Monday, December 24, 2007

First Roadtrip in India

December 19, 2007

First day on the road. We saw virtually every hazard we had been warned about: cow carts going the wrong way on the highway, motorcycles going the wrong way on the highway, cars going the wrong way on the highway, trucks going the wrong way on the highway, and Tractor Trailers going the wrong way on the highway! We had sacred cows wandering on the road, traffic lights being completely ignored, traffic to weave around on the highway, horrible roads in Mumbai, broken down vehicles all over the road to the point that a three lane highway becomes two lanes with slow trucks in the middle so that they don’t have to switch lanes to avoid the breakdowns. One overturned truck, a tunnel with enough carbon monoxide to commit suicide only about 50 feet long, and to top it off our first camel drawn cart! But no elephants! I want to see Elephants!

We got up early to avoid traffic. Surprisingly, considering the heat India does not start its day early. We were able to get out of Bombay in a reasonable amount of time and through what would be the worst road conditions of the day. We headed north to Surat where we had been invited to a Zoroastrian wedding on Thursday. The pollution was pretty much constant, and the traffic crazy. But, as we got out of the city it quickly became dull green farmland since the rains are 5 months past. We climbed into some hills and a cool breeze actually registered on my face despite the morning 90 degree temperature. There are interesting low mountains here, which look to be sandstone or some other fragile rock, very old, as the peaks have been worn away by the wind in their upper quarter, just leaving a rounded, stubby, stalagmite in the middle of a mound plateau.

We were making such great time, we had time to stop at a place I had always held in high regard: the beach of Dandi. This is where Gandhi went to make salt in an act of civil disobedience against the unjust British laws. We went about 10 miles off the main highway, through pleasant farming towns arriving at the gate where we paid 12 cents to park in the shade, and walked to the bluff overlooking the expansive beach. It was very wide and seemed to stretch for miles in either direction. It was hard to tell how far because of the pollution, north, south and out to sea limited the view. The trash on the beach and the polluted ocean didn’t add to the atmosphere either. But, still I felt the power of the place. The genius of a man to bring down the British Empire by simply walking here to the sea and taking water to make salt, still reverberated for me in the sand, the steps, the signs. He is still honored and quoted here, with the Mayor of Mumbai (a female doctor!) using in an editorial in support of a one day moratorium on cars in January to combat the pollution Ganhi’s famous comment about his Salt March that “a journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step”. The tiny museum about his March was chained up at the gate, and some of the wood slats in the arched bridge leading to it were broken and rotted.

Going back on the road to Surat, we were accosted by two youths on a 250 cc Honda. They started talking to us and making phone calls and pictures as we rode along. They insisted that we come to their house for tea. We zoomed around and made it to the nice middle class home, where one of their mothers made us tea and drinks. Of course they invited everyone they knew and soon about 10 boys between 19 and 22 were peppering us with questions. We talked about school, girls, religion and motorcycles. They asked if we had any problems on the trip and we said only a couple in South America and he retorted “oh, because of the black people?”.

Unfortunately, it seems no matter where you go, the darker people are always at the bottom rung of the ladder. There have been two recurring themes on our trip when asking people about directions, travel and geography. Those themes are that the two most dangerous places in the world are always the one in the adjacent area be it city, state or country, and the other is someplace halfway around the world. The other theme is that the darker people are the more they are not to be trusted. Racism, it has been sad to experience, is hardly isolated to the United States. We see it in the adds, the movies, on TV: everyone tries to be as light as possible.

Overall, however, the kids were great and gave us their phone numbers and addresses and insisted we call if we have any problems. After picture taking, they escorted back to the main road to Surat where we continued our traffic battle to find the ‘Parsi Fire Temple’ where we would meet the parents of an old Wabash friend Jimmy Durawala.

We made our way to the center of the crowded, confused, chaotic city where we stopped to ask for directions. Surprisingly, very few people speak English in India. In fact there are over 30 main languages which can vary from state to state or less. It was at this traffic circle where we stopped to ask the police or anyone else for help that Clara coined our new favorite saying. It was inspired by the horde of about 50 people who immediately gathered around us and stared at us with blank expressions and no reply to our question of where the fire temple was. This started to block up traffic as they were in the middle of the road already packed with bicycles, cars, and rickshaws. The police would smack at them with 4 foot long cane batons and tell them to move along, but they would return or new ones would replace the passers-on. Clara turned to me and said “Do you know what’s fun?” After I replied in the negative she retorted “Staring!”

We have decided that we would bet one million U.S. dollars (currently worth about 5,000 Euros I think) on an Indian team against all comers in the World Series of Staring. They are amazing at being able to stand 2 or 3 feet away from you and just stare, unblinking, unspeaking for long periods of time while you sit there, or talk to your wife, or work on your bike or ask for directions. It’s Fun! Some of them will inappropriately touch the motorcycle, and a very few will ask where we are from and how much the bike costs, which is what we are used to from South America. Nowhere else do people fully take advantage of the rapture obtained from staring.

Pervez and Nilly found us in the crowd and took us back to the family home where we met the kind relatives who fed us and treated us like honored guests for the next four days. Once again it shows how acts of kindness come back to reward. Years ago some young men from Wabash College came to Boston to look at graduate schools. Fellow Wabash alum Chuck Grosvenor and I took care of them, including a great meal at the No Name. On of them, Jimmy Durawala, was from India and told me that if I ever go that I should get in touch with him as he had family here. We have stayed in touch over the years, and sure enough, while we were here his close uncle Neville was getting married and so we were lucky enough to be invited, learn about their Zoroastrian religion, and enjoy the festivities. We had lunch and dinner with the family, then settled in for a great night of sleep before the wedding the next day.

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