To give or not to give

Most North Americans are among the top 10% of the world’s richest people.  When men and women who are at the other end of this economic scale see us, they know we have much more than them.  As a result, in countries like India and Nepal, we are approached eagerly if not aggressively by business people and approached hopefully if not expectantly by the destitute.  Giving to the latter brings with it a variety of ethical dilemmas.

As a rule of thumb, travellers and travel guidebooks of these countries advise against DSCN3594 (Medium)giving money to beggars.  However, to see people picking through the garbage for food or other items of value (see picture) is a harsh reminder of the disparity between ‘us’ and ‘them’.  Knowing that people who are severely deformed and/or handicapped may not have any means of support other than begging is heartbreaking.  Knowing that the waiter who serves your breakfast may never be able to afford that meal makes me feel badly for even ordering it.  Bartering with store owners or rickshaw drivers for what amounts to pennies or perhaps a few dollars seems so petty.  Having kids dressed in rags come to you to ask for food makes me wonder how best to respond.

When I asked Indians in various cities what they suggest would be a reasonableDSCN6043 response to the pleas for money, they almost uniformly told me not to give.  At a temple in Nepal, a sign was posted which asked people not to encourage begging, thereby saving the self-esteem of the citizens.

The fact is that begging can be fairly lucrative.  In one city, I was told that the government had set up a series of cottage industries for the destitute to work in, thereby providing a steady income, shelter, and food.  This place, however, is empty since the people make a better income from begging.  They don’t want to move into the place built for them.

Begging is often a scam.  As an example, I was approached in Varanasi by a mother carrying a baby in her arms.  With a sad and hopeful face, she motioned to her child and said, “Milk”.  I had said, “No” several times to her in previous days but one morning I reached for my money to give her something.  When I did this, she pointed to a nearby shop and said, “Milk” again.  The fact that she wanted me to buy her milk instead of simply taking cash seemed all the better.  I started to follow her to the shop.  A restaurant owner we had gotten to know saw this verbal exchange and told Aaron to quickly run to tell me not to buy her the milk.  I didn’t, much to the woman’s dismay, and came back to the restaurant owner to ask why he said I shouldn’t.  He explained that this woman has an arrangement with several shop keepers that she can sell back the milk she gets.  She gets a cut of the cash from the shop keepers who sell the milk well above cost.  Her child doesn’t need the milk.  Evidently, enough people feel sorry for her that she can earn an income from this.

Surely there are those that I encounter who truly have no options other than beg for money.  Isn’t being duped occasionally worth the risk of giving to those who appear needy?

I also really don’t like getting ripped off.  Yes, I realize that as a foreigner, I’ll often pay more for the same thing the locals do.  In fact, in some places like the Taj Mahal, official fees are different for foreigners (750 Indian rupees) than for Indians (20 Indian rupees).  On one level, I’m okay with this since it provides the citizens access to an amazing heritage site in their country while it charges extra for those who can easily afford the additional costs.

Another example of getting ripped off is what happened when we boarded the bus at the Nepalese border to go to Chitwan.  A man who sounded very official, asked me to pay 200 rupees (about 3 dollars) as a luggage charge. As it turns out, this man didn’t come along and simply came aboard and told the foreigners they needed to pay for their luggage.  Preying on the naivety of foreigners bugs me but is considered ‘business’ by many locals.

Speaking of getting scammed, I’ve also been told that about 70% of the Hindu sadhus (holy men) at the Ganges ghats in Varanasi are ‘fake’. They dress in the sadhu garb and provide the Hindu rituals for the Hindu citizenry, taking money for their services.  In this case, they are ripping off the citizens coming for help.

So, instead of giving to the children in rags, the countless men and women who look longingly at me for the few pennies they are asking for, and the young men who want some baksheesh (tips) for services rendered, I generally say “No” and walk away.  Does this feel good or right?  No it doesn’t.

As you can imagine, this has sparked many conversations with our kids about giving and not giving to those in apparent need and about what constitutes real help for those less fortunate than us.  India and Nepal are places of incredible contrasts and extremes.  Both the incredibly rich and the extremely poor live here.  The tug at one’s heart along with pangs of guilt, confusion, frustration, anger, and even indignation are part of the experiences that are India and Nepal.  These countries take a special place in one’s soul.  They are unforgettable.

A holy trinity

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I made a good friend in Sanjay, one of the owners of the Eden Halt Guest House in Varanasi.  In the picture here, he’s seen with Aaron and me.  Sanjay is a philosopher of sorts, a man of exceptional wisdom, insight, and patience.  He and I sat and talked for hours on more than one occasion. 


One of the things Sanjay explained to me is the trinity of Hindu gods pictured here.DSCN3614 (Medium)  Lord Vishnu is the one in the centre.  His wife Parvati and their child Ganesha are sitting on either side of him.  This triad embodies a balance between soul (Vishnu), body (Parvati), and mind (Ganesha). A message this trio teaches is that one’s life doesn’t work well if these three pieces are not in balance.  If you think about it, that’s a pretty good lesson to listen to no matter what religious base one comes from.


Another of the many interesting aspDSCN3622 (Medium)ects of Hinduism is the minute by minute importance Hindus place on worship of their many gods.  For example, business owners burn incense daily as a prayer for a profitable day.  On buses, incense is burned prior to the journey as a prayer for protection on the roads.  The picture here is of a statue of Lord Vishnu and incense burning in front of it.  These items were on the dashboard of the bus we were about to take to the Nepalese border.


While Hinduism’s many gods and philosophies are foreign to me, it’s fascinating to learn more about how this religion affects the lives of more than a billion people.  Sanjay and I will continue to discuss his philosophical outlook via email in the coming weeks and months.  I know it will be interesting.

Holy cow

It’s true that cows and bulls wander streets in India with impunity.  According to Wikipedia, this tradition stems from the Hindu belief that the Divine (God) is present iDSCN3614 (Medium)n all things and that all creatures have a soul.  Also, in Hindu mythology, the ox is given status since Lord Shiva rides an ox (see picture).  “In Hindu-majority countries like India and Nepal, bovine milk holds a key part of religious rituals. For some, it is customary to boil milk on a stove or lead a cow through the house as part of a housewarming ceremony. In honour of their exalted status, cows often roam free, even along (and in) busy streets in major cities such as Delhi. In some places, it is considered good luck to give one a snack, or fruit before breakfast. In places where there is a ban on cow slaughter, a person can be jailed for killing or injuring a cow.”

The presence of cows also serves practical purposes.  Dairy products are widely used,  cows are used for tilling fields and pulling carts, and their dung is used as a source of fuel and fertilizer.

The following are pictures of cows (or their dung) as seen in the narrow streets of Old Varanasi, India.

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“Brace yourself”

About the city of Varanasi, the Lonely Planet guidebook for India states, “Brace yourself.  You’re about to enter one of the most blindingly colourful, unrelentingly chaotic, and unapologetically indiscreet places on earth.  Varanasi takes  no prisoners.  But if you’re ready for it, this may just turn out to be your favourite stop of all.”

Varanasi, one of the world’s oldest continually inhabited cities, is also one of Hinduism’s most holy of cities.  Hindu pilgrims come to the ghats (steps) lining the Ganges River to “wash away a lifetime of sins in the sacred waters or to cremate their loved ones”.  The guidebook indicates that Varanasi is “a particularly auspicious place to die, since expiring here offers moksha (liberation from the cycle of birth and death), making Varanasi the beating heart of the Hindu universe”.

Having arrived by train, we took 2 tuk tuks to the old section of the city.  In this area, even tuk tuks cannot enter as the streets are too narrow, about 2 metres wide at best.  The labyrinth of alleys and streets crisscross each other with no apparent plan.  Shops, restaurants, temples, ashrams, and homes crowd against the narrow streets.  The streets themselves host countless pilgrims going to and from the river, cows, monkeys, and dogs for whom scraps of food are provided, scattered garbage, cow feces, neatly uniformed children going to and coming from school, motorbikes and bicycles with their impatient riders, sadhus (holy men), beggars, residents, and tourists.  It’s a menagerie of people and animals caught in the maze known as Old Varanasi. 

Our guest house, ironically named Eden Halt, consists of four rooms and a magnificent view overlooking the Ganges River.  This place was recommended to us by two fellow Canadians who we met in Agra a few days ago.  (As an aside, any serpents which might consider living in this ‘Eden’, would not survive the mongoose or two which frequent the treed area in front of the guesthouse, looking for meals such as birds and snakes.  Monkeys also scamper past the open courtyard, hoping to catch you unawares so as to steal something edible.)

It is here, in this city, on this river that you can witness some of humanity’s most intimate rituals.  To hire a rowboat and oarsman at sunrise, which we did, to row along the ghats is to see Hindus bathe in the river and drink of it as well as to see the corpses of the recently deceased burn nearby on pyres of stacked wood.  The water itself is replete with flower necklaces and straw statues from recent festivals, all manner of refuse from the city’s inhabitants, whatever the city’s sewers cough into the river, and the remains of humans and animals cast into the holy river.  As is so often the case in India, along with stench and squalor comes unimaginable beauty.  Tiny flickering candles, each surrounded by a bed of saffron flowers are set afloat in small bowls made of leaves.  Hundreds of these lights bob along the surface of the river as pilgrims bathe and chant at the river’s edge.  The sounds of temple bells blend with these incantations in the early morning mist.  The aromas of temple incense weave together with the smells of morning cooking fires and the smoke which rises from the never-ending cremations. 

It’s at the burning ghats that the men of households come with their deceased to cremate the remains.  To be noted is that some people are not cremated.  This includes children under the age of 15, sadhus (holy men), people bitten by cobras, lepers, pregnant women, and animals. These bodies are put into the Ganges, weighted down by heavy rocks.  On occasion, some of these bodies rise up from the depths and float at the river’s surface.  We witnessed this.  Once, the body of a cow and another time, the body of a child, floating silently by us in the moonlight.

Here is India.  Brace yourself…

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On the platform

India has the largest network of trains in the world.  Millions of people are transported by train each day.  The train platform is, at times, a microcosm of India.  They are always busy with people rushing about, vendors selling their wares, and families huddled together, waiting for their train to arrive.  The pictures below include people waiting for their train, a vendor selling twigs from a neem tree which is used like a toothbrush, people using the water to wash their faces, a cockroach and a sign indicating that the train car had been checked for vermin, the morning sun glinting off the platform, and kids waiting in the train.


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Goa-Jaipur-Agra-New Delhi-Varanasi

It’s been a crazy bunch of days and nights of travel.  We took a 2 hour taxi ride to the Vasco de Gama Airport in Goa from where we flew to Jaipur via Ahmedabad.  We stayed for night in Jaipur and took a look at the ‘pink city’, as it’s called, throughout the next day.  The following are pics of our visit to Jaipur’s maharaja’s palace, the ‘floating palace’, and to a few shops.  Other pics are of street scenes including the ever-present wandering cows.


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We left Jaipur for Agra on a night bus which we were told would arrive in Agra at 5:30 a.m.  Instead, we arrived at 2:30 a.m. so had to get off the bus at a random street corner, make some calls to hotels listed in the Lonely Planet guidebook and then find our way via rickshaw to a hotel we found near the Taj Mahal.  I slept for about 3 hours before getting up at sunrise to see the Taj Mahal materialize from the fog at daybreak.  Our hotel had a rooftop from which we could view this world-famous building.  After breakfast, we spent the morning visiting the Taj, an unforgettable experience.


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We had arranged to take a taxi from Agra to New Delhi from where we’d take a night train to Varanasi.  The taxi ride to New Delhi was the usual bobbing, weaving, honking, braking, swerving bumper-to-bumper madness which characterizes much of the driving that happens in India.  We made the approximately 240 kilometres in about 5 hours which included one flat tire repair and one stop for fuel and chai (milk tea) along the way.  At these stops, we were quite the spectacle for the local people.


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In New Delhi, we boarded the crowded train and settled into our fold-down ‘beds’ for the overnight journey to the holy city of Varanasi.


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Sunsets on the beach

At Palolem Beach in Goa, we rented two cute cottages for 900 rupees each per night (about $18 Cdn). They are nestled in the palms on the beach.

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Here’s the beach restaurant we ate most meals at and used the wifi (when it was working).

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Goa’s beaches face west so a day in the sun ends with a perfect sunset.  Beautiful!

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Goan to the beach

We arrived in Goa at 4:30 a.m., having survived a 9 hour ride on a sleeper bus.  The bus actually had beds instead of seats.  Each compartment of two (narrow) beds had curtains to close so that you could have privacy in your sleeping cocoon.  In the picture below, the kids are sitting in one double bed and Mary-Anna (in the whitish pants) is sitting in the bunk above.  It was a pretty cool experience.  Thankfully, I was the only one from our family who noticed that the bus also hosted quite a few cockroaches who certainly weren’t asleep during the night.  Bugs like cockroaches have become somewhat commonplace to us and we have learned to keep all bags and packs zipped shut so that we don’t carry any stowaway vermin with us to our next destination.

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Rather sleepy, we were dropped off in a town which we knew was about 2 kilometres from the beach.  We didn’t know, however, which way we should walk to get to the beach.  Thankfully, our trusty compass showed us which direction was west so we headed that way.  We stopped at an open-air  restaurant to ask for directions and ended up staying for breakfast.  Yes, there were a few large cockroaches crawling on the floor but one of the waiters swept them outside the open door.  Problem solved..

Goa, a former Portuguese colony, is India’s smallest state.  It’s located on India’s west coast and is home to some of the world’s finest beaches.  Northern Goa was a hippy hangout in the ‘60s and ‘70s and is still home to remnants of this era.  Today, northern Goa continues is a major party destination for the backpacking crowd. 

We opted for the quieter and more serene southern beaches of Goa.  Palolem Beach, where we settled into two huts, is known as one of the last quiet and undeveloped beaches in the state.  By undeveloped, it means that accommodations are still the rather spartan beach huts nestled in between the palms and restaurants consist of amazing foods created in a bamboo-walled kitchen and served on bamboo furniture on the beach sand.  Sun worshippers share the beach with fishing boats which supply the restaurants and local markets with fresh seafood daily.   Thankfully, the large hotel chains have not yet invaded this crescent of sand, surf, and palms.

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We took a fishing boat out into the ocean to watch dolphins.  The boat had an outrigger to keep the boat in balance.  That was a cool experience.

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