“India. Are you nuts?” an incredulous friend remarked. “Why would you want to go there? It’s dirty, crowded, smelly and full of stray cows.”
So, I was anxious as I stared out the window of the Dreamliner 787 on descent into New Delhi after a 14-hour flight from Vancouver. But Delhi was nowhere to be seen. The worst smog in the country’s history had enveloped India’s capital. Visibility was near zero.
Smog in India
The late-night ride to the hotel was a dystopian dream. With the twelve-hour time change we were in a trance-like state. The streets were eerily quiet. An acrid smell hung in the air. As we drove through dense smog, the moon made a futile effort to silhouette India Gate, Parliament House and the Prime Minister’s residence.
“What’s happening?” we asked the clerk at check-in.
“Diwali,“ he smiled.
Diwali is an ancient Hindu festival that pays tribute to the victory of light over dark, good over evil – and a highlight of the annual celebration is the setting off of fireworks. When Delhi’s 22,000,000 inhabitants simultaneously ignite firecrackers and other pyrotechnics, the sub-tropical air becomes thick with the stagnant refuse of gunpowder. Add to this the exhaust of 9 million vehicles, smoke from burnt stubble fields in nearby Punjab, plus a temperature inversion – and you have unimaginable, eye-searing air pollution.
“…At the top of the heap are India’s cows. Bovines stand nonchalant, impervious – and sacred – amongst the vehicular pandemonium…”
Schools were closed. Construction was halted. Roads were sprayed to keep dust down. Farmers were threatened with fines for illegally burning rice stubble; all to no avail. The particulate index climbed, from just over 600 when we arrived, to 964 three days later. This level is 15 times the “safe” limit in India – and 60 times what would be considered hazardous in Canada.
Street Vendors during Diwali
Then the currency crisis hit. In an effort to weed out “black money” – cash hoarded through corruption and counterfeiting – Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced the demonetization of all 500 and 1000 rupee bills. That’s like cancelling all our $10 and $20 bills.
India’s 1.3 billion people were given a fortnight to exchange old rupees, after which the old bills would become worthless. The bank lineups were horrifying.
India’s is a cash economy and many people don’t even use banks. The country was in chaos. But surprisingly, most people we met – guides, drivers, shopkeepers, restaurant employees – were sick of the endemic corruption and in favour of this Draconian strategy.
Our tour group consisted of my wife Florence and me, together with our fun-loving travel-mates Kim and Simone from Victoria and Joe and Carla from Saskatoon. We struggled through these pollution and currency crises from the comfort of an air-filtered, credit card-accepting hotel. Meanwhile out on the streets the locals coughed, lined up and resolutely carried on life in 21st century India.
Air quality is an issue
But for me more astonishing and unfathomable than the choking smog and worthless bills was India’s overwhelming, perpetual traffic congestion.
The “sub-continent” has 54 cities with more than a million people. Four of these urban agglomerations have over 20 million souls. And even the smallest Indian village is a clogged spoke of trucks, buses, cars, motorcycles, rickshaws, bicycles and foot traffic. Pecking order is determined by size. Bicycles give way to motorcycles, which give way to rickshaws… ascending up to the big Tata transport trucks.
Traffic is insane
Buses overflow with humanity – arms, legs and heads spilling from every door and window. A moped transports an entire family – and their belongings. The lowly pedestrian occupies the bottom of the traffic heap, flirting death with each wary footstep.
At the top of the heap are India’s cows. Bovines stand nonchalant, impervious – and sacred – amongst the vehicular pandemonium.
This may come as a somewhat of a surprise but Indians are fantastic drivers. In what can only be termed functional chaos, traffic actually moves. Roads designed for two lanes harbour four – in each direction. The tiniest opening in traffic is immediately filled by the largest object that fits that space. India abhors a vacuum.
Horns blast non-stop in a cacophonous chorus, used not in anger but to convey a message. A little beep means, “Hey, I’m here.” A resolute honk indicates, “I’m filling that gap.” And an extended blast from a bus states unequivocally, “Coming through, out of my way.”
The first two weeks of our month-long stay in India were spent in the company – and under the watchful eye – of guide Anoop Singhal and driver Devinder Singh. Each morning Singh Ji, a soft-spoken Sikh, greeted us with a colourful turban and a contagious smile. (“Ji” is an honorific, used to show respect – and we happily started referring to one another as Kim Ji, Anoop Ji, etc.)
Despite the culinary curry shock to my digestive system – and the occasional experiment with street food – I managed to avoid “Delhi belly.” I credit my intestinal well-being to a daily dose of local yoghurt. But even with the use of air masks, we all eventually succumbed to the dreaded Delhi cough.
The Lake Palace of Udaipur
After “seeing” the capital, we travelled a few hundred kilometers southwest to Udaipur to begin an exploration of the fabulous architecture of Rajasthan. Vast palaces built by fabulously wealthy Maharajas in the 17th century still dominate the landscape. The Lake Palace of Udaipur, the White City, is a stunning snow-white jewel set in a liquid surface.
In Jodhpur, the Blue City, we looked down on a jumble of turquoise buildings from the heights of Mehrangarh Fort. The last in the colourful triumvirate of Rajasthan’s famous towns is Jaipur, the Pink City, where in 1857 Maharaja Ram Singh ordered his palace painted pink to impress the British overlords.
India is a photographer’s paradise. No need to search out photo ops; simply plunk down on any curb and start snapping: a vendor hawking fruit, women in crimson saris haggling over spices, a cow imperially chewing its cud, children laughing, beggars begging. All day, every day the flavour, colour, texture, sound, energy and urgency of India unfolds spontaneously, unrehearsed.
On the last day of our stay in Rajasthan, we stopped in at the famed camel festival of Pushkar where local dromedaries are auctioned annually. I nearly closed on a fine one-humped specimen but was outbid by a clever camel herder from the Punjab. Just as well; probably would have been tough to squeeze a grumpy dromedary into my suitcase.
Next time: Taj Mahal and the Sacred Ganges.
Thank you to these great local sponsors who make these stories possible!
If you go: Explore India from Vancouver B.C., www.exploreindia.ca, capably and professionally handled all aspects of our private month-long tour – air and land travel, hotels, meals, guides, drivers, entrance fees and activities – for one all-inclusive price.
Click below to read about some of Gerry’s other great travel adventures.
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We love stories from our community. Register here and publish your own stories. Thanks to local writer and communicator and former journalist Glenn Kubish for this delightful snapshot of a recent act of kindness that melted everyone around!
Fire rescue at Blue Plate
February 12, 2020
Sick with a cold, tired from the non-stop and just a bit weary from the sick and tired, I drove home down 104 Ave this afternoon in a rush hour that felt like a funeral procession.
And hungry. Right, no lunch. Add hunger to the list. No doubt, I was suffering. I’m not aware of anyone who suffers quite like I do. Shelagh, sitting next to me in the car, would likely agree.
And not on my bike. Let me keep counting the woes.
We turned off at 122 Street, parked the car and headed for Blue Plate. I ordered an Old Fashioned. A stabilizer, as my friend Al would say. I sipped it. Contemplated the maraschino cherry pinned between the glass and the ice cube die. Remembered how my parents said mar-a-SHEE-no, but Bogart said mar-a-SKEE-no. We talked about music. Shelagh remembered parties where she first heard Dire Straits and Talking Heads. We’ve been telling each other stories for 35 years. I hadn’t heard that one before. That was nice.
I looked out the window at a fire truck, its lights flashing, parked in front of the restaurant. The vehicle also captured the attention of a young boy walking into the restaurant with his parents. The little guy slowed his pace to keep looking at the light show. Who could blame him? The three eventually sat at a booth next to ours. A few minutes later, a firefighter came in and quietly asked the parents if their son would like a firefighter colouring book. The boy was so happy.
The restaurant melted.
“That is so nice,” a woman said from a table behind us.
Later, the boy’s father walked up to our table and said he had noticed I had captured the moment and would I be kind enough to share the pics? He was overwhelmed by the firefighter’s kindness. There were tears in his eyes. I texted him the pics. We talked a bit. His family is francophone de l’Alberta. We spoke a bit of French.
There is so much that I am not certain about anymore. So much that’s murky. But I know for sure that that father loved his son.
I felt in the world again. Maybe we don’t need to find rest as much as we need to see kindness.
The competition deadline is midnight, February 23, 2020.
Full disclosure – I serve on the Board of Directors of the Lieutenant Governor of Alberta Arts Awards Foundation. And as a serious artist in the province, you are likely aware of this foundation. And If not, you should be. It was in 2003 that some visionaries in our province, some even luminaries, put together the funds necessary to establish a foundation that would celebrate and promote excellence in the arts. You can thank the late Tommy Banks, the late John Poole and Calgary’s Jenny Belzberg for the legacy they created. The endowments they established with philanthropic dollars from generous community members, and gifts from a number of levels of government, have helped to create a lasting impact on those recognized.
In alternating years, the Foundation celebrates either emerging artists or distinguished artists. In 2020, the Foundation will recognize up to 10 emerging artists who will each receive a $10,000 cash award and a medal presented by Her Honour, the Honourable Lois E. Mitchell, CM, AOE, Lieutenant Governor of Alberta, at a ceremony in June.
Artists from all disciplines including performing, visual, film, design and literary arts are eligible to apply.
Emerging artists are considered those of any age who have completed their training or apprenticeship and are in the early stages of their professional arts career. To date, 53 Emerging Artists have been recognized including singers Nuela Charles and Colleen Brown; theatre artists Heather Inglis, Jenna Rodgers and Simon Mallett; visual artists Amy Malbeuf and Pamma Fitzgerald.
The awards are adjudicated by a panel put convened by The Banff Centre. This panel will select the 2020 Emerging Artist recipients.
The competition deadline is midnight, February 23, 2020.
Full competition details and links to the online application forms can be found at artsawards.ca
You can find the application form and other details here. Since its inception, the Lieutenant Governor of Alberta Arts Awards Foundation has awarded more than a million dollars ($1,130.000 to be exact) to 20 Distinguished Artists and 53 Emerging Artists.
These awards are amazing. I’ve attended both Distinguished Artist and Emerging Artist awards since becoming a member of the Board of Directors of the Foundation several years ago. If you are serious about your art, you really need to get an application together.
2016 Emerging Artists with Her Honour Lois E. Mitchell and His Honour Douglas Mitchell