#8 May – 2008

Questions over questions

An ox at the railway station - most likely it is a bull (I hope it will excuse that)„Good question“, I think. Again, I am being standing a bit helpless. My local acquaintance wants to know from me – after he has guided me for half an hour through his village and has answered various questions – what our villages look like. I have grown up in one, I should actually know that. But he has – if at all – only a vague idea of Europe. What he perhaps knows through newspaper- and magazine reports, possibly through TV (on the island itself there is none) about Europe, I wouldn’t tag as a reflection of reality. A village is hardly worth a news, and what the media cover about Europe is mostly glossy on soap opera standard. Slightly awkwardly I am trying to provide him with a somehow realistic picture of rural life in Germany’s southwest. Each sentence is prompting a continuative question: “Agriculture has become rare!” – “But what do the people live on then?” After half an hour I pass out. A German village is too abstract as to even roughly put it across without some vivid example. Consequently, I promise to carry some pictures next time.

Travel broadens the mind. But I had never thought that I’d have to spend so many thoughts on my homeland. More than once, “good questions” perplexed me. Simple questions, actually: What is your staple food, how much is charged for a medical treatment, for how many years do people visit school on an average, how much is the governmental minimum salary, in what age do people normally retire, do you have a professional army…Probably, I have a bias to complicate things unnecessarily. On the other hand, I am eager to give answers that would satisfy me as well. After all, it is not less than the image that one provides of himself and his place of origin. And easily this gets too paradise like. Simply “no direct costs for necessary medical treatment” or the elaboration of the social insurance system. The first – paradise like – is not true, the second option is quite tough to explain.

Last week a young chap has ashamedly and hinter vorgehaltener hand addressed me with a question that is for long heavily discussed amongst his friends: “Is it true that in Germany men and women can have free sex, if they like?” Just before he had asked which way to follow best, if wanting to study in Germany. “Good question”, was my answer.

Entertainment on the tracks

Baul singers on the trainTraveling on the train is a fantastic way to let the landscape pass by while relaxedly daydreaming. Nowadays – at least in Germany – one is asked for a hot- or cold drink by a uniformed friendly being every now and then, and in several trains some reading is offered in form of corporate magazines. Integrated retail channels and public relations. But at least this helps avoiding boredom. However, for a real entertainment, it’s a long way to go. India in that respect is several steps ahead. Practically, the trains are open for any kind of traders – free market at its best. And consequently, the entertainment during a rail trip is almost painfully intensive.

During a train journey from Barpeta Road to New Jalpaiguri in April we have tried to compile an unsorted list of all the items offered by petty dealers. What you can read reflects the offer that was available during a 42 minute ride between two stations:

Travel bags, shaving machines, betelnut, cigarettes (despite no smoking in trains), music keyboards, torches, water color sets, scissors, plastic plates, kitchen knives, tooth brushes, Tiger Balm, coffee, tea (packed and fresh in different varieties: lemon tea, milk tea, black tea), omelet on toast, water (1 and 2 liter bottles), bed sheets, cookies, nail cutter, multi plugs, watches, binoculars, miniature bird cages with electronic twitter, bananas, cucumbers, magic cubes, reading specs, chick peas mixture, Barbie dolls, harmonicas, match box cars, CDs, DVDs, video game, puri bhaji, air pumps, anti sliding mats, perfume, cold drinks, sweet joghurt, body shape trainer, samosas, hand sewing machines, newspapers (English and local languages), make up, lipstick, hair brushes, slippers and footwear for women, magic utensils, electric gas lighters, room freshener, deodorant, books, shampoo, popcorn, thermos flasks, gamchas, underwear, air-pillows, towels, pumpkins, papayas, potato chips (local and fresh or branded), dining table covers, bangles, gold necklaces, chains and locks, coconuts, peanuts, music tapes, handicraft (handbags with embroidery), mobile chargers, measuring tape, umbrellas, pencils, calculators, boiled eggs, batteries, mosquito nets for children, walk-mans, STD-phones, T-shirts, rain jackets, potato peelers, muri, plastic dinosaurs, remote controlled plastic elephants, and LED lights.

Additionally, shoe polishers, musicians, magicians and masseurs for head- and body massages offered their services. By include floor sweepers, blind and amputated beggars and hijras (India´s third gender – simplified said) in the group of service providers suspicion could arouse that we ridicule or misconceive their social background. Neutrally stated – they are part of almost every train journey.

It wouldn’t be long till our fellow travelers understood our game and our private entertainment turned into a parlour game. As soon as a salesman entered our compartment, the names of newly available items hit us like an avalanche. Obviously, the landscape had to stand behind during this trip. But a good entertainment with fellow travelers despite language problems is not to be despised.

Yet after closing the notebook – a cup of coffee in hand – several questions about the offered goods arose. Soap and toilet paper – at least either of it is very useful during longer train rides – could not be sighted. A clear failure of the market – demand yes, offer no. In good mood, we took such thoughts ahead: Wouldn’t the long idle time during a train ride through economically uprising India qualify as a fantastic marketing platform for loan agreements, insurances or holiday packages? Perhaps in future times one can hear the travelers tell the marketeers off with a sentence like: “Could you please stop annoying me with your newspapers? Don’t you see, that I am just about to buy a new apartment?”

Regaining future – a visit to Bodoland

River ManasWhen visiting the eastern fringe of Manas Nationalpark the first time in 2005, the first hut of the Jungle Camp was just under construction. In that time we had still slept in the guest house of the local conservation and ecotourism society. Now, the camp consists of five huts and a dining space and one problem that had been reported to us already then still persists. The elephants don’t stick painstakingly enough to the Nationalpark’s borders. In the night before we arrived a gray giant had scrubbed his back on the kitchen wall – slightly affecting the statics. Perhaps it was excited due to the storm that had unrooted some trees and so cut off the camp’s electricity supply. Without electricity there is no water – the pump operates only electrically. And thus the deeply longed for shower after the dusty ride on the bumpy road – that admittedly just is overdone with great effort – has to be postponed for time unknown. The kids bother little about that fact, they are wholeheartedly exploring the environs. And that’s quite a lot to do: That it is one of the most diverse biospheres in the world is of little interest for them, but when do they have the opportunity in Siliguri to roam around in the green so undisturbed.

Not only our children needed some time in Manas to find to themselves. The tribal group of the Bodos – the traditional settlers of this area – as well spent a long time in search of their identity. And while our little ones under guidance pluck of a blade of gras and chase excitedly after the butterflies, the Bodos during the time of their independency movement had felled trees and shot wild animals. This as well often due to external demand. The Nationalpark has been left with deep scars from this time and the wounds heal only slowly. With the recognition of Bodoland as an autonomous region, adulthood came and raised the question: „How can we live of what we possess?” Fortunately, the voices that proclaimed a sustainable use and long-term conservation of the natural paradise on the foothills of the Bhutanese mountains had been louder than those of the promoters of a fast profit selling off of the natural resources. And though nobody really had an idea how to go about that, tourism was opted for as a viable means. Since, visitors are temporary members of the local ecotourism association and help in keeping free the park roads, and in listing and monitoring of species. This all sounds very strict, but it isn’t really. Along the eastern fringe of the Park timber logging and poaching have been reduced to almost zero, so that patrolling hardly is different than visits in other parks. The weapons that have been surrendered to the park rangers by poachers nowadays are displayed in a museum. Today, mostly it is the sheer presence of the nature guards that is important.

As local and external members are visiting the park only in small groups, the visiting pressure is not focussed on few spots, but spread over many more routes. Moreover, you can spend much more time inside the park and you get a very intensive interpretation of the environment. With our guide (fellow associate), we drive through a dried-up river bed to the Bhutanese border. On this route a forest guard is compulsory; after all we are in the immediate border area. At least latently the proximity of wild animals is omnipresent. Two rifles are aboard the car to shy away elephants with shots across the bow in case of a too intimate encounter. A strange thought in a conservation area, if one doesn’t consider that the Ruesseltiere can easily squash the car and its inhabitants.

Loom in a Bodo HouseThe park is only one reason to visit the land of the Bodos, as we quickly recognize during a village walk. On the market place’s hustle and bustle we see few traders have come from Bhutan to purchase stocks. On the Bhutanese side the Manas forests are so impenetrable that the residents of the villages have to bypass the way to the capital of their own country via India. The improvement of diplomatic relations is an important growth impulse for our village, Kokilabari. Not many economic options are available to the region. Though silk is produced and in almost every house a hand-loom can be found the colorful customs hardly leave the household. As in agriculture the majority of goods are produced for subsistence only. Also the construction materials are mostly local products. The compounds, comprising of several buildings, are traditionally made of bamboo, wood, mud and paddy straw. That tin sheets are becoming increasingly popular as a roof cover, as they keep out the water more effectively, brings some disadvantages as well. We are told that during the summer it gets very hot under the metal roof. Isolation was by far not as good as with the paddy straw roof. And though we prefer the thatched roofs optically, we understand the opting for dry premises. A suggestion that we have carried from other areas, namely the thatching of the tin roofs with straw, is being discussed with great interest.

Any improvement of infrastructure and innovative ideas are elementary topics. The school system is still deficient, many bridges and streets are overaged and at some places they are completely lacking. The substantial financial support by the Central government eases, but a lot still has to be done. After all it is about not less than the transformation of a somewhat unrecognized area of single settlements into a viable economic network while safeguarding conservation of the entire protected area. In the west of the park carpenters are installing platforms on boats to facilitate transport of the patrolling jeeps across Manas river. On the same way food rations can be provided to the remote villages on the other side of the river, thus verhindern the encroachment of the park for new agricultural space. How high the hopes into tourism are becomes clear, as we observe the workings on the sighting spots and protection camps inside the park. Simple huts made of plastics and tin sheets are replaced by multi-storey constructions of ferroconcrete. A safe shelter for the nature wardens and visitors alike. Wherever old infrastructure exists – often from the times of the British rule – it is made over. As in the case of the forest bungalow in Muthangori, traumhaft located with a view over river Manas to the mountain ranges of Bhutan. Enquiry is already high though the renovation will need some more time. And consequently we spend our last three days on a small farm few kilometers away from the park’s entrance. We pass our time with day excursions to the village and the Nationalpark our time passes well too fast to listen to the stories of the old mahout, the elephant guide who proudly shows us around in the camp with almost 50 grey giants. During the time of the timber cutting the elephants had been an important labour force. Today the mahouts provenient hope for tourism as a meaningful and stable source of income. With the returning of the first rhinos from other reserves an important step into a prosperous future of this nature paradise is done.

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