Wednesday, 23 June 2010

Hello Money!

I have recently returned from a brief but (largely) pleasant trip around what is known as the Golden Triangle. It's a popular tourist destination that involves seeing Delhi, Agra and Jaipur (conveniently arranged in a geographic triangle of sorts). I am planning on adding a few posts regarding this trip and will be inviting my fellow travellers to share their experiences too. First I'd like to start with one short story:

It's the middle of the day. The sun is at its zenith and, being mid June in north India (pre-monsoon), it's also the hottest part of the year. As you amble through the forest you realise that you're short of money. You'd quite like a drink of water. The sweat is pouring from your face. As you begin to consider returning home you suddenly spot a handy cash dispenser.

"Excellent", you think, "walking cash machines are rather hard to come by at this time of year."

So off you trot and, as you draw near, call out to the mobile ATMs, "Hello money!"

The foreign tourists don't look too impressed. In fact they're walking off. Why? Was it the fact you only put on half your clothes this morning? Were you meant to say 'please'? Maybe giving a figure will help.


It doesn't work. Could upping the amount will help.

"150! 200! 250!"

Alas, despite you best efforts the goras are walking quickly away, leaving you destitute and penniless until you stumble across the next group of Western tourists.

I should add that some of this story is fictional. The kids may not have been that thirsty and I don't recall that much sweat being present either. But the story is meant to lead into some thought about a subject that most people have to confront when coming to India: money.

At this moment in time I have yet to make a judgement on the situation. At times during the trip though it did seem that most of the people we came across saw us as little more than dispensers of cash from which you should try to make the largest withdrawal possible. In fact, during the entire ten days there were only three people we talked to that were not after our money.

An almost inevitable debate that occurs amongst foreign tourists visiting India will centre around the disparities in wealth that are visible, almost from arrival. This is especially in the case of the Golden Triangle circuit, which is a hotspot for people going on holiday, Indian and foreign alike. How we should react to such situations is a very individual matter and will be swayed by many factors but for now all I can say is that even after having stayed in the country for almost eight months I have yet to reach a consensus.

Wednesday, 9 June 2010

Swimming in the Rain

To keep in touch with multiple spectrums of political thought I have taken to reading the Daily Mail along with BBC online. A recent article on the completely impartial and balanced (if you're a fascist) Daily Mail website concerned the return of the Speedo, a rather revealing swimming garment.

What better time I thought than to recount my experience of swimming in India.

It is quite safe to say that India is a socially conservative country. Modern Western concepts such as casual dating or social drinking are experienced and embraced by only a small minority of the growing middle class. On the whole even a man wearing shorts is a fairly rare sight and a woman wearing a skirt that comes above the knees usually means that she's probably either a Westerner or a very, very liberal Indian.

So swimming was always going to be an interesting, and potentially hazardous, activity from a culturally sensitive point of view.

The first two occasions on which I went swimming were quite similar and the question of modesty was answered with a simple and obvious response: wear all your clothes.

Of course! It makes perfect sense does it not? Dressed in one's full regalia one can practically glide through the water, much like an agile otter or a fish.

For the women in particular this is the done thing. I was surrounded by women wearing full salwar kameezes to the water but I couldn't help but feel that it was just a little impractical. Not that it was a huge issue it turns out because most of them couldn't swim anyway. Having had lessons at school it had never really occurred to me but there's not an abundance of public pools around here. In fact the city has substantial issues of water shortage and pools seem to be the preserve of the wealthy or hotels.

One consequence of this that did prove a little frustrating was the insistence on wearing a life jacket. There was a chronic fear of what could happen and because a few people drowned in a lake some years ago we were all forced to don restrictive life jackets before entering the water, irrespective of an individuals swimming ability. Indeed in one pool that I visited the lifeguards reprimanded me for straying too deep, despite the fact that at its deepest the water didn't go above my chin.

I couldn't help but feel that their rebukes were a little absurd.

So having got into this swimming-fully-dressed lark, when some friends invited me to Water Kingdom in Gorai I naturally came armed with a full repertoire of clothing items with which to take a dip.

What a surprise I was in for.

Water Kingdom is rather strict on their dress codes. This is a place that is, after all, 'Not for swimming' (a sign claimed that there were no such facilities on site). Anything that had zips or was of a fabric other than nylon was simple not allowed. No worries though, you are able to hire a piece of swimwear.

Now, putting aside the uncomfortable thought of how many other men had worn the garment before me, I approached the hiring stand to assess the options. To say I was scandalised would be an understatement. For a country that has a strong aversion to nudity the three options available were quite surprising!

The first item was a Speedo type piece. I politely declined.

The second and third options were both quite similar. The choice was thus between the enticingly named, full- or half-tight (fortunately 'full' and 'half' corresponded to the length of the leg rather than closeness of the suit).

I opted for half-tight as shorts seemed a better option than wondering around in what looked like a goalkeeper's trousers from the 1920s, but oh my! I spent the rest of the day walking around feeling like I was creating scenes of gross indecency. For a conservative country it seemed very bizarre that we were forced into wearing shorts that left very little of the human anatomy to the imagination.

It transpired that I was in good company though. More or less everyone else turned out wearing uncomfortable little shorts that weren't exactly flattering. At least I could take away from the day the realisation that I am a socially active, gregarious, outgoing and open person, though alas not a student as that seems to be important and worthy of note.