Archive | October 2009

An Englishman in a strange land (10)

Days 6 and 7 were very busy indeed. As a result I have not had very much time to spend on my blog.

Day 6 and was spent visiting my wife’s family. One particular aunty remained in my thoughts. She was as elderly lady whose husband and only son had died in quick succession leaving only her daughter left. Her husband and son were the main bread winners and in their absence the only means of support is to sell the milk that is produced by two cows that they keep in the back garden.

Despite the hardship they were in remarkably good spirits, and surprisingly they gave us a gift which must have cost them several weeks’ wages. They knew we were coming and had been saving for weeks. They had clearly sacrificed a lot, which only made us feel guiltier when we accepted the gift. Refusal to accept is a sign of disrespect.

I gave her a gift of several thousand rupees before we left. At that stage I could have happily given her all the money that i had in my wallet.

Day 7 was the day of the big Party at my father’s house. Family and friends arrived from the surrounding areas and copious amounts of drinks were drunk and food was consumed.

As I write, I am still suffering from the ‘night before’.

Untill the next time, over and out.

An Englishman in a strange land (9)

Day 5 was a busy and thought provoking day.

Whereas my father’s family are landowners and clearly not short of a bob or two, my Mother’s family are very poor. She has three sisters and one surviving brother, each living in poverty. The itinerary for today was to visit each one and pay our respects. I, my brothers and sister agreed to give a monetary donation to each of my mother’s sisters of 2000 rupees each which equates to several months wages for them, yet to us it really wasn’t that much! Their daily income is about £1.20

 Each of the houses was small and sparsely populated. The walls were bare apart from a number of photographs. To my astonishment my photograph was up there being displayed, along with my family and brothers’ and sisters’ families too. They were clearly proud that their sisters children were educated and doing well.

They served us refreshments they could barely afford, but what surprised me was that despite their poverty, they were constantly laughing and joking. They may have been poor in monetary terms but in spirit they were as wealthy as Bill Gates.

Again this was a very humbling experience. In England you would consider yourself poor if you can’t afford the latest mod cons. Here it is when you do not know where your next meal is coming from.

Travelling from house to house has certainly opened my eyes to the real India. This is well away from the tourist areas and the hustle and bustle of street life is something that needs to be experienced firsthand. Again, as in Delhi the mass of people is just unbelievable. India is the second most populous country in the world and judging by the number of people walking the streets here in the Punjab I can well believe that!!

My father had booked us a car and driver to use all day, and we spent a lot of time travelling from one place to another. But it was absolutely impossible not to get bored. Looking out of the car window and seeing the sights and sounds of the various places we pass through is in itself a highly interesting and eye opening experience. There was just too many things happening. And most of them are sights you will never see anywhere else but India.

The following photographs and stills from my camcorder footage perfectly illustrates my point.

When the lights turn red prepare for mayhem.

When the lights turn red prepare for mayhem.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
When husbands are sick of their wifes, they are sent to the market to be sold.

When husbands are sick of their wifes, they are sent to the market to be sold.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
The following stills from my camcorder were taken during a 15 minute period.
 
mad_bikes

An Englishman in a strange land (8)

Day 4. Temperature 36 degrees. As we drove from the train station to the family home, it soon became apparent that the traffic in the Punjab is just as manic and suicidal as it is in Delhi. And in some instances it is even worse.

We had booked in to the Raddison hotel situated in the centre of Jalandha, but before we made our way there, my father was eager to show me the family home. He had insisted we stay there rather than the hotel, but it was pretty obvious that if I succumbed to my fathers wishes then clearly I would never leave the house due to the amount of visitors we would receive.

At least in the hotel we can do our own things.

I had heard stories that the house was very big and decorated to a high standard. I had only seen poor quality VHS footage over the years, but when I finally saw it in person a sense of pride enveloped me. Pride because my father had worked hard and built it to what it is now. It reminded me of an Indian version of southfalk ranch from the television series ‘Dallas’.

The floors were laid with marble throughout, the ceilings and coving had intricate carvings and the solid mahagony stair case bannister was a hand crafted work of art. The courtyard was large enough to host a five aside football match. It had three levels.

Dads House

The rear of my fathers house taken on his land.

Two lovely servant girls were living there with their mother. Perhaps servants is the wrong word because these girls were treated like members of the family and thoroughly enjoyed what they were doing. They treated us with an enormous amount of respect and we recipricated by buying them bags of Chocolates and goodies. Actually my brother bought the chocolates.

Stepping outside the front door and all you could see was agricultural land as far as the eye could see. The sun was beaming down from a cloudless sky and for the first time in a while fresh air entered my lungs. The mass of humanity that had followed me throughout, had now been replaced by a few farm workers. The whole pace of life was a lot slower here. Camcorder in hand, i walked along a footpath taking me away from the house. The sights were truly beautiful.

I can quite happily live here. Sell everything in the UK and live like a king and that is no exaggeration. For the first time in my life, the Indian part of me which had remained dormant all my life began to stir..

Untill next time, over and out.

An Englishman in a strange land (7)

The last day in Delhi and we left the hotel early to reach the train station by 7am. Even at this early time the roads were bustling with traffic and a 30 minute journey took 45 minutes.

As the coach pulled up in the car park, assuming it could be called a car park,  we were met by a couple of coolies. These are poor people who carry passengers luggage for a (small) fee.  I was expecting someone in a uniform. What I saw was Steptoe and son. After a heated tactical debate amonst themselves on how to carry the 19 pieces of heavy luggage, they placed all 19 cases on what looked like a flat wheel barrow and secured them with rope. Those two will never be able to lift that I thought.

The older of the two men had clearly long past his retirement date and by the look of him I summised that he could barely pick his own nose, never mind lifting 19 heavy pieces of luggage. The second man was about 45 years of age and possessed a belly the size of Australia. Were gonna be late I said to myself. To make matters worse, I overheard the coolies being told that the coach had parked in the wrong terminal and we had to make a dash to the correct terminal. We are definitely going to be late I thought looking at my watch.

Within a second they had lifted the ‘wheel barrow’ with the 19 pieces of luggage and were running like bats out of hell to the correct terminal. I was wrong, they were not Steptoe and Son, but Batman and Robin. We all ran behind trying to keep up. Whatever they had for breakfast I wanted some!!! I consider myself fitter than most yet even I had trouble keeping up.

Again as is the case  in India, Health and Safety was non existent as they ran over railway tracks followed by us in hot pursuit. This must have been a funny sight for the locals.

Train station

Finally we reached the correct terminal and to my relief the train was waiting at the platform. We paid a hefty tip to Batman and his sidekick, big belly Robin, who judging by the expressions on their faces went back to their bat cave as happy chappies.

The Train Carriage we booked was Business class, but compared to England it would barely pass for standard class with the only difference being the wider seats and curtains on the windows. The carriage itself was a bit on the dirty side. But hey, this was India, what did I expect.

I sat down and the Train jerked in to motion.  I looked out of the window as the train began picking up speed. We were barely out of the station when more makeshift huts came in to view. I couldn’t believe that People had made their homes on the platforms and were living in squalid conditions.

As we left the station, the platform made way for tons  of litter just piled next to the tracks. Plastic cartons, crisp packets, rubbish of all sorts and children were sifting through the decaying rubbish hoping to find anything remotely usable. A few feet away  a couple of children having  an early morning emptying of the bowels oblivious to the train passing by.

I really had had enough of all this squalor and was finding it difficult to cope with a lot of things that I had seen.

Within  30 minutes, Delhi was behind us (Thankfully) and the sight of wheat fields as far as the eye could see meant that we were heading towards the state of Punjab, and in particular, the city of Jullandha. The Birthplace of my Family.

View from the train window

View from the train window

Four and a half hours later and the train came to a halt in the City of Jallandha. We unloaded and as I got off the train I noticed my father in the jostling crowd. My brothers, sister, wife, daughter and i pushed our way to greet him. I had last seen him six weeks ago. It was good to see him again.

I knew straight away that in the Punjab I would no longer be a tourist. I would meet my fathers family, meet my mothers family and have a greater understanding of my own origins.

Untill next time, over and out.

p.s. Baz and Dave, The temperature here has been between 33 and 35 degrees Celsius every day. Wish i was with you guys…..NOT!!!!

Take care dudes.

An Englishman in a strange land (6)

The second day in Delhi and we made an early start for the journey to the Taj Mahal. I had been warned that on the way we would pass through the old Delhi and to be prepared for the extent of the poverty I will see.

Within five minutes we were passing makeshift huts constructed from material that the slum dwellers had salvaged from the nearby rubbish tips. Dirty faced children played next to open sewers, mothers hurried around tending to their babies and several individuals busy using the pavement as a communal toilet, totally oblivious to the passing traffic.  They were clearly taking the piss!!  Even within the Air conditioned coach, the smell of sewage was overpowering.

 slum-delhi

A barber was waiting for customers. His dirty chair by his side and cracked mirror on the wall. A women walked past the coach with a large collection of branches perched on her head. I wonder if shes ever heard of royal Ascot i thought? An old man with severely deformed legs, crawling along the road, the cars beeping their horns as they try to avoid hitting him.

The image that will stay with me for a long time occurred when the coach stopped at a red lights. All of a sudden a bang on the coach window alerted me to a young girl of about eleven, dirty and malnourished, clutching several boxes of tissues. She walked along the side of the coach, trying to get the attention of the occupants by banging on the coach windows. ‘Don’t open the window’, I heard someone say, ‘Don’t give her anything, otherwise you’ll open the floodgates’ . The young girl banged on my window and I made a fateful mistake. I made eye contact with her.

Immediately she began banging on the glass again, trying to get my attention, pressing the tissue boxes against the window. ‘One hundred rupees’ she kept on saying. I felt an unbelievable amount of sadness for this child and a sense of guilt that I did not purchase her ware. The image of her trying desperately to persuade me to part with my cash is one that I will not forget in a hurry.

Another thing that struck me was the sheer volume of people. Some sitting, some walking, some standing. Even the Indian equivalent of motorway hard shoulders was packed with people wandering around, as if aimlessly.

The slums have grown in recent years with people from the surrounding areas coming to Delhi in the hope of a better life. A better life that very rarely materialises.

The overcrowding, unsanitary conditions and lack of education combine to create living conditions where disease and death is rife. The Delhi slums created images that will haunt me for a long time.

slum

The slums perfectly illustrate the dichotomy of modern India. On the one hand there are the modern, super sleek shopping malls where a Luis Vitton handbag can cost £5000 and yet a half a mile away, there are six year old beggers who  have barely eaten in days.  Charles Dicken wrote  about the ‘Tale of two Nations’

After five hours of travelling, we finally made it to the City of Agra, and the Taj Mahal. The city is also cursed with its share of slums,which are just as bad as its Delhi counterparts. What surprised me was that they were literally a stones throw away from the entrance to the Taj Mahal. And even as we passed through the entrance, the smell of sewage at one point was overwhelming to the point where I was about to paint the pavement with a nice coating of Breakfast!

Having said that though, My first sight of the Taj Mahal literally left me speechless. It truly is a marvel of beauty and architecture working hand in hand.

It truly took my breath away!

It truly took my breath away!

Books have been devoted to the building so I will not dwell on it here.

Next time, out of the Slums of Delhi and on towards the fresh air of the agricultural heartland, the Punjab and my Family home!!

Untill Next time, over and out.

An Englishman in a strange land (5)

The Crown Plaza Hotel

The Crown Plaza Hotel

Landing at Delhi airport, my first preconceived misconception was firmly laid to rest. I was expecting an airport that was somewhat a living relic from the old colonial days of the British Empire. What I saw was a large, modern, airport complete with the usual array of designer shops. I could have been forgiven for thinking I was back at Heathrow. This was clearly an airport befitting an emerging Economic Superpower

The journey to the hotel (above) was another surprise. The hourdes of begging children and abject poverty that I was expecting was in fact replaced by smartly dressed individuals going about their business and a city landscape that was modern, clean and impressive.

The traffic however, was a totally different matter. I had heard stories about motorists’ total disregard for safe driving practises, the level of pollution and worse of all the incessant beeping of the horns which would turn even the Dalai Lama homicidal ( Now that is something I would like to see! ).

I can now say, hand on heart, these stories are confirmed so emphatically that not even a Professor of ‘confirming stories ‘ at Oxford University could have confirmed them any better!

Three lanes were marked on the roads and yet there were four lanes of traffic,. Ninety percent of buses/lorries and vans would almost definitely be illegal to drive in the UK. Clearly, Safety and mechanical checks would without a shadow of a doubt fail any UK tests. Part of the problem lies with the age of the vehicles, with many in excess of 20 years old.

Rickshaws zoomed in and out beeping their horns . Cars and Vans packed to the rafters with people. Some hanging precariously from the sides for dear life. I saw a cow and a couple of children resting on top of a lorry as it sped past us. Something you don’t see on the M5 I thought!

Overloading vehicles was something we saw over and over again. At one point we saw a giant Haystack that appeared to be floating along the road. On closure examination we noticed there was a vehicle underneath! Extremely surreal, yet normal for India.

If you thought motorists were bad, Motorcyclists, are a law unto themselves. In the UK we see the odd motorcyclist yet, in Delhi, there is probably one for every three cars on the road and they almost all carry passengers. But again, safety is a word which is alarmingly absent from their verbiage.

Male passengers sit on the pillion the same way as they do in the UK, but the women however have both their legs on the same side. Similar to when Her Majesty the queen rides a horse. But what really shocked me was that in a lot of these situations, women were carrying young children at the same time. A case in point saw a young child, of about three years of age, sitting on the handle bars, in between the riders arms while the female passenger carried two babies in each arm. The motor cycle was probably travelling at about 20mph at the time. You really couldn’t make it up!!

A quiet day on the streets of Delhi

A quiet day on the streets of Delhi

It is very surprising that the number of serious accidents is not as high as it should be considering the above, although admittedly there are more close shaves here, than within the walls of the Product testing department at the Gillette Corporation.

In the evening we left our hotel and made our way to a popular indoor shopping centre. Another misconception added to the ‘destroyed’ list.

Who needs the Bull Ring!

Who needs the Bull Ring!

The shopping centre was an impressive and modern as any I’ve ever seen here in the UK as Designer shops vied for business from a young upwardly mobile clientele. This was an India I was not expecting. So far so good i thought. Not that much different from England. Apart from the traffic that is.

How wrong I was!! I was not mentally prepared for the harrowing scenes of utter poverty and destitution that I witnessed.

All will be explained in the next update.

Untill the next time, over and out.

Sorry!

Reply to Mary Jacobs from Arkansaw, USA. Combination of Jet Lag and 10 hour round trip to Agra meant i have not had time to update. However, the next installment will be tomorrow, including my impressions of the motherland!

Also thanks to Emily and Jason for your comments:)

An Englishman in a strange land (4)

One  hour and fourty five minutes before takeoff and I’m sitting in the departure lounge, terminal 3 Heathrow airport. We have checked in, offloaded the suitcases and passed through the security barrier.  Anything metallic had to be removed and placed on a tray. Including my belt.

Security is understandably tight, especially with the ever present threat from Islamic fundamentalists, but I could help but feel that in some cases the airport security was perhaps a bit over zealous.

A criminally cute young blonde girl about 7 years of age, was made to walk through the barrier several times before the offending metallic item was identified. Now it doesn’t need a forensics profiler to point out that blonde seven year old girls are a low risk group as far as being members of Al Qaida.

Or am I mistaken, perhaps Bin Ladens new ploy is to recruit young blonde girls in his quest for world Islamic domination. I digress, but you get my point!

All around me is a cacophony of people. Some sitting down, Heads immersed in books. Others, like myself, tapping away on laptop keyboards, some just sitting, counting down the minutes to when they board. A sea of transient individuals. Each embarking on their own personal adventures and yet, for a fleeting moment in time, all joined together with one common goal. To get on that damn plane as fast  as possible!!

To my left and right, to my front and rear, the shops are bulging with people. Harrods, Starbucks, Boots, HMV, only the big boys allowed to open up here me thinks. Prime retail territory! Prime retail profits.

To my right is a suited chap who appears totally engrossed in the book he is reading. I glance at the cover and all of a sudden alarm bells start ringing.

The book is called the God Delusion and is written by Richard Dawkin an Evolutionary Biologist and Oxford professor. Basically the book is a critique of Religion and has been on the  New York Times best seller list for many months. I had planned to buy and read during my Holiday, but as is the case with most things I totally forgot.

Still, I should have some time left to find a book shop.

Untill next time , over and out.

An Englishman in a strange land (3)

The final night here in the UK before i fly out and i’ve just finished watching ‘Slumdog Millionaire’. An Oscar Winning film from my favourite Director Danny Boyle. The film centres around the plight of three poor orphans as they struggle to survive in the harsh reality of modern day India.

The film is billed as ‘the feel good film of the year’ and yet i found it terribly depressing. Orphans are picked up off the streets with a promise of a better life only to be groomed to become beggers. Some are purposely blinded by their masters because blind beggars tend to make more money. Most of that money of course going to people higher up the chain.

I have been forewarned several times about the child beggers in Delhi. They will not leave you alone untill you have given them some money. The dilema here is that you give money to one child and then within seconds, like a moth to flame you will be surrounded by hourdes of children, each thrusting their outstretched hands in my general direction.

The thing to do, according to seasoned travellers to India, is not pay them any money at all, but instead take them to a nearby shop and buy them food. That way their masters will not see any money and the children will be blessed with  full bellies. Result!!

Although my brothers attempt to deter a particularly troublesome Begger by threatening to chop off his head and shove it up his arse, was only partially successful, with the beggar explaing that for a fee he could direct him to a very cheap knife shop!!

Its gone past midnight now, and i really need to be in the land of nod. We have an early start tomorrow. The plan is to travel to Southall in the morning and then make our way to Heathrow airport.

I have utilised their meet and greet service, which means that i can leave the car in one of their designated car parks and then ten days later go back to the car park and drive off. Assuming the battery isn’t flat!!

Untill the next time, over and out.

Has the BBC gone too far?

There is a weekly BBC Current Affairs program that is shown every Thursday here in the UK. It is called Question Time and basically consists of four panellists who take it in turns to answer questions asked by members of a live studio audience. The questions are topical and mostly political in nature.

Tonight’s edition has caused an immense amount of controversy with howls of protest coming from all quarters of the British establishment. The cause of this anger stems from the decision by the BBC to invite the leader of the Far Right party, the BNP (British National Party) to be one of the panellists.

The man in question is Nick Griffin, a Cambridge educated fascist. He became leader of the BNP in 1999 and this year he shocked the political world by actually winning his contested seat to become a European Member of Parliament for North West England. The BNP won another seat and garnered just under a million votes in total.

It was under this pretext that the BBC saw fit to invite Griffin on to their program. The BNP they argue is no longer an extremist fringe group but a political party with elected representatives.

Earlier today when the show was being recorded, there were large anti fascist demonstrations outside the BBC studios with demonstrators trying to break in.

So what is my opinion?  Should Nick Griffin have been banned from appearing?

I am reminded of the words of Voltaire, a famous French Philosopher “I may not agree with what you say but i will defend to the death your right to say it”. Indeed Free speech is the corner stone of any democracy and the minute we start banning people for simply exposing their beliefs and views, no matter how objectionable, then that is when democracy truly dies.

And the real fascists will have won.