IndiaPosted: February 2, 2011
My brother is in India for the next several months volunteering and traveling. He will be sending emails to me and friends with up dates on this trip and I would like to share them all with you on this blog because he give a lovely detailed account of his trip and his perception of India. Soon he will send some photos to share as well. I hope you guys enjoy hearing about India!!! It’s a nice way of transporting out of ever day life in the u.s.a. into a whole nother world….
As my first week in India comes to a conclusion I thought it was about time that I shared with you both my life in and thoughts of India so far. Those of you with both an eye for detail and a memory for my calendar of life events might be thinking to themselves that I left on Saturday the 15th and today is the 24th so how could that possibly translate into the end of week 1? Let’s just say that if my journey to India is a foreshadow of my journey in India. I have quite the journey ahead of me. My trip started as planned with a flight from S.F to ATL. I then flew to Paris where I was supposed to have a 23hr layover before flying to New Delhi. There was some sort of security issue at the Paris airport that lead to me being yelled at in French and sent inside several times as I stood waiting to catch the bus to a family friend’s house. I eventually made it to their house where I was treated to the French delicacies of oysters, cheese, and wine. Their house was in the suburbs of Paris and I was tired from my day of travel so I was glad to trade the effort required to explore Paris with good company and the luxurious life already before me.
I awoke at 7am the next day and caught the bus back to the airport. Upon reaching the airport I went to check in. I soon found out to my surprise that despite having my bag already checked in from the previous day that there was no longer a seat for me on the plane and I was put on standby. It would be an exaggeration to say that my protest fell on deaf ears because it fell on no ears at all. I was promptly brushed to the side and ignored. Eventually I was allowed to proceed to the gate but was unable to get on the plane. A group of 10 of us were then led to a ticket counter where we were put on alternate routes to New Delhi.
Initially I was to be put on an Air Emirates flight to Dubai where I would have a four hour layover before flying to Delhi. This option while not ideal seemed acceptable to me. I had heard very good things about both Air Emirates and Dubai airport. Me and one other passenger were instead switched to an Air France flight (What my initial flight to Delhi was supposed to be on) to Abu Dhabi and then to Delhi. With the reason being that there was only a 1 hour layover in Abu Dhabi. I told them I preferred the Dubai option but was told it wasn’t possible because there were no more seats. (Even though people after me must have been put on that flight because I never saw them again.)
My flight to Abu Dhabi was then delayed with the main culprit being a baggage worker strike. I arrived in Abu Dhabi and proceeded to run to my gate only to be denied access and told the flight had already boarded. I made my way to the airport counter/ticket exchange number 2 and was told my new itinerary now include flying to Mumbai where I would then catch a flight to Delhi. After the plane finally arrived it was over an hour late we boarded and set off for Mumbai. The flight was uneventful with the noteable exception of the descent into Mumbai. The descent offered me my first glimpse of India and it was a powerful one. There was a red clay like mountain that was both uniquely placed and shaped. More eye catching then it’s standard rock or white counterpart. This view was quickly followed by a bird’s eye view of numerous wooden slums. There seems to be two classes of slums in India. Those made out of brick and those made out of wood. The sight of the slums certainly came as no surprise to me. It is an image that I strongly associate with India. What came as a surprise to me was that they extended all the way to the runway. It literally went slums- a wall maybe a few hundred feet- runway- airport . An accurate and long-lasting first impression of India and life in India.
Due to my flight being late I had to wait for a slightly later flight to Delhi. Not a big deal the flights between Delhi and Mumbai are numerous so the wait was short. After 5 flights and 3 days I finally arrived in Delhi where I soon experienced further insight into the contrasts and extremes of India. I went through customs without even a word spoken to me. No greeting, No questions, Nothing. Just a glance at me and the stamp of my passport and for the next 6 months I was one more person added to the billion plus America population. The only reason that this is even mentionable material is because the Visa application process is the only form in my life that I have ever filled out that required my passport, proof of address, and my birth certificate.
I had arrived in Delhi but I was far from being home free. I still had to locate my bag and figure out how I was getting to my place of residence. In all the delays I was sure that my ride arrived at the wrong time waited and left. It took about 1.5 hours to have my bag both located and in my possession. It had stayed on my original flight. By the time I got my bag back it was 14hrs after I had been scheduled to arrive. I looked around and found no driver. I was eventually able to find a phone and after dialing a few different numbers I got a hold of the project that I am volunteering at and was told to take a taxi.
I got a taxi and was soon told by the driver that the address I had wasn’t a full address. He wasn’t thrilled that I didn’t know how to get there. I regularly find myself in this situation when I travel and was surprised by how annoyed he was. He seemed to almost take a pleasure in repeatedly telling me that this wasn’t an address. Most drivers just drive to the area and ask around-which is eventually what he did. We found the place quite easily after he asked someone and I was home for the next few months. I walked through the building and was shown to my bed. To my surprise I lay down and fell asleep almost instantly. (I had slept a good amount on the various flights.) I slept all the way till the next morning with the exception of being woken up by the aftershocks of an earthquake in the middle of the night. I certainly felt it and the building was shaking but I was half asleep and wasn’t sure it if was an earthquake or normal. No one ever mentioned anything about it so I suspect it was a combination of the two. Later I saw a little something about an aftershock in the paper.
While the journey was long it offered me many benefits and I consider myself lucky to not have gotten on my original flight. I was given a voucher that I am confident I will be able to redeem for 600euros ($1000).My flight was a frequent flier ticket so I am prepared to do battle with Air France if they try and deny me when I attempt to redeem it. I have had either no time or access to redeem it in any of the airports that I was in. I would go almost any route if it includes a $1000 reward. Most of the replacement flights were empty so I found myself with a whole row of seats to do with as I pleased. It also allowed me to practice a much needed Indian travel skill. The ability to expect the unexpected, take delays in stride and adapt to the ever changing circumstances as warranted.
I was woken the next morning at 6am as I am every morning by the mosque’s call to morning prier. I was well rested and in the mood to both satisfy my hunger and explore the surrounding area so I set off on foot to accomplish just that. I soon found what looked to be a suitable place to have my first Indian meal. On one side a bunch of pots filled the entrance with people standing over them on the other side a stone bread oven. I walked in sat down and tried to convey that I wanted some vegetarian food. My request was met with a reply in a language I had no comprehension of. We were unable to find any common understanding. Luckily a stranger at a nearby table intervened on my behalf and I soon had a plate of food and Roti (Indian bread not Nann thou cheaper) in front of me. Just like that I had my first friend and a delicious and flavorful plate of food (as all my meals are) at a cost of less than 50cents.
I have never been so happy to grow up as a vegetarian with the recent my resent exception of fish. The meat conditions here are on the extremely unsanitary side. Large slabs of meat are driven to meat shops on the floor of a dirty van. Meat is transported lying on dirty rickshaw seats. I’ve seen meat washed and soaked in very dirty water. Meat is cut up on the street with blood staining the alley ways and walls. All the meat shops look very dirty and unsafe.
After we finished eating my new friend took me to the main attraction of the area that I’m staying in. The tomb or “Dhurga” of a Sufi saint called Nizamuddin. (Nizamuddin is also the name of the part of Delhi that I am living in.) I continue to meet him for breakfast at the same place every morning. He has also showed me around the city and helped me get a phone. He is visiting Delhi on work and has invited me to visit the part of India that he is from. It is fairly close to other places that I plan on visiting so I probably will.
I am living in a Muslim part of Delhi. Most of India is Hindu. I am basically living in a slum. The brick house version not the wooden. Life is fascinating inside the Basti the part of Nizamuddin that I am living in. Basti means village in either Hindi or the local Muslim language. I feel that I am living in an entirely different and secluded world. When I am in the Basti nothing seems to exist outside of it. Nothing that happens in the world has any impact on the Basti way of life. The modern world and many of its luxury items and way of living has largely passed by and ignored the residence of the Basti. It has always been poor and ones get the impression that it always will be. Based on my daily observations, I have come to the conclusion that with the exception of cell phones and the internet in (some places) that the way life is lived here has not changed in a very long time and is unlikely to the foreseeable future.
I guess slum might not be the most accurate interpretation of the Basti. When I think of slums I tend to think of them as a relatively new modern day occurrence due the record high population and the amount of people moving from the country side to cities in hope of work. Where I am living certainly pre-dates slums. There is a very historic and olden day almost mid-evil village feeling to the Basti. It is made up out of small narrow cramped interlinking alleys that often contain a combination of shops, people, trash, goats, chicken cages, stray dogs, and some sort of cart or motor bike going through the alleyway. Everything is completely and utterly filthy including the air. Your clothes don’t stand a chance and will change water to brown many times over after one day’s use. There are no such things as personal space and clean in India. There is trash absolutely everywhere. There is no escaping it. There is a large amount of poverty, homelessness, and begging. All of it is hard to see and ignore. One has to try and look past it instead of at it. As much as I want to give a child money when he comes up to me. I know that it is better if I don’t. If I support him then there is no chance for him to change. His parents if he has any will keep him from going to school so he can beg and bring in money for them and he will remain a begger for his whole life. I try and reserve any giving of money for the older and disabled beggers.
I am volunteering at an organization called the Hope Project. It was started in 1975 by some family friends. It originally started as a program to get milk to homeless kids. Over the years it has evolved into what it is today: A school for the underprivileged with an emphasis on educating girls and women. The school has many programs: a nursery, a pre-primary school, computer classes, math, science, vocational training, a mobile phone repair course, a medical clinic, a medical mobile van, and a place for homeless kids to come in at night and sleep. (I eventually want to try and do something with the homeless kids.) At present moment I am teaching 3 English classes.
Each class is for different ages and levels and each one presents its own challenges. The youngest class is fun but my most demanding. When the kids are misbehaving the language barrier can make it really frustrating. It is an on-going battle to get and keep their attention. An example of how the class typically goes is I will try to get them to be quiet they will tell me the word in Hindu after a few attempts I will say it correctly and they will all yell and cheer with approval on my correct pronunciation. I have almost finished writing a rap song about items in a kitchen and their various uses that I am hoping prove to be a fun and effective way of learning for them.
I am happy to report that the female students are probably even more outgoing and friendly than their male counter parts. I was a little worried that they might be reserved and intimated by me being their teacher and my overall presence due to me being a foreign white male. I quickly learned that this wouldn’t be the case when a group of girls came up to me and wanted to play badminton. (No net sometimes a birdie and racket other times some wood and something resembling a birdie) They are also quick to introduce themselves. I worked on a science project with a group of girls. It came as no surprise that they were more knowledge and able in science then myself. They took on the role of teaching me.
Before I came I was hoping to teach some sort of hip-hop class. I don’t know if this will end up happening I think the language barrier might be an insurmountable obstacle. If I can figure out a way to overcome the language issues I think that there is definitely an interest in such a class. I was pleasantly surprised to discover a graffiti mural of the school’s founder and his father on one of the roof walls. I started beat- boxing around some of the kids and it was met with instant approval followed by their own attempts. I am often greeted by beat boxing noises when I walk through the streets. Perhaps my favorite hip-hop related memory was when I was watching Beat Street a 1984 hip-hop movie in the kitchen and a 50+ year old Muslim mother of 11 who speaks no English started watching it with me. She asked if it was new and was particularly interested in the break dancing scenes.
I am enjoying my work a tremendous amount and find it highly rewarding. The satisfaction I get from volunteering here compare to working at my last job is unfathomable. I’d much rather help the underprivileged then serve the rich. There are 3 other volunteers here at present moment. (As far as I can tell we are the only Western people in the Basti) Two students from Germany (one has been away since I got here but I get along with the other one really well my friendship with him is efficient and technically superior ) In Germany there is a year of service (although I am told this is the last one and it is easy to get out of) where one can either be in the army for a year or volunteer at a project such as the hope project. The other is a girl from North Carolina. I share a room with her and get along with her fairly well. It helps to have someone from the same country to relate to at times.
My greatest source of enjoyment without a doubt are the people in the Basti. Both the students at the school and the people that I’ve gotten to know outside of the school. They are unbelievably nice and warm hearted. The children for the most part are always on the happy side. I am greeted by smiles and yells of hello almost everywhere I go. They have fun playing in dirt. A far cry from my association with American kids; who seem to need a new toy and source of stimulation as frequent as possible to the point where they can no longer enjoy the simpler things in life. The way the Basti people live their lives in the circumstances and conditions that they are in is truly inspiring. Whatever personal problems and issues I have in my life are instantly simplified to I’m white, male, I’m from an American family who is above the poverty line. (People here are shocked that there is such a thing as poor people in America)I more or less have the power and opportunity to change them. What the fuck have I got to complain about?
The people are so nice that at times I feel like a celebrity and it has the effect of leaving me feeling slightly uncomfortable but in a good way. I am invited to do multiple things daily and it is hard to juggle all the commitments because I don’t want to disappoint anyone. Sometimes this translates into me just staying in my room because I know if I go out I will run into someone and be invited to their house.
I am staying in the Hope Project building. The guest room is about as good as can be expected. Certainly a far cry from luxurious but it has a western toilet so I have absolutely no complaints. The room is on the 4th or 5th floor and has a balcony. There is also access to two different rooftops. I spend a lot of time on the balcony/rooftops reading and watching life in action below me.
I think it’s safe to say that by this point you all have been given an adequate amount of insight into my daily proceeding. I will add that I have about 7-10 small cups of chai a day. They are brought to me when I am teaching and every social situation either starts or ends with a Chai.
I have not ventured outside of the Basti too much due to the combination of being content in the Basti and the knowledge of knowing all the hassle and people involved in going anywhere or doing anything. So SO many people in India.
Here are some of the things that I have done:
I went to a modern and contemporary art exhibition that was absolutely world class. On par with anything that I’ve seen in NY or London. The only thing missing is wine. The art exhibition was extra interesting because the people and the society atmosphere was such a contrast to the India I see on a daily basis. I was not expecting to see this other part of India so soon.
I have gone to quite a few tombs or Dhurga’s. They come in many different settings and forms. Ranging from famous and extravagant Nizamuddin ‘s and Humayun’s tombs to low-key and interesting. One of the tombs had pottery pots in all the branches of the trees for some reason relating to the saint.
I went to the Delhi Zoo. It was initially more impressive then I was expected but it soon turned into the expected amount of depressing conditions. Lots of dirt instead of grass and every water source was extremely dirty. The highlight of the zoo was that it used to be the royal gardens so it was an interesting space with bits of old ruins overlooking it.
I went to a community that was made up of make shift houses that were built around gigantic piles of trash. It was essentially a trash village trucks bring in piles of trash and dump the trash in the middle of the compound. There were lots of people from all ages who were getting paid to sorting the trash into different piles. I saw all this as I sat with a “holy man” who spends his whole life traveling and without possessions. He also smokes hash all day. The village was not nearly as miserable as it sounds. Of course the lives of it’s inhabitants are extremely hard and sad to see. But they make the most of what they do have. Kids were playing cricket and people were smiling and laughing. I think this example best represents the spirit of India that I have encountered and experienced thus far. If I was to leave India today that is the lesion that I would take with me. A bit cliché but it is hard to not feel that when one is surrounding by people who do that every-second of everyday in their lives.
I will try and email more often and not so long when I do. Internet access is not as convenient as I was hoping for. Skype will have to wait until I leave Delhi.
Hope You are all doing amazing