Friday, September 17, 2010

Week 3: An Island of Reality in an Ocean of Diarrhea

Namaste! This is my last full week in Ahmedabad. A lot of stuff has been going on in preparation for our departures to our new homes (5 days until Mumbai!), and unfortunately a lot of the fellows are getting sick. I, however, have been fine, according to our definition, which always allows room for general digestive issues and a bit of heat rash. On Tuesday, we took a day trip to Palitana, which is a major pilgrimage site for Jains. Jainism is a South Asian religion that preaches non-violence. All are vegetarian, and a Jain diet also precludes root vegetables, because in order to harvest them, you have to kill the plant. Some strict Jains wear face masks so they don't inhale microscopic organisms (and consequently kill them) and wipe the ground in front of them with a small broom so they clear the path of anything that might have a soul. Their temples are also stunningly beautiful, carved out of white marble, which brings us to this posting. We all wanted to get out of the ashram and see something else in Gujarat, so we all hopped in a minibus to travel the 200 km to get to Palitana, which is a collection of temples on top of a hill. A hill that requires you to climb 3200 steps to get to the top. I will give you a play by play of the day, because it was just too hilarious to leave out the little things. Times are approximate.

5:30 am - alarm goes off. Was planning on bucketing, but it’s too early to stand.
5:42: alarm goes off again. I should probably get dressed. It’s completely dark outside.
6:03: I go outside. Everyone makes fun of my white sneakers. I defend my choice. 3200 stairs requires more support than my flip-flops. But still, Jazzercise anyone? I kind of regret buying white shoes.
6:25: finally off. I put on Gregorian chants for awhile to fall asleep.
8:15: I wake up to find that Shaina and I are the only ones on the bus. Apparently we stopped at a rest station for some breakfast. Was anyone planning on waking us up? Breakfast consisted of a weird lentil cracker and veggie sandwiches. I don’t eat much.
10:00: Shaina asks whether or not I plan on sticking strictly to the AJWS stipend. It covers most living expenses, but that’s about it. I say that there’s no way I can, not that I plan to spend frivolously, but that part of the experience of being in India is taking advantage of it, so I will travel a lot. Also, Mumbai will be relatively expensive, and I am one for dining out every so often, as well as going to the occasional club. And no matter what, it’s cheaper than New York. She thinks there’s some value in trying to stick to the stipend in understanding how to live with the same salary as our NGO counterparts, but agrees that not going beyond the stipend would not necessarily be the best overall experience.
10:30: Shaina and I discuss our group dynamic. It has been suggested that we are not aggressive, and thus do not engage in enough high-level conversation. We decided that all of us were chosen because we’ve traveled in developing countries, and thus have a greater idea of who we are and why we would want to do something like this. Because we recognize and respect each other’s sense of self, we don’t want to risk our great support system for the sake of raising contentious issues. But Ava adds that we should probably engage more in sessions, because our discussions have been faltering.
12:00: we reach Palitana! The bathrooms the Jain people let us use were really clean.
12:15: We are told that we each need to obtain a camera permit. Individually. They cannot be purchased in bulk, and we need to sign our names. This takes a little while. Nobody ever asked to see one. 100 rupees well spent.
12:30: The adventure begins! Up the steps we go!
12:40: About 50 steps up. I begin seriously regretting my decision to try this.
12:45: Men pass and offer to carry me up to the top on a chair suspended on two poles. After several requests, I tell them that if I end up needing help, I’d ask them. In Hindi. Success!

This cow was on the way down. I was a bit jealous of her.

12:57: Sunita, being carried by the men, passes me and asks me why I’m so red. She asked if it was sunburn, I told her I just look like a tomato sometimes. The walk was clearly a strain.
1:13: drizzle. Feels kind of nice. I’m sweating profusely. Screw not being able to wear shorts and a tank top.
1:30: It starts downpouring. Like buckets of water being dumped on us. It is about 100 steps until we can get to a covered area. There is nothing to do but continue going up. I attempt to protect my camera.
1:45: still raining. Really hard. We decided to just keep walking, and now there is water streaming down the steps like they’re rocks in a cascade. The flooding has loosened the cow shit, which now streams down the steps as well. I am thankful I wore sneakers.

Shaina and I in the midst of the downpour.

1:50: We sing a song about walking through cow shit. We like how it squishes between our toes. But not really. Although she has sandals on, so maybe that's true.
2:05: The rain stops! We encounter a herd of goats. They stare at me with evil eyes. I want to take one home with me.
2:30: We’re kind of close! We sing The Little Mermaid to just push through the pain. My knees burn.
2:45: WE MADE IT. We are completely soaked. Everyone is waiting for us. I accidentally knock some cookies onto the ground.
2:55: Exploring the temples! There are countless temples on top of the mountain. They are made from intricately, exquisitely carved marble. We take lots of pictures.

Here is an example.

And another.

And Ava and I enjoying the beauty.

3:15: It starts raining again. Really hard. We take cover in a temple, but I decide I want to dance in the rain. Arielle gives me a combination to do, and as I am about to do a nice little jump, I fall. Hard. The sound scares everyone, but I feel fine and laugh hysterically, while waving at the construction workers who come to see the weird white girl.
3:45: We take a moment before we leave. It is drizzling, there is nobody there but us, and we are surrounded by 500 year old temples. We agree that this is one of the most beautiful places we have been to, and we appreciate the few seconds of peace. I am reminded of Jason Mraz's Details in the Fabric, particularly the line at the end that goes, "You are an island of reality in an ocean of diarrhea."
4:15: Going down hurts too. Not as much, though.
4:26: We cannot get through, because the path is covered by about 20 cows. The cow herders, who have awesome earrings, move them along with sticks. There is a narrow opening to pass through, and I’m scared one of them will gore me. But I make it unscathed.

5:45: We get on the bus! I take off my clothes. I’ve been wet for more than 5 hours, I’m cold, and I kind of smell.
6:15: We had ordered some sandwiches from a random little store. Everyone got grilled cheese, but alas. I had toast with butter for the second time ever. Kind of liked it. I'm not sure that that's a good thing.
9:00: We're all still naked. My clothes haven't dried, and I'm sitting on my pants, which kind of smell like mold/mildew. I am not amused, but I convince everyone to watch Center Stage. And we're dancinggggg
12:00: We are sitting on the Gandhi stage eating Domino's. Their pasta is not very good. I wish I could eat cheese, for the umpteenth time since I got here.
12:30: I'm in the bucket. The water is freezing, because we don't have a heater. I am still freezing. I am angry.
12:34: I spot an ant caught in the spider web in the corner of the window in the bucket closet. The spider starts wrapping up the ant and sucking out the insides. It's like a childhood dream come true. I no longer care about the temperature of the water.

And then I went to sleep. So that's a day in the life of my adventure. All in all, that day was amazing, and every day is a roller coaster. Here are other random pictures from this week.

We went on a walk to look for people celebrating Ganpati, which honors Ganesha, the elephant-headed god. People have huge Ganesh statues that they lead to the river. Along the way, I saw this house and just liked it.

The next 3 are from our cricket match. We led our own sessions yesterday, and one of them was dedicated to learning cricket. This is Zack and I getting ready for the game. Please acknowledge the hats.

This is Jamie setting up the wicket. In cricket, a wicket is vitally important. You try to knock down the bails, or little wooden things, on top of the stumps, aka sticks. That whole set up is a wicket, and when how often they're disturbed is marked as part of the score. When you swing, you try to prevent the ball from knocking over the bails. So that's a quick cricket lesson for the day.

This is my wicked cricket stance. Not as bad ass as baseball, but it'll do. I managed to score a couple of runs, despite the fact that my pants don't bend at the knee very much and my finger was still jammed from the game of catch with the (heavy) cricket ball. Oops.

That's all for now. Off to synagogue for Kol Nidre in a bit, and that might be the end of my synagogue career in India. The lack of prayer books makes it a bit hard for me to pretend like I know what I'm doing.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Week 2: American Yes or Indian Yes?

Namaste! The title of this blog post refers to the famous Indian head bobble. Sometimes, when speaking to someone here, he will slightly shake his head like he is agreeing with what you are saying, while he is actually just acknowledging that he is listening. As if that weren't confusing enough, sometimes people answer questions with a resounding yes, when they really mean no, in order to save face or avoid offending anyone. Like when I get into a rickshaw, I'll ask someone to take me to a restaurant, for example, and the driver will nod and tell me to get in. But then he stops along the way to ask for directions from an average of 3 people. This happened the other day when I had to go to my host family's house for dinner (we do this every Sunday). I told him I needed to go near a gym, and he took me to a church. I'm not sure if the name of the church is similar or if he just thought that's where the white people go, but the Indian yes was totally in effect. We tend to conceive of these actions as purposely misleading or insincere, but here, it's the simple actions that let you know how people feel about you.

Yesterday, we took a field trip to two villages run by an NGO that has a partnership with AJWS. The members of the villages are Dalits, or Untouchables. Although it is technically illegal, untouchability is still a major part of life in India. The caste system, objectively speaking, is a system in which spiritual heritage and cultural practices are passed down through generations. Additionally, Hindus think that the caste into which you are born (Brahmin at the top, or untouchable at the bottom, which is actually not even part of the official system) is a result of your karma. If you lived a really good past life, you might be born as a Kshatriya or Brahmin, whereas if you lived in the opposite manner, you might be born a Sudra. Untouchables are called so because they perform duties that are considered impure. There are subcastes even within Dalits, and the lowest members, manual scavengers, handle dead bodies or clean sewage systems and toilets. The NGO works in these villages in several capacities, but under the auspices of improving Dalit rights and education. In both villages, we met with women's rights councils to learn about grassroots organizations and the problems members of the villages face.

Because I did not take any pictures yesterday, I will attempt to describe the people and the villages. You might be wondering why I did not break out my camera, and the simple answer is that it would have been intrusive to show up to their homes and imply, by taking pictures of how they lived, that the poverty and discrimination that is wrought upon them can be captured and passed along, as if those who saw them would understand. At some point, when I get to Bombay and start working in the slums, I will take pictures, but only after I know who I am photographing. Anywho, the villages did not look how I pictured them. I had only been to a rural village, so I was picturing huts scattered in a field, but they had solidly built houses, although with some scrap metal roofing, and they lived on dusty roads close to an industrial area. Sunita (the Indian coordinator for WPF) told us that the village was better off than most, as some of the houses had electricity and running water, and it seemed that all of the children went to school, even if it had to be in shifts. The men and women work at nearby factories. The men are assistants or work on the assembly lines, and they make about $2 a day, while the women tend to do backbreaking labor, but make only $1 a day. We went to meet with the women's council, who had formed to deal with a widow whose land was taken away because, as her husband had died, she no longer had a right to it. We all sat down, and the women stood up and introduced themselves one by one. Interestingly, after they said their names, they said the names of their mothers, grandmothers, and mothers-in-law. They told us that generally men told their relatives' names, and they too wanted a strong family line. One woman even told her husband's name, which is very rare here. They are just referred to as Mr. So-and-So, or Patidev, pati being husband, and dev a diminutive referring to God. They talked about problems in their village, like how the upper-case people who live in another area won't let them go to the temple, but they don't have money to build their own. They asked us questions too, like why we would want to work on discrimination in India while we still have a lot in the states. After we finished speaking, a man who works for the NGO started a chant in which they praised B.M. Ambedkar, a Dalit who wrote India's constitution, led the movement against untouchability, and ultimately converted to Buddhism with a few thousand followers to escape the caste system (also a Columbia grad woot woot!).

After a very long drive through rice paddies and herds of water buffaloes (I kind of felt like I was back in Vietnam, except for the rice hats), we made it to the second village. They dealt mostly with domestic violence and were trying to get the district politician to prosecute those who sold alcohol on the black market (it's illegal in Gujarat), because the men would drink all day, not go to work, and then beat their wives. They went to the district office to file a report, but he didn’t respond, so they’ve been going back and throwing rocks at him. It’s not a method I would suggest, but the spirit and self-determination these women have is unbelievable. Apparently this sort of aggression is common of Dalit women, who are considered thrice oppressed: they are Dalits, poor, and female. I was able to speak to a few of the women because of my limited Hindi, but I can already tell how far that communication goes. The woman who runs the council told me to invite everyone back to stay at her house, and despite the fact that she has maybe 3 rooms, terrible drinking water and inconsistent electricity, I know she meant it. There was this one elderly woman with tattoos on her hand, arms, and face who took to me for some reason and held my hand as we walked to the car. She was barefoot, walking right through the mud and cow shit, and I gingerly stepped around everything brown, but there we were. People might pass judgment on the corruption and religious divisions that plague the government, but maybe Gandhi had something right when he said that the future of India lay in the villages.

The day wasn't totally heart wrenching, though, because despite what people might think in the West, these women are doing more for themselves than we could ever do for them. They might need some legal or financial assistance, but we could tell the effect they've had, albeit just in their own villages, when the men would speak about how they support the work that they do. There is a lot of work to be done, but the spirit is there. And it was also very funny when a dog peed on Seth's shoe. He had to wear it the whole day.

Although I didn't take pictures, I still have some to share!

This is the synagogue in which we will celebrate Rosh Hashanah. I will try to take some better pictures, but it was filled with Indian Jews. Indians wearing yarmulkes. It was awesome.

This is Zack getting a shave on the street. It cost less than a dollar, until he added face/head massages onto the end. But it was fun to watch, and people in the street seemed to enjoy watching too.

This is my Bombay family, aka David and Ava. I will be living with Ava, and David is trying to find housing nearby, but in the meantime he'll use our kitchen because he is apparently an awesome chef.

This is the whole group! It was Katie's birthday, so we had a little party. Gandhiji came too. From left to right: Andrew, Seth, David, Jamie, Zack on the floor, Katie, Arielle, me, Ava, Yael and Shaina.

Lastly, some deliciousness:

This is a Gujarati thali. They keep refilling your plate until you're full. It's amazing. That's all for now, I'm off to synagogue! Shana Tova!