Not Drowning but Waving! I hope!

There is something really exciting and slightly nerve-wracking about showing a new person around what has become for me reasonably well known parts of Pune. It is exciting because you remember just how intrigued but also slightly nervous you were when you were first shown around.

However, you are also opening up a new side of India to somebody and somehow you feel the weight of responsibility that brings. I love India and I want everyone else to love it too. You worry that if you don’t show enough or show too much you can disappoint or over-whelm somebody. You want your friend to come out the other side not drowning but waving, the very opposite to Stevie Smith’s famous poem, ‘Not Waving but Drowning.’ You want people to come out the other end ready and able to go back by themselves and excited about the idea of bringing others too.

It was with these thoughts in my head that myself and my long-standing adventure partner, Anette, showed Anette (yes another one and she is also Swedish) Shivaji Market and Camp. Although the ‘new’ Anette (as we shall have to call her) has lived in Pune as long as me, she suffers from the well-known ‘no time to get to know India’ disease that all those who work here as expats experience. She also has the comorbidity illness: ‘I have to deal with India all week, on my day off I don’t want to experience India’. The outcome of such illnesses means that Saturday was the first time she actually went out and experienced real India. You know what, she enjoyed it! Slightly over-whelmed at times – yes, but still she enjoyed it.

AAlsterholt  edited-1-12I have a tendency to forget that I am perhaps slightly unusual in that I will do anything and go anywhere and very little shocks me. I tend to take new things, new ideas, new places more or less in my stride and rarely do I find myself over-whelmed by the unknown. Several times now however I have taken new people to Shivaji Market: the main fruit, vegetable, meat and fish market in the centre of the city in a area called Camp. It is a fascinating place. The sights, smells and textures (you will get it when you walk there – yes, textures under your feet) are exhilarating most of the time although sometimes slightly stomach churning! So it was to Shivaji Market that we took the ‘new’ Anette.

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As you enter the market, you are met by swirling brown kites! Swirling over the slaughter houses and butcheries!
AAlsterholt  edited-1A normally chatty woman, initially she was rather silent as she took in all that was to be seen. Silence however broken by laughter as my usual fruit seller upon seeing me and my camera, jumped to his feet, gathered his mates around and demanded a very posed picture with his mangoes. The spontaneous enthusiasm of these guys very much reflects the nature of this market. Yes, serious business is done but that doesn’t mean there isn’t time for a giggle!

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We are told over and over again about how many diseases there are in India – how to watch your fruit and vegetables! Wash them carefully etc etc. For many, the ‘safer’ option is to buy your vegetables and fruit from local supermarkets or the western stores. Anette however was amazed by the quality of the produce, so much better than you can get elsewhere. Was it safe though? No more unsafe than the ‘safer’ options that’s for sure and most definitely fresher!

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Look how fresh and beautiful all the vegetables look. This stall provides to most of the top international hotels in Pune. 
Not being a fish eater, the fish hall does at times put me off although it never smells – not at all. Definitely some flies hanging around and certainly not everyone uses ices
– which given the day we went it was 38 degrees – well that has got to be just a touch dodgy! For a newbie, other than the meat stalls, this is probably the most challenging place to find yourself. It is extremely busy and you have to push through people, trying all the time to watch where your feet are standing or rather on what you are feet are about to stand on. I find this place fascinating however. Fishmongers shout out their wares as you pass by – offering you Indian salmon, lobster, prawns, bass, king fish and many more.

 

IMG_0120Outside the fish hall for me is the most fascinating place. It is the ice stall! It just sells huge blocks of ice. Stall holder or just browsing customer goes and orders a certain weight of ice. The ice is then crushed put into a box or a bag and money is handed over. The ice stall seems a long, long way from the modern world. Indeed, it is not completely uncommon to see hand carts of blocks of ice being pushed through the city streets with various vendors stopping them to purchase off them. Another reason, indeed if you even needed one, not to eat ice or ice based drinks!

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My chicken does not come from Shivaji Market – I will repeat this until I believe it!
Next to this area is the chicken area and frankly – well I’m going to continue to pretend that the chicken I buy from my local 5 star hotel, does not come from here. I am equally going to pretend that any minced chicken I buy, does not also come from here. Nobody please try and dissuade me of this fact!

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Well surely such a place was your maiden dream too!
Being in Camp is the only excuse one needs to, well, eat at Ram Krishna’s! They do the very best traditional pure veg food I have tasted in this city. This time, both Anettes had never been there so definitely no excuses were needed. The walk from Shivaji is always filled with colour and life, again an interesting introduction to India if  you haven’t done it before.  There is always something that breaks your heart, something intriguing and always something that makes you laugh!

This time the streets were filled with even more colour than usual. It was Shivaji’s birthday (again, it was his birthday a few weeks ago too! Different dates are celebrated by different political parties). As always any excuse will do to put up mandals (stages used for religious objects) and flags – this time huge orange ones! What amused me however was the different takes on this Maharastrian hero. In one sculptor he appeared exceedingly stately, the next well just a bloke hanging out probably chatting with his mates.

Anette (guess we call her the ‘old’ one) brought me to a new textiles shop where I bought the most beautiful chiffon to make a dress. Total cost including making of dress about £20. Further along, I spotted a tiny sari shop and picked up two saris for £3 each. These will be turned into beautiful skirts – total cost of each skirt £5.50. I just love how I can get the most beautiful textiles and tailoring done for next to nothing. “New’ Anette seemed initially a little shy about just walking into shops, especially the tiny ones but ‘old’ Anette and I are perhaps now old hands and are no longer quite so intimidated by it!

AAlsterholt  edited-1-18My favourite vision of the day however was ‘old’ Anette picking up a trumpet and giving it a go in a metal shop. The shopkeeper seemed a little bemused by the fact that she knew what she was doing (she plays various brass instruments) – again women here don’t necessarily play such instruments – saying that in the west they are not always considered appropriate for women either! In true Indian style however he found an opportunity to have a laugh, picked up another trumpet and joined right in with her! Apparently, it was in the wrong key however and she walked away empty handed.

IMG_0122Our wander then took us up the busy and in my mind less enjoyable MG Road – here western shops compete with tiny independent ones but it seems more touristy; less local. It may also have been that by then I was hot, tired and just a little hungry – never eat on the morning before you go to Ram Krishna’s! You can’t, otherwise how will you manage to eat all the yummy food you have ordered? Especially, of course, the masala paper dosa – a must have!

Satiated, home we went with I hope ‘new’ Anette feeling slightly less ‘new’ and slightly less over-whelmed by the India I have grown to love. Well, she didn’t say no when I offered to go on more adventures with her – that’s got to be a good sign! Surely, that means she was waving and not drowning.

 

 

An Ode to India – travelling with disability

For me the decision to travel to somewhere new is usually immediate and always filled with excited anticipation – sometimes perhaps with a hint of nervous anticipation. For me the world is large with so many places to visit and so many experiences to have but the world is also small. Nowhere is any more than a few days travel time away. If the world is so small, why not see as much of it as I possibly can in the 80+ years I will spend on this planet?

Everyone is different etc etc, but seriously I don’t get those people who are happy to stay put and never do anything that is out of their immediate knowledge and comfort zone. Seriously, that would be ridiculously boring. I’m guessing, especially if you are a regular reader of my blog, that you feel somewhat similarly.

Now I get that circumstance, personal or financial, can sometimes make having great adventures more difficult or impossible. Having been in the personal circumstance where any form of travel was physically impossible – I get it. I also get just how frustrated I was. I may not have had the ability to do much more than sit on the couch but I still watched travel documentaries – do it via somebody else if that is all I could do.

For me it was obvious that when I moved to India, many (although by no means all) of my friends would excitedly think, ‘Whoooo, whoooo, just the excuse I need! I’m off to India!’,  expecting my friends just to inform me they were coming rather than even waiting for an invitation or permission! Now Colin visited me in October although only for one night – he was here for work. While amazing to see him, I don’t think that is what I had in mind.

The first friend to visit me however was unexpected – well kind of! She has got a just go for it attitude so perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised when she informed me she was coming on a visit. Her visit however could never have been a spur of the moment decision for her and for purely personal reasons. There was no way she could have just booked her ticket and then thought about the trip later. I can do that, my friend Sarah who I mentioned in a previous blog can do it – but not Gillian! Her decision required bravery and determination.

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Why? Gillian has Cerebral Palsy and this brings its own challenges – walking, balance and fatigue to name just a few. This blog however is not an ode to Gillian – although her bravery and determination indeed justifies an ode to her! This blog is an ode to India.

India can be so unutterly frustrating! It can bring the very worst out in you. You get so frustrated at short-term thinking, false promises and under-achieving, never mind the ‘it’s not my fault’ lack of responsibility taking. Seriously, why I haven’t been jailed for killing somebody in the year we have been here sometimes astounds me!

India however has done itself extremely proud! It can hold its head up as being one of the best countries in the world. Gillian is from the UK, has a German mum and has travelled around Europe and Australia. Without doubt, she says, India treated her better overall than anywhere else she has ever been. Now she’s not referring to the great access everywhere and the smooth pavements – well now she couldn’t really could she, given they don’t exist. She is talking about the people.

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Datta, our driver, is ready and waiting when Gillian arrived

From arrival to leaving she was met by extreme care from friends and strangers. Nobody but nobody on the streets or in shops / restaurants made her feel uncomfortable or made her life more difficult. On arrival in Mumbai, my driver anxiously helped the very, very tired and stiff Gillian into the car in Mumbai. He then spent too weeks worrying that he had touched her because knowing she prefers to do things herself, I had silently indicated to him to give her space. While Gillian will just remember this (if indeed she can) as somebody seeing somebody struggle and doing what they can to help.

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Maggie making Gillian a yummy traditional South Indian breakfast!

My maid, Maggie, the first morning after she arrived went out of her way to tell Gillian that anything she needed at all to let her know and then made her a gorgeous breakfast.

We went to lunch in Ram Krishna restaurant in Camp, the waiter without saying anything or making any form of fuss pulled the booth table out as far as it would go so that Gillian could walk to the seat and not have to slide around. Now Gillian is more than capable of sliding around but that instinctive / spontaneous act was heart-warming.

She wanted to try a pair of trousers on. When she got into the changing room there was no stool but within micro-seconds one arrived – not a word was said, it was just left in the room. Again no fuss. Just a recognition that there was something they could do to make her life easier so why not!

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Rashid sitting as he explains about a temple so Gillian could also sit

When we did a walking tour of old Pune (Chalo Heritage Walks – my lost blog was about this tour), Rashid Ali, the tour leader, couldn’t have been kinder. He constantly found places for her to sit and rest, when she had to take her shoes off to go into a temple, he got down on his hands and knees to put them back on.

There was a really high step into the temple and initially Gillian struggled to get up it. Seeing her struggle, a lady ran across the temple and offered to help her.

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This was the lady who stopped Deborah so Gillian could get by

Later in this same temple, my friend – Deborah (the photographer from my last blog) said that as she was leaving the temple an old lady stopped her so that Gillian could get by. Again, not really necessary but very sweet.

A few days later with Rashid, we went out to Bhigwan Dam which is a nature sanctuary – amazing, if you live in Pune you need to do this. This required the use of a fishing boat. The boatman without saying anything moved his boat so there was an easier spot for Gillian to climb in. When we were required to get off the boat and walk to where we could spot some flamingoes, the boatman first scouted the flamingoes – just to be sure that Gillian wouldn’t walk all the way and not see anything.

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Our very kind boatman

On return, he moved the boat a little further so that she would have to walk less. Rashid jumped into the mud and got himself filthy so that Gillian could climb off the boat a little easier. When her stick made a small section of the boat dirty where she would have to put her hands, Rashid used his own hands to clean the area – again with little thought just spontaneous action.

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Rashid cleaning mud off the boat so Gillian wouldn’t get dirty

We saw the flamingoes but they were just too far away for my camera to take a good shot and Gillian was struggling to see through binoculars – this requires balance and good use of both hands! Rashid initially tried to help her hold them but on spotting a man with a huge lens on his camera, I asked him if he would take a photo to show Gillian – he did it with enthusiasm and a great smile!

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Big lens! This enabled Gillian to see the flamingoes a little closer up

In Goa, we walked to a restaurant along the road but we wanted to go back along the beach. To get to the beach however we had to go down some steep steps without a handrail. Gillian got a little scared but the waiter ran over and gently took her arm and led her down the steps. Again no big deal, it was just what you do!

I could list and list and list all day and all night the amazing individual things Indians did to help make Gillian’s trip a success but perhaps it is best summarised by Gillian’s own insight. She compared her experience her to her experience in Australia. In both situations she felt she got the same treatment but the difference was the motivation. In India, she genuinely felt it was instinctive when people stepped up to help her. In Australia, she felt it was because people were motivated by the understanding that you should help people – there was little instinct behind it. In India, she felt Indians didn’t feel like she was any trouble while in Australia she felt people thought she was making trouble for them.

The thing that had worried me most about Gillian’s visit and therefore was the greatest surprise was staring. I had warned her and warned her that she would be stared at and photographed – perhaps even more than I am on a regular basis. It is far from unusual for me to suddenly have blank strangers around me and somebody else taking a photo, sometimes with permission but often without. Gillian is used to being stared at in the UK but I was worried that here it would be too much even for her.

I was particularly worried about visiting the Gateway of India in Mumbai. I had been there only a few weeks early with my friend and it was the most intimidated I have ever felt in India. We were simply sat down and then suddenly there were 20 plus men taking pictures of us and they simply wouldn’t go away. We had to get up and walk away ourselves. Wherever we were around the Gateway people stared and stared at us. This was on a Tuesday, we were going on a Sunday when it was busier – I was worried!

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Gillian in front of the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel. Picture taken at the Gateway of India – nobody is staring! Seriously, nobody!

So before going to the Gateway, I warned her again. I really wanted her to be prepared for it – she even suggested that we didn’t go. I wanted her to see it however so we went. I couldn’t believe it, not a single obvious stare and not a single photograph!!! Indeed, that can be said for the whole trip. Her whole trip in India there was no staring or photographs! Honestly, I was stared at less over the two weeks that she was here than I have ever been. Clearly, I need to get my stick back out – it appears to make you invisible!

I lie, there was one occasion where she was stared at and stared at so badly that she felt so bad that she left. I live in a very expensive apartment block (society). The people who live her are 50% expats, 25% NRIs (so people whose parents were born in India but they weren’t) and 25% very well off Indians. People in this society as a whole are well off, highly educated and highly travelled. Yet, it was these very people who stared so hard that Gillian didn’t want to hang around in our garden anymore! I was thoroughly disgusted.

In my ignorance, I expected the poorer, less educated elements of Indian society to be the starers – well they surely haven’t received the same education about disability or perhaps even the same exposure, have they? The people who stared shouldn’t feel proud and these people shouldn’t hold their heads high – in contrast, they should hang their heads in shame. For they were the only people in two weeks who didn’t do everything they could to make India proud of them.

Gillian’s experience of travelling with a disability in India was just an isolated experience, perhaps she was lucky or perhaps that is just the way Indians are. Somebody did tell me that Indians would look at Gillian with lots of respect because despite her disability she was still here! I have no idea if you are disable or your child is and you travel to India will you have such a hugely positive experience but if you are thinking about it, I would say from my experience with Gillian – go for it! India is not an easy place to travel never mind if you are travelling with a disability but I genuinely feel that you don’t need to fear how people will react to you being here.

India is definitely somewhere to book with excited anticipation (but just a little bit of nervous anticipation!).

Finally, India thank you. Thank you for being a major part of my friend’s holiday of a lifetime. Thank you for consistently showing her what an amazing country and an amazing people you are. Thank you.