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Friday, 19 December 2014

Varanasi - The Heart and Soul of India

I've been really moody lately.....

I naively thought I was immune to such emotional fluctuations. Yet 3 months in India has slowly eroded my tolerance and patience. The sights and sounds of India which first sent culture shocks through my system now registered as either complete numbness or irritation. And my own disposition has become fragile and short fused.
An 80 ft. Buddha statue... so what?
But this is a fact of long term travelling. Believe it or not, it's not like living in an endless dream. Travelers are prone to ups and downs, just like people with day jobs and families. But theirs are different and quite varied, due to the diversity of challenges that accompanies travelling, like an annoying buddy, and enhanced by the rawness of it all, especially in a dizzying place like India.


In Bodhgaya, the place where Buddha became enlightened, my mental funk set in. Somehow, I felt unstimulated rather than meditative. I had seen too many temples and monuments by that time and couldn't get worked up by another, even if it was the holiest place in all of Buddhism, the Mahabodhi Temple.

In turn, I became high-strung and taciturn. I walked past beggars, with their bony hands outstretched, as if they were invisible. I snapped at aggressive tuktuk drivers and hawkers, my tone bordering on contempt. These are human beings for godsakes... how did I become so insensitive? I felt confused and ashamed by this.

Losing my grip, I decided to join a Buddhism retreat already in progress, for one day, at the Root Institute. The idyllic setting of the institute, removed from the craziness of India, and the universal philosophies taught here helped to revive me a little, and gave me pause to think straight.
Mahabodhi Temple, where the Buddha became enlightened under the Bodhi tree
My situation is a complex one, as complex and tangled as the tubes in my brain. As best as I could to self-diagnose, I picked out at least two big reasons for my melancholic attitude of late. One is I have been travelling mostly alone, and for too long. It's good to be alone sometimes, to make space to think for yourself, but too much time alone means too much time spent in your own head.

Alone for too long, stray thoughts lead to stray minds. This is how people go crazy.

The other reason is that I have been in cities too long, isolated from nature. And in crowded India this is a recipe for meltdown. I needed to get away from the constant stimulation.

Keeping Cool in Varanasi

Varanasi is probably the holiest city and pilgrimage spot in India. Hindus come far and wide to bathe in the river Ganga, a sure sign that they'll go to heaven. This is also where they cremate their dead, dipping the corpses in the river 3 times before lighting them on fire on piles of wood, bodies burning while wrapped in cloth but in plain sight. The entire Ganga riverbank is connected by a series of ghats, concrete steps that slowly lower until it reaches the water forming a patchwork riverwalk. 
An amazing view of the Ganga from Kumiko Guesthouse rooftop
My ride to Varanasi was a bad omen for my hopes of an enjoyable visit - an uncomfortably long bus ride in chilly, rainy weather. Varanasi itself looked like a disaster after the rain. The streets were extremely muddy and in the dark you couldn't tell mud from cow poop. I couldn't imagine what it's like during monsoon season.

Relief swept over me as I reached my hostel, and as soon as I settled in, I felt my luck about to change. Kumiko Guesthouse was right by the river with a gorgeous rooftop view, and was occupied mostly by foreign travellers. For just 100 rupees ($2 CAD) per night, I got a dormitory with basic amenities, and for 50 rupees they served a big yummy breakfast feast.
A foggy but vibrant morning on the ghats
I quickly entered engaging conversation with two Spanish guys and one German. They reminded me why I loved Europeans so much. I even spoke to them passionately about western North America, proclaiming it as the land of the hippies with unlimited natural beauty. This made me feel proud of home, something I had been thinking more about while in my malaise. It's amazing how travelling can give you a renewed appreciation of home.

I spent most of my days taking refreshing walks through the city and along the riverfront, taking in the vibrant life along the scenic ghats along the Ganga - aartis (holy rituals), people bathing, washing clothes, playing cricket, flying kites, rowing boats, cows pooping. I witnessed a few cremations, an eerie experience, the burned and scarred bodies looking like crash test dummies in the fires. The sun eventually jumped out of the oppressive fog too, lit up the riverfront, and infused my buddies and I with warmth and smiles as we walked.

My mood seemed to reverse over the course of a few days. I even found a new enthusiasm over dealing with tuktuk drivers and shopowners, achieving a professional level of bargaining while having fun doing it.
Cremations taking place along the Ganga
It seems I couldn't have arrived in Varanasi at a better time - it has an invisible energy, positive and infectious. And I'm sure my mood will continue to improve as my trip undergoes a major transformation in the coming week.

For my Flickr photos click here.

Thursday, 11 December 2014

Breakfast in Kolkata's Chinatown

I spent about a week in Kolkata with my host, Veronica, and her lovely and accommodating family. Veronica is another family friend extending from the network of people in Shillong, many of whom are Hakka Chinese.

Kolkata, or Calcutta as it's known in the English world, is nicknamed the City of Joy, and recognized as the cultural capital of India. The city's rich history has its origins in the East India Company, whose investment was a catalyst for business and colonization of India by the British.
Cruising on a packed wooden ferry on the Hooghly River
During my stay, I managed to see a number of impressive Victorian landmarks, as well as Christian and Hindu religious sites. I visited Mother Teresa's home, which also contains her tomb. And sat on the ghats, with my feet in the River Hooghly, observing people bathe in the brownish river, which contains water from the holy Ganga (or Ganges River) due to an upstream canal diversion.

Hawkers in Flight

Kolkata is an interesting city with many faces. About 15 million of them, to be exact.

I witnessed Kolkata's glamorous side, rooted in its past with its grand old English architecture. But it's a thin mask which barely hides the real face of Kolkata, evident pretty much everywhere else. I was there during the dry season, but everyday I saw monsoons of another presence - people everywhere, streaming up and down the streets between cars and buses, clogging roads, creeping along like boggy rivers. I experienced what comes with too many of these people - dust, noise, open urinals, and half naked men bathing in public by water pumps.

Hawkers, or street vendors, can be really annoying too. Hawkers are virtually everywhere, on sidewalks operating food carts or displaying wares upon tables or blankets, or approaching on foot, entering buses and trains. Veronica told me that hawking as a profession is illegal in India, but is so commonplace that several hawkers unions have been formed at municipal and national levels. Imagine that, unions representing illegal professions that don't pay taxes!
Ironically, I prefer hawkers to actual shops. Here is a Kolkata custom, drinking chai out of clay cups
The regulation of hawking is an ongoing issue in India. Governments provide little intervention to start with, but even if they do try to collect taxes, the hawkers collectively swarm and threaten violence; or if police come to enforce, they simply run away, quickly deserting streets like a scene from an apocalypse movie.

Luckily for me, I'm not targeted much by hawkers here - I look like a local. In a distant sort of way, I am a local because my mom was born in Kolkata, among many other Chinese. Here is the story of how Chinese ended up here.

Chinese Emperors of Leather

In my previous blog I mentioned that India experienced a large influx of Chinese to Eastern India - places like Shillong and Kolkata - due to the Communist Revolution. They were later incarcerated by the Indian government following the Indo-China War. Soon after their release, there followed a mass exodus that continues to this day. In its heyday, Kolkata had over 50,000 Chinese citizens, many of them speaking the Chinese dialect Hakka, like myself and my mom. That number has dwindled to only a few thousand today.
The industrial rooftops of Tangra, overlooked by modern skyscrapers of Kolkata
One morning, I went to Terreti Market for breakfast, once the heart of Kolkata's Chinatown, to find a measly 3 stands selling pork dumplings and buns. Most of Kolkata's remaining Chinese have fled Chinatown for Tangra, a mainly industrial neighbourhood just east of downtown. Tangra is a tangle of dusty roads lined with open pit ditches, filled with stagnant and discoloured water, like dirty dead rivers, contaminated by the numerous tanneries in the area.

Navigating the streets of Tangra, I also found little evidence of Chinese people left - just a few signs up for Chinese restaurants. And of course, there's my host. Veronica's home is in Tangra and her family made me feel welcome. Since they are also Hakka, they gave me a chance to practice my native language, which I have neglected. They spoiled me with delicious Hakka home cooked dinners, which I terribly miss.

Veronica's son, Edwin, told me how decades ago the zamindars, or feudal landlords, illegally sold land in Tangra, mainly to Chinese, who brought the tannery business to India, starting in Kolkata. Edwin's grandfather started a hot sauce company and also a tannery on these grounds but paid his taxes before the legalities caught up to him and the other landholders. Through thick and thin, their business is successful today.
A man working by leather bathing drums in the tannery
Veronica and her husband, Patrick Lee, showed me their tannery, maybe the first eco-leather factory in all of India and recognized by the European Fair Trade Association. Veronica and Patrick are featured on the websites of a few bag producers who they supply eco-leather to, O My Bag and Loyal Workshop.

Edwin also told me how during monsoon season, after a big rain, the open pit ditches flood the street causing a great big stink. Tiny fish, like tadpoles, make their home in these ditches, and these fish are actually collected and sold as animal feed. One day I noticed a rat taking a sip from the ditch water, until it noticed me and ran away.

Legend of Fat Mama

Back home in Toronto, there is a significant Hakka Chinese population, many of whom migrated from Kolkata and Shillong, such as my mom and dad, as well as many family friends I am only now becoming familiar with. Hakka are known for their food, a fusion of Indian and Chinese cuisines, served in restaurants in Toronto and even Calgary's northeast.
My adopted grandma, and her grandson Andrew Lee, my twin by name. They also have family in Toronto
Some Hakka have formed an organization whose mission is to demand a formal apology by the Indian government for its incarceration of Chinese back in 1962. My mom, luckily, moved to Hong Kong before it happened, but my father and his family got sent to the prison camps for 4 years. My father doesn't tell me much about his past - it was a time that he'd rather forget about. I sympathize with him, though I feel like our family past is something I deserve to know about.

There is a brief 23 minute documentary made about the history of Chinese in Kolkata, including their incarceration in 1962. It is named after Fat Mama, a famous lady known for her sumptuous chow mein, or fried noodles, which she sold along the side of the street in Kolkata's Chinatown. The first 9 minutes introduces Chinese life in Kolkata before the incarceration. The last half discusses the incarceration and the aftermath. Veronica's father is interviewed in the film, and I think one of her sons appears briefly in one of the scenes in the background.

If you are curious about what my father and his family went through, I encourage you to watch it. Click on Legend of Fat Mama to watch.

Finally, I have uploaded pictures from not just Kolkata but the two other cities I visited in the state West Bengal, Darjeeling and Kalimpong. Flickr link

Thursday, 4 December 2014

Uncovering my Family's Past in Shillong

After leaving the peaceful rural village where I taught some English, I spent one week moving about Sikkim, more as a tourist than a traveler, shuffling from one city to the next, from monasteries to big holy statues. The hours wasted sloshing about in the Jeeps tackling the relentless hillsides took a toll on my butt muscles – and my patience.  
A beautiful monastery near Gangtok... but it took 1 hour just to go 20 km to find this place
The next stop was my father’s hometown – Shillong. I was finally looking forward to slowing down and relaxing a little, but not completely without purpose either. I wanted to understand how my family on my father’s side grew up, and learn about this relatively unknown and unvisited part of India.

Shillong is a city with a metro population of around 350,000. It is the capital city of the state of Meghalaya (sounds like ‘regalia’) in Northeast India, which is like one big arm swinging north around Bangladesh, then down, draping its eastern border.

Meghalaya boasts “the rainiest place on Earth” – Cherrapunji, just 50 km south of Shillong (it recently was overtaken by a place nearby, also in Meghalaya). The English arrived centuries ago, looking for tea, and in exchange brought Christianity, now the dominant religion here.
See? I wasn't kidding.
Northeast India is incredibly diverse, containing tens, and maybe hundreds, of tribes, each with their own language and culture. The diversity here is a double edged sword. Historically, the entire region has been troubled by violence by guerrillas vying for independence from India. Meghalaya is currently peaceful, but rebel activities still occur in neighbouring states like Manipur and Arunachal Pradesh.

There are continuing tensions between the Northeast and the rest of India, and I've been reading recent articles in the papers about hate crimes against people of Northeast origin. In addition, the locals prefer to use English over Hindi to communicate outside of their own tribes, so English is much more common.

After World War II, many Chinese fled to Northeast India during the Communist Revolution, ending up in places like Shillong. But in 1962, following the brief Indo-Chinese War, India, still bitter towards the Chinese government, decided to imprison its own citizens of Chinese origin in internment camps. My family spent 4 years in one of these camps. After they were released, they eventually fled to Canada.
Helping out a rice harvest in Victoria's village
I think I overhyped Shillong before coming. Upon arriving, I realized Shillong was generally underwhelming and just like other big cities in India, but this time I had more time to absorb its bores and challenges. The city is hilly and riddled with narrow high-walled streets that add to the drab and claustrophobia. Traffic for a city its size felt brutal, or maybe my extended time here allowed my frustration to build to a fever pitch.

Speaking of fever, I got pretty sick. The whole thing was quite ironic - I got sick for the first time on my trip, and it happened while staying in my most luxurious accommodations all trip – the home of my father’s old landlord, Victoria. I suspect that my body is vulnerable to the laziness and temptations that lie within four comfortable and sterile walls, yet stands up well to the filth and thrills of adventure, of mean streets beckoning to be explored.
Angeline, my adopted mother in Shillong
I have Angeline, a third degree family connection, to thank for nursing me back to health. I moved to her place for the second half of my Shillong stay. Angeline was a strong motherly figure, smothering at times, but providing tender loving care and attention when I needed it most. We got along well and I even cooked a little for her and her husband.

Back to full strength, I got back to exploring Shillong. I visited the old home of my family on my father’s side, a humble three room house. I visited the schools they attended. I walked around the fascinating Bara Bazar, where my family worked in a shoe shop making shoes, and where they purchased their vegetables and meat. The bazar was one of the most amazing I've seen in India. It was deceptively huge, with a network of narrow and dark but busy alleyways, like tentacles, extending well beyond the main street.
An aisle of butcher shops as far as the eye can see - Bara Bazar
I got to join Victoria's son Sherrard on one of his projects to his own family's village, and got to witness them harvesting rice. And on a day tour to Cherrapunji, I saw a nice waterfall (which gets much bigger during the monsoon) and explored a small cave. I regret missing out on the living root bridge, an actual functioning bridge made from intertwining tree roots, formed naturally by villagers.

Back in town, I met many people who knew my family. Everyone said my father was a brilliant and smart man. His nickname was “tuition ako” where ako means brother and tuition implied that he was a tutor. They also said he was simple. And quiet. They were right.

I told them how I came to this point of my life – unemployed and travelling. We got to knowing eachother and, with every meeting, I got to understanding my father just a little more, and the extent of the roots that my family set down, and which still exist in their hometown.

I hope I did my whole family proud by visiting their hometown of Shillong, a sort of archaeological site of ancestral memories. I think I sparked old memories and reinvigorated connections among old friends. One Skype session proved that those memories and connections are still strong.
My family on my father's side grew up in this home. You can see all 3 of the rooms in this photo
I gained appreciation of all the hardships my family went through, growing up poor, being imprisoned, and working hard to get to Canada – all so I could grow up privileged and choose to be unemployed and travel around the world. It sounds like poisonous humour, but I'm living the stereotypical family of Asian parents raising their children on traditional values in the Western world. I sympathize for my father, but I have to be my own person. I think we both understand eachother these days, and me coming to Shillong was a positive step for our relationship.

Shillong itself isn't a great city, and the local tourism sector isn't properly developed yet, but I’m glad I came here as part of a family pilgrimage. Up next is Calcutta. My mother and her siblings were born there, but there’s not much evidence left of their time there, since they all left for Hong Kong when my mom was only 8 years old.