The Last of the Man Eaters

September 29, 2009

We’ve come to the Sunderbans, the last place in India where people are regularly attacked and eaten by tigers. It is located on the north east border with Bangladesh, which is just a few kilometers from where we write this. Sunderbans is the world’s largest river delta, where the Ganges River enters the Bay of Bengal through an enormous maze of small islands, many of which flood at high tide. It is also the world’s largest mangrove forest. Due to the tidal action, the water is very salty here making mangroves one of the few plants that survive except on the highest patches of ground. It is an eerie place of silty rivers and canals winding between low islands covered in tangled mangrove limbs and strange roots that stick up through the muddy ground. Sunderbans has one of the highest concentrations of tigers anywhere in India. As of last census there were 274 Royal Bengal tigers here.

Here is one that we didn’t take a picture of…

The Sunderbans tigers are well adapted to this environment. They are slightly smaller and more agile than in other parts of India so as to better maneuver in the tangled and muddy swamps, and they live on smaller prey including spotted dear, fish, crabs, and humans. Although all tigers are comfortable with water, the Sunderbans tigers are required to regularly swim between the many small islands in search of prey, including across wide rivers. Their tracks can be seen on the muddy river banks where they enter and exit the water.

The local people are poor and subsist in small villages along the edge of the tiger habitat. The forest department has erected a fence on the bank across the river from the villages to discourage the tigers from crossing. Given its visible faults and low success rate it is clearly a psychological barrier only. Tigers periodically cross the river to take easy prey — domestic animals and villagers. As a species we’re slow, weak when unarmed, have poor eyesight at night when tigers generally hunt, and a weak sense of smell. Easy pickings for a tiger.

We’re staying right beside one of these villages at Sunderbans Tiger Camp. We arrived here after a four hour bus journey from Calcutta followed by a one hour boat ride. We tour the Tiger Reserve by boat, but the chances of seeing a tiger are slim. The mangrove trees are so dense that unless you meet a tiger swimming you’re unlikely to see one – unless you enter the small channels or the forest itself.

Local men enter the mangrove forests to fish, gather firewood, and harvest wild honey. This work is so dangerous that when their husbands leave for a trip into the forest, the women dress and act like widows until their return. Despite all reasonable precautions, about thirty people are eaten each year.

Tigers attack from behind, preferring to bite the neck or arms of the victim. For protection, the local men wear masks of human faces on the rear of their heads, to confuse the tigers as to which is their back side. This apparently reduced the number of tiger attacks until the tigers figured it out, and now probably has little effect, but the masks are still are worn nonetheless. Tiger census takers visit the shore of many islands to take imprints of tiger paw tracks. They do so armed like a SWAT team wearing helmets and protective vests with high hard collars to protect the back of their necks

There is a local legend where the goddess of the forest saved a small boy who had been left as a sacrifice to appease the tiger god Dakshin Roy. We were treated one evening to a re-enactment of this story by the local villagers, complete with music and traditional songs. All local people including Hindus, Muslims, and Christians worship the goddess Bon Bibi before venturing into the forest so that she will protect them from tigers. Small temples containing her idol exist at most forest entry points.

Once in the forest, the men try to stay on their boats wherever possible, but even this isn’t sufficient defense. Tigers here will attack people in their boats and drag them into the water. Then kill and eat them — hopefully in that order. Their remains are rarely found.

Tiger attacks are far more common in the Sunderbans that elsewhere in India and many theories have been advanced for why these tigers are so aggressive. Some thought it was because the tigers regularly drink salt water and may live in constant discomfort, so fresh water pools were dug, but the attacks continued unabated. Because the tigers’ scent markings are regularly washed away by the tides, they may need to be more aggressive to protect their territories. The most likely reason is that this is a learned behaviour, with cubs learning it from their mothers.

There used to be man-eating tigers across India and attacks were very common. It has been estimated that about 300,000 people were killed by tigers in the 19th Century alone. But the man-eating tigers were hunted down and killed everywhere else, along with the vast majority of all the tigers, leaving only those that were timid and afraid of humans. The reason that Sunderbans is the only place where attacks occur regularly now is that the mangrove swamp is so dense, and the ground so muddy, that it is not practical and far too dangerous to hunt the tigers, even man-eating ones, so they continue to not be afraid of humans and to consider us prey.

Here in Sunderbans, humans are not at the top of the food chain.

On Toileting

September 22, 2009

Be aware that the following article is colourful, and may offend the sensibilities of the faint of heart. Or, you might just laugh your a** off.

As is the case with many travel epics, it has come to this, the point when the many exaltations of a grand journey are set aside temporarily, to focus on the simpler aspects of day-to-day living — sleeping, eating, and the subject of this article.

In addition to the many varieties of toilets we encounter, the complexities of their use are a regular topic of conversation among travelers. Here are some of the considerations.

Dirty toilets are very common. It’s quite common to hover or squat over filthy toilets while treading on urine soaked floors, even in the ladies room. You know that the floor isn’t clean when the Indian women roll up their skirts before entering to avoid them touching the ground. Patrick knows that it’s really bad when he can hear Diane dry heaving from next door.

A purse or bag is not an asset in these bathrooms, as there is nowhere to hang it. Because toilet paper is almost never provided, you need to bring that into the room discretely, and somehow manage to keep it off the floor during the whole procedure.

In most hotels, the whole bathroom is the shower. There is no tub, shower stall, or shower curtain. When the whole room gets wet it takes a long time to dry, so as a result, from the time we first use the shower the whole bathroom usally remains wet for the entire duration of our stay. So every time you go in to the bathroom your feet get wet, which is especially annoying if you’re going in the middle of the night and return to your bed afterwards. If instead you wear your shoes or sandals in, the floor turns into a swamp as the dirt from your shoes mixes with the water on the floor. The separate shower common in North America is definitely preferable.

We are often tested by cheap toilets that won’t flush with sufficient vigour as to get the job done. After several attempts, when confronted with a persistent floater, we’ve learned that you can fill a bucket and pour it into the bowl from a few feet above the rim. It works great.

The squat toilet is something that takes skill and experience to master. Not having the necessary flexibility requires a precarious balancing act on the balls of one’s feet. This is complicated by a slippery floor as you try not to pee on your feet. Lacking the necessary suppleness, stability must be augmented by touching something, but as minimally as possible. Diane prefers the one-handed water ski technique, while Patrick favours the two-armed elbow brace. The most sensitive part of the operation occurs when removing segments of toilet paper, as this normally requires two hands, making it a repetitive high-risk maneuver.

On a train, the difficulty level is further increased. Not only is everything stainless steel, wet, and at a minimum slick, but sometimes slimy, but the motion of the train makes balancing much more difficult. For some reason, the small bathrooms on the trains are exceedingly warm. Returning from the lou, it appears as if one has spent the last ten minutes doing squat-thrusts in a sauna. It often requires a cool drink and an extended period of recovery.

Another problem with train bathrooms is that you’re not supposed to go when the train is at a station, because everything just falls out onto the tracks below. It seems that more often than not, one just gets things moving when the train starts to slow. Some things can’t be stopped once started, so it would be helpful if all train restrooms were equipped with countdown timers until the next station. A good strategy is to only go in when you’re really good and ready.

Another challenge we face is the ‘pay and use toilet’. We find these everywhere, but especially in bus and train stations and sometimes in cities or parks. The concept is presumably that the small fee paid is used for the maintenance and cleaning of the facility. However, almost without exception, they are neither maintained nor clean. The attendant’s role seems be only fee collection. There is sometimes a mop in the vicinity, but usually in a dark, wet corner where it lays untouched. Even if it is used, it’s so dirty that it would just serve to spread the grime around. On a matter or principle, Diane refuses to pay at the ‘pay and use’ toilet unless they’re clean, and they’re never clean.

Every more perplexing is that there is often a difference in the fee depending on what kind of deposit you plan to make. For men this can be monitored by whether you use a urinal or toilet, but for women it appears to be strictly a matter of trust. Because it costs more, it is doubtful whether the women ever admit to anything more than a quick pee. Another problem is that you don’t always know in advance. Sometimes you’d like to keep your options open. And what if the anticipated result doesn’t materialize? Can you get your money back?

Some toilets in Africa and India are equipped with a metal bracket under the rear of the toilet seat that is connected by a tube to a separate tap on the wall. It appears to be a sharp piece of tin that is a cheap add-on. For months the usefulness of this device eluded us, and we were unwilling to risk putting it into practice. Eventually Patrick gave it a go. Through a tiny jet, it emits a horizontal stream of water so piercing that it could cut steel. Unfortunately or fortunately (depending on how calloused your sphincter is), because of its location below the seat, it doesn’t actually make contact when you’re seated. To experience its shocking effect, it appears to be necessary to lift the seat up, and then re-squat into the naked bowl. Small gyrations are then necessary to get coverage, but it is pretty important that this be done without making contact, requiring both strength and balance. Perhaps he was doing it wrong, but this certainly seemed to be an advanced and potentially risky maneuver given the cleanliness of the bowl and the razor sharp metal edge below.

Things are further complicated by the question of how to know when you’re finished? There is no tactile feedback as with the manual method. Should one stop based on feel, which would require greater sensitivity than we seem to possess, or is the exercise merely terminated after a reasonable time period. If so, how long? We may need further training to be able to maintain a squat for that time period.

Another issue is that the water emitted from this torture device is of unknown temperature and cleanliness. It would be nice to run it for awhile first, but this would result in a fountain as it ricochets off the front of the bowl. And what is one supposed to do in the meantime – stand up (ill advised), or maintain a parallel squat next to the bowl?

Unfortuantely our guidebook is silent on these topics.

A Taxonomy of Toilets

September 22, 2009

The following article classifies the many species of toilet that we’ve encountered on our journey. Although we are not trained biologists, we believe that we have now spent enough time in the natural environs of these commodes to make an initial classification possible.

The Sit

This is an elusive breed, very similar to that which is native in North America. They are generally found only at lofty elevations, such as mid-range or high-end hotels. They are domesticated and can be handled with minimal risk.

The Hover

The Hover is sometimes confused for The Sit from a distance, as they are members of the same family. On closer inspection the Hover can be distinguished because they are either lacking a perch or so foul that human contact is hazardous. These are observed frequently but should never be touched. It is therefore necessary to use one’s foot to prod them into action.

The Squat

The Squat sits lower to the ground, and is therefore harder to spot than The Sit. A Squat should only be engaged by an experienced individual with the necessary dexterity. There are three sub-species, the first resembling porcelain, the second stainless steel (usually found on trains), and the third a feral variety found only in small villages and which never leaves its burrow (so all you see is a hole in the ground).

The Hybrid

The Hybrid is a rare species, a result of human cross-breeding between the naturally occurring Sit and Squat varieties. It has the primary characteristics of a Sit, but when viewed from above has a broad corrugated rim which can be mounted only by the most skilled of handlers. Most collectors prefer one of the purebred varieties.

The Al Fresco

The Al Fresco is strictly an outdoor variety and has a wide-ranging habitat. In the
countryside, it can be observed almost anywhere, and includes both genders. In cities, it tends to be seen in alleys and vacant lots, and is more active nocturnally when males of the species are foraging. In Africa, it is sometimes spotted by deserted roadways where buses stop, with the males and females segregated to different sides of vehicle. Unfortunately, it is sometimes observed on the beach, despite the obvious risks. Even when you do not see it directly, you become aware of its presence by the sight or smell of its waste products, which are different than those of other mammals.

The Composter

Exceedingly rare is The Composter. In our experience, its range is limited to the African country of Malawi, and during our entire expedition we’ve only encountered two examples of this uncommon breed. It dwells in close proximity to humans, typically close to lakes or environmentalists, and has a very low impact on its habitat. The finer specimens of this species are coloured so as to fit into their surroundings, and may utilize potted plants for camouflage. This creature has two digestive tracts, switching back and forth between them every six months to allow the other to process.

The Tiger Trap

Like tigers, this species is both very rare and very dangerous. The Tiger Trap disguises its large burrow with a latticework of sticks over the opening. This allows humans to walk over top, depositing waste into the hole. This is an exceedingly dangerous maneuver as the grid can easily give way, dropping the potential victim into the burrow. Also the grating itself is usually soiled and therefore slippery, and sometimes too flexible to support larger humans sufficiently. For safety, a Tiger Trap should only be approached in pairs, and never at night.


September 22, 2009

We expected to be encounter people begging on this trip. However at times it can be overwhelming and much more sad then we had expected. One of the toughest things to deal with, is that we’re getting used to it. This is a way of life for many people here and unfortunately it will not change any time soon. We receive many requests for money or other things from women, children, the elderly, and people with disabilities.

It is very common to see young women or girls begging while carrying around their children or younger siblings as a kind of sympathy prop. In some cases the child being carried seems far too large for the child doing the carrying. The young ones seem completely passive, enduring the discomfort and heat without complaint.

Blind people shuffle through the streets or the trains seeking donations, often with a child as a guide. Sometimes they shuffle together as a group, holding onto each other as they walk through traffic-clogged streets; literally the blind leading the blind, which seems very dangerous. To attract attention, they sing loudly with strained and cracking voices, doing what is necessary to be heard over the din.

Many children have a common script to ask first for money, then a school pen, followed by chocolate, or perhaps foreign coins. In several cases these children are clearly not poor, like those who ride up on their bikes or are traveling with their families, and are just trying to get what they can from foreigners.

Several times we’ve seen young boys crawling through the trains on their hands and knees, sweeping the floor literally with the shirts off their backs. After brushing the dirt from beneath your feet, they sit there staring up into your eyes, sometimes touching your leg gently.

One of the saddest cases we encountered was a beautiful young girl in Rajasthan wearing a traditional red dress that was old and worn. She was begging at the street side counter of a liquor shop, which in India tend to be far worse places than you would think. She had a monkey attached to a chain around her waist. She would hoist the monkey up by the chain around his neck, and the monkey would reach up to grab the chain to prevent being choked. Both ends of the chain were very sad to us, and the combination was heart-breaking. What was alarming was that the monkey end of the chain was more disturbing for us. Shouldn’t we have been more concerned about the little girl?

It is quite common after dark to see people sleeping on the streets. Rickshaw drivers and street vendors often sleep in impossibly cramped positions in or on their rickshaws or stalls because they have no home. Families of women and their young children sleep together huddled in groups on the pavement. What is very hard to see are elderly people sleeping on the streets — a frail old man or woman sleeping on the hard ground with no padding, all alone, and without protection.

Another painful situation is the few times when we’ve had elderly people get down on their knees to beg, often bending forward and extending their arms to touch their forehead to the ground, and sometimes touching Patrick’s feet. To have an old woman do this to you is overwhelming. For her to be walking by, see you there, set down her load, and proceed to prostrate herself in front of you is crushing. Interesting, we’ve only ever seen this done by old people to a foreigner; they don’t appear to do it to other Indians. Is this strictly a practical matter of who is most likely to contribute (because Westerners are wealthy), or is it a holdover from the life of subservience that these older people experienced growing up under colonialism?

A stranger case is that of Indian transvestites. There are a small percentage of men here, presumably homosexual, who dress in woman’s clothes and act like women. They often solicit donations on the trains, sometimes after performing a song in a high falsetto. What’s unusual is that they are very brazen and seem to intimidate the Indian men into donating so they will leave them alone. It seems to be a case of utilizing homophobia to their advantage. We’ve heard that some Indians believe these people have magical powers and if they don’t contribute, may be cursed. They don’t tend to approach tourists, who presumably don’t respond the same way to their advances.

We have an issue of poverty and homelessness in Canada, and we have people begging on the streets of Vancouver. Based on the number of people begging in India, their ages, and their apparent condition, the need is far greater here.

Things we like about travel

September 22, 2009

In addition to the challenges associated with extended travel, there are a lot of terrific things also. We want to highlight some of these also, in case they’re not obvious from our stories, to keep things in perspective. So here they are in no particular order…

  • Spectacular locations – From the deserts of Jordan and the forests of Uganda to the plains of the Serengeti and the peaks of the Himalayas.
  • Amazing experiences – Many of these we’ve recounted in the blog, and others we’ll share when we return.
  • Meeting other travelers – We’ve met some interesting people along the way and made some friends.
  • Meeting local people – Opportunities for this are more limited than we’d like. We try to find opportunities for this whenever possible, like eating in the restaurants where locals eat, traveling on local transport, etc.
  • Interacting with the children – Diane has a lot of fun playing with local children who generally haven’t been conditioned to fear strangers like in North America.

  • Continuous summer – Since we’re traveling in hot countries, it’s always warm, except when we deliberately go to colder places. A by-product of this is that we spend more time outside in nature.
  • Accomplishment – We’re doing some things that we’ve wanted to do for a long time and achieving the things we choose for ourselves on this journey, all while overcoming the challenges associated with traveling independently in the Third World.
  • Learning about and experiencing rich and diverse cultures – We’ve learned a lot about the countries and the people where we’ve traveled, including their customs and religions, and also about the homelands of some other travelers.
  • The food – tasting the different cuisines, especially in India.

  • Things are so interesting – Every day is a new adventure. Even if we haven’t planned anything, every day is interesting. Just wandering the streets is usually fascinating.
  • Time to read, reflect, and plan – finding time for these can sometimes be difficult when things get busy at home. Although these should be a priority in our lives, they tend to get displaced with more urgent things.
  • The cost of things compared to Canada – We have the opportunity to see and do some amazing things at prices which, although high by local standards, are cheap by Canadian norms. Rooms in India are basic, but typically about $10 Canadian (C) per night. Food is also cheaper, and even a nice meal with seafood and beer costs about $10C for both of us. If we eat local food, the quality of which is generally very good in India, in a local restaurant, it can be as little as $2C for both of us.
  • Cheap beer – About $2-3C for 2 bottles, and we’ve heard it’s even cheaper in South-East Asia!
  • Life seems less complicated – We rely only on the possessions we carry on our backs. As a result, it’s not difficult to choose what to wear each day. There are very few commitments to keep, so we have great flexibility on how we spend our time.
  • No commuting – our day starts wherever we happen to be.
  • We walk every day – except when we choose not to.
  • We waste a lot less time watching television
  • Awareness – we’re more aware of our surroundings, and we take delight in the small things.
  • Being together – To be honest, before leaving home, we weren’t sure how we would handle being together 24×7. We’re pleased to say that things are going very well. We still have disagreements, but no more frequently than we did at home. We are closer now than before we left.
  • There is no grass to cut and someone else washes the dishes!

Travel Pet Peeves

September 22, 2009

As with any sustained and repetitive activity of reasonable complexity, traveling tends to have its minor annoyances. We prefer to look at these as challenges rather than problems, but they can become irritating, especially when our energy, and therefore tolerance, is low or our frustration level high. One of the biggest challenges with sustained traveling is to not become cynical. It is easy to develop a ‘been there done that’ attitude, and to become critical of things that we don’t have to deal with at home. We try hard not to do this, and instead try to maintain a positive attitude and find the humour in the day-to-day challenges we face. In that spirit, here are some of the things that we deal with on a regular basis in India, many of which we also experienced elsewhere.

  • Dirty toilets – We needn’t say more, but we will in a separate blog entry.
  • Hard beds — Some beds aren’t much more than mats on a board covered with a sheet. Diane actually said the other day that she thought she was finally getting used to hard beds, but took it back upon waking the following morning.
  • Harder pillows – Some pillows are blocks of hard foam or seem to be packed with old rags. We had some pillows last night that felt like they were filled with lead shot. Once molded into position with considerable effort, they would not change shape through any natural motion of the head or neck. Diane got up in the middle of the night to get her fleece jacket to sleep on instead.
  • Dirty linens – The sheets have usually been cleaned, but are usually grey and often stained with mysterious shades of various nondescript colours.
  • Old beds — We’ve heard about how mattresses and pillows are filled with pounds of dead skin cells and the dust mites who feed off them. We can’t imagine what’s living in some of these mattresses, and have gotten into the habit of not checking what’s under the sheets. So far, no bed bugs though.
  • Higher pricing for foreigners – Entrance fees to attractions (museums, forts, palaces, etc.) are typically 10 to 20 times higher for foreigners. We can tell from the guidebook that this has been in place at some sites for years and also that it continues to spread, as many places that didn’t have differential pricing a few years ago do now. That being said, the foreigner price is rarely higher than $5 US.
  • Fees for camera use – Most attractions charge a separate fee for the use of a camera, which can be as much or more than an entry ticket. Very few Indian people have cameras, so they don’t pay this fee, but they do have cell phones with cameras in them and with which they take pictures. So, in effect, this fee is primarily an increased charge for tourists.
  • Separate Tickets – Many large attractions, like in North America, charge separate fees for various parts of the exhibit, no doubt designed to increase their overall revenue.
  • Negotiating – Having to negotiate for nearly everything. Room rates, taxis, auto-rickshaws, souvenirs, and even the price of bottled water (which we need regularly). Vendors almost always try to extract more money than they charge Indian people. In some cases they have no shame in asking many, many times more than the object is worth, trying to ‘anchor’ (as behavioural economists call it) a very high point for the start of negotiations.
  • Begging – The constant requests for money from woman, children, the elderly, and the disabled (or combinations thereof) are draining.
  • Taxi drivers — who won’t turn on their meters for foreigners, requiring a much higher fare to be negotiated. They sometimes claim that the meter is broken, but often just flatly refuse to use the meter.
  • Touts (including rickshaw drivers who act like touts) – Men who make money by getting commissions in return for bringing tourists to shops or hotels. They are often unscrupulous, and will do almost anything to get you to go with them, for example:
    o Taking you to a hotel other than the one you’ve asked for
    o Stopping the rickshaw mid route and asking you to visit a shop.
    o Claiming that the hotel that you’ve requested is closed, full, or otherwise unavailable.
    o Telling you that the price at a certain hotel is lower than it is.
    o Claiming that they are somehow affiliated with a particular shop or hotel (e.g. I work there, my brother owns it, etc.)
    The reason for all these shenanigans is that the commissions paid by some places are quite high relative to the money that can be earned elsewhere or a rickshaw fare. In some places it seems like the rickshaw drivers are working primarily for commissions, and not as a means of public conveyance.
  • Shop owners – who constantly ask if we’ll “come see my shop”. We are polite and usually answer “no thank-you”, but it can get a bit tiring to say this twenty times in one a city block.
  • Mosquitoes – this one barely belongs on the list because, to be frank, the mosquitoes here are smaller and leave a smaller bite than those in Canada. The difference is that in most warm places they breed all year round, so we deal with them constantly. There is nothing more annoying than trying to sleep when you have mosquitoes buzzing around your ears and you haven’t bothered to put up the mosquito net. The disquieting thing is that the mosquitoes here are entirely more deadly than those at home, as carriers for malaria, dengue fever, Japanese B encephalitis, and other diseases.
  • Noise – the noise levels in India are much higher than at home, and in our experience, even much higher than in big North American cities like New York. The noises we find most challenging are:
    o Honking – both when walking or on transport. The buses have air horns so loud they almost certainly damage hearing and they blast them almost continuously (alerting pedestrians, scaring livestock, when overtaking, when driving through villages, when a slow vehicle doesn’t give way, when traffic slows or stops, etc.) Motorcycles also seem to beep constantly, partly out of self-preservation.
    o Dogs barking – there are feral dogs in a lot of places that like to bark or fight at night, especially in the early morning.
    o Loud Music – Many buses play loud music. It is often so loud that local people complain, and it’s never in English. It is usually played a couple of notches higher than the level at which the stereo system is capable of reproducing clear sound, so not only is it loud, but full of static.
    o Cell Phones – everyone seems to have a cell phone, but there doesn’t appear to be any etiquette regarding the volume of the ring tones, yelling into your phone to compete with the background noise, or playing music through the phone’s loudspeaker on the bus so that everyone else gets to listen to it.
  • Cutting in line – People here often cut in line. It’s understandable that in a land of scarcity with so many people that they would do this. The most frustrating is when people cut in line at the train station ticket window, which is often long slow queue. Another example is at bank machines, which in some places have long lines. What’s surprising is that other people seem to let them do this. When confronted, they usually back down, but then resort to slipperier tactics, like giving their bank card and pin to another person, or having a woman buy their train ticket in the women-only line. Boarding buses and the second class portion of trains is another challenge. There are usually more people than places, and people use various tactics to increase their chances of a seated journey, for example:
    o as the train pulls up, jump on board before it stops and push through the line of people waiting to disembark,
    o throw some of their belongings through the bus window onto an empty seat, and when all else fails,
    o push and shove to get on board first.

We hope that didn’t sound too negative. We take it all with a grain of salt, and these challenges are greatly outweighed by the benefits of traveling. These issues are quickly forgotten when we meet special people, are offered unsolicited assistance from a local person, or witness something amazing. They all contribute to the experience, and in part, help to make it interesting.

Kerala Backwaters

September 15, 2009

Having reached the northernmost point in India that foreigners are allowed to go to (in the Nubra Valley in Ladakh about 60 kilometers from the Chinese border), we made the turn and started heading south again. The first seven kilometers of our return journey was walking across sand dunes accompanying some Bactrian (2 humps) camels, their handlers, and two German architects, but that’s another story. After flying first to Delhi and then to Goa, we made our way south by train and bus (did you know that they made buses without windows?) to the heart of the state of Kerala and a small city called Alleppey. This is the gateway to the famous backwaters of Kerala, a 900 kilometer network of waterways that extend from the coast of the Arabian Sea inland.

We arrived by bus at 8:30 AM after a very early morning departure from Cochin. We were surprised that the tourist office was open and we went in to enquire about renting a houseboat for a trip into the backwaters. The man, who didn’t speak much English, said that the Keralan state government (which is communist incidentally, and has as its flag a yellow hammer and sickle on a red background) had houseboats for rent. He phoned a man to come to show us their boats, who instead walked us back to the office at the government guest house nearby. We spoke with a manager, who looked like he’d just woken up, and agreed to go to see two boats, one of which was available for a single night, and the other for two nights. He called an auto-rickshaw driver, and we agreed to pay 20 Rupees (50 cents Canadian) for the ride if we didn’t rent a boat, and nothing if we did.

After a ten minute drive that concluded down a tiny dirt lane barely wide enough for the rickshaw, we saw the two boats. The first one we saw had recently been renovated and looked brand new. The other was smaller and older. Both were available for 3500 Rp a night (about $87 Canadian, including a crew of two, a cook, and all food and water), but the nice one was only available for one night and we preferred two. After much discussion, walking up and down the waterfront to view another boat, and at least five cell phone calls to the boss, they agreed to rent the nice boat to us for two nights at 4000 Rp a night. They would make other arrangements for the people who had booked it (a party of thirteen who were renting three boats).

After a quick trip back to town to place our deposit, have breakfast, and buy a case of beer, we boarded our houseboat at 11 AM and were greeted by the friendly crew bearing glasses of pineapple juice. Our houseboat is about 15 meters long (50 feet) containing a large living area in the bow (complete with TV and DVD but no disks), two bedrooms with ensuite bathrooms, and a large kitchen aft. Its curved roof is made of woven reeds over a bamboo frame. Up top there is a small, covered seating area that is reached by a ladder from the bow. The engine is in the rear but the driver sits up front steering with a small old-fashioned wheel. The houseboats are modeled after covered fishing boats and come in sizes up to 150 feet!

We set off and made our way through smaller channels broken up by low islands and breakwaters covered with palm and banana trees. The weather was hot, but the breeze from our movement across the water made it pleasant. We crossed Vemdanad Lake and again headed down smaller channels, passing other houseboats, small houses and the occasional village. Occasionally we’d pass a small church as this area was a Portuguese colony in the 16th century and has a significant Catholic population.

It was very beautiful and very relaxing. Enjoying a private houseboat trip through tropical canals with warm breezes and sunshine, enjoying good meals, and having everything looked after for us gave us a small sense of what the rich and famous must enjoy on their yachts. Here’s our dinner one night, complete with four freshwater ‘lobsters’!

It is only a rough approximation though, as our trip was not without its challenges. Our house boat passed under a small bridge, but the recent addition of the upper deck made it slightly too high, which was easily corrected as our momentum bent back the entire viewing platform sufficiently for us to pass underneath. On the plus side, it did give the boat a more streamlined look. The metal poles that held up the viewing platform, the hand rail and the roof all sustained damage, which it turns out could not be repaired without the boss knowing about it (despite stops by the crew at two boat shops to see if something could be done quickly and more importantly secretively). At first they asked us not to tell their boss, a request which was later changed to tell him, if asked, that it happened on the morning of the second day, once it became clear that they would need to notify him by cell phone and didn’t want it to appear that they had delayed their report in an attempt to conceal the damage. I suppose they didn’t want to get in trouble, especially since the houseboat had recently been renovated and was damaged on its maiden voyage.

There were a lot of mosquitoes at night, and we hung our own mosquito net because our newly outfitted boat didn’t have them. We needed it to be able to open the windows at night, even after which we were still too hot. Our room had an air-conditioner, but we didn’t think that we would need it, and so hadn’t paid the extra $25 to have it turned on. Do you suppose ‘J-Lo’ and ‘P-Diddy’ have these problems on their yachts?

The sunset on our second night on board was spectacular. A warm breeze blew over us from the water as we enjoyed a ‘sundowner’, and waited for dinner to be served. Tough to take…

These issues aside, our guide book says that a houseboat trip on the backwaters of Kerala is probably the most expensive thing a budget traveler will do in India, but it also says that it is one of the ten things you should do before you die. We agree with both.


September 15, 2009

Over the last month we’ve spent a lot of time in northern India, especially in the cities of Leh (in Ladakh) and McLeod Ganj (in Himachal Pradesh). These areas are home to many thousands of Tibetan refugees who escaped persecution by the Chinese and have been granted asylum in India.

China began to send people into Tibet in 1949, soon after the World War II, under the guise of providing assistance to this remote nation. Until this time Tibet was a sovereign mountain kingdom, whose geography and leadership kept it generally isolated from the rest of the world. Tibet was politically naïve and accepted Chinese assistance grudgingly until it became obvious that China had intentions to colonize. For China, the country of Tibet was a huge new land area rich in mineral resources into which they could expand. Tibet was hopelessly unequipped to repel the invaders, and in 1959 Tibet’s religious and political leader, the Dalai Lama, was forced to escape over the border into India. Since then over 1.2 million Tibetans have been killed. Move than 250,000 Tibetans came to India at that time or in the period since then. They escape through the Himalayan mountains, usually in winter when snow, cold, and elevation make it difficult for Chinese troops to seal the border. The combination of the natural elements and border patrols make this a life threatening journey.

Here’s a picture of the Dalai Lama – yes, I took it! (Another story…)

McLeod Ganj is the home of the Tibetan government in exile, and they have a parliament that meets twice a year there. It is also the temporary home of the Dalai Lama, until he can once again return to Potala Palace in Lhasa. This year is the 50th anniversary of Tibetan exile. For many years cries of “Free Tibet” were heard in the Western World, but this cause has recently lost both momentum and fashionability, particularly as the Chinese have become a world economic powerhouse and other countries are hesitant to challenge them over human rights abuses.

Since they occupied Tibet, China has actively pursued their policy of “cultural revolution”. They have destroyed over 700 ancient Tibetan monasteries and Buddhist temples, including their libraries and works of art. Tibetan people were forced to change their customs, including personal things like cutting their long hair, and others as petty as switching from their traditional wooden bowls and spoons to another style. There has been a massive movement of Chinese citizens into Tibet so that now there are more Chinese in Lhasa than Tibetans. This dilutes the Tibetan population, watering down its culture and influence.

It is true that the Chinese have invested heavily in Tibet, building factories and schools, but these are Chinese factories and schools, and people who work or study there do so in a Chinese fashion (e.g. speaking the Chinese language, learning Chinese and not Tibetan history, etc.) Tibetans are subjected to strong prejudice making it difficult to find work, do business, or even go shopping, further encouraging them to suppress their language and traditional culture. Tibetan Buddhism, once the cornerstone of everything in Tibet, is no longer pervasive throughout society. Tibetans are under heavy government surveillance, and are regularly thrown into prison for being suspected of subversion, thereby suppressing even peaceful protest.

The combination of these things is resulting in the cultural genocide of the Tibetan people.

Here is an outrageous example of the vindictiveness of China’s control. Tibetans, like Hindus and Sikhs, believe in reincarnation, namely that after a person dies, he or she is reincarnated into the body of a newborn child. Given this, important people like the Dalai Lama can be identified in their next life after a long and complicated search process. The current Dalai Lama is in his fourteenth reincarnation. The Panchen Lama, the second highest Lama in Tibetan Buddhism, is in his tenth reincarnation and was born in 1989 in Tibet. He and the Dalai Lama have worked closely for centuries, with the Panchen Lama providing leadership during the period when the Dalai Lama dies, is reincarnated, and grows up. In 1995 the Panchen Lama was identified and confirmed by the Dalai Lama. Soon afterwards he and his family disappeared. The Chinese, in an effort to exercise control over Tibetan Buddhists and the Dalai Lama, took him away, and if he is still alive, are denying him the training in Buddhist philosophy that is necessary for him to resume the important and sacred position he has held in his nine previous lives. At the age of six, he became the world’s youngest political prisoner.

Here are some Tibetan Buddhist monks in India, including a group of novices.

While in McLeod Ganj, we volunteered in conversation classes with several people who had escaped from Tibet. Patrick met with a young man who had been in India for a few years. He is one of eighteen brothers and sisters. His brother and sister are both in prison in Tibet – he for raising a Tibetan flag, and she for communicating with her brother in India, the young man Patrick spoke with. They talked about a range of subjects, including some difficult ones that Patrick raised like, “Do you think that Tibetans can ever evict the Chinese without fighting?” His answer was surprising and appeared to demonstrate a much deeper understanding. He said that both Tibetans and Chinese wanted the same thing, “Happiness”. Patrick was surprised to hear that he intended to return to Tibet, and that he’d already tried once. His reasoning was that if the Tibetans departed, soon there would be no Tibet left to return to. People needed to stay there to maintain their culture and traditional way of life, to say nothing of their claim to their ancient land.

Diane met with two Tibetan Buddhist nuns, Lamdon (38) and Ngawang, both with shaved heads and wearing burgundy robes, and a young woman Sonam who shared a room with them. At first Diane was apprehensive, because she didn’t know what she was going to talk about for two hours with people who had come from extremely different cultures and had painful pasts. Initially the conversation started off with simple things like “Where are you from?”, “How long have you been traveling?”, etc. Lamdon did most of the talking, but her English wasn’t very good. Sonam shared a room with the two nuns, spoke better English and would bridge the communication gap for the nuns when needed. They made tea on an electric cook top that they had in their room.

Lamdon told the story of how she came to McLeod Ganj. After a brief show trial where she had no representation, Lamdon went to prison for two years in Tibet for being involved in a political protest. In prison she was beaten and her blood harvested. Prisoners in China undergo forced blood donations because rates of voluntary donation are low in China. When Diane heard this she started to cry, then Lamdon started to cry and got up and left the room. Ngawang told Diane, “Don’t cry” and offered her a tissue. Diane asked if the Lamdon would be OK, and she nodded. Diane was concerned that Lamdon felt that she had to tell her story, causing her re-live horrific past experiences. Eventually Lamdon returned and continued. After prison, she became a nun and studied in Tibet for two years. She decided to leave and walk to Nepal when the Chinese destroyed the monastery where she lived. Her family is all still in Tibet.

Sonam came to India with her aunt using a Chinese passport, something that most Tibetans cannot obtain. They are a people without citizenship. Their country no longer controls any territory and is not recognized by many other governments, to appease the Chinese. India offers them refugee status, but they are not Indian citizens. Sonam’s uncle is in prison in Tibet for making the film “Leaving Fear Behind” (

The nuns both seemed genuinely pleased that Diane spent time with them, thanked her for coming, and asked her to come back again.

Speaking with Tibetan refugees directly affected by the theft of their country, systematic destruction of their culture, and mistreatment by the Chinese had a great impact on us. Surprisingly, like the young man Patrick spoke with, the
women didn’t appear to harbour malice toward the Chinese. In an amazingly Buddhist perspective, their outlook was of patience and empathy.

Pangong Lake

September 5, 2009

While in Leh we decided to do a side trip to Pangong Lake. An Australian guy we’d met in Rishikesh said it was ‘one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen’, which is an unusual amount of sentiment from an Aussie bloke. We had arranged to share the cost of a jeep and driver for the two day trip with the two young Belgians mentioned previously. Everything had been arranged in advance through a local tour and trekking agent.

The trip started off badly when, after the driver picked us up at our guest house in the early morning and took us to the agency, the person we’d arranged the trip with said that it might not be possible to make it to Pangong today due to high water levels at a river crossing. We’d heard of this possibility previously and had raised the question when we made the booking. We were reassured that it would not be an issue. Just a few kilometers before the lake there is a glacier-fed stream that needs to be forded. Water levels change throughout the day based on the temperature and sunshine and run highest in the afternoon. Vehicles often get trapped at the lake overnight until they can make the crossing in the morning. As a result, most people leave Leh for Pangong Lake by 6 AM, so they can complete the five and one half hour drive before noon, while the water levels are lower. It was now 8 AM. He said it was unlikely that we’d be able to make it there today, something he should have known about before he arranged the trip, so we now had an issue. After discussing the options with the owner of the agency, we agreed to proceed as planned, try to cross the river if possible, and if not, stay in a village about 30 kilometers back, then get up very early in the morning to make the crossing and be at the lake for sunrise.

The road to the lake wasn’t what we’d anticipated. For some reason, we were of the impression that this would be an easy drive. We knew that there was one mountain pass that we needed to cross to reach the valley where the lake is located, but we hadn’t given it much consideration. The drive started out lovely and relaxing as we slowly worked our way up into the mountains. As we went higher, the road became a paved track hugging the mountainside which was only wide enough for a single vehicle, with occasional pull-outs where two vehicles could pass. On the uphill side of the road were steep slopes or vertical cliffs of loose rock, and on the other side a precipice. There were occasional blocks of cemented rock or barrels filled with concrete to act as a vehicle guard rail, but they were few and far between, spaced far enough to raise the question, “Why bother?”

The road switch-backed to gain elevation, and the blind corners around rocky outcrops were very sharp and steep, such that it wasn’t possible to see if any traffic was coming, so pictures of musical horns resembling those of the ‘Whos’ from Dr. Seuss’s “The Grinch Who Stole Christmas” are painted on the rocks to remind the drivers to honk before each corner to warn any vehicles coming the other direction. Slowing down does not appear to be part of the strategy. Unfortunately the horn on our jeep didn’t work.

With about 20 kilometers to go before the top, we passed an Indian army post, and left the paved road behind. The road got steadily worse, progressing from loose gravel to loose rock. The driver swerved to avoid rocks which had fallen from the loose slopes above.

To our surprise, at this high elevation we ran into a couple of road crews that were reinforcing the road by taking loose rocks from the uphill side and dropping them on the downhill side. They were dressed for the cold, wearing wool clothing and balaclavas, all in darks shades muted with the dust of the surrounding hillside, resembling a post-apocalyptic vision. It turned out that these crews are part of specialist team looking after one of the world’s highest roadways, and taking great personal risk to do so.

We reached the pass called Chang La, and stopped for a few minutes to celebrate arriving safely. Chang La is the 3rd highest motorable pass in the world. At 17,500 feet it is within 2,000 feet of the height of Mt. Kilimanjaro.

We crossed the dreaded high water without too much difficulty,

and got our first view of Pangong Lake.

It was beautiful, but not the most beautiful thing we’ve seen. Perhaps we’re spoiled with too many beautiful lakes and mountains in British Columbia. We bumped and rattled our way down the lakeshore, without the benefit of a road, and began the search for a guest house. There is a luxury tented camp on the lakeshore during the brief summer months (the lake is at over 14,000 feet), but we were looking for something cheaper.

We found space in the home of a woman with a small boy and an absentee military husband. Like the few other buildings near the lake, it was made of stone and mud with a dirt floor, no heat, no electricity, no plumbing and a squat outhouse. Our room had a mattress lying on grass mats that covered the ground. Thankfully we got a mix of new and only-slept-on-once-by-someone-else-but-not-washed sheets.

We walked along the lake to take some photos. Our hostess managed to wrangle up three large beers from somewhere else that we shared with the Belgian couple while the sun was setting. Dinner was rice, dhal, vegetables, and chapatti, served on low tables while we sat on cushions on the floor of the room where she and her son ‘live’. Cooking, eating, and sleeping are all done in the same room. Our guide Raja translated so we could speak with her, and he also taught us a few words of Ladakhi.

We woke very early to walk along the lake and watch the sunrise, but it was cold so we only lasted about thirty minutes and then went back to bed. Breakfast was an ‘omelet’ (which shouldn’t really be called an omelet if it contains only eggs) and chapatti. After breakfast, we loaded our bags in the vehicle, and then starting walking back along the lake until Raja picked us up. It was another long and hair-raising drive back to Leh, but we had a good driver and made it without incident.

Here’s Diane checking out some of local wildlife…