Category Archives: India
I can’t believe it’s been two years since I was in India. As Facebook memories keep popping up on my feed, I decided to share the United Church video on the Human Rights Advocacy and Research Foundation in India, which supports children living in poverty to continue their education by providing basic school supplies, uniforms, and school fees.
It was the first audio-visual story I really “did” during my travels, when I was in Tamil Nadu. Some amazing work being done there!
As it’s been just over one month since I flew home “for good,” I’ve started looking back on some of the adventures I’ve had and the people I’ve met over the last year and a half. I discovered this video that The United Church of Canada created from the video and interviews I did in Tamil Nadu last year, of the work of UCCan partner the Human Rights Advocacy and Research Foundation. It’s just one example of some of the amazing work I was privileged to witness along my journey. Take a look!
In early June 2015, in what was one of the hottest temperatures I’ve ever experienced, I found myself taking a 10 hour train from the capital of Bangladesh, Dhaka, to Kolkata. It was the middle of a viscous heat wave that was killing thousands of people across India.
As I walked along the scorching platform in Kolkata, I saw hundreds of people lying down, listless, under what little relief the open air shelter provided. One woman in particular caught my eye – her head shaven, angry staples and stitches etched their way across her skull. Clearly she’d recently had surgery. A friend or relative beside her poured water from a plastic bottle into her open mouth.
Luckily, and I recognize the immense privilege I have in being able to do this, I only stayed one night in the oppressive heat (I’d spent a few days in Kolkata a few weeks before), and caught a flight the next day to Bagdogra, in the high altitude of Darjeeling District in West Bengal province.
Using my trusty Lonely Planet, I discovered Cochrane Place located in Kurseong, a short drive from the airport. Upon looking at their website, a notice popped out at me:
Are you an Artist/Writer/Travel Blogger/Photographer?
And it listed an email for information. After emailing them, I was invited to come stay free of charge (though I would pay for any food and services used) in exchange for taking some photos and hopefully writing a piece about them.
But really, I didn’t need any incentive to write something – Cochrane Place, and Kurseong itself, is a beautiful “refuge among the clouds” from the intense summer heat in India. While I was there, it was sometimes a bit too cloudy for the really great sweeping views the area is known for. But I didn’t mind – sometimes fog adds a bit of mystery to the adventure!
Kurseong is located at the beginning of the infamous Darjeeling railroad line (actually, it’s in the middle but at the time I was there, the first part was closed due to a landslide a few years before). If you go to this area, you need to take the train!! Even if you haven’t seen Wes Anderson’s awesome The Darjeeling Unlimited (which, honestly is one of the reasons I wanted to come here), this trip is just so quaint and beautiful and lovely. (Sidenote: don’t buy a first class ticket; it’s really just a slightly comfier seat for 10 times the price, and second class is a lot more fun. Though people will ask you a few times if you’re sure you’re in the right compartment).
Wandering around Kurseong, you’ll see some animal life, meet some lovely people, and can check out coffee plantations along the way.
I even saw some monkeys being given fruit by people and tormenting dogs.
Cochrane Place can organize tours around the area – everything from bird watching to visiting a shaman to touring monasteries. However, not all tours are available all the time, and some can be quite expensive if you’re a solo traveller.
One of the best things I did in Kurseong was have a stick massage at Cochrane Place. A stick massage may seem – at first – like a slightly benign form of torture, but it was SO amazing!
Basically, in this one hour massage, you are fully clothed (as you normally would be; you don’t have to be covered head to toe) and your masseur basically starts beating you with stick-like instruments.
Or at least that’s what it feels like at first. In reality, the masseur uses these instruments to hit different points on your body in quick succession, and it really works! While I felt at times like I was being punished for something, in the end, this is one of the best massages I’ve ever had. All my knots were worked out – and believe me, I can have some serious knots in my shoulders.
So in the end, this was a fabulous two night stay in Kurseong. On day three, I packed up my stuff and boarded the Darjeeling Express!
For more pictures of Kurseong, see my Flickr album
Subtitle: In Which I’m Handed a Small Child
After travelling through South Asia, I have some newfound sympathy for celebrities. The being stared at wherever you go, people always coming up to talk to you, people asking for photos with you or often just taking photos of you without asking, people pointing at you…everything you do is something novel that people are interested in and want to get a closer look. It got to the point that I wanted to scream on the streets of Dhaka, Bangladesh, “Look, I’m just buying GRAPES! They’re just fruit. Let me buy groceries without it becoming a news story!!”
Of course, celebrities get compensated pretty well for these annoyances. But to have to do it EVERY. SINGLE. DAY. Geez. I can see why some resort to the make-up free, baseball cap, and sunglasses method of trying to avoid the paparazzi.
Or turn to drugs.
Anyway, I digress.
I now have a little taste of how they feel – I literally escaped from the Indian tourists flocking to me for photos at the Ellora Caves by a still slightly unexcavated side entrance in one of them. Later on, when a couple asked me to take a photo of just them with a statue, using their own camera, I almost hugged them in gratitude.
It’s a funny thing with all the attention I got, being the “other.” I’m so not used to being othered. I’m a white, educated, middle class, able-bodied woman. The only way I am othered is because of my sexual orientation, but even that is not as much of an “othering” in Canada today as it has been in the past. And I also can, and do, pass as straight when needed (which is especially useful when travelling through countries where homosexual acts are illegal). I’ve been able to live relatively comfortably in my “average” outwardly appearance to society.
I never realized invisibility was so desirable, and so fleeting.
It all began relatively innocently with a small boy asking for a photo with him in front of a mosque in Old Lahore. That was the only time I was asked in Pakistan, probably because I was pretty much always accompanied by a Pakistani male friend like some sort of amicable bodyguard.
I wouldn’t realize how important that was until I got to India, and then onto Bangladesh.
After crossing the border into India, there was an instance in Amritsar where I realized this might be more of a “thing.” I’d just watched the movie Gandhi for the first time before coming to India, and knew I wanted to visit the Jallianwala Bagh massacre site in Amritsar, where the British cruelly and systematically gunned down peaceful Indian protestors in 1919.
My Facebook status that day was: “The solemnity of Jallianwala Bagh was ruined ever so slightly by the gaggle of giggling schoolgirls all insisting they take individual photos and selfies with me.”
Seriously, though, there were about 15 of them. And they all wanted photos. Individually and in groups. There was also an odd instance of an older man beckoning me over, after seeing this spectacle, and asking me to take a selfie with him using my camera. So I did. I figured it would be rude not to.
After posting that status, an African-Canadian Facebook friend commented that I should think twice about agreeing to take photos with people who asked because I was perpetuating internalized racism.
But for me, I’d feel like I would be asserting my privilege even more if I, a white person, told them, non-white people, that I wouldn’t take a photo with them because they were suffering from internalized racism.
It would just perpetuate my own privilege.
But it did get me thinking – why DID all these people want to take photos with me, or of me?
About 4 days into my time in India, in New Delhi, I realized why some people wanted photos. And it was for not-so-nice reasons.
One group of young men at the Red Fort asked for a photo and I agreed. (Side note: I had not yet figured out that when asked by a group for “a photo” it really means you’re taking a bunch of photos with them in different combinations.) The photos quickly devolved into arms around the shoulder – which I did say no to – and then one weird photo where one guy shook my hand and pointed at me with the other.
I was too stunned to really react.
Talk about feeling like an exhibit in a freak show. Especially as this was quickly followed by a group of women at Qutab Minar who looked simultaneously horrified and fascinated by me and therefore started snapping photos with their phones.
I would soon learn that, for men, it can be about telling their friends that they slept with a foreigner. I quickly decided to stop taking photos with single men – for that reason, and for the reason that they often were just creepy. Families, children, women – fine, I’d do it, even when I was annoyed by the quantity of the requests. But men became a no-no.
So maybe, for some people, there is internalized racism there – the idea that they are somehow elevated by having a photo with a white person. But not always – as a Black friend I made in India would get more attention – and hair touching – from the crowds than I or other white women did.
For others, I think, it’s more about the uniqueness of the sight – seeing a lone, tall, white woman as they go about their day. It’s a “Look what I saw, Mom!” moment. One Indian friend compared it to children wanting to take photos of her when she was in Canada because she had a bindi.
In the end, there are probably hundreds of photos of me floating around Facebook and other social media sites, with the family I met in the second class coach to Darjeeling, with the waiters at a restaurant in Bangalore and the hotel staff in Dhaka, with the eloquent teenage girl in Bangladesh who explained to me that she wanted a photo to show others that foreigners visit her country, with the group of children at the Buddha statue in Hyderabad, and with the two families who handed me their babies to hold for their not-so-traditional family portraits (thankfully only one cried), and many, many more. There’s even a short phone video taken by two young police officers in Varanasi.
Subtitle: Yes Please!
I love me some temples. Give me a Hindu, Jain, Sikh, Buddhist, or Ba’hai temple, and I’m happy. They’re just so beautiful, and this part of the world is rife with them!
My first foray into the world of temples was just over a week into this adventure, when I crossed the border from Pakistan and headed to Amritsar, India to see the Golden Temple – the holiest place of the Sikh religion.
As you walk around the outskirts of the temple, there’s a building with rows of doors, each doorway leading to an alcove where a custodian (Sikhism doesn’t have priests) reads from the holy book, the Guru Granth Sahib. It’s like a holy version of Amsterdam’s Red Light District, I somewhat blasphemously thought.
As I travelled south, further into the heart of India, I began to experience the gorgeous architecture of Hindu temples. Some can be quite simple shrines to a god or goddess, while others are magnificent affairs, with towers reaching up to the heavens resplendent with images of gods, goddesses, demons, and monsters.
I’ve been told there are more than 300 million gods and goddesses in the Hindu religion, and that no one can recite them all. (I’m not sure if this is because it would take too long to actually name them all, or if there physically is no comprehensive list anywhere in the world.
Sometimes the sculpture reliefs adorning the temples can be a tad naughty! (I sadly never made it to the Khajuraho temples – that’s for next time – but I did still see a few examples.
And while I do love the temples, I have come across some wayward “priests” who seem to have forgotten the true meaning of their respective religions. For example, in Ranakpur Jain Temple, a priest came up to me while I was listening to the audioguide (which was coincidentally in the process of telling me how Jainism is about letting go of materialism, consumerism, etc) and asked if he could pray for me. I never say no to someone who wants to pray for me – unless they’re trying to pray away the gay, but that’s another story – so I said yes but then I had a thought. Perhaps it was my Catholic upbringing nagging at me with the memory of the historical practice of selling indulgences.
So before he started, I said, “Oh, but I don’t have any rupees.” He paused, and then gestured around to the other tourists nearby saying, “Well maybe your friends do…” Smelling a rat, I said, “No, none of us have any rupees.” And with that he turned around and walked away without a word.
Seriously?!? I thought. You’re a priest. You’re supposed to be doing God’s work, but you’ll only do it for money?
Another time, in Pushkar at one of the few temples devoted to the Hindu god Brahma, a supposed priest at the temple began guiding us around. We told him we had no money with us right at the start, repeatedly, but he just kept saying. “No problem, no problem.”
Of course, once he’d finished showing us around he proceeded to ask for money. But not just “a donation of our choosing” – more specifically like 500 ($10) or 1000 ($20) rupees. We said no – especially as he wanted us to give it to him personally and not put it in the designated donation boxes for the temple, which is what we were planning to do and told him we would do. So he started berating us, saying we were bad people, etc, etc. It was highly unpleasant and left a bad taste in my mouth. Again, is this what real religion is supposed to be about??
But it’s not all like that. While someone hanging around the temple who tries to enthusiastically show you around should be viewed with suspicion, there have been times I’ve struck up conversations with fellow visitors – both foreign and local – to the temple and had a lovely time exploring with them. And often swearing under our breathes as we run across the scorching hot tiled floors in our bare feet!! 🙂
But it’s almost always worth it!
Subtitle: And other questions it’s apparently appropriate to ask within 5 minutes of meeting someone
This proposed book title could work for both India and Sri Lanka, and likely a lot of other countries I just haven’t experienced yet.
It’s taken some getting used to, the cultural differences here. Here’s an example of the type of questions I regularly get asked, basically the first or second thing someone says to me after “hello”:
Are you married?
How many children? (note – I was not asked IF I have children or if I was married. This was literally the first question, which kinda made me feel old…)
How many kgs? 70? (This is one I refused to answer by saying I don’t know, because I actually don’t know my weight in kg)
Where’s husband? (Ugh, like I need to be supervised while travelling)
Do you have a boyfriend? (I usually just say yes to this to get people off my back)
You travelling alone? (to which, for safety’s sake, I invent some friends I’m about to meet up with)
This is usually the regular sequence of events:
“You how old?” or “What age?”
Followed alternately by “Oh…….” And an implication that that is too old to not be married and there’s something wrong with me. Although, sometimes people have said, “Oh, you’re still young.” Other times, like yesterday, these questions are followed by, “Why you no married?”
And then I’m left feeling like I need to justify my life choices to total strangers.
I know, I know, there are cultural differences here and the people asking me these questions (usually) do not mean to offend. They are merely curious about me, a foreign visitor in their country.
And I often respond by asking them the same questions, to at least even things out a little bit.
But it can’t help but make me feel a bit vulnerable. Because, for me, there’s another element to these questions. I’m a <gasp!> lesbian and that is not always a safe thing to admit. Sometimes I feel like this journey is putting me into the closet, for the first time, really, in my life. Which is why I SO love when I can be around fellow LGBT people! I enter that space being myself, not needing to come out or feel like I’m hiding anything.
Of course, I don’t have to come out when someone asks if I’m married. I can just say no. Even if they ask me about a boyfriend or husband, I can just say no. But the thing is, being gay is a part of my identity. It’s not my whole identity. But it’s there. And denying it or consciously thinking, “Ok, I can’t tell them I’m gay,” hurts for two reasons:
(1) I don’t want to have to deny any part of who I am, especially a part of which I’m not ashamed.
(2) It’s quite hurtful to know that, in all likelihood, the same people who might be friendly with me and enjoying my company at the moment would feel very differently if they knew that one aspect of my identity.
I interviewed one Sri Lankan woman the other day, who identifies as bisexual, and she put it quite well: “Being queer is a big part of who I am. I don’t want people to assume I’m straight.” She’s currently in a relationship with a man and therefore people believe that she’s now straight, that her former same-sex relationships were just a phase.
I have a lot more thoughts about TWG – or “travelling while gay” as I put it. That will be in another blog post, likely entitled “That Time I Accidentally Came Out to a Minister and Then He Felt Comfortable Enough to Tell Me He Wanted to Experiment with Viagra and Vibrators.””
For now, I think I’m just going to start saying my husband cheated on me and I don’t want to talk about it. Then everyone can feel uncomfortable. 😉
Or, better yet, this could be a good conversation:
“Why you no married?”
“Drat, I knew I forgot something!!”
Next up in the Book Titles Series (a positive one, I promise):
Subtitle: I’m So Tired I Nearly Yelled at a Small Child
Here’s the next post in the series of proposed fake-yet-awesome book titles:
Honestly, the traffic in India amazes me. I am, in all seriousness, surprised I haven’t been in an accident – or even seen one – while I’ve been here. In a lot of places, there are no lane markings – three or four rows of cars just seem to expertly go around each other, fully anticipating what the car up ahead or behind will do, without getting into an accident. It’s like what I envisioned the future might be, where people don’t need to drive because the cars are all electronically programmed to go where you want and to know what’s around them.
There have been some close calls, though, especially in auto-rickshaw taxis. Sue, one of the Australian women I was travelling with in the north, and I were in a rickshaw once and as it pulled out into oncoming traffic, we just gripped each others’ hands and hoped for the best.
(Another note on rickshaw taxis: when it’s nearing that time of the month for us well-endowed ladies and certain attributes are more swollen and sensitive than normal, riding in a rickshaw and going over potholes and bumps in the road is a seriously, seriously painful experience!)
But I digress. This post is about the buses. So let’s get to the buses, but first: the honking!
There’s nothing quite like the honking that goes on here! It’s not just a soft “toot-toot” to let you know they’re passing. No, it’s an almost constant honking, when you multiply it by the number of vehicles engaged in this (in my opinion) irritating practice. You do start to get used to it, but I swear it’s just an octave lower than what makes dogs howl.
But the buses? Oh the buses! They public buses are a speciality here. For them, it’s a looooooooong let’s-hold-the-horn-down-to-see-how-long-it-takes-to-break kinda sound.
The worst, of course, is when you’re so tired you just want to sleep. For me, buses are a lulling thing, usually. They rock me to sleep, oh so nicely.
And then I’m jerked awake like I’m coming out of a horrid nightmare every time that blasted horn blows!!
Rewind to a few weeks ago, which was the worst time for me. To put in context, and cut the bus some slack, there were extenuating circumstances: I was exhausted, having been up before 4am to go to a fish market (which was amazing, but that’s another story) that day. The night before, I was on a short (less than 7 hours) overnight train, and I’d working 12-14 hour days on a story for the United Church for about 5 or 6 days at that point.
And there was a strike, which meant no private buses with air conditioning, but only the public, non-air conditioned bus. And I know, I know, cry me a river, but really – the non-air conditioned buses are completely fine when they’re moving and the wind is blowing. But when it’s an 8 or 9 hour journey, like this one, and there’s lots of traffic, especially towards the end as we get closer to the city, it is unbearably hot. Like crazy hot. (Now I’m in the mountains of Sri Lanka where it’s nice and cool and I kinda want to stay here forever…)
And then, in that last hour or so of a seemingly endless journey, a toddler in front of me started whining, and I could feel myself slowly getting irrationally angry. Thinking things like, babies crying is understandable, but a 2 or 3-year old being super loud and whiny is just being an asshole.
I know, I know. Not my finest moment.
I took some deep breathes, swore to take up meditation again for the 147th time, and told myself it would all be over soon…
I’ve decided to start a small series of blog posts on my experiences in India, through proposed fake but (in my opinion) awesome book titles.
The first of my series, I’m going to say, was the blog post a few weeks ago called:
Stay tuned for the next one, entitled:
Well, I’ve spent the last week on the beach and my hair has lightened and my skin has darkened. Darkened to the point of slight sunburn and peeling in some places….unfortunately.
I’ve also rested and rejuvenated. I spent the days with two lovely ladies, Amy (of the USA) and Morven (of the UK), who I met on a walking tour of Delhi two months ago. They met me in Old Goa, the day I was meant to take an overnight bus to Hyderabad, and I was dealing with potential food poisoning, hormones, and generally fatigue (see latest blog post). So they were quite able to twist my rubber arm and convince me to travel back to Agonda Beach, in South Goa, with them.
I arrived on the beach and nearly cried from happiness. It was beautiful, and it was just what I wanted – a small hut on a gorgeous beach, where you could hear the waves crashing from your bed.
It was paradise.
Or so I thought.
Apparently, there have been two dead bodies in the area in the last few months. One woman, from Germany, told us that she saw a dead body washed up on the beach on the first day she arrived, a few weeks before.
That was definitely freaky – although I’m not sure how true it is, as I didn’t see anything in the news about it or hear any more about that particular incident.
However, there was a death in the local area on January 28, two days after I arrived in India, that I did read more about. And saw posters splashed around the town of Agonda asking, “Did you know Felix Dahl?”
Apparently he was staying at the property beside the one we were at since October. And was found dead in what the Goan police call an “unnatural death” but what Finnish police deem a homocide. Check out this article in The Goan about it:
Finnish police calls 23 year old Finnish Felix Dahl’s death a crime and a homicide after Goa Police termed it unnatural death, –Post mortem clearly mentions that the five wounds on the back of Dahl’s head is due to a hard and blunt object but Canacona Police says it is due to a fall, Are Canacona police and locals known to Felix behind a murder cover up?
One evening, a fire was burning in the church compound near where we were staying. Jokingly, we wondered aloud if they were “burning dead bodies” (it was probably coconuts).
When one of the people I was hanging out with asked the owner of the place we were staying (and yes, this is hearsay, as I wasn’t there – but still really, really creepy) what it was, saying, “Oh, we thought it might be dead bodies,” his response was: “What have you heard about dead bodies?”
He then called an employee over and asked him, “What do we know about dead bodies?” to which the employee dutifully replied “Nothing.”
Yeah, there’s definitely something fishy in Agonda – and it’s not just the ocean.
Subtitle: In Which I Vomit and Then Burst into Tears
I’m writing this at the moment because (a) it’s therapeutic and (b) to let you know that while what I’m doing is awesome and amazing, there are still times that suck.
Ok, I’m going to name-drop. Before I left on my trip, Carol Off of CBC Radio told me there would be good times and bad times, but that even the bad times would be good. And this has proved to be true. But at the same time, it often only feels true in retrospect. When the bad times are happening, they really feel bad. So while the past 2 months have been filled with incredible experiences and people, this is what’s also been happening over the last couple of weeks in India:
1. I continue to only be able to get money out of 1 or 2 types of ATMs, while all the other tourists seem to have no restrictions. I’ve been told by my Canadian credit card company that this is because of fraud in India. But it is SUPER annoying especially when you’re trying to send something home via the India Post Office and they don’t accept credit cards (people: you’re a NUCLEAR POWER!!), supply boxes, or have the ability to photocopy your passport even though you can see a photocopier behind them. Ok, so #1 could really be 2 points, one about ATMs and one about the bureaucracy of the mail system, but I digress….
2. Indian men continue to stare and try to take photos of me and other tourists I’m with, even when we say no. Though to be fair, this has dissipated in the South. Only to be replaced, though, more with women trying to put bindis on me or splash colour on me during Holi and then asking for 200 rupees, and women who seem to enjoy insulting me. One poked me and called me a “white chicken” (side note: what?!? There are ads on TV for skin lightening creams, which is hugely problematic and a whole other issue, and people want to take photos of me because I’m white, yet this can also be used as an insult?), and another told me to “Get out of the market!” when I said I was just looking at the moment. Right. I told her I certainly wouldn’t be buying from her. (I know, I know, I should be nicer – but sometimes things just start to get to you and you feel the need to jab back)
3. There’s been virtually zero good internet making it impossible to do anything besides post the odd Facebook update (hence the lack of a blog, which was also a result of #4).
4. My laptop started malfunctioning in Varanasi, about 3 weeks ago. I managed to keep it going for a week, then it really died, so I had to trek around Mysore trying to find Apple stores and service places only to have to buy an $80 thunderbolt cable, get the last few things I hadn’t backed up onto my external hard drive, and then reformat the hard drive. Then about a week ago it really died. Like, for real broke. Like, the keyboard shortcuts to bring up Disk Utility or safe start up or any of that no longer work. So I was without a computer, my lifeline.
5. My Indian sim card also expired, something I was told wouldn’t happen for 3 months (it happened after 1), leaving me internet-less that way and without any way of talking to the parents back home when I needed to vent or to just hear their voices.
6. After nearly 40 days (wow, that’s Biblical! 😉 of being with an awesome group of mainly Australians – yay for having a tonne of places to stay in that country now!! – I find myself alone, with no one I know well to talk to in the flesh.
7. I got sick. While on my tour around India, a nasty stomach bug was making the rounds. I managed to avoid it, though did have to put up with an annoying cold. But then, a few days after coming to the South, it hit. And so I found myself throwing up in the bathroom, which makes my eyes water, and then that just naturally led to a full-blown sob fest. I got better, and then fast forward to last night when, after a traditional Goan meal that was actually quite nice, I tried to go to sleep while feeling super bloated (and I hadn’t eaten a lot; the meal was quite small). Queue not being able to fall asleep and then at 2am having to run to the toilet to upchuck all of that food, making me feel a bit better, but still unable to sleep. Seriously, I woke up every hour. So then today I’m sick, overtired, feeling lonely even though I finally have a computer, internet, and sim card again, and just wanting to be home. The tears come a lot – I’m not ashamed of being sensitive. Better in than out, right? – and the lady who runs the guest house where I’m staying was being super nice, causing me to rush upstairs after talking to her so I didn’t start crying in front of her. (What was that I said about not being ashamed?? hmmmm….)
8. I’m pre-menstrual. And for those of you who know me, that alone can send me into a huge spiral of emotional yuckiness. Which also probably explains why I find myself beating myself up sometimes about being so upset about these “First World problems.” But I need to remind myself that I need to be kind to myself, and let myself rest as well. Being emotionally and physically exhausted takes its toll. And that’s ok.
So there you have it. It will get better – things will pass and I’ll be back to my chipper self, hopefully soon. But I think in the meantime I’m going to stay away from any spicy food…and get some sleep.