John's Blog
Dec 2008


Eating raita and nan in a roadhouse during our driver's chai break, a man shuffled past my table, duckwalking like Bo Diddley coming onstage at the Brooklyn Paramount Theater. In his hand, he held a bundle of reeds he was using to sweep the floor. His gait was awkward, almost comical.

I thought to myself, "Why doesn't the café owner buy the poor man a proper broom. One with a broomstick?"

Well, they don't make brooms like that in India—at least the parts of India I was seeing. Everyone squats to sweep.


Indian brooms consist of bundles of reeds about eighteen inches long, held in a hollow plastic handle. They're in all the markets.


I don't really know why Indian brooms are so short. Of course, Indian people hunker. They sit on their haunches from childhood. When Indian men gather to play cards, they squat in a circle for hours. So Indians are comfortable close to the ground. Might as well sweep, long as you're down there.

Long ago I lost the flexibility to hunker. The best my stiff legs will allow is squatting with my heels raised, my feet bent sharply at the toes. It's painful, and I can only do it for a few minutes. I can't handle that flat-footed squat that Indian people seem to do with such ease.


Because of my lack of flexibility, I find it virtually impossible to use squat toilets. I tend to lose my balance—something that believe me, you don't want to do in that situation. Westerners are so awkward using them, the web is loaded with how-to guides.

But we're not the only ones that need toilet instruction. People accustomed to the old-fashioned approach apparently become baffled when confronted with modern toilets. They need instruction on how to use them.


Image: Lyevkin, Flickr

This shouldn't be surprising. I'm guessing 90% of our six billion people never sat on a toilet in their lives. I read somewhere that more than a billion don't have any kind of toilet facilities. I initially fond the sign an exercise in the obvious. Guess not.


Jain Temple

Jainism: I'd heard the name of this religion but couldn't recall anything about it. I vaguely remembered it was ancient. I thought it was centered somewhere in Asia, and I knew that it featured extreme asceticism. In other words, I knew as much about it as I knew about Zoroastrianism. I was wandering inside Jaisalmer Fort when I came upon a Jain Temple.


The architecture was unlike anything I'd encountered, seeming to derive from no tradition I knew of. I learned that Jainism is very old, dating from the Fourth Century BCE, so its esthetic heritage probably doesn't have many precursors to draw on.


Ornate roof structures contain a wealth of detail—and deep mysteries. Who are these people?


Hinduism developed out of Jainism. One of the Jain tenets is striking: extreme respect for all life forms. Their concern for living things far outreaches Hinduism or Buddhism. Strict vegetarians, many Jains will not even farm vegetables because farming necessarily kills bugs. Even today, some Jains, like these Svetambara (white-clad) monks, wear mesh over their faces to avoid inhaling insects, and carry soft brooms to sweep their paths clear of any creatures so they won't step on them.


Image: BBC

Some put netting over spigots so insects won't crawl into pipes and perish when the water is turned on. Others strain water drawn from wells, returning any bugs found to their environment.

Jains renounce worldly goods. Svetambaras dress in untailored white cloth and own only face masks, brooms, begging bowls, books and writing materials. Digambara (sky-clad) monks go farther: they live out their lives completely naked. They must receive donations in their cupped hands because they don't even have begging bowls. They own absolutely nothing. They have even have renounced any sense of shame, living untroubled by their nakedness in the world of the clothed.


Image: Picasa

Jains' respect for living things and their asceticism seem admirable, but there's a dark side. "Digambaras believe that women cannot achieve liberation without first being reborn as a man. This is because women cannot live a truly ascetic life, because they have to possess clothes since it is impractical for them to live naked, [and] women are intrinsically harmful." *

Maybe I have it wrong, but what I get from reading this is that they believe that even insects are potentially divine, but women are not. And we all know where that kind of thinking leads.


Is there no religious or political tradition that does not divide people into higher and lower classes?

I saw this sign. Offended, I chose not to enter the temple.

* Source: BBC


Exploited Children

Where there is poverty, children are put to work. In Mexico, I see six-year-olds selling Chiclets. I don't buy from them—a difficult decision. Poor families need the money, but they're mortgaging their children's future, taking them out of school to sell stuff.

Children enhance beggars' supplications. A mother with a baby in one hand, reaching out with the other, touches my heart if not my wallet. I see begging women carrying infants both in Mexico and India.


In Dharamsala these mothers use an approach I haven't run across elsewhere. They tell you they don't want your money; they want milk for their babies. Would you please come into the nearby store and buy them a liter? Who could resist?

I'm told the baby never sees any milk out of the transaction. You buy the milk; later the mother re-sells it to the cooperative shopkeeper for half price. She gets a little cash, the shopkeeper gets some too, and he keeps the milk to sell to someone else.

I don't like being hustled, but then I have to consider that those mothers live in terrible poverty. They are trying to survive as are so many others. So what if they try to find a way to stand out from the crowds of the deformed, the disabled, the lepers? India has too few donors trying to help far too many needy people. Competition among beggars is intense and sometimes may be a matter of life and death.

This little boy walks the streets, beating his drum. His sister carries a shopping bag to receive handouts—a bag that seems rather capacious for the few coins she's likely to garner in a day's work.


There's a reason for the big bag. In cash-poor India, many people give beggars food instead of money. The bag is for carrying the type of donations she's most likely to receive.

These kids are professional beggars-in-training. At least their parents haven't broken their limbs or amputated their fingers to enhance their appeal. (I couldn't bring myself to photograph people so disfigured; not them nor lepers with missing fingers and noses and bleeding bandages). The kids will master their profession and become like this man, squatting in the street, consuming a dinner someone just deposited in his bowl.


Children of better-off parents provide opportunities for unemployed young people. This Tibetan refugee is babysitting, caring for his young charge all day long while mom and dad work. Many young men are so employed. For this teenager, it's stultifying work. He'd rather be in college. Or in a club somewhere in the west. But babysitting is infinitely better than begging, so he stands there all day, stoic, dreaming of what might be. His future too has been mortgaged.


Below we have a large tour group in the center of Jaisalmer Fort. They are the epitome of why I avoid tours: standing around waiting for the last of the group to arrive, spending hours standing in front of some point of interest while a guide yammers on about oldest, biggest, costliest, or the tedious peccadillos of some 14th-Century maharaja.

The people in this group are French.


Nearby, a troupe of child musicians performs for them; singing and dancing, accompanied by a harmonium—a small hand-pumped organ. (You can buy a nice double-reed model on eBay India for about a hundred dollars.)


Having alertly divined the nationality of the crowd, they sing "Frère Jacques."

A common sight: little girls walking tightropes while balancing objects on their heads. Must be a recognized profession.


I'm intrigued by her balancing pole. It looks heavy. The weight is carried by a harness around her neck. That way, her pipestem arms won't tire, while she can still use the inertia of the pole to maintain balance by pushing up or down on one end.

Tightrope girls work at night, too, this one at a celebration at the beginning of the diwali festival, India's most popular holiday. (Diwali can be thought of as an equivalent of Christmas.)


She is crossing the rope without a balancing pole, scooting along while kneeling on a pie tin.

Exploiting children is anathema in the west. While discouraged by the government, child labor isn't condemned in India. To me, their child labor laws seem outrageous. The government bans employment of children below the age of fourteen in factories, mines, abattoirs or slaughterhouses, or in work such as printing, cashewnut descaling, or soldering.

Thank God they're spared cashewnut descaling. I can only wonder what that entails.

Fifty years ago, I was not permitted to work as a checker in a grocery store until I was sixteen, and then only under restrictions aimed at my welfare. Rich countries can afford to protect their young. In India, it's simply not possible.


The Fort at Jaisalmer

You come with your army from the east, from what today is Pakistan. You march across the Great Thar Desert, following the ancient caravan routes, bent on advancing your Islamic empire into the Indian Subcontinent. Eventually, you come upon a formidable obstacle, one you expected. You know it is one of the largest forts in the world. You know it has never been conquered by direct assault. You prepare for years of siege, knowing that is the only way to reduce Jaisalmer Fort.


The fort eventually did fall to siege twice and to a Trojan horse maneuver once. During the sieges, when the food ran out, women sequestered behind the walls committed jauhar—mass suicide—and defenders marched out of the gates to their deaths at the hands of superior invading forces. We think life is tough today...

The fort contains three concentric walls; the second and third are visible here. The first lies below the rubble glacis at the bottom of the image. Two of the fort's 99 bastions shown here underscore the obstacles facing attackers.


Walkways between the second and third walls provided a platform for defenders to fire down on the enemy. Or throw rocks at them. Or pour boiling oil on them. Invaders opted to wait the defenders out.


A view through a crenellation shows how the fort dominates the surrounding countryside. That's the modern city of Jaisalmer in the foreground, with the Great Thar Desert stretching away into the distance.


In peacetime, havelis were built inside the fort. This one has windows piercing the inner wall. Note the maharaja blue trim. Many havelis have been converted into hotels.


Jaisalmer Fort is billed as the world's only living fort, meaning that people reside within its walls and conduct businesses there. The place is a warren of narrow, twisting alleys. Cars are prohibited, but motorcycles keep pedestrians hopping.


Shopkeepers lure potential customers into stores. Most sell goods aimed at tourists, because basically, the locals don't have any money. Block printed cotton fabric is tempting. We bought some.


Like many males, I'm less interested in cloth than in the tools used to make it. Here is an offering of used woodblocks.


For sale here: wooden carvings of dancing maharajas. They've been carefully battered to look antique. Someone should tell the shopkeeper not to line them up like that. They look like they came off an assembly line.


Importuning shopkeepers quickly became tedious. Someone was always plucking my sleeve, promising I'd only need five minutes to look at their stuff, offering me glasses of chai. When I would walk away, they'd hit me with a last come-on: Cheap!

I always told them I was looking for: Expensive!

The place is lively. As a center of commerce, it avoids that drab museum-like quality I find in so many monumental buildings. But every vista was marred by banners strung across streets advertising camel tours into the desert. I suspected these would be ghastly: visits to desert settlements that exist only for tourists. Virtually every man I met offered me a tour.


A few restrictions on signage wouldn't hurt, if you ask me.

A spigot with a defective valve betrays a mortal problem in the fort. The plumbing doesn't have the capacity to handle all the water consumed and spilled by thousands of residents.


The result is that the fort is crumbling. Water erodes sandstone. Walls and floors collapse into piles of rubble.


Citizens of Jaisalmer have a challenge. Travelers' interest in the fort is destroying the place, yet tourism is probably the largest source of the city's income. Looks like some tough decisions ahead.


Facilities, Utilities and Machines

The Indian government, in radical departure from past practice, has relaxed its bureaucratic stranglehold on certain industries, although carefuly keeping them quarantined in hermetic compounds lest efficiency and prosperity spread willy-nilly to the rest of the country. Nevertheless, the tiny concessions have permitted awakening of the world's next economic superpower. Thousands of highly educated young Indians flock to the facilities of Indian, American and European tech companies. The campuses of these companies equal anything in Silicon Valley.


High Tech Campus, Bangalore. Image: Infosys

Of the Indian population, 99% never get to even see places like this. Baton-wielding guards keep them outside the gates. The less fortunate live and work in tumbledown buildings and houses. Construction often looks makeshift. For example, this building sports siding made of flattened cooking oil cans.


Modern Indian construction typically looks shoddy and under-financed. Surviving buildings erected before the twentieth century look more substantial, although plaster details and wooden fixtures often are rotting. Older structures are built of stone: unreinforced, mortarless. Thankfully, earthquakes are rare, except near the geologically active Himalayas. But the horrific toll of the 2005 Kashmir earthquake—75,000 killed, 100,000 injured—underscores the peril of living in structures built of stone blocks or mud bricks.


Some sort of building codes seem to apply in parts of the country. They still use unreinforced masonry construction in Jodhpur, but in Dharamsala steel-reinforced concrete is being used in new buildings.

Modern ironworking machinery is in short supply. Below we see a low-tech method of cutting rebar. A length of steel is laid over a small anvil, notched to keep the bar from slipping off to the side. A worker places a short length of steel atop the bar being cut. Then the guy in the red sneakers strikes the short bar with a mighty overhead swing of a sledgehammer. It's the crudest shear imaginable, but it works.


Water distribution via plumbing is a recent development in many places. I occasionally see people drawing water from hand pumps at centrally located wells, but these are being phased out.

Here a three-inch (!) water main terminates in a flurry of valves, to which customers attach their own feeds, running their water lines sometimes a hundred meters to reach their homes.


You may have guessed that the pictured freshwater pipes have been laid above (and sometimes in) open sewers. I observed men and children, pants around their ankles, publicly squatting above them. While closed black water sewers are becoming the norm, open ones continue to reek in many places. Fresh water, even if treated, is almost certainly cross-contaminated from the sewers by the time it reaches the faucet.

Many water mains are simply laid on the ground along pathways, where they become damaged by people walking on them. This one, crossing a path to the Tibetan Library, has a leak partially plugged by a rock placed over the hole in the pipe. The epitome of deferred maintenance. Fortunately water pressure is low or someone might have to actually fix it.


Tinacos—rooftop water tanks for maintaining backup water supply when city water gets cut off—are fixtures in Mexico, and they are in India, too. I've rarely experienced interruptions by SAPASMA (Gesundheit!), San Miguel's water company. But at our home in McLeod Ganj, we receive city water for only two hours per day. The rule here is: Get it while you can.

Outside city centers, some people lack plumbed water, so they go to public spigots scattered here and there—inconvenient, but an improvement over the village well system.


The electricity supply is sketchy. In Jaisalmer, power gets cut citywide from about nine to noon. That part of India simply doesn't have enough generating capacity to provide everyone with electricity all of the time, so residents have to take turns.

Distribution looks jury-rigged. This substation has exposed high voltage contacts placed within easy reach of passers-by. At least the wiring is protected by a flimsy fence; I saw substations that weren't. Tough on children, drunks, and sacred cows, I imagine.


Circuit breakers and cartridge fuses seem to be unavailable. These circuits are being protected with twisted lengths of fuse wire. Wires are kept from shorting against each other with a bendy strip of wood. The box shows signs of exciting episodes in the past: note the burn marks, the melted insulation.


No wonder we experience frequent power failures—at home and in restaurants, shops, and most inconveniently, in cybercafés.

When not interrupted by power failures, my uploads get cut off by telecommunication failures. I can see why: check out these junction boxes.


The technology is there. There's nothing wrong with these fixtures. But the wiring has been handled so carelessly, it almost looks like sabotage.

And in some places, even the technology dates from early in the last century. What we're looking at here is a score of individual phone lines running on bare wires. Is it possible they're still in use?


A hallmark of British engineering a century ago is overdesign. Where stamped sheet steel might do, they used castings. Where castings might hold up, they used forgings. The three ceiling fans in my train compartment looked like they weighed a hundred pounds each and sounded like idling DC-3s. Legacies of the Raj.

A case in point: the machine below is an orange juice squeezer. And a finger amputator. Ask the street vendor for a glass, and he switches on the quarter-horsepower motor and jams oranges into the hopper using a fitted wooden plunger. Juice spills out on the right, passes through the strainer and into the grimy pot. Incredible.


I never thought I'd say something like this, but my Mexican juice squeezer is a model of engineering restraint by comparison. It'll go through a half-dozen oranges in a minute or two, and needs no electricity. Of course, it occupies about twenty percent of the available counter space, but I think it's worth it.


Construction of my Mexican squeezer is shoddy. The castings contain voids. No surface has been polished unless absolutely necessary. The pedestal lists to the left about ten degrees. This product dates from a period when government policy was to manufacture everything using Mexican industry, even if the technology was lacking and the quality poor. NAFTA and the need to curtail Mexico City smog put paid to that nonsense.

In terms of efficient design, the Indian squeezer comes in second. It's like using a howitzer to kill a mouse. Ah, but the workmanship. Those precision castings, the ball bearings in sealed races, the automotive-grade v-belt connecting that beefy capacitor-start motor. I just love that thing: an original brick shithouse.


The Milkman

In Mexico milkmen still sell unpasteurized fresh milk dipped from milk cans directly into customer-supplied pots. Most sell from pickup trucks. One man in San Miguel de Allende plies his route on the back of a burro, cans slung over its back. Occasionally I see Mexican milk sellers using motorbikes. In India, motorcycles seem to be the preferred distribution vehicle.


During my first extended stay in San Miguel at Umaran #17, our landlady provided a cook, a young woman named Juanita who always bought raw milk from the back of a truck, just the way her grandmother had taught her. The practice made me a little nervous: hadn't we eradicated milk-borne disease in the USA with refrigeration and careful processing in spotless stainless steel facilities?

Juanita used all of her milk in cooking. We didn't drink it straight—a bad idea for a heart patient. She pasteurized it herself on the stovetop; then used it to make cream soups and flan. So I guess it was safe, even if milking and transportation went unsupervised by the USDA.

Indian milk consumers may face greater challenges than Mexicans. As I shot the image of the milkman, my gaze drifted 45º to the left, revealing an unsavory scene of a sacred cow eating trash.


I saw cows munching refuse everywhere, and it isn't surprising. After all, it's not like Indian cities have room for pasture. So cows eat handouts of vegetables from kindly neighbors, or whatever people discard in the street. They seem to favor newspaper and corrugated cardboard.

That's the whole point of your ruminants, you know, with those extra stomachs. Their digestive systems break down cellulose, so they can get nutrition from paper products.

This raises a disturbing question: where exactly does the milkman get his milk? More importantly: who buys it? Maybe that restaurant where you just downed a large portion of riata (seasoned yoghurt)?


I frequently saw bearded trees. Hundreds of them. Were they infested by some parasitic plant? I was a little slow to pick up on the answer to the mystery.


Finally I tried a novel approach: I asked someone. Turns out farmers use trees to store fodder. They cut wild grasses that grow during the monsoon and fork it into the branches. There it dries, kept away from the ground (where it would compost) or get eaten by some otherwise garbage-eating sacred cow.

Haystacks roosting in trees demonstrably aren't artifacts of agribusiness. You can't automate the process. Animals feeding on these grasses are not given hormones or antibiotics. Aerial haystacks suggest the work of a steward who cares more for the health of his patch of earth than maximizing how much he can extract from it every season.

I think I would drink unpasteurized milk from those farmers, without hesitation.


Construction Workers

Albañiles exist somewhere toward the bottom of the Mexican labor hierarchy. The best of them become skilled bricklayers, but most wield pickaxes and shovels and are paid a pittance. They rank higher than campesinos—country folk—but not by much. Although they build our houses, they garner little respect. A Mexican man can't go much lower than to be an albañíl.

But Indian women can go much lower. On construction sites, they're primarily used as beasts of burden. Here a woman carries a basket of escombro (rubble) on her head.


If you have a lot of construction debris to move, forget bulldozers, forget wheelbarrows. Just hire a bunch of sari-clad young women. They'll haul that stuff cheaper than anyone else will and be grateful for the employment. Women with baskets on their heads are one of India's main earth-moving mechanisms.


Macho Mexican society doesn't allow women to be used this way, but Hindus have no such compunctions. In India, women are chattel; at least rural ones are. They have few rights. You can use 'em however you want.

Indian men get called on to move earth, too. But their delicate constitutions excuse them from the really heavy work. Here two men wield a shovel. Working alone, a man could really hurt his back or something.


Some rocks are too heavy even for two men. So moving them is a job better suited for a young mother carrying her child on her back.


The situation in cities is changing. Women are less often made slaves to their mothers-in-law, or subjected to dowry blackmail, or forced to commit sati (ritual suicide on their husbands' funeral pyres), although these atrocities aren't fully eradicated yet.

In the upper castes, women are treated better. Some of them are heads of their families; others work as professionals in emerging India Inc. But overall, few Indian women enjoy any real freedom. Most are oppressed.

No society that exploits one part of its citizenry can live in peace. Mistreatment of one class turns minds away from compassion, desensitizes people to cruelty. Moslems and Hindus alike exploit and mistreat women—as articles of faith, custom and law.

Prejudicially isolating one group engenders violence. That Pakistan and India are at war doesn't surprise me. It's no wonder a hundred young men stoked on cannabis and LSD (to further desensitize them) ran amok in the streets of Bombay, randomly killing hundreds of their countrymen.

Mistreatment of women is not a "women's" issue. Eradicating it is key to world peace.



Cute, cuddly and photogenic, the monkeys we usually have to visit zoos to observe roam freely in India. I was delighted to run across some. These images were shot on a woodland hike. They are social and seem to have good family values.

Mothers groom their babies and carry them everywhere. Babies groom their mothers, too. Males are aloof, avoiding family responsibilities, but hey, they're male. What do you expect?

I didn't have to go out of my way to find monkeys: they're everywhere. Lots of them. Probably too many of them.


Some consider them pests, especially in urban settings. Monkeys rampage through markets, vandalize government offices, damage power lines, and injure residents and tourists alike.


I think these monkeys are rhesus macaques—can anyone confirm this? Their populations continue to grow unchecked because they are considered sacred, manifestations of the monkey god, Hanuman.


In Delhi, monkeys are captured and held in compounds outside the city, awaiting relocation. But so far, no other state will take them, protesting they already have enough of their own. Sterilization has been proposed, but opposition in the lower house of parliament, led by Maneka Gandhi, daughter-in-law of the late Indian leader Indira Gandhi, blocks adoption of this remedy.


In a country where many believe that the cud-chewing cow in the road or the lunch-stealing monkey is a reincarnation of someone's philandering uncle (knocked down a peg on the path to enlightenment for his transgressions), it's tough to take decisive animal control steps. Like with so many things in Indian life, people just muddle along, coexisting with harassment, damage, and scat. They write impotent letters to the Hindustan Times. Nothing gets done.



My life can be divided into four parts: childhood, dissolute youth, father and worker, and retiree. Some people retreat to lives of pastimes and parties, some to new careers, some in San Miguel spend much of their retirements sitting on the benches in the jardín facing the Parroquoia—a location known as The Waiting Room.

In the fourth phase of life, I see retirement as freedom to release my inner teen, to become playful, to take myself less seriously. A friend proposed this image: a man wandering around town wearing an earring and a guayabara, playing guitar and carrying a parrot on his shoulder.

I'm too straight for that. While I haven't fully regressed to adolescence, I've seen some major transitions during the last five years. I've stopped working. I've left the USA and become a permanent resident of Mexico. I've transformed myself from a techie to a traveler. I've had a heart attack and have had a defibrillator implanted. I take much better care of myself.

The year 2008 saw one more large transition: Jean and I separated in January after more than twenty-three years of marriage. Our divorce became final this month, setting us on different, independent paths. I wish Jean happiness and fulfillment on hers.


To ease their transitions into non-working lives, Indians can't call on IRAs, Social Security or pensions. They don't play golf or go on cruises or join bridge clubs. Most work for far too long and then rely on their children when they can't work anymore. But there is an Indian retirement plan: Becoming a Sadhu. I photographed a half dozen of them sitting along the railway from Pathankot to Jodhpur.


Sandhus have left worldly life behind, renouncing all material things to pursue their last years attaining Moksha, meaning liberation, by meditating and contemplating God. A Sadhu has entered the fourth phase of a devout male Hindu's life, after being a student, a father and a pilgrim. The fourth phase of their lives is profoundly different from mine.

Sadhus live lives of privation. Some spend years in caves meditating, others live in monasteries, still others walk throughout India blessing all those who intersect their paths, as did this Sadhu when I met him. He was immediately recognizable by the ochre clothing he wore.


In the photo you can see he is standing on one leg, one of the forms of privation practiced by Sadhus. He greeted me and I put fifty rupees (about a dollar) in his brass basket. He tied an amulet made from an exotic seed on my arm with red and ochre homespun cotton string. Then he kissed my hand and my forehead and blessed me. I experienced some kind of transformation—a healing spirit entered me.

Some Sadhus practice Hatha Yoga, purifying their bodies to prepare themselves for a higher form of meditation. On the web, I found this image of a Sadhu practicing an extreme form of privation. Is he meditating? Is he practicing yoga? How many hours has he been hanging there?


Image found on the web.

Theirs is a retirement of rigor. A few came to this stage from lives of privilege. Their example causes me to contemplate my less dedicated life. What do they see that I don't?

Some people say that Sadhus use their status to enhance success in begging, practiced by so many in India. Beggars greet travelers everywhere; theirs is a competitive calling. The deformed earn more than the whole, and Sadhus seem to earn more than everyone else. But clearly they're not getting rich.

The man who blessed me was no professional beggar. He had a holy aura such as I've seen only a few times: once a nun whose eyes were peaceful pools reflecting God, another time a Zen master who effortlessly read my discomfort as easily as if he were reading the comics. Through renunciation and asceticism, the Sadhu I met had found a serenity and spirituality most of us cannot even imagine.