Monday, 27 February 2012

A day off in Shillong

Whoops! Just going through my old posts and realised that I'd never got around to actually putting this one (the last in my North East series) up on the blog. Still, better late than never as they say...

26 January was Republic Day in India, one of the biggest national holidays celebrating the country's independence from colonial rule. In Delhi it is celebrated with famously extravagant parades along the Rajpath, something I'd been planning to go to see when the time rolled around. However, in the event I was hundreds of miles away in Shillong, the capital of Meghalaya.

This turned out to be a mixed blessing. On the plus side, it was a beautiful sunny day and the air was gloriously pure in a way I'm pretty sure it never gets in Delhi. On the minus side, EVERYTHING was closed. Having failed to plan for this level of dedication to the concept of a "national holiday", I faced starvation for a while until I finally found an enterprising street purveyor of omelettes. Up till now I had steadfastly avoided street food in India in the (not unreasonable) belief that this was a good way to avoid the infamous Delhi belly. But it's amazing how quickly one's resolve can fold in the face of a 24 hour fast as an alternative. Mental note: next holiday, stock up the day before.

The other thing about Republic Day in India (or at least in Shillong) is that the cars vanish from the roads. Literally. While in the UK public holidays bring roads to a standstill as everyone tries to get away for the day, in Shillong there was an amazing (and ever so slightly creepy) reverse transformation: thoroughfares that the previous day had been stuffed to the gills with honking autos were suddenly abandoned stretches of empty tarmac.

Where'd everybody go?

Since urban India is pretty much a synonym for heaving, bumper-to-bumper chaos, this sudden silence and emptiness was kind of eerie. Until I found that every other street had been transformed into an impromptu cricket pitch, and the exuberance of the cricketers enjoying a sunny holiday was infectious.

A few local radicals, though, departed from tradition by - horrors! - not playing cricket:

(Note the half-timbered architecture which Shillong is famous for, although as the photos below show the modern city adheres to the boxy style favoured elsewhere in India in recent years)

Anyway, it was kind of nice to see India at play - and it reminded me how most of the time what I see is India at work. Here are a few more shots of my sunny, relaxed stroll around the quiet streets of Shillong.

Still open for food.

Colonial-era Shillong was built around a lovely little lake which today is preserved as a park. It was officially closed, but half the town seemed to have hopped over the locked gate to have a holiday stroll. So I did too.

I'm not actually sure what exactly this is! It was sat by the gate at the entrance to the lakeside park - can anyone enlighten me?

Even on a holiday, the entrepreneurial spirit is alive and well in India

They looked a lot less intimidating when they weren't posing!

Game over. Who's lost their shoes?

Shillong's cathedral, which looks like a mix between an English country pub and an English country church. One of those strange reminders that the English were once in charge just seems bizarre now. Beautiful building though.

This rotting piece of clothing, strung across a fence by the side of the road, just caught my eye. I wonder who wore it and why they abandoned it here.

Yup, they spotted me.

Street kids in a poorer district of Shillong. The one in red - a boy I presume, though it's hard to tell - struck me as one of those children you see too often here, whose eyes are too old for their faces. He could only have been about six, but those eyes locked straight on me with a singularity of purpose that befitted a veteran of money-making. It doesn't get any less unnerving the more you encounter it. Some kids just have to grow up fast.

And some luckier ones get to roll down Shillong's hills on a skateboard instead.

Sunday, 26 February 2012

Blogging milestones

It's been quite a big week for this blog. First off, last weekend saw my 10,000th hit. Then on Wednesday, February 2012 became my first ever month to pass the 2,000 hit mark (in fact, in the first three weeks of Feb I managed more hits than in September and October combined).

More important than either of these two, though, is that last Sunday my all-time hits from India surpassed those from the UK. This has been inevitable for a while now as my Indian readership is way higher than my British one. But it still felt like a milestone. What makes this satisfying is that the vast majority of people reading this blog from India are not people I know. So I guess that means they must actually be interested in what I write. I take that as a very big compliment.

Considering that I started this blog as a way to share my experiences in India with friends back home (and elsewhere) and for the personal satisfaction of having a permanent record of my time here, I'm wondering if I should take into account the fact that my readership is now largely a different audience from the one I'd originally thought of. So I'm curious to ask my Indian readers (and in fact anyone who has a view) what you've enjoyed and what you'd like to see more of.

My posts tend to break down into travel posts (around India and to places in Delhi); social posts (commenting on something I've observed in Indian society); personal posts (more about me, my feelings, and how I am reacting to being here) and, less often, political ones about the latest developments in India and my perspective on them. There are other things I've thought of doing, like the occasional book or film review, but haven't as yet got around to. The tone of my posts, I've noticed, seems to vary quite wildly from serious to excited to playful to verging on the flippant (see my last post).

So what would you like more of?

Saturday, 25 February 2012

Loo confusion

When, a little over a year ago, I arrived for the first time at Delhi's Indira Gandhi International Airport, I came quite close to getting into trouble before even getting through Customs by walking brazenly into the ladies' loo, to a chorus of horrified shrieks from the ladies therein.

There are few more cringe-inducing experiences than going into the wrong loo. Even though your chances of actually seeing any untoward body parts are practically nil (at least in the man-walking-into-women's-loo case; in the reverse scenario it's a bit more risky), it is drummed into us from the time we're old enough to walk unaided that the Opposite Sex Toilet is forbidden territory. Having my first contact with the local population of India consist of them screaming at me as I beat a hasty retreat was hardly an auspicious beginning to my relationship with the country I would move to some five months later (something I had no idea of at the time).

I'm not denying my own clumsiness, but there are two mitigating circumstances behind my faux pas. Firstly, I'd just got off a long flight and my body clock was telling me I should have been in bed hours ago. Secondly, the authorities at Delhi airport seem to have gone out of their way to increase the possibility of errors like this occurring.

Context: Delhi's airport is new, and sparkling, and on the whole quite a nice place to spend time (which is fortunate for me since I seem to spend half my life there at the moment). It has gleaming walls, and sculptures, and bright and attractive artwork everywhere. The problem is that the airport authorities have applied this rule of attractiveness to something that should, in my view, only ever be purely functional. Viz: the signs for the loos.

This is what the entrances to the various loos at Delhi Airport look like:

(this was taken with my phone, hence not being great quality...whipping out a big clunky camera in a major airport in a security-sensitive country didn't really strike me as a good idea...)

Now this is all very lovely. Definitely more attractive than your average toilet entrance. And therein lies the problem: to the weary traveler, the pictures on the wall look more like another marketing tool for Incredible India than something telling you where you're supposed to go to relieve yourself. Your brain just doesn't process them as something that contains important information relevant to the task at hand. They don't, in short, look like signs.

The situation is not helped by the choice of male model, either. I mean, no offence to the chap in question, but you'd think that if you were going to use a nice photo of a handsome chap for this particular purpose, you'd choose someone as butch and masculine as you can get. Someone who screams (or preferably roars) "this is a MAN's room where MEN do MANLY things".

Not someone with a baby face and dimples, wearing pink and white, and fingering the beads round his neck. There's a bit of facial fuzz there but it's not helping a lot, to be honest. 

I'm not the only one who has this problem. Pretty much every time I go through the airport there's someone standing uncertainly outside, wondering where the signs are and why those nice marketing posters are positioned right at the entrance to toilets.

Anyway, moral of the story: aesthetically pleasing design is wonderful (and if anyone from Heathrow is reading this, I recommend a visit to Delhi). But when it starts getting in the way of functionality, that's a sign that something's wrong. And of all areas in life where functionality is important, the toilet is pretty damn high on the list.

In my view there's absolutely nothing wrong with the below. And it would save a lot of people some excruciating embarrassment.

Wednesday, 22 February 2012

Life on the Beach

This blog is starting to feel less like a blog about Delhi and more like a travel blog, which is largely because the first three months of this year have mainly consisted of me dashing about from place to place on work trips like a moth in a lightshade. This has benefits (I've got to see some really cool places) but I'm also feeling pretty knackered, truth be told, and looking forward to mid-March when things settle down a little bit and I will stay in the same place (ie Delhi - remember?) for a little while.

Anyway, I am currently in Chennai for a conference. I can't say much about Chennai other than it has horrendous traffic (surprise, surprise) and a conference venue that suffers from power failures every half an hour and was visited, during the two days I was there, by at least three pigeons, two lizards and a bat. When I was making plans for my visit, though, I thought I'd be clever and go down a bit early so I could have a weekend at the beach first. So I booked myself into a nice little hotel in Mamallapuram, a couple of hours south of the city, and looked forward to two days of sun and relaxation. 

Unfortunately, my little escape coincided with the dawn of a shed load of deadlines for work. I ended up spending a lot of the weekend huddled behind my laptop in my room or in the hotel restaurant, intermittently talking at length into my mobile phone about market strategy, while horribly relaxed-looking people in flip flops wandered past me wondering if I'd wandered into the wrong universe by mistake.


I did manage to make a bit of time to explore the town and its beautiful temples, which have some of the loveliest carvings I've seen in India (and which I'm leaving for a separate post), and to at least walk along the beach and take a few photos. Enough to convince me that (a) Mamallapuram is a nice little town that I'd like to visit one day without my laptop; and (b) there are probably not many people other than me who would be daft enough to bring a laptop to Mamallapuram.

I've seen touristy India before: Varanasi, Amritsar, Mumbai and of course Delhi itself are firmly on the circuit. But I've never been anywhere that felt so much like a tourist town - a paid up part of "the kingdom of Backpackistan" as the Lonely Planet aptly puts it. Partly this is because it's so small - only 12,000 people - but also it's because it has places called "the Bob Dylan cafe" and more shops selling necklaces made of shells than you can shake a stick at.

It's also possibly the first place I've been in India where foreigners are so common in proportion to the resident population that no-one turns a hair when they see another one. Even when I passed kids playing in the street, and braced myself for a barrage of "hellllloooooooo! What is your naaaaame?!", they just glanced up, dismissed me as uninteresting, and carried on with what they were doing.

It was a relief. It was also oddly disconcerting. I felt like an aging pop star realising that the kids don't know who he is any more.

Anyway, Mamallapuram has a nice laid-back feel to it as befits a small town with a lovely beach, but it's also very much a working Indian town. The sands are not pristine and they are littered with fishing nets and boats, while the ladies of the town make their way serenely across the sands with huge jars balanced on their heads and nary a stumble (an achievement on concrete, but on a beach? Phenomenal) and the ever-present cows wander down for a sunbathe. I really liked it, and while working all weekend was not ideal, it was certainly a better place to do it than the office in Delhi.

I think this may be my favourite India photo yet. He was actually sat on quite a wide strip of sand between two piles of nets, but crouching down changed the perspective and makes him look lost in a sea of green. I love bold colours in photos and shots that make something seem quite different by altering its context. I feel like this one really works!

I was quite jealous of this guy. Ironic, given that my start in life was so much more privileged than his (there are plenty of kids in India who have been born with many more advantages than I was, but I'm pretty sure this isn't one of them). But he took such pure and simple joy in running on the beach with his kite. Looked like a nice place to be a kid from my perspective.

The houses in Mamallapuram are almost all brightly painted, which in the Tamil Nadu sun just makes you feel really happy.

Obligatory cow photo. I liked the purple wall too.

That's the most famous of Mamallapuram's temples, the Shore Temple, in the background. More on that later.

Quite pleased with this shot too! I love the fact that their clothes match the jars they are carrying, though I don't think it was deliberate.

Cow, looking lost.

Fishing gear on the beach

Mamallapuram sea front seen from the Shore Temple

This is a guitar on the wall of a cafe in town. I thought it looked kind of surreal (and I liked the yellow - are you getting that I like colour?). 

Saturday, 18 February 2012

Conversations with guides

For someone who works in the education sector in India, I rarely get the chance to meet young people with recent or current experience of education. While I was in Cherrapunjee, though, I met two: Kupar, my guide on the first day, and Lapinbya, who took over for the (considerably less strenuous, thank you very much) second day. My conversations with them - in some ways quite similar, in others very different - threw some light on life for young people in India, and particularly in the North East.

Both are relatively fortunate. The fact that they can speak English well enough to act as a guide for foreign tourists immediately places them in an advantaged position vis-a-vis their peers. In fact, Kupar told me that when tradespeople find out he is a guide, they sometimes put their prices up - something which took me by surprise, since I'd assumed that was something that happened to foreigners but not to locals. Both were of small stature, friendly, intelligent and curious to know about my life and what had brought me to India.

Kupar had dropped out of school just before 12th grade, when his mother passed away. His father works away in Bangladesh and can only come back rarely. "I am alone here," he said, but saying one is alone in Cherrapunjee is not quite like saying one is alone in, say, London. Kupar was evidently on first name terms with pretty much everyone we passed on the way. Anyway, he said he enjoyed the freedom of living alone, but I wasn't entirely convinced.

I asked him what he wanted to do later on in life. "Be a guide," as his initial answer - and it's a good job: relatively well paid, out in the fresh air, meeting people and keeping fit into the bargain. But a bit later on, he confessed that in five years' time or so he would want to think about something else. What, I asked, but couldn't get a clear answer. He said he would probably finish school, but at the moment there seems to be little incentive for him to do so. I suggested that as the tourist industry took off there would be a lot of opportunities for someone who could speak English and was experienced in dealing with foreigners, but he pointed out (rightly) that they would mostly be in Guwahati or Shillong. In the villages, choices are unlikely to expand much.

Lapinbya was different. From a large family, she was about to complete a Bachelors' of Business Administration. She was fashionably dressed and I got the feeling that she would have preferred to be in the big city than up in the hills of Meghalaya, but her whole family was here. When I asked what she wanted to do after her degree, her answer was "do an MBA". Beyond that? Possibly something in finance. What was unspoken, of course, was the fact that for young people in North East India, even with a degree, jobs are scarce.

I'd just been at a conference in Guwahati discussing skills development for the North East and was taken aback by how many people assumed that skilled people would simply leave the region. Some astonishing figures were thrown around: 14 million people would emigrate in the next ten years, according to some - from a region with a population of less than 40 million. I'm not against skilled migration, but it seems to me impossible that the region could sustain that level of emigration without some serious social consequences. Yet the alternative - skill development aligned to job creation in the region - seemed to get little attention.

Lapinbya's frustrations with the limited opportunities open to her were clear: "I wish I hadn't been born here," she told me, quite frankly. And there is more holding her back: a sense that North Easterners have become associated in Indian minds with particular job roles, particularly in personal care and other service sectors, to such an extent that it is difficult for them to get other types of work even if they do migrate. Again, this chimed with what I heard at the conference, where speakers reflected on the "natural orientations" of the people of the region as being towards service. I couldn't help but feel that a culture of openness and friendliness was rather being hijacked by a culture where it's difficult to get people to do service roles.

Indeed, the difficult relationship between the North East and the rest of India ran strong under my conversation with Lapinbya. She spoke of "Indians" very much as people different from her, saying that Indian tourists always made it half way down to the root bridge and then went back, skipping the climb but missing the amazing sight at the bottom of the slope (and indeed, an Indian couple we overtook on the way down did just this). Yet she also resented them for not recognising her as Indian ("whenever I go to Kolkata they say 'Chinese! Chinese!'"). This is an ongoing difficulty for those from the North East: proudly and recognisably different, yet for the most part (the ongoing separatists operating in various North Eastern states aside) wanting inclusion within India on their own terms.

But for young people in particular, life on one's own terms is a pretty hard task in this part of the world. What you can do for a living and where you can do it are in principle for you to decide, but in practice people are constrained by multiple factors - even when, like Kupar and Lapinbya, they are relatively lucky. My conversations with them made me realise how much potential still goes undeveloped in today's India, and hopeful that I can play even a tiny role towards releasing more of it.

Thursday, 16 February 2012

Magic and Middle Earth in Meghalaya

When it comes to blogging about my North East trip, I have to admit to having, in management speak, gone for the low-hanging fruit first. The Kamakhya Mandir and the Wankhar Museum were both great experiences in their own right, but the reason they appeared first here is mainly that they felt a good deal more manageable, photo- and text-wise. The unquestioned highlight of the trip, though, demands a good deal more uploading and composing time, so I've been shamefully putting off putting in the work. But I can't put it off any longer. 

Cherrapunjee is a town in Meghalaya, just north of Bangladesh. The area around it is fascinating for its geography and its culture, as well as its amazing beauty. The hills of Meghalaya rise abruptly from the Bangladesh plains, meaning that the low clouds of the annual monsoon dump an awful lot of their contents here. It's officially the wettest place on Earth, and in 1860-61 received 905 inches of rainfall - more than 150% of what London gets in an average year. In monsoon periods the landscape must be indescribably dramatic as the rivers swell and clouds break over the mountain tops. January, though, is the driest month, so I got to enjoy an altogether calmer experience (though I would love to experience the other side of it some time). Normally the location affords amazing views over the plains of Bangaldesh - but sadly while I was there conditions were too hazy to see so far. Motivation to go back!

With its dramatic scenery, pristine villages straggled along mountain ridges, peaceful atmosphere, pure air, and people whose heritage and culture owes as much to South East Asia as it does to India, you couldn't get much more different from flat, chaotic, polluted, Hindi-belt Delhi. It does feel like coming to another country. Once you leave the villages in their high defensive positions, though, and clamber down into the valleys, it feels like a whole other world. Specifically, one from a fantasy novel. Cherrapunjee is famous for its living root bridges - painstakingly created by villagers out of the roots of the rubber trees that cling to the sides of the river gorges. Each takes decades to cultivate, but once mature they provide a surprisingly solid pathway over what must, in the wet season, be quite treacherous rapids. They're extraordinary - it's hard to believe they are actually real. I kept expecting Frodo Baggins to appear over the horizon.

The hills here are astonishingly fertile. As we climbed down on the way to visit the root bridges, we passed pineapples, papaya, coffee, betel nuts, bay trees, lemons, oranges and bananas. The crops are harvested by the local villagers, who trek up and down the hundreds of stone steps several times a day, carrying heavy burdens on the way up. Considering that once down and once up nearly killed me - and I was carrying a small backpack and a camera - that really demands respect.

I stayed at the marvelous Cherrapunjee Holiday Resort, where I had the warmest of welcomes including finding myself dancing with total strangers to a local band (who did a creditable performance of "Take Me Home, Country Roads" in amongst various local numbers) barely an hour after arriving. They provided guides down to the root bridges, who made me feel thoroughly old and unfit (though to be fair, going up and down 2,800 rough-hewn steps in a day would make most people struggle a bit, I think).

Anyway, here are some photos of the area. Hope you enjoy them. If you ever get the chance to visit, it is well worth a detour from the standard tourist trails of India.

The villages of the area sit among gorgeous, lush vegetation

Wire bridge over a river. In the wet season the water rises nearly to the base of the bridge - hard to imagine when it looks so peaceful. This "modern" bridge felt a lot more precarious than the traditional root bridges pictured below!

The water in the rivers is amazingly blue at this time of year

The "double decker" root bridge. They look like they should sway crazily when you step on them but they don't budge an inch.

Steps down to the double decker bridge

Village woman on her way to do her washing

My guide, Kupar, and a friend

Cuddling a kitten always makes the world seem a better place....

...especially when this is the view.

Lemons stacked up on the porch. This was the house of a local family who had given over their porch space to be a makeshift store selling refreshments where visitors could stop for a cup of chai. It was such a lovely relaxing place to stop for a while, even with Cartoon Network on the TV in the living room!

Natural swimming pool near the double decker bridge. Most of the rocks visible are underwater during the monsoon, and swimming is out of the question. But in January, it's perfect for a dip - especially for sweaty red-faced westerners who've just huffed and puffed their way down a couple of thousand stone steps.

Me on the double decker bridge. 

Villagers washing clothes in the river. It looked like hard work, but it sure as hell beats the launderette on Albert Square.

The house where we stopped for drinks and kittens.

Kupar contemplating.

Happy as Larry. The water was fantastic - cold and clear, just how I like it. Outdoor swimming is one of the purest natural pleasures you can get, and this is one of the best places to do it I've ever come across.

Kupar making short work of a bridge. I was rather less confident.

Steps up to one of the root bridges. Just can't get hobbits out of my head.

Brooms lined up on the roof of a village house.

Kupar beginning the hike back up to the ridge. Needless to say he managed this rather more quickly than me.

Kupar resting. Honestly. He needed to rest. He wasn't just waiting for me to be able to breathe again.

Tyrna village. It was striking how well-kept the villages in this part of India are, despite the fact that it's far from being one of the wealthier parts of the country.

Hard at work in Tyrna village.

One thing Meghalaya has in common with the rest of India: photogenic kids.

This was about as clear a view of the mountains as I got, sadly.

The Ummunoi root bridge.

I liked the shape these lines of washing made, like the spokes of a wheel or a close up of a fan.

 The good life.

Running to keep up.

Sunset at Laitkynsew village.

Scales in the window of the local store-cum-cafe, Laitkynsew village.

A smoky final evening in Laitkynsew village.