Tuesday, December 20, 2011

A walk through Meerut

Meerut used to be a small town with the primary thing here the military base. Meerut is now a busy city of three million people and the army base here is the third largest in India. Meerut is also known for it's manufacturing of sports equipment, the largest manufacturers are here in Meerut. And the surrounding areas are farmed with sugar cane as the primary crop. Tons and tons of cane here.

Meerut is not a tourist destination and as such I'm the only foreigner here in Meerut aside from those that work and teach at the few churches. Hinduism is still the primary religion here and 35 years ago there was not that many Muslims. Now Muslims make up 25% or more of the population and Christians a very small minority. There are numerous orphanages here, most of the children come from rural farming communities in northern India. Thia ji will take me one day this week to the one that she often buys clothes and food for. I told Thai ji that I would like to buy either clothes or food as a donation, so maybe towards the end of the week.

When heading north Meerut is the last 'city', continuing to the north there are only small towns. Because of this Meerut has the most doctors per capita, some of the nation's best doctors and also some of the best hospitals. This is because north of here it's all rural so people travel to Meerut for medical care.

Meerut has everything, and it is exactly what one thinks of when thinking of India. Cows and water buffalo roaming the streets, cycle rickshaws everywhere, carts pulled by water buffalo or horses, bicycles, scooters and motorcycles, trucks, buses, cars of all sizes, pedestrians all sharing the narrow roads. You'll see all of these in just a 40 foot stretch of road. The air here is very smoggy, I think a lot of it comes up from Delhi. There really aren't that many beggars here, but some do exist.

Businesses of all sorts are based here and the shopping possibilities are unlimited. If there is something you want to buy it will be here. Stores range from small two by six foot cubicles to larger stores to a table on the side of the street. Today when I was walking there was a man on the side of the street with a Xerox copy machine. That was his business, making copies for those that walked by. Another man sat on the side walk in white rags with his legs crossed, in front of him a bathroom scale. For a few rupees he'll let you step on and weigh yourself. And another man, the ear cleaner, is ready to help get the wax out of your ear. There's a man sitting with a wooden tool box, in it a few pliers and other tools, a sign in front of him has Dentist written on it. He's there for extracting teeth from the very poor who can't afford to visit a proper dentist. Along the fence there is a mirror hanging and a wooden stool. A young man at the ready to give anyone a shave.

I went into the market today, actually a few different markets. The one to the west of the ancestral home on Abu Lane is more upscale with dine in restaurants, walk-in stores and nice hotels. Here I found a nice pair of jeans and a shirt to match. Because of the overhead of actual buildings the prices here tend to be a bit higher but so does the quality. To the north I walked though one of the slums, by the bus station and along the main road. In the slums along a creek there were very small tents made of blue tarp's. Outside the tents were fires where children and adults were huddled to stay warm. Young children barely clothed, many with only a shirt on walked barefoot. No one asked me for money, everyone just went about their business. Half way through my walk in the slums I saw to very small and very dirty children, one girl of maybe three and a boy of four. The each only had a shirt and a knit cap on. The children and the clothes looked as if they hadn't been washed in years. But I laughed so hard because the young girl had a tattered purse hanging from her small arm as she walked daintily, the boy holding her hand with his head up high. Their imaginations hard at work I suspect they were off to have tea at the palace.

At the bus station there were street vendors selling fresh fruit of all types, chai (very good chai), food of all types and a few tables of clothes and toys. Being the main road and the bus station it was really busy, people moving fast in all directions and vendors dishing out their food or goods as fast as they could. The smells of pakoras, chai and samosas brought back a lot of memories. Meerut is a hub for transportation. From one village you bring a bus to Meerut then catch another out to a different village. Most of the busses here are government run busses, the most tattered on the road. One has to wonder how they ever make it down the road. Government busses are the cheapest bus service available. Then there are private buses which are less crowded but more expensive. These will also make less stops so their faster (though nothing in India moves fast). For interstate travel there are a variety of luxury buses. These are the most expensive but fasted of the buses as they do not make intermediate stops. For shorter trips there will be only one passenger per seat, most are air conditioned and almost all have a television and dvd player. Then there are the sleeper buses. These are the top of the line for bus travel and while the most expensive bus to take it is still quite cheap. These sleeper busses will have one bed per seat. So you can lay down and sleep or sit in your assigned seat. Sleeper buses service longer trips, usually overnight trips.

Once through the bus station area I crossed the street to do some more exploring and walked by one vendor that had hundreds of belts on display. I needed a new belt so I stopped to browse. Stopping to browse in India means stopping to buy. With my lack of Hindi and his lack of English I would just nod my head yes or no as he showed me different belts. It got interesting for a while, nodding the head side to side in India means yes, and he thought I was going to buy 20 or more belts. I finally selected one, he wanted $3 but after some negotiation we settled on $1. It's not a very high quality belt but seeing that I hardly wear belts I'm happy with it. It was the same brand that I saw in the store where I bought my jeans, the belt there was $6.

After my belt purchase I walked through the east market, a very very congested and busy market. Probably because the prices here are so low and the selection high. Clothes and saris of all sorts, household goods, jewelry, furniture, produce and street food abound. Everything was chaotic but organized. All the clothes vendors are grouped together as are the fabric, furniture and produce. All categories are in groups. Most people in the market didn't give me a second glance but all the old men did, they knew I wasn't a local. It's cold here in Meerut and it seems that the people here like to take care of their animals. I've seen dogs with sweaters, goats wearing coats and yes, even pants. Some cows even have burlap bags draped over them and tied on, some crude looking and others even a bit fashionable.

Once done with this market I took a stroll down another street that wasn't so busy. There were shops one after another, some only two feet wide and other larger. Some very well lit while others were dark. In front of one small store young men worked hard to clean motorcycle parts in buckets of gasoline (called petrol here). In another that was only two feet wide an old toothless man sat with his peddle operated sewing machine stitching a pair of pants while a customer sat on a short wooden stool. A few feet further down the spice shop with more spices than I could count. Bright yellow turmeric and dangerously red ground chili peppers. Green cardamom, black cloves and brown cinnamon. The aroma tickled the nose in so many ways. And yet at another a young boy of about 12 years was rolling and flattening puris then handing it off to his father to fry in a wok like pan that was no less than three feet in diameter. The hot puffed puris were then stacked in a bin and ready to serve. Next to the puris was another young man, maybe the older brother, was stirring a pot of chole (chickpea dish), and another with plates in hand ready to serve.

I knew I was in the Muslim part of town when I came across the butcher shop. Only five feet wide and maybe 10 feet deep a bearded man sat cross legged with a well worn wooden block in front of him and a cleaver in his hand. Above the entrance was full legs of what was probably once was a goat. On the block the man chopped bits of meat into smaller pieces, two dogs looked on and waited patiently for a scrap to be thrown. Most of the women were covered in the traditional Muslim way and in respect I didn't look in the direction of any that I walked by. I walked for at least a mile. Most people were too busy to even notice that I was there but the elder men and some women who were just sitting and watching the world go by did notice me, and their eyes followed me in sync with my slow pace. I would nod and smile before something else caught my attention. I took a side street down into the residential area. Smaller stores yet and most were selling snacks of one type or another. One older man motioned me over and he asked if I was lost or needed help. I just said I was out for a walk.

I deliberately looked for landmarks each time I made a turn as I wanted to make sure I was able to exit this maze. I can see how it would be so easy to get lost. Every street has a name but there are no signs. The billboards were my landmarks and after successfully making my way out of the market I started to head back to the ancestral home. As I was walking down the main street dodging cars and busses, rickshaws and bicylces, buses and trucks and stepping over and around numerous piles of cow crap I looked left down another street. It called to me so I went. This was the computer section as every store either sold computers or computer accessories. My kind of place. Due to the high import duties on electronics computers here cost almost twice as much than if bought in the states. The further I went down this street the more of a maze it became. And with no billboards for landmarks I had to make mental notes of store names, all in Hindi. Down these streets and away from the main road it's actually pretty quiet. I eventually came across the stadium. It was closed but there was a crowd of people gathered in the parking lot. The laughing, cheering and gasping peaked my curiosity so I nudged my way through the crowd. Rajasthani gypsies were putting on a magic show. While I can't understand Hindi I could understand that they were telling a very funny story as they performed for the crowd.

Eventually I ended up back at the house, four hours after my walk started. Thai ji asked where I had gone, she was amazed that I would walk that entire distance. I've been telling her I like to walk, now she understands. I figured in reality I probably walked five to seven miles. I haven't taken any photos in Meerut yet. In all the other places I've been the people are accustomed to seeing tourists with cameras so it's no big deal. Because Meerut isn't accustomed to having tourists the people here become very suspicious of someone taking photos, either of their property or of themselves. So today I marked out a route during my walk and purposely made eye contact with numerous vendors. Each day this week I hope to make the same walk and see the same vendors, then at the end of the week I'll walk with my camera in hand. I hope that by then people will be accustomed to seeing me and won't be put off by my camera.

I haven't yet written about my trip to Haridwar yesterday. I'll do that in soon. My days here are busy. I usually have breakfast with my aunt but then when I walk down to the ground level my other aunt will stop me and insist that I have breakfast with her. So another bite and then down one more level where yet again I'm stopped and invited for a bite. I've learned to eat very little at breakfast, by the time I make it to the ground level for my walk I've had plenty of breakfast. On my way back up to the third floor I'm invited in at every level for chai. Pretty soon I'm going to stop walking up and down the stairs and will take the elevator. I have a lot of people to see this week. A dinner with one cousin, a dinner with another. Lunch with an uncle, dinner with another cousin and dinner with yet a cousin in law. There's too much food, lots of chai and many stories being told as well as new memories created.

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