Thursday, March 28, 2013

Bad blogger returns with Indian tales

I'm not even going to make crap excuses for why I haven't updated in ages. I suppose the novelty factor of being here has worn off a little and everything is less shiny and new and weird and I don't feel the need to regale you with my daily tales of amusing misunderstandings and befuddlement at Middle Eastern bureaucracy.

I'm just back from a jaunt to India. Delhi is a four hour flight from Dubai and then we spent three days there before we caught the Amritsar Express train to the spiritual and physical home of Sikhism, passing through miles of the flat, green Punjab that bears a remarkable resemblance to Kent, were it not for the occasional signs of unimaginable poverty - people living not just next to but on the railway line in tents and tiny lean-tos held up by little more than luck.

I'm not going to regale you with tales of Mughal architecture and Ghandi, Sikhism and the British Empire and the countless other gaps in my education that have been filled in a little by the trip because there are plenty of other places you can go to read far more eloquent accounts of those things. This is in no way meant as an insult to a place where I have spent a mere 10 days, but, and I say this with the proviso that I fully intend on going back some day, having been there, I can see why so many people of Indian origin choose not to live there, because quite frankly, it is chaos. Madness. The footage of insane traffic and filth and squalor in films like Slumdog Millionaire go some way to showing what parts of Delhi are like (yes I know that film is set in Mumbai) but, it's that and then some. Just walking down the street is a challenge and there are plenty of people who see you as a vulnerable foreigner whose cash reserves are there to be exploited. Why wouldn't they, after all, when in your home country, you would casually spend the equivalent of what a large proportion of their country earns in a day on a soft drink? Only careful reading of the guidebook and advice from a friend who was in Delhi a couple of months ago stopped us falling for a train ticket scam.

I went to Delhi with the horrific attack which happened there in December at the forefront of my mind with warnings from my brother who spent six months living in Mumbai to 'not go anywhere on your own' ringing in my ears. And I got there wondering if the effect of that incident would be obvious to someone who is new to the city. It is in the sense that three months on, it was still preoccupying the first four pages of the English language daily I picked up. A survey asked young men what they thought about women's rights, whether women should be allowed to go out on their own going "pubbing and clubbing", whether women should go to work, that sort of thing, and an opinion piece by a female academic pointed out that women in Delhi are constantly 'under watch', referring to the constant staring that women experience in the streets. And there were reports on a Government bill currently being debated which will tighten up laws on sexual assault and stalking. It is variously being watered down or beefed up depending on what day it is and whose hands it has fallen into.

It is true that the streets of Delhi are dominated by men. At any one time, I would say they outnumber women by at least 20 to one. This is not a new thing according to the Rough Guide but it's certainly true that as a woman walking the streets of the city, even accompanied by your husband, you're stared at. Not just sidelong glances, full on, insolent, in your face staring, daring you to look away first. This sounds aggressive but it doesn't feel that way. It is something that's relatively common in certain parts of Dubai so I wasn't particularly concerned by it and sure enough, it's the norm according to the newspaper articles I had read. There was a telling photograph illustrating the coverage I described above of a girl, aged perhaps 10 or 11, being watched by groups of men standing on the pavement as she walked down the street.

It's partly curiosity because although Delhi is an international city, white faces are relatively rare, and as women are an unusual site on the streets anyway, perhaps more so since the attack, that is likely to be the case. It is also true that wondering hands are the norm. I punched the roving hand of a tuk tuk driver that was heading for my right tit as I was walking down the street. I knew he was a tuk tuk driver from his uniform - they wear grey shirts and trousers. He was walking along with his two friends and in all likelihood had  had a couple of drinks and went in for a squeeze. It happened so quick and in the madness of the traffic I was 20 metres down the street before I told him indoors what had just happened. I surprised myself due to being  not that bothered by it because I had been expecting something like it to happen at some point from what my non-resident Indian friends had told me of living in the country. Knowing for a fact that if I walked into a police station to complain I would be met utter incomprehension made me take it in with my stride along with the guidebook's assurances that returning such behaviour with a quick slap or punch was expected.

This all makes the trip sound a little disastrous. It really wasn't. Without wishing to make those of you currently freezing your behinds off in the UK hate me, I can go on a beach holiday any time I want by driving across town and checking into a hotel, the point of the trip was to have an adventure and it was certainly that. I think I had naively thought, 'I have been to Sri Lanka and I have been to Nepal and spent a bit of time in Kathmandu, another bonkers capital city home to grinding poverty, I've read about the caste-system, the rampant corruption, the patriarchal society, so I am well prepared for what India is like'. I wasn't. It will also be a while before I will be able to even think about eating Indian food again without feeling slightly nauseous because we got sick despite doing everything you're meant to: Avoiding uncooked vegetables, drinking only bottled water, washing our hands every five minutes and using hand sanitiser, avoiding meat if you're not sure about how it's been stored or how it's been cooked. It's just the luck of the draw and doubtless if we had spent more time there, we would have developed immunity to some of the classic bugs that bother first time visitors.

Away from the insanity of Delhi, a different kind of eccentricity reigns in Amritsar. It's right on the border with Pakistan and we went and watched the peculiar border closing ceremony with ridiculously tall  guards marching in an extraordinarily camp fashion and kicking themselves in the face in time with their Pakistani counterparts on the other side of the gate. I'm not joking, they really do do that. We also saw the Golden Temple, the home of Sikhism, and across town, the site of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre where David Cameron managed to upset everyone recently. It's definitely the case that in Amritsar, there are fewer people who are interested in scamming you so it's slightly more relaxed, but, in the historic old town you walk next to open sewers and the streets are so narrow that you need to be constantly on your guard from being knocked into one of them by the rickshaws and tuk tuks. We found a municipal guide to take us on a walking tour, something well worth doing as we would definitely not have noticed some of the more interesting Hindu temples and a tree that is literally growing through buildings as it can't be cut as it is worshipped as a god, were it not for her pointing them out.

If you're the kind of person who is going to be put off a trip by a stomach bug and the thousands of scamsters in Delhi, India is not for you. But if you want an adventure and to experience something real, which living in Dubai, you really crave, then India is it. The success of Dubai can be attributed to oil wealth and a few decisions taken in the 1970s to grow and trade in a particular way and I could debate all day about whether or not that is a good thing. But, landing back here after being somewhere like India doesn't half make you appreciate its cleanliness, wide roads and consistency.

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