Angela’s Adventures Through India and Bangladesh

By Angela Bischoff, India, Bangladesh, Oct., 2002, to April, 2003.

Cycling (and public transiting) her way around India, Angela finds it to be a mixed bag of both cultural grace and pitiful despair. Take a peak at her travel diary as she spins her way to the heart of this ancient culture.


Chapter 1: North Central India
Nov. 23, 2002

Hello friends. Some of you have asked me great questions (especially my 9 year old neice Ali), so I thought it time to write a summary of my experiences here in India through Delhi, McLeod Ganj, Bodhgaya, and Varanassi.

I’ve travelled through 17 countries, but none compares with India, and none prepared me for this. I feel like things have been turned upside down, like I’m standing on my head, getting a different perspective on life.

If I look at India through western eyes, it appears that I am having a bad dream. Garbage is strewn everywhere, motor vehicles honking incessantly and belching black thick soot as they’re stuck in never-ending traffic jams, people and animals shitting and spitting and pissing and snorting constantly – assaulting my olfactory glands and my sense of decency -, beggars and shop keepers and rickshaw riders harrassing me as if I’m a money bag, diesel and dust infecting my eyes and respiratory system, dog-fights and firecrackers all through the night, seering heat and mosquitoes (and they call this winter!), non-existant hygiene, and worse yet, severe material desperation engulfing my vision at every turn. It’s an assault on my senses, and against human dignity.

But if I look through empathetic eyes, through traveller’s eyes, through Indian eyes, through loving, compassionate and non-judgemental eyes, I see a beautiful and rich culture, spiritual and generous, colourful and sweet.

I’ve encountered no reason to be afraid of theft nor fear for my personal safety. One guy tried to feel me up on a train, and hucksters try to manipulate me constantly, but besides that, every Indian I’ve met has been warm and generous with their time and affection — even the beggars and hucksters. They have little materially, but they have great presence and warm spirits.

Spirituality is everpresent. In Mcleod Ganj (in the northern mountains) and in Bodhgaya (north central plains) where Sally and I spent a week at each place, we spent considerable time with Tibetan Buddhists. The Tibetans are living here in exile ever since the Chinese government brutalized, imprisoned and murdered more than 1 million of them. They are a beautiful people, gentle and kind, although financially desperate and anxious to return to their native land. Sally and I both spent time with individuals teaching them English.

I’ve had the opportunity to explore Buddhism, as Sally is a follower of this path, and it has opened new vistas to me. I had the great honour of attending 5 teachings by a very famous and revered Rimpoche Chokyneem, who really impressed upon me the value of meditation, and the depth of Buddhist teachings of compassion and loving kindness. I’ve experimented with meditation for the first time in my life (I’m really feeble at it), and practising yoga every morning on my hotel rooftops, and I feel good about incorporating these practises more fully into my life. I even taught some yoga classes at the Root Institute, a Buddhist meditation centre, and this confirmed in me my interest in teaching and practising yoga. This institute also has a health clinic as part of its commitment to service; the medicine is aryuvedic and homeopathic, very common throughout India, both of which treat the energetic balance of the patient.

I wrote earlier about the “climate justice” rally and conference that I attended during COP 8. This gave me the sense that the poor masses here really have nothing to lose and lots to gain by mobilising, and I believe they are doing just that, which has given me hope. I attended one workshop called “urban poor” where speaker after speaker (about 20) passionately spoke about how they have been displaced by industrial projects and dams, forced to move to poor lands where they are separated from their townsfolk, and forced to start over with no government compensation. Others move to the cities to do the shittiest jobs like rickshaw-pulling or selling newspapers or food, and the police harrass them and extort their meagre earnings, hospitals won’t see them because they have no money, and they’re prevented from going to school because their clothes are in tatters. It was heart-wrenching. So much injustice.


Chapter 2: North Central India
Nov. 22, 2002

Obesity is a rare sight. Indians don’t appear to snack in between meals like we do, at least not the ones I’ve hung out with. They live simply, with few toys and computers and TVs to distract them. Their homes have almost no furniture. I’ve seen small simple kites flown from rooftops. But all in all, it’s a very low-impact ecological footprint.

Garbage is a big issue. Until 20 years ago, everything was biodegradable, so there was no problem dropping garbage on the spot. But now with plastic in full use (bottles, bags) there’s plastic everywhere. It piles up in every corner. Even so, much of the packaging used is old newspapers ripped into small pieces, or molded leaves, or even disposable clay containers. Sally bought a small writing pad that had a re-used cover made from a magazine. Toilet paper isn’t used — imagine 1 billion indians using toilet paper! (Every toilet has a small tap and bucket; with their left hand they wash themselves with the water, the right hand they eat with.)

Much of the garbage, at least the biodegradable stuff, gets chewed through by the millions of cows/bulls/buffalo/goats/dogs roaming the streets. Monkeys are also a regular sight. All these urban animals shit lots, but the locals scoop it up, mix it with straw, roll it in balls, flatten and bake ’em in the hot sun on trees or sides of buildings, and burn them for fuel. I was told that each 6 inch saucer only burns for one-to-five minutes though, needing many to cook a meal for an extended family. That said, if you’re not careful, it’s not uncommon to go for a slide in one of those cow pies, especially at night; I can attest to that. But supposedly it’s good luck to step in cowshit! Coal and gas are also used for cooking, especially in the urban centres.

I visited 2 Gramin Banks and spoke with the bank managers. These banks were set up more than a decade ago by the federal government to make small loans to the poorest of the poor. Often these loans are given to groups of 15-20 residents of the same area, and if one defaults all the others support that person so that they don’t all have to pay. It’s been one of the great success stories of the developing world, but it soon may end! It appears the Indian government, with its new economic policy of globalization and commerce, intends to privatize the Gramin Bank, which would mean the minimum size of loans would increase, shutting out the poorest and the women (who receive the smallest loans), and would mean interest rates would climb, squeezing the poorest even more. But the unions are organising, and they believe the masses will support them. 10,000 persons from around India are expected to rally at parliament in Delhi on Nov. 26th. The union rep I spoke with is confident that the government won’t get away with privatisation because there’s too much support from the rural masses.

I spent considerable time with an 18-year old lad named Upindra while in Bodhgaya. He spoke quite good English (most Indians speak a little English — a hold-over from the British empire, and a result of the large tourism industry) and was very generous with his time. We spent 2 afternoons walking through rural villages, and I was speechless most of the time. One-room mud huts with clay roofs, vines covering the roofs for cooling, small earthen stoves hand-molded to fit 2 pots above and fire below, some cotts with a wood frame and woven rope for sleeping on, and that’s about it. No motors. No cars. Most households seemed to have a cow for milk or labour. Cattle are sacred, and as such can wander anywhere. I especially thrill to see cows sauntering along busy roadways impeding traffic, or better yet, lying in the middle of the road! Do you think such traffic-calming measures would fly in Toronto?

There hasn’t been any shortage of water in the places I’ve visited; even the rural areas have hand pumps and wells. But I understand water quality isn’t good, and even locals get sick occasionally. Middle class people filter water, I’m told. Sally and I are travelling with our own little water filter.

All women wear either saris or salwar-cameeses. The saris are long strips of colorful cloth, one metre wide by 5 metres long, and they wrap them around their body twice and over the shoulder, sometimes over their head. The colours are spectacular. They also adorn themselves with glass bangles, gold and silver rings, ankle bracelets, nose and toe rings, and bidiis (decorations on their third eye). People are often carrying huge baskets of goods on their heads, or carrying huge loads on push or bicycle carts. Even in the urban centres horses and cattle are used to pull goods. Ancient carts are used, sometimes made completely of wood, as they would have been made 2000 years ago.


Chapter 3: North Central India
Nov. 23, 2002

I’m always asking kids how old they are, and am always astounded that they’re inevitably several years older then I think. Kids in the west are much larger and more mature then kids here. I asked Upindra’s mother how old she was. She looked about 65, tiny, frail and wrinked, with a grandchild in her arms. She was 46! We just looked at each other in shock, comparing our ages (I’m 40). There wasn’t much to say — we live in different worlds, that’s for sure.

I was told that 85% of India’s population works in agriculture, which doesn’t surprise me. The whole country seems to be under cultivation with small plots, mostly of rice. Upindra’s father has a small plot near their home, and grows enough rice just for their family. Just last month Upindra’s sister (age 26) was pregnant with her third child, became weak in the 9th month, and was given medication which she reacted to, so had to leave her husband’s home to stay with her parents for a few months to get well. Her medication was 3000 rupees ($100 Canadian), which her parents didn’t have, so her father had to temporarily sell his land to a money lender, and count on Upindra to make the money to pay back the lender. Upindra is a math genius, and wants to be an engineer, and his family is really counting on him to be the breadwinner for the entire extended family!

It’s a pleasure to see masses of bicycle rickshaws everywhere, although they’re banned in many places in big cities because they’re believed to impede traffic, but I suspect it’s because they’re seen as backward transportation. The traffic jams though are unbelievable — talk about congestion. Even then, motor bikes and auto rickshaws will honk incessantly, bullying their way through pedestrians, riding on the wrong side of the road and weaving through oncoming traffic. Talk about chaotic! The roads are either unpaved or poorly paved.

The air quality is worse than I’ve ever experienced. Black soot and diesel shoots out of most tailpipes. The horizon is obscured. At dusk, a thick haze hovers around the buildings. When riding my bike or a rickshaw I frequently cough, and very often cover my face with a scarf. My throat’s always dry; I never leave the hotel without my water bottle. I’ve battled an eye infection, and have had a lingering cold for weeks. I went to the doctor last week to get tested for giardia; the results came back negative. My immune system is really struggling.

There’s always a Hindu festival going on. Last week was the Diwali festival in honour of the goddess of wealth, and it was celebrated with candles, really noisy firecrackers, and gawdy statues made of painted mud and carried in procession to be ceremoniously dumped in the river. This week was the festival in honour of the sun goddess, celebrated at sundown and sunrise, with offerings and prayers at the Ganges river. There are Hindu temples and shrines in every nook and cranny burning incense, with young and old paying homage at all hours. Music plays day and night from loud speakers; some is Indian pop music, while other music is traditional or religious, oftentimes live.

I’m now in India’s most ancient city (more than 2000 years old), Varanassi, along the banks of the holy Ganges river. There are 27 ghats here, steep stairwells where pilgrims come to wash their bodies and their clothes, pay homage to their deities, and ceremoniously burn their dead on pyres. It’s intense. Women aren’t allowed at the burning ghat (I learned the hard way!); traditionally women would jump on the pyre of their husband, so now they’re forbidden from this site, and the practise has been declared officially illegal. Of course it still happens though, especially in rural areas.

One fella took me up a nearby tower to watch the burning rituals. There were old, infirm women laying inside, waiting to die. They asked me for money to help pay for their pyre, which is expensive due to the amount of wood, sandalwood powder, and incense required. But for Indians, it is a great honour to die and be burned here as it’s believed that your soul is released of the cycles of birth and death after being dipped in the Ganges and burned on the shore.

However, if you die as a child, an animal, a pregnant woman, a sadhu, or are killed by a cobra, you get taken to the middle of the river with a stone tied around your neck and sunk. Occasionally those ropes break and bodies float to the surface. On one row boat ride I took, we saw (and smelled) a floating cow and dog. I prayed we wouldn’t tip; I imagined my feet kicking up dead carcasses.

It’s really sad to see the revered Ganges river so putrid. Thirty city sewers in Varanassi alone flow directly into the river where thousands of pilgrims make their way daily to pay homage to the ‘Great Mother’, but also to wash their clothes and their bodies and brush their teeth!


Chapter 4: North Central India
Nov. 23, 2002

The problem I have with Hinduism is its justification of the caste system, and the devaluation of women. If you’re born of a lower caste, that’s where you’ll stay, a societal slave and pariah. If you’re born a girl, too bad for you. In some states, there are 600 girls to 1000 boys born because of fetal sex determination. The families of brides are expected to pay huge dowries to the families of the husband, on top of giving their girls away to live with the husband’s family where many live as virtual slaves. For these reasons and others, many Hindus are converting to Buddhism, Islam and Christianity, much to the chagrin of the religious elite and even the politicians, where occasionally anti-conversion laws are proposed.

In the old part of Varanassi city where we stayed, the streets are much too narrow for cars or bike rickshaws, but not so narrow as to prevent beeping motorcycles, bovines, or thousands of hole-in-the-wall shops or shrines. After 9 days there, I often couldn’t find my way to my hotel, and wandered about as if in a maze.

For several days I was totally dependent on “guides”, young fellas who learn english (or french, japanese or hebrew) and spot white tourists like me from a mile away. It’s always the same: “Hello madam. What country? Me no want money. I like you. I show you temple, silk shop, jewelry. My prices the best. My uncle’s shop. What, you no trust me?” And then, I swear, we walk in circles, but magically show up at the internet cafe or temple as promised to me. And when the tour’s finished, inevitably they want more money than I offer. Which is OK. They have knowledge that I need. They’re good business people. They also get commission on anything I purchase. On 2 occasions I was lead, without my knowledge, to the guides’ guru, “only for one moment, please”. Inside the friendly, lounging guru told me he reads facial lines, palms, my past and future, offers spiritual guidance and astrology — all at outrageous prices, if you’re smart enough to ask, not for himself of course but for his group’s humanitarian efforts. But it’s all part of the experience!

Every morning in Varanassi I was awakend at 7:30 a.m. by the pigeon catcher on the rooftop outside my window, shouting and whistling, waving a red flag atop a long pole. The flocks hear his call and come for seed. The odd one, he captures; he has 500 in cages. He feeds them, and occasionally releases them, but they come back. It is his hobby, and an ancient Indian tradition. Never before have I seen this…

I’m really enjoying the food — tropical fruit, samosas, rice and dahl (lentils), chapatis (roasted bread), roasted peanuts, fresh coconut, chai (sweetened and spiced milk tea), and other fantastic Indian delicacies made from potatoes and beans that are smothered in both sweet and spicy sauces… and most of it is vegetarian. (If you want meat, you have to ask for it — a nice change.)

I had the honour of attending a traditional Indian wedding in Varanassi. The bride and groom were introduced to each other’s photo by their parents. Based on the photos, they both agreed that it was a good match. The date was set and guests invited. The bride’s family met at the bride’s home, the groom’s family at the groom’s home. I went to the groom’s home at 6:30 p.m. About 25 family relatives sat, munched, and prepared the ritual. With the help of the men, the groom dressed in a western suit and tie. Then he sat, alongside a young boy (nephew), on the floor in front of the makeshift temple. Incense was burned. A holy man chanted prayers. One by one, decorations were wrapped around the groom and boy. Garlands of flowers with bills stapled onto them covered his chest, while headbands with shimmering streamers completely obscured his face. One by one, the family members blessed him with a decoration and some money, while a band of horns and drums chimed in outside the window.

Then the procession began, winding through the narrow city streets. In the lead were a dozen lit chandeliers balanced atop peoples’ heads, followed by at least a hundred neighbours and friends who joined us along way. As the band played, young men who were apparently drinking alcohol (a rare sight), would break into frenetic dancing. After I saw another woman join the ruckus, I even danced a tune, but it was too much of a mosh pit for me to enjoy. The groom and boy followed the procession atop an ornately clad white horse. Although we only travelled perhaps a 100 metres, it took hours till we joined the bride and her family and friends at the hall.

The groom joined the bride (their first meeting!) on the chairs at the front of the room. The bride was stunning in her jewelry, head pieces, and flowing sari. She kept her eyes looking demurely downward the entire time. Family members stood behind the couple for photos, while everyone else ate. Hours later the couple went upstairs to eat, separately. By this time it was midnight, and the wedding ritual hadn’t even begun! Apparently the festivities last all night long. I retired for the night.

The next morning, I bumped into the groom on the street. He was looking a little dishevelled. I thanked him for his hospitality, and congratulated him, and he beamed saying “isn’t she beautiful?” A truly proud husband!

I’ve met a lot of young men here, and I always ask them if they plan to marry for love, or if their parents will arrange their marraige, and almost all of them say that their parents will arrange their marriage, and that they’re happy with this plan. They tell me that there’s no place for them to meet women anyways, as there’s no bars or coffeeshops to hang out at.

I went to an Indian movie one day. Bolleywood, based in Bombay, is the largest film industry in the world. The movie I saw was a triangle love story, and was so predictable (and corny) that I didn’t need translation. But what was so enjoyable about it were the song and dance videos that popped up throughout the movie. As we exited the theatre, I was thrilled to be greeted by a throng of bicycle and auto rickshaws which all the movie-goers used to return home; apparently there was no car parking lot!

It’s impossible to avoid anything here in India as everything is in your face, up close, the joy and the desperation. But that’s the beauty of it. It’s real. I’m honoured to be part of this melee, to fully experience the smells and sounds and textures of this ancient culture.


Chapter 5: Calcutta
Dec. 1, 2002

I’ve been in Calcutta now for 12 days. It’s a fascinating place, and a desperate place. An American acquaintance described it as a place where you can’t go out without having an emotional experience, and this makes a lot of sense to me. It’s heavy, but it’s real life, on the street, with all the messiness and grittiness and emotion and passion that life entails. No Canadian politeness here, no Japanese reservation, no Chinese incomprehension — just Indian honesty, vulgarity, and zeal. I’m starting to get past my discomfort and appreciate the friendliness.

I’ve been cycling around, getting lost in neighbourhoods around town, and find that the intensity is just plain exhausting. In this city of 12 million people, poverty is in my face everywhere I turn, and it’s harsh. Dilapidated buildings, roads and sidewalks, urban garbage dumps with people and animals rummaging through them for recyleables and food, slums, beggars, homelessness, traffic mayhem, air pollution from tailpipes and smouldering garbage. Close to forty percent of the population lives in slums or unathorized housing. Hot in the news is the eviction of 17,000 squatters to widen a roadway. The official number of Calcuttans living below the poverty line (approx. one US dollar a day for a family) is 36 percent.

But the micro-street action, what economists call the “informal sector”, delights my imagination. Sellers of every imaginable item are hawking on the streets, or squatted on sidewalks or in one of the thousands of markets that dot every neighbourhood. Rickshaw pullers, street tailors, food sellers, barbers, shoe polishers — all bringing the market to your neighbourhood.

There is a much higher presence of Muslims and Sikhs here living alongside their Hindu neighbours which makes for a colorful market scene. Urban herds of goats wander through the streets while cabs honk their way through the masses of pedestrians. There are also great bus, tram and metro systems here in Calcutta, I suspect the only Indian city with all three.

I’ve been confused about the Indian “work ethic”. It appears that lots of people are hanging around with no fire under their butts. Like, you go to the post office and no one jumps to serve you. (Other times you go and there’s an unruly horde of customers shoving their way to the front, and I, the polite Canadian, would wait all day to get served if some helpful worker didn’t intervene.) Then I met a 70 year old businessman who told me that there is literally no word in the Hindi dictionary for ‘efficiency’. Things are expected to be done, but not within a particular time frame. I like that. Relieves a lot of stress. Long chai breaks are in.

But this friend explained that there is, in fact, a lot of stress in this society. Air pollution is stressful: some 75 percent of the air pollution in Delhi is from motor vehicles, so I would presume the same would go for Calcutta. Never-ending traffic jams are stressful, as are aggressive drivers and all the honking. I read regularly in the newspaper of motor vehicles getting torched by an angry mob after a pedestrian gets killed.

Poverty is stressful. There aren’t many labour-saving devices, so manual labour is the norm: everything is carried on heads, or pulled with hand carts, or washed by hand, etc.. Poverty means malnutrition, or poor nutrition. Poverty leads to child labour, which leads to lack of education and ignorance of things like hygeine. Poverty leads to lack of family planning; the government has a propaganda campaign for 2 children-max. families, but it’s not effective. And as most men are responsible for financially supporting an average of 5 people (children, wife, parents), that’s stressful. The caste system is stressful. And raising a dowry for female children (paying the future husband’s family an exhorbitant amount to take on the responsibility of the bride!) is an incredible burden on most families.

Corruption is stressful. Bribe-seeking police and predatory government officials target the poor, informal sector. There’s always talk about “power theft” in the slums, but a newspaper article yesterday blew that myth out of the water claiming that it’s the industrial users that are bilking the system.


Chapter 6: Calcutta (continued)
Dec. 1, 2002

I’ve spent this last week volunteering with the Missionaries of Charity, the order of sisters set up by Mother Theresa in the 50’s. The experience has moved me beyond belief, and has been a real honour for me. We start with mass at 6 a.m. (some 150 sisters and 50 foreigners), followed by a light breakfast of chai, bread, and a banana. Then all the foreigners go off to our respective volunteer duties at one of their dozen homes dotted around Calcutta.

The first morning I spent at an orphanage with children aged 1 – 8. Most were abandoned by their parents, either temporarily or permanently. These kids are gorgeous, starved for love, and aching to give love and hugs, begging to be tickled. What a blast for me. In no time I had the whole gang playing Simon Says, and singing and acting songs like Itsy Bitsy Spider, Old Macdonald, and B-is-for-Bicycle.

Two other mornings I spent at other orphanages with handicapped children. These kids were more challenging — feeding them, cleaning their bedding, massaging their bodies, tickling them as they sat in a row on the toilet seats. Priceless. Sure makes me appreciate my health.

Another day I spent at the Leprosy Centre just outside of Calcutta, a small village of 450 patients and their families who either have been rehabilitated or are undergoing treatment for leprosy. It’s a fairly self-sufficient community which includes clinics and an artificial limb centre; a handloom unit where 50 looms produce all the sarees for all the sisters around the world, and bed sheets, bandages and gauze for all the centres in Calcutta; a footwear centre; a carpentry section; agriculture; animal husbandry; and education. Patients helping themselves. Very impressive.

One morning I spent at the ‘Home for the Dying Destitutes’. We volunteers washed the plastic bed sheets, fed the dying female patients, massaged their atrophied limbs, and comforted them while their dressing was changed without pain relief. It was heart-wrenching, and very difficult for me.

The next morning I went to the home for female ex-convicts. Apparently they’ve all come from the prison system, but certainly didn’t belong there. Almost all have serious mental and physical health problems. Likely they’ve all been abused. I’m told that there is a very, very high rate of sexual abuse in this culture, due to both the patriarchal/mysogynist cultural attitudes as well as the caste system.

The sisters (Missionaries of Charity), the Indian female workers, and the volunteers who run these homes are saints. There’s no glory in their life’s work, but many rewards. Easy for me to say — I’m moving on after just one week. But I hope to return someday — the volunteer experience was so powerful.

Postscript: Just a few more stats to boggle your mind: India is a nation of a billion people. More than 400 million are illiterate and live in absolute poverty; over 600 million lack even basic sanitation; and over 200 million have no drinking water. This in a nation that just a few hundred years ago was a land of riches, known for its textiles, spices, fertile lands and more. (Even Columbus was searching for an alternate route to India when he stumbled across the Americas.) So what has caused the desperation? Certainly colonialization and the global market economy have played a role. But I’ll report more at a later date.


Chapter 7: Bangladesh
Dec. 13, 2002

A 12-hour journey by jeep and bus got me from Calcutta to Dhaka, capital of Bangladesh. I’m here to visit a Bangladesh-Canadian friend’s extended family.

My hosts are an upper-middle class couple – husband, wife, 1-year-old daughter, grandmother and 15-year-old female servant. They lived in the middle of Dhaka in a high rise with security guards. The husband works at an international clothing export company. The wife, also from a middle class family, has a university degree but has never worked. Theirs was an arranged marriage, and 2 years after marrying, their daughter was born. They travel by chauffeured car owned by the husband’s company. The husband’s salary supports his nuclear family, grandmother and servant, as well as his parents who live in another village.

I spent 4 days in Dhaka, literally locked behind bars – the bars on the windows, that is. I don’t know if the reason had more to do with bad timing (some foreign journalists were arrested recently), or the fact that I was a woman in a Muslim country, or white and rich in a desperately poor country, or a political activist with a video camera in a corrupt country. But the upshot was that I stayed indoors day and night with the women – the wife, daughter, grandmother and servant. Even the food shopping was done by street people and brought right to the door. After 4 days, I was going stir crazy!

OK I’m exaggerating. I left the house 3 times in 4 days. Once with the wife, daughter, and sister in law, by chauffeured car to a shopping mall. It was so crowded and stuffy, I was claustrophobic. The traffic on the street moved at a snail’s pace, with beggars steadily knocking at the windows – no wonder middle class women don’t go out much! One late evening, we went to a clothing store – it seems there’s not much else to do other than go shopping. And on my last day, the husband arranged for a relative to escort me by rickshaw to a cyber-cafe, but I was only allowed to go for 30 minutes. The paranoia was palpable.

Apparently, it is a very corrupt society, such that if you’re prepared to grease the palms of officials, you get ahead, otherwise tough luck. The middleclass live in fear of robberies, abductions and ransoms, murder, etc.. Mid-way through my week, 4 bombs went off in 4 different movie theatres, killing 19 and maiming dozens more. Since then, 30-some students have been arrested, all belonging to an extremist fundamentalist Muslim group opposing secularization. So, the educated middleclass don’t go out much, and they hire security guards and drivers and servants. To top it off, women don’t go out without men. My host’s sister lived a short 10-minute walk away, but wasn’t allowed to visit her brother without an escort.

I’m told that Bangladesh was, just 50 years ago, a very rich Indian state. After independence from India as East Pakistan, West Pakistan drained it of all its resources. Then in ’71, it won independence from Pakistan and became Bangladesh, but has been struggling ever since. It is the world’s ninth most populace country – 125 million people, only 20% who are urban – in an area one-third the size of Alberta! Its per capita income is $350 US, making it one of the poorest countries in the world. On top of all that, its relationship to sea level is such that it regularly floods, killing and displacing on average ten thousand people annually.

Bangladesh is a largely Muslim country (83%). One of the striking images seared in my memory is of the dissonant choirs rising through the city throughout the day. Muslims are called to pray 5 times a day: at sunrise, late morning, mid-afternoon, sundown, and mid-evening. When called over loudspeakers, males go en masse to the mosques to pray for 15 minutes. Each mosque is singing its own songs, so from my high-rise I could hear thousands of men singing from dozens of mosques, all in minor tones, all different melodies – it was haunting. I would awake at 5:30 a.m. to the cacophony – it was musically entrancing, and chilling.

Bangladeshis live for their families; extended family ties are remarkable. Relatives were always visiting; females were without exception accompanied by males.


Chapter 8: Bangladesh (continued)
Dec. 13, 2002

When I arrived, the Muslim country was finishing their holy ritual of Ramadan where all the faithful fast from sunrise to sundown for 30 days. Then they feast in a national celebration called Eid Mubarek. For these holidays, we loaded up the car and drove to the husband’s family’s village north of Dhaka. While I forget the name of the village, I’ll never forget the experience.

It was a village of a few thousand people, most of whom had never laid eyes on a white person before. Certainly no white person had ever laid eyes on their village – I was the first, and I might as well have been an alien from outer space. For hours every day, I would wander through their yards, get invited into their homes, and get plied with sweets, rice pudding, and chai. There were always long, uncomfortable moments of staring, and giggling. Short conversations would ensue: What is your name? Your country? Are you married? Children? It was always soooo sweet that I had a permanent smile cast on my face.

I noticed that in the sports field the men would play cricket or hang around, while the women were nowhere to be seen. Of course, they were in the homes with the children, cooking, doing laundry etc. so I’d go there, and they were thrilled, as was I. On two occasions, women offered me their children; no surprise, think of the opportunity I could offer their children.

Their homes – some built of clay, others of brick, corrugated tin, straw/leaves, or plaster – had electricity, a few beds, a food table, and a shelving unit. I saw one fridge – in the home of the town manager. The kitchens were sometimes in the same house, sometimes in a detached structure. They were composed of a small stove of molded clay, with space below for burning dung or wood, and same clay structure above to hold 2 pots. A sharp, curved steel knife sat on the earthen floor, suspended in air rather than on a cutting board. Several light stainless steel pots were used. That’s basically it.

I saw some cellars built into the earth where food was stored. All the food was local: rice, fruits (6 or more types of fruit trees in people’s yards including bananas, limes, a type of apple, coconuts, star fruit), veggies (including chilies, potatoes, carrots, cilantro, cucumbers, tomatoes), lentils, meat (goat, beef, chicken, pigeon, fish), eggs, and milk.

Most houses had a pond where they bathed and got water for dishes, washing clothes, etc. and they all had access to clean drinking water from deep wells. I also drank this water, but later found out that there is a huge problem with arsenic poisoning the water table around the country.

One early evening there was a group of men meeting in the office near the sports field, so I checked it out. It was a group of local volunteers that had in the last year set up a member-run, non-profit lending agency, specifically to finance small projects in the village. Villagers helping villagers!

Everyone was related! It baffled me. I later learned that sometimes “uncle” or “cousin” is used to connotate close friends, but still, most of the villagers are in fact related because of intermarriage. This means that villagers are very close, and support each other through thick and thin. The few TV’s in the village however always had a dozen or more people watching really bad b&w Bangladeshi movies, or worse yet, foreign cartoons or sitcoms, which was always disturbing. But besides that, village life seemed idyllic – calm, quite (no motors), safe (no cars), and joyful.

I had difficulty with the existence of the servant class. Although Islam (the religion of Muslims) abandoned the caste system when it broke from Hinduism, the abject poverty of many poorer nations means that there is an over-supply of labor willing to work for almost nothing. Servants are likely women, young and old, who live with the middle-class family, sleep on the floor, don’t eat at the table with the others, and work from the early hours till after everyone else has bedded. The 15-year-old servant of my host family was sweet and gorgeous, came from a village, and had never had the opportunity of going to school, although she told me she would like to.

And then there’s the status of women. One evening, when all the men were at some sporting event in the field, a half dozen of us women were invited to another woman’s home for dinner. As we walked toward the field, all the women covered their heads. When they realized that we would have to walk through some men to get to our destination, we made a huge detour around the field to avoid the men. Another day one of the servants came into the room and began to walk to the table to pick up some dishes, but when she realized that she would have to walk between men to get the dishes, she backed off, covered her head, and motioned to another woman to get the dishes for her. I guess women are not to be seen, and certainly aren’t to disturb the men! That said, both the president and the leader of the opposition are women – go figure.

One of our last nights together, around a dinner table of a dozen Muslims, my host suggested to me that since I’m having such a good time in Bangladesh I could become a Muslim and move there. I choked on my rice, (which by the way I am skilled now at eating with my fingers!) and wisely choked down my honest response which might otherwise have been: “You’ve gotta be kidding! Not to be seen and not to be heard? Trapped indoors because of corruption, desperation, and religious fundamentalist, misogynist backlash? I’m no masochist!”

But I had to admit – I was happy, at least in the village. And the villagers’ lives, although materially impoverished, seemed rich compared to mine. Their joy and generosity dwarfed my own.

Postscript: Since returning to Calcutta, I started doing my own headcount of numbers of women vs. men on the street, and find that 9 out of 10 people on the street are men. Also, the men I meet (I never meet Indian women!) are always aghast that I’m traveling without my husband. Makes me feel like the feminist movement in the west has really come a long ways. Makes me appreciate the west.


Chapter 9: Southeast India
Jan. 2, 2003

Happy New Year friends. May you have a blessed, awe-inspired, and fruitful year.

After 11 weeks in India, what used to seem crazy to me now seems normal. Is that good or bad?

Like, every morning at 4:30 a.m. I get wakened by the morning chanting blaring from the nearby temple. Supposedly it’s a morning wake-up call. But at 4:30? Do people actually get up that early? It stops around 7:30 a.m. I’m getting good at ignoring it, and memorizing all the tunes.

I was videotaping some monkeys close up when one grabbed my camera case and we had a tug of war over it. I won, but he was pissed, and repeatedly came at me baring his teeth. Scared the crap out of me. Later as I watched 2 monkeys gently preening each other, picking the ticks out of each other’s hair, one young one jumped up and grabbed a hold of my fanny pack attached around my hips. I screamed and fell back against the rock, bruising my butt, scraping my forearm and bashing my video camera. I was warned the men might grope, not the monkeys!

I’ve been curious this whole trip watching mothers and sisters silently preening children’s hair for lice, thinking how primal and ritualistic it is. Little did I know that I’d be there myself, under the skillful hands of 2 children and their grandmother, being preened of my own lice infestation! When I first discovered the uninvited colony, a local Indian woman collected leaves from a native plant (sounds like “cocaine” plant but looks like a hibiscus plant) and prepared a poultice for me, a large green gooby ball which I massaged into my scalp and let bake in the sun for a few hours before washing out. It didn’t do the trick, though. So I opted for the chemical shampoo, which after 8 shampoos still hasn’t eliminated all the suckers and their eggs, but we’re getting close. An Indian woman then told me to be careful as those shampoos can cause your hair to fall out, so now I’m really worried.

To top it off, I got a fever, aches, and diarrhea, so spent a few days in bed, near the squat toilet. But if I had to get sick, Mammalapuram was a good choice – small fishing village in the southeast of India, with a fine sandy beach, travelers’ guesthouse, and great food. They carve stone here, a tradition that dates back to the 7th and 8th centuries. The place is full of stone-carved temples and caves. It was a great place to spend New Year’s Eve as well, on the beach with some musicians and lots of dancing Indian men and foreigners; the Indian women were at home with the families.

Weird thing about Indian beaches is that they’re also garbage dumps, and toilets. While the scavenging cows and pigs and dogs harvest much of the ripe garbage goodies, the sea washes away the men’s morning dumps (maybe that’s what the morning music is about!). That would explain why there were few swimmers. I wasn’t prepared to give up the treat of swimming in the Bay of Bengal though, and indulged several times every day.

I’ve been making a special effort to meet Indian woman, which is difficult because they’re always in their homes with the children, taking care of the domestic affairs. But I met several women here selling sarongs, and found that arranged marriages don’t always work, and that women aren’t necessarily happy with their domestic slavery. Umbindra put it this way, “what you (gonna) do, it’s life”. Asha, mother of 4 married daughters, said the dowries made life very difficult for her and her husband. One of her daughter’s husband died, and the woman refuses to marry again. Hycinth opted for the unspeakable – separation – but her new boyfriend is of a lower caste so her family will never accept him. Funny, cause every man I’ve met has told me that their marriage system works very well, and is even “thrilling”.

Viji, to the chagrin of her parents, has sworn off marriage, aiming to pursue a spiritual life instead – the only alternative. She volunteers in her village at night school, tutoring the village kids in reading and writing in Tamil and English. She also teaches them dance, and invited us over for a private performance. We assumed it would be classical dance. But it was pop rock, bump and grind, Michael Jackson Hindu style! It was a real hoot watching these children imitate the Hindu pop videos, choreographing their own routines with funk and flair, brimming with grins and pride. At the end, we all jumped up in an impromptu circle dance, taking turns soloing in the center.

They fed us some delicious food and chai, and then invited us into Viji’s home next door – a small (approx. 10 x 15 feet) one-room hut made of bamboo and coconut fronds where 2 parents, 6 children, and one grandchild live, believe it or not!

Lyn Adamson (Toronto peace activist friend) and I spent 9 days in the south together, including a week in Auroville, an eco-spiritual anarchist community of 1500 people from around the world. We’re writing a detailed piece about it, so I won’t go into detail here. But suffice it to say that it blew our minds – few rules and formal structure, yet full-on creativity and initiative. A community that in the last 34 years has improved its ecosystem by planting 2 million trees, has the highest concentration of renewable energy in all of India, and has improved the lives of thousands of nearby villagers by creating jobs and opening dozens of schools and hospital outposts. Very inspiring.

Southern India is very different from the north. Much greener, and way less harried, with the exception of the city of Chennai (previously known as Madras). Generally, there is less dense population and less poverty, so it seems. The food is different as well. While chai was the drink of choice in the north, sweet milk coffee – grown in the south – is more common here. Dosas are the most common food – huge, thin pancakes filled with spiced veggies and dipped in coconut-based chutneys. Locals are of Tamil origin, speak Tamil and have very dark skin. There are lots more Christians and Muslims in the south. As all Indians have been, the Tamils are very friendly, relaxed and warm.

There was a crucial election in Gujarat state last week. This is the state in the northwest, near the Pakistan border, where a fascistic, religious fundamentalist, right-wing political party has fueled ethnic rivalries between Muslims and Hindus. They won the election by a landslide, and liberals are wringing their hands around the country wondering how to quell the promised upsurge elsewhere. Meanwhile, ethnic fights and murders are reported daily from that state. To top it off, India and Pakistan are talking nuclear war daily in the news over control of Kashmir.

There is also regular news of dalits, or lower caste citizens, who are harassed, raped or murdered by higher castes, the police often refusing to write up reports. At least there’s a growing awareness of the need to abolish the caste system, fueled by anti-caste activists who seem well organized.

But the best (or worst, depends on how you look at it) news in today’s paper was of an activist group in Chennai (where I am) who donned yellow helmets and attempted to walk a stretch of road where pedestrians are prohibited. They were all arrested, but stated that while 90 per cent of the traffic are pedestrians, most roadways don’t even provide pedestrian facilities (a.k.a. sidewalks)! Isn’t that absurd?

I’m on my way to the Asia Social Forum today and will report from there.


Chapter 10: Central West India
Jan. 30, 2003

These last few weeks have taken me from the mountains to the beach, from village mud huts to urban skyscrapers, from tree houses to ancient temple ruins.

Traveling through India is never dull. I met an Indian green book publisher and writer named Bharat with whom I journeyed to Bombay and onward to his collectively owned land southeast of Bombay, near the village of Vaara, about 15 km from Neral, a small town.

“Vruksha Mandir” – temple of trees

Alarmed by the rapidly disappearing forests in India, a group of 25 ecologically-minded Indians purchased 60 acres of forested land which, since being purchased 8 years ago, has grown into a diverse ecosystem rich in timber, medicinal plants, and other traditionally useful species.

The fertility of the soil and the recharge of groundwater have increased significantly. Organic food cultivation has been a priority. Several hundred fruit and nut trees, and species like bamboo, have also been planted.

Each night, I slept in the “machaan”, a 30-foot tall “tree house” made of bamboo and wood, rope, the odd nail, and teak leaves for a roof. The slender thing swayed gracefully in the wind, and from it one could see above the trees to the surrounding forests and fields. Insects and birds serenaded us through the night – one in particular sounded like my old work phone, which had me shuddering. I could also often make out one or more musical recitals somewhere in the valley – tablas (drums), harmonium (hand-pumped keyboard) and singers performing ragas.

Five tribals (local village men) work on the land year round planting, watering, harvesting, building and protecting. The 2 meals prepared each day consist of food grown on the land – rice, chili-laced pulse (i.e. lentils), and cooked vegetable, usually unripe papaya or drumstick (long thin tree vegetable). Small glasses of sweet milk tea spiced with a blade of lemon grass are savored several times throughout the day. But that’s it. No processed or refrigerated foods, no deserts, no snacks. Simple and nutritious.

All food is stored in large ceramic or metal bins, bulk. After meals, our stainless steel dishes are scrubbed with a plant root and ash from the fire, and rinsed with water carried from the well. All wastewater feeds the plants growing around the simple brick house.

We visited some surrounding villagers’ homes. Some tribal houses are built wholly of straw or leaves woven into willow branches or simple bamboo frames. Other houses are made of molded clay. Still others are made of brick, or brick and clay combined. Roofs are often fired clay tiles, but I’d also see thatched roofs.

One night we walked to the nearby village of Chinchwadi to visit families of the staff. The whole village came out to greet and visit us throughout the evening, entertaining us with singing, laughing, staring and smoking beedis (thin Indian cigs). Mostly it was men and children hanging around as the women were preparing food and doing house chores. I was the second foreigner to ever visit their village. After exchanging songs, I did a stupid little impromptu tap routine that had the whole community hooting with laughter and silly imitations.

Although this tribal village had electricity, the lights were more often off than on (blackouts), and the current so poor that the lights were pretty well useless even when they were on. While we all visited outside drinking chai, the daughter in-law prepared the meal of millet chapattis (flat bread) and chutney made of ground black sesame seed, chili, salt and oil. The kitchen was so dark that you could barely see except by the light of the fire. The cook squatted by the stove – earth molded off the floor high enough to sustain a small fire (of wood or cow manure and straw patties). When we took a group photo outside the cook wouldn’t come out. In fact, she never made an appearance all night.

The sparseness of village households always amazes me. Although more than a dozen people may live in each abode, there is usually only one room for sleeping, a kitchen, perhaps a hole in the ground as a toilet (more often not), and a porch. There are no beds, although sometimes there is a cot made of wooden frame and woven rope. Everyone generally sleeps on the floor on woven straw mats that are put away during the day. The few extra pieces of clothing are hung all together on a wall. No chairs, no furniture, although there is always a small shrine to Hindu gods/goddesses. The few kitchen pots and dishes are nicely placed on a few shelves sunken into the earthen walls. These earthen walls and floors are regularly (weekly or monthly) coated with a mixture of dung and clay which protects the surface, fills in the cracks, and is believed to act as an insecticide. That’s it. Sparse. Clean. Low ecological footprint.

Although this region hasn’t been affected by the widespread drought of the last 7 years, I was told that the last two monsoons (rainy seasons) were very erratic and lead to very poor crop yields, so poor that the men of the village had to take low-paying labor jobs outside the village.

Also, the wells dried up before the ensuing monsoon, which meant that women had to go further afield to carry water. And less rain often means less tree growth, which means that women have to travel farther for firewood as well as fodder for their cattle.

Signs of climate change have dramatic effects on land-dependant villagers’ lives. In the last decade most tribal farmers have voluntarily chosen to use chemicals on their crops. Once this move is made, reverting to traditional organic methods is tough, as yields decline while the soil regenerates. Some are still holding onto their ancient, tried and true ways of fertilizing their rice paddies, vegetable fields and fruit trees with manure and mulch.

Before we left we were invited to a local villager’s home for a traditional treat. It was a mix of white sesame seeds, peanuts and jaggery (unrefined sugarcane). With great reverence, the patriarch of the household offered us each a very small quantity wrapped in a small piece of newspaper. We accepted it with equal reverence, holding it between our hands in prayer position and touching it to our foreheads, blessing it and thanking him and the other members of the household. We then slowly and silently savored the minute contents – such a contrast to our western gluttony. We were sent off with wishes that I return and learn their language so that we can really communicate.


At last I had the pleasure of visiting the mountains. While Matheran, a tourist destination atop a mountain range, itself was lush with old-growth forest, the surrounding hills and plains were all denuded, stripped of their vegetation and/or under cultivation. And the skyline was hazy – as my friend Nick says, the sky is filling. Matheran was car- and bike-free – have you ever heard of a bike-free place?

Visitors traveled up the mountain on a two-hour narrow-gauge toy train. Once up, tourists walked the mountain trails, or rode on horses or in hand-pulled rickshaws. The serenity of the motor-free town amidst mountain trails was blissful. As I’ve been experiencing ongoing digestive problems, I chose to fast rather than take drugs. So inspired by the beauty of the place, I took no food save water for 3 days, and fruit only on the fourth day. Fasting has a way of kicking in one’s endorphins, or serotonin or something, and I felt blissfully high the entire 4 days of the fast. Try it if you don’t believe me – it’s worth the hunger pangs. Unfortunately, it didn’t cure me.

Monkeys are entertaining me, but bugging me, too. The locals seem to be successful at scaring them off by shouting and throwing stones at them, but my fearful screams don’t fool them. One day I was walking with an apple-like fruit in hand, and a large monkey kept lunging at me with teeth bared until I threw the thing at him. He gloated as he ate it, starring at me on his haunches. Another day, I was peacefully sitting outside my room drinking chai when a large monkey lumbered my way. We yelled and lunged at each other for a minute until I backed off. It sauntered onto my table, clutched my glass jar of honey with both hands and walked off upright, quickly disappearing up into the tree canopy. I was left wondering if she was able to screw the lid off to get the gold inside, or if she would have to break the jar. What do you think?


As far as mega-cities go, I really enjoyed bombing around Bombay, now known as Mumbai, on my bike. This western coastal megalopolis is a strange combination of twentieth century skyscrapers and shacks jostling for breathing space. It’s both glamorous and appalling. The downtown is a peninsula teeming with street activity and surrounded by ocean, boats and beach. English is commonly spoken, the lingua franca of the many ethnic languages of the area. Surprisingly, the friendliness of the Mumbians was unprecedented.

Clearly Indians lead much more relaxed, slower lives then we do in the West, and have all the time in the world to visit, shake my hand, and welcome me. Although Mumbai is India’s center of wealth, 55% of its population of 12 million (unofficial stats go as high as 16 million) live in slums, many with no services like sewage. Of those, only 1.5% have their own toilets, others sharing, while close to 3 million {!} use open spaces for their daily bowel movements.

One day, cycling in the Colaba market, I befriended a young boy (maybe 8 years old) – also on a bike. He gleefully led me through his turf, through the market zone to the other end where people lived and fished. Before I knew it, there were 3 kids on my rear rack, one on my crossbar, and a dozen running on either side of me, cheering and skipping as we rambled through the vibrant scene.


A grueling 24-hour bus trip got me to the interior of India, to the tourist village of Hampi where hundreds of centuries-old majestic ruins are set against an eerie mountainous landscape that resembles a moonscape of boulders. An aura of mystery hangs thick and heavy in the shadowed confines of rock and ruins. Just a few hundred years ago, these hills were rich in biological diversity, but their human inhabitants stripped them for firewood, after which the monsoons rains washed away the exposed soils, leaving a granite skeleton as far as the eye can see. A present-day ecological wasteland.

Today in the valleys there are banana and coconut plantations, rice paddies and some deciduous plants, but not much else. Tribal villages dot the landscape, and lots of sadus (religious Hindu hermits) live in caves amongst the ruins. Some monkeys have also survived this harsh environment. While I visited the Monkey temple, a small and pesky monkey unexpectedly jumped onto my shoulders from behind. Of course, I shrieked and it ran for its life!


Now I am in Bangalore, a booming state capital in the vanguard of India’s new economy of information technology. Here where many multi-national companies are located, fast food joints and glitzy malls are the rage, at least in the downtown hub. I’ll be leaving very soon!


Chapter 11: Just Me and the Monkeys
March 11, 2003

Pillar Rocks, Kodaikanal, Tamil Nadu, South India

Just me and the Bonnet Macque monkeys.

Light grey in front, dark grey-black-brown on the back, hair-do parted in the middle and pushed back toward either side, often with a tuft shooting straight up like a Mohawk bang. Super-cute shriveled faces. Expressive eyebrows. Long active tails. Occasional aggressive lunging, barring of teeth and growling.

There were fourteen of them, and one of me. One-by-one they approached within a few feet of me. Were they just curious, or did they smell the chikoos (fruit) or peanuts in my bag? I repeatedly backed off when they got closer than 5 feet from me.

Although we all started in the sholar forest (characterized by thick underbrush), we slowly all made our way out onto the exposed rock overlooking Silent Valley. Clouds and fog obscured the surrounding mountains. Besides the odd monkey snarl, only the sound of birds could be heard.

Two brave teens stuck with me for some time until they got bored with me and moved on, picking up nibblies in the sparse grasses.

Two mothers, with infants clinging to their chests, huddled together, picking nibblies off each other’s fur coats, while others sat lazily and scratched, others searched for insects, while still others simulated sex. Two rambunctious babies monkeyed around, taking running jumps at branches, swinging and often falling and tumbling into the underbrush below.

The hot sun would occasionally break out through the fog, sending shards of light through the spaces between cumulus clouds. Green and brown mountains were bathed in blue heavy air.

After about an hour of us all watching each other very closely, the monkey clan slowly merged back into the rainforest.

I sat alone, awestruck, feeling blessed. I breathed deeper than ever, the crisp mountain air saturating my soul. I listened to my breath in the silence. I slowly blinked, smiling inside and out, inhaling and exhaling the ever-present compassion and love that I’ve been faithfully meditating on in recent weeks.

My heart opens. My mind stretches. My body floats. I thank God/dess for touching me.

Chapter 12: Yoga, Ashrams, and Mountains

March 16, 2003


Yoga is one of India’s gifts to the world, and one of my great loves, so I headed for Mysore, Ashtanga capital of the world, where the great yogis teach. I took some excellent classes, but as they were outrageously priced, I opted for solo practice in my room or hotel rooftop.

To my delight, Mysore hosts the most vibrant and colorful car-free – but not cow-free, they roam unimpeded – market I’ve seen in India. All my senses were aroused by the exotic fruits and vegetables of every kind – each which I tried – as well as incense, essential oils, and aromatic flowers. Women around India wear strings of jasmine petals in their hair, and I too became a convert in Mysore. Jasmine is known as the ‘romantic’ flower, and with every turn of my head I would get a strong blast of jasmine scent. At night, I would hang it near my pillow for sweet dreams.

I spent much time with Indians, young and old, visiting in the streets, at food stands, etc. They seem to me to be very relaxed, with all the time in the world to visit; they’re so delightful, so respectful, so gracious towards me.

I got turned onto a raw food diet by a French friend, and for the next 2 weeks I ate exclusively raw fruits and vegetables. With this diet my month long bout with diarrhea was licked at last.

While in Mysore I hooked up with a group of activists working under the umbrella of the National Alliance of People’s Movements, formed in response to the Indian government’s economic direction towards globalization, liberalization and privatization. As an alternative they propose equity, self-reliance, and simple living to reach a just society.

I met up with their cross-country caravan. They started in Cochin in solidarity with a village community that is fighting a coca-cola plant which is draining their groundwater, a story that is repeated around the country as industries guzzle and contaminate shrinking water supplies, forcing women to travel growing distances in search of drinking water. Their caravan will end in Ayodhya, drawing attention to the communal (racist) violence that has rocked western India, violenece supported by a right wing, fascist government that needs an enemy to blame for all its woes. (Sound familiar?)


Kerala, the south western-most state of India, is sandwiched between the Arabian Sea and the Western Ghats, a range of mountains that has been declared by the UN as a ‘biodiversity hotspot’ which hosts many tribal communities, wild animals and huge tracts of dense wilderness.

Kerala is also the most progressive Indian state, having achieved a 91% literacy rate, good health care, much lower infant mortality than elsewhere in India, and noticeably less poverty. This has been achieved due to several influences.

First off, Kerala always had maritime contact with the outside world as it was, and still is, a major spice producer and trader. Traditionally it welcomed outsiders as well. For example, Fort Cochin boasts one of India’s only Jewish settlements. And Kerala also welcomed the Catholic Church in the 19th century. The church brought with it education for all. Unlike the Brahmin system of education which regarded the knowledge of the tribals as backward, the Catholic Church respected the tribals’ indigenous knowledge and connection with the land. They established schools all across the south educating all castes and prioritizing girls’ education, serving to help emancipate women.

Then, in 1957, Kerala elected the first freely elected Communist Government Party in the world, resulting in a more equitable distribution of land and income. The Communists held power for much of the last 45 years but were defeated 2 years ago. The new liberal government has quickly moved to privatize and globalize their economy.

Just 3 weeks ago, tribals who had been displaced from their homeland-cum-park, squatted the park in protest. In response, the state police moved in and a battle ensued. The official line was that 2 people were killed, but the tribals claim that 36 were killed and 131 went missing! A Communist Party politician has gone on a fast demanding a judicial probe, and is now in the hospital. To date, no government inquiry or official probe has been called.

Hugging Mother’s Ashram

India is a land of ashrams, thousands of them of every creed (and combination thereof). At last I got my first taste.

I made my way by boat through the backwaters, a vast network of rivers and canals, where fishermen propel their boats with long bamboo poles, where women beat their clothes clean while kids splash, and where clay huts sit upon narrow spits practically surrounded by water, rice paddies and coconut trees.

As my ferry chugged along, I could see 2 high rise towers off in the distance, strangely out of place in these coastal plains. It turned out these towers were my destination – the Hugging Mother’s ashram.

Amma, or Mother, or Matha Amrithanandamayi, is one of India’s few, and certainly most famous, female guru. With communities around the world, this is her home where she grew up. These days, when she’s there, 15,000 devotees visit her each weekend day, and she hugs each and every one. Supposedly she only sleeps one hour a night, doesn’t menstruate, and eats very little, but projects a power such that few go away untouched in some way.

To be sure, Amma has shaken up the male Hindu religious establishment. She is the first woman to openly perform ‘puja’, rituals traditionally only performed by male priests. She also treats all castes the same, hugging untouchables and Brahmins alike, breaking all the cultural rules.

Amma is believed to be an ‘avatar’ – a living embodiment – of the Goddess Kali, the black Goddess with a red tongue, both fearsome and bloodthirsty to stamp out evil. So this ashram is essentially Goddess workshop, which I really appreciated.

Each morning and evening we sang and chanted for 90 minutes, and each morning I did yoga on the 9th floor balcony (of 12) to the sun rising over the millions of coconut trees. Afternoons, after doing some ‘seva’, or service, I would drink a coconut while sitting in the sand, watching the sun set over the Arabian Sea.

Amma wasn’t there when I was, so I didn’t get my hug, but I did learn of the many schools and hospitals opened across the country with funding and support from the ashram, as well as the 25,000 homes built for the homeless. I also heard stories from the many foreigners visiting of how Amma’s spirit has touched their lives. My heart opened with each day there.

I’d like to share a few quotes of Amma’s that I read that really spoke to me:

* “To truly love God is to love all beings in the world equally.”
* “Nature is nothing but God’s visible form which we can behold and experience through the senses.”

Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary

By boat and bus I made my way inland to Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary, a tiger reserve, in the Western Ghats mountains. It is home to 1000 elephants, 40 tigers, wild bison, boar, and more.

I stayed in a hut right on the edge of the park, and each day after 3 hours of yoga and meditation, went hiking and boating in the hills. I saw wild elephants for the first time in my life, a giant squirrel, lots of different monkeys, got barked at by a barking deer, and snorted at by a wild boar. I even went on a short elephant ride, whereupon I was convinced the 55 year old female responded to my touch and eye contact; when I stroked her ear, she’d lift her trunk, and when we made eye contact I read sadness. No surprise, with her legs in chains ferrying around tourists all day.


Four hours by bus into Tamil Nadu is the charming town of Kodaikanal, 2100 metres high up in the Western Ghats. It is surrounded by wooded slopes, waterfalls and rocky outcrops. Every day I would hike and/or bike through the rainforest, and every night spy fires in the surrounding hills. Some would sport huge flames and quickly move up the mountain, but usually by the next night they would be extinguished, naturally. Curious and upset by what I saw, I met with the local environmental group, the Palni Hills Conservation Council (PHCC).

Office Manager Mariammal told me that while some fires are accidental, most are lit by tribals or villagers clearing small tracts of land. But because the last three years have been so unusually dry due to poor monsoons, many fires burn out of control. This loss of woodland to fires, plus the collection of firewood by locals, the grazing of domestic animals (cows and goats), as well as the voracious use of firewood for surrounding brick kilns and tire re-treading units, has meant serious stress on the integrity of the remaining Shola rainforest ecosystem. Hence the PHCC is lobbying for 700 km of this mountain area to be declared a national wildlife sanctuary, and it looks like they’ll get it.

This incredible environmental group has had many successes including the planting of more than 3 million native trees grown and distributed from their 18 nurseries.

They’ve used the courts to mandate the demolition of 5 stories of a hotel, as well as the withdrawal of several development permits.

Some years ago a wild bison in the region died. A post-mortem revealed that its gut was clogged with plastic! This gave fuel to an anti-plastic campaign which led the town to declare itself a no-go-zone for plastic carry bags. Today, rather than plastic bags, town vendors give folded paper bags, made from old magazines by local women and handicapped people. But still lots of plastic is used, and discarded. As much of the garbage in India is burned at the street level, one regularly smells toxic plastic burning.

Speaking of toxic, for years Unilever had a thermometer manufacturing plant here in Kodaikanal. PHCC did their own soil and water analysis surrounding the plant and found serious mercury poisoning. Through the courts, and with the help of Greenpeace India, they managed to get the U.S. plant shut down last year.

On top of all this, they’re working in 36 local villages planting trees and teaching watershed management, beekeeping, wildlife research, water quality monitoring, and community organizing, networking, and lobbying. Truly greenspiring.

Bodhi Zen Meditation Centre

Twelve kilometers down the hill from Kodaikanal (now that was a fun bike ride!) is a centre at which I had the honor of spending 6 unforgettable days. It is Buddhist, Zen and Catholic, if you can believe that. A Jesuit priest and Zen master named Ama Samy runs the place.

Zen is a sect of Buddhism that emphasizes meditation and action – body-mind-spirit practice. The Jesuits have also in recent centuries emphasized contemplation in action. The symbol of the centre is a Buddha with a cross behind him.

At 6 a.m. our first meditation sitting would begin. We sat 4 times throughout the day, totaling 4 hours on our asses, frozen, focusing on our breathing, OM, compassion, or whatever you chose to focus your thoughts on. During a private meeting with the master, I asked if it was as meaningful to meditate on my breath as to focus on love, or compassion, or peace. He responded saying that there’s no difference, they’re all the same; the power comes from attuning the mind to a single thought, detaching from the rest. I’m not convinced, but I am practicing, and experimenting with various techniques, opening my mind and heart.

On a yogic note

One of my goals in coming to India was to accelerate my yoga practice, and perhaps even take a teacher training program. Well, after 5 months here, I haven’t studied formally all that much (just 11 classes), but I have been doing self-study faithfully and have progressed enormously.

But the real kicker is that I’ve been teaching fellow travelers on rooftops and lawns, and as such have taught 23 classes in India to date, honing and expanding my teaching skills with each class. The last 2 weeks here in Kodaikanal I’ve taught up to 11 students each morning, overlooking the plains 2100 metres below as we stand in ‘mountain’ posture, the clouds swirling around our heads, even the Bonnet Macque monkeys joining us on occasion.


Chapter 13: Of Catholics, Crocodiles, Communists and Coves

April 5, 2003

Wheeeeeee! I coasted downhill 3.5 hours on my cycle for 40 kilometres, descending 2100 metres from Kodaikanal to the valley below through Shola rainforest and eucalyptus groves, dodging monkeys, and stopping to view waterfalls and sample the sweet jackfruit and giant red bananas being sold by tribals along the way.

I watched in awe and foreboding as the painted sky darkened with each passing hour. Just as the clouds burst forth their load, a tour bus of women came to my rescue and drove me to my train station. But first, we stopped at a famous Catholic pilgrimage site, the Church of Our Lady of Health. Thousands claim to have been cured here where a spring has sprung forth on the alter of the church. Each Saturday and Sunday, 10,000 pilgrims arrive for blessings and a taste of the cool, clear water. I lucked into a conversation with the parish priest, Father Mary John, who blessed me, drenched me in the holy water, and presented me with a garland of roses to dry and send to my father with these words: “If he eats these petals, and has faith, his asthma will be cured.” I promptly mailed them off to my dad.

Next stop on my ecumenical journey was the Sivananda Yoga Centre in the deep south, where the temperatures were now in the high 30’s. Fortunately, there wasn’t much to do besides chant, meditate, eat, seva (service), and practice yoga twice daily (3 hours total).

The main teacher, Sankara Chaianya, himself a celibate student, explained the philosophy of Sivananda yoga: “This practice is a holistic approach to health based on exercise, breath, relaxation, diet, positive thinking and meditation… We can’t change the world if we don’t change ourselves. Yoga and meditation give us tools to change ourselves.”

Throughout the day, the roar of lions serenaded us from across the lake. Incredulously, I inquired at the reception desk. Volunteer Claire said: “I don’t know much about the lions, but the lake is lovely. Swim at your own risk though, and only mid-day, when the crocodiles aren’t feeding.”

You know me; I had to check it out. So I skipped class and walked to the Lion Safari Park and Crocodile Farm Information Centre. There I learned that the lake hosts some 50 crocs, some known to have dined on human flesh. And there are nine lions living in captivity on 10 acres across the way. By rowboat we went to visit them; while they were certainly magnificent, lounging around, their golden manes reflecting the sun, they didn’t seem at all happy.

Back in Trivandrum to catch a train, I stumbled across the Communist Party daily newspaper publication Deshabhimani (circulation 50,000). There I spoke with chief reporter Sunny Joseph. While I knew that the state of Kerala was known for cashews, coffee and coconuts, Sunny reminded me that it’s also a land of communists. In fact, it elected the first communist party in the western world in 1957, which has maintained power for much of the last 45 years. Among its successes, the party claims 98% literacy rate across the state (20 years ago) and health care centers in every village, which jointly lowered the birthrate and emancipated women. Also, the party reduced poverty substantially (and noticeably!) through land and income distribution and government spending. But I noticed they didn’t do much to curb the car overpopulation, and my lungs hurt.

Hankering for the cool sea breeze and salt water, I journeyed north to Gokarna, a town of Hindu temples and host to a series of 5 idyllic beaches, each connected by trails over the hills, through the trees and around the rocks. I stayed on OM Beach, but visited Paradise and Half Moon beaches daily to practice yoga in the sand, feast on local fruits, and float in the warm Arabian Sea – a dream holiday to send me home on.

Before I knew it, I was back in Bombay jostling for space in the jam-packed urban streets alongside the oxen, beggars, jet-setters, street vendors, and taxicabs, sweating in the searing heat and smog. For the first time in six months I wasn’t happy. I wanted my journey to continue, the adventure to sweep me off to another land. But I could no longer avoid the inevitable – it was back to the urban jungle of Toronto for me, where my next chapter awaited.


Chapter 14: It’s a Wrap – Angela’s Indian Adventures

April 6, 2003

Several correspondents have asked how I spend my time. Well, I try to spend at least a week at each place, to get comfortable with the vibe, befriend street vendors, catch up on email and writing, shoot some video, and do some exploring.

But with time on my hands and no set agenda, sometimes I just go out and hang, move slow, with no expectations. I move from conversation to conversation, sometimes for hours, connecting with beautiful people, like the 19-year-old sock seller, or the 10-year-old handkerchief hawker, or the papaya guy. The guys at the chai shop are always good for stares and stilted conversation. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a woman at a chai shop. I must’ve asked myself a thousand times “where are all the women?”

Most beggars are women — old, or with babies wrapped around their hips — or old men, or handicapped people. Occasionally, women sell fruit or veggies on the street, and I always seek them out for my purchases. Rarely does a woman show up in a restaurant; usually it is just me and the guys. All the staff. All the patrons. Men. Imagine being on a bus, or train platform, and straining to see even one other woman in sight. Strange.

But I never feel unsafe or threatened by Indian males. That could be because there are always people around; in a nation of one billion people, you’re never alone. Or maybe my white skin has privileged me with power. Or maybe Indian men are just respectful of women. I don’t know.

I never fear getting ripped off either. I always leave my bike locked only to itself, not to a structure like I do in the west, and there’s never been a problem.

Sure there were incidents when teenage boys grabbed at my breasts. The last time it happened I responded with a violent outburst that had the kid stumbling away in tears. I asked an Indian girlfriend if Indian women are subject to this groping as well, and she said, “Absolutely. What do you expect in a nation that is sexually repressed?”

There’s also a naiveté, a youthful innocence about Indians that is both surprising and refreshing. The few times I hitchhiked, I was picked up by busloads of tourists that had me singing, clapping, and dancing on the bus within minutes. I must’ve had my picture taken a hundred times in the past six months. And I must’ve responded to a thousand hellos.

But the funniest incidents that I’ll always cherish were when I’d be asked my name, and I’d respond *An-ge-la*. They’d repeat it and say *Very nice name, Indian name*, and then break into a song with my name featured, and everyone nearby would laugh. There must be several songs with my name in them, and apparently there’s a Bollywood actress named Angeli who everyone loves. How will I handle the mediocrity of just being another white face back home?

But my bike is the best conversation-maker of all. Women cannot believe I’m cycling — alone no less — and men think it’s very cool, giving me the thumbs up, shouting “wow” and “very good cycle”. They ask “your husband let’s you go?” and then conclude that western women are “independent”.

In our brief conversations, inevitably Indians ask me “how do you feel about India?” to which I respond, “Relaxed, happy to be here. There’s lots of poverty though. In the West, we have material wealth but spiritual poverty. In the East, you have spiritual wealth but material poverty. You’re relaxed, friendly, you have strong families and you have lots of time. We’re always rushing around with no time.”

I don’t get it. We all have 24 hours in a day. Why do Indians seem to have time and westerners don’t? There seems to be a lot of hanging around here, living in the moment, just being. At least the men are! I don’t know what the women are up to; they’re invisible. Often I do head counts, and usually come up with 9 out of 10 people on the street being male. I’m told the women are home doing domestic work.

There’s a sacredness here that I respect. It’s not uncommon to see people enacting water rituals at the riversides. Or opening a restaurant each day with incense, flowers and prayers. Or offering gifts of fruit to the local shrine. Or holding money up to one’s forehead in a sign of thanks to the Gods/esses. Or touching a cow and saying a prayer. It moves me.

That sacredness doesn’t extend to garbage however. The concept of garbage cans hasn’t entered the consciousness yet; hence waste is just dropped on the spot, or tossed out the window for the cows or dogs to scavenge through, or the untouchables to sweep away or burn, plastics and all. The good news is that recycling is happening in a big way in the cities thanks to human scavengers who live off the proceeds.

Overall, the speed of life is slower, as is the speed of traffic. Certainly in urban centers I’m way ahead of motor vehicles as they choke in gridlock and I meander through. But even on stretches, I’m often faster then the motor vehicles. Indians are much more patient then westerners. They turn their engines off at red lights and in traffic jams. Can you believe it? No idling — well, almost.

One of the more unpleasant aspects of Indian urban jungles (coming a close second to black fumes escaping the tail pipes of most cars/trucks/auto rickshaws/motorbikes) is the over-stimulation of noise. There are often speakers blaring, sometimes with politicians speaking or religious leaders praying, other times with very loud distorted music, at all times day and night.

But the most obnoxious sound machines I’ve ever come across are the speakers blasting noise from motor vehicles driving around slowly, inviting customers to purchase lottery tickets.

City streets are a tangle of motorized vehicles roaring and spewing exhaust, innumerable horns blasting incessantly, bullying their way through the mobs of pedestrians who have rightly taken to the streets because there likely aren’t any sidewalks. This traffic chaos is enough to get any self-respecting westerner swearing and gesticulating at the supercilious drivers. This is always greeted with cheers from other walkers/loafers/vendors; otherwise you’d think they never noticed all the mayhem surrounding them. That’s what I mean when I say Indians appear patient, non-judgemental, relaxed. People just do their thing and no one gets uptight. It’s very anarchist.

So, I observe lots. I have dozens of brief conversations in a day, most which I don’t initiate. I receive people’s smiles and share lots of laughs. I read. I eat. I pray and meditate. I do yoga. I ride around and sometimes get lost. I love and receive lots of love. I feel healthy, and strong, and happy. People here seem joyful to me. They sure have a lot of love in their hearts.

I feel changed. My mind has stretched, my heart opened, my body pushed, my comfort zones challenged. India has done this. Traveling by myself has done this. Escaping my own culture has done this. Yoga has done this. Mother Theresa’s homes have done this. Gandhi’s autobiography has done this. Buddha’s teachings have done this.

The vendor who gave me an incense stick out of the blue has stretched and softened my heart and mind. The hustler who sold me masala chai, and the kid who peeled my pineapple, and the young girl with a sibling hanging on her hip who waited outside the restaurant for an hour for my spare change has done this. The kids who ran alongside my bike yakking away in their local tongue, and the young guy honoring the temple by humbly lighting incense, and the old guy who took me up to the rock caves where the sadhus live, and all the women who came running out of their houses or fields to greet me have done this.

The old man who honored me with a gift of sesame sweets and invited me to come back and learn his language so that we could communicate more deeply, and all the college students who took pictures of themselves with me, and the couple raising four kids on the sidewalk collecting recyclables, and the woman burned from mouth to breast begging me for a new sari, and the high school boy who practiced English with me and escorted me into the villages, and the soiled little girl with a smile that could melt an iceberg who sold me a string of jasmine flowers, and the Tibetan guy who made me thupka (noodle soup) on the mountainside, and all the guys who patched my tires under a tree generously and lovingly shared their India with me.

My Indian friends Hyacinth and Bharat taught me that friendship crosses borders. Upendre taught me that friendship transcends age. The tribals in the Bangladeshi village taught me that friendship transcends language. The tribals in the Bangladeshi village taught me that friendship transcends culture. Mohammed and his family taught me that friendship transcends religion.

These are the people who opened my heart and eyes to India, and to myself. And I humbly thank every one of them for their generosity and spirit.
Chapter 15: The Adventure Continues
Tuesday April 22: It’s Earth day, and I’ve been back in Toronto for 2 weeks now. I recollect my 6 months in India with fondness and perhaps a tinge of glossy sentimentality. I’m crying lots these days, emotionally wrecked since returning to my homeland. I’m resisting my Canadian reality of rent and routine and work (and lack of paid work).

I’d rather be doing yoga under a mango tree on the beach, being harassed by sacred cows covetous of my papaya, visiting with the fishermen who once again return to shore without any catch.

But no, my next chapter has me situated in the urban hellhole of Toronto, where people eat crappy fast food while sitting in their idling SUVs, where snazzy dressers rush around with their eyes downcast and cell phones stuck to their ears; where everyone from bus drivers to restaurant staff seem crabby and arrogant; where no one has time to toss change in a panhandler’s cup; where TVs blare pro-war propaganda and mind-numbing sitcoms; and, where cops jail peaceful protesters on bogus charges.

Our western psyche seems artificial to me, devoid of love, where people rush around busily, pretending they’re hip and secure. But all the flurry and fashion and fancy cars serve only to disconnect us from each other, and more importantly, ourselves.

In India, communication was constant — eye contact, smiles, greetings, conversations in the street. I felt loving and loved. I felt connected to myself and to others. I felt present.

Since returning to “the greatest city in the greatest country in the world”, as our Mayor puts it, I’ve felt distanced from myself, cold, angry, unhappy. My spirit is not nurtured. People around me are not nurturing. On the contrary, they’re grumpy and stressed. It appears the war has taken its toll. And SARS. But there’s more to this unhappiness I sense. I didn’t feel it in India.

I heard that the Dalai Lama once said that if you’re not a spiritual person in Tibet, the culture pulls you into it. And if you are a spiritual person in the west, you get pulled away from it. This makes a lot of sense to me.

We’re passing time without sacredness in our lives. Consumerism has replaced spirit. And Mother Earth is crying out, which we all feel energetically.

Mother Earth, into your hands I commend my spirit! Help me to reconnect with myself, my community, and you.

May 1, 2003: Three weeks in the Great White North and I’m feeling a lot better. The war on Iraq has subsided, and the SARS advisory lifted. Spring has sprung. People seem relatively more cheerful and relaxed than they did a few weeks back.

Was I just seeing everything through my own miserable eyes, or am I just getting used to the irritability of those around me, as if it’s to be expected? After all, it is my culture, and it is familiar.

Whichever the case, I’ll continue to observe, pay attention, and feel my way through my next chapter, honoured to be traveling through this world at this time, with my gifts of health and skill and mind, always making time to honour spirit in myself and those around me.

Thank you my friends for honouring me these last months by reading my tales from India. It was a good exercise for me to write my experiences, and you all kept me connected with my Canadian roots. Especially during my lonely times, it was comforting knowing that I had friends, family and community back home that I could return to.

Namaste (a common Hindu greeting, literally meaning “I acknowledge the God/dess in you”) all my beloved friends.

May 25, 2003: It’s my 41st birthday, and at last I feel settled into my new home at Morning Glory farm in the Ottawa Valley. The flowers/trees/herbs are in full blossom. Although a woodpecker knocks on our walls at sunrise and some creatures rustle around in our walls, our rustic home in the forest canopy is enchanting.

We’re hauling water on our bikes, powering our computer with solar panels, and planting food in our forest garden. We’re hosting a weekly eco show at the local community radio station, and getting to know our rural neighbours. The air is clear, and yoga in the forest is surreal. Feels like the right place to be. The adventure continues.