Archive for November, 2008

Floating Condoms, TVs in Mud Houses, or When Modernization comes Unexpectedly

November 25, 2008
Kym - the young lady who is participating in our private workshop photographing the rural Rajasthani life

Kym - the young lady who is participating in our private workshop photographing the rural Rajasthani life

You can all forget what I said about things not having changed much in Bundi District. We just came back from another overnight stay at a small village where another unexpected surprise awaited us. On the surface everything remains the same, but only on the surface. Last evening we visited the home of the lovely woman who became our friend almost 2 years ago and there we saw it – the flickering light of a TV set was shining from inside her stone and mud house, there was a DVD player too and the night’s flick was a B grade film based on a story from the legend of Ramayana. After seeing a computer in a similar village just a couple of days ago perhaps it should not have shocked me at all, but there wasn’t even electricity here the last time we came.
– Are you the only ones to have a TV in the village? We asked.
– No, there are four, wait five families as of today. Answered our friend’s youngest daughter.
As we came in and sat down the neighbors began to appear, some came to see us again, others to glance at the aliens from another world for the first time. This time the buzz and the excitement wasn’t quite the same as before though, there weren’t as many curious faces around, no endless questions. Perhaps it was the winter cold, perhaps the novelty factor had worn off, or it could be that our presence was simply not enough to get people away from the few TV sets around the village. It was a strange scene as we sat by the kitchen fire, Tanya and our friend’s eldest daughter cooked, some neighbors watched them, others were glued to the TV and the more energetic of the children played outside with what they thought to be balloons, but seemed to us like condoms. It was confirmed that they were indeed condoms, brought by some genius teacher to a bunch of seven and nine year olds under the premise that they would be used for sex-education. In reality in conservative rural Rajasthan to talk about sex is somewhat taboo and to tell children what condoms are really used for is not a task any villager wants to take on. Looks like population control will have to wait here.

Floating condoms/baloons and some entertainment technology in our friend's stone and mud home

Floating condoms/baloons and some entertainment technology in our friend's stone and mud home

The cooking and eating dragged into very late evening and going to sleep presented a bit of an adventure. The combination of a shortage of beds and the incredible Indian hospitality caused the following: A couple of families were woken up, children screamed as they were taken off their beds and bundled with their siblings and our friend gave away her only big bed to me and Tanya. I felt like the biggest ass in the world, realizing that we had caused so much commotion (and children’s tears). I didn’t even care about having a bed, but our hosts were concerned that rats, which frequented the school because of the bags of grain that were stored there would disturb our sleep. Still, I felt bad, but when I asked Hardik to thank the people that had accommodated us he said that they would be insulted, saying, “ You already know. “In India Guest is God” – a phrase which I have heard many times, but have never stopped to be amazed at just how much it means to the Indian people.
In the morning we woke up to the familiar sounds of domestic animals, the creaking of the water pump and the new, horrendous phenomenon – religious music blaring out of our friend’s home.
Our photo shoots around the area proved that the place is as photogenic as before, Kym was slightly overwhelmed by the opportunities that she was presented with virtually everywhere she looked, but as great as everything was, I felt little sad. I was reminded again; things will not stay this way for very long. We spent the rest of the day riding around the surrounding villages, visiting homes, getting to know our ‘photographic subjects’. At first glance everything was still the same, but a second look proved otherwise. A few less turbaned elders, a few more rings of the mobile phone in an area where one had to go to the top of a building in a specific spot just to get network coverage.
By the time I’ll post this I will be in Jodhpur – the blue city and a street photographer’s paradise. I’m actually writing this post on the train to Jodhpur, of all places. Turns out some sections of the train have power sockets. Well, I guess development aint all bad.

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Hello Future

November 22, 2008

The private workshop is in full swing now. We are in Bundi. Thankfully not much has changed around here since the last time we visited, but then it has not even been two years. It is great to be back doing what I did for almost 5 months during our last India trip – riding around the countryside, looking for interesting subjects along the roads, out in the fields and in the villages. It is also quite fascinating and somewhat educational to be the onlooker and not the photographer, as I watch Kym – the workshop participant, do what I did in the past. For most part I avoid taking photos, as having two photographers in some of these remote areas would raise the people’s excitement to an unmanageable level and turn the whole thing into a circus. We have to be really careful with how we approach the situation.

I have recently been reminded that India never runs out of surprises. The other day we stayed in a traditional village – full of stone and mud houses. Many people here still dress in clothes from a different era. At the edge of the village there was a different kind of house, it seemed to belong to someone a bit better off than the rest of the villagers, it was more modern and used concrete elements. Seeing a house like this amongst traditional buildings is not unusual in India these days; what was unusual – was the computer inside the house. Even more surprising was the fact that behind the computer sat a boy of eleven. He typed Hindi characters using an English keyboard; he had memorized which Hindi characters corresponded to which English letters. As we chatted with his proud father we found out that there are currently only three computers in the entire region and his boy was one of the lucky owners. He had had it for only two months, but already knew how to use Microsoft Office and Microsoft Paint, Bill Gates would have been proud, although the software was surely pirated. The boy painted a figure with a mouse and when he made a mistake clicked Ctrl+Z (the shortcut for undo). Hardik, Tanya, Kym and I were all a little startled. A computer in a medieval village and a little wunderkind operating it: What better symbol of where India? The boy’s father asked if we wanted a print out of the picture than the boy had drawn. – What, there is a printer too? – Yes, laser printer. – Hmm, well, we don’t want to waste your cartridge, don’t go to the trouble. – No, no problem. Said the father and within a few seconds we were standing with a print.

I have mixed feelings about such changes. I feel sad that it is only a matter of time before much of what I have come to love about this region will be changed by the influences of the world where I come from. If these changes happen too fast for the people to really comprehend what is happening, the situation will become very ugly indeed. On the other hand I know that I don’t really have any say in how things should develop. If a family of cow herders wants their son to become a computer programmer; who am I to say that it’s not the best decision? Mud houses and nights by the fire may be a romantic idea for foreigners who visit India and come back to their brick/concrete electricity powered houses/apartments with running water. For people who have not seen anything other than a very basic way of living there is nothing romantic about not having electricity, running water and having to fix their mud floor every time that someone with shoes takes a large chunk out of it. Personally I wish there was a perfect balance, a harmony between the old, the culture that developed over hundreds of years and survived hundreds more and the onslaught of modernity. It’s unlikely that something like that will happen in the region of Bundi; but one can always dream right?

Pimpin my ride, Indian Railways and Kolayat Fair

November 16, 2008

At the fair

I’ve been waiting for something eventful to happen before posting, but events often happen in bunches and really quickly. Having to travel for almost 1000 km over the last five days, time is the luxury which I do not have. I’ll have to be relatively brief.

At this stage, almost three weeks into my journey I feel that I have already experienced the full range of the emotions that India evokes. Yes, the people here are absolutely amazing, but it is also incredible that I can still get so frustrated. A few times I have already had to break the rule of not riding the motorcycle after dark. I’ve done it out of necessity not by choice and I will say it again – DO NOT RIDE AFTER DARK IN INDIA, particularly not in Rajasthan. The truck and bus drivers are maniacs and they can kill you, given enough attempts. How? By blinding you with the high beam and taking up your lane as they overtake something slow-moving in the opposite direction to you – e.g. camel cart. I’ve reached the boiling point a few times already.

Hardik (left in black top) and a bunch of bystanders appreciate our bike

Hardik (left in black top) and a bunch of bystanders appreciate our bike

My motorcycle luggage carrier drama is now hopefully over. I “pimped my ride” in an area of Ahmedabad, Gujarat where young lads with too much money modify their Indian-made-bikes to look like foreign models. I wanted no such thing. My desire was to simply strengthen my motorcycle frame to withstand the rigors of bearing the weight of my luggage on rural Indian roads. A frustrating, but overall productive experience. I got what I wanted, albeit almost a day later than promised, with just enough time to book my vehicle as luggage on the Indian Railways. The experience of sending your motorcycle somewhere on the train surely takes at least a few days off your life. Finding where to go, who to talk to, how much to really pay and doing it all before the train departs – it’s really not that fun. The bike and we went from Ahmedabad to Jodhpur, on the train, from there we rode to Bikaner, then to Bundi with a one-night stop in Pushkar. Bundi is the final destination for now. From here I will lead a private photography workshop for 17 days.

It can get a little crowded on Indian trains

LEFT: Man booking his goats to be sent on the train. That's where I booked my bike RIGHT: It can get a crowded on Indian trains, often people have to battle to get on.

I have not spent enough time anywhere yet to really absorb the places I’ve been to. One pleasant surprise on the way was the Kolayat fair – dubbed “Mini Pushkar” (the famous camel fair). Here we met two old cameleers with whom we will likely go out into the desert, just for a short journey for the workshop, around some unspoilt traditional villages. Going with them seems like a much better alternative to hiring a jeep and a driver from a Tour Company which I spoke to. I hate being the tourist who is taken around like a spectator in a zoo and then gets milked for every last penny. The tour operator promised me villages which are not ‘touristy’. A ‘touristy’ village in the desert Rajasthan usually means being followed by villagers who ask for rupees, chocolates, pens, soap, shampoo and whatever other things previous tourists were ‘kind’ enough to leave. ‘Not touristy’ means that previous visitors and operators have basically not screwed the place up. I asked whether the company’s driver knew of such villages – Yes, he has taken many tourists there! Replied the company owner. “Hmm, yeah, what you say really makes sense. A good reason to pass.” I thought to myself.

On the other hand the old cameleers instantly made me feel comfortable around them. Perhaps it was the smell of camel dung, unwashed clothes, bidi smoke and their calm voices – characteristics typical of cattle and camel herders around the region. I had become very familiar with such people in my last India trip and have nothing but positive associations with them – real, unpretentious folk who often seem to belong to a world that is different than that of their neighbors.

I’m off to organize the final details of the workshop. I will be quite intensely involved with it over the next 17 days or so and don’t know how often I’ll be able to post. I’ll try my best. Posting some photos here, just some diary shots from the past week. (The image at the top is a camel herder preparing dinner after dark at the Kolayat fair. I wanted to see how people would react to me using an off camera flash in a soft box, whether it would draw too much attention, thankfully not.)

Riding a motorcycle in India

November 7, 2008

On the road to AhmedabadThe ride to Ahmedabad was a reminder why I love this life on the road. Just me and my wife Tanya, riding through what are often beautiful, unfamiliar lands, experiencing everything together – this has been a large part of our lives over the last three years. In many ways it is as romantic as some may think, but there is another side, one which is not so nice.
The beauty you see is sometimes matched by the horror (to me at least) – the amount of killed dogs on the roads is impossible to count, the scenery is not always ideal – ugly buildings and industrial, smoke belching areas really do not make for inspirational riding. And then there are the road users, who, well let’s just say they do not always act as one might expect, nor do the pedestrians – I’ve had much more close calls than I would have liked to, over the years. To top everything off there is the ‘pain in the butt factor’ (literally) – over a long journey a motorcycle seat becomes the least comfortable place in the world and even a roach-infested hotel starts to seem like a welcoming alternative.
Riding around India is not easy, but it is far from impossible and not as insane as many visitors to India may think. All that one needs is the knowledge of how the Indian roads work, once things begin to make sense everything starts to feel much less daunting.

Here are some simple tips for those who want to ride a motorcycle around India or simply want to know what it’s like. (more…)

Goodbye Junagadh

November 6, 2008

Yesterday we left Junagadh. I don’t want to get all sentimental here, but I will say that the kindness of the people who came across our way – new friends and old, is the reason why it is impossible not to fall in love with this region and India in general. I think Hardik’s parents and friend Sandeep may begin having nightmares about sewing machines and luggage carriers after accommodating all our needs, while Tanya was making the carriers for 24 hours without a stop. Our old friend Upendra Bhai who works with metal made the metal part of the carrier that goes on the back of the bike. He didn’t mind that we came to his place at 9pm and that he would have to work into the night. This was the third time that we asked Upendra Bhai to help us. Every time we appear unexpectedly and every time he agrees to help. He refused to accept any payment for his job; he said that he was happy to help and see us again and that was enough.
But of course nothing in India is straightforward and simple, at least not for me. Five kilometers into our journey towards Ahmedabad, which is about 350km away we realized that the design of our metal carrier was miscalculated. It bent and we had to reposition the bags in hopes that we could still make it all the way. Fortunately we did.
Now we’re in Ahmedabad – the commercial center of Gujarat – a city which is polluted, noisy and well, not one of my favorites. Ideally I do not want to spend more than a couple of days here, I have wasted enough time. In reality I know that nothing is certain and all I can do is hope for the best.

When alien worlds meet

November 1, 2008

I keep being reminded of just how different the world where I’m from is to the world where I now find myself. Perhaps no matter how many times I come to India things will always remain this way.
For the past couple of days we’ve been trying to figure out how to make luggage carriers for my motorcycle. Getting involved in making anything in small town India often becomes a task of epic proportions – before long, everyone’s uncle’s, cousin’s son knows what you are doing. This can be good, as you can quickly track down the right people for the job, but quite often it is simply annoying – bored bystanders come to offer useless advice and opportunists try to cash in.
After asking around we begin the search for a person who can do the job. The choice is very limited. Most of Junagadh’s inhabitants are very auspicious Hindus, many businesses are closed as the best time to re-open is on the fifth day after Diwali and that’s when we would ideally leave for our next destination.
The first candidate for the job has his “office” – a wooden shack with a sewing machine next to a public urinal. I have to block my nose while I explain what we want. I’m thankful that he isn’t too interested – the smell is simply too much. The next candidate is much more pleasantly located – in a one-hundred-year-old courtyard, next to a Hindu temple. He is a pudgy, bald, mustached bag maker in his fifties – very welcoming and as it turns out very eccentric. He hands us his business card, which reads “NO GUARANTEES” in letters larger than anything else written on the card. He invites us to chat. Our conversation randomly detours, as conversations in India do, from the topic of bags, to feeding two hundred monkeys with three hundred rotis (a type of Indian bread) at the foot of the sacred Girnar Hill. That’s what the man does every Sunday and he proves it after insisting that we watch a VCD of this act. There is religious inspiration behind the man’s actions, but trying to understand his motives in depth is hard and I have long ago learned that understanding certain things in India can be bad for my sanity, I do not even try.
After another change of topic it turns out that the monkey feeding bag maker is Hardik’s best friend Sandeep’s uncle. It is decided that he will make the luggage carriers, but the same evening Hardik rings to tell me that the man’s own nephew is not impressed with his work and does not recommend him. I remember “NO GUARANTEES” and think that perhaps it was put on the card for a reason.
The next day we plan to buy the required materials and to meet the bag maker recommended by Sandeep, unfortunately the man isn’t keen on opening for business before the auspicious date and the plan is short lived. We decide to at least buy the materials and see what to do from there. Coincidentally Sandeep sells all the materials we require in his shop, but he too isn’t ready to re-open before the auspicious date. We turn to another option, to buy everything at the market, but suddenly Sandeep calls. He says that a client has pressured him to open early and this means that we can come by and get everything we need. When we arrive we see Sandeep standing outside of his shop with the rollers down. Five minutes pass, but Sandeep does not appear to be any closer to opening his shop.
– Uh, em, why is the shop still closed? I ask.
– I am waiting for the client. Sandeep replies through Hardik.
– He should be here any minute.
Knowing that in India ‘any minute’ can mean tomorrow or never I get edgy.
– We are here and we are clients. So maybe Sandeep could open the shop?
Hardik explains – We Hindus believe that once a shop is opened for the first time in the New Year a successful opening will mean a successful year. The first time the shop opens a sale must be made, we are not yet sure whether we will buy the materials in this shop.
– Ok, we’ll definitely buy something. I say.
– Oh, then it is ok! Hardik translates to Sandeep. The roller doors come up, Sandeep says a prayer and Tanya and I begin to look for something that we will definitely buy. Suddenly the client arrives, but Sandeep insists that we be the first to buy something, as we were first to arrive and our motives are supposedly more pure. We definitely need zippers and we take them to the counter.
– How much for these two?
– They are 7 rupees each, but I will charge 11 total, 11 is a lucky number.
– Ok, whatever, great. Sandeep takes the money, says another prayer and now the other client can be served, while we pick out everything else that we need.
– Hey, how much is this per meter? And this, and this? I enquire about a few items. Sandeep says something to Hardik in Gujarati, but I don’t hear numbers.
– You cannot ask the price here. He is my best friend and you are like my brother, so this is like your shop. Just take what you need. Whatever the price will be, it will be the best price in town. I would have a hard time believing a line like this elsewhere, but Hardik is indeed like a brother. I know that young Indian men are very sensitive and as I simply want to get things done as soon as possible, I choose not to argue and go with the flow.

We got everything that we needed and in the end decided that we want to avoid drama and unexpected surprises. Tanya can make almost anything when it comes to working with fabrics, she will try to make the carriers herself using Sandeep’s sewing machine. As a result she is now out in the guesthouse’s communal hall, drawing up plans on the floor and cutting out pieces of fabric. I feel rather useless, the light is too harsh to shoot anything and I have already designed the carriers. I know that I will not have so much time in the near future and so I turn to typing this blog entry.