Monday, December 29, 2008

A Lesson on Materialism from Migrant Road Workers in Bhutan

For the 2001 Thanksgiving break, my wife and I went to Bhutan. We flew in to New Delhi and made our way by land, traversing the northeastern part of India before crossing into Bhutan. That was the only time that I flew all the way to India from the US, and yet didn't visit my parents or meet a single relative of mine. It was two months after 9/11 and we were seeking to get away to some place really remote for a few days.

I recall one image from our trip back from Thimpu, after we'd spent a few days there. We'd hired a long-distance taxi to take us from the capital Thimpu to Phuntsholing at the Indian border. Those who live in the US are the elite class by default in Bhutan. The locals travel mostly by bus.

The road to the Indian border, though it was the single most important road in the entire country, was in very bad shape. The mountainous, winding road had huge potholes and was no more than a dirt road for long stretches.

We'd sometimes drive past clusters of workers repairing the road.
“Indians. Road work people,” our driver said.
Their methods were very manual, and the equipment used to melt tar was antiquated. The workers had whole families there working, men, women and children. From their attire and features, I could see that the workers were unmistakably Indian. It looked like Bhutan was importing its labor from nearby India.

And sometimes, our taxi would overtake groups of these road workers who were on the move. In the merciless high-altitude sun, they simply walked to their next assignment. Presumably, they walked for miles and miles because we were in the mountains, in the middle of nowhere
I remember them vividly. Men in shirts and dhotis that had turned brown in the dirt. Women in saris, some with a child perched on their waist. Small kids running ahead, carrying plastic bottles with water for their journey.

The men and women walked while balancing one round cloth bundle on their heads. It was a bundle the size of a pillow, made by tying the opposite ends of a dhoti or a sari. It contained everything they owned.

My wife and I pride ourselves on traveling light. We'd each taken only as many things as would fit in our backpacks for the entire two week trip.

But the reason I still remember the image of these workers is because of the thought that crossed my mind as our taxi overtook the workers: my backpack in the trunk of the taxicab for this short trip was bigger than those bundles, and had far more things than the entire life possessions of any of these migrant workers.

Here's an earlier post on possessions: The evolution of tourist kitsch

Monday, December 22, 2008

Customs Down Under

The Australian customs official in Sydney airport was angry at us.

“These could be viable seeds,” he said. He was holding our Ziploc bag of raisins and almonds that we had brought along as trail mix for short hikes in the Outback. I actually hadn’t known that raisins could actually be harmful from a horticulture point of view. Australia ranks among the strictest countries about the food they let cross its borders. Our mistake was that we had opened the packets of raisins and almonds in Chicago, mixed them and packed them in Ziploc bags. He wouldn't allow something that wasn't “commercially packaged” and so he took them away to be destroyed.

We were in Australia earlier this month, narrating this incident at my uncle’s place in Sydney. Two young women who were sisters, family friends of my relatives were visiting. When they heard about our raisins, they launched into their own we-can-top-this story.

The girls had an aunt who was visiting Sydney from India. In preparation for her trip she had prepared a huge batch of sweets for her relatives living in Sydney. But the Australian customs officials wouldn't allow her to carry those sweets past customs.

Any food not already consumed had to be discarded, they insisted. She pleaded but they had their rules, they couldn't allow her to walk past. And so the lady decided on a plan of action. She would herself eat as much of it as she could.

Now, if you know Indian sweets, you know that each cube is solidified heart attack. They have 3 main ingredients: Sugar, ghee (clarified butter) and some flour that gives the sweet its name. But since she had prepared it with love and simply couldn't bear the idea of throwing them away, she sat there, right in front of bemused customs officials and ate them one after another.

Apparently, the lady ate one whole kilogram of the sweets, while her relatives anxiously waited outside to receive her, wondering why she wasn’t coming out.

Friday, December 12, 2008

I almost bought the Monk Who Sold His Ferrari

The Lufthansa flight out of Athens to Frankfurt was departing before 6am, which meant that we were there at an ungodly hour on the Monday after our vacation. We were taking the flight to Frankfurt so that we could connect to the early flight out to Chicago and be there that same Monday. (That way, I saved one vacation day.)

Being overly optimistic, I thought that I would read my book on that pre-dawn Lufthansa flight. As soon as I boarded and sat down, I removed the book ‘The Monk Who Sold His Ferrari’ from my carry-on, shoved it into the seat pocket and promptly fell asleep.

I had picked up the book from my local library without knowing anything about it. It had a catchy title and the author’s last name was Indian which piqued my interest. (I recommend a lot of books here, but this is not one of them. I could never quite connect with the book, so I only read a few pages.)

After getting off the plane at Frankfurt and while walking towards my connecting flight to Chicago, I remembered that the book was still in the seat pocket. I rushed back to the gate but they wouldn’t let me get back onboard. Instead, I was directed to Lufthansa’s Lost and Found office. I gave the person there at the office the book’s details and my contact details and boarded my onward flight to Chicago, without the book.

Three days later, from Chicago I called up Lufthansa, but they said it would take time. So I waited to hear about how I could retrieve the book. Meanwhile I renewed the book to buy some more time. After around 3 weeks, a letter from Lufthansa showed up saying sorry, and that they hadn’t been able to locate the book.

So I went to my library to pay for the book. (The book was available for under $10 from several discount booksellers on the Web, but the lady at the circulation desk said that there was a “processing fee” as well, so I would have to pay somewhere around $25.) Before I could hand her the money, she noticed that the book could be renewed one more time.

I didn’t want to renew it, but she insisted. “You never know. You might find it somewhere in your home or in your car,” she said.

A few days later, when I was checking my online account, going through the books I had checked out from the library I noticed that The Monk book was not in the list. Perplexed, I drove to the library and checked the shelf. The book was sitting there. And from the markings, I knew that it was the exact same copy that I had left in the aircraft seat pocket, back in Frankfurt.

I never found out how it made its way across the Atlantic and back to my local library.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

The Evolution of Tourist Kitsch

Tourist souvenir shops know how to sell to the unwary. Selling is survival to them. In these stores, all manner of outlandish kitsch is carefully arranged so that they don’t seem the least bit incongruous.

A long while back, not realizing all that, we started to buy a lot of the junk. A face mask here, a laughing Buddha, a wooden sculpture, a miniature version of the leaning tower of Pisa -- we cluttered our walls and showcase with random assorted items. When we finally noticed how bad the collection looked in our living room, we swore off buying those forever.

As a next phase of tourist buying, we started picking up different kinds of sweat-shirts (hooded, with and without zips) and T-shirts. And these garments were priced to sell. (“Three for $10? Okay, I’ll take it.) I bought way more T-shirts than I’d ever need. Predictably soon, my wardrobe had lots of these cheap Tees that I couldn’t wear anywhere except inside the house. Eventually, I wizened up and stopping buying them.

Next, it was coffee mugs. We’d buy just one in each of our trips. They are all made in China, but there was a good variety and we could always find one we liked. These coffee mugs would remind me of some long-ago trip. But I am the only coffee drinker in the house, and any apartment needs only so many mugs, and we had long surpassed that number.

Looking for something smaller, we migrated to buying one refrigerator magnet per trip. These are inexpensive and very small, but pretty soon we had too many on our fridge. Also, they seemed a very crass way to initiate a conversation about our trips to our house guests. (“Oh, you’ve been to Greece?”)

So we then changed to buying picture postcards for ourselves. The theory being that they don’t take up volume, are very cheap and are professionally done. For several trips we’d just buy some postcards as reminders and buy nothing else.

One day, Rupal decided to make a collage of her postcards and bought a large black cardboard from an art store. When she started to arrange the postcards, less than 10% of our collection would fit. Soon after, we stopped buying even postcards.

And at long last, we migrated to taking digital photos and buying absolutely nothing. It finally put an end to buying anything touristy.

I have this idea for a poster titled “The Evolution of Tourist Kitsch” and you can easily visualize it, with pictures progressively decreasing in size: Wall hanging and paintings, T-Shirts, Coffee Mugs, Refrigerator magnets, postcards.

It took me a surprisingly long time to appreciate and adopt into practice the true traveler’s credo, because I was dismissing it as a cliché:
Shoot only pictures
Take only memories

Leave only footprints
First post in a series on possessions.