Friday, March 5, 2010

Where in the hoo-ha do I start?

Hello Loves,

For those of you who have sent emails or facebooked, etc. - thanks dearly for being in touch. You're all in my prayers, and I ask for you to keep me in your thoughts and prayers as well. Although there are some wonderful people that I love working alongside me at CKS, not speaking Bengali can be very isolating. There have been a few gems along the way, no doubt. When verbal communication is drastically limited, it seems easier to sense the true heart of a person. Maybe it's the smile, the hand gestures, the courtesies and generosity, or lack thereof. Either way, there are occasions in which language acts as no barrier to disclosing who we are. If there's one thing I've learned here, it's that without love and kinship we'd all be dust in no time. Sometimes we have to take a leap of faith to make those simple connections our hearts long for, common language or not. So, I ask you to be with me. Let us challenge each other to take leaps of faith in our daily lives; to open our hearts without flinching.

The last time a solid post was made to this blog was around three weeks ago. In Indian time, that's long enough to have a pile of interesting experiences and a wide range of emotions to go along with them. I'm sorry to have taken so long to post this. Not to make excuses, but for a little while we were sharing a little mobile modem zip-drive thingy between four of us here at CKS. Ah, the days of campus wide high speed wireless internet, where have you gone? Life's full of trade offs, it seems.

It is currently 12:30am here, and I'm taking advantage of a rare opportunity to use the internet port for an extended and uninterrupted period of time. Not to say the interruptions aren't welcomed - it's usually for a meal or to take care of some errands. During the day when there's a chance to hop on the net I spend most of my time researching for projects or writing emails. Here are a few photos to help me reminisce a bit, and to help you get a few visuals.

Please take a stroll with me through our favorite market.

Here you can find veggies of all shapes and sizes, fish of all shapes and smells, googly (snails), grains, fruit, general goods and more. We frequent this little alley for most of our basic commodities. It's amazing how crowded it can get in the hours before noon.
Pulses, spices, powders, goodness

Close quarters; this narrow alley is lined with sellers on both sides

All this impressive business is only a five minute walk from our home, CKS

Bringel, as they call they call it here

Mach. I like much mach. I like much Dutch mach...ok no more, sorry

My colleague (by now, brother) Loren and supervisor Fr. Puthumai A. Nazarene, discussing one of Loren's projects. He has been printing off entire training manuals, books, and other documents about disaster risk reduction and rural development. He is growing CKS's library so it can eventually be a resource for other NGO's hoping to build their knowledge and skills, hence "The Center for Knowledge and Skills (CKS)"

Mr. Pandit is the man who binds all the documents Loren prints into books. He is one of those gems I mentioned earlier. Without speaking much English at all, he has already had us over to his house for dinner once, and we are going for a grander meal tomorrow for lunch. For him, offering to serve food to two young men with proper appetites is no small investment. The last time we were there, we met almost his whole family and the neighbors! Simply amazing.

Krishna sitting at his shrine near CKS. This photo was taken during a routine walk through the neighborhood. They are just adding a bull statue now, which is situated to Krishna's left on the other side of the tree. You can find temples like this in all the neighborhoods. They get even more spectacular. Certainly, there is little hesitation to celebrate Hindu tradition here - it is so intertwined with the societal structure in most places that you simply can't rip it from everyday life.

Journey to the Quarry - Filming a Short Documentary for CKS

On Wednesday, February 17th a wonderful person named Christine joined us to volunteer her time, energy, and skills. Her cousin had previously worked with Fr. Puthumai when he was head of the Social Welfare Institute in Raiganj. So, after some travels in Kashmeer and Rishikesh, she made her way to Bolpur. She is from Germany, and received a BA in media production or something of the like. During her sixteen day stint with us, she worked on several projects; one in particular was the filming of a short documentary about CKS and its potential role in supporting the rights of laborers who work in stone quarries in a city north of Bolpur called Nalhati. We traveled there on February 17th for the first round of shooting.


Many of these people are from a scheduled tribe, which means they have certain rights designated to their tribe in the Indian Constitution which other groups do not. However, this particular group suffers greatly at the hands of the company owners who own the quarries. Lack a future tense in their language, they are almost incapable of committing to long term, goal oriented solutions, or unable to conceptualize multi-steps processes which happen over time. They put up with many different forms of abuse, which I will not go into right now for the sake of time, because they see the mines as their only option.

Bright eyed and bushy tailed on the morning on February 17th. The train to Nalhati was only five minutes away as we posed for this shot in the Bolpur railway station.

Landscapes in the plains of India

Tight quarters and happy smiles

Fields and fields of paddy. Rice has a name for every stage of its existence here, which hints at its cultural significance. Before it is taken from the plant, it is called paddi. After it is dried it has a name I can't remember. Finally, after it is hulled and looking like the finished product we all know and love, it is called bhat.

Toilet on the train. Another fun challenge.

As you may have heard, personal space on Indian trains is almost non-existent

Not far outside of Nalhati was the rock quarry. This was my first and only time, thus far, visiting this area.

The view of a Nalhati street from inside a jeep-like vehicle

Fr. Michael was our main contact in the area. As a Catholic priest he is essentially a colleague of Puthumai's, but from what I gathered they have a great friendship. Right from the get go it was clear he is generous in sharing his heart with others. Also, he is the headmaster at a Jesuit school located very near to the quarry we visited, and interacts with many of the Tribal and Muslim families who struggle with desperately difficult conditions every day. Fr. Michael was very kind and friendly with us, and made sure we were comfortable and well fed during our time there. His humor in the midst of very trying circumstances was so beautiful to me. People like him, Puthumai, and a host of other men I've met over the past few years are why the priesthood seem right to me.

A Blessed man, Father General of the Society of Jesus - the Jesuits; a religious order of Catholic priests

Je su what?! IHS is part of the seal of the Jesuits, and you will find it on campus at every Jesuit university around the world. It is the first three letters of Jesus' name in Greek.

Fr. Michael has a few feline friends. He really loves those cats.

Mother Mary

An attempt at being artistic

The remainder of the photos are of the rock quarry. Please take your time in going through them. You'll see some smiles, and happy looking people, but try to see past their excitement to have us there. See the people in their daily lives. Look at the work they do, imagine being in the hot sun thirteen hours every day and barely being able to feed your children. Imagine being hired on because you are physically attractive and thus able to satisfy the sexual desires of the foreman, in addition to providing hard labor for next to nothing. Imagine being ten years old and knowing nothing else, or being so thirsty and hungry that every load of rocks is an epic battle between your mind and body. Imagine breathing in rock dust for years on end with no respite. Take it all in and understand why Puthumai feels called to fight for these people. Now imagine that the last time a government official stood up for them, his life was ended shortly thereafter. Don't worry Mom, Puthumai wouldn't put me in harms way. Captions for these photos to come. It's 3:30AM and I'm waking up in three hours to register people for a spoken english class I'll be teaching.

Just after leaving the school house, we were our way to the quarry. Puthumai joked that the photo made it look like we were off to a picnic

Without hesitation, Christine began capturing life at the quarry

Years of working in the mines can lead to silicosis, which is an occupational lung disease brought on by prolonged exposure to silica dust, which is common to people who work in mines or quarries.

This giant gravel making contraption scared me a little. It looks like something out of a Tim Burton movie, ready to lift itself off the ground to roam the Indian plains

This is what much of the land surrounding the quarry looks like. Without proper water and land management, stretches of arrable land can lay fallow. Without agriculture for livelihood support, the most vulnerable of the local Santhal Tribe and Muslim communities find work in the quarries

Hard hard work for young young people

If you look closely you can see Puthumai and Loren in the milieu of people. Most of the workers we passed by were interested to know who we were and what we were doing there. It seemed like we were really stirring things up

This group of boys was hard at work as the crowd formed around Puthumai and Loren as seen in a previous photo. Only a few seconds after I shot this photo, the foreman came to yell at the boys for not working

There's so much more to say about the trip to the stone quarry, not to mention all that has happened between now and then. I'll try to take it one step at a time, and keep you filled in as much as possible. More news about our travels to visit another NGO in the Sundarbans, swimming in the Bay of Bengal, the Holi festival, daily life, a tremendous house warming party, and our going away party for wonderful Christine (she's off to travel in India for a few more weeks, then back to Germany).




  1. Jeff! It is wonderful to see pictures and hear about the beautiful people you're meeting and the wonderful experiences you're having. I look forward to hearing about it more in detail later. Enjoy the rest of your time there to the max!

  2. Jeff - An incredible entry again. Your travels have been so eye opening - thank you for taking time to document it all. I will respond to your email shortly. Until then, many blessings -

    Love, Jess

  3. Dear,Dear Jeffrey,
    Your Grandma and your Uncle Bob just visited your VERY INTERESTING BLOG. The train really looked crowded. You're not in Kansas! The photos and your descriptive words are opening our eyes to your rich experiences in India. It is so thoughtful of you to keep us all posted. Thank you, Jeff.
    Lots of Love,
    Uncle Bob and Grandma

  4. I had to a small project in the struggle for labor rights and collective bargaining in India for one of my courses and your pictures really hit home with the information explaining the hard conditions, long hours, and minimal benefits. Stay safe and keep up the good work! -Mike

    p.s. I enjoyed the sandal shot, sehr schick!