Friday, August 26, 2011

Riding Bare-back

I've told you how much I love elephants. My interactions with them include some of my favorite memories of life here in India. Although it is admittedly controversial, there is something magical about mixing an elephant with the urban landscape. Seeing an elephant squeeze between a city bus and a line of bicycle rickshaws... there just aren't many places in the world where you can witness such a scene.
My fascination with these giant mammals recently led me on a little investigation. How many of them were kept in New Delhi? Where did they live and who took care of them? Pachyderms are not easy to keep healthy. What did they eat and how did the get enough water? 

Here are some quick facts about my Asian elephant friends... They are an endangered species. There is an estimated 26,000 of them currently living in south Asia. They weigh up to five tons and can be 3 meters tall and 6 meters long. Asian elephants spend about 16 hours each and every day eating. They eat 200-300 kilos of fodder a day and drink as much as 100 liters (that's 25 gallons) of water per day. Did I mention baths?  They need to bathe at least twice a day. (I have a few friends in that category)...

Champa, who was gracious enough to let me ride her bare-back, is 35 years old. She's a sweetheart who weighs about 3 tons and will probably live to be between 60 and 70 years, provided her Mahout (driver & keeper) takes good care of her.

There are two big problems for the few elephants who remain in the city of New Delhi. Finding enough water that is actually safe to drink, and mistreatment by the men who care for them. There's evidence of  repeated beatings, and malnutrition. The Mahouts care for their elephants in ways that have been passed down to them by previous generations. Many of the same families have been caring for elephants since the time of the Mughal Emperors. It's a cultural phenomenon. And elephants are expensive to keep. It costs a lot rupees for mahouts to provide a proper diet and routine medical care.

Fortunately, (or unfortunately) the business is booming. Elephants are all the rage at weddings, birthday parties, and even baby showers. Elephants are the living manifestation of the Hindu god, Ganesha. He's the remover of obstacles and a bringer of good luck. Definitely in demand these days.

With education and the support from NGO's like the World Wildlife Fund, the Wildlife Protection Society of India, and to a lesser degree, the Indian government, there is some hope. Despite some abuse and neglect, the seven elephants I've had the fortune to observe, work hard, but seem happy. They are able to roam freely when "off duty" and have access, during monsoon, to cleaner waters.

Indians love their elephants at least as much as I do - for both the religious and cultural legacies they represent. The government needs to work harder to create a safer urban haven and allow the animals access to cleaner, more abundant water during the drier summer and winter seasons.
I recently took some friends on a bareback, urban safari... It's definitely a unique experience to be around them in such an odd, natural setting. For me, elephants are a joy to be near. But this won't last long unless something is done so they can more safely co-exist in the concrete world that surrounds them. Based on a recent census, there are now probably less than twenty elephants living and working in the National Capital Region. That's apparently down from forty just a few short years ago...

Namaste, Y'all.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Life in Two Worlds

Sorry for my two-month lapse in posts... I needed to step away from the blog for a time to get some new perspective on our lives here in India. We've now extended our stay for a second time. Although we miss many things about life at home, we're obviously comfortable with what our lives have become in India. A summer trip home to visit friends and family helped us reflect on the two very distinct worlds our family enjoys.

During the trip we covered about 4,000 miles by car (leaving an enormous carbon footprint in our wake). The miles gave us a lot of time together as a family. Soaking up the American culture all around us, we had many conversations about the differences between our lives in India and our lives in the US. Some of these differences are a little difficult to explain unless actually experienced, but I'll try to share some recent observations.

Peach Cobbler

We made cobbler at my Dad's in the mountains of North Georgia. The peaches were large, juicy and freshly picked. They reminded me a little of the large, juicy mangoes we can get in Delhi. The experience sparked a kitchen conversation - couldn't we make the cobbler in India, my Dad asked? We explained there aren't really great peaches there... you can get them, but they are typically scrawny, not juicy and either under-ripe or mushy from sitting in the sun too long.

"Can't you just buy some frozen ones in the supermarket?" my stepmother asked.
Supermarkets? Not really. Just a few over-priced, air conditioned stores (think Delhi's Khan Market) that cater to Expats and wealthy locals. Frozen food is often unreliable because there is no constant source of power. Our neighborhood grocery shop is a 12'x30' stall that is open to the street. There's no air con, one freezer case for the ice cream and 2 upright cases for cold drinks and dairy products. The shop has pretty much everything we need, but no frozen peaches. We usually buy fruits and veggies each day from our street-corner cart-vendor.

There are some highways in India. A few are actually quite modern - the connector road Lesa takes each morning from Delhi to Noida for work is one such example. But the roadside surroundings are vastly different.
In the US, highways typically wander through open country side. Tall forests grow along their sides, wild flowers fill the medians. There is very little trash to be seen strewn on the side of the highway. Road repairs and construction are well-marked. The roadway is well-defined.
India's major routes are lined with villages and towns one after another. With few exceptions, trash is strewn everywhere the eye can see. Flyovers are slowly being retro-fitted in some areas ,but highways go right through town-centers. Travel quickly comes to a halt because of heavy pedestrian and animal traffic across the roadway (think NH2 to Agra, and NH8 to Jaipur). There is little signage about construction. A neat row of rocks or a few green branches laid out across torn pavement may be your only warning. Driving in India is challenging, rarely picturesque, but always entertaining.

In terms of food preparation (remember, HouseBoy is the family cook) the outdoor grill is one thing I miss. There just aren't any to be found easily for home use. It's a man thing at home. In India men don't cook. Most middle class women don't either - they have a servant do it.
Cooking is done strictly on a stove top - unless you are wealthy enough to have an oven. I would guess less than 1% of Indians actually own an oven. I make do with a 2 burner CNG stove (think Coleman camping stove) and a small electric oven (think big toaster oven). We eat meals that are healthy, fresh and in season, but if you asked the kids, they'd probably say our menu gets a bit repetitive sometimes. I'm working on it.

Indoor Climate-control
I see this as maybe one of the biggest failures of the west - particularly in the US. In India, unless you've got a lot of money to burn, or live on a large Embassy compound, there just is no central air con in the home. There's no heat in the winter either. (Of course winter only lasts about 5 weeks in Delhi anyway.)
We use room A/Cs in summer, space heaters when it's chilly. Our building's power system can only handle 2 units running at once, so no more than two rooms are ever cooled at any given moment. The kitchen, our bathrooms, and the stairwell do not have AC. Because it's so hot in the summer months, we don't turn on our water heaters. Cold showers only. The bathroom is 90 - 100 degrees and has the humidity of a tropical jungle. The kitchen, with the stove or the oven going can easily reach 120 degrees - I drink a lot of water when I cook. In the winter we wear warm socks and sweaters and drink a lot of hot tea.

Some of these challenges actually make a lot of sense. In Texas we routinely cool down 5,000 sq ft. homes - every room in the house gets chilled whether it's occupied or not. We love hot showers in the summer too - because our bathrooms are chilled with A/C. In the winter it's the same - everything is heated whether we use each room or not. My guess is a lot of this is changing out of necessity. After all, necessity is really what drives many of the differences we've learned to adapt to in India.

Water Use
There is not a lot of clean water here in India. Something I definitely take for granted at home. My wife said to me while we were staying at her mom's - she loved taking a long hot shower. Letting the water run over her, warming the bathroom and filling it with steam. I smiled at the thought, because I'd just enjoyed a similar experience earlier that morning...
We'd never do that in India:
Rinse, switch off, lather, switch on, rinse. Done.
You never know when the tank will run dry...
Namaste, Y'all.