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“India? Are you nuts?” Join Gerry for Part 1 of his series on India.

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Feature Image India part 1

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.

Man carrying basket on head

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.

Women selling wares

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.

school kids some wearing masks

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.

 

full bus carrying men

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.

people watching cow in street

Cows rule.

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.)

kids with balloons

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.

White palace on water

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.

India Part 2- Terrific photos! Experience the Taj Mahal and Ganges with Gerry Feehan

 

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Alberta

A for Quebec, F for Alberta: Study rates Canadian governments on conservation

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A new report grades Canadian governments in how they responded to the country’s international promise to conserve at least 17 per cent of its land mass and 10 per cent of its oceans by 2020. 

The report, released today by the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society, says Quebec and the federal government are the only jurisdictions to come close to meeting the 17 per cent conservation target.

The society says Alberta performed the worst, cancelling previously planned protections, delisting parks and attempting to open the Rocky Mountains for open-pit coal mining. 

“A lot of it has to do with political will,” said society spokeswoman Alison Woodley.

The group chose to examine how close different Canadian jurisdictions came to meeting its Aichi targets, an international agreement signed by Canada in 2010. The idea, said Woodley, was to learn how to better meet the next set of conservation goals — 30 per cent of land and oceans by 2030.

The report used internationally recognized standards of what constitutes protection and federal data on the amount of land covered. 

Nationally, Canada met and exceeded its 2020 ocean goals, but fell short by more than three percentage points on land. That was good enough for a B-plus and an A-minus respectively, the report says.

The report credits funding — the 2021 federal budget included $2.3 billion for conservation — as well as a willingness to work with Indigenous groups for Ottawa’s progress.

Quebec nearly met its land conservation goals, conserving 16.7 per cent of its territory.

“The province worked with communities and First Nations to identify and deliver on new protected areas,” said Woodley.

Alberta, not so much. Although the province has more than 15 per cent of its land mass protected, the report points out Alberta has attempted to delist parks, open its Rocky Mountains to coal mining and walked away from plans that would have created some of the biggest new protected areas in the country. 

“It’s not just about areas of protections,” said report author Anna Pidgorna. “Alberta’s going backwards in many ways.”

Alberta Environment did not immediately respond to a request to outline conservation measures taken by the United Conservative government. 

Ontario and Newfoundland share Alberta’s F grade. Ontario has protected less than one per cent of its lands over the last decade, with a similar story in Newfoundland and Labrador, where the percentage of protected land is among the lowest in Canada. 

The rest of the country is a mix, said Woodley. 

Saskatchewan is criticized for having protected less than 10 per cent of its land and weakening protections on native grasslands, but praised for working with Indigenous groups and granting interim protection to one new area. Manitoba made early progress, the report says, but has lately discussed selling off park land.  

British Columbia has almost 20 per cent of its land under protection. But the province is criticized for no recent progress and underfunding the parks it does have. 

The Northwest Territories get a B-plus for creating large new protected areas and working with Indigenous groups to define and manage them. 

Woodley said the study shows that funding makes a big difference to creating protected areas. So does time and patience.

“Conservation takes time,” she said. 

“A major barrier to delivering on the 17-per-cent target was a lack of time. If we’re going to meet the 30-per-cent target, we need to start now.”  

Woodley said conserving land is the best way to address the loss of species and shrinking biodiversity around the world.

“Habitat loss is the primary driver of nature’s decline. Protecting habitat has to be a core part of the solution.”

 This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 22, 2021. 

— Follow Bob Weber on Twitter at @row1960

Bob Weber, The Canadian Press

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Alberta

Details released on fatal hunt for suspect in Alberta where police dog also died

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HIGH PRAIRIE, Alta. — Alberta’s police oversight agency has released new details about last week’s death of a man whose pursuit, arrest and death near a provincial park also resulted in the death of a police service dog.

The Alberta Serious Incident Response Team says in a news release the 29-year-old suspect was involved in a shootout with RCMP on Thursday after officers had tracked him for several kilometres through thick bush around High Prairie, Alta.

During the gunfire exchange, ASIRT says a police service dog was shot and killed, and the officers were told to disengage and were airlifted out in a helicopter.

ASIRT says backup was brought in and officers fired their guns when they encountered the suspect again, and this time they believed they’d hit him, but attempts to find him failed.

The agency says officers later made contact with the suspect two more times but it appeared he hadn’t been injured after all.

The release says on Friday morning, two officers who were assigned to contain the area spotted the suspect in a ditch, a confrontation occurred, and both officers opened fire. The suspect was later pronounced dead.

“The man fell to the ground in the tall grass, and additional police officers and … medical officers responded to the area. Medical officers attempted to treat the man, but ultimately he died at the scene,” the ASIRT release said of the final confrontation.

“A loaded semi-automatic .22-calibre rifle, as well as a range finder, were recovered from the incident scene and have been seized as exhibits.”

RCMP identified the suspect last week as Lionel Ernest Grey of the Gift Lake Metis Settlement. Police had said that he’d died from injuries following his arrest, but they hadn’t say what injuries he’d had or how he died.

They said a police service dog named Jago was shot during the pursuit.

ASIRT said its investigation will examine the actions of police, while the RCMP will maintain responsibility for the investigation of the suspect and his actions.

The agency said that since investigation is underway, it won’t be releasing any further information.

ASIRT is investigating another shooting in northern Alberta on Sunday night that also ended with a suspect dead and a police dog injured.

Mounties said they were looking for a suspect who fled on foot after a dispute in a vehicle near the community of Ardmore, southwest of Cold Lake. They said officers and a police dog found the suspect, there was a confrontation and an officer fired a gun.

The man died at the scene and the dog was taken to a veterinarian and treated for a non life-threatening injury.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 21, 2021.

The Canadian Press

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