Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Visiting India, Part 2

Massive Radha-Krishna in a nearby 
office building lobby

Continuing from last time, this post will be a general overview of my observations from my trip to India.

The easiest way to describe it is that it's a different culture. Plain and simple. I grew up with a basic understanding of the culture and it made me quick to pick up mannerisms and behavior while I was there. On the other hand take a random person raised in the West and plop them in India and they will think it's a mad zoo.

There are a few metropolises (extremely congested), some cities, and a whole lot of villages. Very few areas had the semblance of a town. Good housing structures run 1-to-3 rooms large with a kitchen and a flat toilet. People on the lower end of the SES spectrum have a lot less space.

Depending on where you look you can see the introduction of basic modern housing utilities. The neighboring town-city has introduced gas lines directly to homes in our village - presuming your house meets the provider's requirements. Some people still use gas tanks connected to their dual stove top burners but that will become obsolete because of the new gas lines. Predating the tanks, cooking was done on an open fire.

Place the fueling agents in the crater, ignite, then
rest your cookware on top of the open flame to begin cooking

Another village we visited didn't have gas lines but direct water lines to the homes. In contrast, our village relies on an underground well that has water pumped to the homes during mid-morning. There's progress in the country but it's slow and very dependent on the region. As a result, many of the infrastructures present here and in other developed countries are not as widespread in India. The mix of urban and rural areas don't have connecting utility systems. Take rest stops for example. Because many are situated out in the middle of nowhere on the highway, the facilities are latrine-based due to the fact there is no sewer system. Unfortunately, this is the case with a number of basic services.
10 years ago I noticed people openly littered on the ground. It was a very minor problem then and little trash was noticeable outdoors. 10 years made a huge difference because there is a ton of garbage strewn about everywhere. The increase in non-biodegradeable materials - namely plastic - combined with the lack of garbage processing centers and nonexistent waste disposal practices are major contributors to the pollution. The problem is further magnified due to the large population. The only method of waste disposal I saw was garbage burning. Whatever natural scenery remains in India is in jeopardy of disappearing if these conditions continue or worsen over time.

Roads, Highways, and Everything on Them

I initially thought to exclude this section of the trip. I thought to myself, "Why bother? It's not that important." Then I thought about it again and realized it - yes it is important. Highways look almost identical to the ones we have here and appear very new and modern. Not all portions of it are like that but I'd say close to 90% of them are similar. When you get to the local roads then everything becomes a big mess.

Road systems seem to be reliant on whatever pathways were previously in place. These avenues are shared by everyone and everything. Motorcycles, bikes, cars, rickshaws, pedestrians, water buffalo, goats, you name it. I'd presume these paths were originally made for pedestrians and non-motorized vehicles but that's no longer the case. Dense areas have motorcycles and cars attempting to squeeze through crowds of people.

While there are cars available, not everyone can afford one nor do they need it unless traveling long distances. On the other hand, tourists need someone to chauffeur them around because they're unfamiliar with the locale. Consequently, this has given rise and value to the driver profession. It's a lucrative business and career choice if an individual can drive well. It's similar to being a truck driver - drive frequently for extended periods of time except that they're transporting people from point A to point B. However, instead of trucks, 5-9 seat passenger vehicles are popular. Some resemble a minivan, others are more of a mini-hummer in appearance. Often you could spot the Toyota Qualis on the roads:

Typical packed car

Why buy a massive car? The more passengers you can fit the more money you make. Even with less passengers, such as our small party of three, we had quite a bit of luggage leaving and going to the airport. It wouldn't have fit in a regular-sized sedan. Large vehicles make sense but their use in villages and small towns is an issue. The aggressive driving style is dangerous because rules and penalties are not in place and are not enforced by authorities.

People's Living

India has over a billion people. With a population of that size, the SES stratum is diverse. This actually made it difficult to distinguish who was indigent at times. For instance, an individual who earns 100 rupees* a day - roughly equivalent to 2 US dollars - is considered to have a low income. Yet, the same person can live in a one room home without any transportation means, but own a standard definition TV and a cellphone. It's a bit tricky to define "destitute" when odd variables like those are thrown into the mix. In fact, one night a neighbor and I were talking about how everyone in the village is glued to their TV at night which is contrary to a few years earlier. Everyone use to sit outside and talk to one another. A TV in each home has become the norm whereas ten years ago our home was the only one with a TV. As you can tell, that's quite the opposite!

*One dollar is roughly equivalent to 50-55 rupees depending on its current value. 50 is used as a base for easy calculations.

To better put things into perspective, I'll go over a few values and costs of goods I noticed there and discussed with my mother. First she explained that 100 rupees is a lot and is considered the same as $20 here (but remember the true currency conversion is $2). Our family's okay with giving money as a gift to a relative whether it's a birthday, Christmas, or a small occasion. This is usually when a niece or nephew is given about $20 as a nice little gift. Typically, 100 rupees isn't given to someone as a gift. It's more common to give around 10 rupees. Several prices I recall were,
  • 1lb. of chicken = 200-300 rupees
  • 1lb. of goat = 500 rupees 
  • 20oz. of cow's milk everyday for 3 weeks = 700-800 rupees 
  • full tank of diesel or petroleum fuel for a car = over 1,000 rupees
If you think about it on a $20-base scale, that is incredibly expensive! Going by those numbers, a pound of chicken would cost a minimum of $40 here in NJ. That's more than four times higher than its current cost. A gallon of milk? For one week, it's about $40 (231 rupees for 7 days [700/21 days times 7 days in a week]). The cost of living for the citizens of India is much higher than our standards.

Yet despite limited resources and technology, by our living criteria, Indians manage to do pretty damn well. They create efficiency out of inefficiency. The phrase "When life gives you lemons, make lemonade" perfectly illustrates this concept.

The dabbawala highlight how efficient and resourceful Indians truly can be. Recall last time I wrote about how women are able to carry heavy bulky items on their head as they walk. No one owns a wheelbarrow to transport stuff around the village. Another example is the use of cow dung. It's shaped into discs and set to dry. Then in conjunction with wood it's used as a burning agent (wood alone in India is not enough to keep a fire lit). That actually doesn't seem efficient at all but my dad told me before detergent was available the ashes from the fire were used to wash clothes. To my surprise he said the laundry came out very clean.

While the dried cakes are not good for the atmosphere,
this must eliminate a great deal of animal waste

Anyone who knows how driving is in India would exclaim it's erratic and absolutely crazy. To a certain extent it's true. A whole lot of honking and one car over taking another doesn't make sense. On the contrary there is a rudimentary style of how one should drive: use your horns and high beams liberally to inform the nearby vehicle of your presence or to move aside so that traffic can flow smoothly. And slow down or stop if something is in front of you. I didn't claim it was a great way of driving but it works for them.


While there are very efficient processes present in the country, the huge glaring obstacle I saw was the lack of women's presence. India is a patriarchal nation. The women are tough as nails and religious scriptures highlight their value but their role in society is minimal. From what I know, women in the state of Gujarat are treated better than women in the other states (Rajasthan being the other exception). However, I'm not talking about oppression or abuse. Outside of being a stay-at-home mom, only a fraction of women are visible in the workplace. Hell, we didn't even see one driving a car in the entire 3 weeks. But the status of women became glaringly obvious when we were out shopping for women's saree. These huge fashion stores had men as their sales associates. That's not to say men can't sell women's clothing or be in the fashion industry....but not a single woman was a sales associate? That's funky. Only one store had women employed and they were in charge of administrative tasks (tracking customer orders, noting tailor requests, payments, phones, miscellaneous duties).

Outside of that, most jobs appear to be dominated by men. I won't say all jobs because I did hear neighbors mention a few women go to work in newly built factories because of the good pay. We even came across one 22 year old who runs a coconut business with her mom. And while we didn't see women driving cars, 10 years ago only men were riding around on motorcycles and scooters but now it's more common to see women dipping and diving through traffic. Like I said earlier, there's progress in the country but it's slow and dependent on the region.

People as People

Being visitors, we met quite a few people during our stay. We also visited others who weren't able to come to our neck of the woods. Let me just say that when you visit another person's home that their hospitality is unbelievable. They are EXTREMELY kind and welcoming to their guests. They want to treat them well and give them the most pleasant experience possible. At times it can be overwhelming. One memorable instance was when I stopped off at an extended relative's home after spending the afternoon out in the city. They were being so over-the-top kind to me that at one point I was beginning to feel awkward. They told me,

"Come! Come! You've been out all day. You must be tired."
Yes! Here lie down. Put your feet up.
Let me get you fresh coconut water."

You know, things of that nature.

Strangely though, there are no set formal manners, if any. No please, excuse me, your welcome, bless you, or any phrase of that sort. If you burp, you burp. No one cares that you did it because it happens and no one minds it. "Thank you" does exist in Hindi as "dhanyavaad" but no one uses the expression. They definitely need "excuse me" because people have no words to say if they want someone to step aside. I saw one guy simply waiting for another person to move. Aside from that, it did make me think if we're sometimes overly polite here.

But unfortunately, just because those individuals are kind to their guests doesn't mean they're kind to everyone. Sadly, attitudes towards a person are based on their background. If you don't come from a certain status/background or position of "power" (for a lack of a better term) then you will be treated poorly. What makes it worse is that it's tolerated and expected to an extent. I wouldn't call it discrimination but maybe it is and I'm blind to the truth. Either way it's not good for the people.
I've written a lot detailing my trip. However, words on a screen cannot convey the true experience of visiting India. I left out an incredible amount of information and what I did share only scratched the surface of the adventure. Trust me when I say a lot happened.

But it was amazing. When I got back, the trip felt like a fleeting memory that didn't even happen.

It dawned upon me that I was in India one early morning. My dad asked me if I wanted to visit our family's farm lots. We hiked through the tall grass and thickets then began to walk on a narrow dirt path. About a quarter mile in, I looked behind and in front of me. Not a soul could be seen. There was only my dad treading ahead of me pointing out and explaining the various fruit trees and how it was when he grew up, feeling the red sun warming the cool air, and listening to the peacocks' high pitch calls.

That was India.

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