Sunday, January 27, 2008

the final lap

we have arrived in trivandrum, our final stop before we head up to delhi and then home. it is almost impossible to believe the adventure is about to be over. it is both everything and nothing that i expected, and i think this experience, and india, will be teaching me for a long time to come.

we came to trivandrum after spending a few days in quilon. we did some shopping, visited a marine processing factory, and a cashew processing and packaging operation. i tell you what, i will never eat a cashew nut the same way. every step of the process... picking, shelling, scraping off the skin, removing blemishes, sorting by size and quality... it is all done by hand. by hand. by mostly women, who make the equivalent fo $7 a day. pretty incredible.

yesterday, when we arrived in trivandrum, we had lunch with some of the rotarians, including mine and ruby's host, suresh mathew, and had what we all agreed was the first honest conversation we've had with indians about politics (plagued by corruption), the indian perception of america and the role of women in indian society (men and women have always disagreed, they said, but now it is more acceptable to do it in public. more on this in another post, i think). we had a wonderful beachside dinner last night and, in the most exciting news of all, we met a mahuraja and some princesses! we put on our pretty indian clothes (we all had gorgeous skirts and matching tops tailored earlier in the trip) and went to the palace. suresh warned us "not to have an imagination," that the mahuraja and princesses were ordinary, simple people, but it was still a complete thrill to meet them. they were warm and spoke perfect english and were so glad we had come. we had tea and played with grandkids and took lots of pictures. i sat on the same couch as jackie kennedy and the same chair as eleanor roosevelt and heard stories from princess gouri about touring the united states in the late 1970s on a greyhound bus ticket that cost $99 for 99 days. an experience that will never be replicated.

which is how i feel about this whole trip. i have been jonesing for my bed, a big greek salad and a peanut butter milkshake, but here are some things i will miss terribly about india.

1. women in saris riding sidesaddle on the backs of motorcycles, sometimes carrying groceries and/or children.
2. elephants walking down the street.
3. a temple procession (not to mention a temple) everywhere you look.
4. fresh, sweet water, straight out of a coconut.
5. warm sun and light breezes.
6. putting my dirty laundry out in the morning and having it appear, clean and fresh and warm that afternoon.
7. going barefoot.
8. palm trees, enormous flowers, huge gardens everywhere you look.
9. signs such as, "infant jesus nursery school," shops named after hindu gods, stores like the "pants palace."
10. women and men balancing baskets, buckets, pails, piles of sugar cane and bags of rice on their heads.
11. indian warmth, hospitality, care and concern. i hope i have learned how to be more welcoming, kind and caring.
11. my team. ruby said last night she thought that by now we would all be sick of eachother, but really just the opposite is true. i think we are all, in some way, dreading the end of our time together. i know i am. life won't be quite the same without my team.

there is so much more to say, and, eventually, i hope i find a way to say it all. we'll be here in trivandrum, mostly relaxing and enjoying our wonderful hosts, until the morning of the 30th, when we fly to delhi, drive to the taj mahal, and then come home. there will be lots more stories and pictures when i get back, if not before.

love and namaste.

in india, you can't have any fear

a few days ago i rode on top of a baby elephant.

i also met a woman named renate. she is originally from germany, but emigrated to the united states, married an american man, had a son and built a business in portland. when he was 20 years old, her only son died of cancer, her marriage fell apart and a friend convinced her to come to india. fourteen years later, she is still here, now married to an indian man.

this was fascinating to me. with my time in india winding down quickly (less than one week!) i can honestly say that it has been an extraordinary, overwhelming, frustrating and wonderful experience that i will be very sad to see end. but, i have remained unconvinced that i would want to do it again. i think i'm still in the "might come back to india" camp. maybe i just love upright toilets, warm showers, safe tap water and personal space too much. so, it was intriguing to me that renate would permanently give those things up. she said she went back to the states four years ago and was so homesick for india that she booked an early flight home, and she hasn't been back to the states since.

part of it, she said, is that her heart began to heal in india. india changed her, and i can see why you would want to stay in a place that made you who you are. but she said something else really interesting. she said, "in india, you can't have any fear." she loved upright toilets, warm showers, safe tap water and personal space as much as the next person, she said, but she decided to not be afraid. and once she wasn't afraid, she found she could exist here just as well as there.

i don't think i need to move to india, but it was empowering to start embracing the idea that if i wanted to, i could; that there are things i think i need that i don't, and things i things i think i can't do that i can. it's just like india has taught me all along... we don't need to change to make our place in the world, but adapt to fit in the places where we need to be.

and, by the way, riding an elephant was totally awesome.

i don't follow you

drinking is one of the major passtimes here in kerala, and the men have it down to an absolute science. rotary meetings are held at night here, with dinner afterwards. kerala rotarians start drinking before dinner, and put off eating as long as they can, so as not to disrupt optimal absorption of the alcohol. (melissa and i had one host who had so perfected this system scott sheepishly asked if his wife could drive us home. we thought we were safe until we got in the car and she said, "now, let's see if i can remember how to reverse.")

a few nights ago we were at a particularly drunken meeting and i was approached several times by the same man, asking me what my profession was and wondering if i wanted some ice cream. it took about five minutes to communicate that i was a journalist, and that i didn't want any ice cream. then he pointed at scott and asked me what his profession was.

me: he's a general surgeon.
drunk: oh, another journalist.
me: no, a surgeon.
drunk: ah, a soldier.
me: no, he's a doctor.
drunk: he was adpoted?

by now i am speaking directly in his ear, as loudly as i can without doing permanent damage. we finally make communication contact.

drunk: oh, a doctor! what's his specialty?
me: surgery.
drunk: ah, here we call them surgeons. for shorthand.

Monday, January 21, 2008

you are becoming accustomed to our ways, no?

i would like to say a few words about indian standard time, which basically means that nothing ever starts when anyone says it will. this is something we should know by now, but it still catches us off guard. our departure from alleppey a few days ago is a perfect example.

from alleppey, we were driving to a city called kottayam, about one and a half hours away. we were meant to arrive in kottayam at 11a.m., and we were all meant to meet up for breakfast the morning of our departure. so, scott recommended that we meet for breakfast at 8:30a.m., leave by 9:30a.m., and arrive in kottayam at 11a.m., as per the schedule. here is the exchange that followed between scott and sarjan nair, the coordinator of our activities in alleppey.

sarjan: 8:30 is not practical, too early. maybe nine or 9:30 instead.
scott: i thought we were supposed to arrive in kottayam at 11.
sarjan: yes, so we meet at nine, you finish your breakfast by 10 and then depart.
scott: leave at 10, drive one and a half hours and arrive in kottayam at 11?
sarjan: of course not. you won't arrive until at least 11:30.
confused silence.
sarjan: you have become accustomed to our ways, no?

and of course, we didn't leave anywhere near 10a.m. and didn't arrive in kottayam until a little after noon. upon arriving, we discovered that we weren't meant to be in kottayam at all, but another city farther away, where we didn't arrive until just after 1p.m. the rotarians in that city had their hearts set on taking us up in the mountains to have lunch at a hill station, where we didn't arrive until three.

it was really nice to be up in the mountains, though, and a hike through a pine forest reminded us all of home. until we came upon some cows. on the way back down from the hill station we stopped at a monastery, where we were told we could only stay for 10 or 15 minutes and didn't leave until almost an hour later.

and then, the indian standard time kicker, on the way home from the monastery, with time slipping away and everyone worried that people would start leaving the meeting before we arrived, we stop at the summer mountain home of one of the rotarians. just 10 minutes, they tell us. enough time to use the western toilet and take in the view. at 10 minutes almost to the second, as i am picking up my bag, ready to leave, the host opens up a bunch of bottles of brandy! and we just burst out laughing. about half an hour later, tipsy rotarians in tow, we finally headed off the mountain.

when we arrived at the meeting people had, in fact, left. the president's excuse for our tardiness?

"the team was held up in alleppey and didn't arrive here until 1p.m."

we are now in kottayam and melissa and i are staying with mohen and his wife, zahira, in a gorgeous house with high ceilings, a real shower and hot water. we had a contest to see who could give the shortest presentation at last night's rotary meeting (i won with less than a minute) and today we slept in and will leave in a few minutes for lunch and relaxation at the local sailing club. a perfect day.

here are a few more pictures. if you can believe it, we came upon yet another elephant yesterday, as you can see below.

pilgrim with the massive cheek piercing i was telling you about earlier.

one view from the alleppey houseboat.

local villagers carrying milk to the hilltop monastery.

another day, another elephant.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

how do you feel god's country?

a slightly frustrating day yesterday, involving many miscommunications, as well as non-communications, a lot of time in the van, headaches and several bad bathroom experiences was redeemed today with a trip through the famous backwaters of kerala on a traditional indian houseboat.

these houseboats are carved from wood and held together with a coconut husk material called coir (chances are you have a doormat made out of it). they look sort of old school from the outside, but there are western toilets inside (a true christmas miracle), bedrooms and a kitchen. the front of the boat is like a deck, with a coir awning and chairs and tables, and the driver sits on a little stool at the front of the boat, holding an umbrella to shield himself from the sun, while he navigates with one of those ship wheels (do you know what i mean? do those have a name?). it was the most relaxing, wonderful, stress-free indian day, floating along, eating fresh pineapple and fish, soaking up the sun and making new friends. i think it was just what we needed. now i feel like i can honestly say kerala is god's country.

i would also like to add a caution to anyone listing hobbies for any sort of introductory purpose. we put together a little brochure about our team to hand out to rotary members we met here, and i made the grave mistake of listing "singing" as one of my hobbies. i have now performed "i'm a little teapot" in two rotary schools, "you are my sunshine" in the van at least three times, and "the star-spangled banner" at practically every rotary meeting we've attended (which is more than a few. the first time it happened we all sang together but i burst out laughing when scott aimed for the high notes. since then, melissa and i have been rocking a pretty decent harmony that seems to do the trick). today's boat ride turned into an impromptu sing-along with requests including "country road" by john denver (why indians know this song i have not a clue) and "another day in paradise" by phil collins, which i could not deliver. that did not deter one particularly adamant rotarian, however, from asking about 12 times if i could sing it (no joke) while singing the same off-key line over and over. finally i asked why he didn't just sing it and the subject was finally laid to rest. we did manage "adelweiss" and a few other songs from "the sound of music," "more than words" and "leaving on a jet plane." once they had a little whiskey and club soda in the veins, the club hosting us on the boat was more than willing to perform several traditional indian songs, complete with stomping, clapping and some suspect hand motions. it was one of the best days in india so far, marred only by the phil collins fan saying to me, "your voice is so melodious. but you need more practice." we're chalking that one up to miscommunciation as well.

we are also having a great time together as a team. with two weeks under our belts, the gloves have come off and we do a lot of laughing these days. when you are dealing with language and culture barriers all day every day there is a lot to laugh about, but i am not sure you would find it very funny. so i'll give you some pictures of our past few stops instead.

receiving a garland from the resident elephant at krishna puram temple in tirunelveli. i thought a wet spot on my shirt was from the fresh flowers but when it dried it was brown, so i'm guessing it was elephant snot instead. well worth it.

me at the very southern-most tip of all of india. not pictured: the swarms of unwashed pilgrims on the beach behind me.

an ancient chinese method of catching fish by net, still used here in kerala. the net is raised and lowered by several men using a massive v-shaped wooden lever.

fishing boats on the shores of another kerala beach, which was minorly affected by the tsunami. fishermen live in huts close by and leave their boats right on the shore.

palm trees in god's own country.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

you can't be any trouble in kerala

greetings from kerala! also known in india as god's own country. we arrived after a seven hour van trip, which went by surprisingly quickly, and we'll be here in alleppey (god's own town) through saturday. ruby and i are staying with a christian family, thomas, his wife mali (or molly, we are unclear on this), their son and daughter-in-law, sheba (or something like that). alleppey is on the beach and is the gate to the famous backwaters of kerala; it sounds like we'll spend saturday on a houseboat, complete with a floating rotary meeting. we present at a rotary meeting pretty much every night (it's getting old), but we've never done one on a boat, so it will be a nice change of pace.

there seems to be a different sort of atmosphere in kerala, though we haven't quite been able to put our finger on it yet. the social climate seems more open. people in tamil nadu warned is that the men in kerala drink more, so we should watch our purses and our backsides, but i am not sure that's the difference we are noticing. so far i think it's been easier to interact with the men here, though that might come back to bite us (hopefully not literally). i guess for now i'll say that things are much less formal here. we even listened to some indi-pop in the car.

pictures are still not working in any sort of manageable time frame, but here are some highlights of the last few days.

first, i never posted about my newspaper visit in tirunelveli, now two towns ago. the city has three local language papers and i visited the largest. being a local language paper, there was definitely a communication barrier between me and the employees, but i got some good information. they put out a daily with only three full-time reporters and 60 "news correspondents" who submit handwritten stories with hard-copy photographs stapled to them. quite a different operation. i get the sense that papers here have much less enterprise-style reporting, and lack interviews in general. it sounds like a lot of information comes from the same sources without much variety or verification. this paper also had on-site printing facilities, which i was allowed to tour, and the general manager asked for my autograph. a lovely visit.

yesterday in nagercoil was a massively full day, but well worth the fatigue. the coast on which nagercoil sits (southeast) was the only portion of india affected by the tsunami of a few years back. the local rotary clubs built 43 brand-new houses and moved in some affected families and we were able to tour the compound. we were totally mobbed by children and even adults got all giggly when we shook their hands. the houses are free, but residents pay for utilities and upkeep themselves. most of them are fisherman and still fish, though it is now required that they live a certain distance from the beach. we visited some of the worst hit beach sites as well. one of them was crammed with tourists who ran out to collect fish and sea shells when the tide suddenly receded right before the tsunami hit. one of the rotarians with us said the beach was completely deserted for a year after the tsunami, and fewer people go there than before, even now. it is sobering to think that everything you have ever had and known could be gone in minutes.

we also visited a program called the center for social reconstruction, basically an AIDS awareness program targeting HIV-positive women and children, and educating commercial sex workers. as i am sure you can imagine, the local rotary clubs are involved in that project as well. workers train prostitutes to educate eachother about how to keep themselves and their clients safe from disease. the center also runs an awareness program for the family and neighbors of HIV positive people. there is still a major social stigma in india about HIV and the way it is transmitted, and most openly HIV-positive patients are forced to stay in their homes with no outside contact of any kind. patients themselves are often just as confused about their condition and what it means. the program sends workers to HIV-positive individuals' homes, to educate their friends and family about what the disease really is and what it means. we met with several clients of the program who told us stories of how their lives were changed, first for the worse and then for the better, thanks to the program. all of them contracted HIV from their husbands, which just makes me ill. but, i didn't leave depressed. it was an emotional experience, to be sure (we all cried), but i left feeling like we are on the right path. scott, our team leader, pointed out that it wasn't too long ago the indian government denied there was any HIV in the country at all. to have programs addressing the problem head-on in such a successful way is a major step forward and i found it very heartening.

and that is the last few days in india in a nut shell.

with just as much behind us as ahead, i have to say that this experience is everything and nothing like i thought it would be. in all honesty, i am having difficulty processing the whole thing. i think it will come piece by piece. i hope it will at least. i am interested to see more clearly how kerala is different from tamil nadu. kerala has the first freely elected communist government in the world, and the highest literacy rate in all of india. but my host's son was just telling me this evening that those model elements come along with some social problems, including a high suicide rate and a less than reliable press. so, as always, there is much more to come! (and hopefully some pictures, too.)

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

"you look damn tired" (it's a quote so i'm allowed)

hello from nagercoil, our last stop before we head to the neighboring state of kerala. we have also passed the official half-way mark and, in a word, i am exhausted. i think no matter how long you are away from home, you hit a wall somewhere, and mine seems to have come. i would love to be able to drink tap water, sleep in my own (soft) bed, leave the house without bug repellent and take a hot shower standing straight up instead of crouched under a faucet. but, such is life in india. i am exhausted, but i am still very glad to be here.

my hosts in nagercoil are kumar and his wife, nadda, and i am their first foreign guest. kumar owns a coconut oil manufacturing facility, which is actually right next door to the house. he took me over last night to see some of the operations, which were completely fascinating. i had never seen anything like it. he dries the coconut for seven days and then it's crushed and filtered and sent in tins, mostly to soap manufacturers. kumar can tell just by looking at the skin of a coconut exactly how much oil it will produce. pretty amazing. his daughter and granddaughter are also staying here, as it is a festival week called pongal. the granddaughter calls me "auntie."

on our way to nagercoil we stopped in kayakumari and walked to the southern most tip of india, along with swarms of pilgrims on their way home from a nearby temple. they have been fasting from meat, alcohol and sex for 40 days, and we think a personal hygiene fast might have been part of the deal as well. we were jostled all the way down and back and someone called me "pebbles" (we're still trying to figure that out). we also visited a circular fort and a rock where a saint, vivekanada, is thought to have once meditated. the ferry ride out to the rock was harrowing, to say the least. all i could think of was a game of taboo i once played where kathryn helmke tried to get us to guess the word "ferry" using the clue, "sometimes these sink in india."

there are lots more things to say about our last days in tirunelveli, but time is short, so i want to end with this. while i was in tirunelveli i spent some time with a rotarian named gokul. i asked him how he felt about the increasing western influence in india and he said the following, "india needs to adapt, but not change." that is the best i have heard anyone put it yet. the longer i am in india, the more i think that this is really india's time. every country and place has gone through some kind of revolution to secure its place in the world, and i think that is exactly what is happening to india now. we need india and we need the things india can teach us. but india can't teach us anything if india changes. one thing that impresses me about this country is the balance between doing what needs to be done to succeed and improve on a global scale, while maintaining traditions and customs that make india so special and unique. and i think the same thing can be said of us as individuals. i think i spent a lot of my life feeling like i needed to change in order to fit in and be accepted in the way i wanted to be. but really, we need to adapt, not change. we need to improve our situations, professional, personal, emotional, as much as we can, while still maintaining those pieces of ourselves that make us who we are. before i came to india i said this trip was going to change my life. and i have been waiting for india to change me. but now i think maybe that's not the purpose. instead, maybe india can teach me how to stay myself.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

actually speaking, life in india is good

we have left our new friends in sivakasi (my host mother, achu, put a lime under each tire of our van, which we crushed as we drove away, to ensure a safe journey) and have spent the past two days in tirunelveli (it means a city fenced by rice paddies), where we will be until tuesday morning.

we spent most of the day yesterday on (much needed) rest and relaxation, and then went to a school for a cultural program (those are pretty popular around here, it seems). the school was a swanky private one, financed by a trust set up by one of the founders of the largest fireworks manufacturer in sivakasi (so i guess some good things do come out of handling and selling deadly chemicals). we have almost hit the halfway mark of the trip and i think everyone is pretty wasted (colleen is rationing her ambien), so we crashed early. colleen and i are staying with janu, who exports sea shell crafts, and his wife, mira. they have four generations (his parents, his son and daughter-in-law and their children) living in the house, so it's pretty lively.

this morning we had a lovely, western breakfast and then went to two temples, one with very famous, old sculptures, and one that encompassesd 14 acres and is the largest temple in all of india. in all honesty, all the temples are starting to look the same, but we got an unexpected treat when we came upon an elephant, who draped us each with a garland (seriously, this elephant took garlands in her trunk and put them over our necks) and thenm blessed us, basically by blowing snot all over our heads. but, it was quite an honor. certainly something that will never happen again. and we can always take a shower.

we did a little shopping, took a rest, and then went to the source of a river for which the city is famous. all day along the road we have been seeing pilgrims walking, barefoot, to a temple to celebrate this month's harvest festival, called pongal. they walk barefoot for around 30 miles, which takes two days (they get to take the bus back home, thank goodness). some of them had these massive spears right through their cheeks (i have a picture but can't upload here, so you'll have to wait for proof). some of the spears were so long people had to walk on either side of the pierced person, holding up the ends. just a big spear, right through someone's face. it was amazing. people also clean and paint their homes for pongal, and build shrines of sugar cane stalks. we have seen women carrying massive bushels of stalks on their heads, and men with equally massive bushels strapped to the backs of bicycles and motorcycles. sometimes with children piled on as well. over-piling doesn't seem to be much of a concern here.

so, it has been a wonderful and relaxing stay so far. we have one more stop here, in the state of tamil nadu, and then we'll spend the rest of the month in neighboring kerala. we are still having the time-flies-but-it-feels-like-we've-been-here-for-ages phenomenon. really the only thing getting old is the food. the people are all interesting and different. janu and mira have a son in the u.s., so they have visited several times and it was fascinating to hear their opinions. mira said she is always lonely in the u.s. because, even though there are people everywhere, you almost never see their faces. as she put it, "it's just car, car, car." i think, in a lot of ways, she's right.

as i can't upload any photos at the moment, i thought i would just leave you with a few of my favorite quirks about india and indians. i still wish you could see them for yourselves, but hopefully this will give you an idea.

1. the head bob. indians do this strange head motion that looks like they are shaking "no" but it really means that everything is ok. it involves moving the head back and forth, in a sort of lazy circular motion. they do it a lot after they've taken a picture to indicate that everything went well, but i still always think it means something went wrong.

2. funny english. this is probably universal, but i have some indian favorites, in particular the use of basically. people ask me a lot, "basically, what is your profession?" similar is the use of "actually speaking." for example, "actually speaking, i am a doctor." or, "actually speaking, this is the largest temple in india." another one is, "no less," as in, "the owner of the factory is no less than right here," or, "he is no less than my cousin." and, i get called ma'am and madam a lot, which i could get used to.

3. the warmness. when we went to the school last night, one of the teachers took me right by the hand and led me to my seat. people are always doing our laundry, buying us food and drinks, spending time with us doing things i am sure are less than interesting (or perhaps i should so,"no less than interesting." and, this could also apply to the gorgeous weather we've been enjoying. i will be sad to leave that.

4. the openness. this applies to people, but also to space. when we do get a chance to get out of the van and walk around, i love it. nothing is closed here. classrooms don't have windows or doors, homes have gardens right in the middle of them. i feel so much closer and connected to the environment surrounding me, and i think it is a good thing.

there also seems to be a larger amount of moralizing, at least among rotarians, which can be illustrated with the following story. in one of the clubs we visited in sivakasi, a rotarian got up to give a thought of the day. it involved a man who jumped out the window to his death after learning his wife, we'll call her anna, and two sons had passed away. as he passed the 10th floor, he remembered his wife was not named anna. as he passed the seventh floor, he remembered he didn't have any sons. just before he hit the ground he remembered he wasn't, in fact, married at all. but by then it was too late, and he died in a pool of blood. the moral? don't make decisions based on emotion. the response of the president? "thank you for that thought, rotarian."

Friday, January 11, 2008

shall we take a snap?

here are pictures as i promised. it's just a small sample, but should give you an idea of the last week or so. enjoy!

a friendly elephant we met on our way out of the rotary district conference in madurai.

administering a polio vaccination to a child in need on national vaccination day, sponsored by the rotary club.

our group outside the clinic with the medical director and the rotarian in charge (they made us wear those lame hats).

on the shores of the bay of bengal.

the longest corridor in all of india, at the rameswaram temple.

a school in ramnad where the students prepared a cultural performance and asked us all sorts of interesting questions.

children leaving a school financed and run by the rotary clubs in sivakasi for underpriveleged kids.

the local temple in sivakasi.

canisters at a fireworks factory, a major industry in sivakasi, waiting to be filled with explosives.

a woman holding a big bowl of gun powder, filling canisters.

enjoying some sparklers after the factory tour. (i am planning to write more about this later. i asked a lot of questions of the owner about safety... i didn't see a single mask or piece of protective clothing, but there were volatile chemicals being used all over the place. the issue of working standards is an interesting one here. the working conditions in this factory were, in my opinion, awful. but, on the flip side, they are no worse than the conditions in which many of the people here live every day life. an interesting question i will think more about.)

the team dressed in traditional garb for the sivakasi rotary club meeting.

with my sivakasi host family, karthik (husband), achu (wife) and their son, viswa.

we leave here tomorrow for unknown internet access, but i will have a new post up as soon as possible!

Thursday, January 10, 2008

even for an indian, understanding india is very difficult

at the outset, as the indians say, let me apologize for the break in communication. an accessible and reliable internet connection, not to mention time, has been scarce. they are keeping us busy and overly fed (this is not a joke. we are full all the time) and there has been almost no chance to sit down and process what is going on, let alone try and share it with you. i wish you were in my back pocket... explaining india is, basically, impossible.

but i'll try. a few observations.

i have been thinking and talking a lot about space, and how it is used here in india. in america, our space is separate, private. stores are in clusters, set back from the road, houses are at the ends of long driveways. private space is private, public space is public, nice neighborhoods are in one spot and not so nice ones in another. in india, everything is everywhere. and this is not an exaggeration. everything is public space and nothing is separated. shops open up directly into the road, if they are not literally in the road. buses pull over and people have picnics on the side of the highway. nice neighborhoods and not so nice neighborhoods are all one place. temples and other religious sites appear as if out of nowhere. and, people are everywhere you look. gathered around fruit stands, walking everywhere, riding their bikes and motorcycles, drying rice in the middle of the road. you are in the thick of everything all the time. but, everyone gets along. this is one thing i am learning from india. while there may be some social structures or practices that don't sit well with us, i have not seen a fight, an argument, an outburst of any kind. when your space belongs to everyone, you have to learn to live with everyone in your space. i think we could all take a cue from that.

i have also had some interesting political discussions since we started touring cities and staying with host families. one particularly outspoken friend at our first stop, ramnad, claims that all the world's problems would be solved in the u.s. would just leave pakistan. i am not too sure about that. but he and his friends were very interested in why america supports pakistan more than india, which i think is a valid question. our team leader, scott, proposed that america, really, cares more about stability than democracy, which seems a likely explanation, though certainly not a good reason. there were also some complaints about the way india is covered in the american press, which was particularly interesting to me. the general consensus seems to be that india is portrayed as a backwards place ruled by poverty, corruption and disease, and that anything good that comes out of india is treated like an exception rather than the rule. also a valid complaint, i would say. everyone seemed to think i could somehow solve it single-handedly. not too sure about that, either.

and one more general observation (this is all very interesting to me, but maybe not to you. sorry!) when we drove from our second stop, karaikudi, to our third, virduhunagar, yesterday, a college student named ganesh accompanied us. (these rotarians never let us be alone. and, while i appreciate the gesture, being so carefully taken care of is, frankly, exhausting.) we got into a discussion of marriage, arranged and not, and divorce. ganesh contended that americans get married in the morning, divorced in the afternoon, and now india is being infected with that practice as well (i had no idea we were solely responsible for so many things). scott said he was just speaking earlier that day to a man who said, "men and women always used to agree, but now it is different." the idea that men and women have always disagreed but there were social restrictions on expressing it was dismissed out of hand. i am learning that a) indians are less interested in hearing about us than they are in hearing what we think of them and b) they like to ask questions, not because they are interested in our answer, necessarily, but because they want to tell us what they think. and these questions usually involve something that is the fault of america. it is certainly interesting and worthwhile to hear what other people think of you and your country, but it is also difficult to feel like you are getting a full and honest story when there is no room for debate or discussion. maybe that's one thing india can learn from us.

but, enough of the pontificating. here is a quick run-down of some of our recent activities. i know all you really want is pictures, but time is short again. hopefully tomorrow.

our first stop was ramnad where we were very well taken care of by a club led by a most opinionated man named kumar. we spent several hours on a beach at the bay of bengal and visited a very famous temple, built on an island, that has the longest corridor in all of india. on the drive to ramnad, we saw dozens of people walking on a pilgrimage towards another temple. they'll walk for five or six days, all throughout the month of january, to reach it. we had unbelievable receptions with flowers and incense and dots on our foreheads at a hospital and a school, where the children put on an incredible cultural presentation. a question and answer period with some older students afterwards included inquiries such as, "what is the favored mode of transportation in america?" "do you believe in life after death?" and "why has america never elected a woman president?" we did our best. we also visited a sri lankan refugee camp, where the local rotary club had donated a structure where refugees can be processed. there are about 3,000 people living there now, and kumar translated so i could speak to a few of them. i would have loved to have gotten enough information for a decent freelance piece, but time was short. we were also crash-course introduced to all indian food all the time (the spiciness is killing me. i may not be able to taste anything by the time we get home) and indian bathrooms. i'll try to take a picture. words just won't cut it.

from ramnad we went to karakudi, a town famous for its spacious houses and palaces. the homes really were gorgeous, with marble floors and massive, open rooms. we visited a palace with 1,000 windows and got a private tour from the governor of the village. we visited the local club meeting, went to a training meeting at the local college where team member melissa had to give an impromptu 10-minute presentation and then took off for virduhunagar. (we have a driver and van, so despite the constant threat of death on the road, our travels have been very comfortable.) we only stayed in virduhunagar for a few hours, visiting some local artists and meeting with the club, before taking off for sivakasi, about 45 minutes away. we were greeted in sivakasi yesterday by our host families, and we'll be here until the day after tomorrow. it's nice to be a little more settled.

sivakasi is more of a city than the places we have stayed so far, an industrial center with many types of manufacturing. today we saw a truly remarkable printing press operation, the largest in asia, and tomorrow we will visit a match-making plant (the kind that catch on fire, not the kind that puts people together for life before they have ever met and then expects them to never disagree). today we also visited a school run and sponsored by rotary and heard some very impressive speeches from the students. tomorrow we will visit another rotary school as well.

we are getting so we could give our meeting presentations in our sleep, or give some other team member's speech word-for-word. but the people seem to like it. if they can understand us, that is, which remains to be seen. miscommunication happens more often than not, the most famous being the following exchange between melissa and a rotarian.

melissa: do you live around here?
rotarian: business.

we are showered with gifts at every meeting, and our host families are taking incredibly good care of us, washing our clothes, cooking us food night and day, finding us power adaptors. melissa and i are in love with the couple, kartik (husband) and achu (wife), with whom we are staying here in sivakasi. kartik is only 27, but became the head of the household when his parents both died, unexpectedly, his father in 1996 of a heart attack on a pilgrimage and his mother in 2001 in a car accident. he married to set a good example, took over the family business and built a house where everyone, including two younger brothers, could live. he even arranged a marriage for his brother! he and his wife are a love match, which is rare, and i am not sure if it is because of that, or because they are young, or because they are westernized, but they are the happiest most open family i have met yet in india, and part of me wishes i could stay with them for the rest of the trip. they also have an amazing house... huge, with a gorgeous garden, a massive DVD collection and a non-terrifying bathroom situation. their four-year-old son calls me "specs lady." and, this morning, kartik stepped onto the front veranda, shouted "car," and his car, newly washed, appeared. that's the life.

so, that's a run-down of our recent adventures, and hopefully pictures will be coming soon. despite some of the frustrations i mentioned earlier, we are having a time more wonderful than we ever thought possible, and a time more wonderful than words can describe. we are all getting along well, laughing and learning from each other, and from all the people who have let us into their hearts and homes. i'll leave you with one more favorite language mix-up...

someone at a rotary meeting was introducing one of the team members, colleen, and said, "she is not having any children at the moment." and he was right. she wasn't.

Sunday, January 6, 2008

we're in the state of tamil nadu, not confusion

yesterday marked our big debut at the rotary district conference here in madurai. in preparation, we put together a lovely slide show, all about us and utah to present at the conference, possibly in front of as many as 2,000 people. the hall where the conference was held was indeed packed, and the crowd was boisterous. though one speaker told everyone he wouldn't continue until they quieted down (it felt a little like third grade with a mean and condescending teacher), it seeemed basically appropriate to talk, get up and walk around and answer cell phones during the speeches.

most of the speeches (except for the one given by the "quiet" guy) were very interesting. we heard from the retired supreme court justice we met the day before, and from a real life swami, who talked about how it's a not a sin to have wealth, but it is a sin not to share it. he also made a bizarre passing reference to president clinton and monica lewinsky.

after the morning "dignitaries," we were herded to lunch. this was our first major food challenge, as we weren't entirely sure how the food was prepared. i wiped down my plate with a wet wipe and went for it... so far so good. we also ate with our fingers for the first time, which was dirty but fun. we spent a lot of the lunch talking with the indian team that will come to utah in may. they are totally interesting and fun and i just hope we treat them as well as they have treated us. after lunch we decided to skip the rest of the conference and head back to the hotel to "take rest," which is where things went a little awry.

we had been getting attention all day, being the visiting team and foreigners and all, with people coming up and introducing themselves and telling us when we would visit their towns, but we were literally mobbed on our way out of the dining hall. huge groups of men stopped us every few inches, wanting us to crowd together for pictures, which was really just an excuse to touch our butts. over and over again. it was pretty gross, as were they, and it was a strange and unwelcome contrast to the wonderful and respectful treatment we had been receiving. i think the mob mentality just took over. and had there been more women around, i am sure things would have turned out very differently. when we told our caretakers about it afterwards they were entirely appalled. one of them, who comes from the neighboring province said very solemnly, "that would never happen in kerala."

the whole experience was made a little better by the fact that we met an elephant on our way to the van. seriously.

later that night we went back to the conference for our big presentation, to find that we had 10 minutes instead of 30. we cut everything down and headed in to the conference hall, now less than a third full. i guess we weren't the draw we thought we were. the people on stage were chatting throughout, and someone put up a big ladder in front of the screen where our slides were playing, but i think it was a big hit. (does sarcasm come through on a blog?) that night's entertainment, a cross between traditional indian performance and a vegas lounge act, was much more popular. we were just glad the day was over.

this morning was the highlight of the trip so far. one of rotary's big missions is the global eradication of polio. india has two national vaccination days a year, and one of them was today! we put on totally ugly "polio free india" hats and headed down to the clinic to give kids vaccinations drops. by the time we got there, just after 9a.m., they had already immunized 300 children. it will be 6,000 by the end of today. it was truly amazing to think that with this short, free visit, these children's lives would be changed and protected forever. the medical director was so pleased we had come. the kids were the most precious you have ever seen. some of them cried, and one girl spit the drops right back in my face, but their parents were so grateful. i just couldn't shake the thought of how much we take for granted. i have never even worried about getting polio, or any other number of diseases that still plague people around the world. the feeling of giving other children and parents that same peace of mind was indescribable.

we spent a few minutes after the clinic at the "interwheel" meeting, a meeting for the wives of rotarians, as well as female rotarians. another thing we are noticing is that india is very segregated. we went to a dinner the other night where the women stayed on one side of the lawn and the men on the other. we went over to the men's side to get some drinks and just stayed over there to see what would happen. sure enough, a man came over and said, "now that you have your drinks you can join our ladies." inner wheel was pretty boring, but we did run into some rotarian wives who had been with us a few days earlier, and we all decided to ditch the meeting and go shopping. it was immensely helpful to have them as our guides, haggling over prices and the quality of fabric. it was hilarious to just sit and watch and listen. we were all exhausted by the end.

in an hour or so we'll leave madurai for our next destination, which i cannot remember or spell. we are sad to leave the comfort of our hotel, but glad to see a new part of the country and spend some more quality time with our hosts. pictures are taking too long to upload, so i'll just post this as it is, with more to come!

Friday, January 4, 2008

you are enjoying your time in our place?

on this, the second day, we are learning that, along with general traffic safety, schedules are also superfluous to indian culture. under the impression that a car would arrive to pick us up between 8 and 8:30 this morning, we headed down to breakfast at 7:30. scott, our team leader, said, "it's ok for us to wait for them, but not for them to wait for us." and wait we did. our care-takers appeared around 9:45a.m. and there were lots of introductions and slightly conflicting reports about the day's activities and then we were suddenly being whisked upstairs to meet the retired chief justice of the indian supreme court, who is the keynote speaker of this weekend's conference.

we finally headed out, around 10:30a.m., melissa, ruby and i for an artist's school, with three adorable rotarian wives in tow. ruby, an artist, sat down with kandhee, who runs the school, and learned a technique called tanjore painting. it is an amazingly labor intensive process of creating a raised mold by dripping a gum liquid onto fabric attached to wood, letting it dry, and then covering it with paint and pressed sheets of gold. we all got to try a little bit, and enjoyed the displayed work of the master. she said she didn't start doing art until after her children were grown and she had nothing to do. relatives and their friends started showing up at her house at all hours of the day and night, children and husbands in tow, for lessons and it was so "hectic" that she finally started a school to help manage her schedule, and the load. it was a wonderful visit.

after lunch and a quick rest, melissa and i headed to the offices of the hindu, the most respected newspaper in the country. we met with the bureau chief of this region's office who told us a little about the history of the paper. it was started in a town near here, chennai (formerly madras), as an alternative to, and rebellion against, the british. after the british left, the paper was very instrumetal in building nationalism, the editor said. the paper is family-owned and seems to uphold impeccable standards, including refusing advertising they think is dishonest. there are regional editions focused on local news, and the paper is also committed to covering issues particular to women, children and poverty. the editor said there is no censorship, and that free press is one of the four pillars of indian society. the offices were spacious and modern, with large gardens and security guards outside. just across the street, in the middle of the intersection, was what appeared to be some kind of construction project: a group of men squatting around a massive hole, occassionally digging, but mostly drinking tea.

after the newspaper, we met the rest of the group back at the hotel and headed to the town's hindu temple, the largest in southern india. it was truly unbelievable, unlike anything i have ever seen. each of the four outside gates has eight levels, representing the eight cycles of hinduism. it was completely crammed with pilgrims, some of whom come to the temple every morning and every night, and people trying to sell us things. we walked around barefoot, and worshippers fully prostrated themselves in front of the goddess for whom the temple was built. we saw a real life elephant (!) being led into the temple to perform some kind of ritual, as well as a group of men with instruments carrying the god around the temple. our tour guide explained that it was the god's after-dinner walk, and once it was done the temple would close. he also talked to us a lot about his own views on hinduism. no religion teaches you to be evil he said, but we all have to make the choice independently to be good. it is sort of like the artist told us this morning, "our lives are full of beliefs, yes? and then we are at peace."

after the temple was some shopping and our first real jaunt into the city. we have been very well taken care of by the rotarians with constant companions and an air conditioned van, but i've wondered if there are parts of india we are being shielded from. but, i think we saw a good portion of real india this evening. the stories of cows wandering the streets are true, and all kinds of children ran up to us with their hands out asking for "school pens." there is garbage and rubble everywhere and small, cluttered businesses, tailors, fruit stands, anything you can imagine, tucked into every corner and spilling out onto the street. it is a wonderful, lively place, and would probably be difficult to navigate on our own. but i feel like i can honestly say, "yes, i am enjoying my time in your place."

Thursday, January 3, 2008

welcome to india, ladies.

just for the record, the journey to india is not short. but, after three consecutive days of air travel, we are here in madurai, our first destination.

for three days of travel, the trip actually wasn't so bad. salt lake to atlanta, atlanta to new york, and new york across the big pond. we landed in mumbai (the city formerly known as bombay) last night around 10p.m. mumbai is a small hamlet of 16 million people, at least half of whom were at the airport. it was hot and crowded and wonderful... some of the same words (and i emphasize some) that could be used to describe our harrowing cab ride to the hotel, about half an hour from downtown. it was pretty clear that our cab driver had little to no idea where we were going, and a complete absence of any kind of road marker, including lane demarcations and stop lights, couldn't have helped. cars drive within inches of eachother here, no matter what direction they are going, and honking seems to be its own form of communication. it was dark by the time we arrived, but we could make out lots of stray dogs, and people tending fires in piles of rubble outside small huts with tarps for windows and doors. our hotel was a palace practically, with a large gate guarded by the "frontline facility" security force. we slept like babes and took off early this morning for the domestic airport.

security lines in india seem to be divided with men in one and women in the other, clearly demarcated with signs that say, "unaccompanied children and ladies this way." i got my first proper pat-down in a long time. lovely. there are no lines to speak of, but lots of gathering, pushing and cutting. and colors. the women are all in gorgeous saris and other traditional clothes, with elaborate jewelry and beautiful henna tattoos on their hands. we flew air india through chennai and to madurai (they fed us on both flights, even though the second was only 55 minutes. i thought i was going to explode). we were met in madurai with flower garlands by a very effusive local rotarian. he hustled us into an air conditioned van for the ride to downtown madurai. the south of india is warm and green, with miles of rice paddies and coconut groves. there are mopeds and bicycles and cows everywhere. the driving caught up with two trucks we saw smashed into eachother head-on. the drivers appeared to have walked away as there was no one at the scene when we drove past.

our new friend told us that the booming economy is only one side of the story in india. he said indian people are simple and warm. "look around for yourself and you will see what for you india is. nothing great, nothing less," he said. i think that will be my motto for the next month. we were met at the hotel by the local rotary district governor who garlanded us again and then settled us into our rooms, where were slept like babes again. the governor also told our team leader, scott, that he is going to have the man who met us at the airport stay in scott's hotel room with him starting tomorrow night, "to be sure all your needs are met." none of us are quite sure what that means.

we'll be here through the sixth. tomorrow we'll sight-see and i'll visit a newspaper, the hindu, which has the largest circulation in all of india. on the fifth and sixth we'll present at the district conference, and then depart for the next adventure.

also, for the record, i have my first indian mosquito bite, but no signs of malaria. yet.

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

panic. packing. peace.

the past few mornings i have woken up with mild panic attacks about my impending departure for india. most of my stress has been rooted in the packing issue. with no less than six (count them, six!) transfers on our way, my team all agreed the less was more in the packing department, and that carry-on luggage only was the way to go. the chances of luggage getting lost on the way to india is about 100 percent, and the chances of it catching up with us once we're there is even slimmer, as we'll be moving cities every three days or so.

this all made logical sense, of course, but was also a massive hurdle for a chronic over packer. i am the girl who takes a hair dryer to lake powell and a bulky sweatshirt to hawaii and packs shorts in the dead of winter, just in case. so i think you can see how a carry-on only for ONE MONTH was something of a daunting task. especially when i had to take with me tissues for toilet paper, malaria, hand wipes for general hygiene and gatorade mix in case i get might sick. not to mention the ridiculous three ounce liquid rule. but, i set myself to the task, and, as you can see below, i was remarkably (and miraculously) successful.

this one, magical suitcase contains everything i could possibly think of that i could possibly need, including but not limited to: a uniform for our presentations (black pants, blazer, two white collared shirts), casual pants and four casual shirts, flip flops to avoid something nasty in the shower called the fluke, tissues to substitute as toilet paper, and lots of them, hand wipes to keep me clean, a costco size box of granola bars, a hat, stain removal wipes, 10 post card books for gifts for my host families and 10 bags of "be a friend" rotary pins. my shoulder bag carry-on also includes a travel alarm clock, all kinds of cords, memory cards, jump drives and power adaptors, nanette (my ipod) and a head lamp, to name a few, and everything is carefully organized in plastic bags, another first. i even bought a cheapie watch with an alarm and put together a little photo album of my life to show my new indian friends. to quote my dad: "you're more prepared for a month in india than you were for a year and a half in japan." to quote me: "i am more prepared for a month in india than i am for my every day life."

so, there's not much time left to sleep tonight (happy new year!), but i think i will sleep soundly. and then, i'm off. check back here for updates of my adventures!