Saturday, September 24, 2011

Journey into Pakistan

The last leg of my trip was the week I spent in Pakistan. My journey there went off without a hitch, for the most part. It was a little different from last year's experience crossing the border by land. For those of you who followed my old blog on Windows Live Space (stay tuned for the archived version!), you'll recall how much of the VIP treatment I received crossing the border. To shortly re-cap that experience, when I arrived at the Amritsar border, my cousin, who was fairly high up in airport security, had a couple of police officers meet me there and drive me to the border. While I sat on a chair and had tea, people whirled around me and took care of as much paperwork that was possible for a third party to complete. When I crossed the border, Mom and Asif were waiting right on the other side, since Asif's nephew in the military is posted at the border, and they were able to get right in and even helped me fill out the customs form as there were some fields that weren't really clear to me.

This time around, because my cousin had moved to a different police unit, I took a taxi from the airport. One thing to note about that, if you ever decide to do a trip like this, is that the taxi ride will cost you Rs1500 when to get from the border to the airport, it's only Rs800. Secondly, make sure to have enough cash on hand because the airport is one of the few that doesn't have an ATM. I didn't have enough because I was expecting the 800 I had seen last time I crossed from Pakistan to India, so the taxi service had to stop at an ATM en route so I could get the remainder of the money I owed.

I was counting down the kilometres, and when I was 5km away, I sent them a text to let them know how close I was. I arrived at the first office on the India side, filled in all the paperwork myself, and was offered no tea this time around. I don't know why there are so many offices, but in total, you make 4 different pit stops where someone records your name, citizenship, and passport number, once in a computer, and the rest in some sort of log book written by hand. The 2 porters humbly accepted the Rs200 I gave them, though the one protested it was too much despite the fact he had tried to tell me how poor he was and how rich I must be.

I walked to the other side.

It's hard to describe how that feels, especially after such a long time since I last saw my mom, I just couldn't wait to give her and Asif great big hugs. I was a little teary but realised I'd have to buck up when I didn't see anyone waiting for me there. I showed my passport to the military guy sitting at the border with a Kalashnikov resting on his lap. Then I went to the next and only other office to have my bags scanned and to fill in the customs form. Mom and Asif had been with me there last year, but I figured Asif's nephew probably didn't have a shift that day, so they couldn't get as close as they usually do. I filled in all the necessary forms, and then I had to end up opening my one bag because something in it made them think there was a bottle in it; they suspected I was carrying liquor in, though the one man protested that I was trustworthy because he thought I was a teacher. People in that part of the world don't always understand what I do for a living, and if they have limited English, it's difficult to explain. In any case, they confirmed that I did not have alcohol.

I then proceeded out past the border in public space, and still, there was no one waiting for me. I figured they must be on their way, so my new porters took my bags and set them down in some shade in front of a shop, and one of the shop owners was kind enough to bring a chair for me and offer me water. These porters were not humble and complained about the Rs500 I gave them. Granted, that's only slightly more the value of the Indian 200 I gave the other fellows on the India side, so I was not impressed with that! Anyway, I know I looked like such a curiosity: wearing jeans and a t-shirt (atypical for that part, though common in some of the wealthier business districts in Lahore), a female alone with 3 pieces of luggage. Guys had kept hounding me to exchange money that I'd need for a taxi, and taxi drivers were hounding me to hire them. Little boys were sitting next to me staring at me in the unashamed way people from South Asia will do. I tried to get reception on my phone to send them a text and find out where they were, but the signals were so weak near the border that I wasn't able to get any reception. The kind shop owner was really paying attention. He spoke some English and asked me if my phone would work, and when I replied that it would not, he asked me if I had the number and offered me his own phone. I had been ready to cry, and this was the hope I needed.

Asif answered and said they were close by, so I was quite relieved to find that out! I wasn't sure what had happened to them up to that point and didn't know what to do. I had their address, but if I went there, I had no guarantee anyone would be home, and then I'd be stuck. So once it was determined that people really were coming to get me, somehow everyone around me figured this out, and I wasn't so much of a curiosity anymore. Another man approached me and said there had been some people looking for me there before but had been sent away. I didn't understand what he meant until I found out that Mom and Asif had arrived earlier, prior to my arrival, and tried to get into the border. They were told no one was coming until 4pm, so they got turned away. We don't know what happened, but we think maybe there was a bus of travellers expected at that time, so the border guards maybe assumed I was going to be with that group instead of travelling there by taxi.

It really warms my heart when I think about the concern of those guys around the shops at the border. Another man had helped me carry my bags to Mom and Asif's car; it was true concern. At no time did I feel unsafe; it seemed like those guys were truly hospitable and caring. It felt so good to be with Mom and Asif again and that finally, I could rest.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

The Rest of India

I can't really say a whole lot about Pune and Hyderabad. We spent so little time there that I didn't get to do or see almost anything. I can say that the climate there was much more pleasant than it had been in both Delhi and Mumbai. In Pune, we essentially arrived in the morning, ate lunch at the hotel, did our fair, had a meeting after, and prepared to wake up at 3am the following day to catch our flight to Hyderabad. We had the evening free where we could have seen something, but most people were just too tired to go anywhere. It was okay for me because I had initially planned to go out with a new friend I had made last year during my business trip to India who is from Pune and lives there. He had always invited me to let him know if I was going to be in town, so I contacted him before I left, he gave me his number and told me to call him when I was there and we could go for supper or drinks. I had told him I wanted to try something that was typical from Pune or the region, so he said that he would take me somewhere for Puneri food. So once I was done my events for the day, I called him. That's when things became interesting.

A woman answered the phone, so she gave the phone to my friend. He told me he had just returned from a business trip to Mumbai and that he would call me back in about 10 minutes to let me know where we would go to eat. I then had a feeling I would never hear from him again. I was not wrong. He didn't even email to explain what happened. But I have a theory. Although we did not email frequently, we exchanged maybe 4 or 5 emails since last April, and I didn't really have a sense that he was romantically interested or anything. But at the same time, earlier this year or late last year, he revealed to me he had a 3-year old daughter. It seemed suspicious because you usually don't meet too many single fathers, but knowing he had done his MBA abroad and was of a younger generation, it didn't seem out of the question that he might have been divorced. Yet the number he gave me was his mobile, and when I heard a woman answering his phone, it struck me that this was probably his wife, and he's not divorced at all. I would imagine his wife put a stop to our dinner plans. The fact that he concealed this information, if it is indeed true, makes me think that maybe he did want to have some sort of affair or something. It's really suspicious, anyway. In the end, I was ok with not going out because I was equally tired. We had all woken up around 4 that morning to catch our flight.

As for Hyderabad, we at least got to see the city as we were driving around to visit the various schools. The city seems to be quite beautiful and is really rocky. I couldn't get too many good photos of it unfortunately, but there are a couple. You also see a lot of minarets there as about 60% of the population is Muslim.

The final city we went to, where there's a climate even more temperate, is Bangalore, now called Bangaluru, although I have a harder time getting used to saying that than I did Mumbai. The climate there is so nice, and the city is quite different in that about 80% of the population holds a post-secondary degree. I was considering trying to figure out how I could get a job there for a moment! I didn't really do much sightseeing there either as most of the people I was with just wanted to shop. I was a little disappointed because I had wanted to see the Bombay Palace, but I don't like to go out alone in India. I don't know that it's necessarily unsafe, but I just don't like to take chances. We did have a good time shopping at some Kashmiri emporiums. The 3rd and last store we went to was the best, and the guy there was super friendly and was telling me all kinds of interesting things about their textiles and fabrics. He also was kind enough to inform us that a guy who had offered to shuttle us to a factory of a store that was closed, a store that we had wanted to go to but was closed for the Ganesha festival that day, was just trying to take advantage of us and probably had his own store somewhere. Apparently even if there was a factory, it would equally have been closed for the festival because as government-run emporiums and businesses, they have to close for that festival. Yikes. I'm glad he was so friendly and helpful. He didn't try to "fleece" (another Indian term for taking advantage of someone) us at all.

Next up will be tales of Pakistan and the journey there.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Anna Hazare

I realised I missed out on a huge news event in my last entry, and I had meant to include it there since it was in Mumbai that I had seen my first set of Anna Hazare demonstrators from my hotel room. You may have already seen the pictures and wondered who he is.

I hadn't heard and of the news about him until I actually arrived in India. My uncle told me that many Indians consider him to be the new Gandhi as he leads a movement against corruption in India. All the news channels were covering his campaign 24/7. He threatened to go on a hunger strike if the government didn't pass a bill he had proposed that would see to it that those in positions or authority would become responsible for their actions and could even be prosecuted. At best, the government had said they would consider his proposal, but this wasn't good enough for Hazare, and his hunger strike threat continued. The drama heightened when he ended up getting arrested right before his strike occurred. If there hadn't already been thousands of people supporting him across the country, this only seemed to stir up more support for him as the demonstrations so far and all the way until the end had been peaceful. I didn't hear one incident of someone being killed or injured during the entire event.

While in jail, Hazare decided to start his hunger strike, and within a few days, the government decided to give him some space in a park in New Delhi to sit and strike. Interestingly, he was only allowed to do this for 15 days as apparently another group had rented the space after that two-week period for their own protest of some sort. In any case, if I remember right, it was about 11 days after he went on hunger strike that the government finally acquiesced to his proposal, and the process has already begun. One judge was already impeached before I left the country.

Quite honestly, I was surprised that this movement was successful. Corruption in India is so rife that it's almost its own institution. It was exciting to be there during one of India's most significant moments in history, and I was hoping to pick up some paraphernalia, namely the Gandhi-style hats that people were wearing that had Hazare's name written on them, but I hadn't a clue where to get one. I would have even loved to just go to one of the demonstrations to get photos and say I was there (which I'm sure made my cousins think I was crazy), but then I wasn't about to just head out there on my own and find one. Still, it was an amazing experience to be in India at that time. I encourage you to read the Times of India to get a more accurate overview of Anna Hazare's plight.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Photos from South Asia 2011

Again, remember that you'll have to tune in for more stories to finish explaining these photos in the next couple of days :o)

India in General

There are many interesting sights and sounds in India. Each state and region has different languages, culinary specialties, and religious composition. My first stop once my work period started was Mumbai. We weren't there very long but long enough to get several good photos as we were driving around in the bus to our school visits. It was Krishna's birthday on the Monday we were there, and one of the things they do to celebrate that day is to build human pyramids to try to reach these clay pots strung up high between two posts or trees. Thankfully that day, we had some unexpected free time, so I was able to go to the Gateway to India (as far as I know, this is what Indians call it despite the Wiki entry stating differently) with a couple of the other recruiters, and we had an interesting time in South Mumbai. I'm not used to travelling with white people, and men kept stopping to ask if they could get a picture with the girls. It was a little weird and quite annoying, so we tried to not to stop in one place for any length of time. In any case, we had a good afternoon where we also enjoyed high tea at the Taj Hotel, which overlooks the Arabian Sea and the Gateway to India.

We also learned that the name Bombay actually came from the Portuguese Bom Bahia (meaning Good Bay) and that they had difficulties pronouncing the name Mumbai for some reason. I hadn't realised that the Portuguese had gone that far north. I thought they had really only stayed around Goa. So it was interesting to learn a bit of the history there.

Next up was New Delhi. We had a pretty busy schedule there, so I didn't get to see much other than street scenes, but it was a good visit. We did have another unexpected free period when a school visit got cancelled, so we had time to visit Qutab Minar, one of the oldest structures still standing in Delhi. It's about a century old! On one day, we also went out to Dehradun, which was about a 6-hour train ride from Delhi each way. We went for one fair that only lasted 2 hours, so it was quite a journey that day, but it was interesting. Dehradun is really small, and it's much more crowded and noisy than anything we had seen, so for those who had never been to India before, it was quite an overwhelming experience. The trip goes through a lot of farmland, which I believe was filled with sugar cane plantations from the looks of it. The city itself is in the foothills of the Himalayas, so it started to become a bit hilly as we got close to it.

I remember when I was in Monterrey how much I noted contrast. Big houses next to shacks, the poor next to the rich. Here it seems to be even more exaggerated. I've seen mansions with cows in a field next door, street dwellers passing by monolithic office buildings and palace-like hotels. I wonder what it feels like to know that you not only have less than the next guy but that your less isn't enough for survival.

Yet we learned that all people here can go to school for free; the guide our tour organiser got for us says that those who beg on the streets just don't want to go to school. I'm not sure how much of that is true, especially if they're orphans being controlled by someone who might be threatening them, so I'll have to research that a little more.

I'll put more entries tomorrow. If you have questions about the photo album I'll be posting, you'll just have to wait until all my blog posts are finished!

Friday, September 2, 2011

Punjab and Beyond

It seems that I did manage to rest a bit at the airport in Delhi during my layover, but eventually I became quite chilly due to the combined lack of circulation and excess of air conditioning. So I went to get a coffee to try to warm up a bit. It actually did help, although I think it was more just the walking around that did it because I think I really did need to just get some circulation going.

My flight left a few minutes late but still arrived on time, and it was only a few minutes before my bags came out, and I was out of the airport. Lone females must get accosted more than lone males do, but this guy from the airline kept insisting to try to push my luggage trolley for me, and he even put his hands on handle and tried to push, hoping I would eventually let go. I would not. I just wanted to be left alone, and besides, it's not hard to push a trolley a short distance to where my uncle would be meeting me, and he would help me the rest of the way anyway.

We had a pleasant drive back to Jalandhar, though it was somewhat frightening at times once the sun went down and the toll road ended because the roads changed from brighter roads of 2 lanes per direction to a 2-way, narrow road with little light but whatever the moon could provide. And this is not like Canada where pedestrians and cyclists will have reflectors and headlights, so you don't see them often until right as you're about to hit them, and then you suddenly swerve out of the way to prevent the collision. I told my uncle I would never drive here, and he told me he wouldn't let me drive here either! I'm definitely ok with that.

My uncle and aunt have actually "shifted" (the term they use in India for moving to a new place) to another house that's a little easier for them to get around in and that's a little newer and more modern than where they lived before. The old house was my grandfather's house, which my dad inherited when his father passed away and which he later sold to my uncle. We drove past the house because my uncle wanted me to be able to see the brick with my grandfather's name on it for the last time, Narinjan Singh Shergill, for the last time because the house has been sold and will be demolished in the near future. That is the only house I had known in Jalandhar, and though my memories are somewhat vague, as most of the time I spent there was when I was a child or teenager, it just seems like it isn't the same anymore, and I wish I would have had my camera ready to get a good photo of it in time before we drove off. In any case, I have the name now written in my blog here for the sake of posterity, and it will remain in cyberspace longer than I will remain on earth, I imagine. The house was indeed old and quite cold in the winter while too hot in the summer. Still, much of what few memories I have of my grandparents are there in that house, especially my grandfather, who would take me out in the mornings in my pyjamas to walk with him and get fresh buffalo milk.

Readers, you may also be wondering why my grandfather's last name is Shergill and mine isn't; for whatever reason, my dad shortened it when he immigrated to Canada. Sometimes I wish I was a Shergill just because it's so much less common, but it would be such a pain to go through that now that it's not worth the bother.

I spent a good time in Punjab and in Delhi visiting with my family. I didn't do any sightseeing as I had just been to India last year, and I just wanted to focus on visiting since I had just a week to see everyone and didn't want to waste time doing stuff that wouldn't allow me to spend time with them. The sum of my life has taught me that there is too much unpredictability to guarantee where I will be next year or what I will be doing, so I have to take advantage of every moment while I can, and who knows when I will next return to India.