Bob on Holiday

Just in case you were wondering where he was, Bob has been on holiday. He’s back now, though.

And actually, he’s rather cross.

Now, lot’s of people return from holiday having had a wonderful time and feeling a bit tetchy that they have to come back to the daily grind, but it’s not like that.

No, Bob thinks we’ve all been lied to.

He went away to a holiday enclave in a West African country – or so he says. Bob’s sense of geography being what it is, I wouldn’t be too certain of the destination without checking his passport stamps first. And I wouldn’t do that. So I’ll take his word for it for now.

‘Now, I’m no fool,’ he said, looking at me.

‘No, of course not, Bob,’ I replied. ‘Absolutely not. Anything but. In fact, anyone who says…’ My words died away as I heard Bob’s wife, Gina, laughing somewhere behind me. ‘Go on,’ I ended, lamely.

‘Well, we read all the time that this is one of the poorest countries in the world,’ he continued, ‘yet I’ve never been to a nicer place! The hotel was really luxurious! Food was brilliant. All the staff were wonderful – they were smartly dressed and they couldn’t do enough for you! There were masses of security men all around the perimeter, mind you, but I don’t know what they were there for. And the beach was fantastic!’

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‘Was it just you on the beach?’

‘No, there were dozens of us.’

‘Any local people?’

‘No, they don’t go there, apparently. They don’t like sitting around on the beach like we do.

‘Did you go outside the hotel grounds at all, Bob?’

‘Yeah, we went to a village to see local artists at work. I loved the village. It’s such a minimalist lifestyle. They don’t waste time or money on all those pointless things that we think are so essential in the west.’

‘Like what?’

‘All that rubbish we don’t need!’ he said, heatedly. ‘They live a simple, healthy, lifestyle, and what matters to them are the things that are really important.’

‘Like what?’ I repeated.

‘Well, simple food, for example. It’s much healthier, you know. You don’t come across any of the locals there who are overweight.’

‘What is this diet, then? Do you know?’

‘Well, mostly they make a sort of porridge out of some local grain, apparently.’

‘Is that it?’

‘Oh, no. Of course not! They usually have it with, er beans. And onions.’

‘It doesn’t sound very exciting.’

‘Food doesn’t need to be exciting! It’s there to keep you alive!

It was a side of Bob I’d never seen before, and, to be honest, it was a bit scary. I never realised he could be so evangelical. At least, not about things like that. I’m used to him banging on about how wonderful a new beer is that he has discovered, or about his favourite pizza topping (which I’m not going to talk about here, but…pineapple on pizza…how could you?), but now he had all the fervour of a fresh convert to some extreme religion.

‘And then there are the houses they live in,’ he continued.

‘The houses?’

‘Yes. Gloriously simple and uncomplicated!’

‘As in small and built of odd pieces of driftwood and plastic sheeting?’

‘Exactly!’ He smiled warmly. ‘I love the way they make use of what’s locally available to build with. It keeps the costs down, and reduces the environmental impact of transporting thinks like bricks from far away. Simple.’

‘But would you want to live in one of those?’

‘I wouldn’t mind. I mean, what else do you need? Just some sort of bed in there and, oh, a table, I suppose. And a couple of chairs.’

‘But you just told me how luxurious the hotel was, and how much you enjoyed it.’

‘Well, I wasn’t going to turn it down, was I? But apparently it’s because us Westerners are all just so soft and pampered. The native people don’t live like that at all.’

‘So you say. Does this mean you’re going to change how you live, then, Bob?’

‘Well, I don’t think it’s particularly practical in the West.

‘I suppose not. Tell me about the artists you went to visit, then.’

‘Ah, yes. Mainly carvers. Lovely wood; mainly animals and masks. I bought a couple. Look, that’s one of them.’ He pointed to a beautifully carved and polished elephant in black wood, standing on the mantelpiece. ‘It cost the equivalent of about two pounds in our money.’

‘That seems very cheap.’

‘I know, but it’s a lot to them. And it’s putting money into the local economy.’

‘Who did you give the money to? The chap who carved it?’

‘No, there was a bloke who showed us round. Nice guy in a suit. Looked very smart. We paid him.’

‘I don’t suppose the carver was in a suit.’

‘Of course not! You wouldn’t wear one of those while you were working, would you?’

‘Describe him, then.’

‘Well, he was wearing a pair of shorts.’

‘What else?’

‘Nothing else. That was it. they could have done with a wash, though, I must admit.’ He put his head to one side and stared into the distance. ‘And a bit of sewing.’ He rubbed his chin thoughtfully. ‘Really, he could have done with a new pair of shorts. They were pretty ghastly.’

‘Maybe the nice man in the suit will buy him a pair.’ Bob smiled happily.

‘I’m sure he will!’

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Indian Salt Miners

salt-workers

Salt workers pose for a photograph at the salt pans near Marakkanam, just north of Pondicherry (now renamed Puducherry, its original name before the French arrived, although everybody continues to refer to it as Pondicherry, or just ‘Pondi’). The sea is allowed to flow into ‘pans’ (not unlike paddy fields) and then it evaporates over several days under the hot sun, leaving behind a layer of salt which is gathered by hand. Salt has been gathered this way in India since time immemorial.

Even when I took this photograph in 2006, on my first visit to South India, it struck me as a harsh environment in which to have to earn a living. Since then, I have learned more.

Salt is, and always has been, an essential commodity, especially for a population living in hot conditions, but when the British in India imposed a salt tax, this eventually led to the ‘Salt March’ led by Gandhi to Dandi, on the Gujarat coast, where he symbolically gathered salt at the coast after a 200km march, an action that contributed to the loosening of the hold that the British Raj held on India.

In Gujarat alone, approximately 112,000 labourers are employed in the industry (Gujarat State Law Commission figures).

In all, there are approximately 1,000,000 people employed across a total of nine states harvesting salt. Typically, women and girls make up most of the workforce.

But the conditions that the salt miners labour under today are little better than they were then.

They suffer eye problems and blindness from constant exposure to the sun reflected off of the brilliant white of the salt pans. Skin lesions from the salt are common. After a while, feet become septic and absorb salt; so much so, that according to some accounts even after death the salt content in their limbs are so high that hands and feet are difficult to burn during cremation (Daily Telegraph 24/2/10).

In addition, the labourers suffer from many of the other problems common across the labour force, such as exploitation by contractors and money lenders, and poor educational opportunities for their children. There is often inadequate housing, drinking water and food, and an absence of primary healthcare (Indian Express 26/4/16).

It is frequently said that saltpan workers have three ways to die: first gangrene, second TB (tuberculosis) or third blindness.

Their life expectancy is 50 – 60 years.

The hardships and problems they face are slowly being brought to the public’s attention, but clearly there is still a very long way to go before they enjoy what most would regard as decent working conditions.