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Gerry Feehan

“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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Gerry Feehan

The Olympic Peninsula by Gerry Feehan

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The Olympic Peninsula

On November 8, 2021 the land border to the USA opened again!

I love America. The weather is great, the scenery fantastic and the people hospitable. But the US has a problem: guns. We hadn’t been in the country twenty-four hours before we found ourselves staring down the barrel of a sheriff’s assault rifle—at a campground. After a lovely morning hike overlooking Washington State’s San Juan Islands we were skipping happily back to our site when a camouflaged sniper waived us to the ground. We crawled toward our motorhome—which had been commandeered for police cover.

Four muzzles were aimed from behind our RV toward an adjacent trailer. I heard the words, “domestic…choking…firearms,” crackle over the commander’s radio.

What would spark gunplay in a campground? Had someone made the campfire coffee too strong? Were the marshmallows charred? We never did find out. The police escorted us out the park gate—and we returned blithely to the meandering highway. We monitored the radio to ascertain the cause of the fireworks but learned nothing. Perhaps a nearby school massacre overshadowed the shootout at the OK Campground.

But after this first hiccup our Washington State experience was gun-free, peaceful and marked entirely by friendly encounters. Everywhere we were greeted by kind, attentive folk with a genuine interest in how their Canadian brethren were faring.

“Do you think we can get through the south shore road to Grave’s Creek campground tomorrow?” I asked.

The Rain Forest Resort sits along the shores of Lake Quinault in Washington’s beautiful Olympic Peninsula. The narrow road to the resort passes through a cathedral of towering Douglas fir, Sitka spruce and red cedar. The largest in the world of each of these species grows within spitting distance of the lake—and the quaint village provides access to one of the world’s great temperate rain forests.

bull Roosevelt elk

The Morrison family has owned this little jewel of a resort—and everything else in town (including the coin laundry and paid showers)—since the 1960’s. The town gets four meters of rain a year. The camp store sells a lot of quarters to soggy travellers trying vainly to dry hiking gear—while thawing chilled bones in a hot shower. In the 48 hours we were hunkered down, hiding from a brutal storm, 15 cm of rain bombarded the Rain Forest Resort campground. The lake rose and water began lapping up the wheels of our RV. There was a knock on the door. Don Morrison kept both feet safely on the running board of his old pickup as he pointed to the half-submerged post to which our electrical cord was plugged.

“We’d better get you to higher ground.”

“Neither rain, nor…”

We evacuated uphill, and plugged in at the local post office building (which, naturally, is owned by the Morrisons). So neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night can stop the post office from delivering—either the mail or electricity to a stranded RV. That evening, over happy-hour cocktails at the Salmon House Restaurant (which is owned by… guess who?), Don and his brother traded war stories about just how high the water can get.

“Remember ’94?” said Don. “That was the year we put the cabins up on stilts.”

“Yeah, but what about the summer of ’79 when we lost power for ten days?” responded his brother. “We threw out three freezers of elk, salmon and frozen clams.”

While they happily reminisced about past disasters Florence and I stared out the window at the non-stop deluge.

“Do you think we can get through the south shore road to Grave’s Creek campground tomorrow?” I asked.

“Hard to say,” said Don. “You’ll have to drive through Sasquatch valley, which can be slippery and there could be some trees down. There’s always the long way round, over the north shore.” He pointed across Lake Quinault.

Optimistically we struck out in the morning on the south route. On a narrow stretch ten kilometers down a muddy gravel road we rounded a steep curve. I slammed on the brakes. Fifteen or twenty massive, freshly fallen trunks lay across the road. A swath of ancient conifers had toppled, domino-like, rendering the route impassable. The locals call this a blow-down event. Where the trees had formerly stood, a narrow window of light shone brightly through the dark canopy, illuminating the carnage.

Now what?

We backed up for almost a kilometer before finding a safe spot to turn around. Intent on getting to the remote rain forest at Graves Creek, we drove around the lake and tested the equally tricky north shore road. We arrived at the secluded campground as darkness descended. The rain had abated from gale-force to storm-watch. In the morning we geared up for a wet tromp. An hour or so in we met Michael Butler on a remote hiking trail that had converted itself into a medium-sized creek. The sky was pouring buckets. The only people stupid enough to brave the elements were Mike and the Feehans. We were headed upstream and he down.

Banana slug meets mushroom (inset orange jelly fungus)

“It gets quite a bit worse up there,” he remarked, glancing over his shoulder, soaked to the bone and smiling. Water was running out the toes of his hiking boots. A banana slug floated by. We abandoned ship and turned back, down-trail with Mike.

He was from Long Island New York, sleeping in his car and subsisting on cold rice. His eyes were red. “I didn’t sleep much last night,” he said. “I have mice—two of them.”

We invited him for dinner chez Feehan for Florence’s famous Friday night homemade pizza. He acquiesced without an arm-twisting. Mike is a lanky kid, but like most twenty-two year olds can really pack away the groceries—particularly when served up in a dry, rodent-free establishment. Mike was travelling the entire “lower 48” carrying his grandparent’s ashes, leaving a trace in every State. He’d been on the road for six months but still had a bunch of places in which he’d not yet spilt his relatives’ remains. He’d taken a sabbatical from medical school to nurse his grandparents at the end of their lives. After they died he quit school entirely, disgusted with the insurance companies and the medical system in general. Did I say the US has a problem with guns? Apparently it also has health-care issues.

Florence and Mike have different perspectives on life.

When we left in the morning, Mike was still sawing logs, mouth agape, driver’s seat splayed back. Through the foggy windshield I spied a mousetrap, set for action. We quietly left a note under his wiper:

“I can see a pair of mice by your dashboard lights.”

As we drove out, through an ancient grove of large-leaf maple trees draped in wet club moss, the rain stopped. For the first time in days the sun began to shine.

Gerry Feehan is an award-winning travel writer and photographer. He lives in Kimberley, BC.

Thanks to Kennedy Wealth Management for sponsoring this series.  Click on the ads and learn more about this long-term local business.

 

We will travel again but in the meantime, enjoy Gerry’s ‘Buddy Trip to Ireland’

 

 

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Gerry Feehan

A Necropsy in Friday Harbor

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Friday Harbor – by Gerry Feehan

On November 8, 2021 the land border to the USA is open!

The quay at Friday Harbor Labs.

I had no idea what a necropsy was until we visited the marine lab institute at Friday Harbor on San Juan Island. It might have been better had my vocabulary been left unimproved, since a necropsy is not for the faint of stomach.

San Juan Island is in the United States but is actually much closer to Victoria, B.C. than it is to the U.S. mainland. British Columbia’s capital is just a few kilometers away, across the Juan de Fuca Strait. San Juan can only be reached by small plane or, as in our case, via ferry. We embarked with our motorhome at Anacortes, Washington and, after weaving through and around a multitude of conifer-clad islets, disembarked an hour or so later in Friday Harbor, the quaint town of 2200 people that serves as County seat and is the largest town in the San Juan archipelago.

We had come to visit our daughter who had recently accepted a position as postdoctoral fellow at the University of Washington marine labs in Friday Harbor. Colette’s area of expertise is the interaction between sea urchins and kelp—that’s what urchins like to eat.

The harbor seal under scrutiny had been floating lifeless for many days and decay had set in.

Friday Harbor Labs is a true scientific research facility. It attracts renowned marine biologists from around the world. Small laboratories hug the shoreline of the lovely grounds. We strolled the shore, peaking in windows, spying pumps, beakers and aquariums full of life. It was exciting and mysterious watching lab coat-clad scientists recording data while carefully poured funny-looking liquids into test tubes.

It is encouraging and reassuring to see real science being performed—and adequately funded. Fortunately a good relationship and camaraderie exists between Canadian and U.S. researchers, particularly in the marine science field. Data is shared and papers co-written, without regard for border fences.

For most of our stay we were “in residence” and treated hospitably by everyone we encountered, from the maintenance people and dining hall staff to the doctoral candidates and tenured professors. Colette’s mentor invited us to dinner and served up a tasty dish of coconut curry soup while we watched sunset from the deck of her rustic home high atop a hill overlooking the San Juans.

The islands thrive with wildlife. On our walkabouts we saw river otters, harbor seals, dolphins and orca whales swim, jump and cavort offshore. On shore deer, bald eagles, raccoons and fat native foxes frolicked in the autumn mist.

In the San Juans, there’s lots of life—both below and above surface.

One brisk afternoon we hired a local guide for a sea kayaking tour in the cold fecund waters off Lime Kiln Point State Park. Colette and her oceanographer husband Mike pointed through the clear water at colourful sea urchins clinging precariously to rocks in the swell below. Colette gets pretty excited when she spots an urchin—particularly when a healthy bed of bull kelp floats nearby. Our guide reached into the kelp and handed me a raw blade. “Here, try this,” she said.

I munched. It was palatable. Nice texture, not too salty, with a kale-like flavour. Our spiny urchin friends have made a good dietary decision.

Drifting in a bed of kelp.

A necropsy is to an animal what an autopsy is to a human: an examination of a dead body to determine cause of death. Fortunately the procedure we observed took place outdoors—on the quay at the Lab. The harbor seal under scrutiny had been floating lifeless for many days and decay had set in. I was careful to remain upwind from the carcass. The necropsy was performed by a renowned local marine veterinarian, Joe Gaydos. He carefully dissected the entire animal—from flipper to brain. No organ was left unchurned: heart, lungs, stomach, glands, even the tongue, were surgically, skillfully removed and splayed out upon the dock in the crisp salty air for all to see. As he cut, Dr. Gaydos carefully explained each step in the process and what role each body part played in the life—and death—of the animal, in a matter-of-fact, good-humoured fashion.

Apparently the animal died of a chronic lung infection. At least that’s what I learned after I was revived by the smelling salts.

The necropsy.

Our last night on the island was a stargazer’s dream. We checked out of the marine lab residence and into the campground at San Juan County Park on the west side of the island. Across the Juan de Fuca Strait the shimmering lights of Victoria seemed a mere stone’s throw away. Florence knit while I lit a roaring campfire. An occasional cloud drifted by to briefly mask the moon and the Milky Way. Camping made perfect.

In the morning back in town Mike and Colette treated us to a hearty farewell breakfast before we caught the ferry back to the mainland. As we sailed away I snapped pictures of Friday Harbor Labs from the ferry deck.  A young couple was out on the windy bow taking selfies. I pointed to the cozy buildings lining the shore and said proudly, “My daughter is a scientist over there.”

They nodded vaguely but I don’t think they heard me.

Thanks to Kennedy Wealth Management for sponsoring this series.  Click on the ads and learn more about this long-term local business.

Gerry Feehan is an award-winning travel writer and photographer. He lives in Kimberley, BC.

 

 

 

 

Revisiting the “All-inclusive” in Cozumel – by Gerry Feehan

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