Monday, June 12, 2017

From ‘By Thumb, Hoof, and Wheel. Travels in the Global South’ by Prabhu Ghate

I expected Turkey to get less European as one went further east, but it didn’t, at least sartorially. Everyone seemed to wear dark suits – in fact the poorer you were, the more layers ……you had on. The peasants all wore caps, which they might have borrowed from their counterparts in England after Kemal Ataturk banned the fez. Turkey seemed European in other ways too. Extremes of poverty and wealth were less apparent. ………and yet there was something Asian about the simple hospitality and friendliness of the people. And ……..the food was familiar, and cheap ……..

…..Nairobi ….. The Sikhs were known as “Singa, Singa” by the Africans and were the most integrated of the Indian communities. A Sikh would work shoulder to shoulder with the Africans, driving his first truck himself with his African cleaner, and hiring a driver only when he acquired a second truck. It made for a very different relationship than with shopkeepers and creditors. ……..Among the Asians in East Africa, the Ismailis in particular had tried to identify with their newly independent governments…..

The Philippines is one of the most laid-back, friendly, and unbureaucratic countries in the world.  ……I come back not just for the mountains, beaches and islands (7000 of them) but for the people. The Philippines never seems to be able to catch up with its south-east Asian neighbours, Manila’s grime and antediluvian jeepneys and army of the underemployed persist, but so does the charm. ……My taxi driver ……wants to know whether I am here for “five-six”, the local term for moneylending, a profession that has been taken over by “Bumbais”. Bumbai is the local term for Indians, as the early Indian immigrants, mostly Sindhis, came from Bombay. …….It was a common sight not so many years ago to see Sikh moneylenders (the profession is now a near monopoly of the Sikhs) doing their rounds on motorcycles with bags of cash hanging from their shoulders, redistributing as loans what they had just collected. Many of them were recent arrivals, yet to master Tagalog, and often on dodgy visas, but they still managed to collect and disburse unsecured loans with absolutely no recourse if a borrower refused to pay. Clearly they were perceived to be providing a valuable service. The second generation moved on to bigger and better things, like Ramon Bagatsing (as in Bhagat Singh), the mayor of Manila when Marcos was president……
…….Americans ….took over from the Spanish……As the cliché has it, the Filipinos lived in a convent for 350 years before living in Hollywood for 50 years. Both sets of influences grafted onto traditional Malay culture along with a large Chinese minority, scattered tribal groups, and a Muslim population in the south, make for a fascinating mix. Even Sanskritic influences have left a mark. The national flower is Sampagita, as in Champak.
……….Filipino warmth and good cheer are all the more remarkable given the fact that Filipinos have much to be unhappy about…..
……The Filipinos never really saw a successful land reform of the kind implemented by the Americans in Japan after the war, and later in Korea and Taiwan ……Crony capitalism survived the war intact and was developed later as an art form by President Marcos…..rural distress increased steadily, with the population growing rapidly………Overseas employment provided one of the few safety valves. Millions of Filipinos started leaving the country to work as maids, nurses, entertainers, seamen, and construction workers. It is their remittances that fill the malls, although the BPO industry and tourism are also becoming important, and the economy is at last diversifying.
Thus, the daily hardships and adversity faced by millions of Filipinos in the provinces and urban slums are essentially man-made, despite the fact that nature on its part has been munificent, having granted the Philippines abundant rainfall, fertile soil, lush (albeit retreating) forest, and a coastal zone that would have been teeming with fish but for overfishing. On the other hand, it has to be said that few countries are as prone to natural disasters as the Philippines. Typhoons, volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, tidal waves, shipwrecks, droughts – you name it, they have it.

Frequent battles with nature explain the well-known resilience of the Filipino, and the national philosophy of “bahala na”, loosely translated as “this too shall pass”.

Filipino good humour, calm, and style were crucial in bringing an end to the Marcos dictatorship without a drop of blood being spilt in the famous People Power revolution of 1986.

…..the famed Filipino tolerance has its downside, such as permissiveness, corruption, and impunity, the brunt of which is borne by the poor. Characteristically though, it is the foreign observers who complain more about this, not Filipinos.

The Philippines is a country of great natural beauty …..With its 7000 islands, the Philippines has some of the most stunning seascapes in the world.

Today, Ethiopia lacks a coast, having lost it to Eritrea in 1991, after one of the most remarkable liberation struggles in modern times. These ups and downs are but the latest blips in the history of a country which produced Lucy, one of our common hominid ancestors, was well known to the Greeks (Ethipia means “land of the burnt faces”), was the second country after Armenia to embrace Christianity, and whose rulers are said to have descended from the union of Solomon and Sheba…….
My friends father was the educational adviser to the Emperor, and he used to recruit hundreds of teachers and professors from India. One meets people everywhere in Ethiopia who fondly remember their Indian teachers. Their successors are still there, carrying on the good work.  ……..the famous gelada baboons …eating grass (yes, they are the only primates that do)….

…Asmara [Eritrea] is still the most beautiful, cleanest, and safest capital in Africa (with hilly Antananarivo, the capital of Madagascar, a not so close second).

……..Hadramawt (“place of death”) ……..The Hadramis are known for their restlessness, and contribute a large part of the Yemeni diaspora, which extended to places like Java, by way of India, centuries ago.
Nothing distinguishes the convivial and easy-going nature of Yemenis from their dour northern neighbours, the Saudis, more than their passion for qat, on which many of them spend a quarter to a third of their income, not to mention the whole of every afternoon …….Qat is a leaf which has to be tucked away into the cheeks in wads the size of tennis balls, before it produces an indefinable feeling of contentment called “kaif”. It is not harmful, but clearly addictive.
……….a man across the room started telling jokes about Indians (which are quite common across the middle-east)….

…Argentina is unique in that it is perhaps the only country that has moved from being a developed country to a developing country.

The Chinese have far fewer hang-ups about human excreta than we do. Until recently farmers would build toilets near the entrance to their compounds, welcoming anyone passing by on the village lane to use them – farmhands had no choice, as a “captive” source of manure, they were expected to use their employer’s facilities.

Lhasa was not the most sanitary of places….

…..Yunnan in the Southwest, which sits north of Burma, Laos and Vietnam. If I could go to just one province in China, I would choose Yunnan, not only for its ethnic and cultural diversity, but also for its scenery, ranging from the jungles and rice terraces of the hot and humid South, to the high grasslands and snowcapped peaks of the frozen Northwest, an extension of the Tibetan plateau. Half of China’s fifty odd non-Han minorities live here, and have left behind several historic towns. Yunnan is home to the upper reaches of the Mekong, Salween, Irrawaddy, and Yangzi rivers. Last but not the least, with direct flights from Kolkata, it is the easiest part of mainland China to get to from India….

Having destroyed much of their cultural heritage, the Chinese are now making a huge effort to save and showcase what is left. City walls are no longer being pulled down for the construction of ring roads, but are being rebuilt, complete with ramparts, watchtowers……..

……..Dunhuang ……the site of the Mogao caves, one of the greatest repositories of Buddhist art in the world.

One sees sweepers and cleaners everywhere in China, in buildings, on the streets, in the trains, and they are generally better equipped, better dressed and more successful than their Indian counterparts. One of the things the Chinese know about India is that it is plagued with garbage.

Chinese rail and road maps …Unlike India, however, the Chinese do have very good maps, and are not paranoic about people using them.

…train ride to Kashgar ….The Chinese are at their most relaxed on these marathon journeys……I noticed the carriage attendants unfailingly locked the toilets (mostly desi style, and marginally cleaner than ours) whenever the train slowed down, keeping the stations much cleaner. I wondered whether the biggest difference between our countries was that in China nearly everyone does their job.

Chinese bus stations are very modern, with electronic displays ……

China has less cultivable land than India.

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