Tuesday, August 17, 2004

From Fort Collins

So, this is what people are crazy to be in. USA.

Its been almost a week for me now. Fort Collins is a small town. Unlike what we get to see in movies - high rise buildings, overboarding traffic, car chases, superheroes - this place is quite calm and friendly. Its called one of the most liveable places in US and I can see why. People seem to be very friendly and crime rates are supposedly very low in here. You get almost everything you find in a Metro or a Cosmo and, perhaps, people don't want more than that. There are the Rocky Mountains to the West of the town, and its a splendid view. Atleast, after being in a place like India all through my life, I need something that helps me relate to my home town. The mountains are one of the ways. Surprisingly, there are no birds to seen. One of the guys did tell me that since are no garbage around, there are no birds. I didn't know birds come only for garbage!! It would have been nice to see a few flying around.

People seem to follow traffic rules too sincerely. In India, if you dare to cross a road when the traffic's flowing across, you can just be sure that you would get hit. You won't be able to cross the road if you don't dare so! But here, every little vehicle (even the bicycles, or bikes) just love giving their way to pedestrians. I don't know if its the law or something, but its a nice gesture.

And then there are the apartments. I never knew that very little concrete goes into the construction of these American apartments. I can pin a hole at any place and I find it very useful. Back at home I would have to fight with the hammer and the nail if I have to simply hang a clock on the wall. I think I shall make good use of the walls. But I doubt how well these apartments sustain a big hailstorm or the like. Atleast I don't want to be blown away and thrown in some unknown place in an unknown country. Apart from all these, everything else is so beautiful. The rooms, the light, the courtyards - they are just fabulous. You even get hot boiling water out of the faute by just turning it the other way - WOW!!

The grocerry store. My goodness. Do you really need so much of variety? I was lucky to actually find a friend that helped me figure out what to buy and what not to. Milk - with fat, without fat, 1% fat, 2% fat - so much to go through just for milk. Can't I just ask a "doodhwala" to get it for me, along with the water he would mix in it. I was out to Wallmart and its a "BIG" place. You get everything in there. I specially look for those "Great Value" deals. Someone told me they are really a good deal. I am yet to gain experience with this grocerry shopping and I hope I shall soon. Otherwise, its just too easy to go crazy in there.

Last but not the least. You see a nice cute girl walking towards you. Don't be shy - just look into her eyes. The first smile will come from her side, the next from yours; the first "Hi" from her side, the next from yours. And by the time it gets over, she would have walked past you. But anyway, its good that you get to smile at beautiful ladies for no reason. You do that in India and probably you would be left with a "sandal" mark on your face. I welcome myself to the strange land.

Wednesday, August 04, 2004

A Wet Experience


Time was ticking without interruption and people inside the bus started getting tensed about it. It was already dark and we were not even half way through our journey. At this pace it would take the whole night before we drive into Nagaon. The passengers were very unfriendly to the driver and kept screaming at him for bringing them down to this plight. They wanted him to overtake the trucks (because they are supposed to be the ones who is responsible for this huge jam) and move ahead as much as possible. It was beyond my understanding to comprehend how the driver could have driven past all those huge trucks in the midst of such a mess. Neither can one dare to block the incoming traffic from the other side nor is it safe to do so. Truck drivers are very rough with the wheel and its always better to keep distance from them.

The passengers also came with a variety. There was me and my Moha, a small scale business person, a Bengali lady with her two sons and her brother-in-law, a tribal guy with his sister, an Assamese guy from the Army, and a few others who rather stayed silent. The business man travels all around the north-east (Imphal, Agartala, Dimapur...) and delivers his small scale products, mostly decorative items, by himself. He had been to his uncle's place at Nalbari district, another flood affected district. He bought some raw materials in Guwahati and had plans of going to Dimapur after a quick visit to his parents in Nagaon. The Bengali lady was one show piece! She was one of those mothers who wants to be kept notified what her son is doing. Her younger son liked moving around, talk to people enquiring about the situation and once in a while disappeared into the crowd. She would keep calling him in an irritating and deplorable tone until he appears in front of her and rebuke her for creating a scene. She used to ignore it and it repeated everytime he went out of the bus. They were on their way to Tezpur district and the lady was excessively concerned about getting a connecting bus from Nagaon at that hour of the night. The tribal siblings were concerned as well. They were expecting to reach Nagaon by early evening and then take a bus to Difu (takes around 12 hours from Nagaon). All in all, everybody's travel plans were shattered and that frustrated even the coldest of the guys.

The traffic was halted by the Army, a few kilometres inside the Morigaon district border. It was around eight O' clock. Supposedly there's a check post at the district border. The Morigaon district Industrial Development Board guest house was just across the road. One of the employees of the IDB had taken shelter in the guest house after his own house was rampaged by flood waters. There was a nice cemented lawn in front of the house and all of us went there to catch some fresh air. The employee's family offered us chairs and drinking water, and told us more about the flood affected people. After about an hour, a local guy came in, bringing news about verbal confrontations between local police officials, and that it was the main reason why the traffic was not moving ahead. That rang the bells and all of us decided to take a look into the matter. Other passengers from other buses joined us too. The place of confrontation was about a kilometre ahead.

Dinner time was in and no one of us had lunch. We all were hungry. I noticed a few "dhabas" on our way and perhaps everyone of us made it a point to have some food there on the way back. When we reached the place, there was no one but an Additional Sub-Inspector having a cup of tea. We enquired what was going on and he willingly elaborated the whole matter.

This place we were in marks the border of the Morigan-Nagaon districts. A day back, two loaded trucks were allowed passage late at night into Morigaon by the Nagoan Police. However, fearing possible outbreaks of violence at the relief camps, the Morigaon OC didn't allow the trucks to move ahead and returned them. Nagaon Police authorities took the matter to their ego and have since then been creating problems with the traffic coming from the other side. The two OC's from both the districts have been verbally assaulting each other for more than an hour now and have not been able to reach any conclusion. Thereby, the Morigaon OC decided to call the SP, asking for help. While the phone calls took place, many of the passengers grabbed whatever they could find at the nearby dhabas; I grabbed a fag. Our Bengali aunty called up her husband as well. Our OC was having a tough time connecting to the SP, and, for a moment, all of us thought that we would have to spend the night there inside the bus. Dejected, all us returned back to the guest house and resumed our gossips. We got to know that moving through relief camp areas in heavy vehicles, specially at night, is not liked by the flood victims. There are kids, cattle and property they fear of getting injured or destroyed. Many a times they resort to violence to stop it altogether. No one was bothered to hear that except for one - the lady!!

Another hour passed by. We saw the OC coming our way, and grabbed the chance to enquire if the matter was resolved. The OC was furious at the behavior of the other OC. He also said that he finally got in touch with the SP and have notified him of the situation. That was some good news after a long time. It soon followed with another when we saw the trucks far ahead turning their lights on and moving ahead. All of us quickly boarded our bus and prayed for no more of these jams. We badly wanted to be home now. A few kilometers ahead, we came across the last of the relief camps on our way. The local guys did shout at the vehicles, but fortunately, nothing happened. Soon, we were on free roads once again and the driver didn't wait a single second but accelerated us straight to Nagaon. Finally, at around half past eleven we were at the Nagaon bus stand.

There was no bus available to transport us further. The only option we had was to stay there at the station till morning. We found a place to sit, a place to have tea and a place to buy mosquito repellent coils. That was everything we needed for the night. The rest of the passengers talked the night out; I just strolled around, occasionally taking a fag, carefully hiding out of sight of the others. Buses from Guwahati kept pouring in the whole night.

The sun was out by half past four and we didn't wait any longer. We walked down to the place where local buses start their day and waited for the first of the ones to arrive. By 5 O' clock, we were once again on a bus. My eyes refused to stay open and I dozed off for more than an hour until Moha woke me up saying that we were home. I checked my watch and it was just about seven. Thus, we completed a four hour journey in 18 hours, and I was supposed to return back in a day!!

Tuesday, August 03, 2004

A Wet Experience

I am here at home trying to finish up with the last few social visits. The last one of the lot was to my "Maahi's" (Mom's sis) place. She has been married for more than ten years now and stays in a sub-urban village in Nagaon with her two sons. At this time of the year, most of Assam is submerged in water and travelling to Nagaon amidst this was an experience in itself.

I was still at my uncle's place when I received the call from my "Moha" (Mom's brother-in-law) that he would be going to Nagaon the next day and asked if I would like to tag along. My intentions about the visit were already decided and hence I promptly agreed. The next morning I hurried back to Guwahati in order to be in time before Moha departs. The bus service had been down for more than a week now on event of the prevailing flood. It was only from Saturday when heavy traffic was allowed on the route. The frequency of the buses was too low, but atleast there was some transportation available. It was around 1 O' clock on the hot Monday afternoon when we boarded the bus (a 709) to Nagaon. I took a seat in the last row, near a window.

Everything was fine and the bus was speeding at a regular pace. Somewhere before Jagiroad (a stopover place for tea-breaks) there was a short jam but it got cleared off pretty fast. However, without anyone's notice, the traffic was growing thick and slowing down. There was something going on ahead and we didn't know what! With the decelaration being steady, our bus was bound to come to a halt at some point. So, it did. I glanced out of the window and saw the chain of vehicles already parked in front of our bus. The halt was momentary and soon the entire traffic sluggishly marched ahead. I thought its just another small jam and would clear off in no time.

Very soon it became clear that it wasn't any ordinary traffic congestion. Vehicles coming from the other side repeatedly complained of the tough time they had in getting through this way far. By now, our bus had covered more than five kilometres at this pace, occasionally halting momentarily.

What caught the attention of every passenger in the bus wasn't the huge aggregation of vehicles, but something else that turned ghastlier with every inch of road we covered. For those of us who had been following the news broadcast about the flood situation in Assam were probably less terrified, otherwise no one could ever imagine how a flood affected region looks like. My experience on this started taking shape from this point onwards.

The road we were on was a straight march ahead. Our bus was somewhere in the middle of a huge string of transports; just for some idea, 'huge' is of the order of thousands here, about 7-8 thousand. Transportation been disrupted for the past eight days, thousands of loaded trucks had lined up one after the other and waited clearance from security officials to move further. Connecting bridges over many of the rivers were unable to sustain the heavy currents in the rivers, and finally gave up to destruction. The army had been deployed to monitor the flow of traffic in these areas. They had halted all heavy vehicles from proceeding any further, what little they were allowing was happening at a pedestrian's pace. Moreover, people were talking about the relief camps that has been set up on the road itself, thereby reducing the traffic to one way flow at a time. By the time I got to know all these, it was around half past three in the afternoon and I knew things have already started getting late. And this is just the beginning of the story.

So much said about what had been going on the roads, let me say a bit on why people were taking shelter on the roads.

When we first beaded into the traffic chain, the areas on either side of the road were occupied by thatched mud shelters, dampened yards and a somewhat shabby arrangement of trees and shrubs around them. Nothing was unusual about it because houses in an Assamese village are generally of that make. Besides, it has been raining for quite sometime now and was very likely that usual appearances are altered. The drainage that ran parallel to the roads was overflowing with water and hinted on what might have possibly happened there. Soon things unfolded on its own. The condition of the houses started getting worse, water crept into the yards and it wasn't long before I could see the water from the nearby drainage and that in the houses were on the same level. As we moved a little further, I could see the water level rise above knee-height, and houses were already abandoned to avoid mishappenings.

Our bus moved too slowly and had to halt occasionally. The passengers took this time to stretch their backs and tried gathering some information on the situation from the local people. Water from a nearby river gushed into the village after the barrier safeguarding it was destroyed under heavy rainfall and strong currents in the river. These people were on the roadside, so had time enough to take out their belongings (mostly rice bags) well before water rushed into their houses, otherwise everything happened in such a small span of time that the villages way inside suffered deadly consequences. Everything surrounding us started changing very fast and in no time we were standing on a road that felt no less than being on a "Ram Setu". Huge stretches of land on both sides of the road stay submerged and all my eyes could see everywhere was pale water. The telephone and electric wires were just inches above the water surface (imagine the amount of water that had collected). I could see a few boats skimming on the water. The stories we collected from the localites soon came up in vision when we saw signs of housing way far in the
apparently limitless enclosures of water. I don't expect people to reach safe grounds from such a place, specifically when it just took a couple of minutes to flood the entire region. The government statistics were visibly some kind of joke and didn't even come close to what has been going on over there. If the situation was so terrible after water started receding from the rivers, what might it had been like when the real flood was in?

The relief camps set up on the roads were another story of pain. When I say camp what comes to my mind are shelters made of canvas, stretched over supporting poles and fastened to the ground with ropes and pegs. For the people out there, it meant four poles and a tin roof; nothing more than that. Some of the victims arranged extra tins and clothes to cover the four sides of the temporary shelter and make it more like a place where human beings stay. Most of the space inside was occupied by rice bags, a bed loaded with clothes, and a small place to cook in one of the corners. The cattle stay tied outside and most of them suffered injuries. There was no drinking water available, sanitation was at its worst, and relief materials remained swallowed in political hypocrisy. Even if the water recedes completely in a day or two, the situation won't become any better. Major epidemics, snake bites, deficiency diseases - everything's in queue waiting to play their turn. Nothing just seems to be working right for those people.

to be continued...