Saturday, July 01, 2006

hi-lo tech india

Shaun Williams ~ My interest in photography began in 2000 with a trip to London, England. The trip to London was my first venture outside of the United States and I wanted to be certain that as time progressed and my memory faded that I would never forget what I saw and the experiences I had. I purchased a Canon Rebel EOS 2000 SLR film camera to document my journey.

That trip to London and the purchase of my first Canon camera sparked an interest in photography that has led me to where I am today as a photographer for phocas.net.

Since that time it is always a great pleasure for me when I have the chance to combine two of my favorite things, photography and international travel, and return to my roots as a photographer.

A few weeks ago I traveled to India on a business trip but did not miss the opportunity to mix it with pleasure. Armed with the latest Canon Rebel XT Digital SLR I expected to take many pictures. What I didn’t quite expect was the impact of what I saw with my own eyes and captured with my camera. On the flight home I was convinced that I needed to share the images and the story that went along with them with everyone I could back home.

Arrival

It took roughly 20 hours to reach Delhi, the capital of India, from Chicago with a brief layover in Frankfurt, Germany. The differences between the East and West were immediately apparent. Deplaning in Delhi occurs on the tarmac and a subsequent bus ride will take you to the terminal building. The terminal is not a terminal as we know it in the United States. There was no air conditioning and it was a balmy 115 degrees or so. The “terminal” was basically a small room with one exit and entrance to the tarmac. Every seat was dirty and stained with something. There were no fancy LCD’s directing travelers where to go.

I managed to find baggage claim, collected my luggage, purchased a cab ride, and thus my journey began. The sights and smells I experienced on the ride from the Delhi airport to my hotel will never leave me. If a picture is worth a thousand words then being there in person must be worth a billion.

The poverty in India is nothing like poverty in the United States. I witnessed people and families who live on the side of the road and in the median. Some had makeshift tents made out of whatever fabric or plastic could be found. The amount of garbage and waste on every street cooking in the 115 degree heat produced a smell so horrible that covering my nose with my shirt did nothing to ease the sting in my nostrils. On several occasions I simply stopped breathing to avoid the smell.

I quickly learned that navigating traffic in India is not something any of us from the West would be able to do. While there are lines painted on some of the roads this appeared to be a remnant of the British Empire as they didn’t really mean anything. Any motor vehicle can drive anywhere on the road. Up the middle, zig zagging, inches from other vehicles on both sides, it didn’t matter. All that was necessary was a toot from the horn to let others know you were coming through.

Major intersections have traffic lights that most drivers seemed to obey. At one of these stops I witnessed what appeared to be a mother and two children in the median next to me. Living. There were clothes on the ground and hanging from the trees. A tent was nearby. A boy probably no older than 5 with several large scars on his body was playing with a knife.

The "untouchables” are the lowest caste or class of Indian society and they use their children as sources of income. A mother will encourage her children to cut and scar themselves to generate sympathy and consequently donations from passersby. As I waited for the light to change I was spotted by the mother and she quickly ushered her children and herself to the side of the vehicle. I was obviously a Westerner with money. Her and her children made repetitive motions with their hands near their mouths. While I couldn’t understand Hindi, the language she was speaking, I knew what she was saying. “We are damn hungry and if you could give us some money we would greatly appreciate it”.

After about 10 minutes had passed I had seen no sign of anything remotely suggesting that I would be spending my weekend in anything but misery. I began to wonder if the cab driver even understood where he was supposed to be taking me. A few minutes later we arrived at a walled compound. When the gates were opened I breathed a sigh of relief as I saw the Marriott sign. This was the only oasis of wealth I saw on the entire ride from the airport to the hotel. The hotel was palatial with marble floors a
nd walls. And most importantly, no smell.

Nearly in tears from what I saw, most of which I could not photograph simply because I was in shock, I decided to spend the rest of the afternoon and evening in the hotel to collect my thoughts. I arranged a day trip for the following morning through the hotel travel service which would take me to Agra to see the Taj Mahal. I grabbed a bite to eat and went to sleep.

Agra and the Taj Mahal

After some much needed rest I woke up the next morning refreshed and ready to go. The travel coach was a huge air conditioned Volvo charter bus. I appreciated this more and more as we left Delhi. Each stop in traffic took only seconds for peddlers and the poor to swarm the bus looking for handouts or to sell peacock feathers, books, handicrafts, and the like. As we left Delhi the next several hours gave me a glimpse of rural Indian life. Unskilled laborers in India can make an average wage of $2 to $3 per day or roughly $600 per year. I saw school children sitting outdoors on the ground in formation for class. I saw what looked to be dilapidated straw huts. Upon closer inspection they turned out to be homes where families lived.

Despite the poverty and miserable conditions people seemed very friendly. Our group was traveling in the nicest vehicle on the road which screamed “Western tourists”. Many people smiled, waved, and posed for pictures even as we drove down the road. It was also quite comical to watch the reaction of every rural Indian male on the highway to Agra when they made eye contact with the American girl a couple of seats behind me.

In and around the Agra area we visited several tombs, the Agra Fort, and the Taj Mahal. Words alone cannot describe the magnitude, beauty, and brilliance of the architecture involved. The buildings and tombs from Agra were all built between 1300 and 1600. It’s amazing how structurally sound those buildings are and how original paint can still be seen in some of the tombs. However, the Taj Mahal is not painted. The color is actually smaller slivers of marble that were individually crafted. You can begin to understand how it took 20,000 people over 20 years to build the Taj Mahal. After visiting the Taj Mahal we were taken to a marble factory where descendants of those who helped build the structure still practice marble craftwork using the same techniques by hand and even a secret glue recipe used to set the smaller slivers into hand carved areas of larger pieces of marble. This is what gives the marble work its painted appearance.

Delhi

On Sunday I hired a personal tour guide for a half day to take me to some of the sites in Delhi. It was scorching hot which made it all the more interesting that the men still wore pants and most even wore long sleeve shirts. The women were mostly dressed in traditional Saris. I saw nobody but westerners in shorts.

The tour guide took me to the British Imperial part of town where government buildings, monuments, and diplomatic residences exist. These areas appeared to be the nicest part of Delhi that I saw.

He also took me to another tomb and the oldest part of Delhi that exists. Delhi is a city that has been destroyed seven times throughout the course of human history. It is currently in its eighth reincarnation. However, a small section of the first city still exists. These structures were constructed in the 9th and 10th centuries. Even more amazing is a steel column that was erected in this part of town by the builders of the original city. This steel column dates back to roughly the 4th century as it is over 1600 years old. The strange thing is the column was coated with something that made it rust proof even though tests have shown it is over 99% steel. To this day it is unknown what was used to coat column to make it rust proof. Looking closer at the column you can see ancient writing in Sanskrit inscribed. I’m not sure if we know what the writing says. I expected that if we did there would have been a monument or something nearby telling us. Either way it was absolutely amazing. After visiting the old city I did some shopping and headed to the airport to catch my flight to Hyderabad where I would be working for the week.

Hyderabad

Upon arriving in Hyderabad even though it was dark I noticed a drastic difference in quality of life. The city seemed a bit more like New York or L.A. than a third world country. There were many modern buildings, shopping centers, restaurants, bright lights, and a bustling night life.

My previous experiences in Agra and Delhi felt pretty third world compared to Hyderabad. Although Hyderabad still suffered from infrastructure issues and poverty, wealth was also very apparent. It was particularly interesting to see what must have been multi-million U.S dollar homes with a wall around it yet right next to the wall were tent cities of extremely destitute people.

I worked in a part of town called High Tech City. This is the part of town which has basically been built by large American corporations searching for cheap labor. The buildings in this part of town are very Western looking in appearance and amenities. These types of buildings are the only types of buildings in India that use heavy machinery during construction. Most buildings in India are built entirely by hand using rather primitive construction techniques.

Even though High Tech City was very nice the power would go out several times per day and backup generators would kick in. I know the infrastructure of the country is not as advanced as the United States’; however, I couldn’t help but compare the situation to the rolling blackouts experienced major US cities during the hottest parts of the summer. In our case it isn’t so much of an infrastructure problem as one of simple supply and demand. In India it was probably a combination of both.

I also had the opportunity to visit a nightclub in Hyderabad. Unfortunately it was on a Wednesday night and only an hour before closing so there were not many people there. The club was called Bottles and Chimneys and happens to be one of Hyderabad’s hot spots. Much as we have bottle service in the United States they have a hookah service in which flavored tobacco is brought in multiple hookahs. I am not a cigarette smoker by any means but the water cooled strawberry and blueberry tobacco was excellent.

Home Again

The smells, colors, poverty, culture, heat, and many other things made India the most wonderful travel experience I have ever had. I had adjusted to the power outages, heat, no hamburgers, and Indian food. I appreciated the friendliness of everyone whether they spoke English or not. Every person who could speak English always addressed me as sir, yes sir, or no sir. Despite the initial overwhelming shock by the end of the trip I found myself not wanting to leave. This article can do nothing to convey what I experienced. If you ever have an opportunity to visit India, jump on it!

No comments:

Post a Comment