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South Central India

Hello from Goa after another cracking few weeks in India.

The monsoon is due to start in about 10 days and whilst Ive been for the most part very lucky with the weather, as the sky turns blueygrey there's a 'closing down' feel to the place. Most hotels and restaurants close up for the season and there aren't that many tourists around. Although after having gone a full month without even speaking to a foreigner it still feels fairly busy to me. So with no-one to talk to about football or the British election I've been getting a bit closer to Indians- for good but sometimes bad. I've been up to plenty more great sightseeing; central India has definitely been a bit more interesting to look at than the Northern plains with a bit of relief in the landscape and various journeys to some isolated places have been really rewarding.

After avoiding radiation sickness in Bhopal I did a long journey to the former Afghan empire capital in Mandu. As its so far from anywhere its gets virtually 0 tourists but they left a brilliantly picturesque set of mosques and palaces which you can climb all over. They're much more Middle Eastern in architectural style with my favorite bits being the endless staircases which don't go anywhere making you feel like you're in an Escher piece. Another great landscape was provided in Hampi which whilst home to the biggest ancient Hindu kingdom it was more memorable for its truly unique landscape, imagine a very big hand picking up a handful of gravel and sprinkling it all over a 30km radius. The result is that you're surrounded by huge boulders in the most unusual places everywhere around you and cycling round the vicinity and climbing a few peaks for the views has def been a highlight of India so far. I also got to stay with a family that I'd met a few weeks earlier on holiday in the Sundarbans in the (admittedly very large) Mumbai satellite of Pune. It was really interesting being in an Indian household for a few days and as its not a remotely touristy city I was quite a novelty and they introduced me to loads of their friends and neighbours- to which I could never think of anything to say beyond 'Hi'. Aside from being a great place to watch Englands T20 World Cup triumph :-) they insisted on feeding me loads of cracking food and it was really interesting talking to them about certain aspects of Indian culture. Indian weddings are famous for their size in England but due to the size of any given castes community the guest list is likely to be limited to 'only' 600 or so. Here however they get to quite incredible proportions, the oldest daughters wedding was about 1400 but they said one of their cousins had a guest list of 4000! Rather than sending out invitations +1 like we tend to do in England, an invitation means an extended family so feeling compelled to invite an unloved work colleague or acquaintance takes on extra significance here. It is of course potentially ruinously expensive trying to feed and entertain so many people but with no alcohol served it does redress the balance sheet somewhat. The middle daughter was about 5yrs older than me and still wasn't married so her parents were getting quite worried, so she told me the near hilarious story of how they took active steps to get her paired off. In the last 2yrs she reckoned she'd been on between 80-100 dates, a lot under any circumstances but when she described an Indian date I couldn't help but feel quite sorry for her. The parents and potential groom get dressed up and go to the girls house on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon. Then she described an excruciating few hours whereby the 2 sets of parents basically ask questions about the other childs career and life plans trying to work out their career, income prospects etc. If there's obvious agreement the parents will contact each other and go on to arrange another 'date' then eventually even a private one with just the potential husband and wife by themselves. Not very romantic. I did find it hard not to laugh as she told me the story though she more than got her own back on me when after asking a few questions about my 'career plans' she said in a grave voice "I don't think any Indian parent would ever agree to you".

With my marriage prospects looking bleaker than Charles Clarke's Prime Ministerial ambitions I unfortunately started feeling really quite sick whilst I was there and for about 24 hours (30 motions, too weak to stand etc) I thought I might have to take an unwelcome trip to a hospital. I did however make an enjoyably quick recovery but in a round about way, the manner in which the family treated me I found quite hard to deal with. When I'm ill I just like to be left alone, unmedicated in a darkened room to sweat it out but despite hinting at that as strongly as I could they just couldn't get it. They insisted on opening the windows, curtains and door of the room, did all kinds of irritating tasks around my struggling corpse like body and incessantly tried to ply me with food and medicines which I really didn't want. This process of friendliness leading to over-attention and eventually irritation sums up one of the worst sides to traveling in India From taxi drivers in Kuala Lumpur and especially the low end tailors in Thailand my dealings with Indians in Asia haven't been great. In fact I would have to rate them as one of the most irritating nationality's I've encountered. In the touristy areas you get hassled incessantly, normally rickshaw drivers and handicrap sellers but it can be dodgier, aside from the creepy men offering massages I got offered drugs 43 times in 1 day in Varanasi. But in the non-touristy areas it's almost as bad in a different way; instead of talking about neutral subjects (weather, sports results etc.) with most strangers, conversations with Indians feel more like Q & A sessions. Regardless of what you're doing or where you are people come up to you and just ask the same 5 or 6 questions literally around 20-30 times a day. Some things like your nationality and name are understandable but you quickly realise they're just being a bit nosey trying to suss out your social/economic status (Job? Qualification? Fathers or even siblings jobs?). Whilst I've not met anyone I could remotely describe as malicious or even intentionally unpleasant no matter how patient you are your resolve to be friendly gets severely weakened here after a while. Normal tactics like putting you head in a book don't work (if anything people become even more curious) and I've developed a hatred for cameras on mobile phones, though I do always pose for them as its easier than answering questions. If I'm not in the mood to speak I've got to the stage where I normally just say I'm from Paraguay to stop any further questions.

Much of the problem is that expectations of behavior are really different here; Indians virtually live on top of each other and have a dramatically different sense of personal space to Europeans. Whilst we have instinctive bubbles around people according to how well we know them (e.g. strangers, friends, people you're intimate with etc.) they just don't really have that here and straight away they might do stuff like put an affectionate hand on your back or sit right next to you when there are plenty of other free seats. One of the questions you get asked most frequently not just in India but all over Asia is "You've come alone?" with a surprised tone to the question. Definitely one of the biggest cultural differences I've noticed in Asia has been how they 'do things' in groups in comparison to Europe where the individual operates a lot more independently. Asians are always found in often fairly large groups in pretty much everything they do, whether it be kids doing homework or doing fun stuff like the cinema or going to a restaurant. Even in the mornings in coffee shops in Vietnam or reading the papers at tea stalls here the blokes will generally be in groups or 3 or 4 and it's actually quite unusual to see someone by themselves. The idea of living by yourself is near unheard of and someone in my position traveling alone for several months just makes no sense to them. When Asians go on holiday it can be huge groups of 15 or 20 people which most Europeans would think completely unworkable and whilst it can be quite nice seeing them socialise together and seeing the strength of the family and friends unit you can also see that slightly more introverted characters have much more limited opportunities to make themselves heard in such large groups and perhaps find it harder to 'make their own way'. They also have a really different sense of privacy in India, questions I wouldn't ask my closest friends about their salary or sex life will often come up within minutes of a conversation starting. Whilst you quickly have to learn to just block out people staring at you whilst you're eating or similar, when you're in an internet cafe and are having to repeatedly ask people to stop reading the emails on your screen it feels just rude- to them it isn't but it's an aspect every foreigner struggles with Indians. Oh and after several months of the shy friendliness of the gorgeous kids in SE Asia they really need a 'stranger danger' programme here as the seemingly always dirty Indian kids invariably straight away ask for money or sweets which I'm finding difficult to deal with. So normally I just hit them and then I feel better ;-)

On leaving Pune as I was sick I couldn't reserve a sleeping berth on the 14hr night train to Hyderabad so I had to go 3rd class in one of the most memorable train journeys I've ever taken. Forming queues and being generally courteous to your fellow passengers is something Britain does better than almost anyone- Indians on the other hand would look up with awe and wonder to how we manage it. When a train or bus pulls up there is an almighty scrum with no preference given to the old or infirm and children are generally handed in through windows. Everybody starts arguing like crazy amidst the pulling and pushing and unsurprisingly this system doesn't work very well, I've already twice seen the frankly pathetic sight of 2 full grown adults getting into a physical fight simply over the boarding of a train. To say this train was overcrowded would fall well short of quite how stressful it was, I reckoned there were about 150 people in a space which on an English train would hold 40 seats plus maybe 20-30 standing. Whilst I looked at it and thought 'This just isn't worth it' I didn't really have any choice as the next train wasn't for another 7 hours, simply to get on 6ft inside the train took about 15mins in the scrum, everyone around me was pushing and pulling other people and I was being constantly slapped on the back of the head by an old woman behind me for not pushing hard enough. I had my 20kgs worth of luggage on me and still feeling pretty bad in the heat I got quite close to fainting as everyone else just laughed at me. I only got 'saved' by a guy lifting up my bag and then me onto a 6ft by 2ft wooden 'upper seat' above the actual seats which I shared with 4 other blokes (women and kids sit on the floor) for the journey. But then it turned out he was seemingly drunk or at least damned annoying, I ignored him and so he soon started on another bloke who did respond and they got into a fairly violent grappling match falling off the seat sending the kids on the floor scattering like pins. Eventually it calmed down and got sorted before I got my first sight of an Indian gay. In most countries where the closet door isn't opening men just stay inside or turn tricks or whatever and live on the fringes of society. In India an estimated 2million have taken the unlikely step of becoming, well, basically transvestite 'gangsters'. The way they make money is by coming onto trains fully bejeweled and in beautiful saris etc trying to extort money from the male passengers. They do this in a variety of ways, some simply try and embarrass them e.g. dance provocatively or often they'll annoy them into handing money over e.g. shaking a tambourine or clapping right in their faces. The first one came in was extremely camp and seeing I was a foreigner gave me a lot of attention which I just didn't respond to...until he tried (but failed) to grope me at which point I launched into the most abusefully aggressive 20 second rant I'll probably ever produce as the locals held me back and it ran out of the carriage to the shocked looks of the locals (they're used to it you see). A couple of hours later however, a couple of much bigger, more physically intimidating ones (even dressed in pink and purple saris) came in and started just slapping and hitting people who didn't pay up. I thought 'Oh dear, there could be trouble ahead but when they got to my compartment all the women around me started obviously imploring them to carry on and leave me alone and thankfully they did, so the earlier outburst worked! It's a huge racket with groups of them going up and down the trains all day and night, the police don't do anything about it (they get a cut of course) provided they don't go into the upper class carriages: this is India after all. It's pretty disgraceful they're allowed to make a living this way as it's set up like a proper mafia with different ranks of bosses in different areas etc.

Whilst I resolved never to travel without my own berth I've not been able to get one tonight on the train (rather than the plane) to Mangalore and right now I'm starting to feel a bit queasy at the prospect of the night ahead. I can remember few journeys I'd been happier to finish but thankfully Hyderabad was a nice place to finish it in. One of the biggest 'Muslim' areas of the country it has an extremely rich history with the Nizam of Hyderabad famed as the richest and most senior Indian Prince, he had such power that even the British left him to rule an area the size of Greece independently. As it was majority Muslim the Nizam came very close to joining Pakistan at partition (South Pakistan?) but the Indians didn't really fancy that so sent in the army to take charge. Whilst the Nizams left a legacy of palaces and Islamic monuments (along with Pune) its the first place where I've seen the so called New India. It's a bit of a vague concept but seems to involve the country becoming richer and more Westernised and this is predominantly through IT/ call centers etc (Hyderabad has earned the nickname of Cyberabad) . Whilst I'll write more about it in Mumbai the most pleasing aspect of it was being able walk around in a lot more comfort because much of the city has pavements. It's perhaps not something you think of in regards to improving urban quality of life but I do think it's something which really sets developed (especially European) cities aside from the developing world. The price of vehicles especially motorbikes has really come down in recent years and has given most Asians a real mobility boost. Only the very poorest have no access to personal transport and subsequently all over the continent people look down on walking. Women especially seem to prefer to take a taxi to go distances I wouldn't even blink at e.g. <500m and I remember visiting a national park near Bangkok where out of the roughly 4,000 Thais staying in the park I saw less than a dozen actually doing any walking -they just sat around drinking and eating BBQs instead! In India walking around cities is really hard work as because there's no pavements you're both walking in the rubbish filled dust on the side of the road and having to constantly watch for the scary traffic. Subsequently your ability to absorb and enjoy cities is vastly reduced and seeing pavements as signs of more comfortable wealth was a pretty welcome sight.

Finally I came to Goa which aside from the Taj Mahal is probably India's biggest tourist attraction- and for good reason. Portugal are Britain's oldest ally and despite the Brits running the subcontinent for so long they let Goa (and another spot called Diu further up the coast) stay in Portuguese hands. The Portuguese did their usual colonial schtick of absolutely refusing to leave (they had to be kicked out by the Indian army as late as 1961) and leaving a strong Catholic heritage which the Indians have transformed into a wonderfully colorful version of the church. Whilst the people looked at me blankly when I tried out some Portuguese on them aside from the religion and Portugues names there are plenty of stunning old churches of the colonial era as well as cities filled with pastel coloured villas dotted around so it's been a relaxing change from the clogging crowds elsewhere in the country. Aside from the unique culture and beautiful beaches its also unfortunately developed a slightly seedy reputation (mainly through the drugs trade) and acts as a bit of a magnet for ne'er do wells from all over India but also some from further afield. Various cases including Nigerian rapists, Israeli super drug dealers and illegal immigration into the state have filled the papers and its success means it has a fair sized task to keep its idyllic within an 'Indian' context. As it was close to the end of the season ie near empty the restaurant and hotel owners had plenty of time and were only to happy to sit and talk about the behavior of certain groups of visitors. I did sit there partly thinking said visitors pay your wages but they understandably seemed to relish laying into certain tourists. Whilst they agreed the always friendly European hippies were generally OK the ever loathsome Israelis got plenty of criticism, mainly for their 'post army service' antics turning certain beaches into open air drug dens. But definitely the most criticized group were the waves of Russian package tourists which have started arriving in the last few years. They had a long rap sheet of cultural insensitivities but definitely top amongst these was the irrational insistence of the women to sunbathe topless. To be fair I didn't see it but apparently during high season it's a very common sight for Russian women to strip off then soon afterwards Indian male holidaymakers (not the locals- they're used to it) will take a pew on the sand as little as 10 or even 8ft away..and simply stare. Consequently many pf them get quite hacked off and end up hating Goa and whilst you can easily criticize the Indians for the lack of respect etc it's quite easy to see why it happens. Indian women wear their normal saris even in the water and in over 2 months I've yet to see any Indian woman in the flesh flashing any skin at all.

Although that's definitely not what you see on TV; different forms of media show Bollywood starlets in differing degrees of undress with adverts in particular seemingly filmed in a parallel India where beautiful women wander round in strapless tops, heels and short skirts and no-one bats an eyelid. But interestingly this seems to be having a positive effect on womens quality of life generally. The effects of TV on society have revealed some very interesting sociological studies around the world and in India the spread of cable TV seems to be having a surprisingly positive effect. In almost all countries TV is very much aspirational, most programmes feature unrealistically good looking people living fairly easy lives in pleasant surroundings. In the USA during 1950-65 and in most of Latin America between 1975-1995 the effect of the roll out of TV to poorer areas is seen to have led to a surge in migration from the poorer rural areas to the cities but also had a terrible effect on crime rates. The theory is that as poorer people saw these images on TV it triggered jealous feelings and a desire to improve their lives fast. India is no exception to having aspirational TV, in fact the images presented here are probably more divorced from reality than 90% of places (everyone is rich and seems to live in airconditioned condos) , cable TV has slowly been rolled out in the countryside during the last 10yrs and so its effects have been relatively easy to track. The most noticeably positive effect has been on young women; the quality of life for young wives in India is often terrible especially in poorer communities. Aside from being given heavy workloads they're often heavily physically and mentally abused not just by their husbands but also members of his family (who she's moved into). It's one of the biggest (but least discussed) social problems in India and the suicide rate amongst young Indian women is shockingly high here; but the spread of TV seems to be reversing the problem somewhat. However unrealistic the images in soaps and dramas may be, the theory is that as women are seeing other women dressing and acting more independently and working to earn their own money its having a motivational effect on more marginalised women in the countryside. Scholarship applications to go and study in the cities have shot up and there's been a noticeable dip in the birth rate once television has arrived in an area. The classic power struggle in any Indian household (as is repeatedly shown in the plot of all the soaps here) between the wife and the mother in law for the running of the household seems to be turning too and whilst suicide rates are going down the number of convictions for abuse cases is going up (rather than being left to suffer in silence). It could well just be that everyone else in the family is also watching telly but either way it's another Inidan hypocrisy that's been quite strange to observe for a visitor as the 'fantasy' images of TV and films seem to be having a subtly positive effect on the reality for many people.

From here I head South and with the world cup just about to start it only remains for me to wish Roque and the boys the best of luck. You can do it lads.

From Margao,
Barney

Posted by carlswall 13:25 Archived in India

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