Special Report - December 10, 2000


You ask 'em, I try to answer 'em...

Q: Allen ... has not mentioned the beggars yet. In Delhi, Agra and Jaipur, the beggars were incessant. It is such a large presence that parents maim their children early in life by breaking or amputating limbs so that they can be more effective beggars. It was such a disturbing part of the trip that I am surprised he has not mentioned it, or maybe he is just sparing us those photos.
        — Josh Reiss

A: Josh — We have found touts to be much more of a problem; they simply won’t take no for an answer. Most beggars we have encountered speak softly, and tug on our sleeves, but are not too insistent. I did run into one little kid in Jaipur who grabbed my foot and wouldn’t let go. I almost ended up on my face in the dirt. I have decided not to give money to beggars, and except for the two girls I talked about in the Mumbai report, I have stuck to it.

I am moved more by the obviously needy people I encounter who are not begging. In Santa Cruz, I saw two little girls asleep in the street. Their clothes were badly worn and their only visible possession was a water bottle. I tucked a small denomination bank note under one of them. I passed them several times as I continued my morning walk, and I saw a car stop and leave them a couple of items of clothing. I never saw them awake; for some time they were asleep, then they were gone. They appeared to me to be five or six years old. I wish I had left them a couple of bananas or some other food rather than money.

Q: You mention eating at various restaurants but haven't told us whether you are able to find food bland enough for your tastes. Are you subsisting on rice or finding food that you like?
        — Vivian Pratt

A: Vi — It varies. For those who don’t know me well, I need to explain that I don’t like any spicy-hot foods. If it bites me, I don’t want it. Most Indians seem to feel that if they prepared my food the way I requested, they would be inflicting cruel and unusual punishment on me, so they listen carefully to our instructions, assure us there is “no problem”, then go ahead and make it hot anyway.

I’ve tried several tactics:
    1. If things don’t look promising (the waiter doesn’t speak very good English and doesn’t understand Rita’s Hindi), I order something safe, like puri.
    2. If food arrives spicy, I reject it and ask them to try again.
    3. Rita eats it and I order something safe.
    4. If it’s not too hot, and it tastes OK, and I’m really hungry—eat it anyway.
    5. The last resort—I order rice and curd (yogurt).

Q: Also, most people have digestive problems of various types when they travel somewhere very foreign. Are you having any problems?
        — Vivian Pratt

A: Vi — Up until two nights ago (November 28), I could say that I had not had any digestive problems, but I’m now recovering from a case of Delhi Belly. We’ve been pretty careful about drinking only bottled water, no ice cubes, no street vendor food. I have eaten some raw vegetables—tomatoes and cucumbers—a somewhat risky thing to do but, after 45 days with no problems, I guess I was getting a little cocky. I can’t pinpoint any obvious cause of my current problem, but if this is as bad as it gets, I’ll consider myself lucky.

Q: One more question, you seem to be staying at relatively nice hotels—is it cheap to stay there?
        — Vivian Pratt

A: Vi — I made a deal with Rita before we started this trip that she chooses the hotels. For the most part, she has chosen them from the Lonely Planet guidebook, and we’d go there and I stay at the autorickshaw with the bags while she goes in and checks the place out. If they have space and she likes the room, we stay. We generally have not done comparison shopping.

She has had problems with allergies in air-conditioned rooms, so now we stay in rooms with a fan and no AC, and they are cheaper. The hotels we have mentioned in the reports (the Taj Residency in particular) were mentioned because they were an event—better than our average. Most of our hotels have been 600 to 1500 rupees (at 45-46 to the dollar) including taxes ranging from zero to 25%. We have been happy in a 250 rupee basic room in Rishikesh with a view of the Ganges (no phone, no TV, but clean) and unhappy in 1000 rupee rooms (uncomfortable bed, no hot water, dirty and poorly maintained, and, in Ooty, cold).

Q: Are you and Rita gaining weight? The picture of Captain Al, at the wheel of the ferry boat, seemed a little full in the shirt.
        — Dave Downs

A: Dave — I don't think we are gaining, but we're not losing either. Eating out two or three times a day, I have a tendency to eat more than I should, and I drink a lot of Coke (a safe cold drink with more taste than bottled water). But I also walk a lot. I think that, in the picture you are referring to, my shirt is filled with wind. Rita is better than I at walking away from the table when she has had enough.

Q: Has Allen tasted paan or eaten pani puri from the street vendors?
Bella Mayani

A: Bella No paan (a mixture of tobacco and spices that is chewed and spat) and no pani puri (small puri from street vendors with hot spices added). Puri, yes I've adopted it as one of my "safe" foods (puri is a deep-fried Indian bread). I have avoided eating anything prepared on the street as an intestinal safety measure.

Q: Will you be visiting any of the WWII bases at which I was stationed, such as Tezpur or Pandaveswar (near Calcutta)?
Donald N. Zwiep

A: Prof. Zwiep According to my Lonely Planet guide book, Tezpur is located on the Brahmaputra River in Assam in the northeast corner of India and to the east of Bangladesh. Darjeeling is as close as we expect to get to that part of the country. Pandaveswar is not in my guidebook, but we are not currently planning to go to Calcutta. So the answer is most probably not.

Q: Hi Dave, Rita, and "the blistered one". I hope with all the walking around the streets and paths that your feet are OK. I wonder what the water temp is like at or near the monument.
Harold Margolis

A: Harold Yes, my feet are fine (Harold hiked a part of the Pacific Crest Trail with me last year, and is referring to my blister problems on the trail). I took full advantage of the opportunity to walk around Kodai, and my feet did get a little sore, but this trip doesn't begin to approach the physical challenges you and I encountered on the trail last year.

As for the water temperature, I guess the most accurate answer I can give is "warm". Our best guess is that the water is around 80-82 degrees F. We have no thermometer, and didn't actually go into the water at the southern tip.

Q: I'm a friend of Jan Looper Smith. I'm going to Tamil Nadu Jan 1st with friends. How's the weather? It looks like you have had a very interesting trip.
Livia Stein

A: Livia Tamil Nadu has suffered a hurricane since we were there. I understand that the area around Pondicherry was affected, but I don't have any first-hand knowledge. We found the weather to be hot; cooler in the morning and evening, but too hot to be doing anything active outdoors at midday. We saw no rain at all while we were there (from Madurai to Chennai and mid- to late-December).

The following series of questions is from my brother David Downs. He is an elementary school teacher, and I assume that his kids inspired some of these questions. Unfortunately, my India expert, Rita, is no longer here to help me with answers, and my Indian cultural knowledge is very limited, but here goes:

Q: I've enjoyed reading your installments and I think I'm learning something about India. Can you tell us anything more about Christmas in India?

A: The percentage of Christians in India is pretty low (less than 3%) but decorations are seen everywhere. It is certainly a commercial holiday (most stores have sales). I'm afraid I don't have much more of a feel for Christmas here than I have already reported.

Q: How about New Years? Is it celebrated at the same time of year as we celebrate it? Do they use our calendar?

A: Yes, most of the calendars I have seen contain the same dates as we are used to. I assume that this is a practical matter, since India must deal with the outside world which has standardized on the 12-month calendar. But there are other calendars in existence; for example Ugadi, the Telugu new year, is celebrated in March.

Q: Do you see many items that are common in America? What are the local TV shows like? Have you listened to the radio? How is that the same or different from what we are used to?

A: There are versions of the Who Wants To Be a Millionaire show in almost every language. There are soap operas and music videos. There are local news programs and movies in Hindi, Malayalam, Tamil, etc. I have not listened to radio except when it has been played on a bus or in a public place. Most radio I have heard is in the local language, which I don't understand. I did hear a music and news program.

Q: How about common things like gas stations, barber shops, grocery stores, hardware stores? Do they have any big stores like Walmart?

A: The gas stations look pretty much like ours. Most are not self-service. Barber shops, grocery stores and hardware stores tend to be small; barber shops will have two or three chairs and one barber. Grocery stores vary from tiny stores with a little counter and a few shelves behindyou ask the storekeeper and he gets what you wantup to supermarkets like ours, except that all supermarkets I have seen tend to be small. The hardware stores I've seen are generally perhaps 8 feet wide and 20 feet deep. I have not seen any large Walmart-like stores.

Q: Have you seen McDonald's, Coke, ice cream, hot dogs, baseball (sports)?

A: Rita and I ate at McDonald's; we shared a Combo consisting of a Maharaja Mac, fries, and a coke. There was a sign saying no beef was served, and I was told that the meat was lamb. I thought it tasted more like goat. [The connoisseur in Allen comes out.] Coke and Pepsi are everywhere. Ice cream is also available everywhere. I ordered a hot fudge sundae with my New Year's Eve dinner and got a tall glass of ice cream. It was good, but there was no hot fudge, cold fudge, or anything else except ice cream. When I asked the waiter about it, he just smiled. I haven't seen a hot dog nor have I seen a ball game. I did see some very good tennis players practicing on a court in Cubbon Park in Bangalore.

Q: Are the train engines modern?

A: Indian Railways have eliminated all steam engines on standard gauge lines. There are a few left on meter gauge and on tourist lines such as the toy train to Darjeeling. As of March 31, 1999 the Indian Railways have 58 steam, 4,586 diesel, and 2,785 electric locomotives. More than 3/4 of the diesel and electric locomotives have been added since 1970, so my guess is that the average age is less than 20 years. The engines I have seen look modern but well used. [That answer was pretty vague, Mr. Downs.]

Q: Have you seen anyone on scooters (the self propelled kind that are so popular here lately), skate boards, roller blades?

A: No, I haven't. [Too verbose.]

Q: Do they use asphalt, cement, bricks, stones, to pave streets?

A: Mostly asphalt, consisting of crushed stone over which hot tar is poured. I have seen some cement on highways, and very few brick or cobblestone streets. Many local streets are dirt.

Q: Is electricity common?

A: Yes, it is. Even corrugated metal shacks in slums have electric power. An article in a recent Delhi newspaper said that perhaps 40% of power consumption is through unmetered, illegal connections. There is not enough supply to meet the demand, and blackouts are frequent. Most hotels and businesses have backup generators that are frequently used.

Q: What are their fire stations like? How about the fire trucksare they red? Do they have fire stations? Are hospitals uncommon? Do you ever see ambulances, hear sirens?

A: I can only remember seeing two fire stations in my travels, and the engines were red. I have never seen a fire truck on the road. I have seen few if any ambulances in action and don't remember hearing any vehicle sirens. Hospitals are pretty common.

Q: Are the light bulbs the same as we are used to?

A: No, they are for 220 volts, and have bayonet-type bases (like the taillights of a car). Most that I have seen are unfrosted.

Q: Since you're basically eating the food that they bring you in the Ashram, are you learning to like Indian spice?
Dave Pratt

A: Dave Yes, I ate what they brought me if I could hack it, and left it on my plate if I couldn't. My first few meals at Dhaneti, I ate everything they gave me and was proud of it, but then one of the swamis expressed concern that I would have intestinal problems if I suddenly switched to spicy foods, and asked the kitchen crew to serve me boiled vegetables. After that, my meals consisted of boiled potatoes and peas, chopped raw cabbage and carrot, and a roti. Then the peas disappeared, then the carrot disappeared, and for a while even the cabbage disappeared, so for a few days, I was eating boiled potatoes and roti. The problem wasn't spice, it was monotony! But I didn't go there for the food.

I have been able to tolerate mildly hot food when necessary, but I still don't like it.

Q: You haven't really mentioned much about dead bodies, smell etc. have you seen things that you felt wasn't appropriate to mention on the site?
Dave Downs

A: Dave The ashram intentionally did not send unproved volunteers like myself into Bhuj or the other badly-damaged Kutch cities during the first few days following the quake, and it was during these first few days that bodies were being dug out and cremated in large numbers.

During my first visit to Bhuj, I passed a building where the army was searching. They found one body and placed it on the ground in front of the building covered with a blanket. That was the only dead body I saw, and I didn't really see even that one, as it was completely covered. No smell reached me. I saw large piles of firewood, and many truckloads of firewood headed into Bhuj, but I never saw a funeral pyre.

Most of my experience was in villages where almost all of the houses were completely destroyed, but the death toll was generally low, and bodies were dug out quickly because the piles of rubble from mostly single-story houses are smaller than those in the cities. Seriously-injured people were taken to hospitals. By the time I reached a village, only uninjured survivors remained. If any firsthand stories of lost relatives were told during our visits, they were not told in English so I missed them. The villagers were generally very cheerful and smiling.

The sobering times for me were the long bus or truck rides back from a village when I had time to think about what it would be like to lose my home, possibly a family member, and probably my livelihood, in a period of about ten seconds. I know I would not take it as well as these brave people have.

The most difficult time was listening to Mr. Jothi talk about his wife, his daughter Kumari, and his son's daughter, Akshita, while we watched the army digging in the rubble looking for them. I wanted to hug the guy and cry with him, but he was unwilling to assume that they had died until the bodies were found.

The experience of the New York Times reporter who wrote the article about Mr. Jothi and others was quite different from mine. I think my work in Kutch was less traumatizing than you might assume.

Q: What is a lac? What is a crore?
Allen Downs

A: Allen A lac is one hundred thousand, and is written 1,00,000. A crore is 10 million, and is written 1,00,00,000. Both terms are commonly used in India, just as we use million and billion in the US; if Carl Sagan had been Indian, he would have talked about 'crores and crores of stars'.

Previous Installment Home Next Installment