travelogue – Vinoba – India

“I am a man who belongs to another world than this, one that may seem very strange. For I claim that I am moved by love. That I feel it all the time.”
– Vinoba Bhave

Who is this crank?

Naipaul called him a “fool-parody” of Gandhi.

I found him magnificent.


As Gandhi was our most worthy reformer, with the most noble cause, Vinoba is the only Saint I know. Both practiced what they preached. Both lived in our world, not in a mountain cave.

Vinoba was Gandhi’s nearest and truest follower. Guileless. Disarmingly honest. Utterly undiplomatic. He claimed, “no gulf between what I feel and what I say”.

Gandhi chose the little known Vinoba, who’s “purity of motive was unquestionable”, as the first jail-goer in 1940, ahead of Nehru. Vinoba understood that he was to fast to the death on reaching prison. Fortunately Gandhi’s message to “hold off on that for now” reached there in time.

Bapu was “fascinated and overjoyed” by Vinoba and his work. He invariably sent visitors (including me) the 5 km. to Paunaur ashram where Vinoba toiled independently but parallel with his mentor.

Vinoba was a communicator, a simplifier, a translator of Gandhian thought. Though he had not one whit of Gandhi’s humour or charisma, he could convince anyone. Bandits laid down their weapons at his feet and repented.

Vinoba was unbelievably single-minded. His mother suggested he translate the Gita from Sanskrit to his native tongue. He sat down at 5 AM Oct. 7, 1930 and worked until Feb. 6, 1931.

He learned Arabic in order to study the Koran. In fact, he studied all the great religious texts, many in the original, memorizing much, eventually learning 30 languages.

Vinoba noted that Gandhi was “not a very learned man”, too busy to study properly.

Vinoba was a scientist, trusting personal experience. He wanted a minimal diet, finding he could work on as little as 1200 calories / day. He experimented with sleep, variously 2 to 10 hours, eventually settling on 8 / night.

He experimented with, then adopted, regular periods of voluntary silence (as did Gandhi) one day / week. He reported “a remarkable experience of peace”.

He couldn’t see logic in polluting rivers with cremation ashes so, starting with his father, they were buried.

Vinoba loved Gandhi and was utterly devoted. “Bapu (father) was our philosopher’s stone, making heroes out of clay.” That in him Gandhi converted a“savage” to one with “a craze for service”.

“I do not deal in opinions but only in thoughts, in which there can be give and take.”

Vinoba never criticized Gandhi, but often questioned his ideas. He tested Gandhi. “Had he been found wanting, I would not have stayed.” Indeed, when in doubt, Gandhi consulted Vinoba who was “untainted by politics”.

Vinoba took Gandhi’s programme to the next level.“Though we are small men we can stand on the shoulders of giants like the Buddha and Gandhi and perhaps see a little farther.”

Once India was an independent democracy, Vinoba could see no need of non-violent resistance. Instead? “Non-violent Assistance.” The fighter goes to no-mans-land, offers help, willing to die if necessary. He expanded the concept of the Peace Army; one “soldier” for every 5000 population, ready to intervene in case of disturbance.

“I do not want to know your religion or your views, but only what your troubles are. I want to help you get rid of them.”

– Louis Pasteur

Vinoba is most famed (cover Time magazine) for his“Land Gift” movement. He set off on foot walking village to village, rarely staying more than 1 night. After consulting elders, he would approach the wealthiest landlords of the district asking for property to turn over to the village or landless peasants. In this country, few can refuse a truly Holy man.

Vinoba walked 13 years, over 36,000 miles, accepting over 4.4 million acres of land. Admittedly he left behind many problems when he walked on the next day, but the utter simplicity, the scope of this achievement overwhelms me.

Today he would be scheduling appointments with Gates and Turner.

From Vinoba’s we trekked over to the nearby National Leprosy centre. I felt blessed to meet and watch the patients at work. Never have I known such meek, thankful people.

Gandhi destigmatized this disease. The famed poet Parchure was at an advanced stage, considering suicide. Gandhi invited him in, nursing and cleaning his wounds personally.

An army of Indian leprosy social workers then rose up. Rural India of that day was “backwardness, poverty, exploitation, superstition”, “disease all rampant and horrible”, the Director told us over lunch.

Today leprosy is diagnosed early and “cured”(arrested) in an average of 6 months. The children appeared quite normal, to me. They all return home after treatment.

After Gandhi’s death, Vinoba was much involved in the “Centre of Science for Villages”, improving the technologies of village self-sufficiency. They research bee-keeping, compost, solar power, cottage crafts, and the like. There’s even a toilet museum!

Out here in the middle of nowhere you’ll find the modern Kasturba Gandhi hospital and medical school. It’s amazing what has bloomed around these 2 ashrams.

Vinoba was much influenced by his pious mother. Once a “sturdy” beggar came to the door. He got an equal portion of the prepared dinner. When Vinoba protested, she asked, “Who are we to judge who is worthy and who is unworthy? I must regard every person who knocks as God.”

He was never able to convincingly refute that idea.

Gandhi once advised him to “use a magnifying glass to inspect other people’s good qualities and your own faults”. But, later, Vinoba decided to pay no attention to faults in others or in himself. “Good is God.”

“Live affectionately together” was his message. At his ashram he added a 12th vow, “Speak ill of no other person”.

Vinoba’s ashram was modeled on Gandhi’s, a benevolent dictatorship. But Vinoba came to feel this was a weakness. “Problems started as soon as Bapu closed his eyes.”

Vinoba withdrew his guidance, asking his Sadhaks to do what “collectively and unanimously decide, putting aside those proposals, for now, on which there is no agreement.” The 31 inmates, today, mostly women, still decision-make this way.

Vinoba wrote. He wanted to pass on what he had gathered, “Whether it proves to be true knowledge, or some kind of ignorance which I have mistaken for knowledge.” His final book draft he referred to as“Half-formed Mutterings”. But someone published it as “A Nosegay of Thoughts”.

Friendship was important to Vinoba. Gandhi had taught that all are equal, no one should be “special”, not even spouse and children.

But Vinoba recited the names of 1000 friends and colleagues, like the 1000 Names of God, as a prayer each day, just to bring them to mind.

I like that.

Half-formed McMutterings:

The socialist governments of the Nehru clan were not effective, even in India. The consumer’s paradise I envision — highest quality, lowest cost, available when and where needed — can eventually be delivered by the free market.

If, then, enough people evolve to adopt voluntary simplicity that — coupled with the efficiencies of a competitive market place — would provide plenty enough for all. And a surplus to start cleaning-up the planet.

ZPG is essential. That can come with education.

Social activism is essential. We need more Vinobas, not more government welfare.

Philanthropy is essential. Gandhi counted generousmerchant princes among his closest friends. Actually I trust Bill Gates to invest more wise than tax and spend governments.

Dreaming on.

Alpatma McCharles

travelogue – Gandhi – India

Gandhi’s “Village of Service” ashram is in Sevagram, the very heart of India. We were greeted warmly by Rambhau. Smiling, he handed us the daily schedule:

4:30 AM! Wake-up
4:45 “Prayer”
5:15 Study
6:30 “Bread Labour”
7:30 Breakfast
8:00 Kitchen work
8:30 (free)
11:00 Lunch
11:30 (rest)
2:00 pm (spinning thread)
2:30 Study
5:00 Dinner
6:00 “Prayer”
6:30 Study
7:30 (devotional & national music / discussion)
9:00 Bed

Gandhi smileGandhi said, My life is my message. The study of Gandhian thought here is active learning.

Rambhau is fit & energized, kindly & wise. During morningbread labour (the dirtiest jobs he can find) he joyfully outworks the backpackers.

As a fire-brand at age 18, he told his family he would go to the revolutionary, Gandhi. Father threatened suicide. Rambhau asked that he do it quickly so that he could perform the last rites. Rambhau would not return home.

He’s been at the ashram since — over 50 years.

Rambhau has not travelled. He’s not seen the mountains where old Hindus should go. Echoing Gandhi, he said, My Himalayas are here.

Rambhau is inspiring and grand. But there is a grander. Grander than the God of Michelangelo. Stooped, big-bearded, bushy-eyed. The ancient’s mobility is limited but, in excellent English, he told that he was still completely self-sufficient. He joined in 1945.

Another of Gandhi’s Freedom Fighters, age 75, was visiting. He did go to the Himalayas, completing the sacred Narmada river pilgrimage as a sadhu. For over 450 days he never touched money. Best experience of his life. He was still elated.

I suggested to his son that father had earned a good rest. I’m afraid not, he said. Now he will be a caged tiger.

In 1916 Gandhi was to speak to a noisy crowd who did not yet know him. He stood on a table.

I will not address you as long as I hear the voice of even a single person, nor will I leave this hall as long as a single person is left to hear me. Know that I am obstinate.

These words had a magic effect. Three in the audience that night became disciples. One was Desai — Gandhi’s personal secretary for life.

Who was Gandhi that he could so inspire these impressive people? I only knew him as Ben Kingsley.

In the West we vaguely associate the Mahatma (“great soul”) with:

  • winning Indian Independence
  • passive resistance
  • acceptance of poverty
  • return to the simplicity of India’s rural economy

Each of these is wrong.

Who was Gandhi?

Nehru said his greatest gift was fearlessness. Indeed, that is the Gita’s first divine quality of theMan of Steadfast Wisdom, Gandhi’s favourite scripture which we recited daily at the ashram:

… jealous of none, who is without egotism, who is selfless, who treats alike hot and cold, happiness and misery, who is ever forgiving, who is always contented, who’s resolutions are firm, who is versed in action and yet remains unaffected by it, who treats friend and foe alike, who loves silence and solitude, who has a disciplined reason

Multi-denominational prayers are chanted in Sanskrit, Hindi, Urdu (Islam), and English (Lord’s Prayer). A blind man accompanies on home-made sitar.

Though Gandhi’s fearlessness was to fear nothing and frighten no one, I find it scary. A Buddhist detachment.

Death is not such a disaster. It comes sooner or later.

Some are ready to die, but can’t bear to have their loved ones taken away. Others can’t part with property. Others fear the bad opinion of the world.

Gandhi met the King of England as a half-naked fakir(Churchill), wearing a peasant’s dhoti. Like Christ he defied the greatest Empire, alone.

When asked if he felt under-dressed for Buckingham Palace, he replied, The King was wearing enough for the both of us.

In the West we mainly know Gandhi for freeing India. Actually, this was his darkest hour, Partitionhis greatest defeat. Perhaps 500,000 dead, 10 million displaced. While they celebrated Independence in Delhi, Gandhi was comforting the despairing in East Bengal. He declined to speak to the BBC — They must forget I know how to speak English.

Gandhi was a warrior, as driven to conquer as any Alexander.

My mission is to convert every Indian, every Englishman, and finally the world to non-violence.

I’ve been a fighter for over 50 years. But I found weapons more powerful than guns and tanks — truth and non-violence”

Does this sound like a passive resister?

He was no martyr, but a man of action. He wanted results. Like any general, he picked his battles.

He fought for South African Indians but not for the Blacks. (Mandella has forgiven him.) Through the deliverance of India, I seek to deliver the so-called weaker races of the Earth.

He fought for untouchables, but downplayed other caste injustice. If untouchability goes, the caste system goes.

Gandhi loved confrontation. Loved to win over his opponent with courtesy, kindness, and the power of his personality.

Gandhi was no peace-nik. He was warlike, and was called to task for it by one of his greatest admirers,The Poet Tagore, who felt that hunger strikes and burning of British cloth were not conversion but coercion, a lesser violence.

Gandhi and war:

  • Zulu war — NON-VIOLENT support of British. Ambulance core.
  • WW 1 — VIOLENT support of the British. Tried to enlist Indian soldiers.
  • WW 2 — NON-VIOLENT moral (conditional) support of British.
  • 1947 — VIOLENT support. Told Nehru, You can’t escape sending the army to Kashmir.

Where there is only a choice between cowardice and violence, I would advise violence.

Gandhi slipped at the end. Compassion got the better of him. If he did not reluctantly agree to Partition, his comrades would be ruined.

Gandhi loved to call himself a Hindu. But wasn’t he a heretic? He abandoned the temple by age 16. He knew no idol. He railed against untouchability and Hindu treatment of women. In fact, he denounced almost all of what we would call Hinduism assuperstition.

Humanitarianism. That was Gandhi’s God, though he called it Rama.

I will give you a talisman. Recall the face of the poorest and most helpless man whom you may have seen and ask yourself if the step you contemplate is going to be of any use to him.

This talisman is key to understanding Gandhi. This is the premise. Everything else falls into place.

One disciple kept 2 photos on his wall; Gandhi (my master) and a poor peasant (my master’s master).

Gandhi’s fight to free India was only a means to an end. Under colonial exploiters it was impossible to fight poverty, prevent disease, end suffering. Even before self-rule had been won, his focus had shifted to Advancement of All.

For Gandhi, work was worship. To work until not a single citizen was deprived of the necessities of life.

His last (unheeded) directive to the Congress Party was to disband; to pledge to make every village self-sufficient; that all workers form a service army to promote:

  • Khadi (hand-spun clothing)
  • basic education
  • women’s welfare
  • removing untouchability
  • Hindu-Muslim unity
  • “Peace Army”

Gandhi had great timing, a marvellous gift for symbolic action. He kept it simple. The audience was illiterate; the dumb millions. He identified with and united these disparate people beyond what seemed possible.

Remember his march to Dandi? To pick-up natural sea salt which the British were trying to tax. That was perfect.

Salt March

I want world attention in this battle of right vs. might.

His ashram is a living museum almost unchanged since his death. It was Gandhi’s experiment in training Satyagrahas (seekers after the steadfast truth), sometimes called Sadhaks (servants of society).

The “inmates” vow to live by Gandhi’s 11 Commandments:

  • Truth
  • Non-violence
  • Chastity
  • Non-possession
  • Non-stealing
  • Bread Labour
  • Control of Palate
  • Fearlessness
  • Equality of religions
  • Self-sufficiency (use local products only)
  • Removal of untouchability

Sadhaks seek spiritual fulfilment through social service, without living beyond the means of the poor.

When a court asked Gandhi his occupation he replied, Farmer and weaver.

Non-stealing is much more than Thou shall not steal. Gandhi felt that keeping a secret was stealing; accepting anything you don’t really need is thieving; even a desire could be theft.

Non-possession is voluntary poverty, and more. Being content with the minimum possible, and being a trustee of those few items, not the owner. Gandhi admired sadhus who seek truth with no possessions. The rest of us need critically examine our possessions and try to reduce them.

Bread Labour is a curious Russian notion that people should WORK for their breakfast. Manual labour. Farm work is best.

We ate excellent food; seasonal, home-grown, unseasoned (except for a little salt and sugar).Ideally the sun should be our only cook.

They use solar cookers and a cow manure biogas stove. Gandhi advocated we drink 2 pounds! of milk every day, (no wonder cow protection is so important) boiled, though he knew that not to be completely safe.

Everyone washes their own dishes, scouring with ash.

I won’t dwell on Gandhi’s failed experiments, his mistakes — but I’ll note a few briefly.

He had some mistaken ideas of holistic medicine — using mudpacks, for example, to treat all manner of illness.

Gandhi did not advocate contraception. Big mistake. Reincarnated today (after a quick headcount) he would reverse that stand, as well as his opposition to inoculation.

He was too puritanical, though as forgiving as demanding. Too enamoured of the religious traditions of renunciation, prayer as confession of unworthiness, fasting, and penance.

Chastity as a straight and narrow road to enlightenment is over-rated at best, anguishing and damaging at worst. I’m surprised it persists with so many seekers.

Most infamously, in the last years, Gandhi tested his self-control (hoping to gain power) by asking young women to lay down with him at night. Other people slept nearby, doors were open. But perhaps this was his Himalayan blunder.

Notwithstanding his few and unimportant faults, Gandhi will prove to be our greatest prophet. The warrior brave enough to embrace his enemy. When I say Gandhi, I see King, Mandella, the Dalai Lama, Aung San Suu Kyi.

Non-violence is increasingly the only option. Would India and Pakistan be playing cricket if both had not tested nuclear weapons?

(Now that an Islamic nation has the bomb, it’s time to revisit the hasty British withdrawal from India and the Middle East; the role of Indian-hating Churchill in the dynamic.)

Ultimately Gandhi declared that Truth is God. A leader who puts truth first is credible — essential if conflicts are to be resolved with words. The alternative is arms.

I regard Gandhi as the only truly great figure of our age…. Generations to come will scarce believe that a one such as this was ever flesh and blood walked the Earth.
– Einstein

It would surprise me if Gandhi is not soon worshipped as a God — an incarnation of Vishnu, along with the Buddha.

Perhaps those two are together now. Gandhi said if he was ever fortunate enough to talk with the Lord Buddha he wouldn’t hesitate to ask him why he did not teach the gospel of WORK instead of contemplation.

Gandhi embraced the Christian work ethic. (I’ve come to believe this is wrong. Many workaholics are misled. Good work is good. Bad work is bad, or at least a waste of time.)

It will take some decades (as it did with Christ and Siddhartha) to forget he was human. Now is not the time.

Vinoba was asked what Gandhi would think of how India was progressing.

Men like Gandhi transcend time. He is known as the father of the nation. We are all his children. For the moment, we are behaving as children.

In his lifetime we worked with confidence, but not self-confidence. We worked with confidence in Gandhi.

Vinoba said we should not be dismayed. The forces of peace in the world have never been as strong. It took great vision to make this statement during the Cold War.

Gandhi and grandsonGandhi and grandson Kanaa


travelogue – that aching gap – south India

I couldn’t stop grinning. The terrain strange, wild, beautiful. Giant granite boulders heaped inexplicably among green plantations and meandering rivers.

This is Hampi — lost City of Victory, one of 3 astonishing abandoned cities in India.


Hampi is land of the Monkey Kingdom in The Ramayana, an epic of greater than Biblical importance to Hindus.

It’s that old plot; boy (Rama) marries girl (Sita), demon kidnaps girl, boy and monkey (Hanuman) rescue girl, boy denounces girl as soiled goods, girl swears to have kept her virtue, boy and girl reunited in Heaven.

In Hampi, Hanuman is the most cherished God. Monkeys are sacred, a Holy Terror, actually. There’smonkey menace.

These sneaks loot kitchens, snatch daypacks from tourists, steal candy from children. In the cool Hill Station of Kodaicanal, monkeys violate the Hostel dorms every morning. They’ve learned how to open backpacks.

One Hampi monkey I saw swiped a hand mirror — he paused every once in a while to admire himself.

Locals despair of monkeys, but I love them. Fighting, playing, mounting. So human. And such pleasing posture.

The Hampi ruins are great. But my best fun was scrambling the boulders. I trooped after the monkeys at dusk when they retire to the highest hill, actually the highest heap of boulders. In many ways we have devolved. The most inept baby monkey is more agile than a skilled gymnast. Even after several attempts I failed to summit that hill.

I guess it wanted a bolder boulderer.


Though I spent New Years in Hampi, it was a bit of a let-down. I wished I was there.

A friend wrote to ask if I was getting anaesthetizedto these sights, something he had experienced on his long trip to Europe. Yes. The euphoria seemed to wear off after about 4 months. I still love to travel. But I’m no longer giddy.

I did enjoy Pongol (Thanksgiving), though. We ate sweet rice pudding. Farmers washed and then tarted-up the Holy Cows in day-Glo polka dots. At the Maharaja’s palace in Mysore, confused cattle were made to jump over sacred fires. Other cities conduct incompetent versions of The Running of the Bulls. I don’t recall how many casualties. Newspapers love to cite the death counts, but I’ve stopped jotting down the figures.

In South India there are no unhappy travellers — at least not during the temperate winter months.

Most colourful are the hordes (men, boys, young daughters) dressed entirely in black, on pilgrimage to a mountain temple in Kerala. There dwells the peevish child God, Lord Ayappan, an incarnation of Vishnu.

Twenty years ago Ayappan was a minor deity visited only by a hardy handful willing to walk 6 miles barefoot up his mountain.

Today millions take a vow to leave home for 41 days, sleep on bare floors, abstain from sex, meat, and eggs. They are devotees of Hanuman too, and make pilgrimage to his special shrines like Hampi.

No one knows why Ayappan suddenly became so popular. Another mystery of Hinduism.

Roshan, a lady lawyer from Karnataka, explained that Ayappan does not suffer women of menstruating age. One pregnant woman (not mensturating) thought to accompany her husband. The boy God was not amused. A resthouse roof collapsed killing her and spouse.

It’s wisdom as old as India that menstruating women are unclean. Children learn the laws of pollution on their mother’s knee. Many temples prohibit women in their monthly flow. This, like untouchability, like apartheid, is institutionalized inequality.

Caste discrimination is slowly disappearing. But Roshan told that affluent Indian homes include a room used exclusively by women at that time of the month. It is yet quite common.)

It would seem the Ayappan pilgrimage is fraught with risk. Newspapers daily report the number of pilgrims killed in road accidents, mainly pilgrim bus crashes.

Let me climb way out on another limb to declare — South Indian drivers are the most reckless in the world.

Skilled as knife throwers (James Cameroun), they race madly to no purpose. Even the never squeamish Lonely Planet guide advises, take the train … or walk!

The biggest and loudest vehicle has right of way. It was only a few years ago that I finally realized that almost no one wears glasses. No vision test is required. Many are driving blind, relying on the protection of dashboard Gods & movie stars.

The government puts up speed breakers (bumps) and erects barricades. But they serve mainly to infuriate. Drivers make up for lost time.

One of my biggest frustrations here are taxis. I envision a special circle of Hell where hacks cruise calling out only to each other, Taxi? Tuk-tuk? Where you go?, in an ever thickening haze of exhaust.

Oh, NO!, Master. 50 DOLLAR, no 50 rupee!

I’ve counselled many, enthusiastically, to seek honest employment.

I travelled with Robert, an Austrian wurstmeister, now living in South Africa. He inspired — kind and patient with hacks, touts, and beggars.

For the tourist, beggars are a disturbing, sometimes heart-rending dilemma. Some travellers follow the lead of locals who can distinguish between professional beggars and the truly impoverished of the neighbourhood.

Others, the majority, myself included, give nothing to anyone who asks on the street. This is the safer, simpler strategy. You don’t risk luring more into the trade.

I can see no upside to beggary.

What should be a short-term, last-ditch contingency — is usually not.


Begging is sanctified by Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, and alms for the poor Christianity. Millions sit out in the sun all day in postures of supplication, as pitifully as possible.

Historically, Buddhist monasteries provided food and sanctuary. No more. Today the destitute squat beside the river, cook under the bridge, sleep wrapped like a corpse beside the highway. Children are left to play all day at the Railway station.

Mother Teressa has been questioned, but never her mission. What other organizations care for thepoorest of the poor, no questions asked, no demands made?

In my experience, all children are willing to hound, even if they get something from only 1 in 5000 tourists. School pen? Bon-bon? One rupee?

A beggar boy (Lazarus?) accompanied me patiently for 25 minutes, chanting his mantra in Bengali, until finally driven off by locals threatening to beat him.

Street urchins are the most wrenching. (Kids just won’t listen to reason.) Beggars are rarely threatening, though one time I was swarmed by a group of boys. I moved out into rush hour traffic forsafety. I assumed they were pick-pockets, but a professor who happened by assured me they were just curious cricket lads.

The congenitally malformed are mostly fated to beg. Tim Ward was entreated by an armless boy restrained on a leash by a blind woman beggar. He cut the leash.

I heard the story of a tourist who could not get an air ticket to Dharmsala where the Dalai Lama was to be speaking. Eventually he was offered a seat on a charter. Arriving for the flight he found he was the only non-leper. A colony had booked the plane. It was the start of high season.

Tourist beggars are those who have somehow learned a little English. On Sudder Street in Calcutta there is a Feeding of the Poor every Sunday morning. The beggars, mostly women with babies, who work that pavement the rest of the week, do not appear. Charity is beneath them.

Indian beggars are the most inventive. Normal, skinny, flexible! boys suddenly appear with weirdly twisted or splayed limbs. Little girls learn to roll back their eyes, then put something in to make them green and cloudy.

I don’t blame the beggars. There but for the grace of Shiva, go I. Parasites will appear wherever the misled offer something for nothing. The result? Degraded self-esteem, self-pity, a welfare mentality.

Gandhi said, If your heart goes out to a beggar, offer him work not alms.

As for me, I try to steel myself to look each in the eye, smile, shake my head, no. I’ve heard that beggars, like all salespeople, don’t mind being refused (it’s a numbers game) but they resent being ignored.

Everyone agrees that someone should be feeding, housing, and providing medical attention. Most travellers feel they have not given, nor volunteered enough. There is no shortage of reputable charities.

Yet these alternatives do not seem to be attractive enough to pull beggars off the street. It’s economics. A subsistence salary in Madras is $120 / month though the average is only $60/month. A beggar needs only collect $2 / day to match that. Numbers would indicate that begging is one of the more profitable street jobs.

The most successful beggars I’ve come across are the adorable Chicklet girls in Mexico. They move restaurant-to-restaurant offering a tiny box of 2 Chicklets for whatever the tourist chooses to pay. I was told they earn more than police officers there. Why go to school?

I feel more compassion for the non-begging poor. More respect for the man I saw licking clean the used banana-leaf plates out of the trash than for the cripple I surprised enjoying a smoke and chai with the boys at the tea shop.

Indian peoples are very industrious. Most are too proud to beg. You will never find a Sikh beggar — it’s a tenet of their faith to care for their own.

When the Dalai Lama gave a bag of food to each pilgrim, I offered mine to a severely handicapped woman who sold crafts on the curb. She was one of the few who didn’t cry out to foreigners every time they passed. I was careful to offer it when no one else was looking; she careful to hide it away — so as not to get robbed when I turned the corner.

There is no end of do-good charity gone wrong.

James Cameroun made a documentary on the plight of indentured farmers. Dowry debt impoverishes millions. He chose a typical family enslaved to blood-sucking moneylenders. No chance to ever pay back the principle.

The filming complete, the producers paid off the loan then rewarded the incredulous peasant with 100 Pounds Sterling. He immediately set-up shop — as a moneylender.

I travelled with Carole from Spain. Last year she fulfilled a 30 year old promise to return to India as a volunteer. She chose an orphanage out of the Madras phonebook.

Carole is in construction. She renovated, cleaned, painted the buildings & planned an addition — a medical ward.

At home she raised funds and corresponded to be sure work was progressing as she had directed.

Arriving back this year, all of her donated money had gone missing. The children eating plain rice 3 times / day.

She was heartsick but didn’t blow the whistle for fear of having the orphanage closed, the kids turned-out.

In the meantime she was struggling over what to do about another orphanage; a European manager, reportedly, a child molester.

So many problems.

What’s to be done?

Where to start?

I wish Gandhi were here. In England he said, India has problems that would baffle any statesman. But they do not baffle me.

The best investment, I think, is Basic Education of women. Not Tagore, but simple nutrition, hygiene, family planning.

I read a book twice; “May You Be The Mother Of A Hundred Sons”, by Elizabeth Bumiller.

Women work hard and suffer much. Food, water, animal feed, care of the children. They get no rest.

Heavy manual labour too. Convict work; breaking river boulders to stone, stone to gravel, sifting sand, carrying loads up to the road. This is done by women who are paid half a man’s wage.

Despite all, India is progressing. By some accounts, 200 million are middle class. Some are optimistic about the future.

I dropped-in to SEWA (Self-Employed Women’s Association), a success story since 1972.

This trip I’ve been happier, more patient, by taking an educator’s outlook. (Though teaching India is like enlightening a beach, one grain of sand at a time.)

I aspire to be a good role model.

But this country is distressing. It is said thatwhatever weaknesses you have, India will find them.

Too often I’ve lapsed as did Zen Buddhist Peter Matthieson. In his revered book The Snow Leopardhe recounts how a Tibetan dog chased him up on to a roof. He urinated on the beast.

He lamented, that aching gap between what I know and what I am.

boy and monkey


A teacher told me that the government has recently decided to fund free education for girls for 2 years longer than for boys. Reverse discrimination? Certainly. But I took this as excellent news.

PPS – Email from Ray Heiderich

I enjoy your accounts of your trip. Interesting stuff. Could use. Some more. Two word. Sentences, though.


Back in Canada I got a letter from Carole in Spain. The European paedophile orphanage manager was ejected from India.


Peter Long wrote to note out that Europe is far, far bigger, geographically, than India.

Oops, I sit corrected.


travelogue – curry in a hurry – south India

Goa. The most storied Christmas party-cum-beach traveller’s scene in backpackerdom. Nirvana for freaks and greying hippies.

Though I arrived Christmas eve, it was a bit of a let down. I wished I were there.

Goa is OK. But it takes more than the usual tropical attractions (pounding surf, white sand, bikinis) to grip me for more than a day or two.

Goa is special, though, for sea food. Tika shark coconut curry. Kingfish masala with ice cold Kingfisher beer.

Up to now I’d been avoiding the Indian hooch. I dread cashew Feni, coconut Toddy, and other local intoxicants. I’m gun-shy since I poisoned myself and Keith Russell (who, admittedly, imbibed more of the lethal stuff than I) with tainted Sri Lankan Arak. Many here die or are blinded from wood-alcohol-enhanced country liquor.

South Indian food is rightly famous. You eat with your fingers (right hand only!) to FEEL your meal, as well as taste and smell. Spicy, sometimes very spicy, yogurt cools the burn.

Dining South should be superb (vegetarian, healthful, tasty), but it is often a disappointment. Most quickly get bored of rice, mushy vegetables, and dhal (lentil gravy). The best Indian food is to be got outside India.

I’m happy with a few favourites; Uttapam (spicy pancake with onion & tomato), lassi (yoghurt drink), and what we might call masala tea (milky, sweet, spiced with cardamom).

Weird, though, is the restaurant service. As we moved south it became increasingly prompt, courteous, and efficient. The mythical Curry in a Hurry — it is reality!

You see, in the North you expect employees whoachieve the absolute minimum through the expenditure of the most conspicuous activity. (James Cameron)

A sweeper’s job is to sweep, not necessarily move sweepings from the floor to the bin. It’s enough to go vigourously through the motions.

In the North you have no confidence that your food order will ever arrive.

Even if you lurk until the server is standing idle, rush forward and demand tea. He will stand slack, smile sheepishly, shuffle side-to-side, perhaps glance at the roof. It would be improper not to have you wait.

Christmas day I visited Old Goa, the Portuguese city which once rivalled Lisbon in magnificence.

All that remains are imposing cathedrals and beautiful churches, some of the largest in Asia.

There is something culturally comforting in Christianity. Spotting a steeple is like spying a dress instead of an Indian sari.

It’s the same feeling I get eating a peanut butter and banana sandwich — comfort food for me (but abhorrent to many others).

Are you Christian?, I’m often asked. I mumble some non-answer like, I was raised in a Christian culture …

Missionaries (including my Grandmother Grace and, I think, my Great Aunt Ida Graham) have done some wonderful work here; hospitals, orphanages, training centres.

But I’m loathe to associate myself with Christian religious violence, Papal misdeeds, the Inquisition(more horrific here than anywhere else).

I have, too, distaste for Western paternalism in these many charitable Christian institutions.

In Kalimpong I toured Dr. Graham’s Home, a Christian school founded 1900 to educate children of tea-workers. Graham, a Scottish minister, is a name prominent in my family tree.

I wondered if, but for a few generations, I might have been a heathen-hating pulpit-pounder? Endlessly reiterating the same tired message to a bored audience?

… Nah. That doesn’t sound like me.

Francis XavierIndia’s greatest missionary, Francis Xavier, arrived 1544 finding fertile soil amongst the untouchable castes. Hindus have 330 million Gods and Demons. There was certainly room for one more.

Christians soon divided into competing sects and sub-sects. Complicating the usual religious turf-staking, many Indian Christians remained loyal to their hereditary castes. Even today some caste Christians won’t allow untouchables into their homes.

Christianity is much in the news. Hindu extremists have been burning churches in protest of Christian proselytising.

A great blessing here, actually, is the scarcity of Church recruiters. You must be born a Hindu — that’s that. And anyone can call themselves a Buddhist, as I’ve frequently seen. (There may be a requirement to buy the Dalai Lama’s book, I’m not sure.)

I even visited the Jewish enclave in Cochin. Only 80 orthodox souls remain, those who haven’t immigrated to Israel. Don’t be surprised that there are 3 castes of these Malabar Jews, not allowed to inter-marry.

I attempted a tour of the famous Hindu temples of the South. Indeed, I persisted longer than anyone else I met, before temple fatigue and disillusion brought me low.

Hinduism is baffling.

Even poor saint Francis Xavier, buried in Goa, died incomprehensive. How could Hindus worship a stone penis as God when the one true religion knows that God is corporal in wafer and wine?

FX wrote home, There is a class of men here called Brahman (priests). They are the mainstay of heathenism, and have charge of the temples devoted to their idols …. They do not know what it is to tell the truth but forever plot to lie subtly and deceive their poor ignorant followers.

The priesthood of India does seem corrupt to this wandering fellow. I’ve yet to see or hear about a kindly one.

At the famous rock fort temple at Trichy I went looking for the authorities to rescue a confused, injured owl. I could find no one to help though there were hundreds of racketeers and baksheesh-demanders of every ilk.

The most popular temple for tourists is in Madurai.Riotously baroque … towers covered top to bottom in a breathless profusion of multicoloured images of gods, goddesses, animals, and mythic figures. (LP Guidebook)

It’s a Hindu comic book come to life visited by 10,000 every day.

Maduraishrine at Madurai

Riotous, yes. But to me it was no more than an unholy shopping bazaar. Jesus would exhaust himself upsetting tables.

The temple Art Gallery — laugh or cry? Of all the dilapidated, cob-webbed, rubble-strewn museum disasters I’ve traipsed, this was the worst. Where were the attendants? Disdainful, palm-outstretched, baksheesh hounding.

Without specifically naming Madurai, Roger Housden (Travels through Sacred India, 1996), wrote, at one of the great temples of the south … each scale of the administrative hierarchy pays a dividend to the level above … At the bottom of the pile are the beggars.

I’m over-stating again. No one else was as critical or judgmental. I was fault finding when I, an outsider, should have been appreciating the festive buzz. The pilgrims don’t seem to mind.

Actually, the priests lately have fallen on hard times. In ancient days (the 1940s!) the well-fed Maharaja would be weighed against gold, silver, or pearls. The booty distributed amongst his Brahmen.

I was VIP (exciting mobs, shaking hands, signing autographs) at a remote Hindu village festival. My chance to meet a real priest, one pious man. But no priest was present. This event was organized only by village volunteers from all castes.


Hindus have no Pope, no central authority. At each temple the hereditary priests are left to their own devices.

It’s unfair to compare Hindu temples with Christian churches.

The word temple is inaccurate. More correct is shrine— simply a roof over the inner sanctum of the resident Gods, represented, usually, by statues; dyed, garlanded, oiled, blunted by the caresses of affectionate devotees.

Only the inner sanctum (where Non-Hindus are not allowed) is sacred. The rest of the temple can be a construction yard and a parking lot. And usually is.

Some say that Hinduism is a simpletonism, a foreign construct to try to explain the hodgepodge. Indians would more often use the word Dharma, describing religious practice and their whole way of thinking. The two cannot be dissected as we try to do in the West.

I visited some lovely, quiet, sanitized temples — those converted to museums. Westerners appreciate them. But to Hindus they are dead.

I’m sure this story made the News — Father Graham, an Australian missionary working with lepers since 1965, burned to death along with his two young sons. Over 100 miscreants poured petrol on the vehicle in which they slept, then set it ablaze.

Is Sonia implicated?

SoniaSonia Gandhi (of the Nehru dynasty, unrelated to the Mahatma), leader of the opposition Congress Party, is the media anointed ruler-in-waiting — and, born in Italy, she is Christian.

Hindu nationalist BJP is in power. Most believe that the current spate of anti-Christian violence is politically motivated; an anti-Sonia campaign.

She, I, and perhaps 50,000 more alit the holy hill of Trimula, the busiest pilgrimage site in the world, eclipsing Jerusalem, Rome, and Mecca.

Politicians love to be photographed here. A viewing of Vishnu guarantees that any wish will be granted.

Non-Hindus like myself and Sonia must sign a guestbook.

She refused.

Her detractors made the most of this awkward moment. (Sonia doesn’t have the moral credibility to declare herself Hindu, Muslim, Parsi, Buddhist, Sikh, and Jain — the way the Mahatma did.)

Trimula is a marvellous place. A world wonder. A centre of excellence NOT developed by foreigners. In fact, it is ignored by Westerners.

Fleets of buses, armies of pilgrims. Simple housing, services, meals are all provided free.

Trimula is organized; discouraging beggars, touts, and litter. I even saw one of the 6000 temple employees painting over red betel spit stains on the street!

As many as 100,000 people queue for up to 12 hours for a fleeting darshan with the God. Most believe it auspicious to surrender hair to Lord Venkateswara — men, women, and children descend bald, and radiant.

hair removing

travelogue – the City of Joy – Calcutta

I arrived in the City of Joy. A wonderful day. Nothing was open. No vehicle moved. The beautiful new cable bridge, normally choked, deserted.

Nothing was doing — except cricket. Boys and men played everywhere, the space glorious.

They are mad for cricket here. You from Canada coming? You are seeing the CLASH India-Pakistan?

It is too dangerous for nuclear super-rivals to play on the subcontinent, so they play in Toronto. (Matches are planned soon in India. A disaster looms.)

You can quote me as a physical educator. If there is a more useless physical activity than baseball, it is cricket. I blame the British who inflicted this disease on all their colonies, except snowy Canada.

I strolled empty Calcutta for hours, clueless. Finally I saw the poster:

24 Hour National Strike against Globalization, Privitization, Unemployment, Indiscriminate Computerization, and Murderous Price Rise, etc.

In the Calcutta Telegraph the next day: Bengal Basks in Strike Glory. With blood on its hands, West Bengal stood … boastful of bringing life to a complete halt.

Bengal is a poor region with Marxist local governments. The Strike, protesting national government economic policies, was successful here while mostly ignored in the rest of the country. Everyone seemed pleased that 2 strike-breakers died in roadblock confrontations, and relieved that even more weren’t killed.

Next day Calcutta was back to normal; loud, polluted, ugly. One of the most densely populated cities on Earth.

The City of Joy is no joke. The poor migrate here when life in the floodplains becomes a death sentence.

There are few Westerners, mainly those in transit and a core of NGO volunteers. A vocal few defend the city, It has a soul. It’s the centre of the Arts.

Sudder StreetSudder Street

I stayed at the Salvation Army in the backpacker ghetto of Sudder Street. Two blocks away is New Market, the biggest in the city. In the mountains of garbage behind was a scene from Hell; dogs, humans, black pigs, and crows, all scavenging. In Calcutta the pigs and crows are thriving, the dogs and humans might be close to death.

I was reminded of a dusty bus stop in Nepal where I watched huge vultures, wings spread for balance, battle dogs and pigs for a buffalo carcass.

dogI’ve seen too many pitiful dogs; open-sored, limping 3-legged, squinting hopeful, but suspicious. Even one paraplegic, dragging useless hindquarters across the village meat market. I involuntarily compared these desperately poor Bengalis with pariah dogs. Pups and children appear quite healthy, then quickly deteriorate, a cumulative effect of disease, malnutrition, and bad water.

I’m painting the worst possible picture.

I visited the border of rural Bangladesh; green paddies, lush mango groves, fertile fields. There were no walking skeletons. Most often I’m impressed how happy are the poor, their simple lives. Some of the garbage dump architecture (Alex Frater) appears homely, and breezy. In Sri Lanka the beach shacks of the poor Tamils appealed more than the modern Sinhalese homes.

I didn’t visit the goonda-controlled slums, the bustees of Calcutta or Bombay. I’m reluctant to go with no greater purpose than picturesque poverty. (James Cameron)

I should make clear that the Indian peoples are bodily fastidious. While the streets are rank, teeth and gums are brushed, the body ritually scrubbed. Westerners are always struck by how much clothing is washed. The dhobi-wallahs, washers, are seen by every body of water, all day, every day, enthusiastically slapping the laundry clean on boulders.

Naipaul pointed out that the impoverished wash the most because they have so few clothes. The poorest women are conspicuous — they own just one sari and have no undergarments. Of course they wash and bathe at the same time.

It seems a contradiction that these ritually clean people are so unaware of the filth around them. I’m told that it is caste related. It is unclean even to notice shit underfoot.


Everyday I’m asked, You are liking India?

I always respond, Great! Wonderful people! But it is very dirty, polluted. (I can point in any direction.) Locals always look puzzled at such an unfounded concern.

Most far-travelled backpackers would concur that India is the most rewarding destination.

The Indian peoples are fascinating and fanatic. Friendship assails the stranger. You are besieged with Indian company, all hopeful new pen friends.

I was the lone Westerner in town. A jolly smiling chap introduced himself and his pretty wife. Next morning I had breakfast at their home in the Police Lines — he was the Commissioner. This lovely, traditional Bengali family had come to know a number of Westerners. His last posting was in Nadia, home of ISKCon, the International Society for Krishna Consciousness. Hare Krishna, to you.

I’ve been befriended by English teachers, political activists, free-lance journalists, priests, and a travelling vegetable oil sales rep.

A proud father pushed his 3 year old through a crowded bus so that the Sahib might admire his prodigy’s knowledge of world capitals and political leaders, with just a little prompting. Only in India.

A tiny woman approached me at a bus stand; Roshan, a Parsi (originally from Iran), the first lady lawyer in Karnataka state. Vivacious, articulate, impressive. She had traveled all of India, providing us with a wealth of advice — even the price of tiger prawns on Varkhala beach! I assumed Roshan was that rarity, a single, academic career woman. Actually she had 9 children in 10 years, the youngest 14 and all still in school.

I was reading the autobiography of another Indian barrister, one M.K. Gandhi. Roshan’s life was even more exceptional.

Actually it’s a problem to meet the women of India. Few are forward enough, and speak English well enough, to engage.

I did meet an Islamic dentistry student studying at an Arab-financed university. She was horrified at what I was doing. Roaming India was her worst nightmare.

I travelled first class compartment with a lady journalist, a BBC correspondent from Myanmar. We were both en route to see the Dalai Lama. When I saw her next she had shaved her head and become a nun. (Not on my account, I’m sure.)

Bodhgaya, the most important pilgrimage in Buddhism. This is where Prince Siddhartha meditated beneath a tree until he achieved enlightenment. The moment of all awareness is depicted seated, with the right hand touching the ground, “calling the Earth to witness”.

Bodhgaya is a tiny enclave in the middle of Bihar state, India’s poorest. Dacoits (bandits) still loot pilgrim buses with impunity. These dusty Gangetic plains are where the historic Siddhartha was born, taught, and died (from eating poisonous mushrooms).

Around the ancient Bo tree temple, Buddhists from every sect have built. You can contrast the Thai, Japanese, and Korean monasteries. I stayed in a makeshift dungeon dormitory in the Burmese monastery where I had a fine reunion with backpackers I had met in Tibet.

Dalai LamaThe Dalai Lama did not disappoint. Larger than life, energetic, enthusiastic. He charmed the audience. A one-man-show.

He was very humble. In my knowledge and teaching of the Buddha, I might stand slightly taller than the pygmies.

He spoke in Tibetan. We listened to simultaneous translation on FM radio. Of his teachings I have little recollection as most were incomprehensible.

In fact, few of the thousands assembled each day under the huge bamboo supported tents had much idea what he was talking about. Certainly not the simple Tibetans. Perhaps the discourse was intelligible to the book-Buddhists, Westerners who have read every text on the subject.

No one complained. Like me they were happy to be present, listening to his laugh, his mellifluous voice. I read, wrote, and napped. It was tranquil. Even tranquilizing.

One of my few notes: Think of all sentient beings as your Mother.” Christians are only concerned for souls of man while Buddhists revere all living creatures.

His Holiness referred to the friends from the West asdepressed, self-obsessed. He advised we renounce acquisition, heaping-up. No clinging or despising.

Another note: Relinquish self-cherishing and self-grasping. That translation became a bit of run-on-fun.

We spent our evenings at the Bo tree, the most marvellous of all the Buddhist festivals I’ve seen. Thousands circumambulated the temple, smoky and fragrant, lit by tens of thousands of candles. Hundreds practiced the impressive prostration meditation. The murmur of mantras merged with the clamour of candle salesmen, mostly kids reaching through the fence.

The Dalai Lama called for a Prayer Night and a Peace March for the victims of the Iraq bombings. The mischievous ones will somehow escape. Only the powerless will suffer. He was diplomatic in his criticism of the U.S. and England. But he was the only diplomat in town. I felt badly for our American friend Michelle. Perhaps this is why so few Americans backpack.

buddha statueThe best story in Bodhgaya is the Maitreya Project, anotherWorld’s Biggest Buddha. This one will be 152 metres high, seated! (The statue of Liberty is 46 metres.) A high-tech Buddha; elevators, assembly halls, telecommunication centre. Earthquake-proof, it must last 1000 years.

Undoubtedly it will be built. There is a lot of money in Buddhism these days. Perhaps Richard Gere, or the high lama Steven Segal, will lead the mega-project fund-raising.

The GREAT IRONY is that the Buddha specifically forbade his followers from making any image. Buddhism is not centred on any Gods but is a a personal philosophy, a code of morality:

  1) Right understanding (uninhibited by superstition or delusion)  

2) Right thought

  3) Right speech

  4) Right action

  5) Right mode of living (do no harm to living creatures)

  6) Right endeavour (self-discipline)

  7) Right mindfulness (alert, contemplative)

  8) Right concentration


Your pandit-wanna-be has gone South.


travelogue – Happy Holidays, Wish You Were Here – India

So, you think you can tell,
Heaven from Hell,
Blue skies from pain,
Hot ash from a cool rain,
Can you tell a green field,
from a cold steel jail,
a smile from a veil,
Do you think you can tell?

– with apologies to P.F.

My first Christmas away. Homesick?

I remember being homesick for my cat Cleo when I was about 10 years old.

After high school myself and 3 close friends toured Europe in an orange VW van. That still ranks as my best trip. Age 18 — a most excellent age for travel / discovery. I identified with characters in Michener’sThe Drifters.

Towards the end of our Grand Tour we resolved each to go do our own thing. I was quickly devastated. It seemed so pointless to travel and not have anyone close to share those experiences. I still feel that way at times.

I’m almost never homesick. But I often wish you were here.

These e-mail missives help me a lot. At least I can share an inkling.

For the holidays I thought I might tell you about some of my travel companions, about the kind of people I meet on the road.

I’ve evolved to the point of preferring to travel solo. This is not unusual. The majority of backpackers travel alone or as a couple. It is rare to find groups of 3 or more who can travel together for long.

Many ask, Don’t you get lonely?

Not lonely, as I am rarely alone. It is actually a treat when I get a day completely to myself.

Best I think is to travel solo but to rendezvous with friends en route. (When are you coming to meet me?)

Vikram Seth said that travelers who wander months require an attitude of mind capable of contentment with the present. Perhaps that’s true. But (as you know) budget travel is much easier than most imagine it to be. Almost anyone can handle it.

Of all the cultures I’ve observed, the main one is, of course, the backpacker culture. I’ve traveled with hundreds of different people from all over the world and met many thousands. There are a few I’ve really admired.

I also tend to gravitate towards expats living in these countries as they often know how things work behind the scenes. Always an eye-opener.

Where backpackers gather the talk is of cheap hostels, good restaurants, and places not to be missed. They always have some sort of warning for you. They always speak of the highlight of their trip.

They don’t have much in common — except a claim not to have children back home. There are a few people traveling with their kids, but the consensus is that the low-end travel circuit is not the place for children. Actually the kids thrive, but the parents are wracked with fears about what might go wrong.

The biggest surprise to new backpackers is whom I’ve dubbed the Israeli Army. In countries like India they are the most numerous nationality. Many Israelis travel after their mandatory 3 year military service in such numbers that I often wonder if there is anyone left in Israel.

I trekked with Alon from Tel Aviv who explained that the Army breaks into two main camps — the party types who go directly to Asia, and the nature loverswho head first for South America.

Israelis are notorious for being loud, aggressive, and cheap. Dozens of times I’ve seen some poor shopkeep hounded until he sells an item below cost. Israelis buy 7-day trekking permits for the 21-day Annapurna Circuit Trek and later claim they didn’t realize it would take that long. Networking, they know the cost of items all over the world. (Whenever I want to know the rock bottom price, the cheapest hotel, or the best value restaurant, I ask an Israeli.)

On the other hand, Israelis are often the most adventurous, informative, and fascinating backpacking companions — especially the ones travelling solo who despair of their terrible reputation. The men are world-wise, politically savvy cynics. The Israeli born women are often tough-sexy. Trained killers!

The other big surprise is the scarcity of Americans. It is rare to come across a Yank outside big name tourist destinations. I smiled when I heard of a Trek in Colombia which allowed every nationality EXCEPT Americans. (They make too good kidnap victims.)

I did find a lot of Americans in China. I always introduced them to locals as close friends of Bill Clinton. No one is as easy to embarrass as an American.

Many live up to the stereotype; loud, over-enthusiastic, Amerocentric. Those open-eyed enough to realize how the rest of the world sees them can be very good company. I enjoyed traveling with Julie from Wyoming. She was the first other person who, unprompted, said that she quite liked the Han Chinese people, that she didn’t blame them for the misdeeds of their government and hoped they wouldn’t blame her for the crimes of the USA.

Twice I met up with Dave, a Jesus Christ look-alike from New Jersey. A chronic traveller, his girlfriend had taken off somewhere without him, prefering to go solo. (They had reunited by the second time I bumped into him.)

I’ve travelled with some marvellous, respectful Japanese backpackers. Impressive in that people from that culture have so much difficulty getting intobackpacking and even more difficulty learning English, the lingua franca of travel. The Japanese are the rubes, constantly being taken advantage of, constantly getting ripped-off.

Hiro, who brilliantly hired a taxi to Tibet, disagreed with my assessment. While he felt that it used to be true that most Japanese didn’t know what they were doing, that now they are quite informed, that more women are travelling than men, and that I should understand that many of the Japanese have disgraced their families and forsaken careers to go on the road.

I was somewhat chastened by his rebuttal. And yet over and over again, hundreds of times, I’ve seen Japanese backpackers who look the part — dyed long hair, custom-torn jeans — but afraid to leave their guesthouse. For days.

A high percentage of backpackers are smokers. Bored smokers, I often think. Killing the plentiful down time with cheap smokes. A high percentage of slackpackers don’t get much done in a day. Most guilty of this are those on a strict, low budget.

No doubt the average age of backpackers is increasing. But age is rarely a consideration in travel companions. Destination, language, and budget all factor much higher.

I met a tough German woman, 55, who had been away from home cycling for over 4 years. She was bitter in having been turned back half way into Tibet. She planned to try again on a different highway.

There are more professional couples. I met a chain-smoking Swiss couple who were travelling on-line. Their journal was emailed via a palm-top computer. Photos were mailed home, scanned, and inserted.

Julio from Spain travels one year of every five. Next time he promised to bring his girlfriend who stayed home to run his small business. They will remember him in the tiny Tibetan village of Longmusi — he gave a Salsa dance tape to the disco there.

I always enjoy the company of the educated, understated Brits. I traveled off-and-on with Jess, an exception to the rule, perhaps the most intelligent, opinionated person I ever met. Brilliant and an original thinker, but somehow blinded, I thought, by a failed Catholic upbringing, a rage at the ruling aristocratic Protestant elite. (Is Canada the most classless place on Earth? I don’t give a damn how rich or connected you are.)

In some leap in understanding Jess venerates the poor and Godless. As an example he explained that the only intelligent folk he can find in San Francisco, where he now lives, are the illegal Hispanic (presumably lapsed Catholic) restaurant workers. Jess debunked the Tibetan monasteries we were visiting. I tried to point out the societal benefits of tradition, even religious tradition but he was unequivocal. I pictured him as the kind of dogmatist who thrived during the Cultural Revolution in China, burning the olds and establishing a new order based only on science and reason.

Jess despises the rich and powerful. Mockingly he reminded me that, It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven.

The French, the French, are a curious race — but they always have style. Fashionable dress is de rigeur even in the most remote jungle or mountain top. The women are often chic and beautiful. I’ll always remember one unsettling dorm night when a gorgeous French girl burst in late, drunk, tore off most of her clothes and lolled topless. She was en route to visit her brother who was attempting to be the first person to rollerblade around the world.

I spent some time with Sebastien, an Italian Buddhist who lived several years at the Labrang monastery, now the largest in the world. He had once done the prostration meditation, facing inwards, around the 3.5 km kora. That was 4 days, 10 hours per day. The best aspect he said was the camaraderie with the other pilgrims — that and the tremendous ab. workout.

Over the years he had grown disillusioned with the Tibetans, however. Buddhism is rapidly becoming a business and a career, not a calling. There is a story of a Kathmandu businessman who could not find anyone to buy his used Mercedes — until a Tibetan Rimpoche arrived and paid cash.

High lamas are often wealthy and can even marry.

I’ve met far more Canadians on this trip than ever before. I travelled with Jenny, a pretty Chinese Canadian who had just graduated from Princeton with a degree in Black American Literature. (Toni Morrison is at Princeton.) Jenny is polite, self-deprecating & considerate — just like most Canadians. All over the world we enjoy a terrific, sometimes undeserved reputation. Even self-righteous critics of the Great White North like myself get all patriotic abroad. At first I thought that Jenny didn’t carry a flag. Then I detected 3 very subtle Maple Leafs dyed into the fabric of her pack.

The closest friend I’ve met on this trip is Damian from Switzerland, a gregarious, outdoors enthusiast. We did 2 big treks in Tibet. Someone trying to describe the two of us said that it looked like Steven Spielberg was having breakfast with Keifer Sutherland.

I’ll keep in touch with Damian. But I’ve learned the hard way that it is impossible to stay in contact with past travelling companions. I often give out my own email, but I rarely promise to write.

what do they think of us?

I have a ticket home booked for May ’99 … but I think that is probably too soon to return. I hope to extend the trip as long as health, enthusiasm, and cash hold out.

Thinking of you.

Happy holidays! Wish you were here.


I’m next gone to Bodhgaya, India where I hope to see the Dalai Lama.

travelogue – I’ll Never Do It Again – I.N.D.I.A.

India, again.

I visited here once before.  The following is the gist of a letter I sent to friends after that LAST visit. I want to see how my impressions change this time.


I saw India mainly through the eyes of V.S. Naipaul, one our best living writers. Though removed from his ancestral land by 100 years and half a world, Naipaul was compelled to brutalize India in his 1964 book, An Area of Darkness. He was condemned by many for a too critical analysis. Salmon Rushdie said that visiting India ruined Naipaul as a writer.

In 1976 Naipaul revisited the same themes in India: A Wounded Civilization. Still critical, but less so.

Naipaul is clean, precise, completely unsentimental. Maughmy. His observations ring true.

Indians defecate everywhere. They defecate, mostly, beside the railway tracks. But they also defecate on the beaches; they defecate on the hills; they defecate on the river banks; they defecate on the streets; they never look for cover. … the one thing we can and must learn from the West is the science of municipal sanitation.

They do uncoil anywhere and everywhere. It is a great mingling of cow, dog, goat and human faeces. Shit dust is in the air.

I don’t mention the other usual noxious filth, open sewers, the mountains of spent trash.

Where are the sweepers? Where are the Children of God?

And disease. I just left Gujarat State where BLACK PLAGUE broke out in ’94. The government advisedantibiotics, flight, and prayer.

What personally irks me is the amount of eye disease here, of every disgusting variation. I’m told that much of this is avoidable. I saw a shapely Hindu woman walking my way — and the progressive women of Bombay are allowed to look at and even smile at tourists. I hoped to meet her gaze. As she approached I saw that one eye socket was empty.

You can imagine how I appreciate the public hawking, farting, snotting, and nose picking. Loud and proud.

I entered the National Bank in one small town; employees were spitting gobs of red betel nut on the floor.

I agree with Naipaul that Hinduism is failing India in this modern age. (I much prefer tolerant Buddhism.) Massive inefficiency, nepotism, and injustice due to the Caste System persist. Fatalism is evident; people put up with their lot in hope of reincarnation to a higher caste. Marriage is still arranged by family within caste, even among the urban educated elite.

The Indian government practices reverse discrimination, allotting jobs to specified low castes. Well-intentioned but, reportedly, problematic. Seventy upper caste students burned themselves to death in protest during a highly publicized one-week period. (One low caste entrepreneur went door-to-door in the ritzy neighbourhoods selling fire extinguishers to worried parents.)

Naipaul relates the story of a foreign businessman who educated his intelligent untouchable servant. On leaving Delhi, the businessman placed the servant in a good job. On his return he found the man back cleaning latrines. The servant had been boycotted by his clan, barred from his smoking group in the evening. Alone and unable to marry, the man was forced back to his God-allotted caste.

Widow burning? Yes. And thousands of wives die inkitchen fires every year. The husband upgrades to a new wife and another fat dowry.

Naipaul painted a depressing picture: over-population, pollution, urbanization, persecution of minorities.

The tourist is harassed by touts, hacks, and beggars. Every second encounter with an Indian is a scam. Every financial contact an attempted rip-off. Even government officials short-change.

But then I thought that I had over-estimated Naipaul. His argument is eloquent, persuasive but, perhaps, wrong.


I arrived first in mystical Benares (Varanasi), holiest and most disreputable city of India, pilgrimage site of the dying. And me in the midst of some mid-life death and aging fixation. Where better to throw myself on a pyre?

Yet I had the opposite reaction. I became Mr. Gregarious, in love with life. Some kind of zealous minor prophet. A Jewish-Canadian yoga hippie and I spent a day being nice to hawkers and beggars. (What’s your name? How are you doing? Where do you live?) He rang a bell to cleanse the air of ill-feeling.


Our strange behaviour attracted the attention of a cool Indian sadhu and soon found ourselves in the Ghat Ashram of an equally cool Swiss-French Guru. We smoked a ritual bong and talked bullshit spiritualism for hours. These Hessian journeyers seek something higher and find, usually, diarrhoea. India does, though, seem to bring out the noble best in Western travellers. It did for me.

SadhuThese sadhus look great; ganja-eyed, painted, flowered, bangled, seeded and beaded; dreadlocks, rags, and fierce tridents for the Shivites. I have a guarded respect for the true Holy men of Hinduism, some of whom are officially declared dead by the courts before setting out. One ascetic did not leave his cave for over 50 years. Many sadhus, unfortunately, have fled debt, the law, or their families who are often left helpless.

At the Ashram a woman from Boston told us that they use the term sadhu loosely in Benares. Here it means anyone who hasn’t had sex yet today. She told us that American women with gold cards like to hang here with their Indian Gurus. I wondered if she was one of these sexual adventuresses.

I started listening to Enigma and lighting incense. I read on India.

India is impossible for a list-making sort. (Those who would have things organized in India might, as well, try to straighten a winding road.) There is no reliable information. Nothing is up-to-date. Yet in my new found Buddhist acceptance, I simply embraced the non-system. Nothing works in India and yet millions get where they are going anyway. OK.


Leaving the wonderful little camel town of Pushkar, I simply stood in the middle of the highway at 11 PM waiting to see how I would reach the train station 15 km away. I was not surprised when the first car stopped. The enthusiastic dentist-gent was the Olympic Judge for Table Tennis and would be going to the Atlanta Olympics. We had much to talk about. I was soon sipping whiskey at his fine house. The driver got me to the train right on time (2 hours late) and directly to the sleeper car.

Everyone loves the trains. They move 10 million people every day and employ over 1.5 million workers. I sleep wonderfully on the train but I’m a neophyte compared with skinny Indians who can dead-sleep on concrete, any time, anywhere.

Naipaul wrote that Gandhi was a magnificent failure. That he glorified poverty. That he slowed progress. That he didn’t free India. And that Gandhi didn’t change India. I disagree.

Consider that India, without Pakistan and Bangladesh, is bigger than Europe (my statement here will be refuted later) and has more different cultures, languages, and climates. Consider that Punjabis, Sikhs, Gurkhas and the many other separatists are still part of India. Who is more to credit or blame than Gandhi?

Consider that soldiers of pop-cultural imperialismlike myself make little dent here. Coke was thrown out of India recently (though they are making a strong comeback now). The kids listen to nothing but Hindi. Bollywood rules. India has absorbed every invader so far except the British who escaped. Tourists wear Indian clothes, perform Puja, and decide on cremation instead of burial.

Naipaul wrote, India is poor and cruel. All Indians are implicated. Yet this place has millions of University graduates, a highly educated elite.

The Indian culture is strong, surviving even in wintry Saskatoon.”

After 50 years India remains the worlds largest democracy — a model for other developing countries.


That was my last trip to India. I was a little brutal in my critique, don’t you think?

This time Darjeeling was my first stop. The guesthouse visitors book was full of comments like,This was our favourite place in India. Darjeeling is charming. But it is not India.


Separatists here would call it Ghorkaland. To me it looked like Nepal; Himalayan lands wedged between Nepal and Bhutan. About 75% of the population speaks Nepali.

You’ve heard of the famous tea from 78 aging, failing plantations here. Darjeeling is a British construct, a Hill Station. High altitude, low latitude — perfect for tea and tourists.

The quaint legacy of the British; impressive, imposing, decaying public buildings; pastries and tea at Glennaries; botanical gardens; billiards at the Gymkhana (Tea Planters) Club.

I loved strolling the pedestrian mall on Observatory Hill. It is almost unchanged since the days of the Raj. The clock towers and fountains haven’t worked, though, since the Brits Quit. And of course they took the sign with them; Dogs and Indians not allowed on the Mall.

The Toy Train still works occasionally, hauling tourists up the hill. Gricers know that this steam line has 5 switchbacks and 4 full loops.

I came to see the magnificent views of Kachenjunga floating above the clouds.

I came too to visit the famous breeding centre for that most mythical of cat — the Snow Leopard.

snow leopard

Actually, the animal prison here is quite good specializing in local and endangered beasts. They’ve had success breeding Red Panda, Tibetan Wolf, and Siberian Tiger (huge!).

Automobiles here are cute, mostly Hindustani Ambassadors, the design unchanged from the British Morris Minor of the 50s. You feel like you’re on the set of some really old James Bond movie.

I rode a battered Land Cruiser farther North into Sikkim. They have inspirational slogans painted roadside.

Better late than The Late.

My favourite was Chop your own wood and it will warm you twice.

Next instalment the REAL India, the City of Joy.

Your pundit.



I’m keen to read the new nasty book about Naipaul written by Paul Theroux, the most successful and controversial travel writer. I like Theroux for his amusing, paranoid worldview. Writers are like cannibals. People are their subjects.

Of course the untrustworthy Theroux doesn’t deserve to hold a candle to Naipaul.