Tag Archives: India

What’s it like to be traveling again?

We’re excited and happy to be traveling again, but as with any major life change, there is some trepidation as we adjust to our new routine.  After the demands of preparing for this trip (in parallel with us both completing in Ironman Canada at the end of August) followed by the inevitable last-minute rush, it’s great to finally be on the road.

It was terrific to be met at the airport in Vienna by our friends Sue and Martin, then whisked off to a nearby campground for a delicious meal and far too much to drink for a couple of dehydrated, jet-lagged travelers.

Sue on Martin on train in Vienna
The best photo I have of Martin!

 

In some ways, it’s a relief from the demands of being at home (as many ‘demands’ as people without jobs have, yet which somehow still constantly exceed our expectations).  Instead of our ‘at home’ to-do list, we now have a ‘traveling’ to-do list.  But, they say a change is as good
as a rest…

We now have a very different routine, which is inevitably some subset and combination of:

  1. get up, put away the bed and bedding, personal hygiene, get dressed
  2. prepare, eat, and clean up breakfast
  3. prepare the RV for travel
  4. navigate and drive
  5. visit sights or attractions
  6. do activities (like walking, running, cycling, hiking, etc.)
  7. prepare, eat, and clean up lunch (often a picnic)
  8. find a place to camp
  9. shop for food
  10. drink alcohol
  11. prepare, eat, and clean up dinner
  12. read and write
  13. take care of personal business (e.g. banking)
  14. plan our next day

Not that we’re complaining.  I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else right now. We consider ourselves very fortunate to be doing what we’re doing and where we’re doing it.  This is the opportunity of a lifetime.  We’re very grateful and full of anticipation.

Things we’ve learned in India

We’ve learned a lot in India. Yes we’ve learned about India and its peoples, but we’ve also learned about ourselves. Here are some of the things we’ve picked up…

  • Indian people that know about Canada think that it’s a good country.
  • Indian culture, religion, language, and food are far more exotic and varied than what we experience in Vancouver, which originates mostly from a single state in India called Punjab.
  • People in India basically want what we have in North America, but it doesn’t seem feasible or sustainable for a billion more people to live like we do.
  • India appears to be on the verge of an environmental meltdown. The average person doesn’t appear to have any understanding, appreciation, or care for their environment. It is the norm to dispose of garbage on the street or ground (even in parks) and out the windows of vehicles and trains.
  • It’s much easier to be a vegetarian if you live in India.
  • Even though we’re not fit right now, we’re fitter than most Indian people.
  • If you’re down to two pairs of underwear, don’t lose a pair on a bus.
  • Don’t play solitaire on a moving boat if you want to keep all your cards.
  • Just because you’re next in line doesn’t mean that you’re next.
  • Sometimes four showers a day isn’t quite enough.
  • A family of four can ride on a single motorcycle.
  • Not all towels are created equal.
  • Just because a man sells Patrick some underwear, doesn’t mean that they are men’s underwear.
  • Just because an Indian transvestite isn’t looking at you, doesn’t mean that he/she won’t grab for your crotch.
  • Every day spent traveling in India is interesting.
  • Three months isn’t long enough to really see the country.
  • Three months was the right amount of time for us. We are ready for our next adventure.

Life and Death in Varanasi

Varanasi is an ancient city and perhaps the holiest city in India for Hindus. It is located at a confluence of the sacred Ganges and several other rivers. All Hindus wish to die in Varanasi to have a chance to end the cycle of reincarnation. If they aren’t lucky enough to die here, those who can afford it want to be cremated in Varanasi and have their ashes cast into the holy Ganges.

For tourists, one of the highlights of a trip to Varanasi is an early morning boat ride along the river to view the ‘ghats’, stepped platforms along the rivers edge where people come to bathe their sins away. There are about eighty ghats in Varanasi stretching for several kilometers along the river. In addition to people bathing, many others come to pray, make offerings, do yoga, wash clothes, hang out, or to sell things to people doing these other things.


We rose at 5 AM and were at the main Dasaswamedh Ghat by 5:30. We negotiated with a boat man for a one hour trip and shared the large rowboat with five people from South Korea. He rowed us up and down the river for an hour as day broke and activity commenced along the bank. The ghats of Varanasi are an unparalleled people watching opportunity. They are lively, bright, and busy places, with people of all ages participating in acts from the most mundane to the most sacred. It provides a rare glimpse into people’s private moments amid a spectacle of colourful pageantry.

There are also two burning ghats in Varanasi where Hindus are cremated. Bodies covered in brightly coloured shiny fabric and flowers are carried through the streets to the rivers edge on bamboo stretchers followed by family members. Diane and I spent an afternoon walking along the ghats and arrived somewhat unexpectedly at Harishchandra Ghat, one of the cremation ghats. We stopped to watch.

The corpses arrive at the river wrapped from head to toe in white cloth shrouds. All the work is done by outcasts called ‘doms’ who are considered unclean by other Hindus. The bodies are immersed in the Ganges before burning, then placed on piles of wood and covered with more wood. Their wrapped heads and feet stick out. Flammable liquid and powders are added, and the fires are lit using a bundle of straw. The shrouds turn brown then black as the fire rises.

There were five different cremations happening on the beach while we sat there. They were all in various stages of immolation. As the fires burned down men in bare feet with green bamboo poles pried the logs to stir the contents. No bones or skin were visible, but there was a lot of smoke and the smell of burning flesh. We sat upwind to avoid breathing it.

Male family members gathered around or sat nearby on the ghat to watch. There were no women in attendance other than Diane. The whole thing seemed very normal. It was surprisingly devoid of emotion. We didn’t see anyone crying.

We watch one corpse being rowed out into the Ganges on the bow of a boat and dumped into the water. This is the fate for those whose families can’t afford the wood required for cremation (each log is weighed to determine the total price). Yes, these bodies are dumped just upstream of the hundreds of people bathing at the ghats down river.

We were encouraged to depart by a man who claimed that we were sitting in a family-only area. He directed us to another area where he would be glad to explain what we are seeing, for a fee of course. Although this was likely a scam, we weren’t sure of the etiquette here, and didn’t want to do anything that might offend, so we decided to move on down the river.

We handled this whole scene surprisingly well. Although it was a bit disturbing, it seemed like a natural part of life here, and so it wasn’t really upsetting to see.

On a remotely related note…

Last night we were walking down a narrow dark alley when we heard a great commotion ahead. Dogs were barking and growling, people yelling, and there was a strange screaming noise. A few meters ahead we upon the scene. An Indian ‘saddhu’ (holy man) dressed in saffron robes was chasing a pack of dogs away from a small monkey that lay on the ground. It wasn’t moving. A man threw a bucket of water on the monkey, which he’d originally brought to throw on the dogs. It remained lifeless. Its monkey brethren were chattering and yelling from above, looking down on their fallen comrade. Eventually the saddhu lifted the dead monkey by the tail and removed it from the alley. The Indian people were cowering, staying back from the scene. We weren’t sure why until we passed by the crowd that had gathered. A monkey threw something down on us, just missing Diane as we scurried through. Even in the crowded lanes of Varanasi’s old city, life can be brutal and short.

A Kiwi Connection to the Oberoi Grand

Due to the length of our trip we are, by necessity, budget travelers. We arrange for periodic episodes of luxury from time to time to keep our spirits up, and to see how the other half lives in some of the places we’re visiting. We tend to do this when the opportunity presents itself or when we really need a break. Our friend Jackie recently provided such an opportunity. She is an executive at a company called ‘Kiwi Connection’ that provides a luxury hotel booking service. She is in no way from New Zealand, but she was our Kiwi connection to the Oberoi Grand, the finest hotel in Kolkatta.

We arrived by taxi from our 1-star guest house to this 5-star palace. It is an oasis in the middle of Calcutta, tucked away behind busy streets lined with hawkers and crowded with people.

We wrote about our experience for Kiwi Connection’s travel blog JetSetter. See the article we submitted below. Thanks Jackie!

A Kiwi Connection to the Oberoi Grand

I recently had the pleasure of staying at The Oberoi Grand in Kolkata, India. Kolkata, often referred to by its previous name Calcutta, is the capital of West Bengal state and was the original home of the British colonial government in India. Although it’s a large and vibrant city, it also has a rich culture and history. The Oberoi Grand is one of the landmark hotels of Oberoi Hotels and Resorts, which has nineteen luxury properties across South Asia, the majority being in India, Egypt, and Indonesia. India has a reputation among some groups as an exotic travel destination but Oberoi offers luxury hotels and resorts throughout the country.

The Oberoi Grand is quite literally a breath of fresh air, accompanied by a hint of fragrance from the huge bouquet of fresh flowers in the lobby. The hotel is a haven in the middle of the city. Just stepping into the building provides one with a palpable sense of calm and tranquility.

My wife and I arrived by taxi and experienced a seamless transition from the entrance to the lobby to our guest room. In the process we received a traditional Indian greeting from no less than ten attentive staff. The Oberoi Grand takes the security of its guests seriously, discretely checking cars, people, and bags as they enter the hotel. Hotel staff instantly recognized our reservation through Kiwi Connection, and we received a complementary upgrade to a luxury room with high ceilings and a view over the central courtyard. Our room was elegantly furnished including a four post bed and large flat screen television, with fresh fruit and flowers.

The Oberoi Grand is conveniently located, close to the main business and shopping districts of Kolkata — Park Street, BBD Bagh, and Chowringhee. The hotel is over 125 years old with Victorian columned architecture. It is in impeccable condition, with interiors and rooms stylishly appointed and spotlessly clean. The hotel has a lounge, two restaurants, and an outstanding buffet breakfast was complementary. Our Indian dinner at the restaurant was one of the best we’ve had in India. The Oberoi Grand has a luxurious spa, modern fitness facility with terrific equipment, and a relaxing courtyard with pool. Wireless Internet access is available throughout the hotel.

Soon after we arrived at the The Oberoi Grand, senior staff introduced themselves, and then addressed us by name for the remainder of our visit. They inquired frequently and sincerely if we were enjoying ourselves and if there was anything else we required. They discreetly asked about our plans, without being intrusive, so as to better assist us. They politely and efficiently handled the special requests that we made, like scheduling an appointment at a recommended hairdresser for my wife. We visited Kolkata during the final days of a large and spectacular Indian festival, Durga Puja, and the staff were pleased to provide us with information about the festival and how best to participate.

The Oberoi Grand provided everything we expect of a luxury hotel, plus a little more. We would recommend it for any business or leisure traveler seeking an exceptional stay in the heart of Kolkata.

The Meter Man

One of the challenges with traveling in India is getting the taxi drivers to use their meters. Like in most major cities of the world, meters are installed in all taxis to fairly calculate the fare, including factors like distance, wait time, time of day, etc. The rates are set by the city and all taxi drivers are required by law to use the meters, in part to avoid unscrupulous drivers from taking advantage of tourists. In some Indian cities our guidebook says that it is virtually impossible to get the taxi driver to use the meter, and so in most places we’ve just negotiated a fare, which is almost certainly higher than the meter would have calculated. However, in Calcutta, our guidebook makes no mention of this issue so we expected that meter use would be de rigueur here. In fact, we’d been told by a local man that the drivers always use their meters, and we had observed this first hand. When local people get into a cab the drivers turn their meters on immediately to start the clock running as quickly as possible. Not so for us.

Like elsewhere in India the drivers flatly refuse to turn on their meters for us. In broken English, they provide every excuse in the book as to why they can’t use the meter – it’s broken, it’s night time, it’s a holiday, etc., none of which are valid. They have other more drastic excuses also, but we had no idea just how far they would go until last night, when we decided to push it.

We were heading out to a place to which we only had a name, but no idea of the distance or what a reasonable fare would be, so we wanted to use the meter. We hopped into the cab first, before telling him where we wanted to go, and then insisted that he use the meter.

We named the place and the driver asked for 100 Rupees (Rp). We asked him to use the meter. He refused. Then he started to provide the usual excuses. We insisted on using the meter. He started to drive ahead, but only because we were blocking traffic. When it became apparent that we weren’t going to pay his exorbitant fare, he pulled over and asked us to get out. We refused. We raised the prospect of having the traffic police from the corner come over to remind him of the rules, but he called our bluff and said go ahead. But we weren’t getting out of the car.

He then pulled into gas station and claimed that he was taking the car to the garage. I said that if his car was broken, that we would leave when he found us another cab — one that would use the meter. While Diane waited in the cab, he stood with Patrick by the side of the road, flagged a few other cabs, and half-heartedly tried to convince them to do what he would not, but of course they wouldn’t go for it. When Patrick returned to the cab, the driver moved it ahead to get fuel, and began to complain to the station attendants about us. He was getting really frustrated. He then started to shake the car back and forth from the outside. Was he hoping to dislodge us by vibration? We thought this was pretty funny but tried not to laugh.

Now at this point, most tourists would have backed down. Diane would usually have called an end to the experiment at this point, but we’d had a drink with dinner and were emboldened to take it further. Eventually the driver got back into the car, but this time with another guy from the gas station. It wasn’t clear if he was just giving the guy a lift or if he was trying to intimidate us. In India disputes are often settled on the street by shouting matches with the public deciding. Perhaps he wanted to have an even number for what was building up to be such an event.

The driver started moving towards the destination (we hoped), but continued to insist on the 100 Rp fare. We told him to turn the meter on, or we would pay a fare of 50 Rp only. He did turn the meter on, but covered it up with a cloth to obscure it, but the fabric was so thin and the red LED letters so bright that we could still read it. We traveled in silence.

It turned out that the trip was less than a kilometer. We could easily have walked. It took under five minutes to get there plus the twenty minutes of debate before we departed. When we arrived at the busy square, the police were controlling the traffic, and stopping was restricted. As soon as we arrived, the driver cleared the meter so the fare was no longer showing. We got out of the cab and paid the correct amount (in Calcutta, that’s double what is on the meter plus 2 Rupees), which was 10 Rp, or about 25 cents. The driver insisted on being paid what he’d originally asked for, which was ten times the correct fare. We refused. Tensions mounted. Soon a police officer came over and told the cab driver to move on. He complained that he hadn’t been paid. We explained that we were paying per the meter and that he was trying to get much more.

The police officer went to get his supervisor from down the block. The cabbie ran over to a random group of men on the street and tried to solicit them to support him. He was trying to win over the gathering crowd, which is usually the right approach to winning a dispute in India.

At this point the cars were backing up and honking. The senior cop arrived. Patrick summed up the situation in a sentence, and the animated cabbie did the same. The clincher was when the cabbie mentioned the name of the place we’d come from (Park Street), which the senior man knew wasn’t far away. At that point, he told us to give the 10 Rupees to the cabbie, and then told him to move on. We walked away with smiles on our faces. Undoubtedly the fact that cabbies are known to extort tourists also worked in our favour.

We were shocked at the lengths to which a Calcutta cab driver will go to extort tourists. It is almost certain that no other visitors would do what we did to pay the correct fare. We thought it important, at least once, to see if this was possible but we never expected it would take what it did. We’d like to think we were striking a blow on behalf of tourists everywhere, but I doubt the cabbie will act any differently with his next tourist. After this experience, on our two subsequent cab rides in Calcutta we also paid the correct amount, but with slightly fewer shenanigans.

Durga Puja

We spent most of last night wandering the streets of Calcutta. We had no idea
where we were or exactly where we were going. It was amazing.

We’re here during a major Indian festival called ‘Durga Puja’. It is celebrated in many places in India, but nowhere with the fervor of Calcutta. It is like Halloween, Mardi Gras, and New Year’s Eve combined.

Durga Puja celebrates the triumph of the Hindu goddess Durga over the demon Mahishasur who had taken over heaven and earth. The three main Hindu gods Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva (all male) were unable to defeat him individually so they combined their powers to create Durga. This strong female goddess has ten arms carrying the signature weapons of each of her creators and rides upon a lion. Durga was able to defeat Mahishasur restoring heaven to the gods and earth to humanity, and the festival Durga Puja celebrates this triumph of good over evil. In Calcutta it is also believed that Durga leaves the home of her husband Shiva (yes, this bad-ass chick is married) once a year to her parental abode. She appears for only a four day period during the festival to eradicate all evil from the earth, after which she returns to her husband’s abode at Mount Kailash in the Himalayas.

People in Calcutta spend much of the year preparing for Durga Puja. Huge images of Durga and her children (Lakshmi, Saraswati, Ganesha, and Kartik) are prepared and placed in temporary structures called ‘pandals’ for public display during the period of festival. They are elaborate and beautiful, made primarily with painted clay over straw and bamboo.


The pandals that house them are the size of houses and both they and the streets around them are lit up with electric lights, often animated in displays superior to the best Christmas lights. The streets are full of vendors selling food and drink for the visitors and loud music is usually played about twenty hours a day. Neighborhood associations are generally responsible for putting the pandals together with the help of corporate sponsorships. They work all year, similar to the ‘crews’ of Mardi Gras. It is estimated that there are 2000 pandals throughout Calcutta, with many more across the state of West Bengal. On our trip to the Sunderbans we passed many of them in small villages.


People visit the pandals day and night during the festival. They’re open twenty four hours a day. The crowds are largest at night, when the pandals and streets are lit up. The most popular ones receive tens of thousands of visitors per day, filing past in huge lines. It is definitely a family event, and parents walk with or carry their children. The women seem to be wearing some of their finest clothes. Traffic comes to a virtual standstill and public transportation can be overwhelmed. The police are out in full force to control the pedestrians and vehicles. We don’t have anything quite so overwhelming in Canada. Perhaps if the Vancouver Canucks won the Stanley Cup on Halloween night it would come close. Although the idols are religious for Hindus, there is a definite party atmosphere and it doesn’t appear to be a particularly spiritual occasion. There is a lot of noise, children running around, and drunken men wandering the streets.


On the last evening of the festival, the idols are removed from the pandals, transported, and then carried into the river Hooghly and immersed. The idols are transported in trucks full of supporters cheering and dancing, then hoisted by groups of straining men to the river bank where there are spun around repeatedly before being carried into the river. Thousands of them float away into the darkness.

We visited about twenty pandals during the festival. Some were within walking distance of our guest house on our first night in Calcutta. It’s easy to find a pandal – just listen for the music, look for the lights, and follow the crowds. A couple of nights later, upon our return from the Sunderbans, we went ‘pandal hopping’ beginning at about 8 PM. We caught a cab to the south side of the city to see some of the most highly regarded pandals. All we had was their names on a scrap of paper. We started at Maddock Square and walked from there, reading the names of the places we wanted to get to, and asking people in the crowd to point us in the right direction. We walked for several miles through the streets, getting lost, then re-directed, then lost again. It was very hot, very humid, and very crowded.

We decided to head home at about 1 AM. We were both tired and Diane had a heat rash on her legs. The streets were still packed with people, as were the buses, but they were no help to us since we didn’t know where we were or which bus might take us where we wanted to go. We finally got a cab after about thirty minutes of trying, and made it back to our hotel at about 2 AM.

The next morning Diane was ill, perhaps overdoing it the night before, but she had sufficiently recovered by evening that we could walk down to the river to watch the immersions. The crowds were crazy, the drumming loud, and it wasn’t possible to get close to the water as the police were restricting anyone who wasn’t carrying an idol. We did get a few photos though.


Durga Puja was something that we’d heard about in Canada, and we’re so glad that we were able to be here when it took place. It was bit earlier this year than normal, usually occurring in October or November, so it worked out for us. It was absolutely one of the highlights of our trip to India.

Oh Calcutta

Leaving the South of India we returned to the North, catching a flight from Chennai to Kolkata, the capital of West Bengal state. Kolkata was previously known as Calcutta.

Diane was a bit apprehensive about coming to Calcutta. It is India’s second largest city with over 15 million people. In addition to being the source of the expression “the black hole of Calcutta”, its reputation is that of a poverty-stricken city. It is the location of Mother Teresa’s famous mission to help the sick and the dying. We expected it to be poor and a bit depressing, and while there definitely are these aspects to Calcutta, it also has many other virtues that surprised us.

We shared a cab from the airport with an American couple who were arriving to spend four months at a yoga ashram. It took almost two hours to make our way through the Calcutta traffic in the heat of the early afternoon. It was very hot. The streets were congested and the smog was thick, the worst we’ve experienced on this trip so far. Diane thought that we’d arrived in a hell hole.

After an hour of walking with our packs on due to Patrick’s navigation error, we found a cheap guest house just a couple of blocks off Park Street, home to many of Calcutta’s nice shops and restaurants (a bit like staying in the downtown east side and walking to India’s equivalent of Robson Street).

The next morning we went to a restaurant called Flury’s, a Calcutta institution since colonial days. We were amazed to find a nicely decorated and spotlessly clean café, as remarkable as anything in Vancouver. We drank good espresso and amazing Assam tea and enjoyed freshly baked goods. We had two peach danishes — the best we’ve ever had. We got into a pleasant conversation with a British lawyer at the next table and ended up spending a couple of hours over a lovely breakfast.

We then walked to the Victoria Memorial, built to celebrate Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee in 1901. It wasn’t completed until 20 years after her death. It is a beautiful building and a grandiose example of colonial extravagance. It is surrounded by reflecting ponds and landscaped grounds, and it houses displays of paintings, photographs, and an interesting history of Calcutta.

The Victoria Memorial is located in the Maidan, a large park in the center of the city (like Central Park in New York). We started to walk across the park, but Diane decided to retreat because it had long grass which could mask any number of unpleasantries, was partially flooded, and contained a lot of homeless people. The Maidan is also the site of Fort William, which the British built to protect their trading outpost here. In 1756 Siraj-ud-Daula recaptured the city from the British, and imprisoned the colonial leadership in cramped rooms underneath Fort William. In one night about 40 British died from suffocation, and it became known as ‘the black hole of Calcutta’. When the British re-captured the city they cleared the land around the fort, including demolishing an entire village, so that they would have a clear line of sight for their cannons. It is this area that became The Maidan.


We caught the Metro (subway) to an area called BBD Bagh to purchase our onward train tickets. It is named after three men (Binoy, Badal, and Dinesh) who tried and failed to assassinate British Lieutenant-Governor Lord Dalhousie in 1930, an early step towards Indian Independence. BBD Bagh is home to many of the beautiful old colonial buildings in Calcutta and houses many of the government offices today. It’s ironic that the area of these colonial landmarks is now named after three men who tried to bring an end to colonialism.

The Metro was packed, and we were squished, but the mostly male passengers were helpful and polite. It wasn’t unlike riding the Skytrain in Vancouver during the peak of rush hour — perhaps a bit more crowded like New York, but not as bad as Tokyo. Diane is often the only woman (or one of the few) when we do certain things in India, like riding some buses or trains, going to a bar, etc.

BBD Bagh is home to the Foreign Tourist Office of the Eastern Railway. Calcutta is one of the few cities in India that reserves a small quota of train tickets that can be purchased only by tourists. This is so that travelers like us that want to have a flexible itinerary can get tickets on short notice. The downside is that the price is much higher than if we’d booked the normal way. However, we knew that we’d be leaving Calcutta the day after the end of a major festival, along with everyone else in town, and that all other train tickets had been booked weeks in advance. The tourist quota is very valuable to us in situations such as this.

We walked back through the part of town where most backpackers stay called Sudder Street. The wide sidewalks on the major thoroughfare of Chowringhee Road were packed with street vendors, shoppers, and pedestrians. It was the first time we’ve really felt the crush of humanity since arriving in India. Men were standing on their street stalls yelling about their wares and prices. We needed to literally squeeze through the crowd. Diane was fully stressed.

But we made it to a bar called Blue and Beyond, on the rooftop of a nine story building from where we could look over the city at night. After some time and a beer to relax, we went to one of Calcutta’s most popular restaurants called ‘Peter Cat’, a very strange name for a family restaurant with the feel of the 1970’s steak house. We arrived at 10 PM and there was a waiting list with people lined up outside.

Such was our introduction to Calcutta. It is a very hectic, exotic and fascinating place, and after a few days there, Diane was a bit sad to leave it.

The Last of the Man Eaters

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On Toileting

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Unfortuantely our guidebook is silent on these topics.

Begging

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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