#6 March 2008

Being on the safe side

Ja, mir san mim Radl daThe chief of a Siliguri Police station uses the bicycle for coming to work – a quite praiseworthy deed. In the yard of the beat office he locks his cycle. Habit, caution, or an unspoken statement on the safety level of police beat offices’ courtyards? A big gate, permanently locked and a watch dog – in our housing complex courtyard we did not lock the bicycles for a long time. Until the watchman reported his sorrow that they might be stolen. We have followed his advise. After all, we don’t want to put ourselves in the cultural offside. Just to be on the safe side.

But in Europe dangers lurk, that are rarely observed here. StraßenhundeStraying dogs are a common sight. On almost every corner they roam, or the sleep in house entrances or in the middle of the street. They feed themselves on leftovers and pass their time with fights to climb up in the pecking order. Now the question arises: Why so few dog piles? Is it undernourishment so that consequently the droppings are less? Or do they have special defecation beats, far off the streets and pavements? It is fascinating: While in many places of Berlin one has to balance circumspectly on its toes, here you can easily let your eyes travel around. It is amazing, but there is hardly any dog dirt. Then cowpats are a much more common sight. But they are so big that changes are quite high to walk the world with clean shoes on.

Tell us more about your daily life

That’s the often uttered plea of European friends.

When few years back I returned from my first visit to India, the request was similar. The Suedbild Stock Agency in Vienna was newly launched. In the rampant jungle of image agencies with the omnipresent horror- and misery-pix from developing countries they aimed to be a new species; a picture pool that reflects the daily life of the people from the South. My reservoir of snaps was big enough to contribute few shots of everyday life.

Today I find the depiction of the common life increasingly difficult. Vollbesetzter BusWith every day the exoticism vanishes more and what was once extraordinary fades into common. But more common means on the other hand: less remarkable, less photogenic, less worthy to be reported. An overcrowded bus with a dozen of passengers traveling on the roof has a different zest when you are regularly part of the densely packed human bulk. Also the four headed family on their way back from the weekly marketing gave a nice theme for a snap only few month back. Since, I myself have been member of such a transportation party several times.

If I follow up the request to describe my daily life, I have to consider a viable way:

One option was to describe it very general and unemotional:

“In the morning, I get up, have my bath, take my breakfast, go to the office by cycle or bus, work, have a lunch break, continue work till closing of the office, return home, exchange thoughts with my family, read a bit, and then go to sleep.”

This text, though reflecting my daily life very well, would definitely qualify for a multiple choice test: “Guess where I live?”

Or I describe a bit more detailed, and run danger of offering a fantastic point of attack for comparative social criticism:

„Ear-tearing barking wakes me up far too early. The water heater in the bathroom – anyway a luxury not to be taken for granted – doesn’t work, as the power supply is cut off. After a cold shower a hot coffee is a highly appreciated warmer – it even doesn’t matter that it is only instant coffee. Though I picked up the cycle from the workshop only two days back, the front tire has a flat, and I have to catch the overcrowded bus.”

The reader is always a referee and consequently applies his standard. Too easy it is forgotten then, that in some rural areas of Europe people would be happy to at least have a regular bus service. Long ago it has been sacrificed to the individual transport. Or that a nightly power cut has rid the radio alarm clock of its duty and consequently both the bath and the breakfast have to be skipped completely, as I have experienced several times during my time in Vienna. A barking dog would have avoided that.

The third possibility is a romantising, which would provide the reader with a picture as blue-eyed as implausible:

„When at dawn the dogs happily welcome the emerging day, I feel the deep connection to nature that surrounds me here. The chilly water was only warmed by Mother Earth – no artificial source of energy, but pure nature. If only I could shake off the passion for coffee that still tempts me. Isn’t a freshly brewed tea – organically grown in one of the gardens nearby – a much better and healthier drink to start the day with, anyway? Be it on my cycle or in the bus: Both means of transport equally qualify to soak up the vividness and diversity of Indian daily life…”

No noise, no electric power, no coffee, no hectic crowding. A credible picture of rural India or remembering of a lone forest hut in Canada or Finland, but definitely not an authentic picture of sensed daily reality. And the readers could feel spoofed –justifiably so.

What remains is the more or less well researched reportage. But this would mean a lot of work. Work that in the daily flood of information would not be honored in equal measure by all the readers:

“Though the amount of straying dogs is declining since many years and the municipality addresses the problem with sterilization programmes, it is still not unusual to be waken up by barking in the early morning. The steadily increasing demand for energy of the fast growing economic power India is not yet sufficiently factored all over the country. Still power cuts frequently occur. Some hope on a regular hot shower arises with the prospect of the many hydroelectric power projects in the Himalaya and the nuclear power supply treaty that is just negotiated between India and the USA. With the gradual opening of the markets one can expect that the available variety of international gastronomic specialties will further increase – a freshly brewed Espresso would be a great enrichment of my breakfast. Frisch gemahlener KaffeeThe big instant-coffee brands have developed good pre-conditions for a broad acceptance by the consumers. Everyday, in India x-thousand of new cars are registered and the 100.000 Rupee car will also make ‘auto-mobility’ more and more interesting for the middle class. The rapid transition of the traffic patterns will most likely have effects in two directions: The increasing individual traffic will take some of the pressure off the public transport system. The times of crowded bus rides will soon be over. On the other hand, the increasing traffic density will lead to new problems – particulate matter, carbon emissions, congestion. If the bicycle – which in India still too often is being associated with poverty and perceived as a cheap means of transport due to the lack of affordable alternatives – is not to be completely sacrificed to motorized transport, the construction and development of an alternative infrastructure in the form of bicycle lanes is indispensable…”

After this quite elaborated essay, I have not even reached office. The description of Indian office life, the usual ways to spend the lunch break, the food offer etc. would even after many pages reflect reality rather superficially. Reality is complex and its description is always subjective. At most, inter-subjective.

Already the choice of topics is a valuation. Boring or overstraining texts, or the scrutinizing of journalistic quality – the reader’s opinions will differ. My daily routine is not your daily routine. Consequently, I chose the snapshot as an alternative, in the ideal case the highlight. Interesting topics which won’t qualify for classical news – no celebrities, no direct pressing up-to-dateness, no broad public interest. All this in a tangible outline – this text shall remain one of the longest. A loose combination of entertainment, mundaneness and background story. Without fear of unpleasing topics. And with a question mark that invites cogitation and discussion.

Whoever has a better idea, should first describe the own daily life.

Wait, see and sip a cup of tea – From the home of a most respected hot drink

TeegartenTea consists of hot water and herbal extracts. And the essences of one particular plant were extremely attractive to the British colonial administration officers in India’s Northeast: Camellia sinensis. The whole turned out to become a success story – at least for the culinary world. In search of adequate planting areas the landscape was eagerly transformed to cultivate the new discovery. Since, India is one of the biggest global tea producers – and Assam and Darjeeling are world famous.

But today, India’s tea industry is often yearning for the golden times. Prices have cracked down on international markets, competition has increased from other areas abroad and the decrease in domestic demand – the soft drink industry is poaching clients away – are making problems. Several tea gardens already had to close down and one can imagine that this is not causing happiness of the population in such labor intensive industry.

Vast green areas, tranquility, fresh air and an old English ambience – Tea gardens have a very special appeal, besides its production function. Some visionaries have recognized already years ago, that tourism and tea go well together. By now, the travel industry is praised as sheet anchor and panacea for the suffering industry. Public authorities are supporting the new dream couple with 60 million Rupees for infrastructure development.

Singende und tanzende Tee-ArbeiterIf the plans succeed, soon the masses will start flushing in, to appreciatively sip tea from porcelain cups while they watch the tea pluckers – female ones, male ones I have not noticed so far – plucking the leaves. They will learn how the plant is processed into a dried substrate and perhaps – ideally – they will participate in the rich cultural treasure of the tea-garden workers. From near and far they had come once, in search of labour. Tea gardens offered discounted food rations, schools, and health-care – many things that made even hard work attractive. Thus microcosms have evolved, melting pots of various ethnic groups, with different songs and tales, and culinary diversity. Moreover, the ample plantations are a valuable habitat for sundry animals. On the premises of several tea gardens wide-stretched forests are found that are inhabited by such rare animals like the clouded leopard. Pools inside the properties especially in the upper areas of Darjeeling are home to the Himalayan Newt, a species on the edge of extinction.

With that tea tourism had additional attractions to offer. Necessary ones, I think. As whether the ambience, the tranquility, the remoteness and the display of the production process alone are sufficient to permanently draw the attention of the volatile masses of tourists in a global travel circus not scarce of ever new alternatives, we have to wait and see.

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