Sunday, February 28, 2010

Checking In

Hi Folks,

Sorry this will be a short one. I just wanted to check in and let you all know I'm still alive. Things are good here. My internet access is quite limited, so I'll only be able to update things from time to time. It's already been two weeks since my last post - sorry about that. More interesting posts to come.



Friday, February 12, 2010

The Challenge

Hi Friends. Please know that a very important person in my life had a birthday yesterday, Feb. 12th. His name is Don and he is my Dad. You’re always in my thoughts and prayers, Dad. I love you very much, and have a safe road trip home this week.

Last Sunday is still with me. It was the second full day with Dan and Rob, and Puthumai saw it as a great opportunity to expose us to rural West Bengal and the Santhal Tribe. They are one of many groups in India designated as a ‘scheduled tribe’. In the taxi on our way to one of the small hamlets, Shubhra and Puthumai explained that the Indian Constitution ends with something like an appendix, called a ‘schedule’. It identifies which groups receive preference or protection laid out in earlier sections of the constitution, thus ‘scheduled castes’ and ‘scheduled tribes’. I originally assumed it was somewhat derogatory, and am still unsure as to what connotations it carries with mainstream groups in India.

The previous post shows a few photos of our visit, so feel free to use them as a reference. The real photographer on our day trip was Rob, and I’ll post some of his photos as soon as they become available.

We visited two hamlets, which (I think) are just groupings of huts and houses too small to be called a village. Almost twenty-four hours earlier Puthumai showed up on the doorstep of CKS with some of my dearest friends from home, Rob and Dan. We all had a full day of exuberance, laughing, disbelief, joking, celebrating, sharing, excitement, exploring, and so on. Visiting the Santhals did something to all that. It was disconcerting to float between that spirit and one of a much sadder reality that surrounded us. The night before, we enjoyed a well portioned meal, plenty of laughs, and even a few beers to top it off. It wouldn’t be stretching it to guess that the cost of that meal was equivalent to what a Santhal family’s spends on food for six months or more. There were constant reminders of the disparity between ‘us’ and ‘them’. Dan alone is a great example. He is a 6’3’’, healthy, strong person with clean teeth and no tapeworms. Imagine the amount of resources of all kinds it has taken to get him from 7lb8oz baby Dan to his current adult state. This example applies to anyone in the US. Even struggling families can (although not easily) find ways to put nutritious meals on the table, to receive regular dental and medical care, and safe housing. We are so blessed in the US. So many people in the world have never seen such plenty. Dan kept mentioning that around 60% of Indians live in slums. I’m assuming this only includes metropolitan slums, not under-developed villages. That’s six-hundred million people living in very trying conditions every single day, in India. Not to mention the rest of the world.

Another thing that struck me was a traveling evangelical Indian preacher’s reactions to it all. We bumped into him when visiting one of the family homes, and at first he talked about how reading the Bible has changed his life and how important his studies have been. But when we started to walk away and say goodbye he began speaking openly about how the people there were living like animals. He said that exact phrase several times: like animals. I wasn’t sure if he was accusing them, angry at higher powers, or mad at us. Maybe it was the case that they did live like that, and that my hour long visit wasn’t enough to see how things truly were. Either way, it rocked me to hear. What I perceived throughout the visit was a group of dignified people living in difficult conditions. Was it pure ignorance and naiveté to be agitated by this man? If I saw the dignity, was I being insensitive to the squalor?

It would be easy to go on like this, and I’m sorry to do it. Of course, this isn’t news to anyone and I’m not trying to claim guilt. But there is value in articulating it, and I thank you for hearing me out. The last thing the IDIP program needs is for experiences like these to be lost on account of my shrinking short term memory.

Throughout the visits a wide range of thoughts and emotions came and went. It was easy to remain in a state of awe and wonder at how different these people lived. Sadly enough, the realities of their lives were kept at a safe and novel distance from my world. We did get to step inside some of the homes, see how the one water pump for the whole village worked, and watch men work in the fields. But I knew lunch would be on the table in a few hours and that my malaria pills were sitting on the shelf waiting for me. I knew I was safe, and that we didn’t have to make a twenty kilo bag of rice feed my family for six months. Our worlds remained apart.

Even in the midst of such bleak realities, there’s a beauty in it all. Of course, the physical beauty– their decorated homes, clothing, endless fields, little babies, energetic and curious kids, and happy cows. But there’s also beauty in what the future holds for the Santhals. We met a young man in one of the hamlets who spoke a bit of English and was full of smiles to have us there. Aside from that, he was learning biology, chemistry, and physics. What a world of difference he will be able to make in his community? If he is able to get a job someday and meet with moderate success, who is to say he won’t come back and teach or even start a school? Furthermore, these two hamlets are targets for one of Puthumai’s sponsorship programs, which supports the development of entire villages by helping individual families. It is still in the works, but will ensure that families have the capacity to feed, immunize, and educate their children. To me, this is beautiful. Making sure that kids can go to school near their own village so they don’t work in rice paddies their whole lives and remain indebted to the same landlord their parents were, and so they can feed their families more than two meals of rice and lentils a day, so they can enjoy sanitation systems, so they can flourish.

*I apologize for the inconsistent font sizes. I've been having troubles editing.

Puthumai showing us the village well.

The lines three lines running perpendicular to the rest were illegally placed there by villagers. It is very common. They risk being electrified, having their homes burn down, and retribution from the government.

A beautiful and dignified family outside a mud house. In front is a typical village stove, which is built into the mud flooring and fueled with wood.

Rice paddies leased and worked by villagers. We saw a few very young children working in the fields alongside adults.

The young man was telling Dan, Puthumai, and I that the pond in the background was were the village washed dishes and clothing, cleaned themselves, and defecated.

Puthumai was showing us around one of the houses. He was pointing out that these people had a few stainless steal vessels and utensils, making them one of the richest families in the hamlet.

This was the upstairs to the house. The floor was simply bamboo slats. Puthumai advised us not to walk on it because we would have fallen through. What does that say about our size/weight/diet compared to the residents of the house?

A nice photo. They are sitting on the side of a mud house, which need to be completely destroyed and remade every five years. Imagine having to do that where we live.

A larger mud home being built. The construction takes place in stages; adding a fresh layer as soon as the previous one dries. Only mud and a small amount of bamboo is used. No bricks.

This one makes me smile. Puthumai and his fans.

This is Dan standing next to a structure made of paddy, which is what the plant is called before the rice grains are stripped from it. These structures act as storage while it dries.

Thanks again for your patience, and for hearing me out. There’s a lot coming at us IDIP’ers. For me, sharing bits and pieces of the experience seems like one of best ways to process it all. Take care everyone, you’re always in my thoughts.



Wednesday, February 10, 2010

My first run in with The Law (Natural Law, that is)

Hello Everyone. I apologize for the great delay since my last post. Just as I was starting to work on a detailed post two days ago, an ugly mistake rendered me useless.

This is how it all started: The night of February 8th was like any other (minus me being in India). Shubhra offered me a snack derived from milk. Many of the sweet shops sell a kind of treat that is made from milk fat that has undergone a separation process. They add lemon juice to catalyze some unknown reaction, and voila - skim milk and fat. So, that night some of our milk had separated and Shubhra asked if either Loren or I wanted to try it. People eat it all the time here as dessert. She suggested sugar, but I went for it without sweetener. No problem, I felt great.

It wasn't until the next morning that I made The big mistake. All along I had the impression that our milk had separated because Shubhra intentionally put lemon juice in it. This, in fact, was not the case. Our milk had separated because it had been sitting out for at least a day and a half. Loren tried to warn me, but for some reason I convinced myself that it was safe. I blame myself. So, merrily as ever, the morning of Feb. 9th I added a few spoonfuls of the 'skim' portion to my morning coffee. You could call it milk, or you could call it a staphylococcus convention, where billions of happy little bacteria were living their lives.

That night was no good. I'm sure you can imagine the details. It put me out of commission for a whole day, but I'm happy to announce that this morning I'm feeling like my old self again. No need to worry, I think it's important I was humbled a bit - with a month in India without getting sick, I was beginning to feel invincible.

That's it for now. There's plenty of catching up to do, so look out for a more upbeat post very soon. You're all in my prayers.



Photographic evidence that I'm feeling better and that no one needs to worry

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Who Would Have Thought?

Hello Friends. Already, a significant stretch of time has grown between now and my last post. Sorry for the delay, or if I've worried anyone (cough cough...Mom I love you). Please be advised that this post won't come close to capturing all that's transpired recently. I apologize for neglecting to mention some of the basics like the food I eat, what my room is like, the house, etc. For those of you seeking to hear more about that, please forgive me for the time being.
This past weekend, my Dear Dear Friends Dan and Rob Landerholm stopped into Bolpur to spend the last few days of their month-long tour of India with us here at CKS. Thanks Brothers, for stretching your finances and health to share the weekend. I will never forget it, and will likely never be able to repay you.

International Men of Mystery: Dan and Rob Landerholm

For those of you who don't know these fine men, Dan and I have been friends since we were twelve or thirteen years old. We met at Holy Rosary, and went to high school together for three years. We played football together, have many friends in common, and have shared in a plethora of life experiences. Rob is Dan's Father, and has been a mentor of mine for many years. With that said, who would have thought we would meet someday in India, and go through some serious highs and lows in less than seventy-two hours?

To start, much credit is due to Shubhra - one of our two fearless leaders at CKS. She whipped Loren and I into shape all week last week in our efforts to prepare the building for visitors. There was still much hustle and buslte with the plumbing, masonry work, and moving. But, with the impetus and extra efforts of Shubhra, the workers finished up and we all worked as a team to clean the place. It was a relief to end a busy week of juggling internship projects, house work, and moving (shifting, as they say here). After Shubhra stayed up until 2:30am the night before, CKS was sparkling and ready for Rob and Dan by the time they arrived at 8:30am on Saturday Feb. 6th.

Their arrival via auto-rickshaw was surreal. They showed up the front gate of CKS with Puthumai, who picked them up in Kolkata that morning at 5:00am so they could travel together to Bolpur. Instantly, it was like we were in Edmonds. The hugs, the jokes, the laughs, the silly voices, the highly intellectual topics of conversation (i.g. quoting Indiana Jones, Austin Powers, Jurassic Park, etc.). But, it turned out we were in India. Who would have thought?

The whole weekend, Puthumai and Shubhra were awe inspiring with their care and generosity. I'll never forget how gracious they were in hosting Dan, Rob, Loren and I.

After a nice breakfast, it was clear we had a long and exciting day ahead. Before jumping in head-first, everyone cleaned up a bit and the visitors took some time to get settled into their new home for the next two nights. Around 11am, the hired taxi arrived outside our gate and The Team piled in - Dan, Rob, Shubhra, Puthumai, Loren, and I.

The itinerary was packed and we were off to a good start.

The Team walking down one of the long dirt paths that traverse the campus. It is said that Tagore once walked down this one in particular, so some of the faculty take off their sandles out of respect when walking this path. The building to the right is one of the student 'hostels', or dorms.
Puthumai sitting at one of Visva Bharati's outdoor class rooms. Among other things, the university is famous for holding sessions outside. This is where the teacher would sit.

Tourguide Shubhra and The Travelers - the red structure to the left of Dan was once used as the school bell for all of Vivsa Bharati. Shubhra mentioned that it might have been a gift from the Japanese after Loren pointed out its Shinto characteristics.

After visiting Shubhra's alma mater, we packed back into the taxi and drove a few kilometers outside of town to visit the Sonajhuri Forest. It is famous for its rare laterite geology, which occurs in areas rich in iron and aluminum; hence the red soil you see everywhere. Much of the soil is rocky and impermeable, so water runs through and creates amazing gullies and abrupt clifs. It's really beautiful. Uncle Walt (geologist) would have enjoyed this.

We really enjoyed our time at Sonajhuri. Rob made a joke about an episode of 'The Flinstones' when the family goes on a road trip to see the Grand Canyon, and all that is there is a trickle and a sign post. It's interesting to think that this may have been what the Grand Canyon looked like a few million years ago. Anyway, after an hour or so of sight seeing we found out that there was a small fair going on only a short walk away. So, we decided to explore.

Dan receiving a gift from Shubhra and Puthumai

Dan and Loren enjoy the music of the bauls (pronounced baools). They travel around singing about love, life, and god. Loren compares them to the troubadours during the middle ages, without the chivarly.

We made it home that night after visiting Shubhra's parents. They fed us plenty of Chop, which is some my favorite food here so far. They also brought out coffee for us. It was a nice time and I'm glad Rob and Dan were able to meet them. After that, we headed back to CKS for dinner and a few beers.

The next day was another busy one. By this time, Dan was starting to feel a little sick. However, he kept up with everyone else, and managed to have a good time. Dan - I'm sorry to put you through all of that. Thanks for toughing it out. In the morning, we visited one of Shubhra's sisters and her husband; Indira and Bijoy. They live outside of Bolpur, and own a few acres. From what I gathered, it sounds like Bijoy rents some of the land to local villagers, who grow crops and make their wages selling it all during harvest season. We visited that village, which is populated by people of the Santhal Tribe. In India, there are many tribes considered to be indigenous. The Santhals are one of the oldest and largest tribes, and are dispersed all throughout India.

Indira, Snehendu (Indira's little boy), and Shubhra as we left their home for the village.


Double-O Daniel. He swears he wasn't posing.

A Santhal boy showing us a rat trap.

Puthumai saying hello and pointing out some common health problems villagers face.

Home-made rice beer.

Bijoy, Indira's husband, is in the tan collared shirt on the left.

Rob trying out the rice beer. The little boy behind him seemed to be saying 'no, no, don't do it. Save yourself'.

There are large expanses of agricultural land like this all over West Bengal, and probably India in general.

After the visit, we had a nice lunch at one of the local hotels, briefly visited another fair, and went back to CKS for the evening.

Prize winning veggies! There were a lot of parallels between this fair and the ones you see back home, but no deep fried Snickers bars.

On our way out, back to CKS.

There was some time to relax before dinner.

This just about wraps up the two days and two nights Rob and Dan shared with us in Bolpur at CKS. It was an unforgettable weekend. Who would have thought we would have ever had the chance to spend time in India together? Look out for another post very soon. I have plenty of reflecting to do, and plenty to say about the status of my projects. During our final day together we travelled to Kolkata and toured around a bit; capping things off with a bizarre experience at the Kalighat temple. Dan and Rob have already made it back home safe and sound. I hope this is enough for now. More to come soon.