Feeds:
Posts
Comments

There are days when I feel like I understand India. And then there are days where I sit agape, wondering how on earth I came to live in this country.

The sign near the border

Yesterday was one of the latter days. We had arrived in Amritsar in Punjab and decided to make our way to the Wagah Border to watch the evening border closing between India and Pakistan. We’d heard it was a spectacle not to be missed and so we left our hotel early to get good seats.  I knew the scenery was changing when I saw a sign letting me know that Lahore was only 23 kilometers away (apparently, before partition Lahore was part of Punjab with a thriving Hindu and Sikh community. After partition the non-Muslims fled the West and the Muslims fled East).

We approached the border and were swarmed by a sea of hawkers – this was not a solemn or serious occasion. We could buy DVDs, Indian flags or popcorn. We made our way through an immense crowd, in and out of security checkpoints and on to the ‘VIP’ entrance. Apparently being a foreigner makes us VIP. The Indians want anyone not from their country to have an excellent view when they put Pakistan to shame.

The inda crowd

We walked into a stadium that was already full an hour before the ceremony began. We took our seats as a bus was crossing from the India side to the Pakistan side – the Indians in the crowd cheered and waved.   The Indian guards in their fantastical fan-shaped hats stood stoically, trying to keep the crowd under control.

I looked to the left and saw Pakistan – they also had a stadium but it was mostly empty.  I kept wanting more of a glimpse; I wanted to somehow understand India’s neighbor from across the gate.

Running with the flags

As we waited we got a preview of how silly the whole ceremony would be.  They started a relay race with large Indian flags. Children ran giddily, gripping the flags. For some children the flags proved too heavy – and when even an edge of the flag touched the ground the guards would sternly chastise them and take the flag away, handing it off to the next participant. As music blared I started to notice that the Pakistan side was coming together. They too were playing music and someone was waving a flag around. As time went on both sides of the music grew louder and louder, as though diplomatic superiority could be ascertained by the decibel of sound blaring.

Dancing to Jai Ho

As the time grew nearer we were treated to a round of India’s favorite song – ‘Jai Ho’, which Americans know as the song at the end of Slumdog Millionaire – and a spontaneous dance party.  While the guards were blowing their whistles at anyone standing they seemed completely okay with the dozens upon dozens of women who had come down to the center to dance as vigorously and excitedly as they possibly could, as though their dancing could drown out the sound of Pakistan’s music.

Marching guards

But then it was time to begin. The eccentrically festooned guards marched into a line, legs kicking and hands saluting. They then began a call – it just sounded like someone seeing how long they could make a sound without taking another breath – that was immediately replicated on the Pakistan side. Indians cheered; Pakistanis cheered. I really couldn’t make out that it was anything more than a contest of lung capacity.

I looked over to the Pakistan side, which by now was mostly full. The men and women were separated on either side of their stadium. But I was struck with how similar the Pakistani women looked to the Indian women. Where I expected to see a sea of black, instead I saw mostly colorful saris and kurtas. Most of their heads were covered, unlike on the India side, but I wouldn’t have been able to easily differentiate the crowd. It was strange to see a place that we read about so often in a negative context or hear of as a place of danger. At that moment they seemed just like the Indians that they used to be so close to.

Flags lowering, with Pakistan in the background

The absurdity continued with long high-stepping and fast paced marching.  It was like something you’d see in an over-acted Gilbert and Sullivan spectacular. Their movements were so highly choreographed and theatrical I wondered how they did it every day with a straight face.

The gates between the two countries were opened so each side could furiously untie their flag rope, as though doing it faster than the other was another sign of dominance.  As the flags came down both sides tried to drown out the other with their cheers.  And then, with a flourish, the gate was slammed shut as hard as they could do it.

As we walked out I saw a sign proclaiming: “Welcome to India, the World’s Largest Democracy.” There would always be another opportunity to try and make the Pakistanis feel inferior. I’m not sure which side ‘won’ (or whether anyone could actually win at a display of complete silliness), but I certainly enjoyed the effort.

(I didn’t get a great video of it, but here’s a link to a good one if anyone wants to witness the craziness:)

Advertisements

Top of Our Mountain

When you’re out of breath, it doesn’t take a lot to take your breath away. But coming over the hill on the hike to Triund and seeing the snow-capped mountains of the Dhauladhar range of the Himalayas would certainly have had that effect on anyone.

A view from above of Dharamsala

I had arrived in Dharamsala the day before and stepping off the airplane was like entering another universe after time in Mumbai. Instead of the oppressive, dusty heat I was hit in the face with cool, crisp air and a view of mountains all around me. Everything was clean, the trees and flowers had changed from tropical to mountainous, and the people were no longer mostly Indian.

Dharamsala is most well known for being the home of the Dalai Lama and over 35,000 Tibetan refugees (number according to the Dalai Lama’s website), who moved here following the 1960 takeover of Tibet. The Tibetan government operates here in exile. Everything here feels far more Tibetan than Indian – Tibetan faces, Tibetan temples, Tibetan food, Tibetan prayer flags every way you turn. Monks in bright crimson robes walk past the backpackers and tourists without so much as a thought. When the Dalai Lama and his followers left the real Tibet they certainly created a convincing version here in India.

But beyond the cultural experience the most notable part of a visit to Dharamsala is the Himalayas – towering above the city, the Dhauladhar range of the Himalayas is a good layman’s viewpoint. Dharamsala boasts the ‘easiest’ hike to a Himalyan snow-line and we wanted to experience the world’s greatest mountain range.

A view of the mountains on the climb up

We set off in the morning with a rag-tag crew: myself and my two friends; a friend from Mumbai who also happened to be here this weekend with her friend; a guy I’d met at the airport; and a group of three we’d encountered at dinner.  Everyone wanted to hike and we figured we’d all take it in together. We began hiking and I was keen to not stay at the back of the pack – I am obviously not the best or most experienced hiker and I was worried from the get-go about rocky terrain and high elevation.

Hiking up!

But we moved slowly, taking in the scenery and stopping to gaze out at the beautiful view as we climbed higher and higher. At a few points along the way there were chai stalls where we could stop and have a break. We walked up and up – we started to feel we were getting close when we encountered a a snow covered area. My legs were starting to feel a bit like jelly but I wanted to continue on.

A few of us with our first snow sighting!

As the elevation grew and the slope became steeper I started to hope that the top was close. I wasn’t sure how much longer I could balance myself on varying rocks along the way and climb up. But just as I started to wonder how much further I’d have to go, I came over the top and saw the snow-capped peaks of the Himalayas.

The sign letting us know wed arrived

We were at Triund, 2,827 meters above sea level. And the view in front of us was like something out of a postcard. I think I audibly gasped. One minute we had been climbing and then suddenly, there it was. Every step had been worth the journey.

A shop at the top of the hill was happy to sell us more chai and some noodles. The two men who ran it lived on Triund 10 months out of the year in nothing but a small hut. I wondered how they managed. A few dogs ran around, happily enjoying their surroundings. How could they not? It was as though we had escaped the rest of the world and all there was was the sight of the Himalayas.

The Himalayas and a happy dog

Eating our very well-deserved noodles

We could have gone further up to the snow-line, but clouds started coming in quickly and we decided that our view was quite spectacular enough. I had to admit I was relieved- as much as I’d wished they would, I wasn’t sure my legs would carry me up much further.

We came back down and had a hot bowl of Tibetan noodle soup. I felt victorious – we’d achieved what we’d set out to do. And beyond that it gave me a greater context to the Tibetan culture and their home away from home. I may not be able to comprehend the depth of their plight, but I do know one thing now: if you had to find a new home for a spiritual movement, this would certainly be an inspiring place.

The Simple Things

It’s always the simple things in life that you take for granted. And luckily (or unluckily) for me, I get a constant reminder of that in my day-to-day life here.

A few days ago I found myself in need of labels. Nothing fancy, just a few names and addresses printed out on sticky labels to then put onto some envelopes.

In my previous life this would be a simple task – either I would print them out at my office or I could pop over to Kinkos and have it done in five minutes. This, clearly, was not in the cards for me with these labels.

I started by asking Daniel. That should have solved it – he has an assistant and everything! But, lo and behold, Daniel’s Indian assistant has actually been outsourced to Chennai and therefore couldn’t print anything personal for him. The world is indeed a strange place.

So I began calling printing companies. My conversations went mostly like this:

Me: Hello, I’m calling because I want to print out some labels. Can you do that?
Them: Hold on

(wait for ten minutes and then a new person arrives)

Them: Hello? Why you calling?
Me: I want to print labels.
Them: What?
Me: Labels
Them: What is label?
Me: A sticky thing with an address printed on it.
Them: Called a what?
Me: A label.
Them:What is a label?
Me: Like I said, it’s a sticky piece of paper with an address printed on it.
Them: Who are you?
Me: My name is Ali
Them: Where you calling from?
Me: Bandra
Them: Why you are calling?
Me: Again, I’m calling about labels. LABELS
Them: Hold on

You then wait another ten minutes, have the same conversation again with a different person (who is equally confused by the concept of labels) until finally someone says:

Them: We don’t do
Me: Is there anyone you know of who can?
Them: Yes, call this number

Of course, the cycle then continues because the next person I called did the same thing, and the subsequent ten places all were equally as non-committal on the subject of labels. Finally I was put in touch with a man named Mr. Desai who said I should just come to his office.

I went with a friend of mine who was in town and we walked around a parking lot and pile of trash with goats surrounding it until we found Mr. Desai’s office.

A still-in-use printer

It was like we were transported back in time. The roof of the office consisted of sheets of metal with patches of light streaming through the various holes and cracks. The room was dark and dingy with floors so coated in dust our shoes made small footprints when we walked. Mr. Desai sat at a desk with piles of dusty old ledgers, like an Indian Ebeneezer Scrooge staring into his calculator. And in the corner stood a printer that looked closer to Johann Gutenberg’s era than Kinkos. It was absurd.

 

“You have emailed to me your file?” Mr Desai said slowly, unsure of his English.
“Yes,” I replied, indicating that I’d sent it to the email address he’d given me on the phone. But, of course, there was no computer in sight, so I wasn’t quite sure how this was all going to be accomplished.
“Excellent. It will only be a minute. You sure you want it sticky?” he said, as though I might be confused by the concept of what I needed.
“Yes, it needs to be sticky,” I responded simply.
“Acha, Okay,” he said, and then went back to his ledgers.

We sat and waited. I was so grateful I had someone with me because as the minutes ticked on it seemed like we might be there for hours.

Forty-five minutes after arriving, a man walked in the store, triumphantly holding papers above his head. They weren’t quite labels, but they were addresses printed on paper that would stick, and that was all I needed.

They were labels, India-style.

An Unbelievable 24 Hours

Sometimes words are not enough.

That’s how I feel about the last 24 hours – after all the excitement, all the buildup and all the anticipation India won the Cricket World Cup right here at home in Mumbai. The city exploded. Fans flooded into the streets. Cheers could be heard until the morning. Bollywood’s biggest star, Shahrukh Khan came out in his car and Bandra was suddenly an excitable mob scene.

The next day, we happened to walk into the Taj Hotel for tea and lo and behold – the entire cricket team was leaving. It was pure chaos – fans shrieked and shouted and pushed and shoved just for a chance to touch their team and their god, Sachin Tendulkar, holding the cricket world cup. And we got it all on video. Incredible.

What a case of the right place at the right time. The right city for the world’s biggest event of the moment. The right hotel to actually see the players. And only photos and videos to even begin to explain it. Go India!:

Shahruk Khan waving the flag

Waving flags on Carter road

People standing on a public bus

The ecstatic crowd at the Taj as the players left

Sachin Tendulkar with the actual World Cup

Daniel and I with our very own India shirts

See You In the Final

On Wednesday it was one nation, under cricket.

The government declared a bank holiday and most businesses shut for the afternoon. The streets were empty except for the unlucky few. People crowded around televisions in their homes, in bars, outside of shops and anywhere they could be found. India was playing Pakistan and nothing could have been more important.

We went to a large party for the beginning of the game. Daniel rushed me over in hopes of not missing any part of the first half – India was batting first and he wanted to watch everything. I was not quite as keen to watch the game in its entirety. After all, these matches tended to go on for at least eight hours and even with the added excitement I wasn’t sure my attention span would last that long, especially on a game where the entire first half is one team batting without any knowledge of how that score will compare to the other teams’ in the second half.

I mostly listened with amusement as the commentators tried to fill the immense amount of time:

“Ah, he has a lot of energy. He must have eaten a lot of yogurt for breakfast.”

“The only way Pakistan can get out of jail is wickets.”

“I’ve gotten the feeling that Tendulkar is slowly losing interest.”

It went on and on. After four hours India finished their half with 260 runs. It was not as strong a showing as the people around us would have liked. They could win, but it would be close.

For the first two hours of the second half everyone watched lazily with one eye and chatted as Pakistan batted. There wasn’t much to do but wait and see how the numbers slowly ticked up. But once the more interesting count came up (ie: how many runs Pakistan would need versus the number of balls they had left to potentially hit) it started to get exciting. It seemed like India’s bowling and defense might have done well enough to keep India’s hopes alive.

As the time ticked on everyone started watching more and more intently. With only a few balls left it seemed inevitable – but no one was willing to say a word until the last out came and cheers could be heard from the street below. Fireworks exploded and the city came alive. As I was driving home I tried to capture some of the excitement:

It’s only one game to go and India could have the World Cup in their hands for the first time in almost thirty years. Time to get ready for Saturday

Wicket Good

One of the ubiquitous Nike Cricket ads

I’m not really a sports fan, and Cricket has always struck me as a slightly longer and infinitely more complicated game of baseball. Daniel had started watching it soon after we moved here – he felt that he just couldn’t relate to anyone in his office unless he started understanding their game. And instead of just understanding it he took to it, like a cricket ball to the wicket (see what I did there? I made a very bad cricket joke).

People watching the cricket at the airport

But soon, it began taking over even places where I frequented. It started with advertising: Bleed Blue from Nike; Change the Game from Pepsi; End Corruption in Cricket. Then it came with fans watching matches on outdoor screens and children feverishly playing with more frequency in every available open space. Yes, no matter how long and hard I tried, like the Superbowl before it, I could not avoid Cricket World Cup fever from being everywhere around me.

Learning cricket

I started to warm to cricket in Varansi when we came across a group of kids playing who thought it would be amusing if we joined their game. They giggled as we held the bat wrong and took wild swings. But they were enthralled – they all hooped and hollared with every hit and took immense joy in teaching us. I began to feel that if I could enjoy playing, then I could enjoy watching.

So while in Khajuraho, Daniel decided it was high time for me to actually learn the rules. As the Aussies battled the Pakistanis he slowly and patiently went over the way the game is played. It really is unlike any sport I’ve watched, much further from baseball than it looks. I won’t go into the details, but its a game not only of agility and skill, but of mental planning and psychological consistency. It’s boring for the first four hours, but then really exciting for the last two.

When India played its Quarterfinal match against Australia this week, I knew it was time for me to pay attention. The entire country was going to be involved and I wanted to be as well. India hasn’t won the World Cup since 1983 and this year its being played in India – everyone feels it is their time to win.  And this match was slated to be an exciting battle between India and another cricket powerhouse, Australia.

A shot of the big screen

After idly watching the first four hours of the game at home (yes, it’s really that boring in the beggining), we went out to a restaurant with a huge projector and watched as India began to sink. With about an hour left it seemed like India’s hopes were about to be dashed. Everyone in the restaurant became antsy and the guards outside, watching the reflection of the game through the window, started to look sullen.

But suddenly, they went on a roll. They started hitting 4’s and 6’s (yes, I’m using cricket terminology) and suddenly they were back in the game. As the last overs started coming into view it became apparent that India was going to win.  And when they did the whole restaurant and street outside erupted in jubilant cheers. India was moving forward.

The catch to all this is that on Wednesday India will go to the semifinals – and play against their arch-nemesis Pakistan. The city will be excited and on edge. Fears of rioting and violence certainly hang in the air simultaneously with the excitement of an epic battle to the death of two of the World’s fiercest enemies (and, as with most enemies, two very similar peoples). There is a bit of diplomatic hope that rings in all of this – The Pakistani Prime Minister has accepted an invitation from India’s Prime Minister to watch the game together. It will be the first time a match between the two teams has occurred since the attacks on Mumbai in 2008.  It’s definitely an exciting moment to be here. And as a new-found fan, I will be watching.

Hide and Seek

There are today more tigers living in captivity than in the wild. It is common and easy to go to a zoo and gaze at one of the world’s most beguiling creatures. But the wild is a whole other game.

Not only are there few places to actually spot one of the planet’s 2,500 – 3,500 remaining wild tigers (including the 1,400 that live in India), a tiger is also a master of camouflage. So if you do go to tiger country you are often disappointed.

Sunset at Bandavgarh national park

It is with all this in mind that I became mildly obsessed with spotting a tiger in the wild. Having grown up in a room painted by my mother where a tiger peeked out at me from the bushes, I knew I could not live in India and never try to play hide and seek with its most famous animal.

Everyone I asked told me that despite the many national parks here that hold (or claim to hold) tigers, there was only one place to go: Bandavgarh National Park in Madhya Pradesh. The saying goes: at other parks you are lucky to see a tiger; at Bandavgarh you are unlucky if you don’t. It boasts the world’s densest population of tigers and that sounded to me like as good a shot at seeing a tiger that I would get.

A baby spotted deer in Bandavgarh

So we drove the long distance to Bandavgarh (it is truly in the middle of nowhere; as far from a major city as it could possibly be) and staked out a place at the Treehouse Hideaway, an incredible hotel that places each room up in a separate tree. We were inhabiting nature and ready to see tigers.

On our first safari – which began bright and early at 6am – we were filled with excitement and anticipation. Our hotel’s quiet but very knowledgeable naturalist, Banu, assured us we had a very good chance to see tigers over the next few days, but insisted we keep patience. I had a million questions – did the tigers ever do this or that? Did they go to this or that place? Do they come out at this or that time? Banu calmly answered almost every question with, “Sometimes,” as if trying to underscore the unpredictability of these gargantuan cats. He explained that we would know if a tiger were around by the alarm calls of the forest’s ubiquitous spotted deer and monkeys.

Adult male spotted deer and monkey in Bandavgarh

We drove along in our jeep, slowing down at watering holes and other known spots where the tigers lived. I sat with my eyes peeled at every moment despite Banu’s insistence that he would know when a tiger was near. I wasn’t taking a chance – I stared into the brush and scanned every inch I could, hoping I’d perhaps see a flash of orange. But it was to no avail. We didn’t even hear an alarm call. We came back after four and a half hours of searching feeling a little less sure of the tigers’ presence.

But by our second safari, later that afternoon, we were once again excited. Banu tried to explain to us that even though the safaris start at 3pm, we wouldn’t see a tiger until at least 4:45pm. None had been spotted sleeping in the open (and in this heat they rarely do anyway) so we’d only get lucky once they woke up later and perhaps started moving around looking for water. I still kept my eyes active looking at every potential spot below a tree or amidst the brush where a tiger could be napping.

Tiger scratches on a tree

We marveled at tiger scratches up on trees that reached twice as high as any human hand could. We passed the time by enjoying the forest’s other magnificent animals – bright birds, playful monkeys and even a rare jungle cat. But as we continued to drive in we saw a few other jeeps parked at a clearing. We all stood up, hoping this would be our glimpse of a tiger. But a forest ranger informed us that we couldn’t see them – a mother and her cubs (and by ‘cubs’ I mean two year old tigers as large as their mothers) were sleeping around the river bend. Tourists are (understandably) not allowed to ever get out of their jeep at Bandavgarh, so we would have to wait and hope they would come out. It was only 4:15pm.

Looking for tigers that never came

All the waiting jeeps

We waited as more and more jeeps stopped and waited with us – there are no radios in Bandavgarh so if one jeep sees a tiger its only luck of the drive as to whether others see it. But usually once one car is stopped a whole gaggle will stop as well. And by 4:45 about a dozen cars were waiting – we felt lucky we had arrived early and had a prime spot. But it wasn’t meant to be, once again. The tigers did not emerge and we had to get out of the park by 6:15 – a time that greatly frustrated Banu because he believed the tigers would emerge around sundown. We were a full day in and had seen no tigers.

A beautiful flying Indian Roller

On our second morning we groggily met our tranquil leader Banu who, though still subdued, seemed more excited than usual.

A fresh tiger pawprint

Tiger tracks had been spotted earlier that morning in the Zone we were assigned to (each jeep is randomly assigned a route to take so that the cars are distributed evenly). Banu informed us that the tracks were from earlier in the morning and would help us know exactly where the tigers were. We drove in and quickly spotted the tracks – we drove along the tracks to the spot where they led into the forest. We heard alarm calls – this seemed to be the moment. We waited, but nothing stirred. As the day wore on we moved around, tracking more alarm calls, but it appeared we were waiting in vain – the forest hid the tigers and they were not coming out.

A peacock in Bandavgarh

By that afternoon, for our fourth safari I had begun to feel nervous. We only could do one more safari after this one and it was starting to seem like after hours upon hours in a jeep we were not going to find any of the tigers. It felt like a mirage – were these tigers even here? My optimism was clouded. We started driving and once again, Banu said there wasn’t a chance until later – and that we should keep our hopes tempered because our Zone held very shy tigers who did not come out regularly. So we slowly drove around, Banu searching half-heartedly, as we killed time. We saw new species – Sambar deer and a jackal – and I was beginning to accept that maybe this wasn’t my time to see a tiger in the wild.

Tiger sitting up

But as the sun set and we started to drive back towards a watering hole, we saw a crowd of jeeps in the distance – Banu stepped on the gas and we stood up in anticipation. We parked as everyone took pictures, but I couldn’t see it. I suddenly realized that all my scanning had been absurd. A tiger was sitting at the watering hole, but it took quite a bit of energy to see him even in the open – his orange striped coat was an impeccable camouflage. I couldn’t have seen him quickly driving past. But there he was now – a two-year-old male cub, enjoying the late-afternoon sun and undisturbed by all the faces watching him. He was as magnificent as I had imagined and seeing him after all that time searching truly put into perspective the amount of territory tigers cover and their unpredictable wildness. As he stood up to walk away it was incredible just to see him move.

Tiger standing up

We thought that was it, but a few moments later we heard more alarm calls and sure enough, a different tiger came up to perch.

Tiger lying down

This one was from the same batch of cubs, but a female. Banu mentioned how lucky we were – in a few months, when these cubs at two-and-a-half, they will fight over territory and then most will leave the area to begin their adult lives. We were catching them in their last season. We sat and watched as she lay down, yawned and relished in the day. When she got up to move on I felt incredibly lucky that we’d had such a clear and varied sighting. Many people are lucky just to see a tiger through the trees, when they see them at all. Here we’d had two fully open tigers moving around and standing in plain view.

It was the perfect ending to our safaris – we’d played hide and go seek but the tigers had always remained in control. We’d only found them when they let themselves be found, a testament to their control over the land they have inhabited for innumerable generations before jeeps started searching for them. We’d come to Bandavgarh and avoided being among the unlucky.