Tag Archives: India

The Other Most Beautiful Place On The Planet

kashmir

By PAT HARTMAN
News Editor

A lot of people have called Kashmir the most beautiful place in the world, and nowadays it has other names, too. Here’s a sobering tale. Film director/producer Rahul Dholakia arrives in the capital, Srinagar, with a sizeable production team and a lot of equipment, expecting to spend a month and a half on location shooting his newest work, Lamhaa. Three different varieties of government agencies tell him the country is in turmoil, and martial law could snap its jaws at any moment, with the population at the mercy of a strict curfew and a fire-at-will policy. For crowd control, he’s given some government protection, and hires some security, too.

So, he’s got 60 actors and crew at the vegetable market outside the city, and at first, some of the locals are hospitable. The film company goes to work. Word spreads, and about a thousand local men come out to watch. (In these parts, women don’t gawk at public spectacles, especially if foreigners are involved.) The crowd multiplies tenfold, and the director is taken hostage and brought before the local council, which tells the police, who are supposedly protecting the visitors, to get lost. Here’s part of Dholakia’s later account:

We had survived this almost six-hour ordeal, brushing death and mentally screwed. If this was day one, I dread to imagine how the rest of the shoot was going to be. A line in my film best summarizes our first day – “Welcome to Kashmir, the most dangerous place in the world”.

And that’s all we’re gonna say, except that it has something to do with local political squabbles, and also with international problems such as hating India, where Rahul Dholakia was born. He gained extensive production experience in his home country, then moved to the U.S. to earn a Masters degree from the New York Institute of Technology, and now lives in California, India, and wherever he happens to be making a movie. In India’s 2006 National Film Awards, his Parzania won in two categories.

This “most beautiful place” thing is, of course, strictly a matter of taste. But that doesn’t stop anybody from nominating their favorites. There are people who swear Patagonia is the most beautiful, and they make a good case. Bruce Chatwin and Paul Theroux both liked it so much they wrote books about it separately and together. Francis Ford Coppola recent filmed part of Tetro there. It’s a region, not a country, being part of two countries, Argentina and Chile. It’s the home of the Andean condor, the biggest bird there is, and has two very noteworthy mountains, Fitz Roy and Cerro Torre, and a glacier called Upsala.

In the Argentine portion of Patagonia, we learn from Physorg.com, there’s an area called Bajada del Diablo or Devil’s Slope, which at some time in the past was pockmarked by a rain of meteorites that left at least 100 craters. Some of those little hummers are 50 meters deep and 500 meters across. Bajada del Diablo is in fact the second biggest crater field in the world. The biggest is in Siberia, and it kind of makes you wonder why meteor showers would go out of their way to fall on two such bare, unpopulated places.

Ever notice how many of the very most interesting travel writers are the folks who are primarily in a place for some other reason? Example: Paul Theroux started writing about Africa because he was there with the Peace Corps. Kevin Dolgin travels for business, and writes because he has something to say. One kind of travel narrative is what comes out when you’re somewhere for another reason, and writing en passant, as it were. Another kind results from going somewhere just for the purpose of writing about it. Possibly, writers of science fiction (or speculative fiction, which many of its practitioners prefer to say) should be considered travel writers. If the ability to convey a sense of place is the criterion, maybe it shouldn’t matter if the place is imaginary. What do you think?

photo courtesy of madpai, used under this Creative Commons license

Taxis of the World: Know Them

taxi from Suvarnabhumi AirportBy PAT HARTMAN
News Editor

The taxi business seems to be one of those areas of modern life that naturally sorts itself into the good, the bad, and the ugly. The common cab is often a traveler’s first introduction to a new place, and more countries seem to be realizing the importance of that first impression. At the very least, you expect the driver, like the doctor, to “First, do no harm.” With luck, the driver will also know where he or she is going. It helps if they’re friendly, too – or at least minimally surly. You don’t want a driver to turn you down because it’s not enough of a fare to bother with. Sian Powell (who writes for The Australian, mostly about Thai politics and government) reports on the state of taxicabbery in the Chinatown of Singapore, where the meek are not blessed. Rather than tell the driver a destination and risk being spurned, Powell recommends the assertive approach:

I prefer to plump myself in and let the driver argue about it later. That way I have the upper hand, although it is true that I have been forced to retreat many times, when the taxi driver flatly refuses to go where I want to go, and I have to get out in a huff.

Powell evokes the dismal vision of 30 wet pedestrians queued up at a taxi stand. It’s very hard to catch a ride in the rain, because the liability costs for even the smallest accidents are too high for the owners to risk. And of course, in the rain is when you need a cab the most.

Kampala, Uganda, sounds like an absolute purgatory, according to Roger de Budo. Foreign tourists are shocked by the murky clouds of stinky exhaust gases, and the noise! He says the taxis “advertise their services not with a single sharp blast of their horns but with something like five or six long blasts every 200 metres.”

The pseudonymous “bfick,” who took the picture on this page, says,

When a car is purchased new, used or passed onto the next owner in Thailand, it’s common for a Monk to bless the car and the new owners; hence the markings on this taxi driver’s roof for good luck.

Which is all very lovely, but Thailand is also a battleground, say Chutima Sidasathian and Alan Morison of Phuketwan. “Black-plate” taxis are a very big problem, which instigated a crackdown, and led to an airport blockade and other unpleasant events. Apparently it’s been a pretty much constant battle between airport scam artists and the government, with some dramatic acting-out. And many miles away, in the dignified, ancient capital of the Czech Republic, taxi drivers and police recently had a street brawl, we learn from Dinah Spritzer in The New York Times. And that’s only the latest incident in an animosity at least two decades old. The trouble is the city authorities established the rates, and drivers charge two or three times the set amount. A couple of years ago, the mayor went out disguised as an Italian tourist and was charged five times the going rate. Things are better now, but the tourist must do his or her part, and here are the suggested tactics for transportational survival in Prague: get the concierge to call a reputable taxi for you, or you yourself can text-message the legit firms, and make arrangements. When you’re out and about, catch a cab only at the designated taxi stands. The whole industry is always infected with politics. In an Australian city, there’s trouble because foreign students are allowed taxi-driving licenses while native Queenslanders of the same age are not.

London, England, was recently voted Taxi Paradise of the World, so the British reputation for politeness is accurate. Also quite costly. A polite society is an expensive society, apparently. Maybe London cabbies are so cheery because they are now driving something cooler than those old, clunky black things. We learn this from Cathy Smith, author of Write and Sell Travel Articles, who has been at this game for over twenty years and who also provides a history of the word “taxicab” and the notion that the government took over control of this form of transportation because the drivers, historically, engaged in competition too vigorous for the public health and safety.

Harmeet Shah Singh, who writes regularly for CNN International, tells us that the upcoming Commonwealth Games have inspired Indian authorities to bring the auto-rickshaw industry to new heights of visitor-friendly attitude and service. A number of avenues for complaint are reported to be already in place, and soon, government-sponsored English classes will help auto-rickshaw drivers cope with an expected 100,000 tourists in October of next year. 40,000 vehicles are involved, which seems to imply more than 40,000 drivers, because why let a perfectly good vehicle sit idle for part of the day when a brother or cousin could be out there making money with it? Anyway, a reported 8,000 drivers are said to be booked for schooling in not only English, but first aid and life skills. And yoga.

First, it seems like anyone who ekes out a living as an auto-rickshaw driver in India must already possess an abundance of life skills. Second, doesn’t almost everyone in India speak some English already? There’s a bigger proportion of English speakers in India than there are India speakers in the West, you can bet your bottom rupee. Anyhow, the term “psychometric tests” is mentioned, which hints that New Delhi undertakes to guarantee the sanity of its cab drivers, always a sound practice in any metropolis.

This summer, news came from Tehran that tourism taxi service will be given a new look — orange — though the make of car was not quite chosen yet. But the Iranian drivers (who are, through a quirk of bureaucracy, overseen by the Cultural Heritage, Handicrafts and Tourism Organization) are also scheduled to learn English. Fluently.

Is the ubiquity of English a monstrous plot of cultural imperialism? Or is it what Esperanto should have been, a giant step toward a warm fuzzy world where everyone communicates and understands each other? On the other hand, doesn’t a lot of conflict originate between parties who understand each other all too well?

photo courtesy of bfick, used under this Creative Commons license

Travel Writers Unleashed: The Smithsonian Six

moroccoBy PAT HARTMAN
News Editor

Jan Morris, author of 40 books about travel and history, reflects on the current relevance of travel writing in Smithsonian Magazine by way of introducing the project it instituted. The September issue is devoted to the dream destinations of six name-brand travel writers. Morris tells why these folks are top-notch. Among other things, she says:

They are recording the effects of places or movements upon their own particular temperaments-recording the experience rather than the event, as they might make literary use of a love affair, an enigma or a tragedy… It is not invention that you will find in these pages, but something subtler: the alliance of knowledge and sensation, nature and intellect, sight and interpretation, instinct and logic. It is more real than fiction, but more genuine than mere fact, too.

Paul Theroux has said the greatest reward of travel is not so much in seeing exotic things, but in experiencing everyday things for the first time. Travel writers are addicted to the unfamiliar and the new — but only in their own self-defined ways. Theroux, for instance, says it is against his temperament to go sightseeing. His choice for the Smithsonian assignment was to drive across the United States, a journey he had never made before, and which he approached in I-Am-a-Camera mode. In “Taking the Great American Roadtrip” Theroux says, “My idea was not to linger anywhere, but to keep on the move, as though to create in my mind one long panning shot…” The cross-country drive led to his being chosen to write the foreword for Joseph Sohm’s Visions of America, a book of classic photographs, as reported by Alyce of At Home With Books.

Frances Mayes is a very well known writer about the Italian region called Tuscany. For this challenge, she chose Poland. Her husband and a lot of other people in his hometown were of Polish descent, and they had employed some very nice Polish builders in Italy. Geoff Ward, we are told, grew up in India, and went back many times as an adult, but had never visited the Punjab region. Susan Orlean chose Morocco, and Caroline Alexander made a return trip to Jamaica to see the fabulous botanical gardens of a village called Bath. Francine Prose decided to report on the western coast of Japan.

Now, here’s the question you just had to know was coming: What would be your dream destination, and why?

photo courtesy of Gret@Lorenz, used under this Creative Commons license