A Travellerspoint blog

India

Des pieds et des mains

“Faire des pieds et des mains” – literally “to do feet and hands”, this French idiomatic sentence could be translated by “to move heaven and earth”.

Some of the Israeli readers will be familiar with Azriel Carlibach’s book “Travel diaries”, relating his three-weeks journey in 1954 India. Among those, some may also remember the way he describes the Indian heads:

“ראשים אשר עורם שחור כשחור הלילה וראשים שחומים בצבע הקפה, ראשים כשוקולדה, כקקאו, כתה חריף, כתה קלוש, ובהירים לחלוטין, ראשים חשופים לאור השמש וראשים מוצלים בצל מטריות שחורות, ראשים מגולחים לגמרי, למחצה, לשליש, לרביע…”

Here's my humble translation :

“Heads as dark as the darkest night and heads the color of coffee, heads the color of chocolate, of cacao, of strong tea and of weak tea, and absolutely fair heads, bare heads under the sunlight and heads sheltered in the shadow of black umbrellas, heads completely shaved, half-shaved, one-third shaved, one-quarter shaved…”

On and on he goes, over several pages, offering us wonderful glimpses of India as it was half a century ago, ever more diversified, more colorful, more incredible.

I keep being told about this India by the Indians and older travelers I meet on the way, so I know for sure that what I get to see now is only a fraction of what it used to be. Yet, like Carlibach, and probably like most travelers, I too was awed by the human river that is India, much bigger and stronger than the Ganges itself in the middle of the monsoon.

But, unlike Carlibach and probably unlike most travelers too, even in India I’m shorter than average (yes yes), so unfortunately I don’t get such a clear sight of heads. What I do get to see clearly, however, is feet and hands, hundreds, lakhs of them. Hands and feet as dark as the darkest night, hands and feet the color of coffee, the color of chocolate, of cacao, of strong tea and of weak tea, and absolutely fair…

Working hands, idle hands, lazy hands, hands choosing fruits, cutting fruits and eating fruits, hands wiping mouths. Sweaty hands, manicured hands, henna-painted hands, discolored hands, wrinkled hands, hands with skin as thick as a crocodile’s, hands that look like silk. Skinny hands and chubby hands. Bare hands, gloved hands, hands covered in gold, and covered in dirt. Fluttering hands, like butterflies, slow hands, like elephants. Shouting hands, deaf and mute hands, silent hands, soothing hands, threatening hands. Hands holding children, hands fixing a flower garland as a hair ornament, hands replacing a fallen dupatta, hands adjusting a turban. Hands lighting a fire, hands holding a cuppa chai, hands grounding spices and sculpting marbles, hands sewing and hands tearing, fishing hands. Hands doing laundry, hands making chapatis, (right) hands scooping dhal. Hands playing cricket and cheering hands. Hands picking tea leaves, hands cutting coconuts off the trees, hands selling necklaces, flowers and pakoras, hands begging for money, hands held out in blessing. Hands saying Namaste, hands saying Vanakkam, hands saying HaSalam Haleikum.

And then, the feet. Feet bathing in the sun, and bathing in the rain, feet walking at the speed of light, feet pedaling like mad. Your average five-fingered feet, and then, once in a while, the lucky six-fingered feet. Tired feet, strong feet, wiry feet, bloated feet and dry feet. Feet silent as a panther, feet clinging and ringing with anklets and toe-rings. Feet covered in dust. Perfumed feet, oiled feet, smelly feet. Feet in plain sandals, feet clad in sparkling golden mocassins, feet in shiny leather shoes, bare feet. Feet under saris and burkas, under churidars and salwars and patialas, feet under lungi, feet struggling with dupattas and pallus and with other feet. A forest of feet, twisted, straight, leafy, naked, deep-rooted, uprooted, banyan feet. New feet showing up suddenly, pushing other feet out of the frame. Schoolgirls’ feet, old men’s feet, pilgrims’ feet, “smart feet”. Poor feet, here and there one foot, no foot. Feet huddled together, feet scurrying away. Feet going somewhere, feet wondering where they are, feet going in one direction then the other then back again, feet arguing about which way to go. Feet on the pavement, off the pavement, on the road, in the sand, in cow dung, in sewers, in garbage, in fresh monsoon rain. Feet dancing to Bollywood hits, feet dancing to the rhythm of rickshaws.

Always in motion. Des pieds et des mains, Indian feet and hands moving heaven and earth, everywhere, all the time… Keep moving !

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Posted by clemhadd 08:23 Archived in India Tagged people india impressions Comments (0)

Private investigations

Here’s another lesson I learned in India: privacy is a VERY relative concept. For instance, I still remember when, on the way to Ladakh, i had to stop to register as a tourist. So there I was sitting at a restaurant table (this was the registration office…) filling a form asking for the regular personal details, when all of a sudden i noticed this guy, blatantly reading over my shoulder. Even when I gave him an asking/angry look, he still didn’t get it, and i had to actually hide the paper. Not that I really cared if he knew what was my birthday, but I was trying (probably unsuccessfully) to make a point…Such behavior would have been unthinkable in a western country, but not in India (nor Nepal, or China..). And then there are the questions.

When you travel alone (especially if you’re a young woman below 1.60m) locals are much more inclined to strike up the conversation with you. “Where are you from?”, and maybe even “For how long are you travelling? Do you like India?”, but then, invariably: “Are you single ?” or the Nepali variant “Do you have a baby?”, and “How old are you?”. No, that didn’t came only from single men, but from basically everyone: young, old, men, women, teenagers… At first I was caught unprepared, so I just answered the plain truth, i.e. yes, no, 27 (now 28 respectively, and was rewarded by a saddened look in the eyes of my interlocutor. Oh well. In any case, after a while I decided to have some fun and started making up stories about husbands, kids and pets in faraway countries. But the point is that in these countries, even total strangers will enquire very directly about what we consider very personal details.

So I started thinking about it, and again, I found the answer right in front of me: in countries so crowded, so densely populated, there is literally no room for privacy, not informational nor physical. On my first day in India I saw a woman crouching on the side of the road, defecating under her saree, on my first day in Nepal I saw a toddler doing the same, just without the saree, on my first day in China I went to the toilets in a very modern bus station, and saw 5 or 6 women peeing, all with the door of their stall wide open and their heads sticking out… In Agra Red Fort, I heard a guide giving his version of the origin of the saree: when husband and wife wanted to have sexual intercourse, the garment could be easily lifted up or let down, in case someone suddenly entered the common room during the act. Huge families living in one single room, three or fours total strangers sharing a narrow berth in a sleeper bus, etc. Such forced promiscuity leaves no room for secrets, solitude or even silence.

So this is something to know when planning a trip to Asia (and probably many other places I still have to visit). You can choose to be offended, or deal with it with a smile. No need to feel uneasy or ill-at-ease, you can choose to answer the questions or not, to tell the truth or not, to wait for hundreds of Chinese women to leave the toilets empty just for your personal use. This only made me soooo grateful to have been born in a world where we simply take these things for granted, and while I travel, well, “A Rome, fais comme les Romains”.

Posted by clemhadd 08:23 Archived in India Tagged people culture india Comments (0)

The Stare

On July 2012, 30th, at 2 a.m., I landed in Indira Gandhi International Airport. India being among the top destinations for Israelis, countless friends and acquaintances had warned and lectured me over and over again as to what to expect when I'd get there, and of course, it was just as they all said : no one could get ready for India. Especially not for THE STARE.

The first thing I did when i got off the plane (besides stalling my first encounter with Delhi through repeated visits to the sparkling bathroom and a thorough examination of every single ATM in the international terminal) was finding out how to leave the city and go to Rishikesh, which I'd been told would be a good soft landing spot. Luckily, I met a nice Israeli couple with the same plan, so there we were sitting in a first-class carriage on a train to Haridwar. [Of course, it wasn't as simple as that, we had wasted several hours being almost scammed, and therefore had no choice but to buy the most expensive tickets at the very last minute, but this is another story...). One bus and one rickshaw later, we finally reached our destination, found a guesthouse, refreshed ourselves and got ready to walk around town.

Carmit was blond and pale-skinned, and I myself have very curly hair. This combined with our western clothing, could lead to only one thing: Indians, lots of Indians, unabashedly staring at us. It was late July, very early in the season for that area, so there weren't many foreigners among the crowd. Rishikesh is located on the bank of the holy Gangaji, aka the Ganges, and as such is always filled with pilgrims and poor people hoping for a blessing, the great majority of which never saw a westerner in their life except maybe in ads and movies. [When I told my brother about this after my visit to Amritsar's Golden Temple, he had a hard time believing me, yet one must remember that only a tiny proportion of Indian's 1.2 billion inhabitants ever come into direct contact with foreign tourists, and most live in rural areas which no one bothers to visit. Stray just a little from the beaten path, hop in the "wrong" bus, and you may probably not see another foreigner for weeks].

At first it wasn't so bad, just a few looks, here and there, as we walked down the bazaar. But by the time we reached Laxman Jula, one of the pedestrian/motorbikes-only bridges connecting both banks, cameras in hand, ho-ing and ah-ing at the billowing sarees, the mooing cows and the mischievous monkeys, it was impossible to ignore. Suddenly - a traffic jam. In a few seconds, we found ourselves surrounded with phone cameras pointed at us, from behind, from ahead, from below and above, some stretching their necks to get a better view, others whispering and giggling behind their hands... L'arroseur arrosé, as the French saying goes: we came there to take their pictures, but here we were, clearly outnumbered by Indian paparazzi... After a few moments, some women overcame their shyness and handed us screaming babies, to take pictures of this memorable encounter. Carmit got the most attention, blond hair being really alien to Indians, so i had the occasion to step aside a little and take pictures of us being taken pictures of, until a group of teenagers also asked for group pictures [already on that first day, I insisted on no physical contact, since considering the Indian culture it would have reinforced misconceptions about western women]. Eventually the excitement receded, and we could reach the other side... Where even more people were waiting for us.

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Reenactments of this scene happened about everywhere i went to in North India -except Tibetan areas, and very touristic towns like Manali. It usually wasn't as extreme as in Rishikesh, but anywhere i went, there almost always was at least one local staring at me, especially when I was alone. Like the time when I took a jeep from Kashmir to Ladakh, and an Indian guy sitting on the other side of the car kept his eyes on me for the whole 15 hours, as if he were afraid that if he turned around even one second, I'd grow wings and fly out the window or something. A wonder his neck didn't get stuck.

At first it's disturbing. You're terribly aware of it, yet can't do anything to avoid it. Then, over the time you get used to it, at least to some extent, and after a few weeks you barely notice it. Or at least it doesn't bother you that much, maybe also because you become more and more familiar with Indian culture. Indeed, in western culture, staring is usually rude and often bears aggressive - sometimes sexual - meaning. But this is not the case in India, whose concept of privacy (of what ??) is so different from ours. The Indian stare is usually not malevolent nor aggressive, it's just plain curiosity about creatures belonging to books and movies. I still remember this time in Jaipur, eating with my friend in a small dhaba, and the woman at the table next to us was staring hard at me, an apparent scowl on her face. After a minute, I couldn't bear it anymore so I looked straight at her, and gave her my best smile. There it was, a flash of white teeth, "sunny wrinkles" around the eyes, and a wide, sincere grin as big as Delhi spread on her face.

Of course, there were times when, especially as a solo woman traveler in Kashmir, Agra, Varanasi, the looks were not innocent at all and made me feel very uneasy, but I usually found a fay to deal with it, sometimes by directly confronting the man (which invariably led him to turn his gaze away) or when it was just too much, like in the old city of Srinagar, a deeply traditional Muslim area, by simply -and admittedly, angrily -walking away. [Despite being dressed very modestly, my face was still uncovered, so I was constantly catcalled and hailed and I felt undressed and aggressed by the burning eyes of basically every male around. Unless she's totally impervious to this, I'd suggest every woman considering to travel to Kashmir first - to go there, it's a wonderful place; second - to find partners or to wear a full cover (which doesn't come into account for me)].

In any case, if you're going to India, you will have no choice but learn to deal with The Stare, some way or the other. But if you have enough patience, dig out a real smile for those bold enough to ask to take a picture together, and you'll be invariably rewarded with so many faces smiling back, a nice souvenir to bring back home :)

Posted by clemhadd 08:21 Archived in India Tagged people india women impressions Comments (0)

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