Sunday, March 25, 2007

Solving the World’s Conflicts

Daniel and I sat down with Aaron and Sandra. It seemed like at least a month since I had lunched with Aaron and Sandra at the famous Leopold’s restaurant in Mumbai. However, it had only been a little over a week. Time goes so much slower in India than back home.

Remembering that Aaron was also a vegetarian, I asked him what the food was like that he had ordered. He was having, amongst other things, the spring rolls from the Chinese section of the menu. Many restaurants in India often have an Indian section and also a Chinese section. I ordered some and indeed they were excellent. They were the best ever spring rolls and chill sauce I could recall having, with the notable exception of the Katong Singaporean restaurant, which my family unfortunately became unofficially blacklisted from. No, we didn’t name names. Rather my sister and Mother tried to improvise on an order. I could see that the unfortunate waiter who didn’t speak English (“Please, just point to a number and leave it at that” I had begged them) clearly had no idea what they were talking about, but they nonetheless persevered, and then somehow assumed they were going to receive the dish they desired. They then had the chutzpah to complain and refuse to pay for the resultant unrecognisable and unappealing dish that was served to them; hence the blacklisting. But I digress…

I did the catch up thing with Aaron and Sandra, filling each other in on where we had been since we had last seen each other in Mumbai. Daniel was meeting Sandra and Aaron for the first time, so they did the “where are you from?” thing. When Sandra told Daniel that she was from Peru, he decided to exercise his conversational Spanish. Aaron, despite being from Austria (although, in my mind at least, he didn’t really come across as your stereotypical Austrian – more like a citizen of the world – either that or Danish) could also speak Spanish. While I can vaguely understand a little bit of Spanish, I can’t string a sentence together. Such is the disadvantage of growing up and living in an isolated place like Perth, Australia. In addition, think it highlights the disadvantage (and yes, there are advantages too) of being a native English speaker. Due to English being such a wide spoken language, one is rarely given the incentive nor opportunity to develop their skills in other languages.

Finally, the conversation switched back to English. Aaron and Sandra had explained to Daniel that they were “Peace Studies” students, and as part of their masters’ project, they were travelling to somewhere near the southern tip of India to attempt to facilitate some sort of conflict resolution. Daniel then said “Do you mind if ask you something: What is your opinion on a solution to the problem in my country?” I winced a little bit. In parts of the world we have that rule about not discussing religion or politics. Israel is not one of those parts, and politics are often discussed freely. In fact, when I thought about it, it was rather odd that Daniel and I had never discussed politics before, and I didn’t really know where his political attitudes lay. Remarkably, I couldn’t recall a single political conversation with any Israelis since I had been in India. Perhaps in India travellers like to leave the home world behind. Furthermore, I certainly had never really discussed politics with Aaron and Sandra. While I was a tad concerned about where this conversation was going to go, this concern was outweighed by my curiosity.

“Actually,” started Aaron “we have studied your conflict in our course in quite some detail…” He went on to describe how they did some workshop on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and the framework he described involved bringing in all these other countries to facilitate peace talks and draw up land boundaries acceptable to both sides. This internationalisation of the conflict seemed not much different to the existing and failed strategies of The Quartet or the United Nations. I couldn’t take it anymore, I had to interject. “Ah, you Europeans, you love to internationalise everything.”
“What about you?” Sandra asked Daniel, “What do you think is the solution?”
“Well, I think what is needed is for both sides to have strong leaders. When both of our sides have leaders strong enough to make the necessary compromises…” offered Daniel.

“I hope we can all still be friends after this” I said with a little jokingly to Aaron, as I was about get myself labelled as a hawk “but I have to disagree with all of you. Firstly the conflict is not about land. In 1947, do you know what percentage of land Israel was out of the total Arab land? Well?” I paused for an answer, but none came, so I answered it myself “Not 10%, Not 1 %, not even ½ of 1%, but approximately 0.16%. And the Arab countries still rejected the UN Partition Plan, so clearly the conflict isn’t going to be resolved through the exchange of land. It is about the acceptance of existence.”

“Furthermore” I continued “and most importantly, there are some conflicts I don’t feel can be resolved simply through negotiations. For example, how would you have combated the rise of 20th century fascism in Europe through peaceful negotiations? Or how would you have resolved WWII simply through negotiations?” Again I paused for an answer, but I only got forfeiting looks from my peace studies friends, so continued “The fact is it took armies and war to defeat fascism. Some conflicts will unfortunately only be resolved when one side uses enough overwhelming force so that the other side stops believing they can win and thus surrenders. War is a terrible thing, don’t get me wrong, but I think there are times when it is the best of some very bad alternatives. ”

I realised I had taken them by surprise with my von Clausewitz attitude toward global conflict resolution. Thankfully the conversation changed to something else. Sandra wanted to know whether we found Indian women to be good looking. Aaron said that he was yet to see any very beautiful Indian women since arriving a week ago. I said that I felt that some Indian women were very beautiful. I also brought up the scientifically interesting point that lighter skinned Caucasians generally prefer a suntan, but the Indians have a mate-selection preference to lighter skinned Indians over darker skinned Indians. May be we all naturally have a preference for a skin colour that represents the middle of the global human skin colour spectrum? With the conversation having shifted to a safer place, I knew the next morning we would all wake up friends.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Journey to Mangalore

Daniel had drafted a travel plan for us. I didn’t really ask him too much about the details of this plan. I trusted him enough in this department. He had a tremendous amount of travel experience, both in Latin America, and now India. Plus, he had the type of personality that was highly organised and paid enough attention to detail. At this stage, he knew far more about negotiating the Indian transport system than myself. That’s what he brought to the SuperFriends table, along with his natural skill for languages. What did I bring to the table? Well, I possessed the most up-to-date version of the Lonely Planet guide to India – and it was the English version, which Benyamin (back in Mumbai) had informed me was, if anything, slightly more comprehensive than the Hebrew version. I also was able to befriend almost any Indian with my ability to have in depth discussions on cricket related topics.

With regard to the itinerary, I told him I didn’t have any specific places on a ‘must-see’ list, apart from Kochi in Kerala. I also had to get ‘back’ up to Ratnagiri (north of Goa) by December 31st to reunite with my penpal Sarita, and experience a stay with her family. Other than that, I was cool with whatever he planned.

For Daniel’s part, when he initially suggested that we perhaps travel south together, and this was back when we first arranged to share a room in Palolem, he had asked about my linguistic competency.

“If we are to travel together, I need to know how good is your Hebrew.”

“What do you mean?” I queried.

“Well, if we are to travel together, we need to be able to discuss things with each other in Hebrew while we are negotiating prices with the locals.”

“Oh, sure, for this I’m ok.” And then added in a deliberately overly emphatic tone,. “I know all the numbers!”

Daniel continued the joke. “Well, of course you do, you’re Jewish. Knowing the numbers is the most important thing for us!”

To get to Kochi, we needed to travel through Mangalore, the next major transport hub. Daniel had found out when the train to Mangalore would be stopping at the local train station. We took an auto-rickshaw to the station, and it cost next to nothing between the two of us. Auto-rickshaws are these three-wheeler taxis that have motorbike style controls for the driver. In Thailand, they call these vehicles tuk-tuks (took-tooks). Outside of the really big Indian cities, they are far more prevalent than regular taxis, and they are generally cheaper. However, like many things in India, the price is almost always a negotiation.

The local station Canacona, which is the closest one to Palolem, seemed almost deserted when we got dropped off that afternoon. I thought to myself “Is this the right place?” Evidently, Daniel thought similarly, and he checked with the driver that this was really the place. The driver nodded and pointed upwards. You had to walk up several flights of stairs up the cliff-face to get to the train platform. This was just the vehicle drop off point. At this time, a large dirt-bike approached from the road we had just travelled up in the rickshaw, and then pulled up next to us. The passenger on the back hopped off the bike, and then paid the driver, who took off again back down the road. The dropped off passenger was wearing a bright yellow shirt and big oversized cap. He had a thick beard, even thicker than Shauli’s. He looked like he had been ‘in country’ a long time – a real hard core traveller. Indeed, he reminded me a bit of Shauli in his appearance – he had the “turned-native” look about him.

Both Daniel and I needed to relieve our bladders, so we took turns watching our bags while the other urinated in the bushes. After this we walked up to the platform, which seemed out 10m higher in elevation than the drop-off point. When we got up the top we bought two tickets and then set our packs down to wait for the train that was due in about 20 minutes. At this stage, the platform was sparsely populated. I started up a conversation with the guy who had been dropped off on the motorbike. He told me he was trying to get away from the crowds of people who would be arriving for the Christmas-New Year period. He was going to try Gokarana, which was not too far south from where we were – just over the border in Karnataka. He was hoping the devout atmosphere of Gokarna would mean less party-going tourists.

My assumptions of his hardcore travel experiences were not wrong. He had travelled to India overland from his home in Germany. First through the Balkans, then through Turkey, then Iran. He was denied an entry visa into Pakistan, so had then been forced to resort to air travel, getting to India via flight through Dubai. Despite that, I was extremely impressed by his efforts to travel to India overland from Germany, and I wished that I could undertake such an adventure. I was curious to hear about Iran in particular. He said almost all the people he encountered had been very nice and helpful, and some of the women would even subtly flirt with him, in their own way, which was surprising. I asked if had any trouble with the authorities there, but it sounded like he hadn’t noticed any problems, although he added something about the majority of the people in Iran not wanting all the Islamic restrictions that the government enforced upon them.

When I asked him about what he did back in Germany, he told me he was a farmer, and this was the year to leave his fields fallow, so he was taking that opportunity to travel while his fields rested. He farmed plums and other crops like that, producing schnapps. He looked like he was in his mid-thirties perhaps, but it was hard to tell with the beard. I asked him if his parents were also farmers, and in what was an awkward moment, his face became very sad, like he was remembering something very heartbreaking, and he told me his parents had died. I didn’t know how to respond, except to give an empathic look and say, “I’m very sorry [to hear that].” I wanted to know how his parents died and when, but I did not feel it was my place to ask. After all, ten minutes ago we had never even met before. However, I now got a profound sense of how lonely his life was. His parents had died, leaving him a farm that he now runs by himself. And presently, while his field were in their sabbatical year, he had taken off on an enormous adventure, but still alone.

The conversation was interrupted by a PA announcement – the train would be delayed approximately one hour. By now, the small crowd on the platform was starting the build up. There was a group of three Israelis (two girls and guy) who Daniel spoke to for a bit. There was also a couple that were smoking, but seemed to be having some kind of relationship trouble. He was from England, and I think she was from somewhere else, but I couldn’t quite tell from where. The girl looked upset, and the guy had a look of resignation on his face. There were also now many Indians. There were some Indian high-school kids and they had some sort of hand-held electronic game they were preoccupied with. I think they went to boarding school, and were travelling home for the holidays. One of the Indian guys on the platform started a conversation with me. Like most such conversations, it started with a “Where are you from?”

“Guess!” I replied.


“Well, in a round about way you are correct – you could say that my ancestors are from there, but I’m born and raised in Australia.”

With that, we got into a huge and animated conversation about cricket. He was very knowledgeable about international cricket, but was keen to hear my opinion on various players, and how I thought various teams would go in the upcoming Cricket World Cup. He told me he was travelling back to his hometown where his family lived. He would spend the holidays with them. It turned out that the barbershop on the main tourist strip of Palolem was his. He wanted to know if I had seen it before.

“Yes, I’ve seen that barbershop. You’ve got all your services and prices advertised on a chalkboard out the front, in Hebrew. How did you manage that? Do you speak Hebrew?”

“Oh, I got someone Israeli to do that for me.”

Finally came sight of the train. All the foreign travellers strapped on our backpacks in readiness to board. As this extremely long train came to a stop, we were confronted with carriage doors that were open, but far too congested with people to board. It wasn’t possible to buy a reserved ticket from Canacona – we all had only tickets that allowed us into the general unreserved sections – which were incredibly crowded at this time of year, being the peak holiday season for locals and foreigners alike. We kept walking down the platform, passing carriage after carriage, but all seemed to full to board, with the space near the door packed with people, almost hanging out of the doorways.

And then it happened. I was still walking down the platform, hoping to find a carriage that I would be able to enter. And all of a sudden, with no real warning, the train started to move again. There I was, standing on the platform wearing my backpack and carrying by smaller bag in one hand, when I looked back and saw Daniel standing on the step of the now moving train, holding onto the hand rails, wearing his enormous backpack. He was not IN the train, but he was nonetheless attached to the train, which was more than I could say for myself. He called out for me to jump onto the train. Now normally I would probably be able to board a slow moving train. However, wearing by heavy pack, it simple wasn’t possible to exercise that kind of agility. I couldn’t run fast, and AI couldn’t jump with my large pack on my back. I was now really panicked, running (well, lumbering) alongside the train, and shouting back at Daniel to “Get off the train, I can’t get on!” He shouted back again for me to try, and I continued to shout back “I can’t! You have to get off!” The train was now getting a bit quicker, and Daniel was now getting further and further from me. It was like some crazy scene from a movie or something. I must have taken my eyes off Daniel and rather been looking at a passing train door, because I didn’t see what happened next, but the next thing I knew Daniel was lying on his back, with his pack sandwiched between himself and the platform. He was like Ninja Turtle in shell-shock. The good news was that the train was once again coming to a stop. It seems Daniel had tried to step off from the train, but with the weight of his attached pack, and the inertia from the train’s motion, he had taken a tumble. Someone had helped Daniel to his feet, perhaps a train marshal. The marshals from the train were now walking up and down the platform shouting at the Indians to move further into the carriage and stop blocking doors. They appeared to have cane-like objects with which to hit people who refused to move down, but I’m not certain about this – the scene was kind of a blur, and perhaps I was just imagining this bit as I now scrambled to board the train, busting through the congestion of passengers, in what felt exaggeratingly like a fight for survival. With great difficulty I was now aboard a carriage, with Daniel in front of me. I was exhausted from running alongside the train with my pack, and fighting through the crowd, and I heard from behind me the English guy who had been near us on the platform telling me in a hostile tone “C’mon, you have to keep moving [toward the centre of the carriage], we need to get on too!”
I replied back, matching his tone “I’m doing my best here! It’s not easy!” as Indians blocked by path, and I did my best to squeeze between them.

“Yeah, I know.” he replied in a far more conciliatory fashion.

When we got on board, Daniel told me about his fall. It seemed his pack had fortunately spared him from the main impact. “Shit, you are lucky you didn’t crack your head open.”

His palms were cut and bleeding from the tumble. With no available seats, and feeling exhausted, we sat down on our packs. I took out some Betadine, tissues, and cotton swabs from my medical kit in my smaller bag. “Trust me, this is good stuff, it doesn’t sting – not like the clear stuff does” I assured him. On application to Daniel’s palms he said, “Yeah, Bullshit it doesn’t sting!”

“Well, it might sting a little, but trust me, way less than the clear stuff.”

The train was incredibly hot and sweaty. After an hour or so of sitting on our bags, some space on a bench seat became available for us. Once we sat down, and it did not take long for the Indians sitting on the bench facing us, who were initially just staring in amusement, to make conversation. They asked us where we were from. When I said I was from Australia, the conversation once again turned to cricket, and when I mentioned the great Indian spinner Anil Kumble, they took great pride in telling me that where we were now (Karnataka) was his home state. Likewise for any other Indian cricketers from Karnataka. This was the advantage of being Australian and following cricket. It was a natural way to get a conversation going in India. For Daniel, being form Israel and knowing absolutely nothing about cricket, this possibility did not exist. For the next few hours until we arrived at Mangalore I had various conversations with many friendly Indians. One young girl named about eighteen years old (but looking much younger), named Preeti, was travelling with her younger brother to some kind of art or drawing competition. Quite suddenly, she asked for my email address, and then also asked Daniel for his (although perhaps she just asked for his out of politeness, since she was mostly talking to me). He displayed a bit of dismay at the request (while I did my utmost to hide my own dismay) but we both gave her our email addresses, although perhaps he gave her a rarely used address – I didn’t ask. Anyway, now she writes to me occasionally.

When we got to Mangalore, we had missed any chance of a connecting train to Kerala. This didn’t bother me, as I felt too exhausted to travel any further that night, and thought it was best we crash in a hotel, and resume the journey the following day. I looked up the Lonely Planet (which Daniel and I had nicknamed the Chumash) for the best budget hotels in Mangalore. It was a choice between the Hotel Manorama and the Hotel Surya. I decided upon the Manorama, but by accident I initially told the auto-rickshaw driver Surya. Within ten seconds I corrected myself, but the driver must have had a commission deal with the Surya, as he was not happy about the Manorama, and wanted to charge us extra to take us there. I knew they were essentially the same distance, and I got into an argument with the driver. Daniel resolved the argument by saying “Let’s just go to the Surya,” which he was happy with, since it’s room rates were a bit less expensive than the Manorama.

Our energy levels were way down after the tryingness of the journey. After inspecting the room, I agreed to stay there. I’m glad I did, for when we walked into the hotel’s restaurant for a late dinner, I got the most excellent surprise. The only other couple sitting in the restaurant were none other than Aaron and Sandra, who I had becomes friends with all the way back in Mumbai. I greeted them both heartily, and introduced them to Daniel. We joined them at their table.

The more I thought about it, the odds of randomly bumping into Aaron and Sandra like this was amazing. Keep in mind that India is such a massive country, but we happened to both end up in Mangalore at the same time. Mangalore is not a tourist place, just a transport hub, where most travellers try to remain for as little time as possible if they can’t get a connecting train. Outside of the train station, you hardly see a single foreigner in Mangalore – most of the hotel guests are Indians. Furthermore it was only by fluke that Daniel and I ended up at the Hotel Surya. And finally, there was still the timing of bumping into each other in the restaurant. I usually don’t eat in hotel restaurants as I like to get out and explore the town – it was just that on this occasion we were too tired after the trip to go anywhere else.

My spirits were lifted on reuniting with Aaron and Sandra, both because they were such nice people, and because of the whole cosmic improbability of it all. They were also working their way south, to get to the village where their volunteer work was located. It was quickly settled that we would all go tomorrow together and look for a way of getting to Kochi together.