Sjoerd Cratsborn from Netherlands for BeyondHeadlines
With this story about my experiences in India, I want to share with you how I faced on one side divisions between people and on the other side togetherness and goodness.
As part of my Global Health (International Public Health) studies in the Netherlands I came for four weeks to India, including two weeks for traveling and two weeks for studying. I realized that this was a great opportunity for me to see different cultures. Because I like to meet new people and I love to be able to travel without any restrictions, I decided to travel alone. In advance of the trip I did not have much time, therefore my reading about India and its citizens started in the plane. To avoid the popular travelers’ literature and internet sites, I had bought a 25 year old book in a second hand shop. Through this reading I became more aware of the diversity of nature, religions and societies in India. I wondered how much of this diversity in culture and nature in the book was still present today.
When I made my first steps at Mumbai airport, the tropical air of South Asia helped me realizing that I had arrived somewhere far. Soon this joy was disturbed by the fact that I was not prepared for the bureaucracy of India. Standing in the line for the migrations desk I found out that I had forgotten to bring copies of the papers I had delivered to the Indian embassy in the Netherlands. Also, I realized that traveling without a clear plan is not an option in todays’ governmental administration. My solution was to aim at the line with the friendliest looking officer, but I was asked to come to a desk next to him. “Damn!” I thought. The immigration officer acted strict indeed, but after some discussions he seemed fortunately helpful, I finally got into the territory of India, “Pff!” At least six security checks later I arrived around 4 am that night with my second flight in Bengaluru. There my true trip started, I had one week time with nothing planned. I experienced an immense feeling of freedom. I waited in the main airport hall for the first sunrise to come and in the mean time I got my first advises from an Indian traveler. As recommended, I took a sightseeing bus from the state to see some of this immense city. Here I was welcomed by a dedicated tour guide in a nice white suit with well polished black shoes. Speaking in four languages, he gave us loads of information. When I asked him about the big works taking place in the city, he told me with tears in his eyes how Bengaluru – the green city – lost so many of its trees to the benefit of its rapid growth of the past decades. Indeed, some parts of the city are still very beautiful thanks to its trees full of red and sometimes yellow flowers which are hanging over the roads and houses. This remaining environment enabled me to imagine for a few seconds how it must have been at the time when my book was written and I was borne.
The same evening I took a bus to Mysore, a smaller less crowded city full of cultural heritage and an enormous temple left by its last ruling king. Although this is a major tourist town in Southern India, I did not see any western tourist, so the “anti-popular-guidebook” plan seemed to work well. My third day I was less lucky, arriving late in the evening at the National park between Mysore and Ootacamund (Ooty), where I had to pay a lot of money for my place to stay. At least the extensive price included a morning safari into the tiger park, but I needed a second safari in the afternoon to forget about the wasted money. I saw a wild tiger! Wow, it was so extremely well camouflaged! Seeing this in reality made me realize again how balanced nature is and how vulnerable it must be for our human activities. The old book was still right saying: “you have a pretty good chance of seeing tigers here”, with special thanks to the people who preserved the forest and its animals of course. The following two nights I stayed in Ooty, another beautiful tourist destination, and much cooler thanks to its location high in the mountains. There I met another “living-guidebook” next to a mosque. A retired teacher enjoying his old days. He told me where to eat nice for a good price and explained me how to travel towards a pleasant place with a lot of forest in Kerala state before going north to my destination in Manipal.
Driving through Tamil Nadu state the bus was descending a beautiful track trough the mountains. Soon the air became warmer and the environment looked much dryer. I was seeing a different world again. Using the advises from people I met on my way, I was traveling between several towns by state busses. The busses were for me not only a place for human contact and often a chat, but also an opportunity to understand bits of culture and human behavior in general. Daily I was surprised by things I saw, especially the friendliness among people and towards me even in these sweaty packed busses. A similar situation in a European country mostly results in stressed individuals that ignore each other as much as possible. Sadly, to my surprise, I also saw several times during my trip that old people had to give their seats to a much younger person. For example during my second day I saw an old man wearing a kind of towel on his head and another folded around his obviously abnormal thin legs who was getting instructed by a bus conductor to leave his seat to a young man around my age. The first time, I assumed that this man was poor and paid less for his ticket and therefore had to leave his seat. In Europe we normally give our seat to older people – or at least that is the moral behavior- hence there is always at least one person in a bus who shows his or her respect. To understand the Indian habits better I asked about it to people in busses like this. I found out that everybody pays the same amount of money but that does not mean that everybody is treated the same. Soon I started to recognize the people that are treated differently by the majority and I had situations in which I was that young man who was appointed the seat of another person. I felt the kind of social pressure of taking the seat as said by the conductor, but with some spontaneous words like “I have very young legs, they want to stand” or “no no, I was sitting already the whole day” I could stand proudly and still having the feeling that I did not disrupt the sociocultural values or at least ‘habits’ in the bus too much with my behavior. I felt good.
Once I had a nice single seat in the front next to the bus driver with between us a gear box, a typical huge thing in the these classic busses. After one hour we stopped in a somewhat bigger town, I saw four women coming towards our bus. From a distance I recognized them as ‘lower class’. I don’t know exactly why but from one women in particular I could see her skin had suffered a lot from working outside in the sun for years. Two of them came to sit on the gear box next to me. A third sat on the ground, and a fourth women remained standing with small baby in her arms. I was again astonished that even after a few minutes she was still standing, so of course I offered her my seat. I left my big backpack at my seat and my bag with valuables I put on the dashboard out of reach of anyone and where I could see it while standing. Although happy to help, with this individual, I did not have a good feeling about her when I gave her my seat. I remember she did not act thankful at all, which I thought was because she was ashamed or shy, something I could understand. While driving, I saw my big heavy backpack falling against her legs, so I hand-signed her: “push it away from yourself”. I do not know if it was on purpose, but she didn’t do that, in stead she handed me my small backpack which I had left in my sight on the dashboard. I told and signed to her, “no no, put it back, I meant the big one bothering you.” This did not work, and instead my small backpack ended on the floor between her feet. Soon after that, I understood that she was going to breast feed the baby. I wasn’t sure but for politeness I looked away for a while and stopped thinking about my bags. At least 2 hours standing later, the woman with her baby left the bus. I was happy to go to sit again. Before I reached my seat climbing over the woman sitting on the floor in front of me, the bus already hit the road. Thus, at the moment I got to my seat and discovered my backpack had been opened, the thief was gone. I made a stupid mistake! Having met so many very friendly and helpful people that week, I did trust too much the goodness of all people. I found out that my wallet was the only thing that disappeared. Another silliness was that I had been to the bank that morning to take money for the upcoming two weeks and did not divide my money to several places. Still stunned, I told the driver that I got robbed. Soon the story went around in the bus in local language, I saw the women next to me still on the gearbox discussing with hand signs how the woman with child could have stolen it unseen with so many people nearby. From the back of the bus, a woman who spoke well in English came to me and asked me two questions: “Do you have any money left? Do you know anybody in India?” I grabbed in my pockets and realized that I had only about 100 rupees left. Next, she asked me where I was heading to. I told her I was going towards Kerala state and after that to Manipal University near Mangalore. But now the plan would change, I would go as soon as possible to the university town to meet with other students and professors who could help me out since also my bank cards where taken too. She said she would help me to show me the shortest way and gave me 500 rupees. Feelings of my own naivety and irritation towards the steeling woman were replaced by thankfulness. I understood this was a big amount of money to give to a stranger. She told the driver to stop at the next bus stand where I could take a bus back to the place the woman who took my money had gotten out. When the bus stopped, I thanked her for her sympathy and support and at that moment, people started to stand up and pass through money from the back of the bus to the front. I still remember clearly the looks on the people’s faces. I felt shivers on my arms and had problems to control my emotions and thoughts. This was amazing. At the last moment when I was taking my backpacks to leave, I saw the woman who was sitting for nearly three hours in front of me on the floor getting up. – She was one of the four woman who I saw as poor because of her looks of sun-damaged skin and the fact that she accepted so easily to not get a seat – I saw her standing up for the first time that ride and reaching out 100 rupees to me. I directly said to her: “no, no, thank you, I will be fine”, I felt a very strong connection with the woman right now, tears shot into my eyes and she, she just pushed the money in my left hand. I touched her hand with my right hand looking into her beautiful face.. I got of the bus having difficulties to breathe and swallow overloaded by emotions. It felt like something supernatural had happened, something that comes from a holy book. After a few seconds of vagueness in my head, noises started to come in again and I realized that a young man – who I didn’t see before in the bus – got out with me to check I was fine. He and the conductor of the bus brought me to a bus back to Dharapuram to go to the Police Station there. The guy said he had lived in London for a while and gave me his phone number in case I needed help, and in the mean time the conductor of the bus we came from instructed his colleagues to drop me at Dharapuram Police station. The new conductor arrived at the stop and he even went out of the bus with me to explain my situation to the police. After thanking him as well, I sat down at the police post. I ended up with four police men of somehow higher ranks, because they where not wearing uniforms but a star on their clothes. One of their first questions was, do you still have your passport? As soon as I confirmed that, they became relaxed and where even laughing a bit from me. Something I completely understood because I had no idea where I was at that moment, other than that I was in Tamil Nadu state. I also could not tell them which place I was heading for with that bus, as at that moment I also couldn’t find my paper with descriptions I got from the man at the mosque. I had to laugh from it myself as well now. I told my story again, and mentioned that I got a lot of money from the people in the bus, to be exact 1500 rupees! This should be more than enough to make it to Manipal I said. Then, the main policeman grabbed in his chest pocket and gave me another thousand from his own wallet! Amazed again, I thanked him very much, not knowing what else to say. They planned the trip for me to Manipal, which almost led me to the wrong place because it seemed that there are two place called Manipal in Inida. Luckily we came to discover this when I saw that I would have to be in the train for two days, that would be too long! I am sure that I made a very confusing impression to these four men, therefore they became even more concerned. Having the correct travel plan carefully written down in twofold, they took me to a restaurant to provide me with food, which they insisted to pay from their own pockets. Then I was brought to the right bus, they paid my ticket and not one but even two big bottles of water were pushed into my hands. I thanked them a thousand times and I promised to spread some good words in my country about Indian police. Thank you officers/inspectors of Dharmapur for this wonderful treatment! When darkness fell I arrived at Tiruppur train station. I bought a ticket for the train of 11.30pm towards Mangalore or Udupi, I cannot remember that. When I sat down with my ticket to wait, I realized that a more than 10 hours taking night ride could not be that cheap. It was 108 rupees only, which would not provide me with a seat I understood. Back at the ticket counter the women told me that this was the only ticket available now, I should ask the conductor on the train if I wanted another class. During waiting time I studied the trains and found out that trains were pretty full and that it was not that easy to find a conductor. Indeed, getting into the train, I realized that people were not hanging out of the doors for fresh air only, it was fuller than I could imagine with no places to leave your bag, or even your feet with people everywhere on each piece of available surface. That night I experienced feelings of ‘Oh no!’, ‘fear’, ‘minor assault’, ‘compassion’ for people doing this more often, ‘sorry’ for people being scold at constantly or even being hit (by flat hands though), ‘extreme tiredness’, ‘giving up’, ‘pain’ of standing on one foot for more than an hour, ‘giving up again’, but also feelings of ‘togetherness’ and ‘cohesion’ with the people of India. I hope to tell you enough saying that we ended up singing songs in that over-packed train wagon. I arrived in Manipal with a huge smile on my face and a mind full of stories and experiences that I will never forget. I was ready to see more of India and its people.
The day after an Indian student reacted to my story: “I cannot imagine that there is still something like a division in classes in busses nowadays.” I hope my story will lead to some second thoughts within and among people of all classes about divisions, equalities and social cohesion. Not only in India, but also in the Western countries like the Netherlands where power and money seems to divide us more and more. Therefore, encouraged by Indian friends from different backgrounds and religions, I wrote this story and sent it to this news website called BeyondHeadlines.
Thank you India.