Posts Tagged ‘North Tour’

North Tour: Kolkata: Something India shouldn’t have

June 12, 2011

Saturday, 26 March

NAGPUR: It’s impossible to deny the speed at which India is evolving.

India’s growth is a phenomenon you’ve probably heard about in the news, and the results are visible across the country. Smoother and better paved roads. The rise of cell phone use across caste and class. Projects by organizations like Rotary to sanitize water and quite literally build bridges.

Unfortunately, there’s something else still quite visible in India.


What is it about India that makes people see the world differently?

From Buddha to Mother Teresa, historical figures from North India have regularly been motivated by the pain they see in the people before them. Even in the richest areas, you’ll see children begging on street corners. At train stations, you’ll see ladies holding babies, asking passersby for spare change. Walk the streets of almost any city, and you’ll intermittently see homeless sitting with arms outstretched, begging passively because they don’t have the energy to get up.

Not that the poverty is especially bad in Kolkata. It’s striking everywhere you go in India. And it makes for some painful internal conversations:

“What can I do to help these people?”


“But I should be able to do something!”



“But how do you help? How do you relieve the suffering? What can be done?”

It’s a vicious cycle of nothingness that usually ends in pity and a morose turning of the head while your arm is poked softly and persistently until the beggar decides some other rich foreigner can provide better luck. You’re almost conditioned not to feel anymore, to tune out their calls of “Hey Baba“, look away from the hand to mouth khana [food] gesture, and pretend the rapping and tapping on your forearm isn’t there.

Occasionally we do give – perhaps a piece of candy or a two-rupee coin. But the initial delight of doing good is almost always mitigated when larger crowds gather around us. What makes the small child to whom we gave a Parle-G any more special than the others with outstretched arms? Besides, there’s a hierarchy within each beggar family, one where males and elders always come at the top. Pathos is pointless when so often the sad face before you doesn’t reap the reward of your good deed.

A terrible internal fight ensues between mind and heart every time a beggar comes around. Give in to immediate gratification and reward their begging? Or look the other way and do nothing but hope that they’ll one day become self-sufficient?

Here is where I really start to hate India, because there’s a solution to this problem – just not an immediate one.


No country in the world today can claim it is great unless it adequately educates all its children. I’ve written about school in India before, however inaccurate a bellwether my college may have been. But at the very least, school is a place to study. Whereas American students might complain if they’re made to wear uniforms, Indians wear them with pride, a symbol of the fact that they, at least, can study. So many children in India don’t go to school, can’t go to school, or are barred by their family from going. And it just irks me.

I wonder what my life would be like if my education had been cut off at grade five, or cut off entirely. You certainly wouldn’t be reading this, as I’d never have learned to write. What would I do all day if I had to beg to ensure my stomach was full, nothing to do all day but search for spare change? What if I came home to a slum, and not a well-furnished 2,000 square foot home? What if I had no place to call home at all?

I wonder, and I can only ever wonder, because I’ve lived an astoundingly good life by these standards. I’ve been lucky enough to have. To own. To eat. Every day.

I’ve never had to beg.

What can I do? What can I, Chris Yoder – of privileged background, privileged host family, and privileged life – do to help those begging for it?

What can anyone do?

Steps have been taken to abolish poverty. The rate of it, at least, has decreased in recent years. Projects have been completed. Fundraisers have been held. Items have been donated. Organizations and NGOs have done what they can. Rotary is right there, its logo splashed throughout India, a marker of progress.

But what progress? A lot of times, it’s hard to think of progress. When you see a man finish his meal and use the ground as a trash can. When flies and mosquitoes are buzzing loudly around your head, sometimes landing on it. When the taps on your arms, shoulders, or whatever part of you the beggars can reach don’t cease, it’s hard to think of progress.

But India has progressed.

I know this, even if I haven’t been around long enough to see it. Perhaps hanging with the same circle of privileged people has just created an illusion in me, but I can’t forget the people I’ve met with good lives. I’ve met scores of people who do good things, who can earnestly say, “I’m proud to be Indian.” The world has changed since Buddha attained enlightenment in Bodhgaya and Mother Teresa ventured to the slums of East India. India is now much more than a pitiable mass of humanity. Much, much, much more.

The perception has changed. And it’s still changing.

Our two month-long tours have taught me plenty about why we are envied in India and what India has to be envied. They’ve shown me what India is lucky to have and what I am lucky to have. India has come a long way.

But I’ve seen a lot of people who’ve shown me India still has quite a ways to go.



North Tour: Howrah to Nagpur: Not the end – not yet, anyway

May 30, 2011

I leave India June 8.

Since I published my last entry, I’ve done a substantial amount of writing. I have 22 blog entries in the queue, some of which have been there for some time, and many of those can be split further into several entries. Many are over 1,000 words long. Chances are I won’t publish everything here in the coming days. But I’ll put up plenty of excerpts. Rest assured, I haven’t stopped writing, and I won’t stop for a long, long time.



Saturday, 26 March

NAGPUR: Friday was supposed to be the last day of the tour.

We were supposed to have left the day before at 8 p.m. We were supposed to have arrived in Nagpur in the mid-afternoon, greeted by searing summer heat. We were supposed to be all alone that evening, sitting at home and feeling sorry for ourselves.

Indian Railways, however, doesn’t always place much importance on prompt train timings. Thus we got, though not quite a day, at least a little more time together.

Even for a tour where nearly half the wakeups were before dawn, 2:30 a.m. seemed a ridiculous time of day for a wakeup call. But you have to do what you have to do when your train leaves at 5 a.m. After stowing my suitcase beneath the seat, I made my bed as quickly as possible.

I’m pretty sure I was asleep before the train even began moving.

I was awoken again at 10:30 for breakfast. Nikolas and I, the two gobblers, ate the leftovers from the other compartments, of which there were plenty.

I was back asleep within half an hour.

Sometime around four, I decided the opening and closing of the door next to my bunk would make falling asleep for the fourth time that day impossible. Sadly, our bunks were in four compartments of three different cars, a fact most agreed to be mood-dampening. I made my way between them for a couple hours in search of good conversation, occasionally finding some, but always in a group of five or less. We were 13. Why couldn’t we all stick together on this night, of all nights?

Then it happened.

Tears were rolling down my cheeks, but they were of laughter, not sadness. My face was contorted, but from hilarity, not rage. I don’t even remember what was so funny. But we’d managed to all fit in one compartment, someone had just told a joke, and my smile was in temporary paralysis. It was like being intensely tickled; I was laughing so hard it hurt.

I never wanted this train to stop. We had just an hour until 11 of us got off. Serenity and Olivia would stay on and continue to Jalgaon and Nasik, but for everyone else, Nagpur was our last stop. I knew I still had a day until I’d say goodbye to everyone here but Anaïs, Brii and Franzi for either a month or an indefinite amount of time. But that didn’t make getting off the train any easier.

Nagpur wasn’t as hot as I’d expected. Saket-dada was waiting on his moped to drive me home. I arrived home sometime after midnight, and it was as if nothing had really changed.

But the tour wasn’t over yet. Not really, anyway.


North Tour: Gangtok: More to see than foreigners

April 25, 2011

Tuesday, 22 March

NEW JALPAIGUDI TO HOWRAH: We really stand out in Sikkim.

The strong East Asian influence in much of North India grows stronger the closer you go to the Himalayas. With so much Nepalese and Chinese influence, the natives don’t look like the Indians you’ll see anywhere else on the subcontinent. Entering Sikkim was almost like entering China or Nepal. The way of life is so different than in the rest of India.

See, no one stares at us there.

The contrast of our appearance is as striking in Sikkim as it is anywhere else in India. But unlike just about every other destination to which we’ve traveled on tour, we were shown no special treatment in Sikkim, not even given separate entry fees for our white skin. In a state where Western clothes don’t stand out as much – even on women – our fashion didn’t make as much of a statement as it normally does. No one even asked us for a picture.

I’d traveled a quick ferry ride from Sri Lanka. I’d stood a stone’s throw from Pakistan. Now we were just five kilometers from China, not much further from Nepal, and the world’s largest mountain range was right there in front of us. Had I not been to Manali, I might have called Gangtok the most beautiful place I’d been in my life. As such, our day trip to a pond and mountain near the border will have to settle for a spot somewhere high on my list. With the March heat having melted most of the snow here, I’m left to wonder how it would have looked a few months earlier – no stone left uncovered in snow, the pond in the valley below covered in ice thick enough to skate on. But I’m not complaining.

There was little we could do but soak up the view. Gangtok is a beautiful place.


North Tour: Gangtok: Not your ordinary Holi-day

April 25, 2011

Tuesday, 22 March

NEW JALPAIGUDI TO HOWRAH: I’ve celebrated a lot of holidays and festivals since coming to India. You rarely have to wait a week, or even a few days, for the next one to come around. Having spent eight months in India, I have a pretty large sample size from which to choose my favorite Indian holiday.

So when I say Holi has been my favorite holiday in India, that’s saying something.

Choose the clothes you’ll wear during Holi wisely. Because there’s virtually no chance they’ll come back looking like they were before going out. In fact, if they do, double-check the country you’re in. It’s probably not India.

Why bother? Because Holi is little more than an excuse to go color other people in public.

By “color”, I mean “throw powder onto,” “spray died water onto” or “smear color onto the faces of those around you.” The dye, while not permanent, doesn’t wash out easily, and after spending two hours outside, we were left looking like various combinations of zombies, the boogeyman, and the Hulk.

As we played in the Gangtok streets, our white T-shirts stopped resembling white T-shirts. So much red, yellow, green, purple and blue was splattered on our clothes, none of their original colors remained. The 13 of us had a mutual agreement to turn each other’s clothes into epic souvenirs. Each blank spot was sought out and filled in. Each patch of uncolored skin and hair was dyed. If any one color seemed too predominant, others were sprinkled in where needed.

Thanks to several water bottles and a new kind of powder, pink became the predominant color on our shirts. Because water intensifies the Holi colors, everyone was soon saturated in hot pink. After an hour in the Gangtok streets, I was unable to distinguish our nationalities from those of the Indians nearby. Our skin colors, hair colors and exuberance in celebration left us looking so similar to the surrounding locals that even a scintillating eye couldn’t tell us apart. Franzi, a natural blonde, didn’t have a single blonde hair left when we returned to the hotel.

I took no pictures or videos on the day, and most of us had decided the risk of our cameras getting ruined was too high. So I have nothing but my pen to describe the scene of Holi in Gangtok. Of small children squealing in delight and showering us in Holi water. Of men friendshipping us by hugging us and rubbing powder on our faces. Of a permanent layer of pink dust coating the main road when we walked the city hours later, all participants having gone home for lunch, an afternoon nap, and a compulsory hot shower.

I originally wished I’d been in Nagpur for Holi, so as to celebrate with my host family. But I take no issue with having spent it in the Himalayas with my friends. It could hardly have been any better than it was.

Holi is about having fun.

And as we danced in public together at the end of our outing, we couldn’t stop smiling.


North Tour: Gangtok: A good place to have your passport

April 25, 2011

Tuesday, 22 March

NEW JALPAIGUDI TO HOWRAH: If there’s any life lesson I’ve learned from India, it’s this:

Nothing is impossible.

In India, it’s just that “not possible” very often means “very, very difficult to achieve”.

We learned this Saturday after dipping out of the Darjeeling hills and climbing up into those near Gangtok. Because of its proximity to China and Nepal, foreigners entering the state of Sikkim are required to present a passport. Thus we all had ours at the ready as we stopped at a checkpost across the border. We anticipated some paperwork, perhaps, but not anything that would give us trouble.

13 foreigners came to the border in our two jeeps, and 12 made it across without any trouble.

Nisha, however, did not share our good fortune.

Whereas America, Germany and France give its citizens one-year student visas, Canada only gives its students six months at a time. Thus in December, Nisha had her visa extended in India, a harrowing and nerve-wracking process. Though her passport was never officially re-endorsed, a handwritten note from her local police station was said to be sufficient.

Now we were at the Sikkim state border, and they were telling her it wasn’t.

We gave it every thought we had to get her through. There was no doubt Nisha was legally in India, so why weren’t they letting her into Sikkim with a passport and a photocopied visa extension? As someone able to get Indian tickets at a considerable discount, could she double back and enter as an Indian? Could she fake her way in and stay in the hotel the whole time? Could we go “Indian-style” in a country near the bottom of the world corruption index?

We mulled our options over lunch, deciding the risk of going to jail wasn’t worth it, even as most of us would rather stay with Nisha in jail than go to Gangtok without her. Without a plan, we weren’t about to leave one of our number behind. It was too important that we stick together.

Phone calls were made. Many phone calls were made. Every option was considered. In the end, it looked like everything would come down to the people who’d extended her passport in Yavatmal and whether their work would be sufficient for the Sikkim Government.

Timepass. We could only wait.

About five hours after arriving at the Customs Office, we did the only thing we could really do. It was decided most of us would leave for Gangtok, while three girls would stay back with Nisha as insurance. We were uneasy about splitting up, but there were no options left. Sunset had come and gone.

About halfway to Gangtok, the nine of us got a call. Nisha had been allowed in.

Half a day of tension, anxiety and paperwork had culminated in a curt, informal 30-second interview of Nisha by some higher-up.

“OK,” he said when they finished. “You’re free to go.”

There is probably nothing in India more frustrating than bureaucracy, its informality and the utter snails pace with which it moves here. Nisha was made to suffer for a wrong she never committed.

So we stayed with her. We shared her pain.

We’re exchange students. It’s what we do.