Mike’s India… er… Highlights

India… what can you say about India that hasn’t already been said? It is a truly unique place in this world. I know that I have never been any place like it. I would have thought that China would give India some competition here, but not in my books.

We all know that there is ultra-rich and ultra-poor in India. It is another thing, however, to see what this means first hand.

It is easier to envision ultra-rich, because we see glimpses of it on TV and in movies all the time. The ultra-poor is another matter. The filth that people live in is hard to describe. It hits all the senses at once and can be over-powering. It is impossible to understand how people can accept these conditions.

Mumbai's Most Expensive House... 5 people, 27 floors and 400,000 sq ft

Mumbai’s Most Expensive House… 5 people, 27 floors and 400,000 sq ft

Making bricks by hand

Making bricks by hand near Mumbai

It is even more impossible to understand how the ultra-rich and ultra-poor can live right beside each other. They see each other every day and yet do little to change the status quo.

Well… that is not really fair. There are many people in India trying to share the wealth more equitably and to make everyone’s lives better. It is just that everyone is being so patient. If these conditions existed in the Western world, there would be riots in the streets. That is not to say that this is the right answer. It is just the only one that makes sense to my Western-trained mind.

Dharavi Slum and Village Tours

We really wanted the kids to see poverty first hand when we were in India. We wanted them to get a glimpse of what poverty really means.

Now, of course, you don’t just walk through a slum with your kids and wave at the locals as you walk by. This didn’t seem like the best idea. Instead I stumbled upon a real good tour in Mumbai. It was called Reality Tours (realitytoursandtravel.com).

Dhobi Ghats near Dharavi

Dhobi Ghats near Dharavi

The tour company is managed and operated by people from the Dharavi slum itself. They are enthusiastic about their “slum” as they see it a triumph of human ingenuity and drive. They make a point of stating that a slum is a place “where the inhabitants don’t have rights to the land”, not a place where people are poor. They also celebrate the Dharavi successes, like the fact that Dharavi processes more recycling waste than any other place in the world. Sonja even found that her favourite pappadums were manufactured here.

Regardless of the successes, there are a lot of extremely poor people in Dharavi. The conditions can be horrendous. The few toilets they have are overcrowded and filthy, such that many just relieve themselves on top of the many rubbish piles around town. The living quarters themselves are smaller than a small western bathroom. At least in this slum, the living quarters have solid walls (concrete).

It was an incredible experience to see how everyone worked and lived in this environment. Unfortunately, we were not allowed to take photographs. I didn’t have a problem with this, since they were giving us a very personal view of the slums. Check out their web site for photos.

We were, however, were allowed to take pictures during the village tour also offered by this company.

Clothes washing the old fashion way

Clothes washing the old fashion way

A local village market

A local village market

Sonja having a go at cricket

Sonja having a go at cricket

The village tour was equally amazing. It took us out of Mumbai into the countryside into a small village. The journey getting there was half the fun (boat, bus, tuk-tuk). We got to play cricket with the locals (I really suck at cricket) and visited a mud brick factory.

Well… I might be using the term “factory” too loosely. It was a field with a mud pit where this poor family mixed mud by hand to make bricks. They lived in a small shack right beside the field. It was a hard life.

Living where you work... literally

Living where you work… literally

We actually visited two villages on this tour: one village for the mid-level castes and the other for migrants from the hill-tribes (low-level castes). Both were poor, but the latter village was by far the worst off. Apparently they only have houses because the government has built them for them. The contrasts between the two villages were stark.

The nicer local village

The nicer local village

The poorer village

The poorer village

We saw so much on these two tours, I could go on for pages. It really opened my eyes to how different life is in India.

A meal in the local village

A meal in the local village

A local village school

A local village school

An ox cart ride... of course

An ox cart ride… of course

Rajasthan and Jaisalmer

We left Mumbai and its extremes of rich and poor behind us and hopped on a train to Rajasthan (Udaipur to be exact). Rajasthan is a land of chivalry and legend in India. Every city has a rich history of battle and sacrifice. In fact, every city has an impressive fort that dominates its surroundings.

Udaipur Palace

Udaipur Palace

Ranakpur Fortress

Ranakpur Fortress

Jodhpur Castle

Jodhpur Castle

I love forts and historic battles, so I really wanted to see Rajasthan. We had a limited time, so I had tried to be selective on which towns we visited. However, when we got to Jodhpur, the locals at our hotel convinced me… well actually they convinced Sonja and she convinced me… to add one more town, Jaisalmer. Apparently we were just in time for the “Desert Festival” and it was huge. We rearranged our plans and caught a taxi out to Jaisalmer.

The view from the breakfast area

The view from the breakfast area

Jaisalmer is different from other Rajasthan cities, since it is in the middle of the Thar desert and would have been largely abandoned if it hadn’t been for tourism. It didn’t have much industry so the town is pretty quiet accept during the Desert Festival. It is also unique in that the old town actually sits inside the forts walls. Of course, that is where we got to stay, where we could have breakfast on top of the city walls looking out over the desert.

Emma wrote a blog on everything that we got up to there, so I won’t repeat it. We definitely got to witness some interesting and bizarre customs (like the beard growing contest). The biggest highlight for me was the final day of the festival in the desert. For this we drove an hour into the desert and climbed up on the sand dune to watch traditional dance and fireworks. If you are in Rajasthan during this festival, you need to go the Jaisalmer.

Getting ready to party on the dunes

Getting ready to party on the dunes

Don't forget your camel

Don’t forget your camel

and a little bling...

and a little bling…

Now we can dance...

Now we can dance…

The Golden Temple

When I was in university I had a Sikh roommate who told me a lot about the Golden Temple. Unfortunately it was during some difficult times in India. The Golden Temple had been stormed by Indian troops and there had been a number of high profile Sikh “terrorist” attacks. I told myself that if I ever had the chance, I had to visit the Golden Temple.

Well, we were in India so we had to go. We took the train from Delhi to Amritsar.

Our first impressions were not good. The town of Amritsar is not much to look at. It was pretty dirty and everyone seemed to be in a hurry. It didn’t help that there was a lot of construction that made it difficult to get around.

That all changed when we got to go inside the temple complex. Inside the walls, it was completely different. The Golden Temple sat peacefully in the centre of the lake which was surrounded by bright and clean marble buildings and walkways. It seemed the exact opposite of what was outside the walls.

I was a little nervous about going inside the Golden Temple itself since I understood how important it was to Sikhs. Then we met a nice couple of Sikhs from Edmonton. They were really friendly (as most were inside the temple walls) and said we should go.

I was glad that we did. The temple itself is not very large, but the effort than has been put into it is substantial. There was gold everywhere and the detail was impressive. Rather than building a large overpowering building like many religions, they choose to put their effort into the fine details. It truly is a beautiful sight.

We had some good pictures… but unfortunately they were lost with the camera (see next section).

The Indian Bureaucracy

I’m not sure if I should call this a highlight or a “low”-light, but when we left Amritsar Sonja’s small backpack was stolen. This included her iPad, her camera and ALL her id. Apparently the thief hit multiple people on the train and, apparently, this particular train is known for thefts… kinda wish someone had told me.

When we arrived in Agra, we got directions to the police station and got our first experience with Indian bureaucracy.

Police station near the train

Police station near the train

An Indian police officer

An Indian police officer

The police station was little more than a barracks beside the train station. When we arrived the police officers were just waking up. Some were half-dressed and hanging around the doors. We walked into the dingy one room office and sat on the bench.

Sonja walked through the theft a number of times as the officer wrote down the details in triplicate in both english and hindi. There was no technology involved here, even though Agra is a larger Indian town. The officer brought our a number of different notebooks and checked and crosschecked the different forms. In the end we were there over four hours. All this for a three page report that we could use to prove that she was robbed.

While our initial thoughts were about the camera and our shots of Delhi and Amritsar (and the cost of the camera), it quickly turned to the id. When we got to the hotel, they wanted id from us to check in. Of course, Sonja didn’t have id… but she did a police report. They struggled with this and, after calling her to the office a number of times to check details, finally accepted that she could stay.

This happened at each of the other hotels that we stayed (in Jaipur and Mumbai) and for the remainder of our trip. In one case, they threatened to kick her out without proof of id. Adding this on top of the theft itself, it was pretty hard on Sonja.

The true finale did not come until we got to Mumbai to fly out. The Canadian Embassy would not issue temporary passports until we had bought tickets out of India. They thought a week out for leaving would be ok, but they neglected to tell us that getting an Indian exit permit would be difficult.

You see, we had entered India with an Indian visa in our passports. Since Sonja had lost her passport (and Emma’s), they didn’t have their Indian visa anymore. This meant that they were in the country somewhat illegally and they could not leave without an exit permit. We had to go to the immigration office in Mumbai to get an exit permit.

We arrived at the immigration office with a new Canadian passport, receipts from getting our visas in Bali, a police report and Jacob and my valid visas. We thought that this would just be a formality. Well… apparently this was not the case, even though they pulled up Sonja’s visa on the computer in front of them.

We waited there for EIGHT hours, trying to get exit permits because we were flying out the next day (or so we hoped). In the end they told us that we would have to come back on Monday (it was Saturday) because they were closing soon. That was not going to happen so we had to make a scene… I mean what did we have to loose? Were they going to kick us out of the country?

They had a change of heart and stayed extra time to give us two little pieces of paper that said Sonja and Emma could leave the country. Yes!

Our experiences in India were extreme, if not always positive. It was definitely an adventure.

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