We all have bucket-list travel destinations. India was mine. I’ve reported on Halifax’s port and shipping industry for decades. As talk grew among shippers and the Halifax Port Authority about building trade with India, my fascination with the country grew.
I wanted to see, from a transportation perspective, how Indian manufacturers moved their products to the port of Mumbai, Halifax’s marine connection to the country. I wanted to see tea plantations and where silk was produced. I wanted to witness everyday life. Ironically, I wanted to go to the second most populous country in the world with over 1.2 billion people but I don’t like crowds.
I had heard all the stories about the country. People told me it was too crowded, too hot, too humid, too poor. But I’ve travelled to many countries, and have learned to go with an open mind and accept what I find.
I flew from Halifax to London to Delhi to Guwahati, a city of about two million, the commercial centre of northeastern India and the capital of the state of Assam. My young guide for the first three or four days, Debashis Sinha from Landmark Tours & Travels in Guwahati, was a lifesaver. He spoke six of India’s 18 official languages, plus English and German. He showed me open-air markets, museums, temples, a Hindu cremation, tribal communities and a good dose of daily life.
The traffic in Guwahati was unforgettable. There were few traffic signals and fewer crosswalks. Horns constantly blared as cars, trucks, buses, bikes, motorcycles, three-wheeled rickshaws, and three-wheeled tuk tuks converged. Pedestrians weaved through traffic to cross the street. The traffic was like this wherever I went and in the rural regions there were more roaming cattle, goats and stray dogs. It was an insurance agent’s nightmare.
I got a taste of everyday life at a crowded and bustling fish auction on the banks of the Brahmaputra River in Guwahati. Freshwater fish of all shapes and species, was being sold to fish hawkers, many of whom loaded their purchases into metal containers strapped to the back of their bicycles and then headed out to sell the fish on the street. I watched the auction activities with interest as I sipped hot black tea spiced with ginger and black pepper.
The daily auction appeared to be a family affair with mom, dad and the children all part of the early morning scene either selling, weighing, carrying or scaling the fish. Not far from the auction, several men washed linens in the river, beating towels and sheets on the rocks. It was their business, cleaning the linens for local hotels or other institutions.
Tribalism is a big part of Indian culture, especially in Assam where there are over 200 tribes. The two-day Rongali festival in Guwahati depicted and displayed the culture and heritage of these tribes and was filled with colourful costumes, dance, music, theatre and craft displays.
A side trip to Pobitora Wild Life Sanctuary, in the village of Mayang, about 50 kilometres east of Guwahati, got me a ride on an elephant and a close view of India’s one-horned rhinos. The 40-squarekilometre park, also a major birding area and a UNESCO World Heritage site, is home to over 100 rhinos.
In Shillong I got in my first golf game. A fun, wide-open layout that proved ideal for my first game in months. That was followed by golf in Mumbai at the Bombay Presidency Golf Club, a visit to the prestigious Delhi Golf Club and a game in the architecturally planned city of Chandigarh, north of Delhi. Considering the country’s size, it’s surprising that India has just over 200 golf courses. The country is building more, and working to promote itself as a golf destination.
In Shillong I visited an enormous outdoor market tucked into narrow streets and alleyways. There were hundreds of vendors selling everything from soup to nuts. In the many places I visited in India, like Shilliong, entrepreneurialism was very much alive and well. The social-safety net here is nothing like it is in Canada; people largely fend for themselves.
In Sualkuchi, a silk producing village, we walked a dirt street to where the silkworm eggs hatch. The worms feed on the leaves of the Som tree. This is where the villagers buy the cocoons, unravel the silk and spin it into thread. The weavers work their magic on old wooden looms in a rather sparse setting producing gorgeous and colourful silk garments. The weavers work about nine hours a day for about 400 rupees (about $8). It takes about four days to make one shawl.
In a mountain village in an area of tea and pineapple plantations, a young lady named Majuni, a friend of my guide, treated us to tea and cookies. Her father, who still lives in a traditional house with a straw roof, is village chief of the Bhoi tribe, which migrated to Assam about 400 years ago.
There are about 100 houses in the village, which is heavily dependent on fishing—it reminded me of Maritime villages in that way.
The next day I headed to Mumbai, a sprawling metropolis of over 21 million people on the Arabian Sea. Mumbai, formerly Bombay, has many architectural reminders of the British influence. The Gateway to India, a massive arch structure completed in 1924 to commemorate the arrival of King George V and Queen Mary 1911, stands guard over the port.
Mumbai also has the largest outdoor laundry in the world. Men wash sheets, towels and linens by hand in large concrete tubs for major hotels and institutions while the women do the ironing. The place employs over 5,000 people.
I ended my trip in Chandigarh, about five hours north of Delhi. Known as “The City Beautiful,” Chandigarh was planned by Swiss-French architect Le Corbusier. The city is known for its trees, parks and gardens. Quite a contrast from some of the other major centres.
At the end of it all India was full of surprises and fascination. Visiting gives me a whole different perspective on the ships and cargo from India that pass through the Port of Halifax.