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Reflections on tribal India

October 26

Okay, en route back to Chicago, time to recap and reflect a bit.

Various of you have commented to me that you thought taking this trip was “gutsy” or “brave”. In truth, I did not think of it in that way when I planned it. On reflection, though, I guess I accept those characterizations. “Nutty” might also fit, but you were all too kind to suggest that. I guess an endless curiosity to see and experience other cultures motivates my drive to travel. Some years ago I was discussing travel with a friend who told me that his parents became more adventuresome in their travel, the older they got, because they figured that they had less to lose. There’s something to that, I think.

Traveling alone in a very foreign country for two weeks was a new experience. Though I hadn’t intended originally to do this (you’ll recall that I was to go with a small photography group), I’m not at all sorry to have done it. I behaved rather well, and readily forgave myself when I thought I might have done better. I’d far rather have traveled with Carol, but as she did not want to come, I didn’t have that choice.

There were a few glitches, which seem to happen on every trip. I decided to make an itinerary change because I wanted to see the end of the big festival in Bastar, I changed air reservations and Air India gave my travel agent (and therefor me) fits, the accommodations at one place were initially unsatisfactory, so I needed to have those changed, my back started to hurt, but I was able to control that, pretty well, and I contracted a nasty cough because of exposure to smoke in a pottery-making facility. One day I got many mosquito bites that itched like hell. And then, of course, there were the blog difficulties. (Let me say here that I recognize that my agitation over blog difficulties is abnormal. But I enjoy writing it and get frustrated when I can’t post. After all, I’m just thinking about you.). Reading these things makes it sound like this was the trip from hell, but that’s not at all the case. They were challenges to overcome and, one way or another, I overcame them.

After many years of travel, I have come to realize that there are certain things that I just do not need to see anymore. Here is a partial list.

One. Any church

Two. Any statue or monument built to commemorate an important person or event

Three. Any government building

Four. Anything built in the year 1612

Five. Any craftsman who converts sows ears into silk purses (including a description of how the purses differ depending upon the nationality or religion of the sow)

Six. Any fruit or vegetable market

Seven. Cave paintings

I realize that this may seem a bit snotty or opinionated. And what’s wrong with that? It’s not that what I don’t need to see is what nobody needs to see. To each his own. For me, though, I’ve pretty much done the above. (I will admit that there may still be a few exceptions.)

An aside here, I got into a discussion with one of the French people who I kept running into, Yves, who had traveled very extensively, even more than I have. We discussed Las Vegas which he had been to a number of times. I told him that Las Vegas was my least favorite place in the world, that it combined everything that was wrong and vulgar about America. He loved Las Vegas, arguing that it was absolutely unique. I told him that I did not have to love everything that was absolutely unique. We understood one another, and agreed to disagree.

Before going on this trip, I’d been told by two Indian travel agents who I know well, and trust, that this was a trip I needed to take, because I was going to see a world that would not be around much longer. There was ample evidence to support that point of view. The most glaring was the swirling colored lights that bathed the street before a key event of the Bastar Dushera, the brainchild of an event planner who must certainly love Las Vegas. There were less dramatic evidences, as well, paved roads at least part of the way up to some of the hill tribes, other improvements financed by the government, including schools, toilets and the like, increased Western dress (even some of the younger Bonda women, the most colorful of the tribes I saw, are starting to move a bit away from the traditional dress) and satellite dishes in some villages. But times change and however much we might like to see these tribes the way they were many years ago, we don’t get to choose to keep them in another century.

Each trip I take, I’m reminded that the passing years are not my friend. It’s why I want to do as much as I can while I can. In some ways this trip was less physically taxing than I’d anticipated. Kolkata was hot and very humid, but the rest of the places were not, and some were even cool, at least in the morning and evening. The roads were a lot better than I thought they would be. And the guides—particularly Jaspreet and Prasant—were very solicitous of my well being, offering to physically lend me a hand going up or down over rocky terrain a bit more often than I thought I needed, but I usually accepted it, and certainly appreciated it. They warned me constantly of potential tripping hazards. Both of them stopped of their own accord to buy medication for my mosquito bites and cough, and neither would accept payment for it. In the one instance there was some real potential danger, the swirling groups of men carrying their gods, they assured that I was protected. And often they cleared a path for me or expressly asked people to allow me to get to the front. The vehicles I traveled in were extremely comfortable, air conditioned and, most importantly, had WiFi.

I continue to think that India is amazing. I’ve been there four times now, and haven’t scratched the surface. There’s a vividness and reality to it that’s unlike anyplace else I’ve been. It pulses with life and completely overwhelms you with color. On the other hand, if you have any fear of death by head-on collision, you may want to think twice about India. Not to put too fine a point on it, driving is terrifying. But I choose to believe that there’s a method beyond my ken that Indian drivers adhere to, and so I no longer duck or grimace at each near-death experience. Or perhaps it’s just their many gods that protect them. The country is full of contradictions, for example the tidy way the Indians keep their own homes and the trash heaps that abound most everywhere else. India is foreign with a capital “F.”

So what was great and what good, but not great? I was in Kolkata for the start of the Durga Puga, a huge festival. I got to see the preparations and some of the sights, but didn’t really experience the festival. That would have been nice, but the timing just did not work out, and the visit was definitely worthwhile and gave me a taste of the festival, anyway. I spent only two days in Kolkata, so I didn’t get a real good feel for the city. It seemed like the least Indian of the cities I’ve visited; more cars and no cows in the streets. The Oberoi I stayed at was outstanding and the Thai meal I had in the restaurant at the hotel was easily my best meal of the trip. The dinner I had with the art dealer at his apartment was something of a kick. My visit to the Motherhouse where Mother Teresa lived was extremely moving. I mean no disrespect in saying that Mother T was the real deal.

After Kolkata, I was dealing with tribes, villages, markets and the Bastar Dushera. The first two tribes I visited performed dances for us. It was nice to see them in costume and to witness the dances, but, frankly, these were not high points for me. I did not come to India to watch performances done for me. At the third village, though, we happened to catch them performing their annual Laxmi Jugar. Witnessing this authentic ceremony—not a drop of which was done for us—was one of the highlights, perhaps THE highlight of the trip. It was a rare privilege. (Other unplanned things were also great, for example the kabadi game we saw in a village, the dance contest for young girls that we went to one night and even the cock fight.)

Of the markets I saw, watching the Bonda come in to their market and witnessing the goat market were the two best. (Doesn’t seem right to do a final post with no photo, so here’s one of me with two of my Bonda friends.)Other fruit and vegetable markets were fine, but not markedly different from other markets I’ve seen around the world. I sorta feel that I’ve been there, done that.

I was unable to witness the lives of the hill tribes, except to see them in their garb come into and participate in markets. Frankly, I’m not sure how important it is to be able to distinguish between all the tribes. Their lifestyles, work, religion and social customs are quite similar, one to another. Getting a feel for that, overall, seems to me what’s important.

I absolutely loved walking around the many villages I visited with Prasant. I saw people engaged in their lives and was privileged, through Prasant, to interact with and photograph them. Life in the villages seemed calm, peaceful, well-paced and cooperative. Voices were not raised, children played and people smiled and responded to namastes or juhars. To be sure, there was hard work to be done, but that was simply part of life. I loved the fact that the place I stayed at longest was only steps outside a village and employed people from the village.

And the Bastar Dushera, the centerpiece of my trip, was terrific, once you got by the event planner’s touches on the first night. The trip would have been worth taking just for the Dushera, including seeing all the tribes people who came in for the festival.

There were memorable specific experiences, meeting the Bastar King and then the chief of the state police, were two of them. These and other experiences would not have been possible, if I had been traveling in a group. And, speaking of kings, and the like, being a (admittedly minor) celebrity, who many people wanted pictures with was somewhat revelatory. It gave me some notion of what a pain in the butt and intrusion that celebrity can quickly and easily become.

As always, having good guides is critical. All of mine were satisfactory or good, Prasant was quite excellent, and will get better as he goes, and Jaspreet was just outstanding .

One of the keen observers of my blog, my friend, Gil Cornfield, wrote to me, “There is something surreal between the beautiful and intricate garments worn by the tribal people and their basic pre- urban lives.  It speaks to the wonderful ingenuity and creativity of humankind.

“The fact that these ancient tribal groups exist in India is a revelation.  It is almost like visiting another planet where the occupants share our humanity but have evolved into wholly different societies than our own.”

As usual, I think that Gil’s observations are spot-on, except that I’d put one thing differently. I think that it is we who have evolved into a different society and that we now see signs that the tribes are “evolving” into a society more like ours. And it’s hard to be confident that that’s a good thing.

To everyone, thanks for coming along again.

And, namaste. Wouldn’t it be something if we all paid respect to the god within those we meet?

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