From my experiences, there are generally two ways to visit a foreign country. The first, and more accepted method of tourism, is to transition cultures gradually, testing the waters, wading in the shallow end, and then going for a nice swim in the deep. Such a method lets the traveler choose his own adventure, per se, and quickly evacuate if so needed. A second, less common method way is to, metaphorically, dive right in with a graceful arc. From a cliff even, if desireable.
Whether by accident or purpose, or accidently on purpose, I managed to do the latter. And, ironically enough, the waters I’ve seen so far are certainly not suitable for swimming.
On the wonderfully short Chicago to Delhi flight, I had the surprising chance to sit next to Steve Barg of the International Institute of Sustainable Development. The organization is a non-profit think tank based in Winnepeg with work all over the world. Not one to miss a genuine opportunity, I hounded him with questions for at least two of the fourteen hour flight. One current project he mentioned is establishing “adaptive policy design” which, paraphrasing crudely, is teaching governments that the strategies they outline this year won’t necessarily hold true for the next ten; officials had better be flexible if they don’t want to be ousted.
Under this philosophy, Steve’s organization is, for instance, researching how best to manage farmers facing “double exposure,” or those under pressure from both international trade policy and climate change. In India, the situation will only become more dire in the near future for at least two reasons: “global weirding” is causing rainfall to become less and less predictable, and farmers unsustainably exploit groundwater because both the water and power for their electric pumps is completely free. Sparing the boring details, it made my flight over quite a bit more interesting.
For many people, the first indicator they are in this foreign country might be the semi-permanent “Under Construction” signs at the airport, the seedy looking men waiting outside the customs gate to offer “free taxi to cheap hotel” or the, uh, organic smells as they step out into the night. For me, it was just how many people jumped to their feet to queue for the door seconds after the landing gear touched the runway, and how the flight attendant had to verbally abuse them over the loudspeaker to get them sitting back down. Very different introductions than getting lei’d at the door in Hawaii.
From Delhi, I journeyed by early morning train to Kanpur, site of nothing less than one of the most polluted stretches of Ganga. Upon arriving, I made my first traveler mistake by paying the three-wheeler driver before I confirmed I was at the correct place. Pack on back, my penance included walking four miles in the heat and asking over 30 people for the right direction.
The effort was worth it, however, as I spent the better part of 8 through 10 February with the two person staff of Eco Friends, a NGO working to restore the physical health of the river. To give a sense of it’s currently deplorable condition, less than a quarter of all Kanpur’s waste water is treated before it is released. The rest, 80 percent domestic and 20 percent industrial, drains directly into the water both above and below the intake station for the city water supply. Furthermore, the waste which does get treated often is handled improperly before used for irrigation. Toxins from the 300 plus tanneries cause serious health problems for both people and animals in the farming villages scattered around the area. Topping all of this off is the fact the river is diverted above the town for sugar cane irrigation, which reduces its flow nearly to a standstill. Through the knowing help of a quiet, soft-spoken Rakesh Jaiswal and his assistant whom I would be sure to misspell the name of, I was able to capture much of this with my lens.
Last Saturday, in the calm before an eight hour bus ride from the Hindu equivalent of Hades, I rose early to attend a boat rally organized by both Eco Friends and IIT Kanpur. We launched above the town at the diversion barrage to spend some time floating down the river and documenting its wounds for a report to be submitted to the local government. Being the only American, of course, also made me the honored guest, and I was invited to speak in front of the camera about the issue. I apologise in advance to my countrymen for any embarassment I’ve caused our great nation.
As per Rakesh’s request, Allahabad became the next point of destination for my chautauqua. Proving himself one of the kindest men I have ever met, he extended an invitation to attend a conference on the state of groundwater pollution in Uttar Pradesh which included all of my meals and, because every single place in town was booked, a room at the nicest hotel.
This most certainly was the high point of my luck.
In a journal entry I wrote the following evening titled “Things that have sucked in the past 24 hours,” I explored some of the ways the trip began to roll fast down a very tall hill:
- Not being able to get a hotel room on the second night because of Magh Mela
- Not being able to photograph Magh Mela, the primary point of my excursion, because I did not have anyone to go with and wasn’t about to get assaulted going alone
- Not being able to get a hotel room
- Getting accosted by a man from Andra Pradesh who wanted me to raise money for their supposed organization in the States and send it back. He and his partner in crime cornered me in a hotel room after saying they would go to Magh Mela with me. It reminded me of my mom’s stories of Amway
- Being homesick and wondering just what the hell I am doing in this country
- Thinking about [redacted] and how much I miss her company
- Wondering why the hell I started thinking about [redacted] so much
- Wondering just where the hell I am going next, and whether there will be a bed to sleep there
- Finding it ironic that, so far, the only other Americans I’ve met have been a nutso Canadian and an Indian national
- Learning it is impossible to book a ticket for any future travel at Allahabad Junction
- Having the lights go off and on every five minutes and wondering how sketchy this place really is
- Learning the wall I’ve been leaning against for the past half hour gives off some sort of chalky, white powder I hope isn’t dried pee
Had I waited until three the next morning to write the entry, I might also have included having to sleep on the station platform in twenty-something degree weather with no blanket. Thank something high above for the foresight to pack long underwear!
By taping together scraps of old paper and using some ingenious calligraphy, I finally scored a general class ticket to Varanasi. My two days and one night were spent primarily walking up and down the ghats, wide steps leading to the Ganga for bathing, and appreciating the ancient beauty of the scene. For the morning I was there, I booked a Rs 150 boat ride at dawn to photograph around, oh, 70 tourist boats and exactly three bathers. Monday had been some huge festival which starts with a “B” and has a “P” somewhere along the way, and apparently all the pilgrims got their washing done earlier.
The boat tour was followed by my traditional “crazy white guy” run at a famous location. In a fashion similar to my expedition down from Machu Picchu, I dodged people, animals, sacred ceremonies and cremations alike for quality exercise. I can safely say I am the first person I’ve seen out jogging for fun and not from the police. The path itself was consistent with only occasional stairs, so I would definitely recommend it to anyone interested. It might be in my future to compile a Top Runs of the World in the near future.
Yesterday afternoon passed like an old jalopy I have never ridden in, jerking forward at times and dying completely at others. Not being able to interview someone at the Samkat Mochan Foundation because I spent an hour and a half trying to figure out which ghat the research lab was at really put a bolt in my gears, and I didn’t get the crowded bathing scene at the river I wanted. In an attempt to live up to the “Tourist” label on my visa, I went to visit the Golden Temple nearer the middle of the city. No dice. The surrounding area was crawling with soldiers armed to the teeth, and they weren’t allowing mobile phones or cameras; I had both which I wasn’t about to lose to a shop owner.
Now in Kolkata, I plan to spend a few days on my project and visiting the most famous landmarks. I’m optimistic I’ve made the right connections for some stellar imagery.
One last piece of advice: having the holy Lonely Planet out in public makes even the most gnarly looking traveler a magnet for an entire university of touts.