Hello from Go-wa-tee,
My 10 AM Jet Airways plane from Kolkata to Guwahati first needed to wait for a weather clearance. Then, three hours later mechanics found a defect in our waiting plane that necessitated switching aircraft. Five hours late and two separate paranoid security checking procedures later we finally took off, landing in Guwahati after dark.
Guwahati is in the state of Assam, pretty much surrounded by all the other six sisters. This entire region has been off limits to outsiders for decades. The three non-border states: Assam, Meghalaya and Tripura were opened to foreigners only last year. Military age boys still must carry identity passes, which verify they have a right to be in the area. The other four states, which comprise the “Seven Sisters” in Mother India, still are closed to most outsiders due to daily attacks by one or more of the many insurgencies. Only yesterday, insurgents hijacked a tourist bus not far from here, robbing all the 50 passengers and roughing up one who protested.
During the long wait in the Kolkata airport I spoke with a retired civil engineer. Telling him about my recent ($6000 US) cataract surgery in Bangkok where I paid less than $1000, he confided he too soon would need the procedure, but the cost in NE India would be only $200. I shudder to imagine the kind of care he might get for $200.
Along the downtown streets of Guwahati I see more fabric shops than any other category. Women seem to spend all their spare time shopping for Saree fabrics. The Saree is an amazingly versatile garment. A single strip of cloth, one meter wide by five meters long can be wrapped in an infinite number of ways around the female body. Add a scarf-like strip of complimentary color and the effect often is stunning. Wrap one way for casual dress, another to be formal. Simple, huh?
If you happen to be in the market for something other than clothes or vegetables, you are in big trouble in this part of the world. There are no malls, no department stores, no super-markets, no giant electronic stores, and few imported goods of any kind anywhere! The few upscale shopping complexes in the city are under a constant attack by dust, requiring throngs of bent-over sweepers shuffling about.
I remember as a youth learning about the Caste System in India and how the democratic government of newly independent India had declared castes illegal and irrelevant. I naively assumed that put and end to centuries old customs. My mistake! Castes are alive and well... and yes, illegal. Ads for brides and bridegrooms in the papers are organized by caste and specifically mention which caste need apply. People on the street take pride in noting they are of the Brahma caste in neighborhoods where most are of "lower" castes.
I like to learn at least one phrase in every local language. Here the native tongue is Assamese. "Thank you" in that language sounds a lot like DON-NO-BAD, an easy one for me as my brother's name is Don... and he's not all bad. Some of the English names for things differ from their American counterparts. For example, sexual harassment is called Eve Teasing here.
I have seen several articles in the papers about people raising their voices publicly against religious fundamentalism, usually Islam. The latest, writer Tashima Nasrin stirred the ire of fundamentalists in the region and earned a fatwa from one extremist group in her home country, Bangladesh. It will take many more brave people like her to turn the tide, but there does seem to be a ground swell of resentment against that fringe element determined to force everyone to believe as they do. I am hopeful.
Mosquitoes cause smoke. People ignite torches of rolled up newspaper and wave them around to incinerate the little critters and create a smoke screen, which the skeeters seem to hate. Other shops and cyber-cafes burn foul smelling incense or mosquito coils to discourage the sneaky biters during dusk and dawn hours. Hotels in this region scatter mothballs (camphor balls) around the rooms to discourage mosquitoes and other insects. It seems to work. Many people cough and I now personally know why. The dust kicked up by passing vehicles and the ever active sweepers has irritated my lungs, forcing frequent coughing spells to clear the tickle... all of which abates the minute I escape into my dust-free hotel room. Unlike other air-polluted places I've visited, few people wear masks.
An endless smorgasbord of smells is available wherever I go, but public buses are an especially good place to whiff widely. On one ride a guy carried a shopping bag full of three day old fish... had to be at least three days old by the smell. An acrid odor of Indian cigarette smoke follows many smokers pushing their way on to an already over crowded bus. Many people use perfumes, some pleasant, but most disgustingly strange. The motion of the bus guarantees it will pass through multiple smell zones, some foul, some pleasant. I wonder if local people eventually habituate to all the olfactory assaults.
Met Rajesh Sarswa, a second-generation tea merchant on one of my strolls. Their tea garden (plantation) has been in his family for sixty years. He and his brother inherited it after their father died. The best Assam tea sells for 150 to 400 Rupees per kilogram (about $4.50/pound). Pickers get about 150 Rupees per day and can pick about 50 kilograms in that time. That works out to wages of about $3.50 per day or under fifty cents an hour. Remember that next time you sip your Liptons.
Sitting on the mighty Brahmaputra River, people in this region have never known water shortage. Conservation is a non-issue when it comes to water. However, recycling is big business for the lower classes of India. One sees people in rags, sifting through piles of trash looking for salvage; bits of plastic, metal and cardboard. Small children roam the streets carrying big burlap bags full of scrounged salvage to sell. The wages of such people must be small even by Indian standards. Here and there along the roads are piles of sludge removed from the clogged sewers waiting for someone to haul them away to a landfill. Sludge, I learned is not recycled as fertilizer! Why, I cannot imagine.
As usual, my first hotel the $59 Brahmaputra Ashok, is best described as underwhelming. During hotel shopping soon after checking in, I discovered most offerings overpriced and poorly maintained. My current hotel, the four stars $53 Dynasty succeeds in keeping the physical plant clean and fairly well maintained. The public areas are elegant.
The customary Indian breakfast is nearly all carbohydrate: fresh fruit and juices, several kinds of breads, a potato stew or Chole made of beans and lentils, a moist bread and a couple paste like substances, Upme that tastes like a spicy Mexican Masa made with rice, and a boiled egg accompanied by milk tea. The Dynasty Hotel has a formal Indian dining room where I've enjoyed authentic north Indian food, sometimes preceded by a complimentary basket of thin crisp spicy lentil "chips." Lunch and dinner meals usually are topped off with a pile of Anise seeds, not a totally disagreeable way to end a meal.
Lunchtime is 14:00 to 15:00 and dinner is 19:00 to 20:00. Miss those narrow time slots and plan to subsist on meager snacks, though. Tasteful classical music is played for dining pleasure, a welcome respite from all the street clamor outside. This hotel and one other four star house, the Rajmahol are a world away from the surrounding chaos, filth, congestion and pollution, an unexpected oasis of sanitary civilization.
Shortly after arriving in Guwahati I came down with a chest cold, presumably acquired during the process of shaking hands with one of the hospitable folks I’ve met. Everyone wants to shake hands with the American! Of course, keyboards and mice in the several public Internet cafes I’ve used also are suspect. Water and rest ended that unwelcome adventure in an amazingly few days, but has drawn my attention to how often I touch my face to deal with an itch one place or another! I am beginning to understand the wisdom of keeping one hand “clean” for eating practiced in this part of the world.
Getting around the city demands experienced familiarization, as there are no accurate maps of the city! I suspect the military situation has something to do with it. Armed Indian soldiers patrol every street of the city with armed plainclothes cops skulking here and there in alleyways. Everyday newspapers carry at least one article about people being killed by one rebel group or another, collectively called Ultras. There are so many different groups it is hard to determine what they each want, though self-determination is always implied.
The central Indian government has ordered prepaid cell phone service suspended up here in this region of the country plagued by insurgencies. In any case, telephone service is expensive to initiate and rationed due to insufficient capacity and no competition. Getting a short-term prepaid number costs about $70. Local airtime however, runs only about five cents per minute. Almost 95% of current subscribers have the cheaper prepaid plans and all are being told to convert to the "postpaid" plans. A mob crowded the telephone office I visited. Local people in this region are up in arms over the discriminatory mobile phone restrictions recently imposed by Delhi.
In the best Internet café in town, I met a couple cousins, Bhaskar Baruah and Subhash Goswami who introduced me to their families and allowed me to briefly join in during a local annual harvest festival celebration, Magh Bihu or Bhogali. It is an interesting combination of our Thanksgiving and Halloween. Families gather together to recreate symbols of earlier times. Women prepare a cookout of traditional foods and men build a symbolic hut. Kids run around "stealing" items from neighbors who have left them out for easy access that night. The next morning, the "hut" is set on fire and token foods are thrown on the bonfire to appease the gods.
Some of your may remember several years ago when I extolled the virtues of digital photography. In that piece I speculated film cameras soon would join the buggy whip and that everyone would soon choose a digital alternative. Yesterday I read that Kodak will sell its last film camera this year! Time marches on.
While ostensibly a Hindu country, the Muslims have three Mosques within earshot of my 5AM sleeping ears. The "song" shouted by the Indian muezzins is distinctly different from those of their counterparts in the Middle East... rather amateur renditions of the real thing in my opinion. Near my hotel the singers do let the current hollering end before beginning their own call to prayer. By the way, it never works. I've looked out the window after they have all finished and have seen not a single soul on the street near the mosque right across the street. Makes one wonder why they bother! Christian churches are in abundance here, too. They however, do not ring their bells at night!
If man created god as some assert, the Indians must be the most creative people on earth. They have hundreds, thousands of them, some with the most outlandish bizarre characteristics. Devotees frequent shrines or temples erected throughout the city for many of the more “popular” deities. I saw a young twenties-something American dressed in traditional Hindu garb, red streak on his forehead, begging bowl and all. The discordant affect grated my sensibilities. As my Buddhist Monk friend in Laos agreed: "the robe does not make a monk." I suppose the complex path to a spiritual life for some, demands exotic trappings in order to make the transition from one illusion to another. Still, I could not help comparing the kid's behavior to those of others publicly flaunting religious garb and symbols known to cause psychological discomfort in others of a different faith around them. It seems to me such behavior is more a political statement intended to influence others than something demanded by one’s own personal religious devotion.
People spit a lot and everywhere. It seems to be a national hobby. Those chewing Beetle-nut concoctions spit red and often. Silence is not a requirement: the longer and louder the preparation for a discharge, the better. I've given up trying to give the perpetrators looks of disgusted revulsion, as it has no effect whatsoever!
I met an Australian from a team of fifteen foreign experts assisting with revamping the state government’s systems and procedures. A big problem is designing strategies for minimizing the opportunity for corruption. In a country where "baksheesh" is common, this is no small problem. Local officials consider "speed money" a natural component of any transaction where someone needing one of the many permits required to do almost anything expresses urgency.
Playing sewer hopscotch and stumbling over grossly uneven "sidewalks" in the city makes for some rather awkward perambulation. Trying to maintain any sort of dignity during a game of people dodge ball on the crowded walkways is next to impossible. Everyone except the well dressed watch my simplest ordinary activity along the way. Adding the stench of open sewers and an occasional unexpected expectoration missile from an obscured doorway, keeps unaccustomed walkers like me on a heightened state of alert during the most casual stroll.
The beggars are a polite lot, by and large. Some are even friendly! An occasional scruffy kid will follow me as I leave a store refusing to take "no" for an answer and making it next to impossible to "just ignore him" advised by the locals.
Though there must be many other kinds, the only birds I've seen have been crows! They are everywhere. One of them "bombed" me and redecorated my shirt with an abstract white insignia. Beneath many shady trees the sidewalks are spattered with white splashes... best to plan a detour around those invitingly cool routes.
Most people get around by foot, bicycle, or motorbike though the cycle-shaws are everywhere along with little three wheeled motorized enclosed taxis. Big smoke belching cars are for the highways where they compete for a piece of the road with overloaded trucks and buses carrying rooftop cargo piled so high the vehicles look top heavy. The air pollution is oppressive. Black crusts accumulate in my nose everyday.
People pollute with impunity. Food wrappers are discarded wherever they are no longer needed; on the street, in the rivers. Occasionally I'll see a trash receptacle and almost always it is empty! Apparently no one sees the connection between their personal disregard for clutter and the pervasive filth and disorder, which grips all of the Indian cities I've visited so far. My overall impression is of a land full of filthy street spitting litterbugs. Of course, many people are well dressed and take care to spit where it will not create a hygiene problem. It is the people doing the physical work of the city who have given me my shocked impressions of filth and chaos. They are everywhere and their rags and dirty bodies freely mingle with the more fortunate. I see many people "grooming" one another, just like gorillas! I presume they are looking for head lice. It makes me itch just thinking about it. Many are obviously homeless, something I've confirmed during early morning walks on numerous occasions.
Tomorrow, I'm headed to Shillong Meghalaya about 100km south of here and the amazing Charapunji area, which boasts of the world's highest annual rainfall. There should be a lush rain forest there.
That's it for now. Work for a better world.