Wednesday 29 February 2012

Back to India

The g group (Sef taking photo). Note the lovely Taj saris.
I was just thinking about one part of my trip that I wasn't sure about when I left home. I'd booked a tour through G Adventures, a Canadian company that used to be called Gap Adventures. It was a "Golden Triangle" tour, ie. Delhi, Agra (the Taj Mahal) and Jaipur (the pink city and Amber Fort) and it was for eight days. I was a bit apprehensive because I've never been on a tour before; I pride myself on being an independent traveler. But I wanted to see these India highlights and the logistics of doing it in a relatively short time seemed overwhelming. I'd heard about this tour company before ( a friend of mine traveled in Nepal with them) and I knew they used local small hotels, local guides and transportation and they try to be responsible travelers, ecologically and otherwise.
I'm taking photo.
 I got a great deal on the trip. It was around $650 for the 8 days, plus another $200 for the privilege of having my own room. I figured I'd be one of the older travelers in the group (because of the type of tour it was) and that was true. We were a group of 15 people and the average age was 26. This turned out to be a really nice part of the whole experience. Everyone was gung-ho, catching autorickshaws everywhere and jumping on the Delhi metro to go to the markets; the spirit was infectious. Sometimes I felt like the mature aunty ("you guys go ahead and swim; I'll take pictures.") That was at the one somewhat luxurious place we stayed and everyone was psyched about the promised swimming pool. I was still wearing every piece of clothing I'd brought with me--Delhi and area was cold! But it turned out the pool had no water in it, so no swimming for anyone.

I was touched by how respectful everyone was. I never felt embarrassed by my traveling companions; I hope they felt the same. There was a sense of curiosity, which seemed mutual among the Indian people we encountered. A funny thing that happens at tourist spots is that Indian tourists want to take photos of themselves with foreigners. We did the same.

I found a kindred spirit first in Jay from the UK, who had also chosen to have his own room. Jay's family roots are in Gujarat, so he found he was picking up Hindi pretty quickly. We tried to expand our Hindi vocabulary a little. The two Sarahs, from the UK (actually Hong Kong now) and Australia, were lots of fun. One night after supper we went hunting for an Anokhi textiles store, but as it got dark, we had to give up. The next day, it took two autorickshaws to track it down, but we finally found it and madly shopped. I only had a half hour; had to get to a movie.
Joe and David at Agneepath!
The blockbuster Bollywood movie experience was one of the highlights of Jaipur. We had to get tickets the day before. On the day of the movie, we joined the throngs waiting to get in then found our seats just in time. No previews or trailers, just lights down and right into the action, as cheers went up from the crowded theatre. As soon as a big Bollywood star came on screen, everyone cheered again. If a character said something cheeky, there were raucous hoots of approval. Something touching: more cheers. Love scenes: whistles and laughter.
After the show, all ten of us clambered into three rickshaws and made a speeding convoy weaving through the crazily crowded streets. Jay taught me how to say "Slow down" and "I have a son" in Hindi.

Friday 17 February 2012

Light pollution

When I go outside at night and look up at the sky I have a pretty good view of some familiar constellations: the Big Dipper, Orion, Cassiopeia. I live in small town British Columbia. The nearest big city is a five hour drive away. But still, light pollution here is bad enough to obscure the dimmer riot of stars and the fuzz of the Milky Way that I remember seeing as a kid in southern Ontario.
About half an hour from here, hidden in the desert-dry rolling hills, is the Dominion Radio Astrophysical Observatory. Last August, I went there to watch the Perseid Meteor showers. The plan was that I'd meet my son and two other friends there. But it was so dark that I lurched among the hushed bodies wrapped in blankets on the grass, then gave up and rolled into my sleeping bag on my back and looked up. Every time a meteor flashed across the sky, a gasp of awe rose up from the crowd and then the whispers, "Did you see it?" It was a moonless night. I can't remember when I've seen so many stars. Even my 14 year-old son and his friends were buzzing with excitement when I found them.

The sad thing is that there are places in the world where it's no longer possible to see the stars. The problem is worse in cities, obviously, but an article in the Telegraph in 2010 says that according to astronomers, "eight out of ten people in the English countryside cannot see the stars at night because of light pollution." It's troubling to think that there are children who could grow up never experiencing the overwhelming humility that comes from gazing at a starry sky.

There are actually now "dark sky reserves," places named for having exceptional night-time darkness. These are some of them:

Canadian Dark Sky Preserves and Reserves

  • Torrance Barrens Dark Sky Reserve, Ontario
  • Point Pelee National Park and Dark Sky Preserve, Ontario
  • Cypress Hills Dark Sky Preserve, Alberta/Saskatchewan
  • Beaver Hills Dark Sky Preserve, Alberta
  • Fraser Valley Dark Sky Preserve, British Columbia
It's not only the stars that suffer from light pollution. Brenda "Birdschmidt" probably knows about the organization called Fatal Light Awareness (FLAP that's trying to get the lights turned out in city buildings to protect migrating birds. Below is a photo of some of the birds killed from hitting lit windows.