Monthly Archives: July 2011

India – Looking back

Experience says:

India with its colourful life, diverse nature and rich culture has a lot to offer to the visitor. From the beaches in Kerala to the Himalayan mountains, from the temples in Madurai to Mumbai’s Bollywood, from yoga to tasty food, India is incredibly rich in experiences.

However, there seems to be an absence of thinking for society as a whole. On one hand the greatest strength is a flexibility that enables life to flow despite  infrastructures completely overcharged by the sheer amount of people. On the other hand, everybody immediately pushes into any available space, often causing system slowdown for all. Ubiqituous garbage and widespread corruption are symptoms of the same malaise.

Quite related is the utmost importance of money. The ‘white tax’ for visitors is just a side effect. The have-nots do everything to get it, the rich want to demonstrate their superiority. Money is so important that intimidating or even killing of wives and brides for money or trafficking of women is a huge problem in some areas.

Related to that, the plainly visible sexism and chauvinism of many Indian men is just appalling, a fact that might not have sprung to my attention so intensely hadn’t I travelled with a female companion.

You can have a great time as a tourist in India, enjoy great food, full moon parties, the safety for travellers. However, should you care once to open a newspaper, you will probably be surprised by the other side of this society. It is this side that does not make me want to go back soon, except maybe for some regions like the Himalayas, where things seemed to be different, at least to me.

Escape says:

Two and a half fascinating months spent in India made me aware of the many intriguing aspects of Indian life, but also the striking cultural differences.

The careless behaviour of heavily polluting nature and the omnipresent greed for money are just some examples. Another one is the unhappy fate of being a woman in India. It was not easy to ignore being stared at and accept the fact that white women are regarded as free and easy.

In India you are never alone. Only money and power can buy you silence and space. The only exception we found was in the Himalaya mountains – from 2,500 meters altitude upwards.

However, also memories of mouth-watering flavours, colourful, loud festivals interwined with the sacred and accomodating Indian people we met on the way will stay with us. The moments shared in a smile or a short conversation made me sensitive to the fact how different our journey might have been had we only spoken at least some basic Hindi.

India is not a place that you can ‘see’, but one that involves all your senses, that forces you to transit from being an onlooker to being a participant, making the experience unforgettably intense.

Posted in India, North India, South India | 2 Comments

Did you know that…

… with 1.2 billion, India has the second biggest population in the world, expected to surpass China by 2025?

… India has the deadliest road traffic in the world? As per the WHO’s global status report on road safety, India tops the global list of deaths in road accidents with 125,000 fatalities and at least 2.2 million serious injuries each year.

… the Indian railway is the biggest employer in the world with 1.6 million employees? The network transports more than 9 billion people per year.

… the value of “pi” was first calculated by the Indian Mathematician Budhayana, and he explained the concept of what is known as the Pythagorean Theorem.

… Bollywood, India’s film industry is the biggest in the world? An average of 900 films are produced annually in India with around 3.7 million movie tickets sold in 2006 alone. Bollywood stars can attein near god-like status in India.

… in a country that has its first woman, Pratibha Patil, sworn in as President of India in 2007, only 10% of women are parliamentary members?

… the average cost of a big city wedding amounts to US$ 12,500, whereas the average annual income is US$ 997?

… human-rights groups believe India has at least 50 million (not the Indian government’s estimation of 12.6 million) full-time child labourers? That’s the highest rate in the world.

… although roughly 1/3 of India’s population subsists on less than US$ 1 per day, the country has the world’s fastest growing number of US-millionaires; an estimated 125,000 in 2008.

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Through the Spiti Valley and up north to Ladakh

We left Kalpa with the appetite for more mountains, more scenic views, and higher altitudes. After a brief administrative stop in Reckong Peo (a permit for crossing the ‘inner line’ close to Tibet is required) we got on the bus to Nako, our next destination. The bus ride, considered one of the most adventurous in India, offered beautiful views of the Sangla and Spiti Valleys and the Kailash Range. And while the bus got stuck for a couple of hours due to one of the very common landslides, we still made it to Nako (3,600m) for candle light and cold water, as there was on of the frequent power outages.

We spent a couple of days to get used to the altitude and make some smaller hikes before continuing the journey up the Spiti Valley to Kaza. Again the bus ride offered breathtaking views as the road wound along the valley. Depending on which side you sat on the bus, you would sometimes look down hundreds of metres, and once, at a very narrow passage, a passenger actually got up and walked to the door in case the bus would roll over and fall … but the bus driver, as usual in the mountains and quite contrary to the rest of India, made a solid no-risk job.

Kaza (3,600m) is quite touristy but nicely surrounded by arid mountains, and we enjoyed the wonderful stary sky. From there it was another twelve-hour ride on a public bus to green Manali, honeymoon destination for Indians and well-known backpackers’ hotspot. Fleeing the rain, we decided to venture quickly on towards our final destination in India, Leh in the Ladakh region. This time the ride on a minibus took 21 hours, we crossed multiple passes (the highest at 5,300 meters) and were totally wrecked when we finally made it.

In the middle of mountains, cozy Leh is a hub for trekking and also serious mountaineering. Unfortunately tourism is working its way and the number of big expensive hotels and seasonal tourists is going up as due to the airport the place is no longer only reachable for intrepid backpackers accepting straining bus rides, street-side food stalls and low-cost guesthouses. Still it’s absolutely worth a visit.

Posted in India, North India | 2 Comments

It’s a man’s world

In India, problems for women begin already at birth. For most Indians, even today it is more desirable to have a son rather than a daughter. The son often remains in the parents’ house after marriage and supports them financially, whereas a daughter is a burden and to marry her off, a dowry must be supplied. Although the practise of giving money or substantial goods by the bride’s parents to their son-in-law’s family is illegal under the Dowry Prohibition Act, it is still expected and a status symbol. The bigger the dowry and the ceremony, the greater the prestige of the family. For poorer families, a dowry can be a huge financial burden that indebts them for the rest of their lives. That’s why a common curse in India goes: “May you have ten daughters and may they all marry well”.

However, the trouble does not end with marriage. Sometimes violence can start right after the wedding. The woman might quickly face a bad surprise, as her husband and his family might want more money than the amount agreed upon and paid on wedding day. In some cases they beat or abuse her and pressurize her to ask her parents to pay more. Often enough, harrassed and abused women immolate themselves. Rarely anybody investigates for murder. An Indian news report claims that in 2006 around 7,600 women died because of dowry deaths (this figure is likely to be too low).

In general, arranged marriages are still the norm rather than an exception; even today between 70 and 80% of marriages are not based on love. The partners are normally chosen by the parents. The perfect match depends upon the level of education and the social status: The Hindu caste system embracing four different classes – each with rules and conduct of behaviour – still strongly influences India’s society. That’s why marrying across the ‘caste bar’, even for wealthier or educated people, is a no-go. Online dating agencies also have a caste searching tool. From time to time you read about couples running away to marry out of love, which are then exposed to barbarian acts of vengeance by the relatives that lead to injuries and often end in murders.

A village girl may be married to a man she has never met and is expected to do manual labour, raise children and keep the house, which may also involve daily treks to fetch water or gather firewood. Domestic violence is common, as the man often feels it is his right to beat his wife. However, most women don’t stand up for the few rights they have and often even feel that the violence is normal. According to a survey by the National Family Health Survey released in 2003, 56 percent of the women asked said that domestic violence was justified. We heard of one case in which someone we know wanted to denounce the aggressive man to the police. The woman, apparently shocked that he wanted to interfere, said: “If my husband goes to jail, what will I do?”

The situation for an urban, middle-class woman is better, but the pressure still exists. She might get an education, which will make the marriage prospects better, but she is still expected to be housewife and mother above all. Not being able to give birth to a child, in particular to a son, may have severe consequences. The practice of ‘bride burning’ is not uncommon, as newspapers report on a daily basis, especially in India’s traditionally male-dominated, conservative north. These murders often pass as household accidents and the man can then remarry someone his family considers to be a better prospect.

A woman faces even greater pressure if she wants to divorce, which theoretically is not impossible. However, both husband and wife are responsible to make the marriage work, no matter the obstacles. A divorced woman might be considered an outcast from society and there will be no social security net provided for her, as even her own family might turn the back on her.

Such is the desire to have a son that the government had to pass a legislation that prohibits the abortion of healthy female foetuses. In 1994, ‘sex determination’ clinics have been banned, but the abortions clandestinely continued. It is estimated that around 50 million (!) females are thought missing in the overall population due to female foeticide and infanticide, as per the UN Population Fund. However, just some days ago we read about reports of hundreds of baby girls turned into boys via mediacal surgery in Indore. The sex-changing surgeries performed on infants are apparently becoming an important business in India, also due to the weak implementation of laws fusing with backward customs in many families and villages, where traditions are deeply rooted.

No day passes without horrific news. Some time ago a small girl was found dead and without one kidney. The police said it was an exorcist who ate it. A 14-year-old was allegedly gang raped and found hung at a police station in the state of Uttar Pradesh. The police declared it was suicide. Ridiculous statements, no further investigation and ineffective prosecution make it difficult to change the mindset and stop the violence against women. Often enough, villagers condemn the police for failing to take immediate action, giving the accused enough time to erase all the evidence.

Although the attitude towards women is changing, it will take a long time before they will gain the equality with men. India has just been rated the fourth most dangerous place for women, primarly due to female foeticide, infanticide and human trafficking, according to a new survey conducted by Thomson Reuters’ Trustlaw Women. Around 100 million people are supposed to be involved in human trafficking in India and it is estimated that there are three million prostitutes, of which 40 per cent are children.

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