Uncage the Soul Goes to India
By Uncage the Soul in Behind the Scenes
A potential project took John and Steve to India, which gave us the chance to pass through Dubai and experience this very different part of the world. Here are some of John’s reflections on the trip.
The landscape below was obscured by a 10,000 foot thick haze as we descended into India’s Delhi Airport. All I had to guide my expectations of India were the raised eyebrows and knowing exclamations from conversations with friends who had been there. I had spent some time traveling in challenging locations such as Congo, Uganda, and Vietnam, and as the wheels of the plane touched down at the intersection between smog and ground, I felt I was reasonably prepared for the experience to come. It would affect me more than I anticipated.
Steve, his father Jeff, and I were traveling to Delhi to meet with some potential investors and video production collaborators in what we described as “opportunity evaluations”. We had long internally discussed expanding the Northwest Wild show, currently airing on Discovery International, to include a more international roster of episodes. We met our driver at the airport and were quickly whisked into the urban chaos that is Delhi. “Is it always this smoky?” I asked. “Of course”, laughed our driver. Of course…. An insane response considering it was the kind of eye searing, lung clenching, quarter mile visibility smog that I can only recall having seen at the worst moments of wildland firefighting. A fire red orb of the late morning sun glowed between stark apartment building nests and tangles of power lines. Google would later inform me that indeed, we were marinading in the world’s most polluted air. It was a startling first impression.
The city streets teemed with people and activity. India is the world’s second most populated country with 1.2 billion people crammed into an area about a third the size of the US. Its a staggering statistic, really…when you consider the implications of this many people on a landscape. The population and economy of India seems to have exploded in a way that the basic life support structures of a healthy community have been unable to keep up with. For me, perhaps the most discouraging consequence of this was the overwhelming amount of garbage. Trash littered streets, waterways, clung to trees and bushes…there seemed almost no place that was immune. But everywhere you could see people sweeping….sweeping doorways, driveways, patios, storefronts…and to where? Next door, the street, the neighbors driveway, into a ditch…. Garbage was merely being shoveled from one spot to another revealing temporarily clean plots, while the community slowly drowned in an ever growing deluge of refuse.
Driving through the streets of India is perhaps one of the most exciting things you will ever do in your life. Five or six lanes of fully congested traffic frequently converge into super-intersections with no lines, stop signs, or lights. There may be a hapless traffic attendant valiantly pointing or whistling in an attempt to bring order to the mad din of vehicles. But despite their efforts, the arteries of traffic would push into each other, weaving, creeping, honking….and somehow, beyond real reason or understanding, it would work out. You would break free and continue on into even more terrifying scenarios. On a late night drive back to Delhi from the Taj Mahal, I can use up all fingers counting the number of times we avoided a high speed catastrophic accident by mere seconds or inches….and this with a skilled Indian driver behind the wheel. Maybe that was the problem.
I realize that my reflections thus-far haven’t been the most positive. So its important to note that while India does suffer from some pretty serious pollution and population conditions, there are beautiful territories to the country, a rich and vibrant culture and history, and beautiful people that live there. Our cool young guide and TV cameraman we nicknamed Panda, introduced us to the wild-lands of the Ranthambhore National Park and Tiger Reserve. A 4 hour train ride and hour jeep drive over bumpy roads delivered us to our first leopard sighting. Just where Panda said it might be, the long sleek cat lounged casually atop a rock wall in the low dusk light. On the other side of that wall, mentioned Panda, was the territory of T24…a rogue tiger that had just two days before earned the dubious “man-eater” title after killing its third human. I felt the call of the wild.
Our lodging arrangements just outside the national park were shockingly elegant. From over a mile away you could see the white capped towers of Nahargarh Ranthambhore Hotel. Attendants swung wide the towering and massive gates through which we passed into manicured gardens and fountain adorned walkways. It felt secure from the ravages of T24, whom we imagined was lurking just outside the fortress walls. In fact, it felt like another planet. The next day, Panda led us into the national park for a tour. The tiger reserve has a restrictive entry policy with only tour vehicles being allowed in at certain times of day. I found myself in childlike wonder at all the plants and animals that were varying degrees of different from anything in the Pacific Northwest. It was the real jungle…a beautiful, lush, and unforgiving tangle of vines and trees through which monkeys frolicked and exotic birds shrieked. More careful peering would reveal the head turn of an antlered deer, the shuffling dark mass of a black bear, the steely and unmoving eyes of a crocodile at a pond’s edge.
But our real objective was to see a tiger. The open topped tour bus that we hopped aboard cruised slowly down a rutted dirt road, all eyes trained intently on the passing landscape. A tiger could be basking poolside of a small creek, it could be slipping in amongst the waving grasses, its tiger strips blending perfectly with the surrounding foliage, or it could be already airborne, lunging in your direction before you even saw it leave the ground… [Check this out] The bus stopped for a moment as the guide looked intently through the brush. Nothing. We moved on. And then…a tiger sighting! Far off we could see T17, the Queen of Ranthambhore, in a yawning stretch belly deep in a muddy stream. But what happened next became far more interesting to me than the tiger…. Seemingly out of nowhere, jeeps and buses that had also caught wind of a tiger sighting appeared from both directions on the single lane dirt road. With now nearly a dozen vehicles choking the narrow road, drivers and guides jockeyed for the best position, even if that meant pulling directly in front of another vehicle and blocking their view. And aboard each of the vehicles was an equally excited free-for-all, as the tourists elbowed and shoved each other with paparazzi intensity to capture some sort of photo proving they had seen a tiger. T17 nonchalantly ambled past and disappeared into the thick undergrowth. Everyone was abuzz from the successful tiger hunt.
On the train ride back to Delhi, I peered out the dirty window at the passing landscape. People, cows, cars, carts, and endless rows of ramshackle housing blended together in a time-lapse blur. But every now and then freeze frame moments would stop time, and I’d focus on the lone figure of a woman cloaked in a vibrant red sari walking down a dusty side street, or the toothy and innocent smiles of two young boys chasing each other, or the collective laugh of a weathered group of men sitting outside a repair shop. Beautiful moments within a cacophony of struggling humanity. And there are efforts in India to address some of the crushing problems overwhelming the country. A newspaper on the train printed a story about an impending plastic bag ban in Delhi. Cars have been prohibited around the Taj Mahal to reduce air pollution which stains its exterior. A woman across from me talked about a magazine she edits advocating an evolution past the socially destructive cast system that is still unofficially prevalent in India. Too little, too late? I found it hard to maintain my optimism.
By all calibrations, I had a positive and rewarding time in India. But perhaps one of the best outcomes of the trip, as with most trips abroad for me, was a renewed love and appreciation for my own home here in the Pacific Northwest. And the reminder that if I can continue to work and live in my own way that leaves my home and my little world better than how I found it, I can find peace within myself.