Thursday, April 30, 2009

Flowers and farewells

All through airport security, I juggled my bags, my passport, boarding tickets, and a crumpled paper flower. Its orange crepe paper petals were jostled in my backpack but I couldn’t let them tear. The dark wire that held them together bent as my bags were tossed about by careless airline employees who just wanted to get some sleep before the sun came up. After three hours of security checks and crowded gates, I boarded the plane that would carry me away from this unforgettable chapter in my life. As the stewardess held up the sample life jacket and began her routine safety speech, I gently twirled my orange paper flower.

Today was my last day. As I walked up to the school, Shivam appears from out of nowhere. He hasn’t been coming the past week or so except to say hi so I was surprised he was here. Immediately he and Rajn greet me and ask, “Didi, last day?” Yes I answer. “Ok, come.” They lead me into the small dark classroom and Shivam pulls his drawing folder out of his backpack. All the kids gather round as we flip through his tracings of Disney movie characters. I mention something about Good Friday and Shivam looks up, interested. “Christian Holy Day?” Again, I answer yes. He pulls out a blank page and begins to draw. Slowly the figure on paper becomes recognizable: Santa Claus. When I ask, he eagerly replies “yes, Santa- your god!” Somehow I’m not at all surprised by the effects of commercial Christmas and capitalism, though I had to laugh. 

Soon I realize I haven’t given the teachers the photo album I made for them yet so I walk over to the head teacher and hand it to her, hoping she won’t steal it and hide it away somewhere. Luckily she hands it back to me, giving me the opportunity to show the kids and other teachers their photos. Soon class begins and the kids all settle down to write their numbers. Afshar asked me for his pen. He had entrusted it to me for safe keeping the day before while the school was under siege from a troop of baboons. Not surprisingly, my Hindi vocabulary had no way sufficient way of explaining that in the midst of the baboon attack, I had lost his one and only pen. All I could do was offer him my favorite pen from home. Afshar scribbled something and Shivam joked that it looked like Urdu (the language spoken in Pakistan). Afshar then writes out something in Urdu at the kids’ request. I asked him to write my name and he did. Then Dinesh must have made some comment about Pakistan because Afshar reached for his throat and looked furious. The other kids called Sir-ji who started yelling at Dinesh. I didn’t know what he said but he was definitely defending Afshar and made gestures of a group inspiring unity, not prejudice. Dinesh was told to sit in a corner after that.

With Sir-ji nearby, the kids were pretty calm. We talked and played the paper game and drew helicopters, airplanes, and crocodiles. At 11:50 I asked if the kids would write me letters when I was back in the States. I gave them my address and phone number but I don’t know if they will ever contact me. Rishi gave me his phone number. When the car arrived, I went to say goodbye to the teachers. I signed the visitor’s log and as I stood up to go, Afshar and the other teachers appeared holding an orange paper flower. I felt like crying, all I could do was smile and say thank you. Driving back to Hauz Khas, I held back tears with a smile. Though I was looking out the window watching Delhi pass by, I saw nothing yet felt everything.

Suddenly I can’t remember what it’s like to be home, to drive down wide empty paved streets passing manicured lawns. I’ll miss the motorbikes, the rickshaws, the honking, the diseased cows, the dusty signs stacked on top of each other. I’ll miss the food that I never thought I’d like. Malai Kofta, Aloo Gohbi, Paneer Tikka, Tandoori, Fried toast in sugar syrup. I’ll miss the Nokia ringtone that is everywhere. I’ll miss the people and the life. I’ll miss India. But only for a while… I know I’ll come back to this chaotic, colorful, complex, and incredible place soon.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Jungle Book

As the sun rises over the white stones along the river, children in brightly tattered t-shirts scamper into the water, laughing as their shadows land on paw prints in the sand. From underneath the thick layer of green scrub, lazy eyes watch the village. A flash of reddish orange and the eyes are gone, deep into the jungle to wait for dusk when sambar deer venture towards the water. I watched the sun climb high over the Himalayan foothills, waved at the children, and wondered if those eyes were watching me.
An old faded green book leans precariously on my bookshelf at home. Set apart from the other books, its plain cover bears no words, simply an outline- sher kahn, king of the tigers. The spine reads Man Eaters of Kumaon. Written in the early nineteen hundreds by British officer Jim Corbett, the pages are filled with nonfiction accounts of Corbett’s efforts to protect local Indian villages from renegade tigers with a taste for man. Today, that same region is known as Corbett National Park and Tiger Reserve. This is where I spent my weekend.
Now before I go into too much detail, I’ve decided that some stories are better told in person and some are better left to the imagination. Corbett is a little bit of both. I will say that Shanta and I embarked on this adventure without any plans or reservations outside of the train ticket (and yes it was another overnight train). It was also the first occasion the two of us have traveled outside of Delhi alone. Both factors proved significant to the outcome of our weekend, though I won’t say how. Just to get your imagination going, did we find a place to stay? Cross a jungle in a rickshaw? Go on a safari? See a tiger? Wild elephants? Snowcapped Himalayas? That you’ll just have to ask. While you’re at it, ask about Goa (the weekend before last)- where hippies and malaria are well and thriving, where hut-hotels line the beaches, and where gender defines your experience. For now, I intend to leave you wondering.
I have two weeks left and so many more stories to gather. Eventually I’ll go to the Taj Mahal, buy a second scarf (three months and only one scarf is just sad), start my schoolwork (maybe), attempt to get a video of the NBCC kids dancing, and say goodbye to the people and places I’ve come to know as home over the past few months. As with every aspect of India, contradictions and complexity will prevail. A myriad of thoughts and emotions accompany the close of this crazy adventure and I’m certain I’ll never really sort them out.
I came here hoping to give something to the people- my culture, my time, myself. But instead India has given me so much more than I could ever imagine: blue bangles given to me by a young Afghan girl, new songs stuck in my head (and by songs I really mean mumbled words that sound something like the Hindi lyrics), quotes I will never forget, and a new perspective of my own country and of myself. Two weeks from now, I’ll be sitting on a plane listening to my ipod and wondering what comes next. Ask me, and I'll tell you.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Three person, one person, WHY???

After three consecutive weeks in Delhi, it was about time for a weekend adventure. Seven PM Friday night, Shanta, Sarah, and I boarded our first overnight train from Delhi to Udaipur. We had reserved seats in general admission 3-tier sleeper and like the AC-chair car, the name was a perfect description. Wall-like barriers created sections along the car, all open to a long corridor down the middle. Three levels of berths clung to the sides of each section with a total of nine beds in a nook. We settled down on one of the plastic hospital-blue mattresses and got ready for the twelve hour ride ahead of us. Men poured into the train car and made themselves at home on the other berths. They ate, belched, rubbed their feet, and answered cell phones.  After a few hours, it was time for bed. Shanta and I climbed to our upper beds, cradled against the ceiling with steel to prevent us from rolling off. I slept with my backpack under my head but felt safe.
I opened my eyes as we pulled into the station Saturday morning. The train was mostly empty by now as Udaipur was the last stop on the line. We gathered our things and stepped out of the station into the fleet of eager rickshaw drivers. Picking one at random, we made our way to the hotel. Set back from the street by a circular brick driveway, the hotel looked like one big ornate mosaic doorway. Though hidden from view, it stretched white stone balconies and windows in every direction surrounded by a tiny but beautiful garden. The rooftop opened to an outdoor restaurant and glass-like swimming pool edged with elegant window ledges and pillows. Waiters eyed European tourists ready to provide every whim. Pigeons perched on the white stone lattice that topped the walls. Sarah, Shanta and I sprawled out on the pillows in one of the windows. I dozed off.
I woke up to the sun warming my shoulders and neck. I turned my head to look out of my little glass alcove framed by painted stone and watched a hawk circle lazily above the lake below. The lake was low and green moss and dirt formed a maze-like path above the water to the Lake Palace. In the distance a saffron flag blew in the breeze, silently marking the Sikh temple below. White stone temples rested on distant mountaintops giving the illusion of snow. The City Palace clung to a nearby hillside.
I can see how tourists come to India and never leave their hotels. Forty dollars a night can buy a romantic version of this third world democracy. From high on our rooftop haven, the jumble of angular brick buildings seemed so far below. For the first time on this trip, poverty abided by the notion “out of sight, out of mind.” 
After hours of laziness, we left the hotel and entered the streets. Udaipur felt like a small town despite its actual size. Vendors made easy conversation and remembered us as we wandered to and fro, smiling each time we passed. Everyone seemed to know at least some English because of the tourism. Everywhere we looked, we found backpackers and hippies and yoga-lovers. Some vendors would try to guess our nationalities as we passed; “Brazil, Germany, and Australia!” We’d call back, “Wrong, it’s US and London!” It only took one day in Udaipur to have friends all over town.
The weekend slipped away far too quickly. Before we knew it, we were back in a rickshaw heading for the train station. This time, however, uncertainty kept us wide awake. When booking the return train, we had discovered that 3-tier sleeper was full. We had taken a gamble and booked three waitlisted first class tickets. Turns out we risked too much as only one of the three of us was allotted a seat on the train. On our way to the station, a bird pooped on me. Everyone assured me that was great luck though I felt having bird poop on the pants I’d be wearing for the next 24 hours was hardly providential. Still unsure of what to do about the train, we asked a snaky little man at the station who to talk to about the dilemma.  He assured us (in broken English) that we were confused and all three of our seats were confirmed. He even showed us a list with all of our names printed on it and then attempted to sell us magazines. Taking his word, we all boarded the train and settled into a private cabin in first class. Again, forty dollars goes a long way in India. This time it bought us privacy… or so we thought. The car lurches and the station rolls away, concrete scenery giving way to trees and crossroads. A small man with round glasses checked our ticket and looked up sternly. “Only one berth. Two are waitlisted. Three more people come at 11:40pm.” Well dang. We exchange looks that somehow simultaneously express disappointment, frustration towards the snaky little magazine man, exhaustion, insanity, and humor but definitely not shock.
The ticket man leaves us pondering over the next five hours what exactly will happen when 11:40 rolls around and three more people join our cabin. Should they decide there are too many of us, two of us are doomed to sit in the corridor of the train for the whole night. Being a stow-away on an Indian train is mentally taxing so we eventually decide to nap in shifts. Every so often a random train attendant would pop his head in and say, “Three person! One person! WHY???” We would sleepily nod and mumble yes. “Three person, one person, why?” Yes, why was quite the question. Why were we confined to one bed? Because of waitlists. Why were we stow-aways? Because of a snaky little magazine man. Why weren’t we shocked? Because it’s India. Three person. One person. That’s why.
At 11:30pm, Sarah, Shanta, and I squeeze into our single bed just to test it out. By 11:40pm we’re all three anxiously sitting (to use Sarah’s term “like little gnomes”) on our bed eyeing the doorway awaiting our fate. The train stops and people bustle into the hallway. A well dressed woman enters the cabin holding a toddler, followed by her young daughter. Sarah begins to apologize for the crowd and explain our situation in hopes of striking a good chord with the decider of our fate. “Well that’s inconvenient for you” came the reply. Well dang. Another young girl (not related to the mother and daughter) timidly enters the cabin escorted by her father. The two young girls begin talking and before we knew it they had offered to share a bed, giving us a second berth.  I guess bird poop isn’t that unfortunate after all.
Many somewhat sleepless hours later, we finally arrive back in Delhi on Monday morning with a couple hours to spare before work. For the past two weeks I’ve been working at a different cite with Mobile Creche. I had intended to switch to Mother Theresa’s but after a week at NBCC (the new site) I had fallen in love with the kids. I work with the older kids who’ve formed a rag-tag little gang. Meet the cast:
Shivam- 13 years old and small for his age, the ringleader, speaks the most English (which is very little)
Manoj- second in command, no English whatsoever, makes fun of me in Hindi all the time, trouble maker and a bit of a bully
Afsar- loves to dance, keeper of pens and other treasures, he tells me stories in Hindi
Rishi- sweetest boy in the world, his eyes light up when he learns something new, wears a tattered Brownies Girl Scout sweatshirt everyday
Ravi- somehow related to Shivam, wears a cross necklace, he doesn’t know English but always smiles and jokes with me
Sudita- Ravi or Shivam’s sister, stares at me and writes her name on my hand every day, speaks English fairly well
I was so tired by the time I got to NBCC this morning, I couldn’t even understand Shivam- granted he was in fact speaking a foreign language. “Didi nahin samjhi (you don’t understand)” he sighs. “I never do” I tell him. After sitting with the boys for a while, one of the teachers began some lesson in Hindi. Using the chalkboard he explained something with the help of a diagram. At first I thought it was weather and the diagram was of a cloud, however, the more he drew the more lost I got. Half asleep, I desperately tried to figure out what he could be teaching with a diagram that looked more and more like a potato riding a unicycle. A new teacher entered the room. She was beautifully dressed with more jewelry than most and I could tell by her thick red bangles she was recently married. She asked questions about me in Hindi and before long the class and several teachers were having an extended conversation about how much Hindi I knew, where I was from, and so on. Family members- these kids have your names and jobs memorized (“older brother’s name: Ben, student, not married!”). Finally Sunil arrived with the car and its back home for a long awaited nap filled with crazy dreams thanks to the powerful malaria pills (yes family, fear not, I went to the doctor and got malaria prevention pills because of next week’s trip to the tropical south of India). Just another weekend in Mother India.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Old and New

This past weekend five new volunteers came to Delhi (two others passed through on their way to Dharamasala, another CCS site). It’s been interesting watching the group dynamics change. I realized just how much of a family we had all become: Tom, Laiah, Lindsay, Shanta, Sarah, Cindy, the staff and I. Friday night, Cindy (who lived in the bedroom next to mine) said goodbye and set off for the airport, and we all prepared for the new arrivals. Over the weekend, people trickled in. New luggage appeared in Cindy’s room along with new attitudes and new accents. Shanta, Laiah, and Tom had gone away for the weekend so Lindsay, Sarah, and I did our best to welcome everyone and assure them jet lag would fade, the dust will settle, and the food isn’t all that spicy after all. Listening to the questions, fears, and hopes of the new volunteers, I realized how comfortable Delhi has become.
As the week began, everyone watched as the new volunteers settled in and started adjusting to life in India. Murmurs of complaint mixed with hesitation but also joy at a new city and new acquaintances. Monday, I accompanied Charlotte (from NYC) to Raja Bazaar and then to another Mobile Creche site called NBCC where we would both be working (I’m attempting to change placements but don’t quite know where I’ll end up). Again I was surrounded by new faces, this time of children.  I was beginning to get tired of introductions and first impressions and missed the familiar routine of the past weeks.
Tuesday, for the first time since jet lag, I woke up before my alarm. Shanta was holding a plate with an omelet and toast and smiling as she sang happy birthday to me. I rolled out of bed and to the table and discovered there was precious and rare cheddar cheese in my omelet- today was going to be a good day. I walked over to the office to meet Lindsay and Charlotte. As I walked into the CCS office, I found a bouquet had been delivered for me with a blank note but the receipt had my parents’ names on it (my dad explained later he didn’t realize where to leave a note when he ordered them online). Bela had written happy birthday across the chalk board and the staff all congratulated me on being one day older and then quickly informed me that in India, it’s tradition for the birthday person to bring a treat to share. I laughed and then headed off to work seriously contemplating how many ways I could use eggs and bread (the only ingredients in our flat) that might be considered a treat.
After work, Shanta and I had a lunch appointment with Mrs. Jaya- a retired professor and NGO activist for women’s rights. I knew this would be an interesting meeting and was intimidated by the formality of it. On the drive to her house, we stopped in traffic. On the street beside us sat a woman beating an old worn drum. Immediately her two young boys, no older than five began dancing at our windows begging for change. They had charcoal mustaches drawn on their faces. The woman prodded her toddler who stood and began bouncing to the beat of the drum. Child beggars are common in Delhi as begging has become an organized crime here. Not unlike the plot of Slumdog Millionaire, children are sometimes kidnapped from the slums and forced into this poverty, occasionally crippled or starved in order to evoke more sympathy. At our last meeting Mrs. Jaya had counted the many homes and shelters for the poor as well as various NGOs eager to provide for them. There are always labor jobs in Delhi. Giving to beggars only encourages the crime and the lifestyle, she explained. I couldn’t help but feel a mix of emotions when I looked at this woman, beating her drum. A semblance of anger welled inside me as I watched her beat beat beat her drum. Her children danced in the lanes of traffic as she beat beat beat. Who drew the mustaches? Beat beat beat. Why doesn’t she work? Beat beat beat.  Will her sons ever read or write? Beat beat beat. What will her children do when there’s no one to beat beat beat a drum? I couldn’t look away from the boy by my window. I wondered if he could ever escape the system and make a life for himself or if the beat beat beat of culture and a tradition of poverty would play out in his future.
I thought of the kids I’ve come to know and love from equally difficult positions, children from all over India who move with the construction companies to live in the dirt. I thought of Udmeela who may never count past ten but at least she will never have to dance to a drum in the streets, not because she has money but because she has hope. I looked away as the van rolled forward and thought what a difference birth makes. I couldn’t decide how to feel that I had been born to a family who believed in me, who could provide for me, who had the luxury of worrying about cars and mortgages.  
As with everything in India, our drive carried us away from one extreme and to another. We arrived at Mrs. Jaya’s house and stepped into the world of India’s elite. Her guard opened the heavy gate for us. Her servant opened the door. Her son sat down to lunch with us and discussed his new book on the effects of globalization in India. We talked of market forces and capitalism and the vendors on the street, slums in the shadows of glass malls, damming the Ganges and flooding homes to produce more electricity. I thought of how when we brush suffering and sacrifice out the window, it’s bound to fall on someone on the street. We sat with Mrs. Jaya and listened as she told stories of caste and creed, love and religion. We sipped our tea and wondered about the future be it India, America, or somewhere in between.
By the time we got back to the apartments, dinner was almost ready. I decided to honor Indian culture and make shortbread cookies for dessert. Luckily, none of the staff had anything to compare the cookies to, having never had shortbread before and didn’t mind the somewhat salty outcome (I blame the salted butter). Just when everyone had gathered for dinner, the staff broke out a beautiful chocolate cake and Bela insisted I cut the first piece. As I put it on the plate she smeared icing on my face while Vicky and Pauline took pictures. Bela and the staff presented me with a beautiful journal made by women of the NGOs. Pawan and Ganshyam had prepared a birthday meal and apparently my favorite foods seem to be starches as dinner consisted of mashed potatoes, macaroni salad, bread, and pasta. Sitting with the staff and all the volunteers that night, I couldn’t have been more blessed. I thought of friends and family back home waking up to Tuesday morning and hoped their day would hold as many challenges, contradictions, and joys as mine had.
Wisdom from Mrs. Jaya
"Humility and compassion are out of fashion these days. Every now and again someone comes along like Christ, Buddha, Gandhi, Muhammad, or Martin Luther King Jr. who is humble and compassionate. They are all made of the same metal."
"The contradictions of life are playing themselves out… all we can do is choose to live on the right side of humanity."

Friday, February 27, 2009

The hunt is on!

April showers will bring May flowers but February is wedding season in Delhi. I have to confess that since I’ve been here, a not-so-secret desire has arisen to crash an Indian wedding. Like hunting season, every pink, purple, or blue tent signals the beginning of the game. As foreigners, we lurk ready to pounce on any opportunity dance and eat with complete strangers on their special day.
Strike one: A week ago, Shanta, Lindsay, and I were walking back to our flat from dinner. Along our way we heard loud upbeat music and saw flashing lights and immediately assumed it was a wedding. The next logical assumption was that we should crash it. Naturally we didn’t want to be completely rude so we ran back to the flat to change into our Indian clothes. Once dressed in our kameez tops (and jeans) we made our way towards the noise. As we get closer we realize it’s coming from the nearby school of fashion.  Confused we walk to a gate and ask the guard if it’s only for students. Hearing the word students, he assumes we study there and lets us by! So in we waltz in our salwaar kameez and see a full scale Indian fashion show run by students. We were surrounded by people in hip western clothes and of course looked out of place. We later found out that only students and family were allowed so though we didn’t crash a wedding, we at least crashed something.
Strike two: Yesterday, we had gone out for dessert. On our way back to the flat, we had a repeat experience and followed the sights and sounds to one of the apartment gardens. The entire garden had been blocked off by a huge pink tent. Lindsay, Laiah, and I strategically lingered outside the entrance for some time doing our best to look curious. When someone finally emerged, we of course acted completely surprised when he insisted we come in. “Who us? Really? Oh no, we’ve never seen a wedding like this. Oh we couldn’t come in, no, no. Ok, if you insist.” In true Indian fashion, we were ushered in and introduced to the bride and her entire family. Conveniently the brother of the bride was from Portland and spoke fluent English. He was very kind and explained that this was not actually the wedding but merely one of the five or six days of celebration that precede a wedding. Instead, we had crashed the pre-wedding henna party. Naturally, everyone insisted we get henna done on our hands. We agreed and sat down as a man began decorating my hands in traditional Delhi style. I think he was a bit bored with the traditional Delhi style and took advantage of the fact that we didn’t really know or care what the final product was. After doing one of my hands, he decided to switch it up and began what he explained was “Bombay style.” To me Bombay style looked like he was ADD and just sneezed random designs on my arm. Then, he took it a step farther and asked if he could do my upper arm, below my sleeve. As he was doodling with the sticky wet henna, he asked my name and then proceeded to tattoo my own name on my arm, very sailor-like.  
Due to our brilliant lack of foresight, Lindsay, Laiah, and I were now covered in wet henna. As we not-so-gracefully managed to pick up our purses and head towards the door, young girls stuffed flowers into our bags and between any fingers that weren’t wet. We made our way back to our apartments and realized we now had to manage getting through two padlocks without rubbing the design off. As I reached into my bag to find my keys, I felt like I was playing an intense game of Operation, all three of us groaning in dispair with each smear of henna. After ten minutes of accidentally smudging my lovely design, dropping flowers and trying to pick them up again, and carefully opening the door with all body parts except hands, I managed to get into my flat. Having already gone to bed, Shanta sat up as I entered the dark room. She was concerned that I had hurt myself as I was walking “like Edward Scissor Hands.” I gave up on trying to get ready for bed and somehow fell asleep with both hands in the air and my arm away from the sheets. Any acrobat would forgive me for not being capable of a cartwheel after attempting a similar feat.
Though we still haven’t successfully crashed a wedding (the groom’s family wasn’t even present at strike two), I have a feeling the third time’s a charm. This is only the beginning of wedding season so bring it on Delhi!

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Be veg, be strong

This morning, Shanta and I visited Mother Theresa’s Home for the Destitute and Dying, instead of our usual placements. In the car, we passed through Delhi to the outskirts of town where boys scavenged through trash with sticks. Marble and stone shops recruited day laborers who stood waiting beside the road, hoping for employment. Diseased looking cows chewed their cud and stared blankly into the morning fog. As we passed through towns that rivaled the inner city slums, Vicky (one of the staff who was accompanying us) pointed out elegant “farm houses” with big sprawling gardens and padlocked gates which the wealthy rent for parties and weddings. It seemed odd to me that the rich and powerful choose these shanty towns for their posh retreats and extravagant weddings. Here the air carries with it the scent of poverty.
We turned off the road and into the home. There is a strict policy against photography inside the grounds to prevent misunderstandings and misrepresentations. A few years ago, there was a terrible confusion in Kolkata (Calcutta) when a volunteer sent pictures of the Sisters tying a child to a chair into the local paper. When the Sisters saw him again, they kindly asked him to try and feed the child (who was mentally handicapped) without the child hurting himself or knocking away the spoon without the use of ties. After an hour of trying and failing, the volunteer begged the Sisters for forgiveness for misrepresenting them. Forgiveness was instant but the repercussions of his actions lasted. As we pulled to a stop, I wondered if words would ever suffice to describe what a video could only begin to introduce. For the volunteers who have worked in the past and the Sisters who work there now, I know there is no way to communicate the feeling of the home and the residents within. This is only an attempt.
Beautifully lush gardens surrounded us, contrasting the dirt streets outside the complex walls. The home was encompassed by a tropical and self-sufficient farm. A woman in a blue and white habit greeted us and led the three of us inside where two gated courtyards separated the male and female residents. The men and women who live here are from the streets and slums. Ninety percent of them are mentally ill and most are dying. As we walked through, the women swarmed us, smiling and laughing, touching our hands desperate for the attention of a single smile. Other women stayed back watching, unsure of us. The Sister explained that if we chose to help, any work would be appreciated. We would make beds, clean floors, help feed the residents who were unable to do so themselves, and simply be with them.  On the men’s side, a young nun from Germany was helping to dress open wounds. The men sat along a line of benches, waiting their turn to have their arms and legs re-bandaged. Flies clouded the air, landing on the sores. I’ve seen similar scenes in war movies, yet no camera can make it real until the flies are landing on you and the men are staring into your eyes as they ask your name.
I’ve been considering switching volunteer placements for a while, though I’m still unsure of where I would move to. I’ve seen three sites now at Mobile Crèche, schools for kids in the city slums, but they did not compare to the feeling of Mother Theresa’s Home. On Thursday I’m visiting another NGO (non-governmental organization) called Jagori where women are empowered through the sales of handmade crafts. This weekend, I may decide to move placements and begin working at either Jagori or Mother Theresa’s Home.
After lunch today, Vicky took the volunteers to Swaminarayan Akshardham (yeah, try saying that five times fast with a mouth full of water). The Akshardham is somewhat like a temple, although the brochure calls it “a unique complex of Indian culture.” Unique is right. We pull up in the CCS van and first of all, Vicky tells us we should leave our shoes in the car because otherwise we have to leave them at the ‘boot house’ when we enter the temple. We dutifully remove our shoes and walk barefoot up to the entrance and go through security. Security in India seems to consist of a metal detector and guard and appears practically everywhere (train stations, museums, temples). After walking through the metal detector, which beeps at everyone and is ignored by all (essentially just an obnoxious beeping doorway), a guard pats you down and let me tell you, they do pat thoroughly (although again, they never question what’s in your pockets). Everyone passes the security check and the guards laugh as they inform us that shoes are allowed inside. We look around and sure enough, everyone else is wearing shoes. Live and learn.
The actual complex is absolutely beautiful but unfortunately photography is prohibited (as are cds, bags, food, fire, firearms, helmets, and many other unusual things). I could describe the incredible architecture to you but I’m pretty sure you should simply google it instead as I have even better things to write about. Once inside we purchase tickets to the many attractions, yes attractions (as in theme park-ish). While the Akshardham is a temple, it is dedicated to a man named Bhagwan Swaminarayan and what better way to educate the masses about him than with animatronics and a boat ride through history! Just imagine the splendor of Disneyworld, the budget of Dollywood, and the mystical intrigue of ancient India.
 We are ushered into a room with a semi-circle of benches facing a large rock and a spectacular night sky behind it. The lights dim and a voice that rivals the typical movie trailer narrator begins a dramatic introduction. “It took 7,000 artisans five years to carve the stone of the Akshardham. How many does it take to carve a human life? Only one…” The lights flicker and behold the rock rotates to reveal the figure of a man emerging from the stone holding a chisel. Deep dramatic voice- “You can achieve constant happiness. Bhagwan Swaminarayan did. Journey through time to learn his wisdom.”  The lights come on and a door opens to our right. The next room is dark as we settle on benches, this time facing a pool of water and miniature island. As the lights brighten, I’m horrified to see the creepiest animatronic children ever. A story unfolds, of a young Bhagwan who heroically saves dying fish from two fishermen. The moral of the story- the world would be a better place without violence or savory fish dishes. PETA supporters would be proud. Again, we are ushered into another room where scenes unfurl of Bhagwan’s life. I would just like to stress that there is nothing more terrifying than nine realistic animatronic yoga students chanting OOMMMM in the dark. Fourty minutes and countless animatronic scenes later, we make our way to the boat ride where we again travel through time. On our way out, cardboard animals with thought bubbles promoted peace and vegetarianism. Be veg, be strong. Once on the boat, we float by sets reminiscent of Dollywood’s Blazing Fury depicting the first university and hospital in the world. Lesson learned: Don’t be fooled, India invented everything.
Back in the car, we were reunited with our shoes. We were exhausted on the drive back. Thanks to A R Rahman winning an Oscar for Slumdog Millionaire, his hit song Jai Ho seems inescapable. Falling asleep in the car, images of Mother Theresa’s Home mix with eerie robotic children dancing along to Bollywood music. Just another day in India. JAI HO!

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

A never quite typical day

An average day at Raja Bazaar

I don’t think I’ve had a single day yet that has had the same schedule. So far, each day has been a new adventure coupled with sleep deprivation. Today has been about as routine as any of them. This morning, I woke up only after hitting the snooze about twenty times (I know my roomie Shanta loves that about me). I walk into the bathroom and grab my toothbrush, reach for the tap and at the last second change course after remembering to use the bottled water next to the sink. On Monday, Wednesday, and Friday I sleepily walk over to another lfat where the other five volunteers live for yoga class (four of us live in one flat, five others live in another, and the CCS office is around the corner in a third flat of the same apartment complex, all within three minutes walk). I grumble my way through yoga, secretly resentful of our instructor for only being able to have class at 6:30 AM. Today of course was Tuesday and therefore I relished the extra hour of sleep. Shanta and I have worked out a system for breakfast, alternating making eggs and toast and doing the dishes. We sit down together and scan the English newspapers for interesting articles and the Hindi papers for words we can read while sipping our tea and pretending we’re awake. Then I run to flat five, meet up with Lindsay (the volunteer I work with) and hop in the car headed towards the Mobile Crèche headquarters (90% of the time I catch my long salwaar top in the door and try to pull it out without ripping it. So far I’ve been successful in keeping it one piece and today I even avoided getting it caught it the first place).
Sunil, our driver, hums along to Hindi radio stations that play a sort of Bollywood-1990s-boy band fusion with the occasional Guns and Roses or Katie Perry song (remixed with Hindi inserts of course).  I often think that India has only just now reached the 90s as far as Western culture is concerned.  After a few minutes of sitting in the Mobile Crèche office (known as the Raja Bazaar Crèche) trying to read more Hindi newspapers, our supervisor Sunita appears. She seems to be pregnant (we are afraid to ask in case we’re mistaken) and she tends to have mood swings, more often towards the grumpy-not-so-happy-to-see-us moods. I think she got a bad impression because one time we both misread the clock and started to leave an hour early. She thought we were trying to escape. Normally we spend an hour and a half working as teachers’ aides, drawing worksheets and making crafts that will go to the kids. Occasionally- depending on Sunita’s mood swings- we get chai (tea with amazing spices and milk and pretty much everything wonderful in it). After working in the office, we walk up the driveway to the classroom and help teach the kids math and English. Today though (since there is no such thing as a typical day), Sunita explained that we were going to visit another Mobile Crèche site called NBCC in the slums of construction zones.
The city of Delhi is constantly under construction. In preparation for the 2010 Commonwealth Games the entire city is being renovated, at least in theory. Grime-covered walls create “diversions” around the new and expensive metro system scheduled to be complete in a year. One professor explained that the capital is being built at the cost of the country.
Lindsay and I climb into the car and are dropped off without any explanation at one of the construction sites in the city. Mountains of dirt piled high with wires and bricks surround a small concrete building with brightly colored paintings on the side (the NBCC Crèche). One of the teachers greets us and gives us a quick tour of the classrooms employing her entire English vocabulary (all of maybe fifteen words). We settled in with the oldest group of kids who just happen to be doing math. Here I am thinking, perfect- numbers in Hindi have become my strong suit, I can handle this. Well, numbers up to twelve at least. These kids were doing long division and counting to 100. I strategically sat next to the smaller boys who were just writing their numbers. Despite my broken Hindi and confused facial expressions, one little boy decided to tell me what I pretended to be his entire life story. He talked to me in Hindi like we were best friends and after several attempts at telling him I had no clue what he was saying, I began making up stories in my head to go along with his theatrical gestures. I think there was a car wreck or maybe an explosion involved at one point in the monologue. The boys wrote down their names in Hindi for me to sound out (I can read Hindi now, but have no idea what the words mean yet) and got super excited when I wrote their names in English. I tried writing my own name in Hindi but forgot how to write an E so they called me Rin. Then my new BFF decided since I couldn’t understand him when he spoke Hindi, he would write a tiny novel on his chalkboard. I began sounding it out but again had no idea what it meant, though he didn’t seem to mind. Finally we found common ground in a game of tic-tac-toe. Unfortunately for me, the kids didn’t count three in a diagonal row as a win. I was sad to leave the NBCC site after only an hour and half. All the kids shook our hands and waved as we climbed into the car and drove back to our apartments.
Around 1 PM Lindsay and I met up with the other volunteers and the staff over at the CCS office in flat 5 for lunch. After lunch I attempted to get some of my work for the internship out of the way but at 2:30 CCS had arranged for the volunteers to visit the National History Museum of India. A former employee of the museum accompanied us as our own personal tour guide. I never caught his name but studied his face as he talked instead of listening. He was almost feeble and his big eyes were magnified by bifocal glasses but after spending ten minutes explaining the history of the History Museum, I could tell he was passionate about his subject. Later I learned he was the first assistant of the museum when it was created in 1947 after India’s independence. He dedicated 37 years to the history of his country and spoke of each artifact as if it were an old friend.
By the time we got back home and drank another cup of chai, dinner was ready. I was ecstatic to see that mashed potatoes were on the menu though they were still distinctly Indian. I enjoy the food here though most is a bit spicy for my weak taste buds. I have realized my love for potatoes and cheese transcends culture, however I’m still rationing my Teddy Grahams for a rainy day.
After dinner I finally have a little time to relax, read my email, procrastinate on homework, practice Hindi, look over assigned readings, and reflect on the oh-so-busy-always-an-adventure-crazy-wonderful-typical day.
PS if you want to read other perspectives on this trip, read Laiah’s blog:

Friday, February 13, 2009


It’s hard to believe I’ve been here for almost two weeks now; time has flown by. I’m just beginning to remember which of the six switches in my bedroom turn on the light. I still catch my salwaar in the car door every day. At lunch today, Lindsay had finished eating and the other volunteers weren’t back yet so the staff took advantage of the empty chairs and ate with me. For the first five minutes there was complete silence, even Bela (the program director) sat quiet. Finally Sunil cracked a joke in Hindi that got everyone into a light hearted conversation (even the solemn cook whose name I still don’t know smiled and joked). While they talked and laughed in Hindi, my mind wandered. Though so much is still new to me here, scenes from the daily drive to work and back replayed in my mind. There is no way to describe Delhi without experiencing it. I may never know or understand the significance or stories behind what I see yet every day I pass people and places that are becoming familiar to me. I think of them as snapshots of the city.
- On my way to the market, I pass a Mosque with red stones and a dirt courtyard. It’s over a hundred years old, Ekraj tells me as we head off to add minutes to my new Nokia cell phone.
- Stuck in traffic I look up at the green and white bus just feet from me. A woman in a bright pink and orange shawl rests her head on her hand as she leans on the window. Her face is somber as she sleeps.
- Police officers in tan uniforms reminiscent of the Imperial British of a bygone era sit by their guard stands and play cards or chat on corners.
- Children build tiny towers out of rubble while their mother’s carry bricks on their heads to build sidewalks.
-  Sikh men tie bandanas around their full beards and tuck them into the wrap of their pugaree (turban) while mounting motorcycles.
- Women in heels talk on cell phones as they wait for the bus and try not to catch the dust of passing cars.
- Blue and white ribbons, flowers, and fabric adorn the gate of a politician’s house on Parliament Street in preparation for a wedding.
- Girls sitting side-saddle watch passing traffic as they cling to men driving motorcycles that weave through the crowded streets.
- Our neighbor, Mr. Jafa, stands in the garden in his gray sweat suit every morning as I walk to the CCS office. He waves as I pass and then turns back to the flowers. Last night he invited Tom, Lindsay, Laiah, Shanta, and I over for dinner. When he opened the door in a suit and tie, I felt a bit under-dressed in my sweatshirt and jeans. He and his wife welcomed us with a delicious dinner and captivating conversation. Talk ran from oil, the Middle East, optimism, and America to the future and hope for my generation. I left with new friends and new perspectives.
- The same beggar girl walks along the cars that stop at a certain traffic light. She holds out her hand and points to her sleeve that hangs loose where an arm should be. Today she stood at Belah’s window (in the front seat) between our car and a school bus. I caught her glancing up at the children her own age, laughing and singing to each other in their clean sweaters on their way home from class. For a fleeting second as she turned back to the window, we made eye contact through the glass. We’ve seen each other several times before but just then it was different. For that one second, we understood each other and smiled.
India cannot be captured in pictures or even words. India is the joy of the guard when you thank him for finding your lost wallet (and yes, I lost my wallet but somehow it was found again- credit card intact, only $30 missing). India is the smile behind Jasi’s kind eyes as he looks in the review mirror of his taxi. India is the sound of honking and chanting and men singing while they cook.  India is a land, a people, and a way of life.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Haridwar and Rishikesh

This weekend, some of the other volunteers (Laiah, Lindsay, and Shanta) and I decided to take a road trip to a holy city in Northern India call Haridwar and a nearby town Rishikesh. Early Saturday morning, Jasi (our favorite taxi driver) took us to the train station and wished us a “berry goot” trip. We settled into our seat in our section of “AC Chair Car” (exactly what it sounds like: a train car with chairs and fans). Like an airplane, they fed us questionable pre-made food and gave us newspapers. Later after the Indian man who had sat next to me left, the steward snuck up on me and held out some rupees asking for a tip. I could tell that I was being singled out because I was a tourist and there were no Indians around to tell him to go away but alas, I gave in and handed over ten rupees. Score: volunteers- zip, India- one.
Four hours later we arrived at the Haridwar train station. It was a bit desolate and abandoned. There were only about five auto-rickshaws though there seemed to be a million drivers asking us if we needed a ride. We settled on the cheapest one and drove into town towards the temples. The streets of Haridwar were narrower than Delhi and if possible more crowed. Busy market stalls stood side by side creating narrow alleyways packed with people, cows, dogs, bikes, and rickshaws. The foothills of the Himalayas peeked through the ever-present smog. Shouts of “hello, ma’am come inside” rose above the honking from vendors sitting at the entry to their shops. Flies buzzed through the air and cows snatched food from roadside stands. We got tickets for the cable cars up to two temples (both temples were in the mountains). As we walked towards the entrance, tour guides insisted we needed an offering and of course they happened to sell some. We eventually were persuaded to buy a coconut offering complete with ribbon and rice puffs. Score: volunteers- zero, India: two. When we got to the cable cars, the chipped pastel paint with happy looking advertisements reminded me of the Ferris wheel at carnivals. As we climbed higher up the mountain, the city emerged from behind the tree line with the mighty Ganges winding through the tangle of roads and markets below. The sun caught the water and glistened through the haze. Monkeys danced in the trees below us and women carrying baskets of sticks glanced up at us as they walked along a dirt path.
At the top, we entered Mansa-devi temple. We had no idea what to do with our coconut offering and watched the people in front of us as we approached the first statue. A man sitting by the god chanted and blessed us, painting a bindi on each of our foreheads. Then he explained that the gods accepts cash donations. Not wanting to offend (and also because of some extreme encouragement from the priest) we each set down more rupees. Score: volunteers- none, India- three. We turned around and repeated the same encounter at the next god statue. Volunteers-nada, India-four. Finally we realized we could simply walk by and politely bow or smile and keep our wallets intact. Back down the mountain, we took a bus and then another cable car to the second temple, Chandi-devi. The view from the top was even more striking at Chandi-devi, across the Ganges. There were no crowds and the air was quieter.
Flowers in the Ganges at AatiOnce we made our way back into Haridwar, we headed over to a nightly ceremony called Aati. Hundreds of people gathered along the river to bathe in the holy water and wait for sunset. As the colors of the sky changed, people lined up to place a boat made of leaves and filled with flowers into the water. Priests escorted the four of us to the water to help us with our blessings. After a prayer, the priest would explain a blessing and then say “donate as you like.” As you like was never quite enough though. “This prayer is for the long lives of your mother and father, anything will be accepted, now how much in dollars would you like to give? Ten rupees is not good, give in your money, give in dollars, ten dollars? Yes, ten dollars is good and how about for this blessing? Ten dollars also? Yes, of course, give dollars.” By the end of the prayer, the man expected about one hundred dollars, none of which I had agreed to. I was frustrated and handed over 100 rupees (about two bucks) after several stern scoldings. Finally, he lit a candle and handed me my leaf boat to set sail in the murky cold water. I watched as it floated away, flower petals drifting behind and thought of my 100 rupees. Volunteers- still zero, India- five.
Sunday morning, we awoke at our hotel in Rishikesh ready for a relaxing day. Rishikesh is about an hour north of Haridwar and the yoga capital of the world. International hippies lingered in the quiet town after last week’s World Yoga Festival. Indian men with long beards and bright orange robes tied yellow scarves over their dreadlocks. Cows napped in the streets while motorbikes zipped around them. Our hotel offered yoga classes in the morning and it was quite a way to start the day. After yoga we meandered through the streets, relishing the serene atmosphere. We walked past the hanging bridge to a temple towering over the river yet dwarfed by the foothills. Stairs led down to an alcove along the river where we sat and watched the water. Bells from the temple sang soft notes that joined with distant chanting. The Ganges lay still before us and the disarray of the streets and markets seemed so far away. For the first time, I didn’t notice the smog. I could breathe and think and soak in the beauty of the moment. Game point: volunteers- at peace, India- perfect.
Sitting in the CCS office back in Delhi, I look at the prayer beads on my wrist and remember the warm clean air, the bells, the flower petals, the men with dreadlocks, and the mountains and I breathe again.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

A moment at last

So this is a bit overdue but the past few days have been busy to say the least. The sounds of the Muslim call to prayer, constant construction, honking, and vendors shouting in Hindi are carried by the warm air into our flat. It’s day 4 for me and I’m beginning to settle into a routine. The flight was long but I had plenty on my mind to occupy me (one of which was the passenger next to me who had drank herself into a coma, sprawled out into my seat, and snored the rest of the flight). I got into Delhi late and most of that night is a blurr. Sunday morning we had orientation and then shopped for Indian clothes. I bought two salwaar (long tunic shirts worn with a scarf and Indie-style skinny pants that poof at the top somewhat like a diaper with tights). I’ve learned always wearing a long scarf is terribly dangerous for me as I’m constantly dropping it into things like the sink or my food.
Monday, we started at our volunteer placements. I’m working at Mobile Creches in Raja Bazaar, a slum of central Delhi. On the drive to work we pass the beautiful gated houses of politicians and the magnificent President’s house across from the India Gate, then drive down into slums where children beg at the car window and men in rags crouch on the corners. The crèche is a one room building where the children of day laborers can eat and learn and play. Lindsay (one of the other volunteers) and I try to teach the kids math and English but most of them are still learning Hindi. I’ve learned to do math in Hindi with numbers up to ten. The children call us dede which means big sister but I only know a few of their names. Today we learned one girl’s name was Uhdmeelah (I made up the spelling) instead of Uvula which is what we had been calling her (like that thing in your throat that I always thought was your tonsil but it isn’t). The kids look adorable but have a habit of attacking each other.
Each day we leave work about 12 and go back to the CCS office for lunch. We’ve had all Indian food for lunch but dinner seems to be a different story. The first night we had Chinese and Monday night we had “veggie burgers” and fries. I put burgers in quotations because I would not have titled them that if they hadn’t been on a bun with ketchup. Between lunch and dinner we have Hindi lessons and some cultural activity. Monday the activity was to survive in the market and accomplish a random task. My task: buy the ingredients for and make ten sandwiches and then give them out to people. That would never work in America, some random kid handing out sad little sandwiches with only tomato and cheese. In Delhi however, they were hot stuff. Some people even took two. Last night a classical dance troupe performed for us. Today we had a lecture about the political history of India. It was interesting to hear about India and the notion of colonialism from the Indian, British, Scottish, Canadian, and American perspectives. There is definitely a lot of emotion still connected from all sides (except maybe Canada, haha).
Overall, Delhi has been interesting. Shanta (my roommate) and I both felt it had a familiar feel to it, no matter how lost we get. The culture has a complexity of layers both straightforward and contradictory. Delhi is not a pretty city. I see people sweeping the dust off the roads only for it to settle back into their hair and on the buildings. Crowds of people in a chaos of color, from silk to rags, congregate on every broken street. Cars weave in every direction incessantly honking, narrowly (and by narrowly I mean approximately one inch) passing motorbikes, rickshaws, cows, and pedestrians. Yet despite the dirt and the chaos, sometimes the sun will shine just right through the smog and you can see the rays dancing through the trees. Sometimes I catch someone’s feet showing through the cover on a rickshaw and wonder where they’re going and where they’ve been.  There is so much to learn here and I have 66 more days to do it.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Packing. Or not.

Three days from now I’ll be well on my way to New Delhi, India. In case anyone doesn’t know, I’ll fill in some details. I’m going to Delhi for a three month internship with a volunteer organization. The place I’ll be working is called Mobile Creches ( I have no idea what to expect and cannot wait to start this crazy adventure.
As of right now, I’m just starring at an empty suitcase and wondering when I’ll realize I’m leaving the country. I had a small moment of panic tonight when it dawned on me that I had to pack for several months and promptly drove to the store and bought a T-shirt for no apparent reason other than to feel at least a little more prepared. Now I have one T-shirt in my suitcase and that’s probably how it will stay until Thursday night when I realize packing is fairly important to travel. I’ll do my best to post updates on here once I get to Delhi. Until then!