This is the first in a four-part series on India
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Alberta to release COVID-19 projections early next week, Kenney says
EDMONTON — Alberta will release its COVID-19 projections early next week, Premier Jason Kenney said Friday as he announced five more deaths and a ban on visitors to hospitals.
There were an additional 107 confirmed cases in the province, bringing the total number to 1,075.
The five deaths include a woman in her 20s with no immediately apparent underlying health conditions. A total of 18 people have now died of the disease in Alberta.
“The total number of infections and deaths will, undoubtedly, continue to rise in the days and the weeks to come, but so will the number of recovered cases,” Kenney said.
Deena Hinshaw, chief medical health officer, said visitors will be banned from Alberta hospitals in an effort to slow the spread of the virus. She said some exemptions will be made on a case-by-case basis for child patients and women who are giving birth.
“Please plan to support loved ones in hospital with virtual visits instead,” Hinshaw said.
There were about 4,000 completed COVID-19 tests in Alberta over the last 24 hours, bringing the total number of tests done in the province to more than 60,000.
Kenney said the total rate of deaths in Alberta is almost half of the hardest-hit areas of the world, such as Spain, Italy and the United States.
“I caution that this is just a snapshot in time, but it does reflect where Alberta is today and has consistently been for the past three weeks,” Kenney said.
There is now enough data to release modelling about potential paths of the pandemic in Alberta, he said.
“I can assure Albertans today, however, that the modelling indicates that we have the health-care equipment, personnel and supplies needed to cope with anticipated hospitalizations, including in intensive-care units and including the usage of ventilators.”
Ontario released its projections Friday, with its death toll expected to reach as high as 15,000.
Kenney also called on businesses and non-profits to donate services and supplies to help control the spread of COVID-19, noting that more 1,000 have already reached out to Alberta’s Emergency Management Agency.
He said hotels have offered about 3,000 rooms for health-care workers, first responders and for those needing emergency isolation.
“Show us the kind of Alberta spirit in innovation, in production that we can generate to help fight the pandemic.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 3, 2020
Daniela Germano, The Canadian Press
Premier Kenney announced five more COVID deaths – Alberta COVID Update for April 3
From the Province of Alberta
Alberta Bits and Pieces program highlights Albertan ingenuity, generosity
Over the past week, more than 1,100 offers of support have poured in from private and non-profit organizations through the Government of Alberta’s Bits and Pieces program.
The offers include passenger and commercial vehicles, hotel rooms and mobile trailers, food and water services, hospital gowns, face masks, ventilators and other personal protective equipment. They also highlight innovation in local manufacturing, with several Alberta distilleries offering sanitizer they produced and a drapery manufacturer offering medical garments and bedding it produced.
The program is named after the “bits and pieces program” established by Canada’s Minister of Munitions and Supply during the Second World War, C. D. Howe. The program coordinated innovative production and procurement efforts from across the Canadian economy to support the war effort.
“I’m deeply touched by the outpouring of support we’re seeing from private and non-profit organizations, both foreign and domestic. When times are tough, Alberta’s spirit of ingenuity and generosity always answers the call.”
One example is ATCO, the Alberta-founded and based company that got its start providing trailers for the oilpatch and is now best known to Albertans as a provider of gas and electricity, which has offered to contribute up to several hundred trailers if needed. These could be used for COVID testing, treatment and quarantining, especially in rural and remote areas without adequate medical facilities.
In addition to many local companies offering and innovating to provide products, Alberta’s post-secondary institutions are leading in areas of research, with one researcher at the University of Alberta working to develop a virus-killing medical mask.
“Albertans are leaders, and I’m humbled to see our province leading and giving back in so many ways. The offers and innovation we’re seeing take place across our province right now will help our government meet the demands and challenges we face today, and the ones we’ll face in the future.”
The Government of Alberta encourages individuals, private companies and non-profit organizations who can offer products and services, including personal protective equipment, to visit the offers webpage at alberta.ca/covid19.
Examples of Alberta companies filling the need
- ATCO has confirmed their ability to deploy hundreds of trailers for medical testing, quarantining and treatment, especially in rural and remote areas.
- Calgary-based Fluid Energy Group has signed a letter of intent with the federal government to produce hand sanitizer.
- The Rocky Mountain Soap Company in Canmore received certification from Health Canada to create a naturally derived hand sanitizer that is available online.
- Alberta Garment is transitioning to produce hospital gowns.
- Alberta’s manufacturing sector is working to tackle the spread of COVID-19 by exploring new solutions for personal protective equipment.
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