Monthly Archives: April 2014

All Good Things

It starts with nothing. A void, a numbness. You know you’re in for a change once again; an uprooting, a shift in that part of you that bases itself on where your home is. But at some point that feeling will come forth; that realization, that anticipation that today you are, indeed, returning home.

Home from where? From what? My mind starts to unravel the last seven months. Bit by bit the depth of this experience starts to unfold. And I am humbled. Humbled by everything I’ve experienced; the scenery, culture and people. Scorching beaches, humid jungles, lush hills and barren mountainscapes – not to forget the spectacular skyline of Hong Kong, or the wonderful ambience of Nepal. Random festivals, peculiar customs and genuinely nice people.

My mind goes all the way back to that first week in October, and how different it all felt back then, still on the doorstep of this amazing journey. Still unknowing what awaits.

All this talk about scenery and culture puts the real stars in the shade: my new friends. The people I’ve been hanging out with here are truly good guys, and I will miss each and every one of them. Good thing we have Skype.

It’s all still too much to take in, really. I will have ample time to ponder on this later. What I need to do now, is say goodbye.

Sitting on my last cup of cold hazelnut twist coffee at Habitats, I began to sink into that same melancholic state I had before leaving Helsinki. Knowing that this was the last time in a long while that I would see these places cast it all in a slightly different light: all the small everyday frustrations began melting away, and what I saw underneath was what was truly good – what I’ll miss.

Hell, for a moment even the constant honking seemed innocently ludicrous.

With slow steps I left the office for the last time. The bike ride down Baner road was made with slow pedal strokes. The air didn’t feel as hot today. The traffic less hectic.

Every now and then I would glance around, just to imprint it all just a bit more. Stop and watch a herd of cows cross the street. See street dogs resting, waiting for the cool of the evening to descend. Zigzag around people walking on the driving lane. Savour all those moments that I’ve gotten used to over the months.

Bags are packed now. Soon I’m heading down to Mumbai International, and from there to Istanbul. A few hours layover later I’ll be on the plane to Helsinki, and by tomorrow evening I’ll be back home.

Home. That word keeps pointing to different places.

Funny thing, that.

Sunday Morning

A sedated Sunday morning on the balcony.

Down on the inner courtyard, somewhere among the palms and bushes, Mynas are chirping. The sounds from the trucks and cars, on the highway nearby, provide a sonic backdrop that never ceases. Day and night there is a constant flow of traffic, a vital logistic artery between Mumbai and Pune.

In the fields, between the Vastant Vihar Towers and the highway, there is a group of shacks. Temporary living quarters for construction workers and their families. Out on the field there is a large tree, in the shade of which the families often gather. As is also the case this morning.

When I came here everything was green and lush. Now, after the winter and dry heats of spring, the vegetation is parched and the color of sand – waiting for the approaching monsoon rains.

The construction site on the other side of the highway – a co-op society and the Westernhills – has seen a lot of progress during the last months. Another new suburb in the developing Pune cityscape.

This scenery is something I’ve gazed upon countless times, with thought or in absence of it, and will undoubtedly be something that I will remember with fondness, in all its monotony.

Q&A

I asked my friends on Facebook if they have something they’d like to know about my stay in India. This is what they came up with – I promised to answer all, which perhaps explains the one about the passage of time.

Highlights?
Definitely all the trips around the country and beyond: Mumbai, Goa, Kerala, Varanasi, Jammu and Kashmir. Nepal and Hong Kong will also live with me for a very long time. So much beautiful scenery and enriching experiences that I haven’t even had the time to comprehend it all yet. Same goes for the more local, mundane stuff here in Pune. It’s all routine for a few more days, and therefore something I’m still blind to, but once I get back I think I’ll be able to pinpoint all those good things that make this a special place and culture.

Low points?
Coming to terms with a foreign culture and its strange ways is a challenge. There have been moments when I’ve been frustrated at how things work – or don’t – and the general way people can be. Being more or less alone in this process gives it more personal depth, but there have been times when I’ve had to go into myself and find the strength and focus in order to keep a positive vibe.

What will you miss?
On an everyday basis there is a certain atmosphere of freedom, in a strange way. Even though there is a lot of chaos and randomness, it’s perhaps that same unpredictability that makes a lot of room – and need – for improvisation. This might sound abstract – and ironic considering all the bureaucracy – but there simply isn’t the same kind of strict big brother setting here as we have in Finland. It is also within this frame that making all those trips has been fun – you never know how the day is going to turn out.

What’s the biggest a-ha moment? 
Dealing with people here in general, especially rickshaw drivers: since it’s a matter of asking if he’s willing to go where you want to go – not all do, for one reason or another – and negotiating over fare, it’s not as simple as just getting a cab in Finland. Also, being more assertive yet diplomatic. It’s a kind of strange dominance struggle: will the cabbie take me where I want to go, and for a fair price, or will he win by getting me to agree to a overly high fare. And for that you need to be prepared to turn your back and walk to the next rickshaw. If you’re out of luck and there is none around, then you might have to pay almost whatever he asks for. There are a lot of good cabs, but many if not most are just out to milk the cow as much as possible – and will be quite obnoxious while doing so.

Another thing is negotiating my way through traffic on a bicycle, getting the pulse of the flow, being aware of my surroundings and maneuvering based on that. In Finland that is no problem since people drive according to a common set of rules. Here, however, there are no certain vectors: if it’s not a car coming up the wrong side of the road, it might be one suddenly swerving in front of you and hitting the brakes, or a motorcycle bolting in from a sidewalk. You can trust your own actions, but treat all others in traffic as dangerous idiots. They often are.

Has your perspective shifted?
Certainly, yes. How, exactly, might be too early to say since I’m still in the middle of it all. These things need to simmer a bit; the dust needs to settle before it clears up. Seeing all the different places, vast amount of people and brief glimpses of how their lives are has been eye-opening – it has allowed me to see a part of the global community that was previously quite unknown to me. Witnessing poverty, misery and death is also a sobering experience – a welcome reminder of how life can be.

What are the most attractive aspects of India (or culture)? 
India is a vast subcontinent that offers a limitless treasure chest to the avid photographer. Saturated colors, alluring scenery and people that are not camera shy. Landscapes vary from sandy beaches and lush jungles to barren deserts and snow tipped mountains. And it’s all available within the same country, a very affordable flight ticket away. As the scenery varies, so do the people: it’s more a matter of a group of subcultures than a national culture. Every area has its charming attributes. India as a whole is a pleasure to explore.

What was still difficult to adjust to after 190 days?
Traffic, and the ceaseless honking. You can cope with it and get where you’re trying to go, but it still gets on the nerves. The flaws in infrastructure is also something that rears its ugly head quite often: if it’s not the power going out for the umpteenth time that day, it’s the water.

190 days already? :oO WTF is wrong with the passage of time?
Time is an indefinite continued progress of what has happened, what is happening now, and what is in the future. This way to perceive the continuum is unique for us humans – animals do not think much about it: they have past experiences which they, when applicable, base their decisions on in the now. However, they seldom, if ever, worry about tomorrow. This establishes that time, as a concept, is relative. The way we observe the passage of time varies also on an individual basis and according to what the person is doing and feeling at that moment. This has resulted in such idioms as “time flies when you’re having fun”, “just killing time” and many other. So it’s not just relative, it’s also subjective.

In fact, one could argue that there is nothing wrong with the passage of time as far as we know, it’s just us being bothered about that it indeed does.

What is the most memorable photo you took during your trip? (not “the best” photographically, but the one you’ll remember)
There are a couple photos I’ve snapped along the way that carry more meaning than just the aesthetic value. The one that comes out on top would have to be from the crematorium in Varanasi, because the situation for me as an outsider was a bit flammable and the scene itself emotionally loaded. I’m glad I got a good shot.

Honorable mentions go to:

  • Flight to Lukla – Seeing the sun rise over the Himalayan mountain range from a small prop plane was surreal and moving
  • Gulab Jamun Man – A quite charismatic man with an aura of serenity
  • Hong Kong – Getting past the heavy foliage up on Victoria Peak and having the whole Hong Kong cityscape open up at once, and in the golden hour of dusk at that, was one of those rare moments when I actually stopped in my tracks and said… wow

What was the biggest thing in terms of cultural shock in good or bad and how did you absorb it?
Perhaps it was the fact that this is still a developing nation – something that is manifested both in the culture and the underlying infrastructure. Most of the things I’ve grown used to, and in that way accepted as part of the way things are here, but it still can be frustrating at times. I think the article I wrote for the JWT blog shines light on the different stages of that coping process.

Also are you learning any of the local languages? Quantity and reason why/why not.
One thing worth noting is that India is in many ways more like a huge ensemble of states than a single nation. It was not that long ago, relatively speaking, that the maharajas agreed to join the states under a common rule. This means that both the subcultures and languages vary by region. There are at least 28 different languages across the subcontinent, and as many character sets. Learning any of these regional languages would have given marginal practical advantages, especially considering that as a result of the British colonization many know some level of English here.

However, if there is any non-English language here that can be considered a lingua franca it would be Hindi. And I did learn some basic phrases in it, but in everyday life English quickly became the default. Knowing some cursewords in local languages can be useful though – especially when dealing with rickshaw drivers or pestering scoundrels.

A Farewell to the Flower Girl

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On my way back from Jammu & Kashmir I had to do a short stop in Mumbai. There was something I needed to take care of before returning back to Finland: saying farewell to Laxmi, the flower girl I met by the Gateway some months ago.

Up in the mountains of Leh, neither my local nor my Finnish SIM card was working. While this was unexpected, it was a welcome forced removal from the grid. A liberation from the digital chains of modern society. However, this also hindered me from calling Laxmi and setting up a meeting. So I asked Sajjad, via Whatsapp while on the hotel’s wifi, to call her and arrange a meet outside Café Leopold at 17:30. For the trouble I would buy him a cold hazelnut twist coffee once I got back.

The heat in Mumbai was a stark contrast to the cool mountainscapes of Ladakh. And despite it being Sunday, it was as crowded as ever.

We met outside Leopold, at 17:30, among merchants and tourists. I hadn’t seen her since the time I was in Mumbai, with Hugo, in November. We sat down at a corner table. The café was packed, as always. As we were doing some catching up, we were joined by Puja, a six year old girl. She was the daughter of one of Laxmi’s friends, who was also in the neighbourhood. Cute kid – shy and a bit awkward, I don’t think she was used to these kinds of places.

Ok, I thought. I’ll buy her a meal as well. Looked like she could use it. In fact, neither of them had eaten anything that day. Laxmi had the usual: cheese and chicken sandwich. Same for the kid, but untoasted bread. And a bottle of coke.

I asked her if she still had the photos I gave her. She did, and apparently she treasures them: in order to not lose them, she wears them on her back, inside her dress. She showed them to Nanda, who promptly offered her house in exchange for them. I said to Laxmi she had to be joking. Nope, she was serious.

Although Laxmi seemed to be doing alright, she wasn’t: just a week ago she had been to the hospital for heat stroke, malnourishment and dehydration. She’s not allowed near the Gateway anymore; too many flower girls, the authorities say.

She still sleeps out on the streets. She called me, one evening about two months ago, and told me this. There’s a small flat that she could rent, but has no support network that could help her out. Monsoon will be starting in a month or two, and if you don’t have a roof over your head by then you’re in for worse times.

This was also one reason I wanted to meet her. Tucked away in my backpack I had an envelope with a small sum of cash. It should help her get by, for a few months. A small farewell from me, and a thanks for the whole Diwali thing. I handed her the envelope.

Meanwhile, the shy girl was cautiously starting to come out of her shell, glancing up at me every now and then. She had a toy: the detached front panel of an old phone – just the plastic framework – and a piece of worn out cardboard with some advertisements. If you put them on top of each other you could, with enough imagination, get something that looked like a phone with a large, colorful display.

What about her, I asked Laxmi while looking at Puja, what does her future look like?

They’ll try to get her in a private school. They don’t teach English in public schools – something that is seen as a deal-breaker when it comes to future opportunities. But it’s expensive, and for them to be able to pay for it all they need to save up some money. Until then she’ll follow her mother around, selling flowers and begging.

We started playing with the drinking straws. For some reason, tying knots on them was very entertaining. I would tie a knot or two, hand it over to Puja. She would effortlessly open them and shine a triumphant smile. I picked out a longer straw and tied four knots on it. She thought it was too pretty, and handed it back to me.

Once we were done with our meals it was time for me to be on my way.

Outside, I told her it was nice that we met, on that equally hot day in October. It was nice of her to stay in touch and invite me to the Diwali festivities in Hadapsar. She wished me all the best and said I would be in her prayers.

As the cab zoomed away I waved to Laxmi, and showed Puja the “call me” sign. She smiled and showed up her neat phone.

Diwali