and reincarnation. I don’t know what happens after that, perhaps you turn up in Vancouver.

My thoughts on Varanasi.

  • Turning Japanese. My main impression here is of the sheer number of Japanese people. What the hell are they all these people from an essentially godless nation doing here for crying out loud? I’ll never know.
  • The Hawkers. The Lonely Planet reports that the hawkers and touts here are “aggressive”, that’s an understatement. From the guy that followed us from our train carriage all the way to the parking lot trying to fix us up with a taxi despite my ignoring him the whole way, to the guys on the ghats who reach out to shake your hand then start giving you a “hand massage” eventually putting you into a half-nelson in order to keep you from escaping their baksheesh demanding grip, the hawking is in your face and incessant often making it hard to enjoy a walk.
  • I See Dead People. And lots of them. I understand that the two “Burning Ghats” run 24 hours a day with cremations. The wood is piled up in great 20 foot high stacks and must easily take up the space of a football field. Every 10 or 15 minutes pall bearers bring another orange and gold shrouded body down the hill toward the many pyres being built along the waters of the Ganges. The carriers wade into the shallows of the river and splash the body with the sacred Ganga waters then set it down nearby while they build a neat pyre from the crooked logs also hauled down the hill by wallahs.

We watched the ceremonies from a distance through the densely smoky air, at times with ashes falling gently around us like snow. Curiously the attendants and those that appeared to be mourners were exclusively men. Finally, a handful of straw, like that used for a besom or straw broom, the end burning and smoking furiously, was brought to the priest who circled the body, said an incantation then lit the pyre.

Perhaps it’s because India is so other-wordly anyway but I had expected to be more creeped-out by this sight. One doesn’t particularly enjoy thinking about one’s own end, in fact many of us spend a lot of our time denying, avoiding and running from it. But as I mentioned above, it is apparently unavoidable and whether attending a funeral or a mass cremation one is reminded of that. While being burned up, alive or dead, doesn’t exactly thrill me this whole spectacle is indeed part of the cycle of life and death in this strange place and it seems quite normal.