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Ahmedabad

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The final stage of our India journey was a fun and full way to finish up.  Ahmedabad brought back to me the intensity of Indian cities.  As wild and bustling as towns such as Veraval and Junagadh are, Ahmedabad is that much more so.  The streets are larger and fuller, crowds are bigger and the air is even dirtier (although less pungent than Veraval).

Ahmedabad is a very enjoyable place to spend a few days.  It has a long history as a city, dating back to its founding by Ahmed Shah in 1411.  The old city is full of twisting narrow streets jammed with amazing historical buildings and suitable characters.  Many Muslims live in the old city as well, and there are some spectacular mosques.

After arriving at the Hotel Serena, we were soon visited by Jabir, one of Derek’s old friends, who speaks very good English and a raft of other languages.  We talked for a while in our room, and then walked over to the wedding feast for one of his relatives.  It was a sizeable affair; they expected to feed 1,800 people.  It was my first Muslim wedding (technically the wedding was the day before), and there are obvious contrasts (besides the multi-day character).  Women and men were in separate areas of the hall, most notably, and ate separately.  The food was delicious.  We sat on the ground on a cloth and a huge platter was brought to us containing big pieces of ‘Chinese’ style sweet-spicy chicken, samosa-like pastry triangles, cumin meatballs, pineapple sweet, and slightly sweet chickpea flour balls in light syrup and yogurt.  The second course was an absolutely delicious rice biryani dish with rich gravy to pour on top.  While eating and after there was socializing with all of Derek’s old friends: Jabir, Maboob, Gaffar, Hafiz and more, all of whom are or were salwar kameez (a standard form of women’s clothing – loose pants and a matching thigh-length top) sellers in the old city.  We were very warmly received, as were Derek’s photos of Asha.

We could have slept in the next morning, which would have been appreciated, but instead we woke early to take a walking tour of the old city.  Meeting at the Swaminarayan Mandir temple at 8am, our guides took us on a meandering walk through many ‘pols’, or micro neighbourhoods and courtyards and narrow streets, and often connected through tiny pass-throughs.  We took in some lovely old architecture, and learned that the city is very proactive in protecting its heritage stock by providing free services of architects and engineers to help in the restoration of listed buildings.  Those that have been improved have a plaque on the front.  The challenge is that older buildings are often owned by many members of the same family, and they can seldom agree on what to do with their properties.  The tour finished at the massive 15th century Jumma Mashid, “Friday Mosque”, built by Ahmed Shah.  I have memories of going there to watch evening prayers at dusk back in 1998.

We were not far from the hotel, so we walked back for a rest.  Derek napped a bit and I puttered, then we had a great South Indian lunch at the Lucky Restaurant just down the street.  When I asked Derek about the rectangular green objects on the floor surrounded by low fences, he said that they were old Muslim graves.  Interesting décor!  They were well maintained and respected, with flowers laid on some of them.

In the later afternoon, we went to visit the salwar sellers.  The streets their shops are on were absolutely mobbed; we were barely able to walk through the thick humanity.  The shops themselves – Maboob’s in particular – were jammed full of women buying salwars.  We visited both Maboob and Gaffar’s shops, and sat chatting and drinking cold drinks or milky coffee.  Around 6pm we squeezed our way out again and went to visit two more folks, this time across the river in newer neighbourhoods: one house was the family of a friend of Derek’s in Winnipeg, and the next was Derek’s research assistant’s – Nerendra’s – place.  I actually met him in Sri Lanka in 2005.  As a perpetual workaholic, he wasn’t there when we arrived, but we sat and talked with his wife and lovely squeaky three year-old daughter, Jeena.  Nerendra eventually showed up at 9 or so, and we have a most tasty Gujarati meal.  Nerendra now does AIDS-prevention work, so we had an interesting discussion about what he is up to and some of the projects I’ve been involved with in Southeast Asia.

It was a fairly late night and a very early morning.  We woke at 5 and arrived at the airport in good time for our 7:20 flight on Jet Airways.  I munched a veggie sandwich and some sweets.  An hour after takeoff and we were landing in Mumbai.  Derek was staying on board as the plane was continuing on to Chennai, his next destination for a conference, so we said good-bye and I deplaned.  Getting to the international departures required a 20-minute bus ride that deposited us outside of security at the terminal, so I had to pass through it again, plus emigration and multiple screenings and boarding-pass checkings.  There was surprisingly little time to kill when I finally arrived at the gate for my 11:30 flight.

Bangkok seems orderly and modern after India, which is surprising.  We zipped in from the airport on the expressway, but the taxi got stuck in traffic tar as soon as we exited.  Yet all the cars stayed in their lanes (there were lanes!), and there was absolutely no honking or chaos.  Just resignation.  We sat and inched and sat and inched.  We got within a few hundred meters of the Atlanta Hotel only to have to drive the wrong way and then sit again due to one-way streets.  I really could have got out and walked, and maybe should have, but instead stayed in the taxi.

My sleep was deliciously peaceful and long – from 11pm until 8:30am.  I ate my usual muesli with fresh fruit and yogurt, and coffee in the hotel restaurant, then spent some time on the computer uploading blog postings from India and responding to a few emails.  Kristi also called and we had a nice chat.

Jeremy Tan happens to be in Bangkok for a month, working with the Thai branch of his company, so we had lunch by his office over in Silom and caught up.  Great to see him.

I organized, packed and showered, then headed to the PSI offices, also in Silom, where I had some internet time to check on details for the Laos part of my trip.  I met with a few staff to look over some of the pictures I took on my earlier visit to Bangkok.  Alex Duke and I had a simple pork-on-rice dinner in a local eatery, then I headed to the Hua Lamphong train station.  I’m writing this from the top berth in a 2nd class sleeper car in a train bouncing its way east to Ubon Ratchatani.  From there I’ll head over the border into Laos and meet up with the PSI Malaria outreach teams.

Hualamphong Station (photo from 2008)

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Written by sockeyed

October 27, 2009 at 18:29

Posted in Travel

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Junagadh

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Junagadh is an ancient city dating back to at least 250BC when it was the capital of the Maurya empire under Ashok.  It is built around a huge Mughal on a central hill.  Close by is an impressively-tall holy mountain, and while dry, the city has a certain greenness too it and feels somewhat cooler.

We rode an autorickshaw through an ancient gate and along several narrow streets up into the old town to the house of another one of Derek’s old friends, Iqbal Vora.  They originally met in Veraval, but I remember meeting Iqbal and his family in Junagadh at the house of Razia’s (Iqbal’s wife) parents.  I have a couple of photos what I took then of Iqbal and his two young daughters, Shaheen and Shohanna, on the roof of that house.

Razia and the girls, now grown women, met us at their apartment.  Shaheen and Shohanna were still quite recognizable although it was somewhat stunning to see them as adults.   This has been the pattern for this trip: adults have gone on to middle age and children have become adults.  It’s quite fascinating to be able to return to such a place after a decade’s absence.

There is also a new addition: Sohil, Iqbal and Razia’s 8-year old son.

After lunch, some writing and a short rest, we went for a walk around the town, oogling the old buildings and narrow twisty streets, vegetable stalls and chai-wallahs.  We climbed up into the fort shortly before sundown and peered into bottomless step wells, apparently 2,000 years old, and at canons taken from a Turkish fleet defeated by the Portuguese in the 16th or 17th Century.  Saturday night is the time for locals to head out as Sunday is their day off, so parts of the fort were mobbed.  We watched the sun dip down, then wandered back into town eventually meeting Iqbal at his three-wheeler supply store, Speed Auto Agency (Derek helped with the name some years back).  Iqbal, like everyone else, has aged and now looks middle-aged, but is still bright-eyed and warm.

Junagadh's Pleasant Historic Streets

Junagdadh's Uperkot Fort

Historic Buildings at Dusk

Late-night Roadside Puncture Repair

After chatting for a while, he closed up shop at around 8pm and the three of us pile on his motorbike only to have it run out of gas after a few hundred meters.  We walked down the street pushing it down a dusty busy road for a few hundred more until finding a gas station.  Soon we were home for dinner.

The food was tasty little pastry triangles, noodles (Razia’s family spent time in Burma), sweets and jello.  A couple of things about meals still take getting use to.  The first is that men always eat before and separately from the women even though the women have prepared the meal.  I always get the sense that women are stuck with the leftovers.  Often they eat in the kitchen too.  Second is that almost every meal has been taken sitting cross-legged on the floor, which takes some getting used to.  Invariably one of my feet will fall asleep and I’ll hobble to a chair after standing up, hoping that I won’t stumble on my numb appendage and fall into the dinner.

After some chatting and playing karems (a game like shuffleboard), we went to bed and I slept very solidly.

I woke up feeling very refreshed for the first time in days and was alert for much of the day.  We had a bit of time before our 11:50am train, so we went to visit Razia’s family in their wonder old courtyard house, then four of us – Iqbal, Sohil, Derek and I piled on his motorbike and drove into the hills outside of town into cool, refreshing air.  We went to the town at the start of a famous walk that circumnavigates the mountain, about 37kms in total.  During one particular festival, coming up shortly, 500,000 people do the walk at once!  I’d like to do the walk someday, but certainly not in that kind of company.

With time getting short, we rolled back down to the apartment, collected our things, said good-bye, then Derek and I and our bags piled into an auto to get to the station.

We had reserved seats for the trip into Ahmedabad in 2nd class sleeper, which mean sitting in an open compartment facing a row of people across from you, will a couple more across the aisle.  The back of the seat flips up to make a sleeping berth and there is one more above one’s head.  We sat with three young IT techs on their way to Pune after visiting family in Gujarat.  Two wives and one young nephew were also there.  The three fellows spoke very good English and we chatted for a fair bit of the way.

The journey was quite enjoyable; it wasn’t too hot and there was plenty to look at out the open door – the flat landscape with acres of cotton and banks of cactus, minor rural stations and bustling urban ones, cows and herders and ox-carts.  I listened to music and enjoyed watching the world go by.

Peacock on a Telegraph Pole, Seen from the Train

Stacks Rails and a Signal

The trip took about 7 hours and we arrived to total chaos in Ahmedabad.  The train was continuing onwards, and there was the usual detraining mayhem as people piled on while we tried to get off.  Fortunately we had size and momentum, and some help from a kindly fellow, in our favour.  I felt very bad for our travelling companions who had 14 large boxes with them (full of food from home) and a very tight connection to their next train.  Last we saw they had three porters helping them get their stuff for the right platform.

The train station was an amazing scene.  Masses of people walking and sitting everywhere and massive diesel locomotives pulling in and out, pulling carriages full of more people piling on and off trains.  Everything was sooty and loud and gritty and surreal.

Our auto ride to the hotel was a real treat.  Our septuagenarian driver was incredibly skilled, smoothly and dexterously weaving around buses, autos, bikes, cars and cows.  Never once was it jerky and rough; rather it was being carried in water through rapids.   I think that I may have even hooted with the enjoyment of it all several times.

Written by sockeyed

October 25, 2009 at 20:23

Posted in Travel

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