Monday, January 30, 2012

Writing English for south paws

On a scale of 1 to 10, it seems to me the formality of a document stating your resignation from a job --even if a near identical position is taken up with immediate effect-- should rate at least a 9. Maybe even an 11. To be handed a plain sheet of paper and a ballpoint pen to do the deed was therefore something of a surprise.

The instructions I received were quite specific: my resignation letter must be written by hand and copied word-for-word from a sample template. The latter was presumably so that it could be easily followed regardless of whether the author chose to express themselves in English or Japanese. I took both the blank sheet of paper and the template letter and arranged them on a nearby desk, lifting up my pen.

This staggering act resulted in a swift flurry of movement in which all the tools I had laid down on the table were rearranged. My paper was straightened and the template moved to the other side of the desk. I stared at this reorganisation, nonplussed.

"Ah, she is left-handed!" I heard one of the administrative assistants tell her colleague in Japanese.

"Ah!" The other man stepped forward and moved the template letter from the left side of the desk to the right.

I paused.

"Please write the letter exactly as it is here," the female assistant explained to me in English. "The same page orientation."

Light dawned.

"I will do!" I promised. "But because I am left-handed, I must tilt the paper." I rotated the writing paper 45 degrees clockwise and wrote the title. Behind me, there was a panicked intake of breath, followed by a sigh of relaxation as everyone moved away.

Since Japanese writing traditionally starts in the top right corner and moves down, I realised it was possible they had never seen a left-hander tilt the page to write neatly. Yet, if I didn't make such a move, my hand would press over the freshly inked letters and smudge. Before you ask, you would be quite amazed how much a dry ballpoint pen can smear. This sad sad fact confined me to pencil for years. Possibly, I wrote the world's greatest novel at the age of 8, but the non-permanency of my writing implement means no one will ever know.

As I finished, I dug in my pocket and produced my hanko; a personalised seal used in Japan instead of signatures. "Should I use my stamp?" I asked.

This produced a pleased babble of excitement around those seated nearest me in the office, possibly steaming from relief that they wouldn't have to deal with some freakish western signature. Carefully, I pressed down by my name on the paper. The woman next to me clapped.

I tried not to think exactly how low the general opinion of me must be to denote such an act an applause-worthy achievement.

"Can you come in again on February 2nd?" I was asked as I stood to leave. "To finish the paper work."

"Actually, I leave for Canada on the 2nd," I explained.

"Oh. How about the 3rd?"

...... OK, my travel schedule is crazy, but it's not THAT crazy.

"I.....," I began, hoping they would realise their error. They didn't. Or they thought it a completely reasonable turnaround.

"I'm sorry but I'll be in Canada," I said the last word carefully. "until March."

This achieved the desired communication and we agreed to complete all the paperwork on the 1st. I tried not to look too relieved.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Welcome to Japanese bureaucracy

After one week in Canada I returned to Japan. For two weeks. Then on Thursday, I go back to Canada.

Confused? Let me explain:

This brief interlude from my collaborative work trip in North America was to allow me to interview for a job identical to the one I already had, be offered the position, formally start and then order a computer before this was prevented by floods in Thailand.

There. Isn't that clearer? No? Well, I will elaborate but I warn you now, it's not going to help.

Our story (although I defy Disney to create something more fantastical) opens with our young heroine (totally me. It is my blog, after all) assuming the role of "specially appointed assistant professor". The "special" part here means that my salary came from the Japanese Government, not Hokkaido University, who have a scheme to support women in senior roles for three years. After that time, it was understood that I would be moved onto the university's normal tenure track (leading to a permanent position) for faculty members.

This transition was not contracted, but I was told it was a question of honour for the university to uphold the verbal agreement. Since the breaking of Japanese honour traditionally results in disembowelment, I felt there was some incentive for the people who mattered to follow this through.

A few months ago, however, in response to increased pressure from the government to increase the fraction of female employees, Hokkaido University opened a call for two tenure track positions for female scientists. It was suggested that I apply for one of these positions, since it would end any uncertainty regarding my job status in three years time and everyone could retain their digestive tracks.

[As a side note, I don't really approve of any form of sex discrimination in jobs. My concern in this case is it could devalue female researchers' achievements if it is felt they only gained their current position through having a decreased pool of applicants. Despite this, I discovered when put to the test, my morals were surprisingly easy to sweep under the nearest carpet. No one put me in a court of law.]

Even though I had been hired for my current position just months before, I still had to complete the full application procedure, including the in-person interview.

I pointed out that I would be in Canada at that time.

Everyone agreed that it was incredibly daft just to come back so that I could be re-interviewed for a near identical position.

..... but that was just the way it was.

Since a foreigner was preferred for the job and since the Japanese have an innate suspicion of foreigners they have never met, my chances at getting this position were high. This led to a problem concerning money.

New faculty members are typically awarded a large one-off sum known as a 'start-up grant'. This is for single large expenses that are needed to equip a new researcher with the tools they need to do their work, for example outfitting a new laboratory. As a theorist, my wish-list was simple: I wanted computer power. Lots of it. Think 'the ultimate question' solving stuff. The problem was that all this money needed to be spent by the end of the fiscal year which was ... March.

Everyone agreed that it was incredibly daft to spend such a large sum in a month and it would only lead to wasting funds.

..... but that was just the way it was.

Now it transpires that machines more awesome than Steve Jobs builds are manufactured in Thailand. The way it was explained to me is that the ENTIRE COUNTRY disappears under water due to floods each year around this time. Since constructing electronic equipment in such a condition presents some difficulties, an ordered machine will take more than a month to arrive. Since the earliest I could begin the new position was February 1st and the money most be spent by March 31st this left less breathing space than for a snorkelling computer engineer.

The upshot was that I had to still be in Japan on February 1st, so I could officially begin this position as soon as humanely possible and order a computer from waterworld. I booked my flights back to Canada on the 2nd.

I think maybe I should have asked for two passports while in the UK.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Dubious documents

"This passport was issued a few days ago. Why was that?"

Um. Because I needed a new one? Seriously, what sort of question was that? And how did I answer it without sounding like I was talking to a two year old and not a burly Canadian border guard?

I shrugged and tried to arrange my features into something that less implicative of 'WTF you moron?!'

"It needed to be renewed over Christmas."

There look, I spanned that out to a seven word sentence none of which were hamsters or elderberries.

"Are you gainfully employed in the UK?"

"No, I work in Japan."

I instantly regretted my words. The passport the border control guard held was a pristine virgin document, unsullied by any hands except those of the country from which is was forged and ....

... look, the point is it didn't contain a Japanese visa.

This wasn't a problem was far as Japan were concerned. In my backpack was my dog-eared cancelled passport which contained the still in-date visa for my job overseas. Unlike for American visas which have to be paid like a high-profile ransom to be transferred between passports, Japanese visas could chill in the old document until their own expiry date rolled around. The problem was, how much talking would I have to do to convince this border guard of that? Especially given his experience outside of Canadian bureaucracy would probably be with the neighbouring country of .... yeah. You see the problem.

I braced myself for a long hard wait. I was pretty sure that, had this been America, I probably wouldn't be making my flight out in a week's time. I'd be held in the country indefinitely JUST TO BE SURE I didn't stay there forever.

The border guard blinked at me. "Japan?"

I managed a tight smile. "Yeah."

A Brit coming from the UK into Canada with a empty passport, claiming she worked in Japan.

The guy burst out laughing and tossed my passport back at me. "Through you go!"

Maybe no one would ever make up a story that crazy. Maybe he decided he never wanted to know. I love you, Canada.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Stranger in a strange land

"That will be 25p," the man behind the counter of Jessops camera and print shop in my parent's city of Leicester told me.

Bargain! I had gone in to print out a set of photographs that my Dad had taken that morning, ready for an express renewal of my passport while I was in the UK.

"Yes, it's cheap if you do all the work yourself!" the shop assistant joked as I rummaged in my wallet.

I tipped a collection of coins in my palm and examined them. "Is this a ten pence?" I held up a silver coin that seemed about the right size, although the design was different to how I remembered it.

The shop assistant looked at me oddly. "Where are you from originally?" he asked.

"I.... um .... here," I muttered. "It's just... been a while."

Major fail!

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Waiting on the world to change

The British understand class. There is an innate comprehension that cockney flower girls are at the bottom of the heap while you can get away with anything if you wear a crown. So when little English girls play at being princesses, it's not cute; it's a desire for world domination.

British class, however, comes down almost solely to money. In India, the situation is far more complex.

Naturally, discussion of social situations is an ethical mine field. So I want everyone to feel reassured that I have a full and complete grasp of this topic from spending AN ENTIRE WEEK in India and attending a play exploring class that was performed in entirely in Hindi. I knew you'd all feel better.

Two major ways of categorising people in India are caste and religion. In theory, the two are interconnected, since caste is a Hindu concept. However, this social stratification is seen in other religions which in theory should be outside the system. A Christian church, for instance, will often have a congregation predominately from the same caste.

Which caste you belong to is decided by birth. There are four major divisions (and about a gazillion subsets) whose origins stem from professions: the Brahmins are the priests and intellectuals, the Kshatriyas are the warriors and rulers, Vaishyas are merchants and Shudras are farmers. Below these are the Dalits, once known as the Untouchables, whose jobs involved the most menial and dirty of tasks, such as toilet cleaning and... midwifery... because small children are similar to toilets.

Discrimination against the lower castes has been banned by the Indian constitution for 50 years. Perhaps predictably for a social system thousands of years old, this has met with mixed success. On the one hand, the current chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, an Indian province that includes the Taj Mahal, is from the lowest Dalit caste. Her career has been colourful, although this is less likely to do with her born status and more with her actions which include commisioning a statue of herself and suggestions that fellow Dalits should beat upper castes with their shoe. On the other hand, despite the ability for low classes to reach high posts, it is still uncommon to marry outside your caste. This, perhaps more than jobs, emphasises the underlying separation is still very much felt.

Aside from the caste system, there is the question of religion. Upon gaining independence from the UK in 1947, it was decided to make two separate countries from the former British Indian Empire; India and Pakistan. The division was founded on the basis of religion, with Pakistan being an Islamic state.

A major problem was the division of land was that is was done by a British lawyer who had never visited India. He drew the boundaries based on population density, creating two areas with a Muslim majority to be East and West Pakistan. These two provinces of the same country were separated by thousands of miles of Indian territory.

... This worked every bit as well as you might suspect, and in 1971, East Pakistan gained independence as Bangladesh.

The whole division was bloody and left millions of Hindus and Muslims with an unappetising choice; give up their livelihood and relocate to the appropriate side of the border or become the minority in their own homeland. Whether this division should ever have been carried out is still a much speculated subject, but the fact of the matter is that it did occur with at least 10 million people changing countries and another half a million dead.

For the Muslims that did remain in India, they found themselves subjected to a significant feeling of bad will from those who believed they gained their own country in the partition and should have moved. This was one of the main topics discussed in the play I attended at the Indian International Cultural Centre on my last night in Delhi. The play was entitled "Ghandi Park", written by Manav Kaul, and focusses around who has the most right to sit on a bench in a city park (no, they can't share; don't complicate the issue).

The play opens with a small boy dancing to John Mayer's "Waiting on the World to Change". His father is concerned that his bad grades at school are because he is being discriminated against for being Muslim. The father in question appears as the boy runs away and is the first 'bench stealer' in the performance. His method has a charming simplicity about it; he threatens to vomit on a young man, Uday, who is currently sitting there.

Moving hastily to another bench, Uday is told to move again after the arrival of the school teacher. The teacher makes his case in terms of caste, profession and age, none of which impresses Uday in the slightest. The teacher's case was not exactly strengthened by his confession that he wanted the bench for the view it offered of the balcony of a girl he admired. The father then wakes up and ... well, things don't run smoothly.

While social issues aren't always the most enjoyable to discuss, I found this amazingly interesting perhaps because it IS discussed in India. It left me with a feeling that even the oldest traditions can change.

So, who is up for skipping Charles in the succession for the throne?

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

The greatest dead

I confess, I find it slightly disturbing that India's trademark monument is a tomb. For one, the whole concept of a dead body being your most recognized landmark is unappetizing and for another, it looks like an opulent palace which is bound to be under-appreciated by those no longer inclined to tea parties.

It is the city of Agra that boasts the Taj Mahal, a day trip from Delhi by train. In theory, it should have taken us just three hours to reach our destination, but this timetable was designed without allowances for the Delhi fog. I was all for blaming this unexpected twilighting of the city on pollution (the auto rickshaws may run on natural gas but those road-walking goats just looked guilty) but it turns out it is a genuine weather phenomenon that attacks Delhi's winter. The net result was we departed Delhi at 7 am but did not arrive in Agra until 1 pm.

While rather long, the train ride itself was captivating. We travelled by slum dwellings that looked like whole villages with winding streets, monkeys sitting on walls by wheat fields drenched in mist and once a large pig on a station platform.

We rode in a second class carriage, seated in what was called a 'sleeper coach' with three people sitting on each long bench seat. There was no air conditioning, but about a gazzilion fans hung from the ceiling to ease the hot air in the warmer months. Up and down the carriages, venders walked with tea, cold drinks and crisps. Oddly, a woman also came by and demanded money. I ignored her since THIS DID NOT MAKE SENSE but she shook my friend awake who gave her some change.

"I don't understand," I said. "Why did you have to give her money?"

"It's what she does," was my reply.

I have to say this was a rather unsatisfactory answer.

The train network in India was first laid down by the British but has been maintained and extended by the Indian government to become the forth largest rail network in the world. Longer distance trains are designed for more comfort than the carriages for our relatively short journey, and are one of the best ways to get around the country.

When we arrived in Agra, we hired a taxi for the day at a flat rate; a good move since the major sites are surprisingly far from the station. Despite its size, the Taj Mahal is amazingly well hidden from the surrounding streets so that the first glimpse I caught of its large marble macaroon domes was after I'd passed through the site's main gates.

We took a camel up the long driveway because.... well, because we could.

The Taj Mahal was build by the 5th Mughal Emperor, Shah Jahan, to be the mausoleum for this beloved third wife, Mumtaz Mahal, who died during the birth of their 14th child. Its construction began in 1632 and was completed around 1653. Shah Jahan dictated that a huge brick scaffold would be used for the building work, whose design mirrored that of the tomb itself. This led to concerns regarding the time it would take to dissemble, but legend has it that the Emperor decreed that anyone who took a brick could keep it and the structure disappeared over night.

Rumors also persist that Shah Jahan intended to build a second mausoleum for himself, a mirror of the Taj Mahal built out of black marble. Regardless of whether this was truly his intent, he was overthrown by his son and spent his last years in the Red Fort in Agra, gazing out over his wife's tomb where he himself would also be buried.

Despite the fact it is a tomb, the Taj Mahal lives up to its name as India's most impressive landmark. Entering through the main gate, you are confronted with the classic view of the Taj in front of you, reflected in the long stretch of water that runs to its plinth. Closer up, it does not disappoint as it is an experience to walk on a structure made of nothing but spotless white marble.

To stand on the plinth and enter the tomb itself, you must either remove your shoes or cover them in elasticated cloth wraps. Notably, Indians visiting the site seemed to opt for the former while tourists the latter, although this might just have been a product of the shoe coverings being included in the more expensive tourist ticket. I was also given a bottle of water which possibly reflects the number of foreigners who collapse with dehydration in the grounds during the summer season.

Due to our late arrival, we were not able to see Agra's Red Fort before it closed for the evening but instead went for dinner and then took the train home. More delays meant that our train did not depart Agra until after 10 pm but then mercifully, took the predicted three hours to reach Delhi.

This was merciful because I was about to freeze.

In India.

Having lived in Northern Japan and Canada, that would have been plain embarrassing.

The problem was that the carriages weren't sealed, so the cold night air rattled through ill fitting windows in an icy draft. This direction, the train was much quieter so we were able to use the 'sleeper carriage' as had been the intention for quieter routes; with each person taking one long seat to lie on. The temperature was such, however, that long before we reached Delhi I wished we were more packed. Perhaps it was nights like this that caused people to design tombs.

This feeling of peril was intensified by a guard with a rifle asking my friend how she knew me. Apparently, he was just curious.

Finally we were at Delhi. My friend was bobbed on the head with a rifle to wake her and I tumbled onto the platform before the same fate awaited me. Slightly nerve wrecking, but ultimately worth it to see the most scenic of India's dead.

[Photo: left is... do I really need to specify? Right top is the view of the Taj Mahal's mosque while standing on the plinth of the Taj and bottom is the inside of our train.]

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Just don't drink the water and don't breath the air

Before going to India, I visited a travel clinic in Canada which provided me with three things: an armful of vaccinations to prevent hepatitis A & B, typhoid and tetanus, a course of tablets to prevent malaria and finally, an antibiotic for ... when ... I got food poisoning.

In a time where fear of resilient super-bugs meant at least one vital organ had to be missing to shake antibiotics out of doctors, it was rather disconcerting to be handed a prescription for a illness I didn't yet have. Perturbed, I queried both the clinic's nurse and the pharmacist to be told the same answer:

"Boil or peel food before eating."

"Then I'll be fine?"

"No, you'll just last longer. After that, you take these."

I wondered how long I was expected to survive. Could I reach the guest house from the airport? Or should I be wearing an adult nappy upon landing? Would I be viewing the Taj Mahal through a periscopic lens extending from my sick bucket? Was India secretly a biological warfare camp designed for the breeding of super-humans and therefore uninhabitable by the weak, normal masses?

When I anxiously arrived in India, I told the group of friends who had come to meet me about my culinary instructions.

"They told me I was doomed!"

The response was a shaking of heads, "We don't think that's true."

Encouraging, but if they were all secretly super-humans perhaps they just didn't understand danger.

The strategy I ultimately decided on was a simple one: take some basic precautions but then don't worry about it. My guide book suggested sticking to vegetarian dishes for the first few days, since meat dishes are often very rich which can in itself produce an upset stomach. Fortunately, eating vegetarian in India is far from being a hardship, with roughly a third of the population doing likewise on a permanent basis. Indeed, the first record of a vegetarian diet comes from ancient India around the 6th Century BCE with its popularity stemming from a religious-based advocate of non-violence towards animals. As a result, vegetarian dishes in India are numerous and delicious. Never had I visited a country with more choice for non-meat courses and the only hardship was reminding myself that I did want to try the meat before I left.

For the first three days, my friend and I ate in fairly formal looking restaurants. They were not wildly expensive --although certainly pricier than the many street vendors around the city-- but being in a proper sit-down establishment seemed a sensible tactic for minimising bugs I might not be able to handle.

In India, people eat with their hands. In Northern India, where wheat rather than rice is grown, naan breads accompany the main dish. Strips of bread are pulled off the naan and used to scoop up the meat, beans or sauce before the combined bundle is popped into your mouth. Traditionally, only the right hand is used for this process, with your left hand sitting idly by your plate. Even though I was assured that using both hands or a fork would not be offensive, I tried hard to follow the example of the people around me. Since this didn't involve a new skill such as wielding chopsticks, I thought this would be easy.

I was wrong.

The first problem was that I am left handed, but I'm not convinced this made a huge difference. Managing the entire routine above with only one hand is an impressive feat, independent of your limb of preference. The second problem was a willingness to get dirty. To successfully eat a meal in this style, you have to be prepared to really get your hand into the food. This is a very alien concept to someone used to using cutlery or chopsticks, both of which keep your bare hand at a significant distance from your plate. In theory, I was a keen participant, but I could see that I ended up using only the tips of my fingers and ultimately spilt more food over the table, my face and sometimes my lap. It was very hard to resist the urge not to wipe or lick fingers during the meal, but to regard that hand as a write-off until the meal's end where a finger bowl would appear.

The food itself was amazing and actually very similar to the higher-end Indian restaurants in the UK. While I knew the UK had pretty much adopted Indian cuisine as their own, you never know how much a dish has been altered to suit a different population. Possibly my favourite meal was a huge rolled up bread stuffed with potato called a 'masala dosa', a dish from my friend's home in Southern India. It was quite the miracle I did not also have to be rolled out of the restaurant after consuming it.

The level of spice in the foods varied a great deal. We stuck to the lower end, partly through conscious choice but also just through the dishes I happen to select. My conclusion was that no one should be worried about visiting India if they are wary of hot foods; there is enough variety to suit everyone's palette.

On the forth day in Delhi, we visited old town and ate at a street restaurant. This was a moment of truth, since while the stuffed naans were of renowned greatness, they were being made right there on the street which screamed gut troubles with every bread-turn. Just to make it clear I was laughing in the face of danger, I had a tangy dessert from a street vendor.

... and I was fine. Actually, given my irritable bowel syndrome, this meant I was considerably better than usual.

There was only one possible conclusion to this: I was quite clearly also an INVINCIBLE SUPER-HUMAN! See that goat? I could eat it right off the street, hooves and all! Crunchy.

All and all, it was probably a good thing we were on a rickshaw by this stage, heading back out of the town.

Disaster did eventually strike two days later, in the early morning of the day I was to fly to the UK. It was not a big problem; I woke up with my stomach aching and had to tumble out of bed to the toilet. After I recovered, I noted I was low on toilet paper and thinking this had the potential to end badly in the face of a second attack, I went to ask at reception for a new roll.

It was about 6 am when I nudged the security guard awake. He did not speak any English and assumed I wanted to check out of the guest house. While I understood the initial confusion, I did rather feel that --upon taking a step back-- he should have realised that the bare-footed, pyjama wearing girl before him, brandishing an empty roll of toilet paper, did not really look ready to get into a taxi.

But no, this seemed entirely plausible to him.

He took the empty toilet roll from me and put it to one side. He lifted the check-out book. I ignored the book and re-claimed the empty toilet roll.

Rinse, repeat.

After about 15 very confused minutes during which I declined from making any more gestures that might have aided understanding, a second guard appeared. He sized up the situation before I spoke and said:

"Oh, you need more toilet tissue!"


After that, all went smoothly and by the time we touched down in London, I was right as rain and ready to make myself really and truly sick through the sheer number of chocolates in the house over Christmas. Bliss.

On an unrelated but frankly, awesome note: Thank you to Mynx for giving me a blog award from her own awesome site!
[In the photo above: top: the giant masala dosa, bottom left: street restaurant in old town Delhi, bottom right, the tangy dessert that is eaten in one gulp!]

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Dressing in India

Unlike in Japan, where kimonos and summer yukatas are normally confined to formal events or festivals, traditional Indian clothing is clearly still a common choice of attire in Delhi. My brief analysis in the subway cars we travelled on suggested roughly one third of people were dressed in traditional garments, both young and old, with the rest in western-style dress.

There are two main forms of Indian dress: the saree and the shalwar kameez. The former is worn by women and is a single strip of cloth draped over the body in a magical way that prevents it from sliding off in a heap. Saree colours are often bright and have really beautiful designs. I thought about buying one but --in a moment of damning honesty-- knew I'd never remember how to wear it.

People have been wearing sarees for thousands of years, with its origin tracing back to at least 2500 BC. It is featured in many Hindu epics, for example one in which the god Krishna protects the queen, Draupadi against humiliation by the foreign king, Dusshasan who attempts to publicly undress her by unwinding her saree. Krishna responded to Draupadi's frantic prayer by making the saree infinitely long until Dusshasan passes out from over work. (I should add that Draupadi had previously laughed at Dusshasan for believing a marble floor was actually water and lifting up his robes to step on it, but Krishna apparently considered that fair play).

The second form of Indian dress, the shalwar kameez, is traditionally a Muslim design but it now worn by people of all religious affiliations. The exception to this is in some Hindu temples, which may insist women wear skirts or sarees. Consisting of loose trousers with a thigh length or longer tunic, shalwar kameez can be worn by both men and women.

Contrary to the saree, this is a much easier design to wear and, rather surprisingly, I already possessed one, since the UK city of Leicester where my parents live has a large Indian population with the food and clothing to accompany the demographic. Sadly, I had left my shalwa kameez in the UK, although I almost robbed a French girl staying at the same guest house of hers which was in a stunning teal. Possibly though, it was for the best since when I mentioned this planned mugging to my friend she replied:

"Foreigners wear shalwa kameez with the most ridiculous things.... but they get away with it because they're foreign."

Hmm. Perhaps within India I should stick to jeans.

Many of the school uniforms for government-run schools I saw consisted of shalwa kameez, being a practical and unisex clothing to wear. Private schools tended to prefer jackets and ties.

Both sarees and shalwa kameez come in a myriad of colours and patterns. Going into a traditional clothing store involves being shown a dizzying display of fabrics. Customers sit before a shop assistant who pulls down a series of cloths, narrowing down the selection based on the customer's preference in both colour and design. Like with western attire, some colours are specifically used in special occasions. In Hindu traditions, for instance, red is the colour for the bride at weddings while white is reserved for widows. Given the amount of wine traditionally served at weddings, I couldn't help but feel that India had forestalled a very common problem.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Hair raising journeys

Nothing prepares you for traffic in India.

Not even if you watched the UK Christmas special of 'Top Gear' in which the crazed presenters drove three beaten up cars from Mumbai into the Himalayas. 

For a start, there is the sheer variety of traffic on the roads. There are the auto rickshaws --three-wheeled motorised taxis with yellow canvas tops and green open sides-- cycle rickshaws (same idea as autos but with more sweat required from your driver), cars, bikes, motorbikes, buses and the odd goat and donkey. All of which have their hands permanently on their horn. Especially the goats.

Then there is the fact that lanes are utterly ignored with significantly more parallel lines of traffic existing than the road markings would suggest was possible. More often than not, the boundary between traffic going in opposite directions is marked out with a solid barrier otherwise, quite frankly, everyone would be dead. Instead, this heaving mass of chaos somehow churns along and the railings between opposite sides of the road are used to hang clothes to dry. Add pedestrians retrieving their shirts to that list of road users above.

To complete the effect, every vehicle contains more people than it was designed to accommodate by at least a factor of three. During one particularly busy evening, I saw a family of four perched on a motorbike, six people crammed into a two-seater rickshaw with one sharing the driver's seat up front, and an entire extended family stuffed into car.

Nowhere is this mesmerizing carnage more apparent than in Old Delhi. While many parts of Delhi have tall modern brick buildings, Old Delhi is ... well... old. Buildings close almost to the point of touching over streets too narrow for cars, while the main thoroughfares run past mosques backed onto Sikh temples and houses than have been added to so many times magic seems to be involved in keeping them aloft. Driving through here --even as a passenger-- is both culturally exhilarating and a so-far-unlisted extreme sport.

Most bizarrely, all of this is in complete contrast to the Delhi Metro, which is a example of slick, sparkling efficiency as it glides under the car-rickshaw-bike-goat mayhem on the streets above. Admittedly, half of its calmness was due to the existence of female-only carriages which meant my friend and I were never over-crowded, but even aside from this, it was still one of the most modern and clean train systems I have ever travelled on, including Japan. It is also one of the most extensive in the world, before you suspect they just added it in for the Commonwealth Games, held in Delhi in 2010, although there was an extension during that time.

Apart from the obvious difference from the area which you have just tumbled down from, the strangest aspect of the metro system is the security. On the surface, it appears to be very tight; you have to walk through a metal detector and submit to a pat-down to board the trains, while any bags are passed through an x-ray scanner. What is peculiar is that it is not at all obvious what the security guards are looking for. Since I wore a travel wallet underneath the waistband of my trousers, I set the metal detector off without fail each and every time I passed through.

And this was just fine.

No one asked me what I was carrying or requested to inspect it. I was just waved right through with my potentially life-threatening weaponry stuffed into my panties[*]. The same was true at almost every tourist site we visited where similar security measures were in operation. The two exceptions were at the Taj Mahal and the Akshardham Hindu Temple, the former of which only wanted verbal confirmation I wasn't about to light up a smoke on the marble plinth. (Admittedly, the latter didn't allow so much as a camera into their premises and required you to empty your bag on video camera and then hand it over for storage. THEN they scanned you. Possibly, this was over-compensation for the rest of the city).

As for the metro, maybe the line of thought was that it was doubtful anyone could conceal anything more dangerous than the walk to the underground station.

[*] I hasten to add, the travel wallet DOES NOT stuff into my knickers, but it would require inspection to confirm this.

Photos taken while precariously balanced on a cycle rickshaw travelling through Old Delhi.