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Cultural encounters - episode 1
Tuesday, 04 September 2007
During our journey we’ve been in many situations, when looked back on are funny, remarkable, sad, special, confusing or just worth mentioning. Many took only a few minutes and some only a few seconds. In stead of mingling them into our travel stories we decided to gather them separately. So here you find a compilation of situations we call “cultural encounters", marking the difference between our cultures. There is no time-line, you’ll find a mix of stories from Iran, Pakistan, India and Nepal. This is the first episode with 4 short stories. Read on!

Encounter : Now show me the models!
Country : India
Where : Rajasthan

Modernisation has reached the tourism development centres (RTDC) of Rajasthan - India. Tourist officers are now equipped with a computer connected to the Internet. All brand new and pretty much the latest equipment. Not surprising, this vulnerable technology fails, specially when used in the conditions of emerging India. We happened to be around and where asked to have a look. So after dinner I (Arno) sat with the Office Manager in a small computer room in the back of the office. Nice modern equipment, however no Internet connection. The problem was solved quickly, some connection setting gone wrong. Mr Office Manager, very happy with the result, asked me to look for the Rajasthan Tourism website. After some Googling, there it is – including the section Rajasthan. And here you are with your office and contact details. Great!! said Mr Office Manager, Now show me the models! Bewildered I looked at him, and asked what models? Carmodels? Computermodels? Yes the models, you know! The girls! Somehow I felt this situation was going somewhere I didn’t want to go. Being found here with Mr Office Manager looking at the “the girls” on state government equipment – hmmm that doesn’t sound good. I decided to take the innocent route and showed him Wikipedia – which has a large section about world’s fashion models. We clicked through the top 10 knowing that this was not really the right stuff. Show me the pictures please said Mr Office Manager.  It was time for an escape, so I said “Internet problem is fixed now, tourism website is found and here is Wikipedia the largest online encyclopaedia”. I stood up and started to flee the scene. Mr Office Manager said, can you show me more models later? I’m afraid not I said, I’m leaving tomorrow. You can use Google and Wikipedia for most of the things you are looking for. He thanked me for the help and I felt lucky I didn’t get deeper into looking at “The Girls” in more revealing detail with Mr Office Manager.

Encounter : India 1, 2 and 3
Country : India
Where : The book “It happened in India” by Kishore Biyani

Spending some time in India slowly brings about a feel for the layers in Indian society. On forehand we briefed ourselves about Indian society by several readings about the complex caste system. But experiencing Indian society is something else than reading about castes. We somehow felt we almost encounter 90 % of the same society layer al the time. These are the millions of Indians (that is men) who spend their time on the streets of India. It sometimes comes as a sort of a refreshment when we encounter very outspoken and articulate Indian people – suddenly being asked bright questions in excellent English. A real conversation emerges instead of the usual hand and feet sign work in a haze of high pitched ‘machine-gun’ Hindi and the inevitable “no problem” applicable for nearly every situation. After sometime in India the caste society we briefed ourselves on didn’t feel like it covered the society layering we encounter on a daily basis. It didn’t fit to us, has India changed so rapidly? Then we read the book “It happened in India” by Kishore Biyani. He’s an entrepreneur building a new retail chain in India – Big Bazaar, Food Bazaar and Pantaloons. His view of India in a business sense is simply India 1, 2 and 3.  India 1 being the consuming class (14 %), 2 the serving class (55%) and 3 the struggling class (31%). India 3 lives on hand to mouth basis and can’t afford any of the things what India 2 and 3 can afford. For every India 1, there are at least three India 2’s. Like a driver, household helps and gardeners. These are the people who make the life of India 1 more easier. Anyhow – reading this, we mainly encounter India 2 and 3 on our travels. Also the people we can hardly communicate with. It came as a sort of a revelation to us – although it was in our face nearly every day in India. India 2 is roughly 60 million people, that’s almost the size of the population in Pakistan! According to research by Kishore Biyani, India 2 likes to do things “en masse” and feel very uncomfortable in the individualistic lifestyle of India 1. That also explains why when we look out of our truck window we mainly see India 2 standing there (mainly men) – looking at us “en masse”. And also why we feel uncomfortable doing things in the mass like behaviour of India 2. This happened in India for us and we feel the 1,2 and 3 divide in India is a spot-on match.

Encounter : Indian Hairdresser

Country :  India
Where : Pushkar – Rajasthan

As in our settled lives in the Netherlands going to the hairdresser is a normal and sometimes very necessary thing. With one difference, we get to experience a new hairdresser every time. One who usually doesn’t understand our language and cultural background. So in fact going to the hairdresser is like a small adventure with very visual results! The touristy city of Pushkar was the first Indian hairdresser I (Arno) saw. Before I had a French, Greek and Iranian hairdresser. The Indian hairdresser in Pushkar advertised his services as a “beauty parlour”. A small clean shop with air conditioning and some sort of privacy. Because we already noticed that getting your hair dressed in India is a sort of mass experience (India 2) in open street shops. Services written in English with prices clearly stated excluding tax. The guy itself couldn’t speak very well English but knew what to do without too much hand and feet work. The first 10 minutes went reasonably well – professional haircutting with clean equipment. Then he put his tools down and started washing hands and came back with a bottle of oil. Without asking he rubbed his hands in oil and suddenly started slapping my head!! Strong whacks that left a glowing / tingling feel – what is this dude doing!! I was just too startled to make a comment and he progressed by pulling my hair, almost lifting me from the chair. What the heck! And if that’s not all – suddenly his hands where on my forehead pulling my skin so hard making me almost see through the holes in my nose. My whole head was on fire in just one minute! Then the treatment became more gentle kneading my head steadily all over for like 10 minutes. That’s a treat – but it came with a shock whacking me as a little kid in deer need of correction. A Dutch hairdresser would have lost a client instantly doing this. Anyhow the treatment finished with hair gel and a tea. And this all for just 120 Rs (€ 2,20). My head felt like new and the feeling lasted for at least an hour or so.
Highly recommended but don’t start whacking back immediately !

Encounter : Excuse me, can I ask you a question?
Country : India
Where : Almora – Uttarakhand (Uttaranchal)

Almora is a place where many tourist spend their time hiding from the Monsoon – It’s located at 1850 meters, laidback with several facilities tourists appreciate. One day while walking (Janine) the Binsar road to Kasar Devi an elderly couple from Australia approached me. The woman said: Excuse me, can I ask you a question – as woman to woman? Well yes, go ahead I said, expecting the wildest question. She asked: “Indian men keep on staring at me, is that normal?” Instantly recognising the issue I replied; No it’s not normal, but I’m afraid this comes with being in India – a considerable amount of the Indian men practice this behaviour. But on average staring at someone is considered pretty rude in the Indian society. It’s also referred too in India as “eve-teasing” and is slowly becoming sort of a nation wide issue. Indian newspapers start reporting about it also. Also (young) Indian women have to deal with this kind of rude male behaviour on a day to day basis. The woman continued: “What do you do about it?” Well I said, I’m afraid this is India, there is not much you or I can do – the staring is already practiced on a large scale in India. The conversation continued about the issue for some time. They told me about rude comments up to touching her. The couple appeared quite normal to me, not a hint of any behaviour or style of dress on her that could entice a man to get rude. Anyhow, I could relate to their experiences – and could feel their frustration trying to deal with it. They thanked me for reflection on the issue and continued their walk.

This encounter reminded me about a recent report in “The times of India” about an Indian girl who had to endure constant rude remarks by two young men in a packed bus. No-one in the bus stepped in to help her which really amazed her. She endured the remarks silently with every one in the bus listening. Leaving the bus at her destination she noticed the 2 young men followed her – still making lewd remarks and using foul language. That was enough for her, and she took control of the situation being an experienced karate trainer. She hit one of the men - ending up in a fight where both men had to admit a humiliating defeat. The men were later booked by the police. She said “It’s high time that the women in Delhi should stand up for themselves. Nobody will come to their help and they have to safe themselves from this constant harassment.”
The story is a sad token about what local Indian women have to endure.

Also it seems that this rude male behaviour is a fairly recent rising phenomena in India. Entrepreneur Kishore Biyani in his book “It happened in India” organised disco events for youngsters in the 80’s. At that time there used to be hardly any eve-teasing or ugly male behaviour. So a sign of the times in India? We don’t know – but in the new millennium it’s a sad reality.

As Gregory David Roberts wrote in his book “Shantaram” published in 2004 – “It’s the guys in India who are the problem here. Indian woman are ready to change. Young Indian women from middle-class families are wild about change. They’re educated and they’re ready for short hair, short dress and short love affairs. They’re ready for it, but the guys are holding them back. The average Indian guy has a sexual maturity of about 14.” Although an over-generalisation, this was written in the era of the early 90’s.  Maybe change comes with a phase where male harassment first has to come to a sad and ugly peak before it gets better. We certainly do hope India is in the getting better phase already.
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