Friday, October 29, 2004

City Livable

The tale of my week in Melbourne starts in Sydney, continues with Melbourne, goes through a rapid Act III scene change back to Sydney, then moves back to the big M for the denouement…confused? You should be…In a way, it’s allowed me to put these two great cities and their storied rivalry in some sort of perspective.

As I upload this deathless prose on Fridays, I necessarily leave out what happens post-blog on Friday, at that point my final day in Sydney. As usual, it started unpromisingly, chilly, drab and raining – so I spent the morning writing and preparing last week’s blog, getting my pictures ready for upload, packing for an early departure the next morning. I went into the city after midday to do some last minute shopping, then visit an internet café to upload the lot and deal with e-mail.

Which was great, as by the time I emerged from a caveful of computer monitors at about 14:30, the sunless sky had actually developed some blue spots amongst the clouds, and a warm and pleasant afternoon was emerging. A harbour cruise seemed the best idea – the first thing to do in Sydney, really – so I took Captain Cook’s (not him personally, of course) around the inner harbour, under the bridge, and over to Watson’s Bay. This had been personally recommended to me by a Sydneyphile, who advised me that the ideal was to stop at Watson’s Bay at Doyle’s and eat a fish ‘n’ chip lunch by the waterside. If I had gone earlier in the day, I could then have climbed back on the cruise and made another stop or two and returned on a later sailing. However, as the 15:00 harbour cruise was the last of the day, regrettably this was not possible. Of course, if I had gone earlier, I would have had to eat my fish lunch in driving rain…

I’m really glad that I got in the cruise before leaving as it gives an idea, as nothing else does, of some of the magic of the city and its setting. For some of my pictures from Sydney and Melboune this week, please click here. Some of the views you might have seen before, but with great bruised smoky clouds in the background, so I have repeated a few.

The cruise chugged around the back of the Opera House, where the posterior view of that animal is only slightly less impressive. There was a major commotion of police boats, tugs and winches meeting at the back of the Opera House, apparently trying to right a sailboat that had flipped over – I heard later that it was a former America’s Cup competitor that had, er, tried to park in the Opera House underground car park!!!

We followed the shoreline of the Harbour, slowly leaving the centre of the city behind, winding by the bays and inlets of the coastline, near grand waterfront homes and vast properties. Although there were some historical monuments or vignettes mentioned in the commentary along the way, the real point was to soak up the harbour, setting, and sunshine, and most people did exactly that.

At Watson’s Bay we stopped for a few minutes amongst the sloops and sailboats moored in the cove, then turned around and resumed our stately progress back to Sydney. The coastline of the harbour was green with the colours of spring, nurtured by the recent rain and this afternoon’s sun. The water was fairly calm, there was a light breeze, and everyone was more upbeat with the better weather.

North Sydney, normally felt to have little interest, in fact has a zoo right on the water (a popular postcard has two elephants posing trunk-to-trunk in front of the Opera House) and, just near Harbour Bridge, a great enormous clown face mocking the Sydney harbourfront, the site of Luna Park. We sailed underneath Harbour Bridge, which must be unique among bridges in seeming never to be without a queue of people standing on top of it, all in a line tethered together on the Bridgeclimb!!! The bridge from below is nothing but a long rectangle of intricate cross hatched iron patterns. As we sail into Darling Harbour everyone has moved to the top deck to gawk at all the new sights, and there’s a party atmosphere as we return to Circular Quay.

That night, I went out with my friends to Soup Plus, the Sydney jazz club, for jazz and dinner. We didn’t stay out late as my next morning flight to Melbourne meant that I had to get up at 04:45…
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I returned to Sydney on Tuesday for a day trip, as far as I know my real final last day on this trip in Sydney. The reason is that a friend I hadn’t seen for about 8 years who is now living in Perth was going to be in Sydney running a seminar and suggested that we meet up afterwards for dinner. That seemed worth a Virgin Blue return flight, so I accepted! Of course, I now had to kill time in Sydney but, with marvellous weather, I knew that I had to be out on the water, this time to Manly.

Manly is a popular community at the entrance to Sydney Harbour that straddles the harbour and the ocean. So enclosed and extensive is the Harbour that it’s necessary to go to Manly to glimpse the ocean. The ferry arrives on the harbourside, where houses and blocks tower above each other, vying for a bigger, better view. There seems little fuss as you get off the ferry – a few people swimming on the small beach, a pricey and quite empty restaurant – and you don’t really get the measure of Manly until you walk down the Corso, the wide pedestrian street, between harbour and ocean.

The faces Manly presents to the harbour and ocean are very different. Oceanside, Manly is all about sun, surf, sand, little cafes where you can have fish ‘n’ chips with a couple of glasses of wine, and lots of people who obviously are paid to be beach bums sloping along, surfboard under arm, groups of teenagers appearing from nowhere in bathing suits, people baking their bodies in the springtime sun, couples camped out on Their Spot for the whole day long. I had not brought my bathing trunks – that seemed to be tempting fate considering the weather I had had so far – so I had to be contented with fish ‘n’ chips and people watching, which occupied me for a couple of agreeable hours. I hopped the 17:15 ferry back to Sydney, went to meet my friend at his hotel, and we went to The Rocks Café for dinner and a good chat with a couple of his mates before we realised about 8:45 that I had to be at the airport at 9:30 at the latest for check-in…so I ran for a taxi, got in and sped off to Sydney Airport again…
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When I’d first left Sydney, the plane went tech and so the damn short flight to Melbourne was nearly 2 hours late. United was the airline, a carrier I will be using to get back to London from New York later in the trip. I know that Chapter 11 Bankruptcy concentrates the corporate mind on matters financial rather than marketing, but this is ridiculous...I was met by my friend at the airport, and he took me for a brief spin before dropping bags at home then going for lunch in a local café where he lives in Brighton.

Brighton is a City, suburban and linked to big brother Melbourne. To work off lunch, we walked along on the sandy beach, 5 minutes walk from where he lives. The brightly coloured beach huts made a nice contrast to the grey, blustery skies – a few people were flying kites, some were taking wedding pictures, nobody was swimming. Melbourne was a misty mirage in the distance, looking like a sprawling factory in some Fritz Lang film on the horizon, its skyscrapers great smokestacks reaching for the heavens.

Port Phillip Bay is roughly shaped like a diamond, with Melbourne at the top corner, the apex between two sides of indented coastline. The other two sides of the diamond are chunky peninsulas, Bellarine on the west, and Mornington on the east. Mornington actually occupies a bit more than one side of the diamond, Bellarine a little less, but you get what I mean. In between Point Nepean on the Mornington Peninsula, and Queenscliff on the Bellarine Peninsula, is the entrance to the bay and the harbour. The entrance is called The Rip, and is so devastating of careless navigation that every vessel that negotiates it must take on a Melbourne skipper acquainted with the tides, the depths, the rocks, the waves, etc.

The reason for this preamble is to tell you that Sunday we drove down the Mornington Peninsula, which took the whole day. It was very, very picturesque and beautiful, with nothing but sandy beach all the way along punctuated by rugged coastline, snug, small seaside villages, and plenty of lovely houses and properties. We drove along at a leisurely pace, stopping and starting, doing a twirl around interesting villages and turns along the way. Brighton is about 1/5th of the distance from Melbourne in the direction of Point Nepean, and we started out about at a lazy-Sunday time of 10:30, and we managed to get nearly to the end of the peninsula by about 13:00.

The Peninsula is generally very well-to-do, and I guess comprises those who commute into Melbourne, second homes/holiday cottages for city dwellers, and winemakers, about 170 of them, in the Mornington Peninsula microclimate, most of them between Mornington and Rosebud. Near the end of the land are some beautiful (and during the summer, crowded) villages, Sorrento and Portsea. We stopped at the Portsea Hotel for a relaxed seafood lunch in the sun, overlooking the Bay.

After lunch, which included a bottle of Mornington Peninsula Riesling, we all didn’t want to move, so walked down to the bay and out on the dock, then got in the car and drove right out to the end of the land, where there is a National Park, which included some stunning coastal scenery and jagged rock formations.

Serious sightseeing at the peninsula end now done, we wended our way back through Sorrento, Rosebud, and Mount Martha via Arthurs Seat, a tall lookout which afforded amazing views up and down the Peninsula. Then back to Brighton, minds and bodies filled with food and scenic wonders…
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If you discount Wednesday – in which it was blustery, rainy, and cold, a foul day which ripped branches off old trees and dislodged glass from windows – I have only really come to grips with Melbourne the city on two days this week. So some initial impressions are in order – and, given their celebrated rivalry, it is difficult not to illustrate the qualities of a Melbourne by contrast with its celebrated rival Sydney, and vice versa.

Melbourne is a warm, friendly, even genteel city, conservative of its monuments and landmarks, and determined to integrate them with the modern, go-ahead parts of the city, which it does very well. It is difficult to know if it has always had more monuments and landmarks worth seeing than Sydney, or if it simply did a better job of holding onto the ones it had…it is probably less driving, less moving and shaking, less exciting than Sydney, but a very livable city, possibly a lovable city, a city of nooks, crannies, arcades and lanes, loops and alleys.

The historic rivalry was so terrible that when independence was imminent, Sydney and Melbourne each proclaimed their preferences at an early stage – i.e. that anyone else but Sydney or Melbourne should get it, which is how a little nation’s capital called Canberra was born. However, much can be exaggerated. The strange truth is that the cities are very different in feel and culture, and instead of one being better and one worse, they do seem to need each other to act as their opposite. If Sydney didn’t have a Melbourne, it would have to invent one; if Melbourne didn’t have a Sydney, it would have to create its opposite to play off. Melbourne and Sydney seem to feed off their oppositeness and their contradistinctions, and it seems to be a productive rivalry, not a destructive one. Canadians reading will immediately be put in mind of Toronto and Montreal, but I don’t think that’s an appropriate comparison: the rivalry of Melbourne and Sydney is like a sibling rivalry, and nobody would ever describe Toronto and Montreal as brothers or sisters.

Surveying the jazz scene in Melbourne, there are 12 gigs on one day, an amount greatly in excess of what Sydney has to offer that day, and an amount that would not disgrace London, in fact. Melbourne has a rich cultural scene, and a first-class gallery in the AGV (Art Gallery of Victoria), this month featuring an Edvard Munch exhibition after a French Impressionist exhibition this summer from Paris. It has a café society of sorts in its bars and restaurants, brasseries and cafes. It is the place to go out to eat in Australia, a country which scores pretty highly on that factor, and a place to shop, for those who like to indulge. I’m missing the Melbourne Cup next week, on Tuesday, which is apparently a really dressy occasion at which everyone ends up inebriate, except perhaps for the horses. It is the sort of thing that Melbourne would do, and Sydney would not: Sydney would be more likely to be doing something in the harbour, on the water.

My hosts in Melbourne have been to both cities, and lived in and enjoyed both, and I think that I do too, but Melbourne for me has the edge, as it’s a more interior city, a more arty and jazzy city, and still enjoys a wonderful situation on the Yarra River, and when the docklands development is finished, it might even have a harbour setting to rival...

Friday, October 22, 2004

Sydneysider

My last Delhi days were filled with goodbyes, both on Saturday, to Helen, flying back to the U.K. after our marvellous week together, and to Butterflies, the voluntary organisation with whom I had had my attachment. After I saw Helen off at the airport on Saturday morning, I went to a meeting with Street Educators at Butterflies to report back on what I had achieved. It was the usual awkward English presentation with nearly simultaneous Hindi translation by the long-suffering Parwez. I then handed around some delicious Indian sweets in the office, said some final goodbyes, and took my leave.

I have a couple of pictures from my last few hours in the city – of the Birla Temple, the Lakshmi Narayan Temple, and of me in my new kurta, which Butterflies kindly bought me to thank me for the work I had done. Both of these, with my pictures of Sydney, can be found if you click here.

I had a quiet Sunday loafing around the hotel, spent some time in the pool blocking up my left ear, then checked out and headed for the airport at 18:00. The flight was not until 23:15, but late checkout at the hotel extended only until 18:00. Dr. Dilli insisted on accompanying me, even though he did not need to – I felt that I could by now negotiate without help the chaos and madness of the airport – and so we went there together in the hotel’s private car. We said goodbye outside Departures (where you are not allowed without a ticket to go somewhere!). I had worked alongside him for 3 months and we had spent a lot of time together. We shook hands for the last time, and he gave me a gift to take with me – a Frank Sinatra CD which was, as usual, very kind and thoughtful of him.

Check-in didn’t open until 20:00. I.G.I. is not a place where it is easy to kill time, so I rigged up a deck chair out of a couple of trollies and lay on the floor of the airport, writing e-mails, until it opened. I managed to get seats at the front of economy, with perhaps a bit more legroom, for the two flights: 4 ½ hours to Singapore, then 7 ½ hours on to Sydney. We had a two hour stopover in Singapore, where the airport doubles as a futuristic shopping paradise. By that time, I felt as if it was the middle of the night Delhi time, so I wandered around amongst the kimonos and prints rubbing my face trying to keep awake. I picked up a wireless network in the airport and managed to send the rest of my e-mails I’d written in the lounge at Delhi.

The flights were good and eventless – and I can confirm the great reputation of Singapore Airlines – but lost about an hour along the way, so we arrived in Sydney at 19:30. An approach to Sydney at night looks like one to any other urban area in the world, until you get closer to the city. The stripes of clouds outside simulated bands of light and shade, like enormous searchlights sweeping over the landscape, and then we banked over the harbour, bridge and opera house which looked spectacular, like no other city.

Having lived in Delhi for 3 months, it is amazing the feeling of relief that you experience at being somewhere where English is the spoken language. I think. The first person that I met at customs and immigration had an Australian accent. The second, the taxi dispatcher, spoke this garbled Eastern European, and the third was the taxi driver, who was from South Efrica. The fourth was my friend, who speaks with an English accent, and I arrived at her house just before 9.

She had warned me about Australian Customs, who are hot on preventing disease entering or spreading around the country. I had no problem, so I assumed that I answered satisfactorily their entry card questions about farms and relations with farm animals… heaven knows what would have happened had I told them that hardly a day went by in the past 3 months without being in close proximity to some of my bovine friends who hang out in the streets around the office!!!
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This part of my travels, and my accounts of it, will be different from my Indian stay, in several ways. One is that I have metamorphosed from the intrepid proto-Dilliwallah on the dangerous-to-know 520 bus, to the Hobo of the South Pacific. Well, perhaps not a Hobo, but certainly a rover, a traveller from one city to another in Australia, one friend to another, with no fixed agenda at all other than seeing people and places. The second is that, other than occasional contacts by e-mail, I am now doing no work for the first time in 20 years – who’s the unkind soul in the back seats saying that that started a long time before?! Finally, in New Zealand, other than meeting up with a jazz friend in Auckland who I met by e-mail, I have no itinerary at all, only 2 weeks in the South, 1 week in the North.

The result is that the sort of impressions that I gained after living in Delhi for 3 months will largely be absent here, replaced by a sort of Tom’s Travelogue, similar to a South Pacific Travels slide presentation probably delivered to a National Trust Group with pictures and map and hand-around photos. It will be surveys of particular locations, landscapes or townscapes, than discussing issues and cultural differences. I hope for all that that I can keep it interesting – I certainly have no intention of doing anything uninteresting! How successful I am will emerge along the way as I encounter the places and the people.

One other difference is that, because I’m now on the move, I may not always get to some internet access on my Friday to upload in time for your Friday…so please check back…!
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I need to be careful what I say about Sydney as there is at least one and possibly more Sydneyphiles reading this account. Not that I have anything bad to say about the city, quite the opposite, but the weather has been cool, grey and rainy all week, not the best background for a city so beloved for its spectacular natural setting. The most sun that has broken through was a short interval yesterday afternoon. Right now, Friday morning, it is chucking it down!

Last week Sydneysiders had a heatwave, with temperatures in the late 30s, a disaster as there have been terrific problems with water shortages here. I rather doubt that they’re on the scale of Delhi, but they have at least been severe and worrying for the city’s population. For such a bullish, optimistic city, it seems almost insulting to posit a possible natural limit on its resources. Oh, it’s very serious. There are draconian fines for washing cars, for watering gardens outside specific times, etc. Residents are being exhorted to use water-saving methods such as not running water while brushing your teeth, etc. although nobody has gone as far as Delhi in advocating the water-saving shower (splash some on at the beginning of your shower as you soap up, turn off, then splash some on at the end to rinse!).

I have spent the week in and around the centre of Sydney, every morning setting out from my friend’s house and walking down Railway Parade to the station like the veriest commuter, passing by a garden en route with a beautiful blossoming orange tree with fallen oranges littering the lawn to remind me that I’m in the southern hemisphere. My first day was spent wandering around squinting into the middle distance with the vague, distracted air of someone 5 ½ hours jetlagged who has no idea where they are going.

There is no doubt about the principal attractions of the city: its harbour is the most spectacular setting, set off and made more spectacular by two outstanding features, the Sydney Harbour Bridge and the Sydney Opera House. The downtown area is a familiar mix of low-rise colonial architecture (mostly Victorian) and modern skyscrapers, much like Toronto or, considering the natural setting, Vancouver.

If you walk along MacQuarie Street, the Opera House is set so low in the harbour that from land it is barely visible amongst the trees in the Botanical Garden until you are almost upon it. I can heartily recommend the Opera House tour, which takes you through the building, tells its story, and exposes you to the interiors of the theatres. Each theatre looks inside like an enormous curtain emanating from a tiny, doughnut-shaped curtain rod in the ceiling. The doughnut is held up by great ribs of concrete bound together with steel cables; outside the theatres, the interior has enormous wheels of molded concrete with huge spokes. Our tour guide spoke of how the Opera House had put Sydney “on the map” despite the well-publicised disputes with Jorn Utzon, the architect, and the enormous cost and time overruns – I guess that it did do that, as before then Sydney was probably a nice city, a very livable city, and when the Opera House opened in 1973 it bounded into another league. It wasn’t just a wonderful city with a great natural setting, but it now had two monuments which took best advantage of that setting.

Did you know that the tiles that constitute the skin of the Opera House are not white, but tan and off-white? One of the ‘sails’ (and the whole complex does resemble a sailing ship) houses the Opera House, a second the Concert Hall, and there are 3 other performance places besides. I booked a ticket for the opera on Thursday night, determined to experience the Opera House during a performance, then went to have lunch at a sidewalk café on Opera Quays.

The fresh smell of sea air was intoxicating. Although now overlapped by today’s Opera Quays, the coastline of 1788, when the first boats landed from the Old World, is marked by gold disks that dot the quayside. Opera Quays sweeps around to Circular Quays, location of the water transport hub, and the Quays continue on the opposite side to the twee, cobbled old area known as The Rocks. It struck me that a good way to get to know the city fairly quickly would be by taking a bus tour, so I took the Sydney Explorer in the afternoon.

The Sydney Explorer was a good concept, and gave a good overview of the city, but also highlighted how central the physical situation, the harbour, and water, were to its appeal. Sydney became the city it has because of the harbor, but the site was also chosen because there was a freshwater stream here that flows to the sea. When I went to the Art Gallery of New South Wales a day or so later and was sitting in their café, I noticed that the roofline of the apartment building in Wooloomooloo on Finger Wharf tends gradually upwards in a broken line, punctuated by bursts of treelife and two storey houses. It reminds one, as everything does, of the intimate connection of the city with water, as a constant background, or as a playground. It was water that brought the first European settlers here to establish the city; and that produces its extraordinary landscape and attractive setting.

At the gallery, I went to an amazing exhibition entitled “Cross Country: The Alchemy of Western Arnhem Land Art”, subtitled “A Festival of Aboriginal Art”. I found the images striking, and very beautiful. Have a look at www.crossingcountry.com.au for more information. A 1989 piece by artist James Iyuna entitled “before there was any water” seemed a harbinger of the current water crisis – a long rectangular piece of bark encloses painted bones, feet, wayward limbs and femurs and heads, seemingly placed in an orderly, lifeless arrangement without the magic liquid.

As the weather has been so forgettable, my best view of Sydney this week was last night, when the grey skies made no difference. Before “The Marriage of Figaro”, I had dinner and sat people-watching on Opera Quays. Dusk gradually took hold and the lights around the quay, in the Rocks and the harbour, came on to illuminate the scene. The Harbour Bridge was spectacular in the dying light then, after dark, it resembled a constellation, its lights defining its outline arc. At night, it was almost easier to pick out wharves and buildings on the opposite key, as they were each lit individually. Ferries with strings of lights alongside moved into and out of Circular Quay. From the now twinkling skyscrapers of the city flowed a continuous stream of people along Opera Quays toward the Opera House. Suddenly, the parlous state of the weather didn’t seem to matter.

Friday, October 15, 2004

Masala Miscellany/Indian Reflections

I dreamt that I was crushed in a crowd of people all talking, yelling, pushing, shoving, pulling, waving frantically, holding signs aloft, running, walking, and jogging. I woke up and found that I was at Indira Gandhi International Airport, or I.G.I. as we call it here, Delhi’s airport, with Dr. Dilli, waiting for Helen to appear out of the maw of immigration and customs. We went there on Saturday night, and the nighttime at I.G.I. is just about the worst time to come, as a number of day flights from Europe leave in the morning and arrive here in the evening. We found the Cox & King’s rep waiting for her without a name on their sign. What’s the idea, I said? How will she know you’re here, babe? “Well, sir, we found that when we put travellers’ names on signs that, uh, some unscrupulous people ‘steal’ the names from the signs, get way up in the queue, and try to take the travellers somewhere else.” Who knows where…

It didn’t matter because she soon appeared an hour after the flight landed and we spirited her away to the Taj Palace Hotel, where I moved in the morning from the YMCA, about as far apart as accommodation gets (almost – I am sure that there are more horrible places than the Y!). We were about to spend a week in Delhi together after the mid-point of my time away, me a tyro Dilli-wallah showing around the tourist, and having a last look at the city and its people and monuments before leaving myself next weekend. So this week’s blog is a bit different, a mix of some miscellaneous observations and final reflections, with some pictures from our week together – during which I did see some things I had missed on first visits to the Taj Mahal, the Agra Fort, and other places!
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My attachment had wound up that morning, apart from some further odd contacts for one reason or another this week. I felt tremendously privileged to work at Butterflies, which is a class act as a voluntary sector organisation, on their Children’s Development Bank project, and I hope that in the end I produced enough to make it worthwhile for them as well. Their people are great, the kids a gas, and the work they do tremendously important and vital in this sprawling, difficult, marvellous city. I intend to maintain contact with them while on the road and, when I return, I hope that I can contribute in the future to what they do, even if from afar. I have a final meeting with the Street Educators this Saturday to report back on what I’ve done and say goodbye, after which everything on my attachment comes to an end, and then I depart for Sydney on Sunday, perhaps after a final walk around the Old City before I go…
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The last time I saw the Street Educators together was a couple of weeks ago together at a football match. That I was playing in!!! That’s right, I haven’t played football for 35 years and, suddenly, I’m on one of the teams. They’re all pretty young – I must be the oldest there. We all piled into autos for the trip to India Gate, commandeered part of the grounds, put down markers for the goals, and divided everyone up into teams. Having no idea what to do or where to play, I just pitched in and chased the ball and chased the people chasing the ball. I got to touch it a couple of times, the second time with a kick that nearly broke my toes!!! I had thought it would be a trial but, of course, football does consist of a lot of standing around and doing nothing, so it was okay, although I was overdressed for it.

Hilariously, every call by the ref and every foul or potential foul and every goal was hotly, fiercely disputed and discussed, which meant that ½ the game was friendly argument, ½ playing. It made me think of a comment someone had made the previous week about Indians being the most eloquent people in the world.

I managed to make everyone laugh (it usually happens) by interpolating the body check from ice hockey to football, pushing Ashfaque off the ball. We won 4 – 2.
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Helen and I have been making our way around the city, during which we’ve tried virtually every mode of transport, except the bus – she drew the line at the bus, and so did I!!! We hired a taxi for a day, which was a snip compared to what a coach tour would have cost, and was very comfortable, highly recommended. In the old part of the city, Shakti, our driver, parked in Ansari Road, and got us a cyclerickshaw to the Lal Q’ila. Cycle rickshaws are good for one person, as long as you get used to having nothing around you to hold onto, and being in the middle of trucks, cars, autos, other cycle rickshaws, buses, taxis, pedestrians, beggars, and cows, doesn’t faze you. However, with 2 people, it gets a bit cramped – you huddle together against the chaos all around you, while your cyclerickshawwallah pedals hard up the hill. To see some of our pictures, click here.

Our trip to Agra, down National Highway 2, was a similar melee. As the Highway goes through all the towns and villages on the way, the effect is like an obstacle course!!! There are constantly people and animals crossing the road, tractors, lorries, etc. A somewhat inattentive driver has no chance on a road like that.

And, of course, we tried the autorickshaw. Standing at Khan Market, trying to get an auto, I had an autowallah flag me down and say, “want to go to YMCA???” Yes, it’s true, I’ve been in town long enough that people are starting to recognise me!!!

By the way, I’ve finally found out how to get around here, buses, taxis and autos notwithstanding. Early on, I displayed a typical North American’s touching belief and faith in the Power of a Map to find my way around the city. I now realise that this is wrong, and why no auto or taxi driver carries a map. I’ve had auto drivers wave away maps as if they were a piffling irrelevance to the real business of stopping 6 times en route to the destination!!! Not only are maps frequently wrong, but people prefer to ask other people and get from them where to go. That’s the way things are done here – as Adam Mynott, the former BBC correspondent in India, “everyone is so helpful, people go out of their way to help you. If you have a flat, 20 people will materialise and offer assistance.”

For example, I had a difficult time getting somewhere for dinner about 2 weeks ago in Vasant Kunj, D Block, 7845. After negotiating with the autowallah, etc. we headed out – it’s quite far away near I.G.I. We found D Block. We found the 7000s. But we couldn’t find 7845, or even the 800s. It was diabolical – they’d had a power cut and what few street lights were there, were off, and there were no lights in front of or in most of the houses (some have generators). We asked about 3 or 4 people outside shops or walking in the street, and they all offered directions. Finally, we managed to make our way to the 7800s. By that time, I was late by 5 or 10 minutes…and we only found it because my host had come out in the road with a torch looking for me!!! There he was in resplendent kurta-pyjama, Maglite in hand…thank goodness!
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I never really got to cover the power cuts and the electricity problem, although I think I mentioned it in describing the Monsoon Mystery. Essentially, the water problem is duplicated in electricity. During the summer, it gets sweltering, and lots of people turn on air conditioning to survive. Power usage soars. The monsoon being late makes cooling off later, which makes it all a lot worse. And, as with the water problem, there are loads of illegal taps by encroachments and others on the electricity supply – anywhere from 25 – 30% disappears without being paid for. One state has just decided to give it away, perhaps mindful that a lot of it was going free anyway!

Although there have been celebrated power blackouts in both the U.S. and Canada in the last year, this is India. So we’re talking a completely different order of things from other, minor countries. The worst day this summer was when it went off 5 times in one day. Luckily, I wasn’t there that day. But it has gone off 3 or 4 times in a day, then twice the next day, then nothing more for a day or two, just to lull you into a false sense of security, then back to 3 or 4. The blackouts finally began to ebb, with the summer heat, about September.

When I was on the battery-powered laptop, I was sitting there serene and unaffected while all about me were losing their work. When I had my hard disk crash, I began to lose whole files or work as well. It is amazing how the blackouts would be timed perfectly to take advantage of one’s memory fading of the previous occasion, so that you forgot to save the file you were working on every bloody minute!!!

So if you can imagine having water most of the time, but sometimes not, and electricity most of the time, but sometimes not, you get the picture. But, of course, it’s not all over Delhi, but in different spots all the time. There are areas where the water supply is not very constant, or very clean, most of the time, and other areas will have no problem. So it is with the electric.

Apparently, as with water, the Delhi authorities are doing something about it, expanding power production and power plants, but it’s not happening fast enough to cope with this constantly expanding city of 14 million.
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Did you know that a migrant comes to the city once every minute? Every minute someone comes here for work, medical treatment, to join a relation, because things are too bad where they live. No wonder the city has grown to 14 million, no wonder it has massive problems, no wonder it has the land mafia building illegal buildings with no planning permission at Sainak Farms that are subsequently being bulldozed.
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Everything in India is outsize. I gave the example originally of the number of seasons – there are more here than everywhere else. I said that there were 5. However, I want to correct that. The rest of the world has 4. India has 6. I kid you not!!! There are two autumns here, I found out, when I looked at one of the Butterflies lesson plans used by the street educators. Children are taught that there are 6 seasons: spring, summer, monsoon, autumn, winter, autumn again.

Love is more complicated here as well. I found this out when I bought my first Sunday Times of India. Lonely Hearts pages in Western newspapers and magazines major on gender, sexual orientation, and other stuff that they reduce to a series of numbers and letters (for example, ‘34-45, B.A., bi m’). Not in India. The land of 6 seasons (2 autumns), over 1bn people (one t-shirt slogan declares, “come to India – 1 billion people can’t be wrong”!), over 1,000 languages and dialects (18 of them on the currency), and countless religions, belief systems, philosophies, over its 4,000 years of civilization, would find such a simplistic approach insufficient.

So it’s by brides/grooms (this is called ‘matrimonials’), then there’s a general category that includes ‘cosmopolitan’, then there are classifications by caste which, to convey my amazement (and fill out some space in this narrative!), I list here:

Agarwal – Bisa/Brahmin/Chaurasia/GSB/Garhwali/Gujar/Gujarati Vaishnav/Gurjjar/ Jaiswal/Khatri/Kumauni/Kashyap/Kshatriya/Kurmi/Kayastha/Maheshwari/Pal/Paswan/
Sah-Teli or Sahu-Teli/Saryuparin/Swarnkar/Saini/Vaish-Jain/Vishwakarma Panchal/ Yadav.

And these are the ones by language:

Bengali/Gujarati/Himachali/Kannadiga/Malayali/Marathi-Konkani/Oriya/Punjabi/Sindhi/
Tamil/Telugu/Assamese

Notice – no Hindi!

Then, there are divisions by profession, disabled/handicapped, Manglik, Scheduled Caste/Scheduled Tribes/Second Marriage/Senior Citizen.

Now on to community:

Agarwal/Agrawal/Jat/Kerealite/Kumbhakar/Mangaloreans/Maratha/Marwaris/Rajput/
Arora

And nationality (NRI/Green Card), and religion:

Buddhist/Christian/Hindu/Muslim/Sikh

and, lastly, age!!!

I don’t even know if that’s all the categories – heaven only knows. And what happens with cross-categories? I suppose most Sikhs are Punjabis, or vice versa…or are they? You can’t tell the communities/castes/genders without a programme…
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I could write for hours about my scratch-the-surface impressions of this city and its people, this land and its endless variety, but I must draw this to a close, saying goodbye tomorrow to Helen – we are not due to meet again until just before Christmas – and on Sunday to India. I visited it with high expectations of what I would find and, needless to say, they have all been fulfilled, many times over. I want to return – I think that the place and the people get under your skin – and I feel that someday, I will.

Friday, October 08, 2004

Dilli-wallah

This week, I decided to conclude my sightseeing of Delhi – for the moment – with some more recent history, and so headed off to Purana Dilli last Sunday to pace in the footsteps of British colonial history.

It’s good to get out early on a Sunday if you can, as you find a cooler, less crowded Delhi, and I caught an auto from Sansad Marg. If you come to India, and I hope that you do, you will find that almost every time you venture out there is something to remark on, that no matter how familiar the landscapes and people become, they never become predictable. That can be tiring in some ways, perhaps even unsettling but, at times, I find it refreshing and exhilarating.

Today it was in Maharaja Ranjeet Singh Marg, where on the usual iron fencing on the median that divides the 4 lanes hung white shirt after shirt, white shawl after shawl, for a mile, ½ a mile of shirts and ½ a mile of shawls, a blizzard of white flashing by from my vantage point in the auto, stretching into the distance as far as I could see. The dhobi-wallahs (the launderers or washers) obviously use the convenient hanging space in the middle of the traffic – before giving the garments to the press-wallah. I wonder how many businessmen in the city’s hotels know that their handmade shirts are sitting comfortably in the middle of Maharaja Ranjeet Singh Marg drying with 1,000 others?!

I had finally found a few weeks ago a walking guide to Old Delhi, exactly what I had been lacking, with some clear, easy-to-follow walks. I followed two of them today, starting at Lothian Road, before the war one of the most fashionable of shopping streets for the colonial class in Delhi. I managed to find – just – the Celtic Cross at the start of the walk, which honoured the British dead in the suppression of the 1857 mutiny which, of course, Indians describe as one of the first fights for Independence. The cemetery has become a haven for squatters, and seems in worse shape now than it was when William Dalrymple, that chronicler of Delhi in City of Djinns, visited it about a decade ago. There have been squatters here for at least 15 years, before Dalrymple’s visit. Makeshift walls and roofs lean every which way between tombs and trees, shaking with the passing trains of Old Delhi Railway Station. The tombs and gravestones of the British are now steps, receptacles, and washing places for those who live in the cemetery – click here to see the pictures, which show the children who live there playing amongst the dead!

Nearby are the remains of the British Magazine, blown up to prevent ammo falling into mutineers’ hands. Next to them in the middle of the surging traffic is a memorial to the electric telegraph – a message was sent from here, amid burning ruins, when the mutiny started, which alerted the British Army in the north, so that they could prepare counter-attacks!

Up the hill we are now in the area known as Kashmere Gate, if not actually at the gate itself. The area is now bursting with auto parts wallahs – as you can see from the photos of urban detritus. Across from their shops stands a building that had both Mughal and British connections. It was Dara Shikoh’s library – the same Dara Shikoh, son of Shahjahan whose head, if you recall, ended up on a spike on the Khuni Darwaza outside the Firoz Shah Kotla. When the British inherited it, they built a classical looking skin outside the Mughal walls and used it as their Residency – the Resident was the top British official in any city, apart from the capital, which Delhi did not become again until the advent of New Delhi.

After passing by St. Stephen’s College on the right, you come to the oldest church in Delhi, St. James’s Church, consecrated in 1836. I know it tolerably well as we have there a contact point with the street children in the area. If you move on and walk around it in the backstreets on a Sunday, you will find people outside gambolling with puppy dogs and boys drilling in a courtyard, and a great domed building that is now an Indian Railways office, but was once William Fraser’s. Fraser came to Delhi in 1805 and was Resident for awhile. He was renowned for his preference for an Indian way of life, Indian friends and Indian ways, most unusual for the early Victorian period. Fraser built his house over a previous Mughal palace, and absorbed the palace’s underground passageways to provide a haven from the summer heat.

I then walked over to Kashmere Gate, which is the northern entrance to Shahjahanabad. It is the only gate that ever had two openings. It was the sight of fierce fighting in the mutiny when the British attacked the city to regain it from the mutineers.

North of here is the oddly-named British suburb of Civil Lines, originally built by the British north of the old city, before the advent of New Delhi provided an alternative place where they could avoid living among the natives. Oddly enough, it was also felt by Civil Lines inhabitants that allowing in certain other classes of British workers lowered the tone, let alone the native Indians that started to build here at the turn of the 20th century. It was here that bungalows were constructed (from the word ‘banga’, which means ‘Bengali’, as bungalows were originally based on the design of the Bengali peasant hut!) for the civil servants and administrators of the Empire.

I tried to avoid the delights of the InterState Bus Terminal – now the centre of a monstrous expansion and redevelopment allied to the Delhi Metro project, which starts in Kashmere Gate – which with the driving rains overnight was a slew of earthmovers and people and mud. I managed to make it the other side without being flattened or flipped into a dump truck. Which was great, as I got to end my walk at Qudsia Bagh. This garden was built by Qudsia Begum, first the mistress and then the wife of the Mughal emperor, Mohammed Shah. It once stretched all the way down to the river, but today most of the garden now lies under the InterState Bus Terminal. A stone’s throw from the I.S.B.T. in the garden is a statue of Rana Pratap Singh, commemorated because he was one of the few rulers in the 16th century never to submit to the power of the Emperor Akbar. Oddly, apartheid used to be operated in the gardens, with the morning reserved for Indians, the afternoon for Europeans. Originally, it had a palace, a mosque, summer house, canals, waterfalls, rose gardens, and fruit trees but today, the usual Delhi story obtains, as only the mosque, a lone gateway, and gardens remain.
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I have regaled you with transport tales on two occasions in the recent past, first the life-threatening, death-dealing Delhi buses, then the wacky and unpredictable autowallahs. What I haven’t done is told you much about traffic in general, and walking in Delhi itself.

Those with fond ideas formed by walking around European city centres of walkable, blockable footpaths and easy, close-up sightseeing amongst the people and artifacts of those cities will find that Delhi doesn’t lend itself to that kind of sightseeing at all.

Sightseeing, as I’ve said, is a struggle with the transport system, your own temper, other peoples’ temper, and the difficulties and diversions that are put in your way. Add in the heat that prevails most of the year, and you don’t want to be walking for miles around the centre of Delhi. Believe me. The right tactic is to take your transport – whether the “wild thing” number 520 bus, or the autowallah who thinks that you’re paying him in dollars, not rupees – to the start of your walk, or near your monument, and take the same back, then use your energy to do a short walk (as I did above) and see a lot of things. When you reflect on there not being a lot to see in some of the streets, this seems an even better strategy!!!

Now – traffic in Delhi. The traffic in this city is the worst I have ever experienced. The drivers are madder, the collisions more frequent, the deaths commonplace, and the unending gridlock calculated to send everyone into a spitting frenzy. The reasons for this are obvious. A lot of the old city is very crowded, and this spills over onto the roads, which are often narrow. So far, so London. Secondly, there are the types of vehicle using the road, which are the same as everywhere else but add the pesky autowallahs, who swerve and zip their way through the traffic. Finally, there are the drivers themselves. They are the worst, most impatient drivers I have ever seen. No sooner does 6 inches open up between you and the chugging Ambassador next to you when – an autowallah tries to squeeze in!!! Hey, guy, what the hell’s going on??? You can’t possibly get in there…but he tries, and sometimes he does it. Usually, he doesn’t, but who cares?

I was in a car with someone once, someone born and brought up in Delhi, and I said, “I don’t really think that you’re a Dilly-wallah after all. There’s at least 2 inches between you and the car ahead. Are you scared? Have you got no guts? Aren’t you a…Dilly driver???” She laughed – “I’ve got other people in the car and I’m following the van ahead.” Right – so it was an abnormal bout of calm and politeness then…

The drivers enforce their bad road manners and nastiness by honking their horns incessantly, constantly, never-never-never-endingly. It is worse than I have ever heard – from Moscow to Montreal, from Oslo to Ottawa, it doesn’t get worse. All trucks and buses make this worse by painting on a sign, “sound horn” on their rears. People sound their horn just on principle. I’ve even seen someone going down an empty street, devoid of people or vehicles, honking their horn as if they’re in some kind of L.A. gridlock!

The result is that after 2 weeks being here, you completely ignore anyone honking at you. So it’s dangerous, as everyone ignores everyone honking. Even the cows ignore the honking – they continue at their slow, deliberate, purposeful pace.

And the result of all this bad behaviour is that the cars, even the new ones, bear scars and scrapes and dents from being raked by buses, autowallahs, motorcycles. The buses are ramshackle old vehicles with whole panels falling off them and massive dents and gashes along their sides. The autos have so little to scrape, bump or scar, having virtually no outer skin and being exposed to the elements, that they seem relatively unscathed. Any new car looks a battered old banger within 30 days!!!

The ever excitable Times of India did a survey of Dilli-wallah drivers, and the results are interesting: if they are in a collision, 33% will stop to see if the other car’s occupants are okay; 33% will drive away, and 33% said that they would get out of the car, charge in a rage towards the other vehicle, open the door or window or boot or bonnet or whatever, and proceed to beat the crap out of anyone in sight!!! It’s no joke!!! So you don’t retaliate, you keep your temper, you obey the word in the middle of Dilli red lights (‘relax’ it counsels you!), and you sit back and let it wash all over you…otherwise…

Pedestrians you might think are spared all this but, alas, no. Pavements or sidewalks are routinely parked over by cars and bikes and autos and trucks and buses. Or encroached upon by chaat sellers, pakora friers, kitchenware-wallahs, etc. So, like everyone else, you end up walking on the road, very hazardous and subject to swerving, cursing, maniacal drivers. You might think that, even amongst this anarchaos, you might count on something simple, such as driving on the right side of the damn road, but even that cannot be relied upon. I’ve frequently fallen off the bus near a slip road that enters Aurobindo Marg only to find an auto or motorcycle (usually not a bus or car!) honking at me as they’re trying to DAMN WELL DRIVE IN THE WRONG DIRECTION up the shoulder, or, the shoulder that would exist but for the chaat sellers, pakora…you get the picture!

It’s one of the factors that has led me to conclude that, at the end of my attachment, which is today, and the end of my stay in Delhi in a week’s time, I will not qualify, not even nearly qualify, as a Dilli-wallah. I hadn’t in all honesty expected to, and I think that doing so might take another lifetime, or at least, longer than 3 months. I have got to know the city reasonably within the time, have got to see the major monuments and some of the lesser-known ones, and got to know how to more-or-less get around this city and what it takes to live and work here. And next week, I will be reviewing my knowledge and showing off when Helen comes to visit. However, I have of course missed a lot of stuff in the middle which I need to go back and see someday, one year….