Thursday, March 16, 2006

A bit of Barmy Army in Mohali

By pure coincidence England are touring India at the same time as I am travelling here. So what can one do except convince a German to spend 5 days of his 5 week holiday in Chandigar at the Second Test. All credit to the boy for giving it a go and we witnessed the most exciting and record-breaking game of cricket in history..... between South Africa and Australia.... on TV..... and we all went mad... I even danced a bit in the street and hugged quite a few Indians.

Back to the 5 day game...... I am not going to go into any detail about the cricket itself – for this see – beyond saying that there were good 50’s from Flintoff (2), Dravid, KP, Bell and Sehwag, and a total of some 31 wickets including Kumble’s 500th (an amazing achievement that the England fans seemed to recognise more than the Indians) – oh and the fact that England lost by 9 wickets – grrrgh!

Despite the minor annoyance of the negative result I have to say that it was a great 5 days. It was a true touring experience, for 2 of the days in a near empty stadium. While the English undertook the only true antidote to the rain (unbelievably similar to weather back home – cold, wet drizzle all day) and drank the night and day away. Many interesting conversations ensued especially at a place called Blue Ice with Mark and Mike. A Brummie and a Burnley boy (Blackburn) who were bloody good company with some cracking stories.

A little bit like the Chinese, in this case, when the Indians tried to do western style entertainment they somehow got it very wrong. The worst example was a bar called Down Under which can be summed up as a whole lot of slaughtered men (women are socially not allowed it seems) dancing at the table with their arms round each other to very bad 80’s heavy metal. I hold back before criticising elements of another culture that are alien to my own, but when they are attempting to duplicate mine I feel more comfortable in holding judgement – it was generally just wrong.

On the very Indian note of hugging, holding hands, and general touching between men, despite at times feeling slightly uncomfortable, I have no issue. On the contrary, I think the fact that we are so easily shocked by it shows up problems in our own culture. From my experience here, the one major exception was when a well-dressed guy went TOO far -following us on his bike insistent on showing us to his home and when I politely refused for the umpteenth time began to say things such as “come on baby”, “I worship you” and various other equivalents. After even stronger refusal he eventually grabbed my leg very forcefully at which I even more forcefully removed it, told him he was incredibly rude and moved on. I think he was bloody lucky I did not hit him, though here it seems to effect people more if you tell them they insult their family and their country. Even more reason to keep such comments as last reserves.

Oh yes, the cricket. When the match did get going we were witnesses and participants in an amazing contrast of support. The English on one hand, increasingly pissed, chanting in unison – occasionally a bit rudely but nearly always in amenable jest and normally with wit – and the Indians who acted a lot more like a rabble. It seemed pure noise was the order of the day, with “INDIA, INDIA” being about the most sophisticated of the chants. A man behind me made such a sqwaw that I could not help giving him several looks conveying – “I advise you see a doctor”. The Tendulkar touching his hat received a bigger cheer then Kumble’s 500th wicket (only the 4th man in history) just about says it all. Despite all this, when their fans got going they were great and produced a great atmosphere. To many of them cricket is everything and the passion they showed was quite phenomenal.

The Barmy Army can not go without a mention. Despite the usual couple of people who were slightly clichy about such things I thought they were great. I sung until my voice gave up and Jimmy is as cool as he looks on TV (first picture). Even as India scored the winning runs, you could hear the proud voices of the minority English through the madness.

God bless cricket – despite almost unfathomable differences between the two sets of people they share a love and passion for the game that brings us together.

P.s. for the syncs out there - the German loved it!


A quick update from Varanasi, perhaps the most sacred city in India.

Nothing I have seen has prepared me for seeing flesh dripping off a burning corpse beside the Ganges. Sometimes you wonder how specific experiences of travel will affect you and this one is still swimming around my head like a cement-mixer.

India is one heck of an extreme country and so far this city and what occurs within it have pushed the very limits of my experience!

War and Peace: Wagah and Amritsar

After 3 days in bed and a day down the pub recovering from the famed Delhi Belly (not a laugh I promise you) I was literally bursting to move on from Delhi. A place with many great sites and some lovely people but in many other ways one of the biggest shit-holes I have ever been to in my life. I do apologise if this offends anyone, but when you can tell the vicinity of the uncountable shanty villages with your eyes shut you get an idea of the true depths of poverty. Serious and severe poverty of the likes I have barely witnessed before.


So we jumped on a series of cramped buses filled with friendly people insistent on conversation and headed to Amritsar. This is in the Punjab, the home of the Sikhs, and the Golden Temple within Amritsar is the most holy site of the religion. Hence a high proportion of wonderfully coloured turbans - quite a site from the back of a bumpy bus.

The temple is an utter shock after roaming through small dirty streets of the city, full of movement and congestion. After removing your shoes and donning a scarf to cover the head you enter a place of peace. In the centre of a large rectangular compound splashed in white and beautifully decorated is a large smooth pool with the most intrinsically decorated golden temple at its centre. On entering through a high arch my heart skipped a beat as I witnessed the beauty of the temple glittering across the water.

I had heard stories of this magnificent temple before but did not expect to be taken aback as much as I was. What I found was a place of greater peace (not to be used lightly), tranquility, and generosity then I have ever had the honour to witness.

Thilo and I spent two days walking around the pool (5 times is part of ritual), speaking with the charming people, taking the food on offer, and meditating. In the heart of the sanctum of the golden temple you can feel the spirituality of the place emanating out as the verses of the holy book are sung across the water inhabited my meandering coy. Whether in the inner temple itself, or sitting on the outside looking across the water, I found my mind wonder near and far with ease and clarity. I learned much. This is a very very special place!!

More has to be mentioned of the people. The colours on the dresses and turbans are astounding, but what struck me more was their acceptance, generosity and friendliness. From numerous people wishing to explain the beauty of their religion and wanting to learn about us, to the serving of free meals for all in some of the largest kitchens in the world serving thousands of pilgrims a day - it is more than a bit of fun to help wash up!

As an outsider I did not expect people to take me with open arms into their most holy of places, but here all are accepted. There are purposely four gates to symbolise that it is a temple open to all castes of Hindu (Sikhs did away with the caste system) and Muslims are similarly welcome. This is even more remarkable when you learn of the history of persecution and warfare that surround the Sikh.

From the mesmerising chanting, to the touching little details such as the trees of prayers and the mystifying sight of pilgrims dousing themselves in the water before a sight of such beauty and serenity. I shall not forget this place. Further, I intend to revisit it for longer and to visit a Sikh temple back home. A religion with such acceptance and beauty takes to your heart. I have much to learn!


Within just a few kms of the temple is a place of such utter contrast that it is, like the ceremony I am about to explain, darkly hilarious.

At the close of day at the currently only open border between the not so friendly neighbours of Pakistan and India, a quite ridiculous theatre unfolds. Thousands gather on each side of the border in stands to witness daily ritual insult. I simply can not explain the absurdity of the whole situation as soldiers from each side in matching silly chicken hats, frog-march towards each other at the gate and then stamp and wave strange hand gestures at each other while the people chant "Hindustan" and far more insulting things.

Here we have one of the biggest political flash points in the world reduced to a comedy show. Isn't humanity strange but wonderful.

Unfortunately for Pakistan, I have to say they come off a bit worse with smaller segregated stands and a uniform that is very noticeably darker, with black capes and chicken hats, in stark contrast to the bright colours of the Indian forces. You can not help but think a little of the Evil Empire vs the Rebel Alliance, not that I have any political opinions on this subject.

So as the flags come down and they insult each other a few more times to the delight of the incredibly nationalistic crowds, days of mind-shocking contrast come to a close. Despite the dark comedy in the WAR, my heart is well and truly with the PEACE.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

My Big Fat Hindu Wedding

It is not everyday that you get to be guests of honour at a large Hindu wedding, but such was the case on only my second night in India - simply gob-smacking.

To understand how such a thing came about one has to understand Thilo, the German mate of many travelling years who I am spending the next 5 weeks with. He was simply walking about a market in an outer part of Delhi when a gathering caught his eyes. He entered and found what became apparent to be a pre-wedding gathering and there you go flash-bam-wallop we have pretty invitations to a wedding 50 kms out of Delhi.

The next day was hectic trying to find appropriate things to wear and a gift to an occasion we were pretty much clueless about. Shirt, tie, and a picture frame sufficed and Thilo, Martina (a German lass who is nicely letting us stay in her apartment that she has while she volunteers with autistic children.... Thilo met her on the plane) strolled up to some buses by some Hindu cows and were ushered in to a minibus and off. A strange feeling as we began slow conversation with the closely connected family we were squished in with - brothers included. Despite some double edged conversations about the benefits of arranged marriage and the lack of respect for one's partner in my culture, the 3 hour journey out of town was fun. Being slipped beers, stopping off for tea in one of their tiny villages, taught how to count in Hindi and given some idea of what to expect from the proceedings - nothing could have prepared us.

So the only foreigners for miles and miles were ushered out of a minibus to the sight of scores of people milling in excitement in the night lit up by huge neon-strips, like those on a school-room ceiling but carried around by small boys, and intermittent fireworks spurting of the ground. We are talking about years and years worth of wages.

Drums played. We met with the male arrangers of the marriage, were offered every comfort and were increasingly surrounded by a multitude of people all wanting to shake your hand, try and communicate in Hindi or so often just stare. On only your second day in a country this is a lot to handle but I am happy to say the reaction it brought forward in me was held-together confusion, interest and delight. Martina did particularly well as she had never been to Asia before and had all the extra attention that goes with being a pretty blond girl in these parts - a lot of people would have internally combusted.

Luckily there were a few people who spoke English and held polite conversation - I think knowledge and love of cricket will definitely get me far here. Then we saw the bridegroom. He was sitting on the floor surrounded on all sides by the very extended and large family (that are I believe more than common-place here) dressed somewhat like an Indian prince of old.

He was then led out and the procession began. The women wait at the wedding location while the men proceed to the ceremony ahead and alongside the husband-to-be in a flashy thrown cart pulled by white-horses. The reality is that 'proceed' does nothing close to justice - carnival is far closer. What ensued was perhaps the craziest party atmosphere and certainly the most surprising I have ever encountered. It took a full two hours to move a distance that should not take a quarter of that time while men danced, jigged, vibrated, shook-themselves in every and each which way to local music blasted at amazing decibels out of speakers on wheels, surrounded by a drum band and lined by the same strobe-light boys. Simply wow. I could not believe the unadulterated release and joy amongst the men dancing and celebrating together. We were led in pride of place just in front of the horses and were looked after by some of the most important men. This is traditionally a men-only affair and that they were prepared to change there tradition to allow Martina to come with us was touching and thoughtful. Not many women will have had this privilege.

This is coming close to the main point I wish to communicate about the evening. The simply unbelievable generosity to some random foreigners who they have never met and have no great importance in the world. I simply could not believe it when after being given everything I could possibly fill myself with at the reception (amazing food by the way but two days in bed later may be connected) a man arranging the marriage explained that as a guest I was his "superior" and that is exactly how they treated me. Such incredible hospitality - we can learn a lot as a culture that is of no doubt to me. Perhaps the most humbling experience of my life.

Back to the parade - it deserves more description then I can possibly give it. To watch men of all ages strutting their stuff in the most unique and arguably outrageous ways was one thing to observe, another to participate in. So what do you do when people constantly invite you and even pull you in - you give it a damn good go. At first, to dance in front of a crowd of people in very strange unknown surroundings, in unknown ways and knowing perfectly well that the majority of eyes are watching you is a tad intimidating. Initial attempts were therefore short-lived and not full-hearted, but as the procession went on the improvement in our participation touched the level where one man commented that I had had too much wine - I had none, but OK maybe a couple of beers.

All along everyone was so kind, friendly and jolly. What became obvious is that by greeting or speaking to anyone we were honouring them. This is unusual and not easy to get used to. Further, it is quite a problem when they come to offer you food and simple capacity means that you can not honour everyone. Therefore it is even more strange when lowly me has to choose who should be honoured and who not.... too much for the only slowly developing cultural grey-matter.

We were even led onto the grooms chariot where the family took photos of us with them. Many many people we had never met and would never meet again wished for photos of us and with us. Suddenly I realised more than ever why I never wish to be a celebrity and I was content that I did not barge in to conversation with Ian Botham at the airport.

The sight of a middle aged man gyrating at the hips into another man while holding a few rupee note above his head sticks in the memory-banks. What made this event such a sensory-overload (a phrase I foresee I will use often in India) was that there were so many of these kind of sights, many of which we were active particpants within. Another memory flashes into recollection of a man throwing many notes into the air and drummer-boys and unconnected bystanders all running further into the middle of the main road (the procession was on a major-highway) dodging trucks for a few rupees. Again, a lot for the head to take.

After this incredible 2 hours we made it to the main reception and the women who had been waiting. A large communal garden donned out in sash and light with a large stage at the front with two thrones and lashings of exciting food on each side. After much more surroundings, polite-conversation and greetings, and another conversation with the head male on the groom's side thanking me or coming and giving far more respect then I may ever deserve, things started to roll. There was colour everywhere - in the stunning dresses of the ladies, on the children, in the food and on the thrones. The groom at last took a seat (you can have too many people surrounding you) and the wife-to-be whom he had never laid an eye upon, let alone anything else, was led out in the most gorgeous clothing, with henna decorated hands and lashed by golden jewellery. I have to say she looked very nervous indeed, juxtaposed to the groom all confident smile. Quite a moment.

Completely different to our own traditions, the event fairly rapidly wound down at least in terms of the involvement of the grooms family. There was much picture taking and smiling on stage while others joined them and some gave presents. After a necessary delay - it felt very strange to have a glimmer of lime-light let alone steel the spotlight as at times it quite embarrassingly felt - we entered onto the stage and had our photos with the couple. Many more photos, hugs, and surroundings occurred before we were rushed off into the night to all that Delhi is. The children were simply wonderful and delightful. All smiles only wanting some attention and a photo.

As we rushed off into the night squeezed into the back of a mini-bus and rather shell-shocked, one could only but imagine what was running through the minds of the couple who were to be imminently married by a Brahman beside a ring of fire. They had never even met, yet in the morning he would lead here away from her family to a place she had not been. Quite shocking in many respects to the western mind, but the funny thing is that from this night I got the impression that they were likely to have a far longer and more fulfilling union then many equivalents at home. A union of family and respect for hopes.

All in all it was a lot of gob-smacking fun!!!

Saturday, March 04, 2006

An Introduction and a Half

My first 5 days in the sub-continent have proved extremely eventful and quite an introduction to the thrills and spills of this part of the world. On the down side I have spent the last 2 days in bed with stomach problems initially not even allowing me to hold down water and coming out of all ends. Not the most pleasant of things but all part of the experience. As this is my first trip outdoors in that time this will therefore be short.

On the other side of the coin Delhi and its people have utterly charmed me. From magnificent sites such as the red fort and Humuyan's tomb to bazaars and the strange feel of the colonial planned streets of New Delhi - I have loved it! Best of all was a large wedding we attended where we were guests of honour, treated like kings and made to feel so humble by simply incredible generosity of the people. More of that later. I do though fear that is where I picked up this Delhi Belly and therefore I will now head back for a final night's rest to kick it in the teeth.

Then north to Mohali and the second test!!!