About the Author

John Stackhouse

Books by this Author
Mass Disruption

Mass Disruption

Thirty Years on the Front Lines of a Media Revolution
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Out of Poverty

Out of Poverty

And Into Something More Comfortable
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Excerpt

From Chapter 1

No one along the highway could tell us where Biharipur was, not the paan shop men or the bidi wallahs or the horse-cart drivers. We tried the hospital, the police stand, the local pharmacy. “Biharipur?” Each person looked equally confused, as if the village of seven hundred people had vanished from the earth. And maybe it had.

My Indian colleague Rama and I looked at each. Neither of us had a suggestion. We had travelled more than three hundred kilometres southeast from New Delhi to find a little hamlet called Biharipur that had been recommended to us by a social activist, Suman Sahai, as a quintessential north Indian village. Suman had been there once and was struck by the poverty and its permanence.

I had been living in India less than a year and hardly knew my way around New Delhi, let alone the countryside. Rama, who worked as a researcher-reporter for The Washington Post, wasn’t much help with directions either. An ethnic Tamil, Brahmin and graduate in English literature from Delhi University, she was as out of place here as I was. She was also drugged silly to prevent car sickness. But Rama did have a passion for the poor and an uncanny ear for the dialects of north India, where Hindi is more a framework than a language. She finally thought to rephrase the question, asking a chai wallah, “What about Rajinder Singh Yadav? He is a lambardar.”

“Ohhhh. He is a lambardar, is he?” the chai wallah replied. The tea-seller’s sarcasm suggested he doubted that such an important man could be found in such an obscure place. No one knew Biharipur. The lambardar, the chief, that was something else.

Out on the Gangetic plains, where three hundred million people base their existence on fertile soils, abundant rains and ancient traditions, a lambardar is king of the locality and master of all he surveys. He is a man of prestige and influence. Little happens without his approval. Nothing proceeds unless he benefits. And his name is known at tea shops.

I knew nothing of this tradition, or that it determined the success of all development efforts in northern India, as social customs and political behaviours do just about everywhere. All I knew was that Rajinder Singh Yadav was a farmer whose approval we needed in order to stay in his village.

“You go straight,” the chai wallah said. “At the culvert, there is a big tree. You turn left.”

We left the chai wallah to his vat of buffalo’s milk boiling on a clay stove, over some sticks and straw, a scene so rustic it was hard to believe this was the beginning of the nineties, a decade that would create more wealth than any other in history. Bill Clinton was in the White House, Boris Yeltsin was almost in the Kremlin, North America’s tough recession was over and a new decade of liberal reforms, of free markets and free speech, was underway in dozens of developing countries. The World Bank and imf promises in Bangkok were starting to pay off, it seemed, despite those nasty riots. For most of the world’s poor, this was at last a time when the rise of individual rights and opportunities would overcome the ages of dictatorship, monopolies and state control, a season of victories for students, entrepreneurs and subsistence farmers who for generations were the serfs of the developing world. Biharipur, I hoped, would be one of the new liberation zones.

But Suman Sahai was more ambivalent about the village’s prospects. “Biharipur is five kilometres from Tilhar town,” she had told us before we set off. “Five kilometres is not such a distance. One would think that if the nucleus is strong and developed, the benefits would filter down to the peripheral villages. But that has not happened there. Biharipur is isolated and untouched.” She spoke with the remorse of her heritage. Suman’s ancestors included the royal princes who once ruled the countryside around Tilhar. They were gone, but a new class of lambardars had taken their place–and so little else had changed.

We found the big tree described by the chai wallah, and turned on to a narrow tarred road, which followed a lazy path of broad curves, unannounced bumps, potholes filled with broken bricks and sudden turns around barren rice paddies that were so whimsical they seemed to be the design of a mad engineer, or a contractor trying to unload a lot of asphalt. We passed a fishing pond, a small hamlet of mud huts and more rice fields, and soon the national highway was well behind us. Still no one had heard of Biharipur, but more and more people knew of Rajinder Singh Yadav. “Over the railway tracks, and straight,” a young man on a bicycle told us. “You follow a dirt track to another dirt track and turn left at the next dirt track. He is living there.”

Sleepy, the driver who came with our rental car, balked. He had barely said two words since we’d left New Delhi the previous day, covering one of the world’s most dangerous highways with little comment and his eyes half-shut. But now Sleepy looked ready to argue. It was not so much the railway tracks that threatened the undercarriage of his low-riding V-8 Contessa Classic, the car favoured by north Indian gangsters, but the road beyond the tracks, which looked as if it had been bombed recently by the Pakistani air force. Sleepy told us to walk.

With our backpacks, water bottles and Suman’s letter of introduction, Rama and I set off by foot, down the bumpy dirt road, on to a narrow footpath and across the glorious golden wheat fields of a north Indian winter. It was still early. The mist had not yet risen from the small forests, while a thick dew covered the wheat. As we walked, a gentle winter breeze rustled through the fields, shaking the young wheat stalks as though it was shuffling paper. Hawks soared high above us, looking for snakes and field mice. In the distance, on a small hillock where someone had built a little one-room temple, kingfishers darted from tree to tree. We were in the heart of civilization, and there was not a person in sight or a human sound in the air.

We continued along the narrow embankment, trying to spot Biharipur on the horizon, but I was too concerned with staying on the footpath, away from the snake-infested fields, to keep an eye out for anything. I probably would have missed the boy across the field had he not yelled to us. He called again and ran along the embankment, barefoot, as nimble as a squirrel on a tree branch. The boy wanted to know where we were going, but Rama, the cautious one, wanted to know first who he was.

“Dhanvir,” the boy said. “A Dalit. From the next village.”

The Dalits are the people once known as “untouchables” in the pernicious Hindu caste hierarchy. Dhanvir said he was in the fields watching water pumps for the higher-caste landlords. Rather than getting an education, he spent his time watching water gush from the ground through a machine of nineteenth-century design. Rama asked Dhanvir if he knew the way to Biharipur, which he did. It was his village. Rajinder probably was his landlord, I thought. The boy pointed across the fields to a clump of mango trees, and beyond it, beneath the mist that was melting in the winter sun, to something resembling a medieval compound, a cluster of mud buildings packed tightly together.

We thanked Dhanvir and continued to walk to the village, which seemed more like an outgrowth of the mango grove than a planned settlement. There were no signposts, electrical wires, telephone poles, sewers, ditches or pavement to interrupt the natural landscape. At first glance, the only evidence of modern development was a cement culvert that connected the rice fields with a buffalo pond.

A few boys, enjoying the graceful recess between planting and harvest, splashed about in the pond with their water buffalo submerged to their snouts. On the other side of the culvert, a small boy squatted to shit in the same place where many others had apparently done the same recently. Above him, on the culvert wall, two men basked in the morning sun and smoked bidis, oblivious to all around them, until they noticed Rama and stared curiously at this Indian woman in a baseball cap, jeans and short-sleeved shirt.

“What is your caste?” one of them asked.

It was an odd greeting, but one I learned was the basis for most introductions in northern India. Other castes were to be distrusted. Lower castes were to be shunned. But Rama was a Brahmin. More than that, she was a Brahmin from New Delhi, the capital of all India. The men, who were probably no more than halfway up the caste ladder and had never been to the capital, nodded respectfully.

When they turned to me, I said I had no caste because I came from a country called Canada. They looked perplexed.

“How far is it to Canada?” one man asked.

I said it was on the other side of the world, next to America.

“Is that beyond Bombay?”

Well beyond Bombay, I said. Maybe a month by ship.

They stared at me blankly, and I realized we were no longer in the global village.

“Did the British rule you?” the other man asked.

When I said yes, both men smiled. A common heritage. We were almost brothers. But when we asked for directions to Rajinder’s house, saying we were friends of the lambardar’s friends, the men looked at us again with suspicion. Not only were we from different castes, we had just declared our loyalties.

One of the men pointed to a mud lane that led into Biharipur. He told us to follow it, and turn at the second left. Though we thanked them, there were no more smiles.

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Timbit Nation

Timbit Nation

A Hitchhiker's View of Canada
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Excerpt

Introduction

I decided to hitchhike across Canada when my editor at the Globe and Mail asked what would be the best way to see the country. I had just returned from nearly eight years of living overseas, in New Delhi, as a correspondent for the newspaper, and he figured I might see my own country differently. “See Canada as a foreigner sees it,” he suggested. He had imagined me taking the train, not realizing that VIA Rail had been relegated to the back roads of travel. I didn’t buy into the train myth anyway. Like every good Canadian high school student in the 1970s, I had read The Last Spike, memorized arcane details about John A. Macdonald’s national dream and concluded it was very nineteenth century. I didn’t know anyone who took the train anywhere. My Canada lived on the highway, and by the highway.

Long before The Last Spike was published, one of my favourite storybooks was about a family’s driving trip along the Trans-Canada Highway, from sea to sea. The route had just been completed, in the early sixties, and the images of a diverse land, from rocky shores to barren prairie, mountains and crowded cities, all linked by one highway, were awesome to a young imagination.
I could not have realized it at the time, but this one road was quietly uniting the country in ways the railway never did. In the emerging era of the middle class -- the motoring class -- the Trans-Canada enabled ordinary Canadians to see Canada. Like most families of my generation, before the dawn of discount airlines, vacations took us along parts of the great highway in Ontario, Quebec and the Maritimes. When I was old enough to travel alone but too young to afford a car, I began hitchhiking on the same road. My student poverty aside, hitchhiking in the 1980s seemed innately Canadian.

There was no better way to see a country and meet its people than to beg for rides along the way, to have long conversations (sometimes very long) with strangers, to test public generosity, to overcome fears, within oneself and in others, and to see the road, and feel it. Standing on a remote rural road, you could see the vastness of what it was attempting to connect. On a suburban on-ramp, you could feel the pulse of a society as it rushed from office to mall to home. And climbing into the cars of that society -- at the invitation of a stranger who had everything to lose, as did you -- you could sense the openness of a nation, along with its fears and prejudices. In short, you could stand on the roadside and put an entire nation on the couch. Over the years, I came to see hitchhiking as the most genuine form of travel. Through it, I was forced to meet new people and new ideas. It was wildly unpredictable, maddeningly erratic, hilariously entertaining and slightly dangerous -- all in all, what a great journey should be.

The Canadian road only added to the allure. The long, lonely stretches of Prairie highway. The womb of a wooded back road in Ontario. The coastal routes of Nova Scotia that hug the shore so closely they blend with the surf.

With exceptions like Ontario’s 400 series of highways, the Trans-Canada and its tributaries seem designed not to remove travellers from their country so much as to make them part of it. In the United States, by contrast, there are so many highways they intersect and overlap with such fury that nothing seems to stand between A and B except four lanes. In Europe, the M’s of England and autobahns of Germany are more efficient still, like those old vacuum chutes in offices that take a tube from one floor to another with utter disregard for everything in between.

But for all the marvels of our roads, never had I attempted the width of the country, a course that meanders nine thousand kilometres, which was what my editor, after hearing my description of the road, wanted me to do. It would be like circling France three times. It would also be more dangerous and considerably more difficult than when I had last hitchhiked, in the mid-eighties. Hitching was once a Canadian rite of passage, like renting vacation property in the American South. Now I feared it had become a national scourge. So reluctant were people to pick up strangers that I had some doubts anyone would be able to complete the journey. I feared that Canadians, like the Americans I had met hitching from Vancouver to San Francisco in 1986, had become too distrusting of strangers, too paranoid of random crime, too, well, American in our fears. But that was the point of the journey, to pry into the Canadian psyche.

I agreed with my editor to set off in the summer of 2000, when Canada would be in bloom and Canadians eager to talk about their new century.

———

Hitchhiking as a reporter, there would be benefits I had not enjoyed as a student. A company credit card, for instance. And the security blanket of being able to tell strangers I was with a nationally known organization.

There were also the exceeding ambitions of a newspaper deadline. I was given one month to cross the country, which pretty much ruled out the Far North. I would also have to write a daily diary for the paper, which meant carrying a laptop computer and stopping at a motel or bed and breakfast every night to write, rewrite and transmit my copy.

Appearance was another factor. The ruffled reporter look had to go. I got a haircut and packed two changes of perma-press clothes that would both allow me to travel with one small backpack and look clean-cut every day. With a small laptop, a sleeping bag, the Lonely Planet guide to Canada and a few blank notebooks, there wasn’t room for more.

Before setting out, though, my biggest concern was a route. Most people who travel across the country by road begin their journey at either end of the impressively long Trans-Canada. If they start in the east, choosing to follow the sun and Canada’s modern history, their trip invariably is launched in St. John’s, Newfoundland, on the farthest reach of the Avalon Peninsula. In the summer, you can see tourists and travellers there every morning, snapping a commemorative picture by their recreation vehicle or symbolically dipping a bicycle wheel in the Atlantic. At the other end of Canada, in Tofino, across six time zones and a stretch of nationhood surpassed only by Russia, the same models of RVs and bicycles can be seen on the Pacific coast.

Rather than at a highway’s terminus, I wanted to begin my cross-Canada odyssey where my family had landed in what would become this country. More than two centuries ago, in 1783, Joseph and Robert Stackhouse arrived at the mouth of the Saint John River, aboard one of the first refugee boats to reach the continent’s northeast coast. The brothers had come from America where their regiment, the 1st New Jersey Volunteers, had been routed in the war of independence. Their family farm in New Jersey had been lost to rebel forces. They had nothing else to lose by venturing to New Brunswick, except maybe their lives. In revolutionary New York, even those weren’t safe.

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