Sunday, February 26, 2006

Terra Incognita

Bangladesh, land of ... I'm not sure exactly. Nobody ever goes to Bangladesh, and the only time you hear about it on the news is during the annual floods that affect the country like clockwork and kill thousands of people; or when another over-laden rust-bucket of a ferry sinks, taking its human cargo with it. I can't say that these events are altogether surprising when you consider that 90% of Bangladesh is taken up by the world's biggest delta region, formed by the merging of the Ganges and Brahmaputra rivers, and, to compound matters even more, that is is the most densely populated country, of any size (I'm not counting the Vatican or Monaco), in the world. The country has no real tourist attractions and gets very few visitors a year (though I'm not surprised at that seeing as they charged me over £40 just for the visa). Even a couple of Bangladeshis that I have met were perplexed about my plans and couldn't offer any suggestions for places to visit. But, as George Mallory famously replied when he was asked why he was climbing Everest, I'm visiting Bangladesh "because it's there" (and also because travelling to Myanmar would have been even more expensive!). So I'm rather curious as to what I shall find. Either way you'll be finding out soon.

Friday, February 24, 2006

The Size Of Wales

They say that the lion is the king of the jungle, but personally I disagree. For a start it doesn't even live in the jungle but in the African savannah, and they hunt in groups (whereas kings, as we all know, reign alone). But the clincher is the fact that they aren't even the biggest and the baddest of the big cats. That title goes to the tiger, which actually does live in the jungle. And the greatest concentration of tigers is to be found in the Sundarbans, the mangrove forests located in the Ganges delta as it reaches the Bay of Bengal. The Sundarbans are split between India and Bangladesh and form the largest mangrove forest in the world, covering an area half the size of Wales.

In all my travels whenever I seem to come across an especially large national park, salt marsh, "biosphere region" or some other such entity, its dimensions are invariably compared to that of Wales. Whether it is only half or almost treble the size of my fellow British quasi-country, Wales seems to be the benchmark for bigness. Perhaps it is because it sounds evocative of cetacean bulk, which might lead to misunderstandings: (a Texan couple on holiday) "Honey, the nice man says the forest is the size of Wales. Whales sure are big, aren't they?" Perhaps we should introduce a new area measurement for topographical regions, the SWU, or Standard Wales Unit.

But I digress. The Sundarbans are an extremely important area providing habitats to many birds, deer, crocodiles and warthogs as well as the Bengal tigers. Luckily the wildlife is pretty much left alone as the area is quite inhospitable to humans, which is a good thing because the mangroves also protect Kolkata, which lies upstream, from the numerous cyclones that batter the Bengal coast every year.

A visit was therefore obligatory though, despite staying 3 days, I wasn't lucky enough to get a sight of a tiger. Not that that surprised me particularly, as the big cats each have a territorial range of 12 square kilometres. But I did get to see pretty much all the other animal inhabitants of the area so was quite satisfied with my little visit. Plus I got to take a break from planning my days as it was an organised tour, so I could just laze and let myself be led without knowing where I was going.

Saturday, February 18, 2006

The Black Hole

British history in India undoubtedly centres on Kolkata, née Calcutta, and the surrounding region of Bengal. It was here that the British East India Company set up one of their main trading posts; it was here that they fought their first battles against the Indians; it was here that they made their capital, only moving to Delhi in 1911; and it was also here that many of the struggles for Indian independence took place.

Upon doing some more research about it, Britain's imperial foray into India turns out not to be the result of some overarching, Machiavellian plot to conquer the entire world, but very much the product of happenstance, luck and corporate profit-seeking. Indeed, it wasn't until 1857 (100 years after the first territorial conquests) that the British government stepped in to take up a controlling and administrative position. As improbable as it sounds, until then it had been the British East India Company that had been carving out dominions for itself. It's as unlikely as imagining McDonald's or WalMart taking over entire countries ... OK, strike that thought.

This rich heritage means that there is much more to do in Kolkata than just visiting temples. There is an eclectic collection of museums, some of the most interesting of which are dedicated to the region's famous sons, such as Rabindranath Tagore, the national poet (though also claimed as such by Bangladesh) and one of only two Indians to have been awarded a Nobel prize, and Subhas Chandra Bose, an independence hero at home but not so universally appreciated abroad because he threw in his lot with the Axis powers during the Second World War.

There does, however, seem to be a concerted effort to ignore the colonial past. From the renaming of streets and buildings (not to mention the city itself) to the neglect of Raj-era reminders. For example the British cemeteries, which are particularly fascinating, not for their pomp and grandeur, but for their glimpse into the fates of the "cogs of the Empire" (particularly evocative are the large numbers of young wives, some still only teenagers; one can imagine their stories: married off by correspondence to promising colonialists, arriving to an exotic land, and then quickly succumbing to an even more exotic disease). Or also the palace of a local maharaja who was completely enamoured of all things European to the extent that the palace is chock full of Italian marble, Belgian glass and Bohemian crystal; floorspace is given up almost entirely to French furniture and Grecian-style sculptures; and portraits, landscapes and Renaissance works battle it out for every square inch of wall.

Though I'm looking forward to moving on as well, as you can really feel the smog and grime working its way down your throat (you really know a city's air is polluted when your snot becomes black!). I have also managed to accumulate another accident to add to this week's cricket encounter. As I was crossing the road today I got run over by a scooter that was going in the wrong direction i.e. not at me, though that was the wrong direction as well, but against the flow of traffic, and so I didn't see it. Luckily it was going rather slow so I only have a nice bump on my shin and a bit of a limp. But that's OK as I'm hoping that the next few days will be more sedate, though I'll leave you in suspense as to how and why (and where).

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Cricket And Porn

Almost the whole world over the game of choice for young boys is football, but not so here on the Subcontinent where cricket is king. In back alleyways, in public parks and on sandy beaches one will always find boys with ancient, chipped bats and makeshift wickets. Whilst ambling through old Bhubaneswar on the lookout for temples (there are about 50 gorgeous, old temples in just a square mile) I spotted just such a group of youths. Despite my protestations of being absolutely hopeless and not having played in donkey's years they insisted that I play with them. I eventually gave in and made an OK show of batting, but when it came to bowling it was another matter. My first attempt was well wide and my second was so soft that the batter sent it straight back at me. I took the old fielding adage of "keeping my eye on the ball" a bit too literally as it caught me smack on my left eye. Luckily I wear specs and so the only damage done was to my ego. Still, it has reinforced my view of cricket as the devil's sport.

Orissa is not just home to cricket hooligans though. It is also home to a large number of India's tribal people who, in this land of class and caste division, are well and truly at the bottom of the heap. The local Indians don't fare too well either, as the abject poverty that is evident throughout the country is pervasive here. Nevertheless Orissa is rich in beautiful temples, of which two deserve a special mention.

The beach town of Puri is home to Sri Jagganath mandir. The temple is the residence of Lord Jagganath, as well as his brother Baladeva and sister Subhadra. Lord Jagganath is supposed to be the lord of the universe, but it is hard to take him and his siblings seriously, as they look like cartoon clowns (if I'm not mistaken he's the one on the right of the picture below). There is, however, nothing comical about the Rath Yatra, or car festival. Once a year Jagganath and Co. are taken out of their temple abode, placed in chariots and wheeled over to a temple on the other side of town for a week-long holiday before being wheeled back. It might not seem particularly noteworthy, until you see the chariots that is. They are well over 15m tall, each of their many wheels are easily 2.5m in diameter and it takes well over a thousand men to pull each one. Traditionally fervent devotees used to throw themselves in front of the wheels so that they could be martyred by their god, thereby giving us the word juggernaut, and an apt one it is. Perhaps even more fascinating about the temple is the whole economy that surrounds it. It is thought that up to 20,000 people are employed by the temple to carry out the myriad devotional offerings and sacrifices required by the demanding god every day. It seems particularly wasteful to me that so much money can be found to spend to dote on some wooden statues when such large segments of the population are desperately poor, have no access to safe drinking water and even less to decent schooling.

About 30km further along the beach is Orissa's pride and joy. If the Taj Mahal is the pinnacle of Islamic architecture in India, then the Sun Temple at Konark is the same for Hindu architecture. The massive structure stands some 35m high, though the old temple tower was previously over twice that, though due to the combined effects of neglect and nature (the region is regularly battered by cyclones) it fell down over a hundred years ago. In spite of its reduction in size its grandeur remains. And not only does it impress with its sheer scale, but also with its delicate carvings, many of which are rather graphic to say the least. In fact our guide seemed rather embarrassed talking about them and would always drop his voice to a whisper and try and hurry through as quickly as possible: "And over there we have ... ahem ... twoladiesandaman." And that's just one of the tamer scenes. Suffice to say that Orissan women 750 years ago were very supple and not particularly prudish (unlike today); or it could be that the male carvers had rather vivid imaginations in the long periods of time they had to stay away from their families. Whatever the reason, my camera certainly got a thorough workout on the statuary smut!

Thursday, February 09, 2006

Tech Towns

Over the past few years there have been continuous reports in various media about India's emergence as a global power in the IT sector. Spearheading this charge are the two cities of Bangalore and Hyderabad (affectionately known as Cyberabad). Taking advantage of the cheap, highly educated and, perhaps more importantly, English-speaking workforce many British and American companies have outsourced back-office work to India. Most notorious among these is the outsourcing of call centres. In Britain especially there has been a huge outcry about this practice, lamenting the loss of jobs from the British economy. This is nothing but racist, protectionist rubbish masquerading as an economic argument. These very same people praise national companies to the high heavens when they are successful overseas or are dominant in their fields, but when our companies are out-competed fair and square by companies from developing countries (from ex-colonies no less!) then there must be foul play afoot. Perhaps, although it may not be expressed aloud, it is thought that skilled, value-added jobs are for us, and menial, agricultural jobs are for them (not that that should stop us from subsidising our own farmers,but that's another rant). Instead we should be happy for the Indians who are managing to improve their lot by competing directly with us, instead of having to abase themselves for our favours, for our crumbs. Our common humanity should see also that these jobs, and the wealth they create within communities, are more vital to developing nations than to ourselves. Plus, both as consumers and shareholders (all of us are the former and even most of us are the latter too in some way or another) we benefit directly from the reduced costs of the services that are provided.

Many politically interested people of my generation are vehement anti-globalisationists, often either out of a knee-jerk rejection of anything American (or which seems to embody Americanism) or due to some romantic notion of the superiority of traditional ways. Whilst I am no big fan of America myself such attitudes are not helpful to developing nations. I am therefore a strong believer in the globalisation of employment opportunities. If Indians (or Sri Lankans, or Bangladeshis, or whoever else) can provide the same quality services at a reduced cost they should be allowed to do so without any let or hindrance. World trade is a door that most certainly ought to swing both ways. I am deeply persuaded by this both ideologically, and because it provides fascinating anthropological opportunities.

In Bangalore the place to see and be seen is MG (Mahatma Ghandi) Road. I spent a good while just sitting there, absorbed by seeing the beautiful people of Bangalore trying to outdo each other in conspicuous consumption at the many street cafes, designer boutiques and lounges, flush with their IT money. The whole call centre phenomenon fascinates me. I would have loved to have met someone who works in one to get their impressions on the "culture training" that is required when dealing with customers from Europe and North America. Not only do they have to adopt another accent and identity, but they also have to learn about the pop culture of their clients so that they can "chit-chat" with them. It's a pity there's not a call centre tour aimed at us curious tourists as I'm sure there would be a market for it. At least I got to do the next best thing when I visited Hyderabad; namely visiting Ramoji Film City.

Shame on you if you haven't heard of it! This is India's answer to Disneyland (or is that Disneyworld?) or Universal Studios. It claims to be the largest studio complex in the world, and still manages to find room for a theme park with rides (a grand total of 6 rather timid little things that would probably be too tame for travelling village fairs). The whole place is shockingly dire, with little to do except potter around the various gardens and aimlessly wander amongst the many souvenir stalls (selling the standard T-shirts and caps as well as some random inclusions such as desk lamps and saucepans. I'd love to see the situation: "well, I needed a new desk lamp so I went to the film studio.") and many restaurants and food stalls (it seems Indians are easily contented as long as they have enough to eat). Not only were the sets made out of papier mache and plaster, but it seemed like all the amenities were as well. Our harassed guide wasn't having a good time of it either as people kept insisting that he speak in their language. He therefore only had time to quickly sputter the name of each "attraction" in Telugu, Hindi, Kannada and English before the next one came along. The one saving grace was being able to actually observe a film shoot of a song and dance number. Being in movies may sound like a glamorous job, but the poor dancers were standing around for hours on end in the full glare of the sun and only sporadically bursting into action, only for it to last about 10 seconds before the dissatisfied director screamed "cut". Add to that a gaggle of leering spectators and I'd rather face a classroom of hormonal adolescents, thank you very much.

But there is more to both of these cities than just computers and kitsch. Both were the capitals of sizeable Muslim kingdoms in the Middle Ages and the Islamic influence is still very strong in the local population and the architecture. Good news for me as I could finally get some meat as I've been a de facto vegetarian since Christmas. The kingdom of Golconda (the old name of Hyderabad) was one of the 5 Deccan sultanates that continuously waged war against the Vijayanagars of Hampi. During the British Raj it was an independent, though subservient, kingdom and almost became a separate country in 1947. It wasn't until a full year after Independence that India subdued the separatist region. Hyderabad is also the centre of India's pearl industry; a rather strange phenomenon, it seems to me, as it is some 250km from the sea. Nevertheless the streets around the old bazaar are full of jewellery shops, mainly catering to Muslim women. It is a faintly ludicrous sight, seeing these women decked out head to toe in strict hijab, with only a slit for their eyes, poring over various chunky, gold necklaces that they will only ever be able to wear in private.

Saturday, February 04, 2006

Smelly Feet, Scented Hands

My journey northwards has brought me to the city of Mysore, famous throughout the world (at least to those who are interested in such things) for its scents and perfumes, especially its sandalwood as well as its silk saris (though I wasn't too interested in those). The colourful market is a joy to wander round: rows of flower-sellers selling garlands by the kilo, pyramids of fruit and veg, and lots of little stalls selling incense sticks, coloured turmeric powder and essential oils (at least they claim they're essential oils). There was no escaping the perfume treatment for me either, as, for about an hour, I was liberally doused with fine-smelling oils. I wasn't complaining though as I ended up smelling better than I have done at any stage of my trip so far (plus it allowed me to go another day or two without needing a shower!). I am, however, perplexed as to how sandalwood got its name, because after almost a year and a half on the road I can safely say that my sandals smell nothing like sandalwood, indeed I think I might have discovered the reason why I'm not meeting as many people of late...

But there's more to Mysore than just smelling good. The city itself is considerably more spruced up than most Indian cities, although given the competition that's not too hard. The town centre is dominated by an enormous palace, complete with turrets, domes and frilly bits. And just outside the city is the little-known Kesava temple (yes, another temple) which really does merit a detour. It might not be big and imposing, but its beautiful carvings and unique, starburst design are striking.