Thursday, March 28, 2013

El Señor Balwinder Singh of Ciudad Mitad del Mundo (South America Omnibus 2)

In Ecuador we walk into an Indian Restaurant on the equator.
Pregnant lady brings us tea in 3 sparkling cups in an elegant way that we were not expecting. Tea is smelling cardamom. In short time the lady washed her face and applied light makeup and changed the clothes and now she looks an elegant white woman.

Volcano near Quito, Ecuador

We begin sipping tea in silence. Lady herself takes one cup and sits at the next table to us.
“I am Balveeeeeeeeeender Seeeng’s wife. ”
We sip tea silently.
Gradually all kids wearing clean clothes begin coming out from the curtain one by one and they sit on the chairs surrounding us. Both ladies also come out; both are now wearing newest clothes and light makeup. Now they all look graceful and pretty people.
All white colored (well, almost).
She introduces us with everyone in her family. Her 3 boys and 2 girls, her sister Catherine and her mother Adriana. She asks her if we brought any news from Balwinder Singh’s home, village or country.
“Dónde está Balwinder Singh?” I finally ask. [Where is Balwinder Singh?]
She tells that he has gone to Quito to purchase grocery and expected to be back anytime. We look at our watch and gesture to leave but she begins crying. She begs us not to leave before meeting Balveeeeeeeeeeeendr.
She asks us that what do we will eat and I lie that we are not hungry. But we are hungry.

Near Our hotel
Harsh leaves to go to toilet but she says that there is no water in the toilet and he comes back.
We promise that we are going for a walk in the town and will be back in an hour. She is suspicious that we may run away.

Near our Hotel
We leave the restaurant and as we are in the street she comes to us running that we left $100 on the table but the tea was on the house. We tell her to keep the money and she is very confused and taken aback and we leave her alone on the street.
We explore the small town of Nono and ask a small restaurant to make us something vegetarian. Streets of Nono remind us the streets of just any small South Indian town. After wandering around we return to Delhi restaurant at 2PM but Balwinder Singh is still not there so we walk more and revisit Equator monument and return at 4PM and Balwinder Singh is still not there.
This time we lie to his wife that will we wander more and return in another hour whereas we have no intention to return and she also feels it and is tearful.
We leave.

Quito, Ecuador, Old town near our hotel.
It is now 5PM and we walk towards town’s main street. Now streets are buzzing with the evening market. Each third house is selling some sort of food in their front. Mostly people are selling chicken or alpaca or pork or frogs grilled on the charcoal. Everyone has some different variety and marinating recipe. Whole atmosphere is full with the burning smell of various meats.
As we are about to turn in the main market, a man passes us. He is about 50, stooped up and looks older than 50. He is wearing an under-T-shirt (banian) at 9000 feet altitude. On his one shoulder is hanging the head part of the half cut pig, on his shoulder by a rope tied on both forelegs of slaughtered pig.

Quito Airport, Ecuador
On his neck are hanging, 4 skinned whole chickens tied with their feet, with their half slit necks in a way that two chickens are on his chest and two are on his back. His clothes are blood stained. This man had another sack full of grocery on the other shoulder. He passed us looking down and busy in his own day dreams and misery.
In South America, when animals are slaughtered, their blood is also harvested. Like milk, blood is sold separately and various dishes are made with blood. On the contrary to old English and Arabic traditions that blood was assumed to be a cause of all ailment and diseases so animal was killed in such a way to expel most of the blood by animal’s own dying spasms. On the chicken shops, we see many funnels. Butcher takes the chicken by legs and puts it in the funnel where neck is facing down in the tray. Poor curious bird, is being pressed from upward by his own body weight so he pulls out his neck outside. There a slit is made on his neck and one can see only his feet in spasm and most of blood is drained out in the tray that is connected to a container in the bottom. Same way they have devices to harvest the blood of almost all animals.

View from our Hotel Roof.
Well, this could be an ordinary scene on that street. Nothing special about it.
Harsh says, “He might be Balwinder Singh.”
Now this man’s features again flash in my mind, he seems Punjabi so I also agree.
We turn back and I shout, “Balwinder!”.
Man who is about 50 feet far from us but he stops.

Basilika in Quito, Ecuador
He does not turn back but is still looking at the ground and thinking.
We are looking at him about how he reacts, if he is Balwinder Singh or else.
Then Balwinder Singh resumes his walk. His restaurant is barely 200 yards away.
I shout again but in Punjabi, “Hey Balwinder, stop. ”
Balwinder stops and the sack on his shoulder fall down on the foot path. He makes no effort to lift it. He is only frozen there. He does not turn back.
We walk to him and look him in the eyes.
“So you are Balwinder Singh.”

Volcano towering Quito, Ecuador
“Yes. Who are you?”
He is expressionless, neither happy, nor sad and not surprised.
A completely beaten up man. No light of joy in his eyes.
To break the ice I offer him my hand whereas I don’t want to touch him because he is blood stained. Blood is dripping from the freshly slaughtered and severed pig as well chickens and a puddle is forming where we stand.
We walk away a bit to avoid my pants being strained with the blood and he notices it.
Since we are vegetarian, smell of pork is hitting our nose and biting our throats.
“Balwinder Singh! Why!” I say, “Mother India offers a lot more than this to anyone on this earth.”
“Who are you? Are you from my village? Do I know you?”, he shouts in Punjabi.
He is hysteric now.
He sees tears in my eyes and he calms down.
I don’t tell him that after visiting his restaurant and meeting with his family I feel I am a sort of his family.
His family has already adopted us as someone their relative from long ago and far away and we are very precious to them.
I heard his wife saying to his kids that these two men are their uncles, they are from their father’s village in his beloved country INDIA. These two men know their grandfather and grandmother whom they (children) have never seen and probably will never see.
I heard her shouting, “Hey escucha: Chacha, Muchacha, Muchacho – estos hombres son sus tíos.” [Hey listen: You Nanny, boy and girl - these men are your uncles.]

Old town Quito, Ecuador
27 Years of suffering.
Long Ago and Far Away.
To break the ice I offer him my hand whereas I don’t want to touch him because he is carrying a half cut pig and 4 chickens on his shoulder and he is blood stained.
He raises his hand but then pulls it back.
He says with indifference, “Are you sure to shake hands with me?”
“Well, actually no, but only after you wash up. ”
He does not invite us but I carry his sack full of grocery on my shoulder, it is heavy. We begin walking with him to his restaurant.
In his restaurant when his wife sees that we returned with him her face lights up.
She had already arranged warm water for him to take a bath in the kitchen that is also their bathroom.
He goes to have a bath. All three women set up a charcoal grill on the bricks in front of the restaurant like all others. Their specialty is Indian style Chicken and Pork kebobs. In minutes a shop is set up outside and that is their sole livelihood because hardly any tourists visits this poor restaurant.
Later on we sit with Balwinder Singh, we have another cup of tea and he tells us his whole story.
He was supposing to board with the first group of lucky people but agent stopped him because in short time he learned to speak Spanish. He became useful for the agent and then after he missed first group and no other group made it to USA.

Another volcano near Quito
27 years ago he was left stranded in Ecuador. He became a scavenger and homeless and then a day laborer. Then he found six Pakistani youths who were also stranded in Ecuador.
Together they stayed and made their meager living. Pakistanis were somehow lucky and they got Political Asylum because Pakistan provided them passport and make-believe documents. Pakistan is always keen to help its people to gain residency abroad. Government itself is always ready to commit any fraud to settle its people abroad.
India has reverse policies. Had India government cooperated with its own citizens to settle abroad, many miseries might have averted.
Even after marriage Balwinder Singh was unable to obtain any document because he had no identification. In those days India had no embassy or consulate in Ecuador (Now India has embassy in Bogota).

Pasochoa Volcano
India affairs in Ecuador were taken care by the embassy in Caracas, Venezuela. Balwinder Singh had no money and no documents to cross into Columbia and then to Venezuela to contact Indian Embassy there. Years after years went by.
Initially Balwinder Singh was in contact with his family in India but then he got married with this girl.
It is very easy to get married in South America. In India, boys are after girls because girls are in short supply but it is reverse in South America. Girls are after boys there. He didn’t tell this to his family in shame. Somehow they also came to know about it and severed all relations with him and considered him dead.
After marriage more miseries came in the poor country. Ecuador’s economy collapsed and life of its people became more miserable. Those Pakistani boys became legalized and then somehow they started a restaurant in Quito, Ecuador. The only Indo/Pakistani restaurant – it is still there “Chandni Restaurant” another ugly shack but good reviews about food. Balwinder Singh became Tandooria in that restaurant.
After marriage and several children somehow he obtained some Ecuador Work Permit and asylum papers. Those papers enabled him to visit Caracas in Venezuela. There he tried for Indian Passport. He made several visits to Venezuela and bribed several staffers of India Embassy and finally he obtained a Passport.

Chuquiragua or Flor de los Andes
It takes up to 5 days to get to Caracas from Quito by road. One day to the border of Columbia, another day to Cali and then another day to Bogota and . . . . and so on. . One has to cross the whole continent at its widest place.
Showing us his new passport he told, “I suffered immense harassment at Indian Embassy in Caracas, paid my life savings in bribes and after several years of delays, they gave me this passport.”
He said, “Nothing new. Good old India.”
His name on the passport is: El Señor Balwinder Singh
Citizen of India.
Readers may ask why Balwinder Singh suffered for all these years why he didn’t return to India.
When a person has no passport, embassies issues him/her a document called Losse-Passie. Two distinguished citizens of India origin must attest and affirm that the person is an Indian Citizen. That Losse-Passie is valid for travel to India.
If India Mission issues a Losse-Passie, this means that this person is only allowed to travel to India port of entry, and there authorities will investigate if he is in-deed Indian citizen then they will let him enter in India.

On the way to volcano.
But there were no two Indian citizens in Ecuador set aside two distinguished Indian Citizens.
Also there was/is no Indian Mission in Ecuador, Ecuador came under the jurisdiction of India embassy in Venezuela. Now India affairs in Ecuador are taken care by Bogota Embassy.
Balwinder Singh could not go to Valenzuela or Bogota or anywhere because he had no documents or identification.
Chicken came first or egg came first.
If any reader knows Balwinder Singh’s family, please inform them about this story. That’s what he wanted.
He told me his village’s name but unfortunately I forgot.
Balwinder Singh returned us those those $100 dollars.
I insisted and he persisted; his wife was looking at us with tears in her eyes. Money was very precious to them but he returned it. He was single minded about it.
I forced him to accept the money for the tea but he refused to accept even that money.
Ecuador opened its embassy in New Delhi in 2005.
Heavyhearted we leave our beloved Balwinder Singh. It is 9 PM.

Near Quito
We walk out of the Delhi Restaurant in Ciudad Mitad del Mundo (Middle of the World City).
At 9500 feet height, at the Equator, in Ecuador – it is now freezing cold at night. We walk to the fountain pool in front of central plaza Cathedral there we dunk our faces several times in the near freezing water, trying to wash off the contiguous misery and pork smell.
We catch a bus to Quito.
We arrive there at 10PM and enter in a bar and had several beers.
We buy salads and breads from a supermarket that was about to close and come to our room.
Next morning.
We hire a SUV and leave Quito at 8 am to Lloa, a small agricultural village South West of the city.

Chuquiragua or Flor de los Andes
On the way there we have already great views to the snow-covered volcanoes Cotopaxi, Antisana and Cayambe, which are located opposite in the Eastern Cordillera.
Reaching Lloa our taxi start driving up on a secondary dirt road to the refuge which is located at 4600m. First the road leads through agricultural land which at around 4000m turn into paramo (alpine tundra).
At 10 am. We hike then up the 100 m to the crater rim, from where we have a good view into the volcano. The crater lies 500m deep and has a diameter of 1 km. On the bottom huge lava domes are forming and fumes escape through vents, their size depending on the current volcanic activity. We keep watching the scenes of eruption. Many colors of clouds with varying intensity of colors and thickness at all the times.

Volcano crator
At noon, after that spectacle we head back to the small cafe in the village and we begin then our downhill hike through the tundra. On this 1 hour descent we see many wild flowers and high alpine shrubs and bushes like the famous Chuquiragua or Flor de los Andes. After reaching the jeep we head back to Quito with some stops along the way to witness some more of the rich flora, the area offers

Woolly donkey of Ecuador
On the way we stop at Panecillo, the hill in the middle of the capital, from where one can see the city stretching along the valley.
To be continued.

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