Sunday, March 22, 2009

On Solid Ground With A Sinking Feeling

It is hard to imagine some days, the view from a different perspective. We get used to seeing things in familiar patterns. We get up each morning and learn to expect that our days, though not always managed by schedules, to be at least somewhat planned in advance. I like to think that I am ready in any occasion to expect the unexpected and therefore shape myself around anything that might arise... you know the feeling perhaps... I think of myself as somewhat spontaneous. I do like order and though change is good, I would not want my life to be a constant view of the strange or unfamiliar for the rest of my life. I guess I have just become a creature of habit. Does that happen without us realizing that it is happening? Maybe so. I had tried to prepare myself for the shock of a different culture. I did my homework by looking at pictures, collected them in my favourite bookmarks to check and recheck again, on the internet. I read the stats and tourist info on the various places we would be traveling and figured that I was ready for the idea that things would be different but manageable.

The planes in major airports often have to sit out on the tarmac and unload. The terminals are often too small to accommodate the numbers of aircraft coming into international airports. We got off the plane and made our way to an awaiting bus... One of several, I might add, to carry the 240 + people on board, to the terminal. For the frequent traveler, this is just a walk in the park, but for a young 18 year old, who has never been out of Novas Scotia, the daunting task of keeping up and being forceful was a huge task. Young people travel at “their” pace and our youngest member missed the bus. Everyone else made it on, but he was carrying a large bag and was told by a local, that the bus was full... not knowing that he just had to say, “Hey, I am with that group and we travel together!” Poor Kalen was left alone, with hundreds of strangers, all speaking a foreign language and went into a panic. On my arriving at the terminal and finding that he was missing, I announced to the others that we had to wait, only to be told that he would be OK ... we needed to rush to get our rides to the hotel. I said that I was not leaving without Kalen and rushed back out toward the tarmac to await the next bus, to see if Kalen was on board. The first bus arrived and no Kalen. But the worst part was that as I rushed out through the first glass door, a man started yelling at me to stop. An armed soldier, with an AK-47 machine gun, pointed his rifle at me and yelled stop. A hand grabbed my collar from behind and pulled me back and I heard his voice yelling, “Stop, you can’t go out there, he will shoot you!” A kindly airport control officer heard my plea and stood holding on to me just inside the outer doors, while the soldier with the gun continued to point the rifle at me, while continuing to hold his icy stare focussed on me. The control officer, dressed in a nice suit, mumbled a few sentences to the soldier, but he never changed his demeanor; but for the several incoming workers all carrying identification, some of whom were spontaneously searched, at what seemed like the soldiers personal whim, just to make the point of his control over the situation. Kalen did arrive in tears and I promised that I would never let that happen again... not on my watch. A catastrophe was side-stepped and a lessen well learned... Always stick together in a foreign land.

We arrived, as I stated, late at night in India, to the city of New Delhi. The fan fare was extraordinary. People everywhere and this was not the peak hour... how many people would there be if it was say 4 o’clock in the afternoon? I mentioned, I think, that the coolies (people who carry and push things for a living) all wanted a piece of the action. They jockey for position, amid the foreigners, to get the best jobs. Tours and groups, they think are the best bet, as they need more help, but most often they are the ones who have pre-arranged drivers and their own people doing the job already. Therefore there is a high level of disappointment, yet they dive in and will take over, if they can. We finally got to our cars (actually the first of many 4-wheel drive jeeps) that hold 7 passengers each, and they loaded our luggage on the racks on top. No covers needed, as it is winter and no moisture in the air. Old bungy cords and some old rope to held everything in place for the ride.... and what a ride it was. No one could prepare for the traffic and the noise just by reading about culture in an Indian city.

Everywhere there were trucks, cars, auto-rickshaws and people, walking, sitting, gathering and yelling and meanwhile our drivers wildly swerving, honking, and sped to get out of the city and to our destination, so they could get home and sleep for another day. The hotel for our first night was chosen to give us the best rest after so many hours in the air, as our next stop in Siliguri would be in a busy downtown hotel, where minimal would be the watchword for the day, There we would prepare for the next week of lectures and the dorm style living that had been planned for us. The New Delhi hotel was, by the standard for local digs, one of the best. We were treated like kings, the food was as varied as it was plentiful and we couldn’t get a sense of the poverty surrounding us until the break of day. The next morning, from my window, I viewed another hotel surrounded by the impoverished, living and working in tin huts, built on the new excavations for future modern expansions. They move in almost overnight and will camp until the developers dislocate them for their growing needs.

A metal shack, of some expanse, was filled with smoke. Near the door a broken down bicycle was standing at ready. A make-shift table with benches was made from what looked like dirty planks, perhaps from cement forms salvaged from a building site. Dirt, garbage, old clothes and filth was everywhere and this was one man’s home and shop. There was a forge of some type with what looked like hammers and tools, likely hand made, tossed near it. Not far away was a single row of tin shacks; likely domiciles for the poor and other scavengers. The poor of the city were gathering piles of more tin roofing, being brought in by daybreak on the heads of some of the women making their way past the modern hotel units... well hidden from view by high concrete walls... except from the view afforded us from our windows overlooking the empty lots. It is a matter of standard fare and no one seems to pay attention to the tasks, being carried on by those building their tin shacks next door.

Meanwhile, down in the hotel restaurant, meals are being prepared by a master chef and served on the finest china to paying consumers of all nationalities and languages. You name that dish and it was being prepared, on demand, at no extra cost... but no locals allowed. At the gate of the hotel stand several armed guards. Each vehicle is searched for explosive materials and drivers had to show identification with pictures, and our passports were checked once in the hotel. I found that hard to get used to. It gave me sense of the fragility of this country and those foreigners who may be seen as a target for terrorists, much to the embarrassment to the country... it all very divisive. After breakfast and time for a short walk around the hotel garden for some photo ops, we were loaded back into our vehicles and whisked off to the domestic airport for the next leg of our journey to Bagdogra Air Force Base and the city of Siliguri. It was a repetition of the trip the night before, only now with increased speeds and even more noise, including the honking of horns and the voices of people yelling their instructions for the days work. I would be tired after an hour of that din, but we all knew that it was just the beginning of the day and there is still another airport to face and a plane to catch, for the beginning of more exciting experiences to come.