Tuesday, March 17, 2009
During this week of travel, Ethan and I monitored our shipments through an online tracker, but the shipment had stopped at the Uttarakhand border and hadn't moved in 5 days. We could see this on the tracker, but we couldn't get anyone on the phone who could a) explain the situation to us and b) speak English. We moved to the lakeside town of Nainetal, near the border, attempting to get to the bottom of the situation. After a few days of tense emails between Jeevan, myself, and my supplier in Mumbai, we came up with some backup plans, none of which I liked. Ethan and I only had 8 days left until we had planned on leaving for Nepal. Every way this could work out we could see involved us leaving before the work was completed. In the end, the lights would go up successfully, but this was certainly a personal failure in my eyes. It was a grumpy, frustrating couple of days with not-so-nice things said about Indian state border inspectors on our behalf. Finally, 2 hours into that day's phone effort with regulators and shipping companies I got the cell phone number of the city's shipping officer where the materials were being held. He explained there was a paperwork issues... nonsense. I explained that we had sent all paperwork necessary and I had copies and would be happy to bring them to his office to clear up the situation. After some more back and forth he said the magic words, "You're materials will be sent today, sir." High fives all around. Ethan and I left immediately for Kanda. We arrived that night, and so had the lights. I slept soundly that night with a weight lifted.
The first day back to work was like Christmas. We opened boxes upon boxes and organized our supplies. We drew a crowd of local men that pointed at and touched the strange equipment. In between the Hindi being spoken we heard words like solar, sun-power, and America.
We came across numerous small issues...the frame holes for the solar panels did not match the panel holes, there were no bolts to attach the two, not enough electrical wire for the street lights, etc, etc. To be expected, really. We took it in stride...out lights were here...all was well. Frankly, we enjoyed the extra trips to the market for supplies. We dug post holes and concreted in the bottom half of our street light posts, leaving the wiring and raising for the next day. Jeevan's sons, Jeet and Sadju, both helped and spirits were high. Two of Jeevan's employees, Sadu and Indar, have been with us since the beginning, speaking little and working constantly. Sadu is slender and smiles constantly. He often bears the brunt of Jeet's chiding. I've grown to like him immensely. He is more skilled than anyone else in Kanda we have met, and more humble. He had taught me quite a lot of Hindi. His family lives without electricity. Our criteria for home light selection tried to focus on widows or abandoned women with children, but I very much wanted to bend the rules for him.
The next day was a holiday, Shiva's birthday. No one was working and despite our wishes, neither were we. Ethan and I, and the rest of the volunteers staying at Jeevan's took a jeep ride to Bageshwar, the nearby, larger village. We wandered the mostly closed market and bought supplies and gifts. On our way back to the jeep pickup area, our way was blocked by a parade of dancing men, a horn band, and 100 or so Indian spectators. The band gyrated and moved in and out of the dancing crowd. Someone informed us it was a wedding procession. Once we were spotted, the crowd and band moved closer and motioned us to join. Exchanging nervous smiles we delayed until we had no choice. Lily, a British volunteer and I jumped in the center and tried to mimic the enthusiastic moves of the men. A cheer went up, the band played faster, the men stamped harder. Soap suds were sprayed from above ad rained down like snow. Flower petals littered the street, thrown by little girls that giggled and pointed at the dancing foreigners. We shook hands and were introduced to our dancing partners, who turned out to be the family of the groom. He was riding in the flower-enwrapped car just behind us. We were promptly invited to the wedding. Before we could respond, the band started up again...the gyrating continued.
All the way down the street, and into and open square we meandered. Tents were set up and food was being prepared. The groom exited the car dressed in an elaborate get-up. We were asked to pose for pictures with him and then his uncle insisted we eat with them. To refuse was obviously an insult, so we accepted. Escorted past the bridal party and up to the buffet, we fell upon the delicious food to our hosts delight. Curries, pickled vegetables, flavored dhal, and excellent chapatis as well as sweets dotted the room. After a couple hours of conversation we excused ourselves to return to Kanda, in shock from the day's events.
The next morning we began to wire and raise the street light systems. The systems are especially top-heavy and it takes at least 4 people to raise one by hand. The first system raised was at the ROSE center and 9 people participated. It was a circus, everyone was yelling in Hindi and English, and we thought for sure it was going over...but we managed to bolt it in place. Handshakes and congratulations went all around. The real test would be when the sun went down and the light (in theory) would automatically turn on. We moved down to the community center construction site and (more gracefully) erected the remaining 3 street lights. That night Jeevan threw a birthday celebration for his son Sadju. As the sun set we anxiously awaited the lights turning on. As it grew darker, I literally sat and stared until, "click", the sensors in the solar panel closed the circuit and a blanket of light fell on the small courtyard outside the ROSE kitchen. Cheers, applause, and more handshakes followed. The women preparing the birthday feast immediately moved the operation from the dim kitchen to the courtyard. The men stood around smoking and speaking in Hindi. After the meal, the family gathered to sing happy birthday to Sadju. People remained in the room for another hour, singing songs. People I hadn't met congratulated me on the lights.
The next day we began the installation of the home lights. The first home we came to was a 20 minute walk from Jeevan's house and was occupied by 3 women (grandmother, mother, and daughter). The house has 2 small rooms, one for sleeping and one for eating and cooking. The walls and floor were mud and the bedding was a few blankets neatly folded in a corner of the room. In order to hang the lights I clamored up the thin rafters and ended up covered in soot, to the amusement of our hosts. Watching the old woman smile at the light in her kitchen was very satisfying. The rest of the day proceeded similarly and we grew proficient enough to put up a system in a half an hour. Working with Sadu, Indar, and even Jeet was quite enjoyable and we got to know more about our friends and their families.
The next morning, our final full day in Kanda, we headed up to the market to buy several doors for a widow's unfinished home. The single room house had lain half finished for quite a while, and this way she could at least move in and not worry about someone robbing her of her lights. Sadu expertly cut the door to fit and added hinges and a clasp.
That night Jeevan and his family threw us a farewell party. Jeevan procured some goat, quite a big deal, and we looked forward to the protein and flavor of meat. Mats were set up in the courtyard under the plume of our street lamp and we sat in a circle with everyone in Kanda that we had worked with and some whose houses we had added lights to. One of these was a woman who is deaf and mute. Her gestures of gratitude towards us were very touching. The meal was served with two dishes of goat, one black, and one yellow / red. I was two pieces into the later, mid chew, when Ethan and I's eyes met. I mouthed, "Raw?" He nodded. We both finished our pieces and moved onto the black...cooked, but not exactly meat...curried goat stomach...MMMM. Halfway through the meal the power to the valley went out (a usual occurrence). Looking across the darkness, our lights were the only shining amongst thousands of homes. Sadu clapped me on the back...it was a good moment. We bid our friends farewell, promising to return someday. Jeevan told us that we were family, this was our home, and that we should return with our families. We retired to our beds preparing for the dawn's arrival and our full day of travel to the Nepal border.
Wednesday, February 11, 2009
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The morning of our first full day in Kanda began with a smiling Indian child bearing 2 steaming cups of chai. The mornings are chilly here in the mountains and the spicy beverage is the perfect blanket. Our conversations with Jeevan continued and we echoed our concerns and ideas to our Canadian / Australian counterparts. We arranged with Jeevan to visit some of the homes that he had in mind for the lights. We walked the new road that is still under construction, past groups of men breaking stone by hand (Nepalese men, Jeevan informed us). Below the road, dirt pathways lead us to small double room houses. After a few visits, it was apparent to us that there is a great need here. Many of the homes on Jeevan's list were of widows or abandoned women with children. Many were one room homes with little to no furniture, all without electricity. One home in particular belongs to an employee of Jeevan's. To get to her house, we followed the winding footpath up the mountain from Jeevan's and entered the stable of another larger home. Pushing aside goats and cattle, stooping beneath the low ceiling, our host reached up to open a small trapdoor in the ceiling, and motioned us through. The small hole barely fit us and we clambered up to emerge in an 8x8 foot room with one window. Whatever doubts we had were quickly disappearing, and we couldn't wait to get to work.
On the morning of day three, we addressed our issue with the community center. The way we looked at it, with no second floor and roof, there could be no light installation. Jeeven's men had been collecting stone and sand for bricks, but ROSE had no money for cement and rebar to build the walls. We had at least 2 weeks until our lights would arrive, so we decided to spend the remaining money we had from our donations and buy as much cement and rebar as we could get our hands on. That decision made...Jeevan, Ethan, and I set out on foot for the market, a kilometer up the mountain side.
Cruising the Kanda market with Jeevan was like being with the Godfather of Kanda. Men sitting on the retaining wall in groups jumped up and folded their hands, nodded slowly, and greeted him, "Namaste.". He returned the greeting (as did we) with a small smile and gentle nod. (Slowly, slowly) we made our way through the market, obviously intent on a specific destination, but in no hurry to get there. Jeevan waved and spoke with nearly everyone we passed, but we never stopped our snail-like pace. As we passed a large truck filled with men unloading cattle feed, Jeevan jumped up to the door, peered in the window, and started shouting in Hindi. The driver of the truck yelled back. This went on for a minute or so then Jeevan jumped off, motioned us on and continued up the road. He stopped at a food market and leaned on the counter. The conversation between himself and the shopkeeper seemed non-chalont, two country boys chewing the fat. Jeevan kept his eyes on the street as they seemed to debate a subject. Finally, Jeevan nodded and said to me, "Ok, you give this man 3000 rupees." Apparently, he had been bargaining concrete prices. During the next hour or so, we followed Jeevan around the market as he talked to various people. He would take them by the arm, lead them a small distance away, and hold onto them as he bargained for different material. We could not imagine attempting this on our own. Some of the concrete bags were loaded into the truck we procured, the rest would be brought by Nepalese laborers. The cheap labor of this area, they are renowned for carrying heavy loads long distances. The sight of them in pairs, concrete bags weighing over 100 pounds strapped to their heads with a strap, marching like ants at a picnic up the mountainside is quite impressive. We set off down the road in the truck, stopping once more to go through the whole ordeal again for rebar. On the way back to Jeevan's, he asked me to climb in the back of the truck to stand on the rebar, holding it in the truck during the jarring ride. It was a satisfying moment...rumbling down the road, dust and wind in my face, mountain scenery rolling by, literally holding down the raw material to construct a permanent locality for community building in Kanda.
In the days since then we have fallen into a steady routine. Up at 7:00, tea immediately, and time to read, write or send emails if the power is on. Breakfast is at 9:00, usually chipate (flatbread) and dhal (lentils). Begin work at 10, hauling water jugs down the mountainside to make concrete and constructing bricks in the hot sun. The amount of locals that come to watch us work has prompted many jokes by Ethan and I. With no music, we've taken turns singing songs as we work. We take a tea break at 12:00, lunch at 2:00 (rice and dhal with some vegetables). We finish around 5:00 and head back to the house to heat water over the outdoor fireplace for a hot bucket "shower". At this time of day I try to write, but usually end up playing games with the kids around the house. Pick up games of cricket with a stick bat and goat turds seems to be the most popular. While having races the other day with the kids on our shoulders we discovered that the pine cones on the low hanging branches of trees will shower a person with green pollen dust when shaken. We promptly started deliberately running into the branches with kids on our shoulders, covering their hair and shirts in a fine green coating. This caused intense laughter all around. The combination of that and the thin mountain air had me holding my knees, trying to catch my breath.
Dinner is usually around 8:30 (chipate with dhal and alu-gobi, a potato / cabbage curry, and some goat meat if we're lucky). Portions are huge. Hema, Jeevan's wife is not usually happy until we eat at least a large second portion. Her English, from what I can tell, is limited to, "Rice? Alu-gobi? Chipati? Anything more? Eat! Eat!" After dinner we usually lie around the small dining room / living room / Jeevan and Hema's bedroom and practice Hindi or discuss work progress. On occasion, Jeevan pours us a small glass of rum from a bottle he keeps hidden. This is the time of day we get to know the family.
Jeevan is the obvious patriarch. He has been hosting visitors since 1985 and has been a community activist since even earlier. Before taking on this role full time he owned a small jewelry shop. He has a full belly and face, a skinny, steel grey mustache and matching hair that is receding to the crown of his head.
His wife, Hema, runs the show around the house. Other than food words, she speaks entirely in Hindi. She frequently shouts or speaks rapidly with an intensity that only a woman attempting to feed 13 people every day could. When she's excited, her large eyes seem to double in size, likely to spring forth on the family member at the receiving end of her sharp tongue. She also smiles large when someone makes a joke, but is all business for the most part. She is skinny as a rail and her brown face is deeply furrowed by work in the sun. Her grin is missing several teeth. I have seen her console a crying grandchild and carry a log on her head in the same hour.
Jeevan's son Jeet...we haven't made up our mind about yet. On job sites he does more sitting and giving orders than working. This is a quality that will make me loose my patience all too quickly and I mostly ignore him on the job site. At home he can be humorous, using what little English he has. Recent British volunteer arrivals to the village said that he was quite comforting to his wife during a recent hospital visit. This dramatically improved my opinion of him, and I'm trying to keep an open mind. He has much to improve on if he intends to take over his father's organization one day.
Jeet's wife is very shy around us. She works closely with Hema in the kitchen and around the farm. Her sari (sign of a married woman) and jewelry accent her natural beauty and graceful way she carries herself around the house. We were informed by a family member that she has had several miscarriages (reason for the hospital visit) and I'm sure this adds to her reserved nature around the family and us. Young women who recently marry into and join a household are held to strict standards before being given a certain status in the family...bearing children is not the least of these.
Renu is Jeevan's youngest daughter still at home, she is 23. One of her sisters is off at college in the nearby city of
Two of Jeevan's grandchildren have lived at the farm for the past 6 years. They are the children of one of his daughters that cannot afford to raise them. Rushee is 12. She attends a local private school and is quick to change out of her uniform when she returns to run around with the boys. She helps around the house / farm alot, but is quick to argue and seems to share her grandmother's ability to strike out with her words. Her brother, Gautam, is 8 and is certainly the most easy going in the family. He wants to play games constantly and frequently has a part of his last meal smeared on his shirt or face. He likes to join Ethan and I in our pullup / pushup routine and his efforts put us in stitches laughing. He smiles so big it forces his eyes nearly closed. He earnestly does his homework at night, and his English reading is excellent.
Sedju is Jeevan's youngest son. He is 15, tall and skinny and seems to not have decided if he is still a boy or a young man. He walks with the men and tries to contribute to the conversations, but will then leave to play games with the kids and takes to bossing them around. While all the men we've been around are very mellow and rarely raise their voices, Sedju is constantly shrieking in his mid-pubescent voice...scolding the small children for seemingly minor offenses. On occasion he strikes them or holds them down roughly to yell. At first, we didn't want to get involved, but quickly Ethan and I started to intervene, evening the score for the little guys. Guatam has spunk, and fights back.
Delays in the delivery of our light shipment have put us a bit behind schedule. Ethan and I decided to set out for the
Like all traveling, life in
Ethan tracked down a guide for us in the Himalayan streets of Joshemath. For amazingly cheap, the man agreed to take us up Kuari pass (4500m) and stay at his house in the remote village of Lata. Upon investigation at the
After chai and potatoes on the snowy summit, we began to descend. Apparently we were not supposed to be up on this peak (permit required) and were flying below the radar. To avoid being seen coming off the mountain and back into the village, our guide led us off trail with over 1000 meters (3300 feet) left to descend. At first we followed game trails and enjoyed sliding through the snow. But, as the terrain became steeper, the snow muddier, and we had to routinely crash through thorn bushes, I lost my sense of humor. I could have blundered down the side of a mountain on my own, I didn't need a guide to show me how. After a few hours of this, emerging from the brush on a snowy precipice, I piped up. "Alright pal, where's a trail?! A good trail, there has to be one!" He motioned us on and eventually we came upon a steep human trail that led to the road at the valley floor. 10 hours after starting, we crawled into our sleeping bags at his house to doze and eat the afternoon away.
Our guide, Raju's house is typical of the area. Concrete floors, mud and stone walls, and rock or tin roofs...the place is unheated and smells of goats. He shares the small house with his brother and his brother's wife, some of their children, and his own son. His wife passed away 2 months before and his brother's wife had taken over the maternal responsibilities for the child. His brother had been a successful trekking and mountaineering guide, the list of peaks he had ascended in the area was impressive. He had been blinded during an expedition 20 year ago, he told us this the first night we arrived. He apparently could see within a few feet and came very close during introduction to see our faces. From what we could gather from the conversation (his English was clear, but limited), he had experienced bad snow-blindness on the 3 week expedition (snow blindness is caused by the sun's reflection off the snow directly hitting the retinas, over prolonged periods it has the same effect as staring at the sun). After returning from the mountain climb, we talked further and learned he has actually survived a bad fall on a summit approach. He came of the headwall and slid 1000m down the face and broke his neck. We sat on beds in our sleeping bags in the 12 x 8 foot mud room, drinking homemade wine (that tasted like saki) and smoking hand rolled cigarettes...listening to the man's tales. Later, Ethan would rewire the electricity to the room. They were stealing from the village power supply and their system of bare wires and hooks was quite frightening.
Our arrival in Joshemath 3 days before was achieved by one of the most mentally exhausting travel days I've ever had. We spent 14 hours taking a series of jeeps and buses to our destination from Kanda. Public transportation only goes from one town to the next and back. I believe it took 8 separate rides to complete the journey. Each one began with us unloading from a bus or jeep and wandering around the town calling out the names of towns on the route until a driver snatched us up. The closer we got to Josemath the hairier the roads became. We boarded the final bus at sundown. Shortly after leaving town the bus was lurching around hairpin turns on a single dirt track road, cut out of the cliff side. 600 foot cliffs rose and fell from either side of the crumbling road, no guard rail of course. Then the lightning started...and the wind. The locals began to muter to each other and yelled to the bus driver...never a good sign. He finally pulled over. By this time the night had fallen and the rain had come. We sat in the bus listening to the gusts that rocked the bus back and forth, gravel peppered the windows, the rain came in sheets. Ethan and I debated whether we should get of the bus and hoof it back to the last town, rather than chance continuing. Indian bus drivers are notoriously overconfident in their speed and driving ability..it borders on insanity. When he did start out again, Ethan cursed and I prayed, clutching the St. Christopher medallion that hangs around my neck...then I joined Ethan in cursing. An hour later, we arrived in town, nerves shot to hell, ready to kiss the sweet ground of the filthy mountain army post we had arrived in...Joshemath.
Thursday, February 5, 2009
3 days past since I left the holy city and sat down to write about it. I haven’t written because frankly I find it hard to define the experience in words. It was like being a witness to the most extravagant funeral in the world.
The old city has several main boulevards traversing it, choked with traffic. The rest of the city is a labyrinth of alleyways, floored by bricks and formed on each side by three story multi-colored buildings. Navigating the labyrinth successfully brings one to the top of the ghats. The ghats are grand staircases of various sized steps and landings that lead down to the
At night, flaming corpses are visible up and down the river. Chanting and drums can be heard until sunup, when the ghats lie dormant for a few short hours. Those that cannot afford to be cremated this way yet still feel they must join the Ganges in order to reach a higher spiritual plane have their remains bound by rocks at the feet and are plunged into the center of the river. This fact, combined with the copious amounts of human waste that flow through the sewers (really open air 2 foot deep gutters that notoriously overflow) and into the river make the prospect of submerging oneself unthinkable, except to the Hindu. Perhaps the fact that they still bathe is a sign of their devotion to spirituality. Whatever it may be it significantly adds to the weight this place puts on the mind.
On the last day of my stay, I jumped on the back of a motorcycle owned by one of the employees of the guesthouse I was staying at. He took me on a tour of the local temples (including the site of Buddha’s first sermon). As always, though I thoroughly enjoyed the temples, the site of the city and everyday Indian life were the most intriguing. Markets, taxis, bicycles, and rickshaws in amazing amounts flew by, careening in all directions. I’d grown accustomed to this Indian day to day. What Varanasi added to the mix was the occasional funeral party in ceremonial garb, carrying the corpse in a sheet on their shoulders, or say…a man in a loin cloth, covered in white powder, with red and orange paint on his face, praying and gyrating down the street.
The Taj Mahal, the magnificent “teardrop of love in a pool of eternity”, or some such… It IS quite remarkable, especially in comparison to the country in which it resides. The sheer whiteness, the clean purity is shocking enough, let alone the size and intricacy.
Awakening at dawn in
My travel companion, Ethan, arrived in
Ethan and I traveled to the center of the city to see what there was to see, it didn’t appear to be much, and we decided to return to our hotel not long after dark. The man driving the rickshaw we hailed spoke good English and didn’t assault us with offers of other, less respectable goods and services as other drivers had. He engaged us in conversation and had us laughing. He asked if we liked beer…”of course.” Whiskey? “Sometimes, but we prefer beer.” “Good, good.” He replied “Whiskey is risky and makes you chiskey!” Chiskey? Apparently this is the Hindi word for sleepy. We agreed to a stop off for a beer and offered to buy him one. He told us some of his family history. His family lives in a slum in
Ethan and I had full intentions on taking Samir up on his offer, but I was struck by a particularly stomach churning case of Delhi-belly that kept me up all night. I dared not stray too far from my hotel room bathroom the whole next day. At , after a riveting day of watching Bollywood TV and CNN, and pleading with my small intestines for mercy, we boarded a train for the
Inexplicably happy to extract ourselves from the crowded bus, Ethan and I walked down the dirt road from the Kanda market, down into the valley, looking for my contact, Jeevan Verma. The Kanda valley descends from its ridgeline in terraced stair step fields and clusters of small homes. Irrigation channels zig zag out from the streams to feed the thirsty wheat crop. Small soapstone excavation areas shine white on the green landscape and men can be seen working the pits, pulling stone from the earth to shore up terraces and build houses. The ridges outlines and defining the valley are thick with pine trees. They look like white pine with their wispy needles but the fascicle bunches are grouped in balls on the limbs, giving the trees a clustered look, almost like grapes. Banana trees spot the valley, giving it a tropical feel in spots. Monkeys are around, though not in the amounts seen in the plains. Certainly present, painting the classic Indian picture, are the sarees. From this elevated distance, they flutter gently as the forms beneath them glide over their work. The light catches the patterns differently, expressing all facets of this most feminine garment. I love to become absorbed by their presence in numbers. Too much to see all at once, and not as impressive when viewed alone, their sight must be inhaled, aspirated…perhaps by the pores of the skin or maybe the third eye humans have that opens when we stare at the ocean long enough. In this Himalayan setting, it is purely poetic…Breath, see, blink, and walk on…
We were escorted to Jeevan’s house by two young boys on their way home from school. Jeevan’s house stands on the mountainside, 1/3 of the way down to the valley floor with magnificent, sweeping views of the Kanda valley. His family stays on the second floor of the house, guests on the ground floor. The kitchen and stable for the cows are apart from the main house. Jeevan is a very amiable, talkative man with obvious energy. He speaks quickly and doubles up many words. “Yes, yes! Slowly, slowly!” etc. His kids and grandkids were quick to bring us tea and the little ones engaged us in games. We were shown our room, bare, except for 2 simple beds (cotton pad over plywood) and straw mats on the floor. The rest of the house is furnished relatively the same. We met our only neighbors in the guesthouse, an Australian / Canadian couple and they filled us in on the work they’d been doing…making concrete bricks from local river sand to build another water tank. Jeevan took us on a quick tour of his place and the adjacent community center project down the hill. The building was only half complete, still lacking its second story and roof…the roof we need in order to install the solar panels for the center’s lighting system.
After talking with Jeevan at length about our project goals, Ethan and I talked privately about the curveballs being thrown at us and how to handle them. One issue was the incomplete community center. Second, locations for the solar paneled street lights. Jeevan wants some placed on the path in between the community center and his village area (i.e. his house) but, we’re not sure that is the best use of one of the lights. Third, selecting houses to receive the in-house lighting systems based upon appropriate criteria. At the core of our dilemma was trying to feel out Jeevan. What are HIS goals, what are HIS motivations?
Admittedly, looking around the beautiful Kanda valley, Ethan and I wonder if our time and our donators’ money would be best put to use here. After traveling through so many disastrously impoverished areas in
Monday, January 26, 2009
Travel in India is a fly by the seat of your pants logistical guessing game. Let me begin by telling you about the past 48 hours...
After leaving the ruins of Ajunta after a brief visit, a temporary British traveling companion and I took rickshaw to bus to rickshaw in order to arrive at the Jalgaon train station. We had a meal together and said goodbye. I stood in the station ticket line sweating for 20 minutes. Personal space means nothing here. A silver haired security guard kept the lines in perfect order, barking and stomping his nightstick at any would be line jumpers. My ticket price for the 1400 km journey was 200 rupee (4 dollars)! As the sun set, I bought my ticket and walked the train platforms seeking out a cup of chai and a place to sit. I was soon surrounded by a group of young boys. One boy asked all the questions and translated for the rest. I bid them farewell after a few minutes and wandered farther down the platform just to be surrounded by another group of boys. These were older and apparently in college. At first a group of 5, then 10, 15, finally at least 20 young men stood around me. 5 asked the questions and translated for the rest. My train was scheduled to arrive...then the lights went out. The station fell into complete darkness.
Already worried I would not know the train when it came (trains are unlabeled and announced in Hindi on a scratchy intercom), I shouldered my backpack and pushed through the crowds asking in English (at no one in particular) if the next train went to Varanasi. As a train was arriving a young man told me I was on the wrong platform. "Follow me, sir!" and he sprinted away. I followed him up the stairs, taking 2 at a time, dodging figures in the dark. He pointed at another platform announcing, "Varanasi!" A train was arriving, I stood in line asking people if this was the right train. Mostly blank stares, then a group of men said no and pointed at the track I had just come from. Another train was pulling up. Their claim was backed up by the nearby chai-wala (tea salesman). Up the stairs again (3 at a time now). By this time the lights had come back on and wide eyed Indians got out of my way as I barreled down the stairs and jumped on the train as it was pulling away. I slumped into a seat.
Across from me I met a young man named Raj who asked around for me in Hindi about the trains destination. He was headed for the central Indian city of Bhopal. Two of the men nearby agreed the trains destination was not Varanasi (blood pressure up) but Raj assured me I could get off with him and he would see me to the correct train (blood pressure down). Ok, here's the twist...I had purchased a 2nd class ticket (the only thing available last minute) but had boarded the sleeper car. Raj tried to speak to the ticket checker as he passed (the only time we would see him) but the man could not be bothered and said there were no empty spots. So essentially...I was a stowaway on the wrong train in the wrong car. I figured I'd take a seat until its rightful occupant boarded and then I'd bounce around the sleeper car looking for spares (rather than suffer the free-for-all of the 2nd class cars). Raj assured me I could bribe the ticketman with 200 rupee. "For me, 100 would work, but you are a foreigner." The way I looked at it, at least we were headed north, and I would end up somewhere...
Two hours later a chai-wala assured me that we WERE going to Varanasi and would be there in 20 hours. (At this point, these guys are my mot trustworthy train info source) Only half believing him, but feeling better about the situation, I bought Raj and I cups of chai to celebrate. We discussed family life, the difference in romantic relationships between our respective countries, politics (both American and Indian), the economies of India, China, and the US, movies (both Holly and Bollywood), religion, language, and career goals. I was sad to see Raj go, but we traded emails and I hope to hear how things go for him. His parents were in the process of arranging his marriage (he had not yet met the young woman). Interestingly, he commented on fate...that he wondered why some of us were born in a place like India, and some in a place like the US. We both pondered this in silence for a bit before he smiled and said, "Yet, I am very proud to be an Indian."
After Raj left I stretched out on one of the empty sleeper bunks, dreading at each stop that its occupant would board or the ticketman would come. Neither happened all night and I slept until I was awoken by one of the most chaotic scenes I have ever witnessed.
Through the night, I grew to ignore when people were boarding the train,talking and searching for their seat, this was different... A mass of squabbling, shoving Indians poured into the car. More and more until they formed a single mass of sweaty, bearded, Saree-clad, chattering energy. Among them were mostly elderly, with a few young couples and their understandably upset children.
They pushed into every crevice available, sat 4 to a seat, squatted on the floor in between the seats, and stood in the isles. Once inside, they were unable to move, except their heads, which swiveled in every direction, yelling in Hindi. Old men with dreadlocked hair and beards to their bellies drew in their breath to bellow at people pushing behind them. They grasped their gnarled wooden walking sticks and kept their bags balanced on their heads. Bags were shoved in at my feet until I was scrunched into a fetal position in the corner of my bench...I would remain this way for 12 hours.
Our 12 x 12 room in the car easily had 30 people in it (and all the bags). As the day went on and the heat increased, so did the smells. People would shift to rewrap their headdresses or sarees, or to change their children's "diapers", and new fragrances would waft up throughout the car. I spent the better part of the day with my nose buried in my shirt. I soon realized that using the latrine would prove quite difficult (some in the crowd pulled themselves into a seated position on peoples' shoulders before walking across their heads to the end of the car). I didn't think I was up for this considering the amount of argument (in Hindi) the "crowd surfers" had to go through to achieve this. And so, I stopped drinking water and later in the journey would resort to my poor attempt at meditation to ignore my swollen bladder. From the window, at a stop, I bought some potato biscuits, the only thing I would eat all day.
Uncomfortable as I was, my experience was none-the-less a front row ticket to the lives of people obviously making a pilgrimage to the holy river, the Ganges. The Hindi believe that doing this will wash away a lifetime of sin and prepare your soul for moving onto the next life. Dieing in this city is a way to achieve moksha (liberation from the cycle of birth and death). Chants and prayers in the car continued throughout the day. After the initial fracas getting into the train, they were quite cordial to each other, sharing food and water.
Relief, relief, relief when we finally rolled into Varanasi station. My back crackled and popped as I extracted myself from my cramped perch, and I stumbled into the chilly Varanasi night after a 30 hour train journey across India. A rickshaw ride and 3 hotel inquiries later I found a vacancy and slumped into my dreams in this, the holiest of Indian cities.
I write now from the roof top of my hotel. Prayer, song, and chants can be heard drifting up through the horns and voices of the city. Multicolored kites dance across the rooftops, I count more than 20. Temple steeples rise like sandcastles over the brick and plaster buildings. I think back on my journey so far. Only 2 weeks have passed, but a much has happened. I digress...
ON A PLANE IN FLIGHT OVER AFGHANISTAN
The plane from Newark airport was filled with all Indians and myself. Its seems the immersion started in New Jersey. Crying babies scatter the plane. I was nervous and jumpy (unlike me) until the stewardess filled me up with a couple glasses of wine. I even set off an alarm in the Brussels airport by opening the wrong door. Leaving family and friends behind to go to a strange place is never easy, and this time was no different. There was something I had felt missing during my year in Latin America, something I had felt close to achieving but didn't whether by lack of conviction or not having the wisdom to know what it was I was looking for. I'm hoping this trip takes me a step closer. This is a conversation I would usually take up with Dad.
The rickshaw driver that had battled his way through the crowd of others to claim my fare barreled his tin beast through the foggy night. He took me to a hotel at the end of a series of dirt alleys. The air smells of burst plastic, the way I remember parts of South America smelling. This was much stronger. The driver was very talkative and thought nothing of weaving through oncoming traffic to get to our destination. In the morning he returned for me to take me back to the airport for my flight to Goa. The street scene in front of the hotel was like from a movie. Young girls in bright sarees (dresses) walked the dirt road littered with potholes and garbage. A group of young men sat in a semi-circle of folding chairs on the street side and looked silently when I walked out. An old man wrapped only in a small dirty cloth sat on the back of a horseless cart, selling fruit. As we entered the highway, I gripped the seat back as trucks, small CC motorcycles, scooters, and bicycles careened in all directions, horns blaring. Mayhem in all its glory. The smell and smog were thick, visibility was no more than 100 yards. I'm actually looking forward to returning to Delhi in 2 weeks when all this is not as shocking.
I was equally as jumpy on the flight to Goa and attempted to get myself under control. I scribbled train-of-thought in my journal.
I am resolved to go to Mumbai and track down this solar panel system provider. I cannot trust sending him any money when all I've seen is a website and his emails sometimes go unanswered. I sincerely hope for the sake of my own moral and timeline that he is merely disorganized or disinterested...and not dishonest.
The thing about serving a cause is that it self-perpetuates in one so that each act of kindness reciprocates with such a feeling of pride and warmth that your heart seems to burst forth with further ideas and an almost sense of guilt that you are receiving so much at a time that you only wanted to give.
Goal for trip: A cure for restlessness, to be replaced by calculated motivations and swift logistical planning. A self perpetuating, morally progressive auto-pilot.
India is a whirlwind of senses. From smells of burning garbage to wafts of curry from street vendors. Giggling children playing or those squatting in the street to relieve themselves, faces covered in grit and eyes with a thousand yard stare that is far too old for them. Rickshaw drivers careen past each other at top speed, their horns blaring. They seem to depend on the horn as a physical presence, a long, audible arm to reach out and tap each other on the shoulder saying, "excuse me please, I'd like to pass" or, "you're going to slow", or sometimes apparently just to say hello. Of course, it also manifests itself with the universal "F you" symbol of laying on the horn. All this goes on while they're trying to convince you that their friends hotel is much better than the one you asked them to take you to. Oh, and don't worry about the cow, bicycle, child, or concrete wall they just dodged by an inch.
Goa proved to be the Euro-tweeker party local that I thought it would be. I left as soon as I could. The day I spent there I drank beer with some Brits on a lawnchair on the beach, was massaged by some Indian dude who wouldn't leave me alone, pestered by shop owners, and (relief) swimming in the Indian ocean. The jetlag had not worn off. I was up at 4, caught a cab at 6, and got on the first train to Hampi.
The train was sparse but adequate. I felt like I was in a blue prison cell watching an Indian picture show. At each stop children would run to the track and beg money . The Chai-wala came ever half hour to sell tea. Begging women in beautiful dresses...their eyes are the hardest part. Look into them and you'll empty your wallet. I hummed a country song and watched the dry land roll by.
I ended up in quite the international car. Representing the good ol' US of A I shared it with China, Iran, Sweden, England, Australia, and India. The Chinese folks and the Iranian woman were in school at a nearby University, largely to learn English. They were excited to practice with native speakers. The Iranian woman was quick to engage me in a conversation about Americans' perception of Iran. She asked if people would be scared to visit there and I answered, "yes". She explained what a beautiful place it was and implored me to visit.
My first morning in Hampi I was up at 4 again. The scenery here would represent many people's idea of a paradise, especially climbers. Palm fronded rice paddies terrace downhill to the river. Boulder strewn hillsides poke out from beneath the foliage. White cranes and smaller birds traverse the landscape, promoting an internal sigh. Humans were meant to enjoy this landscape, I have no doubt. Other animals, including monkeys, can be heard out in the green and brown.
I set off at first light to explore the ruins within walking distance. Beginning early, people were bathing in the Tungabhadra River and washing their bright clothing. Naked children chased each other around the banks. I refused the incessant services offered to me...guides, rickshaw, books, bicycles, mopeds, gifts, fruit, on and on. A guide would have been nice but none of their English seemed adequate enough to give me any proper explanations. At the largest temple in the center of the Hampi bazaar, I had almost completed a contemplative walk-through of its halls (gods and other figures resting in the sculptures and wall carvings, observing as they have for 600 years) when I followed a group of Indians into a tight, low ceilinged hall. Stooping and shuffling my feet, I was moved along within an ever tightening group of saree-clad women. Personal standards of space were set aside as I was crowded in on all sides, pushing towards a lit cavern bearing a sculpture of a god dressed in gold chains and bright red and yellow cloth. I studied the pattern of the saree of the woman in front of me, apparently the only one uncomfortable with the close quarters we were sharing. Barefoot and bearing gifts, the woman elbowed room for themselves and knelt before their god, muttering prayer and pressing their foreheads to the ground. A man at the table dispensed holy water which was pressed to the lips and stroked through the hair. A dot of color (bindi?) was then applied to the forehead by the man. I observed and moved on. At the next cavern, the man guarding the god fiercely waved me on and poured water in my outstretched hands, nodding approval as I did as I had previously observed. He then dotted my forehead. Feeling a bit silly, but thankful I was allowed to participate, I shuffled out of the dark space and into the bright Indian sun. I hope that whatever good graces the Indian women looked forward to receiving from their prayer and prostration would also find a small route to myself.
Sidenote: Writing this hours later I had just woofed down a tasty plate of Indian food and rice which I afterwards found out was fried, unfermented cheese and ginger in a sauce. I'm hoping previously undirected prayers could be placed on backorder for intestinal fortitude.
After leaving the first temple, I wove my way through the bazaar to the edge of town, and then down the 2 km footpath along the river through the omnipresent boulder fields. Small ruins dotted the landscape and at the end of the path stood an even more impressive temple than the first. Along the way, I was approached by several young Indian men testing their English. I am always impressed and appreciate how they offer a handshake upon introduction. More impressive are the droves of Indian elderly who brave the washed out footpath in order to pay homage to the temples. Every color of the rainbow can be seen saree to saree and the jangle of their jewelry can be heard long after the fall out of view over the hills.
HAMPI DAY 2
Slept in until 6 today. I rented a scooter intent on discovering some of the more obscure ruins and temples. I mustered every bit of aggressive Philadelphia driving skill and set off. Tentatively at first and then with growing confidence, I wove my way through rice paddy, village, boulderfield, cow paddy, and groups of children with their arms outstretched for a high five. Before long, I chose to bypass the small temples and instead spent my time zipping up every side road I could find. The scenery was dreamlike. Glistening rice fields and boulder-strewn hillsides. People worked the fields, their oxcart plows lurched in the muddy water. While birds flew overhead in groups, clusters of Indian women walked the winding roads, their sarees fluttering in the wind. The colors were striking, the way they stood out against green fields, blue sky, and brown rock. So much so that I chose to remove my sunglasses as I rode so my eyes could drink it in...and was promptly hit in the face by an enormous dragonfly! But drink it in I did. Village after village, after field and rock I drank it in until it filled me. It pushed through my veins and pulsed with each heartbeat. My fingers and feet became swollen with it, my skin taught to my flesh, my tongue was flavored with its salt and spice. My hand grew lax on the throttle and I drifted up and down valleys at a mellow pace, enjoying each smile from each brown, weathered face, every wave, and each "Namaste". Hours later, afraid of running out of petrol, I made my way back toward town. The scooter died a half mile to go. I happily pushed my steed the remaining distance, grinning ear to ear. And the day was only half over...
After having lunch with some British friends I had met on the train, I decided to join them in attempting to find a nearby waterfall. After stopping to watch some monkeys bounce around on the nearby rocks, we walked to a nearby village, and were promptly surrounded by yelling children. "10 rupee?! 10 rupee?!" Its hard to turn down a filthy, yet incredibly cute kid who's only asking for 20 cents. We soon left them after handing out some coins and continued down the road. A young woman followed us (followed by the kids) offering to show us the waterfalls. I usually turn down these sorts of offers, but her English was very good and I figured it would make for an interesting hike. She told us her story as we walked. If half of it was true it is quite remarkable how is such good spirits she was. She has malaria and can't afford her medication, her husband died two years ago, she lost her job, she was caring for her brother's kids (he also passed away) as well as her own 3, etc, etc. It's a shame to only half believe people when they tell you these things, but they are almost always followed up by pleas for money. Regardless, she had genuine personality, and kept us laughing all the way down the trail.
When the path worsened she handed me her 4-ish year old son to carry...didn't ask, just handed him over. The problem was...he didn't have pants on! After walking a few steps with the obviously perturbed child outstretched in front of me, the mother instructed me to put him on my shoulders. "Umm, he has no pants on..." She teased me and called me something in Hindi which I assumed meant "sissy" and wrapped him in her scarf before plunking him on my neck. And we were off...
We never made it to the falls, my companions needed to catch a train. Our guide was obviously upset by this, but we paid her handsomely, for the laughs. I happened to run into her and the boy the next day and commented on how happy I was that he found his pants. She laughed, called me her "American boyfriend", and walked her son to school.
Took an overnight bus here from Hampi. I had a sleeper bunk and was quite comfy aside from the jarring ride. Heeding advice from those with not-so-great bus/train experiences in India, I tied my small bag with passport, camera, etc to my belt. Heaven help anyone I find attempting to rob me in my sleep...
When we began to enter the outskirts of Mumbai, the ugly side of India reared its head. Shanty towns surrounded by construction debris littered the side of the highway. Trash and filth were prominent, as were brown streams and puddles of god knows what. Children ran around barefoot at best, many naked. Some squatted to relieve themselves on the side of the road. Many had the red-auburn hair color that signifies malnutrition. By contrast, children farther down the road marched arm in arm, dressed smartly in their school uniforms in front of apartment buildings with laundry flapping in the windows. The seemingly drastic difference in living conditions seemed to change every 10 blocks or so. One begins to think things aren't that bad in this city, then you roll right through hell all over again. Calling the situation "desperate" would be like calling the grand canyon "big". I don't know a word that properly describes either, but I cannot get the images of that morning out of my head. It is a problem of overpopulation, scarce resources, and an upside-down pyramid distribution of wealth. My heart goes out to anyone that makes it their life's work attempting to tackle this problem, even on a small scale. I imagine Mumbai needs a Robin Hood of sorts, and alot of soap...
Mumbai was interesting, but honestly I could not wait to leave. Significant events of my time there can be described properly through concise bullets...
1. Approached by a man attempting to recruit western extras for a Bollywood movie.
2. Watched the Obama inauguration with an Irishman and a British photojournalist...they were as fired up about it as I was.
3. Inadvertently had lunch in the cafe involved in the Mumbai terrorist attack...bullet holes riddled the walls...stopping my fork in mid-shovel
4. Meeting with Jasjeet (solar panel provider) went well. After hours searching the city for his office we had a nice 1.5 hour meeting. His large presence, turban, and long beard make for an intimidating first impression, but I found him sharp, to the point, and eager to help our cause. When I asked him why he started his foundation, he said, "to help people bring dignity to their lives."
Desperate to leave Mumbai I booked an expensive bus ticket for the north. I had trouble finding the "shop" they told me to catch the bus at, missed it, caught a cab to the next stop, blah blah...these traveling woes are becoming commonplace and I shall cease writing about them...moral of the story...travel in India is a pain in the rear.
I spent two days in the Elora and Ajunta caves. Magnificent temples of immense proportions and unfathomable human effort. Machu Pichu is the only place I have seen that rivals this places sheer amount of human toil. The statues inside were impressive in their own right. 30 ft Buddha statues in the Buddhist caves and endless Shiva story panels in the Hindu. Though the size of the Buddhas was humbling, the detail and story of the Shiva statues was more interesting to me. Many of them depicted either epic battles with demons or suggestive poses with females. Taking the cake was certainly the giant Hindu temple at the center of the Elora ruins. Carved out of solid rock, the temple was relieved out of 200 vertical feet and twice that in length. Life sized elephant statues, pillars, giant rooms holding huge Shiva statues and detail amongst detail were carved out of one piece of stone, still rooted to the earth. Undoubtedly one of the most impressive feats of human kind I have ever seen. I especially enjoyed touching the monolith that represents Shiva in his true form. The stone is polished smooth by the hands of the past millennium and a half (archaeologists date the ruins at around the 8th Century). I pondered my connection to the infinite hands before me, their belief in this place, their understanding of the world, and the peace and wisdom in their heart.
TO BE CONTINUED