Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Culture Shock

As we left Delhi on Christmas Day, I remember looking up into the deep blue sky and seeing Falcons circling overhead. I find those birds so majestic and graceful, yet this was in such complete contrast to the chaos that reigned below. I wondered if any of the madness reached up to their currents. Inside of me there was a king of longing to be part of those currents too, to escape this madness. Maybe somehow my wish was communicated to the evil Greater Fog demons because our flight to Jodhpur was delayed for four hours.

It may sound crazy, but in a way it was almost a relief to be surrounded by plain white walls and newspapers in ENGLISH. There were advertisements that boasted Indian faces, but the slogans the world over say BUY, BUY, BUY. I realised that for the first time in a long time I was suffering from culture shock. I settled into my orange bucket seat, flicked through the Indian newspapers that were almost similar to British Papers, but just not so, and gave myself some time to reflect, breathe and kind of smiled.

There is a wonderful paradox about culture shock. The negative side was like a slap across the face when I espied McDonald's and realised why people are comforted by the sight of it in other countries. Further down this dark road was when I began to question my 'traveller mettle'. It's not as if it's the first time I've flown across the globe before. No, it isn't! But it is the first time I've stepped onto the subcontinent. And that's when the smile began to spread. Those hours of delay had allowed me to soak up the 'difference' and left me longing for more. I was now impatient to wanted to get to Jodhpur. I had a third Fort to visit, presents to buy, things to see.

We rolled into the Blue City just as the sun was setting and the Christmas lights were beginning to twinkle. We sat on the hotel roof top peering into the darkness at the silhouette of the Fort hanging off the cliff edge and then decided to amble to the market. I sniffed vibrantly coloured spices from my childhood, which made me wish that I cooked a little more nowadays. We wandered into a textile emporium and even though they spread their intricately embroidered wares before us they seemed as lethargic about selling as we were about buying. Being in Rajasthan was enough for us that evening, we had stepped through the magic doorway to the land of fairy tales.

Images show a lesson in mixing Garam Masala at the spice stall in Sardar Market and the Clock Tower in the Market Place.

Monday, January 28, 2008

On Cats (and Writing)

On Friday the Critique group squeezed into my flat and I gained a major insight into Tibo's little feline brain. I think he thinks that everyone who walks through my front door is there to see him. And after all why shouldn't he think that. The day he arrived Jane did come just to visit him. I remember watching a sporting event one night and realising the person I thought I was talking to was actually in the bathroom playing with Tibo. There was even the lady from the cat association who came specially to see him. Even the postlady and the census lady have cooed all over him. So of course he thought these women who walked through the door were here to see him. As realisation slowly dawned he decided that if they weren't here for him, he would sure as hell make his presence felt. He jumped in and out of handbags, bit knees and hair, stole pencils, tried to taste the snacks, took nips out of everyone's writing and generally TOTALLY misbehaved. After all this when someone did arrive who would pet him, he curled up on the back of the sofa and fell asleep.

Despite the fact that I spent the evening with one eye on the critiques and the other seeing where Tibo would stick his nose next, I felt the evening went quite well. Two things became very apparent to me:
  1. Show not tell - Ok it's not an earth shattering discovery. It's not even new, it's not like I haven't heard it a million times before. But then I suddenly discover the advice has flown out of my head...
  2. Along with my grasp of punctuation. I have a very intuitive use of punctuation. I think a comma or semicolon should go there. And there, yeah there, let's slip in a dash! Anyway it becomes kind of glaring when one of your crit partners sends you a link for a punctuation website. So yesterday I purchased New Hart's Rules - The Handbook of style for Writers and Editors. It's got a whole bunch of other sections that I will probably never look at, but it seemed to fit. I do own Eats, Shoots and Leaves, but I seem to have Read, Thought and Forgotten! And really to find the rule in amongst Lynne Truss's rants is not really practical.
Despite these minor flaws (uh hum) I seem to have acquired myself not one, but two Roars for Powerful writing. Eeek! The first one was from Kimy over at Mouse Medicine and she made me blush she was so kind. The second one is from Marie over at Deep Thinker. And I now have to tell you 3 things that I think make powerful writing. So here goes...

  1. Write from the heart. Be it fiction or non-fiction love your subject, love your words.
  2. Edit and let your love sing clearly and loudly.
  3. And because you always can - keep on learning. I'm hoping YOU guys, my crit group and Stephen King's On Writing will continue to teach me a lot.

And so on to the fun bit, passing it on. It'll be interesting to see what these people find powerful.

So Kimy, I have to pass the roar right on back to you.

at Absolute Vanilla - I hope you don't me borrowing your words, but you say it so well.

David at Witnessing am I

Apprentice at My Gap Year

And Jon from Writing in a Vacuum (and not because he's collecting awards this time).

Monday, January 21, 2008

Foreigner in a Foreign Land

On Day two, Estrella and I stepped off the Shatabadi Express at Agra Cantonement Station in a relative state of blissful calm after our cups of Assam tea and Indian breakfast. This state of zen lasted a matter of seconds before being shattered by the blasting sound of horns and the crowd who instantly surrounded us like, well flies to... you know. "Where you going? Where you going?" The crowd demanded to know. Estrella and I looked at each other in mild bemusement and what with it being just gone 8 am in the morning I answered truthfully. "This way." I pointed to the prepaid autorickshaw booth directly ahead of me. This was a major discovery of the day. In its simplicity and honesty, my answer left all the drivers completely frozen in their state of confusion.

Another major discovery of the day was my status. It's not that I objected to paying ten times more than an Indian. I accept that there is a disparity of resources around the globe and I happen to live in the land where paying 14€ t0 see a 'Wonder of the World' is reasonable. It wasn't even the fact that although it said clearly on our ticket that we should get a bottle of water and 'shoe covers' that we then had to go back and ask for them. It was the fact that I had to ask in big bold letters for a 'foreigner' ticket.

Maybe it's because I was at a formative age during the height of Political Correctness, or maybe it's because I have lived the last eleven years of my life in this state and have never felt it to be an issue, but I found it kind of ... wrong. I suppose in a way it signaled to me an attitude: it seemed to underline a curious aspect of the national psyche. There was even a special term for Indians who have tried greener grass: Non-resident Indians (NRI's). I'm not sure if I've put my finger on what that word meant to me, but I think it's something to do with it being an ex British colony. I've felt it in Mauritius and Belize. No two places deal with it in quite the same way, but let's face it, neither Belize or Mauritius gained their Independence amidst such a sea of blood as the disasterous partition of India and Pakistan (the consequences of which are still being felt today). The fact is that in one word; 'Indian', the whole of their history seemed to be encapsulated and in the words 'Foreigner' and 'NRI' we were firmly given our part in that history. Yet I also realise that this interpretation is my own.

In actual fact I never felt unwelcome. Far from it, a day trip to Agra is to be plunged straight into the country's tales of passionate romance, deception and rivalry. From Shah Jahan who was driven by the death of his second wife Mumtaz to build a tomb of exquisite beauty, to Agra Fort where Jahan's conniving and power hungry son imprisoned him. Is the Baby Taj (Itimad-Ud-Daulah) any match for the Taj Mahal's devotional beauty?

We finished off the day on the Taj Express where we made our final discovery: seat numbers. They are kind of optional, but with a shrug of the shoulders and a blank expression anything can be sorted out with the minimum of hassle.

The photos show the south gate through Taj Ganj, the Taj Mahal, Itimad-Ud-Daulah and the Palace at Agra Fort.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Track of the Day

This is a quickie to plug a new up and coming folk singer/songwriter. You may note after a while that this is not my usual style of writing as I have the proud Mum looking over my shoulder telling me what to write. Anyway, I've known Dylan since he was twelve (bloody hell that makes me feel old). He blew balloons at one of those mile stone moments in my life (still he wasn't to blame). Anyway tomorrow he is the 'Track of the Day' in the Up and Coming Folk Artist on Gargage Band. If you like what you hear, then go visit him on his MySpace page too.

Jane has just asked me why I haven't typed in the addresses. These link things are all new to her...

Not only is Dylan featured Track of the Day tomorrow (Friday), but he's apparently BEST MALE FOLK VOCALIST OF THE WEEK! Cooee hey. Do you think he'll remember me when he's rich and famous? I guess he'll have to, because Jane will still be sending me texts telling me all his good news. Still it's kind of sweet that Jane is such a 'proud mummy'.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Dust and Delhi

Like my stuck washing machine, it seemed that the words to describe Delhi just wouldn't come out last week. But really, all I can say is that it's like no other place I have been before. At night you are engulfed by the most profound darkness. The world around disappears into a dusty, dimly lit twinkling impression. I arrived at night and when I left the hotel room the following morning, it was like stepping out into a mystery that was about to be made starkly clear.

Delhi is a multisensory experience. At the end of the day, I almost felt as if I was wearing it; that the dust had impregnated itself into my every pore. The volume of the city rang through my head leaving no space for private reflection. Though completely surrounded by hoardes of people I felt completely alien within the crowd.

The experience of a day in Delhi left me, the seasoned traveller, reeling. I am used to hopping onto a form of transport in one country and getting off in other. Despite different culture, language and climate, there are certain constants. There are ATM's at the airport, there are taxis at the airport, you look in your guide book and you follow the map. It's not that these things were not there in Delhi, it was just that to find these constants you had to fumble through a curtain of chaos. After a while it became apparent that the chaos could be drawn back. It's true that the tuktuk drivers hurtled around as if they had a permanent death wish, but the fact was they got you from a to b (with a few extra grey hairs). I never found a plaque that announced a street name, but if you told people Arakanshar Road, they flew over pot holes to get you there.

And once I realised that to describe India is to forget the constants and allow yourself to be transported to another world, the words began to gush out.

*The photos show scenes around Chandi Chowk in old Delhi, the Red Fort and the Jama Masjid - the largest Mosque in India.

Monday, January 07, 2008

Thoughts, Temples and Tombs - A whirlwind tour round Rajasthan

So as the last hundred or so photos upload and the first load of washing churns away, I'll begin my first post of 2008...


Midnight's Children, An area of Darkness, The God of Small Things, various other Salman Rushdie novels, various Indian school friends as I grew up, a Punjabi friend who travelled around Mexico with me once, an engagement party a long time ago, Friday night curries, a small handful of Indian students over the years, the 12th edition of the India Lonely Planet; up until two weeks ago that was my experience of India. None of which prepared me for what I was about to experience.

My first impressions began to be formed before I even arrived. As we boarded the plane at Moscow seat numbers became optional and one person's act of change caused a wave of seat swapping and mass rearrangement of overhead luggage. My eyes grew wider and wider as the chaotic scene unfolded before me until I too was asked to change seats. From then on I expected everything to continue to be chaotic.

On the surface India does appear to be chaotic. As we passed the clock tower in Sardah Market, Jodhpur our driver said placidly: "Oh look, elephant." And we replied equally calmly: "So there is." A few seconds later it registered that I had never seen a bloody elephant wander by me and I madly scrambled for the camera. The thing is by then we were already acclimatised to the fact that as we negotiated the weaving streets of India, as you turned each corner you could be confronted with a hoard of tuktuks (autorickshaws), a cow just sitting in the middle of the street chewing calmly and ignoring the cacophony of klaxons around it. Dogs milling about and puppies running after the teats of their mother. Town traffic could range from bicycles with the most amazingly huge loads, rickshaws, autorickshaws, ambling pedestrians, cows, dogs, horses, camels and well, elephants.

The other thing that hit me straight away was the level of noise. I remember my eyes popping open at 4 am, I think it might have been Jaisalmer and wondering what had woken me. As I listened I realised that for the first time since I had arrived it was silent.

That impression was swiftly followed by the volume of people. India's population is just over 1 billion and is set to overtake China by 2035 to become the world's most populated country and boy can you tell. There are people, people everywhere. So many people that it was only when we began to hit the smaller towns that we began to notice the amazingly vibrant colours of the beautiful saris. And then the next thing hit us; women are virtually unseen on the streets of India. We saw them in the fields, we saw them perched precariously, sitting side saddle on the back of a motorcycle, we saw them with their scarves carefully covering their faces, but we saw them because amongst the male dominated crowd we were looking for them.

Aaaachtuk - another sound that filled our days from morning to night. As the clearing of the throat began, we would locate and identify the hawker himself for these men can break world records as they hurl their spit about. You really didn't want to be in the line of fire.

And finally as the trip drew to an end we began to realise how everything we planned had worked. We had ordered tickets, the tickets had come through. We asked for taxis and bus tickets, they came through. We were in a bit of a pickle booking a hotel in Delhi for our return there, the hotel manager where we were staying organised us an alternative in case we couldn't find anything. As we waited for our guide to turn up on the last day, the autorickshaw drivers introduced us to the locals and advised us to call the guide again and again: "Because sometimes people book the tour, but then they don't show up, so you have to call to say you're here." Nod, nod, nod, that funny wiggle of the head which is particular to Indians and can mean anything in the shades between yes and no.

I came to realise over the course of the trip that India was like a haze of different intermingling layers, the past and the present merging together, it's histories never forgotten. It was as magical as I thought it would be, it was as startlingly different as I never thought it might be.


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