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."