Monday, August 25, 2008

19 August

This will be my final email from the subcontinent. It is 3 in the afternoon, and after a last meeting at the National Foundation for India (a sponsor of Seva Mandir), I will be on my way through a final battle with Delhi transportation and off to NYC.

My last few days in India were filled with the chaos I expected of the country. After I left Kathmandu, I went to Varanasi, one of the holiest cities for Hindus, and then to Agra, to see the famed Taj Mahal. Upon arrival, I thought to myself, where is all of the craziness of India that is supposed to permeate everything in this holy city? Well, little did I know I was actually 20km north of the city- a drive to the central train station changed all of that. It was utter mayhem- people are everywhere, camped out on plastic tarps on the ground, cows roaming in the middle of the crowds, auto and bicycle rickshaws vying for space to enter the parking lot, sadhus (holy men) dressed in white or orange and wlaking barefoot across the rock and sand pack that makes up the parking lot, old women squatting on the ground over their tiffens (stacked containers of food), and off to the side, in a small room, 40 tourists trying to get trains out of the city. It was awsome. I splurged that night on a hotel, Rs500 for a private room with air con and an en suite bathroom, in a neighborhood between the train station and the old city. The next day I woke up early, as I heard the best time to see the old city of varanasi was in the early morning when the pilgrams wash in the Ganga (ganges river). I headed over in a cycle rickshaw, and as we got closer to the old city, the number of people grew. Many were sadhus and pilgrams, making their way to and from the rivers. The rickshaw had to stop, as the roads were blocked (that weekend had been independence day and rakhi- the brother and sister festival, and there were tons of people in the city). So i got out and walked among the throngs of half clothed and mostly barefoot individuals to attempt to find the holy river in this amalgam of people. There was a queue a thousand + persons deep, of men and women holding jugs of water from the ganga, all waiting to bathe with it in a holy temple. I promptly got lost and found my way to the chowk, the main shopping area, but unfortunately i couldn't buy anything because it was 6 in the morning and nothing was open.

I finally gave in to the propositions of men claiming to be tour guides, and one helped to to the river, showed me around the old city, which is a wild maze of tiny streets- streets so narrow vechiles and rickshaws aren't able to get by so everyone is on foot, dirt, mud and flith line everything, piles of rubbish area everywhere, there is no drainage, and everyone (but me) was barefoot). there are very few tourists there now, so it was just me and the thousands of pilgrams and sadhus vying for a tiny bit of space in which to move through the incoherent alleyways of the old city. Nothing I have seen compares to the true apex of disorganization that exists there. The guide took me to some of the temples, helped me arrange a river tour, and of course 'his shop' to see if i wanted to buy anything (varanasi is famous for its silk bengali saris). Because Varanasi is a holy city, many people come here to die. We went to an area next to one of the cremation sites, where we met the manager of the three hospices located on the river. People are cremated here 24 hours a day, and there are stacks of wood all along the water, and piled in huge row boats at the river's edge. I got a blessing from an old woman invalid, and my donation was rejected by her because of the low amount. All along the river people are bathing- men in their underwear, and women more discreetly washing their limbs under their clothing. We went to the main ghat and as we turned the corner to approach the water, I encountered my greatest fear of India- a cobra. thank someone that it was in a pot and i could manage my dread and panic as i nervously followed my guide down an alley of vegetable sellers to the top steps of the ghat. I joined the other tourists and snapped a photo of the river, and then looked to my right and saw another cobra, and decided I had seen enough of the city, and headed back to my little ac-ed room and waited in the coolness until I had to leave for the train station.

I befriended a group of Spaniards while waiting for the delayed train. They invited me to try and get upgraded to their compartment, as I was in sleeper non AC and they were one level above- in an ac car- and were a group of four (and 2 were big guys). So I joined them, and somehow in broken english and hindi conveyed to the conductor that I didn't feel safe in my original seat and that I wanted to sit with my friends. By some grace of god there was an open berth in their compartment- a top berth at that- and we spent the rest of the 16 hour train ride (it was only supposed to be 12-13) to agra together. The train was late getting in, and parted ways with my friends at the station, as they had to arrange for a train to delhi and i wanted to see as much as possible before i booked it to Delhi that evening. I met a tourist at the taxi stand and we shared a cab to the taj. As we got into the vehicle, a bizzare looking 2m tall Brit, in addidas workout pants, a golden kurta (long shirt worn here), 3 piercings in his lip, two more in his upper lip, a mohawk, and psoriasis joined his lost friend and the three of us made our way to india's most famous monument.

I wasn't struck by the taj upon arrival, but after three hours of circling the stark while marble, impeccable craftsmenship, perfect symmetry, and inlay stone work, i realized just how incredible the building really is. I spent my time sitting in the cool marble alcoves, looking at the river, visiting with israelis (in hebrew, no less), and staring at this stellar piece of architecture and the perfect symmetry of the entire site. I also visited the mosque to the left (the taj mahal is only a mausoleum, not a mosque), and the fake mosque on right, built for perfect site planning symmetry. the japanese tourists and i took more pictures of ourselves in front of the building, and i eventually pulled myself away to see some other sites in the city, like the awesome Agra Fort, the Baby Taj, and a few other leeser visited structures, like the tomb of the shah's vizer from persia. I also went to the other side of the yamuna river to see the taj from the 'back.' it was really really cool.

After a nice ride back to delhi and visiting with my seatmates- a man from nairobi getting a ph d in literature in delhi and a young guy from austrailia who is living in kathmandu and teaching english to monks, i entered the horrid crowds of delhi all trying to get rickshaws to their next destinations. after an hour or so in one, i finanly made it to my place of rest for the evening (late night at that point), had a nice cool shower, and slept the best night of sleep i have had, under the cold breeze of the air con unit. After a bit of work this morning, I arrived at a friend's apartment, closer to the city. I have been rather lazy today, and after my meeting will head off to the airport.
My time in India and Nepal has been exquisite. I came here knowing a lot about the country, but no first hand experience of it. It was certainly over-whelming at first, and I had a few, "oh shit" moments, but the shocking culture of India quickly melted away as I settled into my life this summer. There are certainly many shocking differences, food, toilets, showers, roads, transportation, dress, and I quickly have adapted to seeing people sleeping on any surface, seeing cows and animals share the roads with rickshaws, taxis, and buses, people using the toilet where they can, open drains, chai-wallahs, and vegetable carts lining all the streets. It is now ordinary to see people getting water from handpumps, men and women carrying their loads on their heads, seeing trash on streets because solid waste management here leaves something to be desired, and open drains. The colors in the poor country are the most vibrant I have ever seen. No one wears black or brown, and everything people where, women in particular, is brightly colored in all shades and patterns. This color I have observed in many different ways before- as a contrast to the dirt and poverty of the city, and i see it as a pretty bright metaphor for something about the challenges life presents people here. Certainly people don't enjoy getting water from handpumps, taking a shit on train tracks, having to nagivate snakes in high grass, or see piles of trash because there is no one to collect it, but life marches on, and people continue to live here, send their children to school, get married, drink chai, and live in their communities. There is a strage push pull factor here- pushing me out of the country and into the creature comforts all of us have come to expect from living in the west, and a pull back to India, an allure to understanding what works and what doesn't, what is a necessary piece to living a fulfilling and quality life and what is just superfluous, to understanding what a community wants versus an individual...there is something fabulous and wonderful in the midst of the chaos people living here and people who have visited this country understand. India is remarkable on many different levels- the highest office rents in the world and the highest rates of poverty, the bright colors everywhere against the extreme poverty, the gold women wear daily because why hide all of their fine jewelry away under a mattress or in a safety deposit box, the modern versus the tradition, the religous fervor- it is a country to not be missed, and to be experienced as fully as one can. It is not a perfect country by any means, but it works somehow. India has certainly not seen the last of me, as I have barely begun to see it. I look forward to my future visits, and to the new layers the country will reveal with more exploration.

Until I reach the states, a final Namaste from India.

16 August

I have spent the past eight days in Nepal- in Kathmandu and trekking in the foothills of the Himalayas outside a city called Pokhara. Since I last wrote, I bid farewel to Seva Mandir (even though I will continue to work withSadhna, the women's handicraft organization from the States), took my first Indian train (in an overnight sleeper car), and hiked through inaccessible mountain regions.
Our farewell dinner in Udaipur was in an old haveli. The rooftop views were beautiful, and the men playing the sitar (Indian guitar) was a lovely touch. We toasted to a great summer, and had a final round of some of our favorite indian dishes- palakpaneer, naan, dhal, all in the company of 14 people- some workers from Seva mandir and some friends we met along the way. The next day, I somehow managed to cram all of my goodies from Sadhna into my rucksack, hoist it on my back (along with my daypack), andFizzy, Melanie, and I piled into a rickshaw with our bags and headed to the train station, where we only got our seats wrong once,moved, hoisted our bags (a second time) up into the upper berths, and settled in for the 12+ hour train ride to DEelhi from Udaipur. The train wasn't so bad, albeit sleeping with my rucksack wasn't too comfortable. We pulled into Delhi in the morning, and the urban slums along the train tracks that I have been missing were there, in all their emotional glory. It was raining as we pulled into the city. Men in lunghis (a shirt version of a sarong that many men here wear) carrying umbrellas were walking and squatting along the tracks, as the tracks served as toilets for the people living in the slums we passed. They would squat, and justgo to the bathroom right there, with the trains passing. Some men faced the train, others had theirback turned, and it was a bit tough whenI realized what the small yellow mounds I saw actually were.
We dropped our luggage at a friend's apartment,and then headed to Kathmandu. It is a fabulous city, at least now in the low tourist season. We have been eating Tibetan and Nepali food, much more mild than indian food for sure, and withTibetan food, one can see the similarities withsome form of Chinese cuisine. Our hotel, located in Thamel (the new city centre) is about $2.20/night, and ironically is the first place I have been in 6 weeks to have a proper shower with hot water and pressure. I haven't had to use a bucket all week! Anyhow, we saw sights here, including the dramatic Swayambunath (monkey temple) buddhist temple, up several steps and offering a dramatic view of the city. There are monkeys everywhere, jumping around the statutes of Buddha, up and down the stairs, and around the stupa (the center piece mound which ontains relics from Buddha). The stupa was incredibly impressive- a large white mound, spire with buddha;s eyespainted on, a gold dome, and tibetan prayer flags hanging everywhere. the stupa is surrounded by prayer wheels, whcih people spi as they walk around the stupa in a clockwise motion. It was incredible.
We alsowent to Durbar Square, the historic center of town. We went to the KumariGoddess's home (a prepubescent girl is selectedas a living goddess, and is considered such until her first period). We coldn't she her because she is on strike, as her caretakers aren't making enough money (supposedly). We walked through thehistoric town, seeing the seats of government, shrines, temples, vegetable sellers, people hanging outon the old buildings' stoops, and children playing in puddles. After dusk, we roamed all around the narrow alleys and backstreets of the area, dark alleyways punctured with tiny stores, butcheries, and tobacco stands. Every so often we happened upon a square, bustling like crazy in the rain, with people selling vegetables, marigolds and lotuses for people to palce on the many shrines around, bicycle rickshaw drivers vying fr your business, young girl selling salts, men sitting around a counter with carcasses awaiting their purchase, fish being sold for dinners...It was awesome.
The next day we headed for our trek. We took a microbus (think enlarged minivan) to the city of Pokhara, about 5+ hours away on a beauitful (yet nauseating) drive through the moutains. The drive was spectacular- the mountains are brilliant colors of explosive green, and much of the journey was along a river ranging through the valley floor. We got to Pokhara inthe evening, and enjoyed a nice meal at a Tibetan restaurant near our hotel. The next day we headed about1.5 hours away to the head of our trail. We did a 4 hour hike in about 7...we took our time emjoying the lush landscape, and took a swim in a water hole safe from the rapids of the river. It was so refreshing, to actually feel cold for the first time in weeks! The water was freezing because it was from glaciers. It was great and I think all of the trekkers that passed us were jealous that we decided to go in. We stayed that night at a guesthouse perched precariously on a mountain face. We arrived right as the monsoon began. Everything was lit by candlelight, and was really cool. WE climbed upa wooden ladder to our room, ate dinner at long wooden tables, and played cards by candlelight. Our guide, Ajeeb, also sang traditional Nepali songs for us.
We woke up late the next day and didn't hit the trailuntil about 8.15am. This was the most rigorous day of the trek, as it was all uphill. It was also themost beauitful. The mountains are so green right now because of the rains and everything is like an explosion of color. When you look up at the mountains, their faces are pierced with waterfalls. the rivers run over the mountains, and the rice paddies are such a bright neon green it is hard to believe it is real. Along the trail we met an old woman, who sat down with us on a rest and pulled out a picture of two girls, saying they were her granddaughters and that her daughter diedand she needed money to take care of them. It was clearly a sham, but the woman was this wizzened old thing, hiking up these mountains with the energy of a 25 year old. We came across thema again a bit later in the trail, and she was intensely yelling and arguing withthe younger man with her. Turns out she took the younger man's sister and promised her work in Pokhara, but sold her to a hotel proprietor as a cleaner, and when the girl is old enough, she will be sold for sex. She was about 6 or seven. No one knows who is right, but that put a somber cloud over us for a while.
IN the early evening we arrived at our inn for the night, soaked through from the monsoons that pured down all afternoon. It was a wonderful place, on the top of the Ghorepani mountain at an elevation of 2300m, with a supposed view of Annapurna South and Annapurna I (two snowcapped mountains in the himalayas, which include mountains in the range over 6000m)- clouds obscured it. After a much needed and relished warm shower, Melanie, Meg (another Seva Mandir-ite), and I went shoppping-we were desperate as we hadn't shopped in like two days and hadn't seen anything to even buy, save water and lays potato chips. There was exactly one shop that sold anything besides water and snacks, and we all bought lovely sheep's wool scarves, which are wonderfully warm, and smell like mountainy moistness. This guesthouse wasn't crowded, and we sat around a fire sipping hot chocolate until dinner arrived. WE played cards, and made friends witha couple hiking, and talked bycandlelight. WE crashed early that night, around 10 pm, in our second floor room at the top of a wooden ladder. Thin walls made out of wooden planks, no lights, but cozy and appropriate for out setting. Unfortunately we had to skip the part of our hike the next morning, as the clouds obscured the view of the mountains. But wedid glimspe the mighty Himalayas before we had to trek back down the mountains, hiking in 7 hours what it took us 2 days to achieve. by the time we finished we were totally wiped out, and my calves still ache from strenous hike downhill, in the rain. Parts of the trail had been washed away by the monsoons, and we had to fordge ourway over the landslides.
What was even more striking than the beautiful scenery was the fact that our trains was actually the only road in the area. It was a series of stone steps, varying in width and depth, large in some areas and smaller in others. itis difficult for humans to walk- impossible for vechiles to traverse. we saw some horses and donkeys along the road, but anything people wanted was carried in baskets hanging down people's backs from a straparound their foreheads. Many villages or homes we passed were over 30 miutes from any resembling another human,and there are no phones. If someone gest sick, i think four men get together and carry the person down the mountain. School children walk aboutan hourup and down the slopes every day, skipping along like it is nothing. This is the only route by which to reachthis area, and is an unrelenting for the trekker as it is for those who live along its stones. While the trails are overrun with treekers for probably 6+ months of the year, the rest of the time these mountain people live pretty isolated from the any semblance of urban areas. This isolation was so striking and immense, and is quite overwhleming in retrospect.
After a night in POkhara filled with tradiational Nepali music and dancing (we joined in to the best of ouraching bodies abilities), we headed back to Kathmandu, in a crazy and uncomfortable bus ride. At our lunchstop, ourguide said there was bad news- apparently there was as strike on the road to Kathmandu, conducted by a family whose son was killed by a bus a few months ago and was still awaiting reparations. While terrible, leave it to ourluck to be in a country going through intense potical shifts and encountering a totally unrelated strike. Luckily it stopped before we entered Kathmandu.
The next day we went to Bouddnath- a major site for Buddhist pilgrams and monks. Surrounding the area is a Tibetan neighborhood, which has really developed since many Tibetan refugees moved there after the 1959 revolt in China. It was awesome and impressive, with dozens of prayer wheels of many different sizes all around, monks walking around, people lighting butter candles, tibetan prayer flags was awesome. That afternoon, i went to Pashupatinath, the most important Hindu temple in Nepal. Only hindus can enter the temple, but there is a great deal to see outside the structure. It is located on teh Bagmati River, which feeds into the Ganges. It is a site for many pilgrams and because it is a holy spot, many people come here to die. There is a hospice located on the river, and a sliding stone outside of it to slide the body into the water to cleanse it before it is wrappedin whiteand orange and creamted. There were about about 6 or 7 funeral pyres along the ghats (steps that lead to the river for cremation purposes), all lit, while I was there, and I watched the cremations. The Brahmans conduct th e cremations, while the family sits behind the pyre and watches for the 3-4 hours, unti lthe body is burned and the ashes are pushed off the pyre into the water. People also swim in the water. It was pretty intense. Something about HInduism doesn't resonate so well with maybe because I also see the tranquility of Buddhist around, so I went back to Boudhnath for the evening circling of the stupa- monks and people get swept away in circling the structure and spinning prayer wheels. I made it about half way around untili got distracted by banging drums and dancing, and of course a bit of shopping, but finished the circle, and headed backto Thamel for a final night in kathmandu. Off to varanesi today, and Agra the day after. I get back to Delhi on the evening of the 18th, and leave about 24 hours later.

4 August

Dear All,
My time at Seva Mandir is quickly wrapping up, as I have decided to leave the organization a week early, and travel with my two roommates and another volunteer to Nepal (any advice is welcome!) The work I am doing is actually at a good point to wrap up the project, and traveling a week early allows the four of us to travel together. I am working on submitting some final reports, one on getting the community's youth involved in understanding the challenges women in Delwara face, as related to water, a copy of the survey I wrote, and a write up of the stories I have gathered from the various women my translator and I have interviewed.
Like many previous emails, there are two extremes I would like to talk about: A fair honoring the monsoons/season some of the volunteers attended this past Friday in Udaipur, and my experience of collecting water with the women of the Meghwal community in Delwara (which happened yesterday- sunday- and today).
The fair we attended honored the monsoons and the season, as best as we could gather from various people in broken English. It was the ultimate street fair- all the major roads (which are two lane slabs of cement) were closed to vehicular traffic, which wouldn't have been able to move anywhere because of the thousands of people that descended on the city. And I mean thousands- loads of people were here. The streets were lined with stalls selling everything from roasted corn (some made of fires of garbage- delicious), cheap plastic gold jewelry, hankerchiefs, boys underwear, and fired food galore (every food vendor in the city must have rallied his brothers, sons, and cousins to help in the deep frying process of a bunch of food I coudn't really identify, but was most likely a mix of flour, spices, and potatoes). There was also ferris wheels- what fair is complete without one? But this wheel was man-powered: literally. Two men hung from the wheel's center axel and walked on the spokes of the ferris wheel to make it move. I took pictures if you don't believe it, but it was pretty awesome (to watch, ain't a great deal was going to get me into the contraption).
When we entered the madness, there was a man selling fakes beards and mustaches, which my roommate Fiz quickly bargined down from Rs 50 to Rs 10. He donned the amish style beard and giant Indian mustache with pride, and got a lot of cat-calls from his new get-up. Then we bought the festive hats vendors were selling- mine was a lovely number of thin cardboard wrapped in gold celophane, with a brim of gold glitter and multi-colored feathers. Our new looks generated a host of shameless stares, laughs, and requests for photos, including some by newspaper reporters. We actually made it into two of the Udaipur daily newspapers- and one of the photos is in color (mom- i have three copies so don't worry). Actually, 7 foreigners walking around in tens of thousands of Indians at the fair created quite a stir. Ever time we sat down to rest, a group would amass around us, and just stare. It was funny the first two times, but when the police came by and broke up one group (of about 50 gawkers), and a second time when about 70-100 people formed a semi-circle around us, it got a little creepy, and we decided to stop taking a rest. However, we had a great time, as did the people of udaipur, at such a fun fesitval with food, dancing, singing, and general merryment.
It is amazing how drastically experiences can change here. Sunday afternoon I made my way to Delwara, to spend that evening and the following morning with women in one of the Meghwal communities collecting water. I believe I have written about this community before, but they are a sceduled caste and members of the dalit (one of the lowest castes), and this community in particular is separated from the rest of Delwara by a ~1km road. There is almost no running water in this community, terrble road conditions, poor drainage (where it exists), and a great deal of community in-fighting. We went to one of the far wells around 5pm, which is located about 1~2km from the village, over terrible dirt roads pock-marked with giant water puddles (it had rained the day before). To get to the well, you have to climb over a meter high stone wall (imagine doing with with two water pots balanced on your head), and then walk through a farm and down a narrow, winding, and uneven dirt road to a well. Once you get to the well, you toss your metal bucket with a thick rope attached to it into the 30 foor deep stone well, hope the snake on the side of the well won't bother you, and begin to jiggle the bucket in the deep water to fill it up, so you can hoist the thing up, dump it through a filtering cloth, and into one of your two water pots. Once that is all done (to get 25 liters takes about 6 intense and heavy tosses of the bucket down the well), you get to hoist the pots (one made out of clay- keeps the water cool, and one made out of hammered metal) onto your head and navigate through the farm, road, slide over the stone well, and back down the crappy road to your home, which is probably up a hill and the road to get to it is probably unpaved or poorly paved at best. Once you kick off your shoes, you take the pots off your head and sit for about five minutes, before you go and collect water for bathing, as that well water with the occasional snake on the side of the stones is only for drinking.
Now, there are several wells and handpumps one can use for water collection. However, one of the wells is flooded with waste water from the rest of the community and waste water from the Devigarh fort (the former king's former castle cum luxery hotel), made wrose by rain runoff. So that is out for many people. Another well's water is contaminated from the rain and many people won't use it for bathing. There is a handpump at the entrance to the community, but when I entered the area this morning, a man was in his undies bathing. Now, we went to an area at the bottom of the hill where there are pipes in the ground with water in them. There are five ditches, about 2 feet square and 3 feet deep that has a spigot of water pouring in them, and then two shallow dugouts (think of a dugout a child makes at a beach while digging sand for a sandcastle, only this one is in red dirt and snall stones) with small spigots with a small but respectful stream of water coming from them, when you pull out the stopper of a twig with cloth wrapped around one end. You have with you a giant plastic drum, think something like a painter would have when painting a room or house, or for you NYers, the buckets people use as drums at the times square subway station. To fill this up, you squat on the ground and take a plastic container, hold it under the spout, and fill and pour, repeating this until your bucket is full. You ask someone to help you put this on your head (it is probably 20+ liters of water) and you make your way back home, bathe, and begin your day.
Appreciate every drop out of your tap, the luxury we have created of bottled water, and a shower pretty much any time you want it. I know I do more so than I ever have before.