Friday, September 23, 2011

The Amazing Tribal Peoples of India

     We Westerners tend to think of India as one overgrown homogeneous country, primarily Hindu, brown skinned, ambitious, poor and energetic. That may be true of the majority of Indians but it certainly does not take into account the tremendous variety of peoples, religions and subcultures that exist there. Of special interest are the forty million or so folks who are considered tribals. That figure is, of course, a drop in the bucket of the more than a billion Indians who populate the peninsula but their practices are so varied and unique that they merit a visit or more of their own to satiate the interests of the intrepid traveler. I was lucky enough to put together such a journey for myself and it turned out to be a highlight of my travel.

      Most of the tribal villages are in rural areas separate from mainstream Indian culture and often a distance from its vast cities. The more isolated these villages are, the more likely they are to have retained their differences in language, worship, dress and customs. These are primarily people who settled in India well before the Aryans arrived and the Hindu culture was established. Many of them are of Dravidian origin and practice one form or other of animist religions. The tribal villages are scattered throughout the country although there are a few places where one is more likely to encounter a variety of them. And the variations are staggering. Some folks pray to stone formations or to unique spirits, some others worship ancestors; others still wander about with bows and arrows, many of them value women equally or even above males and others provide for bride prices in contrast to the Hindu culture where dowries are commonplace. There are still many who practice animal sacrifice on a regular basis. There are tribals who are virtually naked in dress and others who are covered from head to toe and wear an abundance of jewelry, especially necklaces and nose rings made in tribal villages which specialize in such metalwork. There are patrilineal and matrilineal groups, bigamists and monogamists and even places where women take more than one husband; some communities allow easy divorce and others do not. A visit to their living areas is a veritable journey through National Geographic.

     My trip began in the state of Madhya Pradesh with a visit to the most numerous minority group called the Bhils who number about 7,000,000 alone. I wrote earlier about their colorful Bhagoria Festivals where young people meet, boys convince girls to run off with them to spend trial days in the woods and ultimately take the mates they find worthwhile to the boy's home at which time the family prepares an offer to the bride's family. In that part of India, one can also visit other tribes including the Bhilala, the Ghonds and the Nagdas.  These groups worship their own god, Bhagwan, and consider nature an object of reverence also. They pray to stone images sprayed with oil and offer liquor and animals to their gods. The Bhil's male and female dress for the Bhagoria Festival is incredibly colorful and original.

     Another concentration of tribal life is in Orissa on the Eastern side of India. One can visit there the Kutia Kondh and view the geometric tattoos on the faces and hands of the women so that they will recognize one another in the after world while the men dress in loin clothes even today. This tribe has very elaborate rituals for birth, marriage and death, all of which can be observed on a visit. Another artifact to be observed among the various Kondh clans is the way the villages are laid out. They generally are built with two rows of houses facing a central street in the middle of which stands an altar to the earth goddess who is worshipped faithfully. The clan of the Dongariya Kondh features women who wear three large nose rings as well as men who have their hair bunched up on their head and are decorated with smaller nose rings. They are a fascinating, unusual looking group but the Bonda and the Gadaba who also reside in the general area are even more singular. The Bonda women, according to legend, may not wear any clothing but they have fashioned one of the most unique ways to cover themselves I have ever seen. They are known as "the naked people." This group also practices bride price instead of dowry for the men's families.  The men are known for their violent, warlike manner and carry weapons to protect their women from relatively non-existent animal threats. The Gadaba female attire features gigantic earrings and the women are especially well known for their dancing.

      There are, of course, other places where one finds numerous tribes on the subcontinent, especially in the far North where groups such as the Nisha and the Monpa dwell and the West where nomadic tribes wander the deserts. I have yet to get to those places. Almost everywhere one goes in India, however, a tribal village lies not very far away. The people who live near cities and who trade extensively with the majority culture have become rather assimilated over the years, so the interested traveler who wishes to see the dramatic alternative life styles some of these minority villages offer needs to get going. The world grows smaller as I write this blog.

Gadaba Woman with Necklaces

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Don't Forget the Animals

     For the most part, I am primarily interested in the people and the cultures in the Third World areas where I travel, but animal life is extremely varied in such places and can bring thrills and joy to the visitor as well. Some of my most vivid memories have to do with encounters with strange beasts that one can usually only view in a local zoo and thus never come to appreciate the nature of their life in the wild. Meetings on the animal's territory may be fraught with danger but the traveler is typically in a relatively safe transport and, most often, with a knowledgeable guide at such times. The most common kind of encounter occurs on a planned safari with park rangers tracking the animals of a particular area, especially the larger ones which lend themselves to desirable photography. What one happens upon, even with the best of itineraries, is largely a function of luck. I had been on several safaris (Kenya, Tanzania, Botswana, South Africa) when we took our family on a trip to a site next to Kruger Park. Nothing compared to that experience. We found ourselves about 30 feet from a formidable rhino who was peacefully grazing along and marking his territory. He paid no attention to our presence at all, fortunately, so we were able to spend a good bit of time observing his behavior. We then went in search of lions which my wife and I had seen on former trips we but we never expected to find the scene that unfolded almost directly over our heads. There in a tree, as if arranged for our entertainment, were a group of three or four young lions, playing like kittens on a large branch, pushing each other around and trying out various poses for balance.We could have spent the whole day watching them. I will not go into the rest of that trip but it continued for two days of absolute delight. At the end of our stay while we were packing our van, an enormous elephant sauntered right up to the van. That encounter was closer than I would have desired. The clearly alarmed ranger told us to stand still and not take any photos. He clapped his hands and the animal turned and left. If he hadn't, I surely would have.

     Of course, all animal encounters are not so peaceful or simple. On an earlier safari, I remember waking at night to noise outside our tent. I dismissed it as inconsequential but learned from fellow campers the next morning that a large African buffalo was walking around the tent for quite a while. He had destroyed a large bush just outside the entrance to our tent and was apparently thinking about spending the evening with us. We pretty much missed the whole event and stayed cosy in bed. On another safari, our jeep stopped to view a few elephants from not too great a distance. One of the herd did not want to be observed apparently and came rushing toward us, ears flapping and hell-bent on destruction. We got out of there fast and stopped about a hundred yards down the road- to no avail. That elephant came barreling after us again in a short time and almost reached the jeep before we could leave the area. Not peaceful at all. Usually one can get quite close to these giants without concern but that was the exception to the rule.

     The most exciting animal visit I ever made was to the Island of Komodo where the famous dragons live. As I stepped onto the shore from our small boat, I noticed lines in the sandy coastline and asked our guide what they were. "Oh, those are from the dragons walking the beach that morning. Those lines are markings from their tails dragging in the sand," he replied. That was my first palpable realization that this was the dragon's island and we were visitors to their home. No zoos there. It was calming to be with a group of about 15 other travelers- safety in numbers, I guess- as we hiked to a spot on the island where the guides were to feed the giant lizards we had come to see. They yanked a bleating goat along as a convenient sacrifice. Convenient for us, that is, not for the goat. He would serve as the lunch that brought the dragons out of their shady, wooded hideaways. Just before we arrived at the designated spot, I glanced to my right and, less than 20 feet away, stared straight into the face of one of the dragons. He was about ten feet long, dripping with poisonous saliva from a gaping mouth and he had a tail powerful enough to disable a person. We were both on the way to the special ceremony so the unnerving incident passed uneventfully.

         We watched the powerful lizards hustle out of their forest hideouts to dissemble the goat and compete for every measure of meat possible. On the way back, we encountered the largest dragon I saw that day just sitting on the far side of the path eyeing our tourist line. The guide said just to continue walking straight ahead which I thought was an excellent idea. His only protection for us consisted of a small stick which I am sure would have tickled the monster into submission should he have attacked any of us. "Do they eat humans?" we inquired. "Not often" was the reply "but it does happen." I have felt safer a few feet from a sleeping crocodile or in a small boat floating along in hippo infested waters than I did during our return passage to the shore. Fortunately, I think the dragon was one of those who had just satiated themselves on the goat. He just sat there. At least in the Third World, one can interact with the animals one meets and really appreciate their behavior. Cages are not always a bad idea however.

       Of course, the ultimate animal viewing destination is on the other side of the world. The Galapagos Islands are in the Pacific off the coast of Ecuador and can easily be combined with cultural visits to Peru or Ecuador with their fascinating Indian settlements and ancient ruins The amazing thing about the Galapagos is the incredible variety of animals that dwell in the surrounding sea, on the volcanic islands and in the air wherever one goes. If you want to see the courting rituals of Blue Footed Boobies or the lovely Winged Albatross, admire the immensity of the Galapagos Turtles or step over sea lions sitting along the path before you, swim with seals or have fearless Mockingbirds land on your arm and stare up at you, this is the place to go. It is not easy to get to but more than worth it when you arrive.
Young Lions Playing in a Tree, S. Africa

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Getting Down With the People Who Live There

     If there were one word of advice I would give to fellow travelers it would be participate. Opportunities for being part of what is going on around you are omnipresent in the Third World. People in developing countries tend to be less protective of their personal practices and less inclined to secrecy than we are used to in the West. That gives us choices to be observers- to stand around and watch what goes on- or to get involved with the events that take place when we are in some exotic place. I remember many times I have faced the option to get involved or to stand apart. A few examples of this choice which have greatly affected the quality of my travel come vividly to mind.

      In the city of Vientiane, Laos, my wife and I rented a moped one afternoon so we could spend the next day touring the interesting, small villages surrounding the capital. When we awoke in the morning, it was raining hard and that plan seemed to be gone with the wind. I suggested we take the moped back and make the most of the day getting around by cab. My wife looked out onto the street and saw the multitude of moped riders slicing through the nasty weather and she suggested we do as the Romans do. We borrowed a large umbrella, hopped on the moped and drove around all day. Bev was sitting behind me holding the umbrella over both of us which at least gave us the feeling of being protected from the rain, just as many of our road mates were doing. We visited the towns and the temples and did not miss a step. It was sure more enjoyable than the cab I was thinking of renting. We had as much fun that day as on any of our many travel moments. People we saw appreciated our willingness to get out and about in the manner they were accustomed to. We got lots of smiles. It is a good thing the residents provided an example for us of how to see Vientiane.

       Another moped event also occurred in Southeast Asia, namely in the city of Da Nang on the coast of Vietnam. We had an open day in front of us and we decided to go to Hoi An which we had left off of our itinerary even though we knew it was a tempting town to visit. We again rented a moped for the day. Of course we wound up getting lost. The signs were all in Vietnamese, the roads were all in disrepair, and we were the only English speakers we encountered until well into our ride. Finally, about an hour into our misdirected journey, another moped driver saw our confusion and we were able to communicate to him our intended destination. He indicated that we were on the wrong road and instructed us to follow him. He put us on the right path eventually and we did wind up having a great day touring the old Chinese settlements in Hoi An. That afternoon we left later than we might have otherwise to return to Danang. We did make it into the city but that too was quite an adventure. I learned that mopeds did not generally include lights, especially on the back of the bikes. We came into Da Nang in the dark alongside a crowd of mopeds and bicycles, all of which were invisible until one was right on them. After finding ourselves inches from the next driver, we decided not to ride any more mopeds in the dark.

     I wrote in an earlier blog about how a visitor is viewed as an important guest at  many ceremonies in the Third World. I remember several days when our joining the festivities wound up being fun and rewarding to us and the other participants. In West Africa, we attended an event which featured stilt dancers. At one point it was explained to us that the dancers were so nimble that they could bend over and pick up something off the ground. I walked out to the middle of the ring, put a few francs on the ground and returned to my seat. The dancer who was performing went over to the money and deftly bent over on his long stilts to successfully pick it up. He then turned and bowed to me and the whole audience cheered. They had apparently enjoyed not only his skills but my willingness to take the ceremony seriously and to make a contribution to it.

     There are innumerable such memories that occur to me as I reflect on this aspect of travel but I will limit myself to just one more example of participation. On our first trip to India, we were in the lobby of our hotel and we noticed activity outside on the street. We were informed that the activities of the delightful holiday called Holi were taking place and that folks were painting one another with colored powder, yelling and totally enjoying themselves. We were advised to stay in the hotel because "it could be dangerous in the street." My wife and I immediately went back to our room, put on the oldest, most beat clothing we had brought with us and headed for the festivities. Other folks followed our example. We bought several packets of colored powder from one of the many vendors and joined the celebration. By the time we returned to the hotel, we were covered with colors which never completely washed out of our clothing. My wife endured a few breast rubs that morning but that was the extent of the danger we faced. The people who engaged us truly enjoyed our being out there participating in their holiday.  They could not have enjoyed that any more than we did. Diving in to the activities that present themselves along the way may be the best way to enrich your travel experiences.

My wife, Bev, dancing in Cote D'Ivoire