Saturday, July 25, 2009

Driving to Breakfast

Driving in India, 101

I wonder if I should even be writing about this to you.  I know after you read this you will kindly, and maybe even urgently, advise me to stop this silly nonsense of driving in India.  But alas you also know I will most likely continue to ride the roads.

So it’s like this:  In the West we drive on the right side.  In India they drive on the left.  But in Barmer, a special sub-section of India, they drive in the middle!  It’s easy to understand why. For the most part the culture here in Barmer, as I’ve noted before, is still caught in a pre-technology past. The road/path ways of those times did not have lines down the middle or any right of way considerations.  Everyone walked or drove their carts down the middle of the path and passed when necessary. All shared the road.  And so you still see this kind of behaviour here.  People will walk in the middle of the road while motor cycles, cars and busses zip by and around them.  Even where there are road dividers for the left and right, you always have to pay attention to what is coming at you.  You don’t have a “side of the road right of way”.  You don’t have any right of way.  This is not the same in the larger cities like Delhi, although you do find some of the same “discrepancies” there as well form time to time. In any case what I have discovered about driving here, which has been difficult for me to absorb, is that you only have to be concerned with what is in front of you or to your left. Again, this rule is not always practiced, but it generally works. Ok let’s say you are on a side street and you come to an intersection (no stop signs here to be concerned about and traffic lights have not yet been invented) and you are turning left, into the left lane.  In this case you just go ahead, you don’t look to the right to see if any traffic are coming at you, you fully expect them to allow you to merge.  No fear.  Well I don’t buy that and I always check to my right, and when there is a potential collision I slow down, which in turn causes the expectation of the other drivers, that I should get right in front of them, to be blown and everyone looks a bit confused and pedestrians wonder what the Krishna is going on. I’m getting better at it but these days, but due to the unusual rain fall we have been having, the roads towards the bottom of the city are about a foot deep in brown sewage water, and this makes navigation very difficult no matter what the rules aren’t. I saw one guy on a motor cycle drive into a hole that he couldn’t see, as it was under the water. Everyone watching cheered.  He was ok, but his bike was totally submerged. There are lots of such holes that are also invisible at the night when the roads are dry.  Ok, then there is turning to the right at an intersection.  This is much more dangerous for everyone. First of all you cut the corner on the right, so that if other vehicles are turning left onto your side road, you are now on the right side of them.  Then you head into oncoming traffic, like a salmon swimming upstream,  until you can find an opening to the left.  If you turned into a divided roadway, then you might have to travel a bit into oncoming traffic until there is an opening. So recall once again why it is you have to pay attention to what is ahead of you.

Rules of size.  Yes, the bigger you are the more status you have on the roads. Hence, if you are driving a large truck or bus you rule.  Only military vehicles take precedence over everyone else.  So I’m driving down the road just outside of Barmer and a truck ahead, coming towards me, is passing a cart.  The truck coming right at me flashes his lights and I am forced to the side shoulder (that is if there is one, or it is not being taken up by a cow or people). This is typical and that’s why you watch for what is in front of you.  So it’s military vehicles, trucks and busses first, and then cars and then motor cycles, followed by bicycles, carts (of all type, ie: camel, oxen, goat, horse, donkey, and humans). At the bottom of the list is people, they have no rights but you don’t want to hit them either.  One great exception to all of the above, never hit a cow. You’d be better off to hit a person than a cow, I have been told this many times, so I have to believe it. Recall, there are more cows in Rajasthan than people.  Maybe that’s because they are less likely to be involved in a traffic accident.


Breakfast of Indians

The Sharma’s (Satish [father], Pawan [mother], Supriya [daughter 20yo], Kushboo [daughter 17yo] and Niku [son 11yo] who were my neighbours until recently invited me to breakfast at their new home.  It was rice with assorted vegetables mixed together (including hot chilli peppers) and coffee. I’ve had this before at Vishal’s house and elsewhere. It’s good but I’m not that fond of this for breakfast.  Let’s just call it a cultural difference.  So I invited them for breakfast, Canadian style.  As it was easier for me to go to their house than the lot of them come to me, I packed up bag with all the ingredients I needed and biked over to their house through the sewage lakes (a.k.a. streets).  The typical Canadian breakfast I presented to them was porridge (oats) with slices of mango and bananas and an optional sweet lassie, plus coffee (Indian style). No maple syrup available. I didn’t actually make the breakfast, Pawanji would not let me in her kitchen, so I just gave her instructions on how to make the porridge (with salt and sugar).  I also brought my own bowls and spoons for them as I knew they didn’t have these, so we all sat and ate porridge with cut fruit on top.  Pawanju ate in the kitchen.  They said it was tasty. Oats in Hindi is Javi.

Pass carefully. Driver spits. (that’s another thing to watch for.)



Thursday, July 16, 2009



I went for my first ride on an Enfield Bullet (no I didn’t drive it). I was in Balotra at Vishal’s family home to celebrate his 24th birthday. Vishal gave me a tour of the town on the Bullet.  It’s a heavy bike and sounds like a Harley with it’s deep muffler voice.  As always, me with my Tilley hat being driven around on the bike by an Indian on a Bullet (which is an unusual motorcycle in these parts) made us the parade for the day.


Valley View

That night Vishal’s brother Parinit took me out to visit Valley View, a local development project that his younger brother Tarun helps to manage.  Tarun couldn’t take me due to his having jaundice. The development was a collection of neatly spaced octagonal shaped one room little houses that people could buy or rent.  There were several dozens of them all laid out nice and neat.  There was a central meeting place with two pools, one for gents and one for ladies, a restaurant and other facilities. That night there was a draw to entice buyers.  When you purchased a cottage (for about ten thousand CDN) you received a coupon that could win you a prize, like a car, motor cycle, TV and so on.  Lots of people were there and of course a large buffet was being served.  The stage was brightly lit and numbers were being called out identifying the winners.  I had just met the owner of the whole complex when one of his staff asked me to go up on stage and pull some numbers out of the bucket.  So I did. I was introduced to the smiling crowd, and in the mic I said my best Namaste to everyone before I picked out two sets of numbers.  Riding back to the house on the Bullet in the cool night air was absolutely divine.


The AC Bill

I got a call from Chanchal who told me that I needed to pay my electric bill. But I didn’t have my electric bill I said. Go get it from the landlord, says she. So off I went to find Sonul my landlord at his shop Krishna Textiles where he gave me the bill which was due today.  If I didn’t pay it now I would have to pay a hefty late penalty. Could he please give me the bill when it comes, I asked, but no, that’s not how it works.  You see when the meter reader comes to the house, he prints out a bill and if you’re not there to take it, he gives it to a neighbour.  The neighbours hold onto it until they remember to give it to the house owner my landlord, who then calls me at the last moment.  The bill was for 7,152 rupees for the past two months of power. (divide by 40 for CDN $)  I didn’t have that amount on me or in my bank account, and VSO India had not paid me my salary yet so I was up the dune without a camel.  So off I went to my bank to draw upon my credit card like I’ve done before.  But alas, today the ATM there decided to refuse my request.  It was very stubborn and ignored me several times. So I went to another bank’s ATM at the train station, which was broken. Even so there was still along line in front of it.  I always check first before getting into lines.  Finally Vishal, who was now into helping me, found another ATM which was working and which recognized my card and so I was able to withdraw 8 grand.  Then off I went to the Chemist shop (that’s where you pay your electric bills) and paid up. That whole process only took four hours.  All in a days work.

Street Cleaning and B-Ball

I found a shovel in the organizations garage and brought it back to my house.  My street has been dirty as there is a house being constructed across form me and the sand and mud has been washing all over the road due to the rivers of rain that come now and then.  So with my trusty rusty shovel I bent over and pulled all the dirt back into a nice pile.  Of course when ever I am out, my neighbours look out to see what I’m up to.  They came out of their houses and smiled (and laughed) at my work.  Meanwhile, I’m thinking that I’m setting a good example of cleanliness. Stop laughing.  So a few hours go by and I hear some kids at my door calling me.  About three young teenage boys are holding a blue basket ball and are asking me to come play with them.  My friend Michael Rosenkrantz in Delhi, an avid, no crazed basket ball fan, who bought a b-ball to play with the slum kids during our in country training days, would never forgive me if I didn’t go play with the boys.  In any case, I wanted to so off I went to the nice clean area right in front of my house.  Oh my, a clean place to play in, see that my good neighbours!  We passed the ball around and soon many other kids came to join the fun.  I made sure the girls had a turn too as the boys were not throwing the ball to them at first.  Later on they started to include them as well. As we were passing the ball, they each started to tell me their names, and slowly pronounce each syllable for me, allowing me to say it aloud.  For one or two of the girls, who I couldn’t pronounce their names, we all just decided to call them Monkey.  Everyone got a kick out of that.  I’ll have to do the name routine many more times before I can remember them all.  For now I’ll just call them all my little monkeys.




Monday, July 6, 2009

Binjrad Music

Our monthly staff meeting is at a campus in the small hamlet of Binjrad.  Several buildings on 5 acres of land about 70 kilometres outside of Barmer, close to the Pakistan border. When there I must register with the local military police as this is a restricted zone for foreigners.  But I did get permission from the Barmer authorities (the Collector) and so it’s a small formality at the station and then I’m cleared to be in the area.  The staff meeting was attended by an assortment of SURE people, all working on different projects. Seven of the 35 in attendance were women. Getting more women on staff is a problem in this area and culture.  At the beginning of the meeting there was some singing and I also played a short tune on my dulcimer. Last month I played Gershwin’s Summertime on my recorder for them.  They’ve never heard the blues here before, or even knew was it was, so it must have been quite an odd sound I played out.  After the main meeting, at about 5:30pm, Jamal came over and started singing and encouraged me to pick up my dulcimer.  Amazingly I discovered he was singing in my key of D and I was able to pick up on the beat and melody as we played and sang together with others joining in for about twenty minutes. No I didn’t sing. Then we figured out another song and another. Jamal took the dulcimer and began to experiment with it, holding it like a Vina (upright like a cello). I ran to my room and got my recorder and soon I was playing along as he began another song, which he tried to teach me to copy and we jammed again for another five minutes before everyone set off for some more meetings.  But what fun to be able to catch on to this new Indian music for me and just enjoy the rhythms of the hot afternoon.


Today, like every other day, we wake up empty and frightened.

Don't open the door to the study and begin reading.

Take down a musical instrument.

Let the beauty we love be what we do.

There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground.

- Rumi