Friday, 6 November 2009

Waiting to exhale

Back in London, as I shake the Delhi dust off my shoes, and still fresh to my memory, I want to put finger tips to keyboard, and post some thoughts about my short 7-day trip to Delhi, visiting Jaipur and Pushkar.
Andy Craggs and myself made a brief exploratory visit to India to connect with local contacts and friends, with the plan of holding a photo-workshop in Rajasthan next year, complimenting the other 3 destinations on our 2010 program. We stayed with Poh Si, ( an Award winning energetic videographer and multimedia journalist, and Mayank, a Supreme Court lawyer and awesome ping pong-er.

On the way home in a taxicab from Heathrow, I contemplate my past week spent in the dry and dusty climate that surrounded Delhi and Jaipur in North India. It is eerily quiet, cruising on the M4 motorway. So different from riding the open auto rickshaw cabs that toot their hoots at every possible opportunity, their little 2 stroke engines throbbing along in earnest, whilst zigzagging in and between overloaded lorries, decrepit buses, other auto rickshaws, the odd private car, and camel carts. Camel carts?

Yes, this is India and the streets aren't paved with gold, but mounds of garbage, decaying vegetation, dirt, dogs, pigs and street people. For Delhi, with its 13 million inhabitants, you would think the draw of India's financial and administrative capital would offer the many millions that come to find solace, shelter and jobs there, its share of the pot, however infinitesimally small, it may be. But it appears that the pot is near empty. Many have nothing apart from the loin cloth they wear around their waist.

Air India has projected a loss for 2009 at USD1 Billion and is expected to cut its loss-making routes by the end of the year. The city is straining to complete its Delhi Metro subway system in readiness for the Commonwealth Games to which it plays host in 2010. Not having read up on India in detail, I cannot even begin to delve deeper into the social, environmental and financial let alone the religion and caste practices that makes up the ever-so complex fabric of Indian society.

I just observe. As a first time visitor and with my camera. A week of casual observation is insufficient to make general statements in a country that is home to 1 billion people, but first impressions and gut instincts help. Some figures are staggering.

Indian Railways apparently run 14,000 services every day, shifting over 20,000,000 passengers from north to south and east to west, and everywhere in between. Granted, many do not pay but ride the roofs of carriages precariously as we discovered on our train ride back from Jaipur the other day. Just like the Chinese, Indians are survivors.

We took a walk down some side streets in Jaipur and saw all manner of trades, from meat sellers, carpenters, metal workers, mechanics and 'chai' vendors working away. Stalls carts spring up from no where, selling samosas, chapati and lime drinks, every one it appears is selling something or know of someone that sells something.

One evening in Jaipur, we met up with some local English contacts at the Rambagh Palace Hotel, a magnificent historic palace set in acres of lush green and sprinkled lawns, with own polo field. The Maharani of Jaipur still lives there, in a separate annexe. We had G&Ts and Singapore Slings, made plans and chatted over wasabi crackers, canapes in the dimly lit air conditioned Polo Bar. In contrast, on the way there by auto rickshaw from the old city, we passed by many destitute homeless street people who had no faces, and witnessed a scrawny frame corpse being carted away in what looked like a municipal vehicle. Such is Life and Death in India. It is probably impossible to come to terms with the situation that is the Cycle.

My fondest memory of the trip was in Delhi on second evening. Poh Si brought us to dine at Connaught Place or CP as it is better known. This is 'downtown' Delhi, and is the place to hang out in the evening for food, cinemas and watering holes. We went to an Indian Restaurant called Amber and ordered tandoori chicken and briyani rice, sweet nan topped with chopped pistachios of which the name escapes me (delicious,...Poh, I want that name..) and Kingfisher beer.

After chow, we hopped on and off several auto rickshaws (another story.. video below) and made our way to India Gate, a sort of Marble Arch or Arc de Triomphe. It was a pleasant evening, and the light was good. The streets radiating from the monument were lined with ice cream vans and foodcarts, and the whole place was radiating energy.

For the first time, I saw there were more women than men outdoors, families, old and young were simply enjoying the sight, men were selling glowy, flashy twinkling toys, bubble-machines, bangles, bead necklaces, balloons, it was great! The journey home was equally enthralling. Trying to hail an auto-rickshaw at that time was near impossible, and when one did appear, trying to get the driver to 'unbreak' the broken meter always ensued with shouts of "meter-ON!, meter-ON now!, nen, nen you cheating hah! Nen!" Our tenacious and principled host Poh Si always attempts (and succeeds!) to threaten them by logging an immediate call to the Auto-Complain hotline, which she has programmed to speed dial on her mobilephone.

All this makes for great comedy for us visitors, but I can imagine the frustration setting in if it is a daily occurence, even for local Indians, as Mayank confirmed.

All is not lost however, and there are promising signs. The nation's future is in the hands of the Indian youth and we had first hand experience of this. Cliche as it may sound, this seems to be the only way out. We were lucky to come across an honest auto rickshaw driver by the name of Ram in Jaipur. He acted as our 'tour guide' whilst driving us to the Amber Fort 11 kms north of the pink city, without seeking more 'baksheesh'. Ram is 44, and have been driving rickshaws for 30 years, he tells me. On our last evening in Jaipur, he invited Andy and I to visit his humble rented home, which is situated just outside our hotel compound, on land owned by the hotel owner. Pretty basic but cosy, Ram lives there with his 3 daughters, wife and son of 20. The girls go to private school nearby instead of the local government school because English is only taught in the former. The fees are naturally higher but he values their ability to speak the language of the 'farang' or white skinned people.

Delhi is also home to many outsourced call centres, and these jobs require a good command of English.

We also made an impromptu day trip to Pushkar from Jaipur. Pushkar is a small town north or Ajmer and hosts the world famous camel fair ever year around November. Hundreds of thousands of visitors descend on this town along with thousands of camels from all over India. Trading is the keyword. Camels and horses also.

Tourists flock there to witness the sight in the surrounding desert landscape. The town also houses the (apparently) only Hindu shrine dedicated to Lord Brahma. We had missed the festival, and the Pushkar lake was dried out. It felt like a travellers town, a cowboy outpost for backpackers and hippies. Hell, I even saw a turbaned Caucasian on a Harley.. We will definitely add Pushkar to our desitination for the workshop.

Colour is the second keyword in Rajasthan. The saris are deep red, blue and yellow and most local women wear them with pride, often adorned with glittery accessories. I wonder why the menfolk have adopted simpler or Western attire. If the women we saw mending the roads and tending the fields can do it in their saris, surely the men too?

My Indian experience then, is only a glimpse, a starter course, a blink of an eye. Delhi's Red Fort, the serenity of Humayun's Tomb, Lotus Garden, the alleyways of Chandi Chowk, the blue city of Jodphur, the sand fort Jaisalmer, the magnificence of the Taj Mahal in Agra, there's plenty more. It has made me even more curious to see and photograph the rest of Rajasthan.

India, we will be back for more. The Rajasthan workshop will be an interesting one.

Rajasthan! 12-Day Photography Workshop is planned for November 2010. See
For more images and videos please visit the facebook group page. Click on photos to enlarge.


bubbleberry said...

interesting :) cant wait to see more :D

Pak Zawi said...

A real eye opener. Dunno if I will ever get to see India as it is not high on my list of must visit countries.

svllee said...

Hi bubbleberry! thanks for your visit. Leanna?

svllee said...

Salam, Pak Zawi, yes, it was a real eye-opener. India is a huge country, and you will probably find a region that will interest you!

Moon Things said...

very very interesting, I always wanted to visit India with all that sparks of life and smogs. It's still a developing nation afterall. Thanks!

Anonymous said...

India, India... it has always been the country I want to visit... well, someday, someday...

Saya... said...

nice write-up Steven...i must see India and pakistan somehow before i die...its in my blood...hahaha

when i was in jordan, i wanted to cry and go home seeing the poor there...the divide between the rich and poor was just too much for me...i cant imagine the other side of bollywood, the destitution, the faceless poor...well seeing it on the news, the net, reading abt it different from being there...very depressing..yet the human spirit is unbreakable even in such misery


-f-l-o- said...

It is one of the must-visit for me. November 2010, eh? That's only a year to go.

Another great entry. Well done!

svllee said...

Hi f-l-o, a year is 12 months only, and we hope some of the infrastructure will improve since Delhi is hosting the Commonwealth Games in October 2010.

svllee said...

Hi Saya..., thanks for your visit. Yes, indeed its in your blood. Would love to see Pakistan, but may be too dangerous at the moment to visit, especially for camera-toting tourists. Jordan perhaps, I always wanted to go check out Petra. Seen it in too many movies. I want to find the alien spaceship that is hidden inside the rock.

Anonymous said...

i want to go for the rajasthan one!

svllee said...

Hi whereinsoever! Yes, please come! I know you will enjoy the ride!

Roziah said...

I just love the way you've captured the colours of India - literally and figuratively.

Hope I'll be able to join one of the photo travel workshops - timing for Marakesh looks promising.

svllee said...

Hi Roziah, thank you for your comment. Marrakesh it is! Its very photogenic also, and the food is great.

-f-l-o- said...

By the way Steven, what camera did you use for this?

svllee said...

Hi flo, I mainly used a Leica M8 with either a 28mm or 50mm, and also my trusty Ricoh compact which I used to film the movieclip!

shawn trelly said...

Amazing pix!
Seems, you really enjoyed your holiday trip in the capital city of India.
Yes, India is such a huge country, which has so much to offer to its tourists.
And that might be one reason to book holiday packages and flights to India.