Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Bhujji Wonderland

Namaste! In this week’s posting, I invite you to share my adventure to Bhuj, a city located in Kutch (or Kachchh, to be phonetically, Gujaratically correct), which is in northwest India, just across the border from Pakistan. I had initially devised this little trip as a way to visit the four fellows who have placements in Bhuj, but it quickly turned into a work trip, my first business trip for my new adult life! At work, I am supposed to be figuring out how to design a network to help implement the 2005 Protection of Women Against Domestic Violence Act. I have no idea how to do this, given that I have no experience with networks, so I thought it would be a good idea to do some research and visit some established networks around India and determine if there is some common theme that makes them all successful. In Bhuj there is a pretty solid network that was established after the 1998 cyclone to deal with disaster relief, and it got a lot stronger after another cyclone in 1999 and a huge earthquake in 2001. Research questions and gifts for the fellows in tow, such as jam, coffee, and alcohol (Gujarat is a dry state), I boarded the 9115 Sayaji Nagari “Express” from Mumbai to Bhuj. This express journey was supposed to be 17 hours, but fortunately for me, it ended up being 18+. I wasn’t worried, though, because I went on the train armed with samosas and several Harry Potter books, which I have decided to reread before I see the final movie installment. My friend Rachel happened to be on the same train going to a different city, so we spent the first, glorious 8 hours together, hopping from berth to berth to charge laptops and such.
This is Rachel eating kulfi, or Indian ice cream.

And this is a sleeping man, who snored incredibly loudly.

I didn’t have a confirmed seat because I booked my ticket a bit late. Well I had a seat, but I would only get my own berth, or bed, if someone cancelled. I generally love trains, but I learned on this trip that not having my own berth would totally change that. Indian trains are not like trains anywhere else I’ve traveled. Well they’re certainly not like trains in Europe, and when I took a long distance train in Vietnam, I was locked in a compartment smaller than a closet, so I don’t really know what was going on outside. I like traveling AC 2nd Tier in India, so there are 6 berths per compartment, but they’re not separated from other compartments by a door or anything. There are 2 beds per wall, and the bottom ones turn into seats for when it’s not time for bed. I hate being on the bottom, because the people on the top will come down to your seat whenever they’re not sleeping, like 7 in the morning when you still really want to sleep. But I’ll save most of the stories for the ride home, which was more interesting. I arrived at Bhuj tired but excited on Friday morning and argued with the rickshaw driver, who wanted 50 rupees to take me to Shaina’s house. I was too tired to argue and don’t know Gujarati, the language they speak here (some people also speak Kutchi, a local dialogue), so I gave in. Firstly, I was shocked at how cold it was. People at work told me to “bring my woolens,” which I didn’t bring, seeing as how I live in a steam room, and I also just brushed it off, thinking that I could certainly tolerate some cool air more than the Bombayyites. Turns out they were right, and it can get down to the 40s or 50s during the night. Still warmer than home, but it’s still 90 here in the winter so I was woefully unprepared.

Zack and me in our woolens.

Secondly, Bhuj loves cows. Or maybe cows love Bhuj. I feel like I could tell I was in Gujarat because of the abundance of livestock. Gujarat is home to some conservative Hindus, and in fact the governor, Narendra Modi, is responsible for the 2002 riots in which fundamentalist Hindus killed scores of Muslims. Most people in Gujarat aren’t like that of course, but given the illegality of alcohol and clear bovine reverence, it’s definitely much more conservative than other places in India. I spent Friday talking to some people in the network and wandering around Bhuj a bit. It’s a really small city, so I, even with my inexistent sense of direction, was able to find my way home without the aid of a rickshaw.

My four friends in Bhuj all live basically on the same street.

Said street.

It was nice to be able to pop in and out of their flats, and a neighborhood boy apparently does the same thing frequently. I am not known for my patience with children, and I must say that if I lived in Bhuj, they would all hate me. Hiren, the little boy, would just walk into Shaina’s house and join in whatever we were doing. If we didn’t answer, he would go over to the side of the house and open the window to look in. Friday afternoon he actually showed up at Shaina’s office, which is down the street from her house, and started playing on one of the computers. That kind of communal living is totally different than my double-doored, third floor flat, and while I would never last like that long term, there was something really nice about having that kind of access and familiarity with one’s surroundings. I generally value the anonymity city life grants me, particularly now that I am already somewhat of a spectacle. But I am not known throughout Mumbai as I am in Dharavi or in my neighborhood, whereas the fellows are known throughout Bhuj, and in fact people knew their names before they arrived.

On Saturday I went to Khamir, a craft resource centre that functions as a collaboration between several NGOs in the network. It’s outside of the city, and I took a fun shared rickshaw with some of Khamir’s employees. On the ride, I saw evidence of the earthquake that tore through Kutch, and some of the buildings, riddled with huge cracks, were still standing next to rubble. Overall, though, it seems that the city has completely recovered, thanks to the network’s efforts. Khamir is on a nice campus with different areas to exhibit local artisanry. Kutch is known for its traditional artisans, and people travel from all over to buy their products. I spent a good part of my visit shopping and picked up everything from scarves and pillow covers to a handcrafted wooden spoon and copper bells. I didn’t have the pleasure of taking a shared rickshaw back, so I had to find my way back to the main road. It’s a couple kilometers away, but I decided to walk and take advantage of the space. It almost felt lonely, being on a road by myself, but it might be months before I have the opportunity again.
Images from the road:

I made it to the road and flagged down a bus to take me back into town. When I got back I met Zack and went to his NGO and enjoyed more Indian hospitality with his coworkers, who all shared their lunches with me. It’s typical in India to eat communal lunches, so everyone plans on bringing a little extra. Saturday night we went to a “fancy” restaurant, where the prices were cheaper than most cheap places in Mumbai. I think everyone was really excited to use my visit as an opportunity to “splurge,” and I certainly didn’t mind my channa masala. We ended the night on the roof stargazing, although I was wearing my sleeping bag because it was freezing, and my shawl wasn’t cutting it.
In the sleeping bag on the roof:

Shaina rapping to Salt N Peppa as a Russian grandmother:

Bhujjying, or creating our own entertainment in a land without many options:

Sunday we had planned an adventure. I am the only fellow who doesn’t work on Saturdays, with the exception of one who keeps Shabbat, so I am used to getting enough relaxing and life-sorting time. I sincerely appreciate and take advantage of this extra day, and I think I might go crazy with a 6 day workweek. I admire everyone else for still being sane. Anyway, the Bhujjies never get out much because Sunday is relaxing and laundry day, but we grabbed some Pao Bhaji for breakfast before we headed out for Mandvi, a beach town about an hour away.

Pao (bread) and Bhaji (?)

We hadn’t done any planning and left a lot later than we had planned, but it ended up being a fun adventure. We were going to take shared jeeps to get there, but a bus driver heard we were going to Mandvi and told us to get on his little bus. We kind of shrugged and said why not. Well actually Zack said “If we end up Pakistan, this is your fault,” but there wasn’t really any danger of that. So we hopped onto our luxury bus and started down the road.
Shaina and I on the bus with our new friend:

Zack sat up front.

India from the window:

We had heard of this batik place a few kilometers before the beach, so we hopped off the bus in front of some training institute, not really having any idea where we were. But this is India, and there’s always a way back if you need one. We wandered in and were the only people there, but brave Shaina knocked on doors and we found the batik shop. I bought some fabric and plan on bringing it to a tailor to get something Western made. I am excited. We got in a rickshaw to go to the beach, but he dropped us in the middle of the city.
Enjoying the breezy ride. Check out the pants.

It wasn’t a beach, but we did pass a shipbuilding yard on the way.

We reconvened over chai, which I think I’ve become addicted to.

Drinking chai the Gujarati way by pouring it onto the saucer.

I prefer the regular way.

Not knowing exactly where the beach was, we decided to go to the Vijay Vilas Palace, which was used as the British cantonment in Lagaan and for a dance scene in Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam, which are two of my favorite Bollywood movies. My excitement was palpable, and of course I had to recreate some scenes.

We could also see the ocean from the roof, so we knew we were in the vicinity. We got back in the rick and went to the beach, which was a different one that we wanted to go to, but it ended up being a thoroughly, enjoyably Indian experience. The beach was obviously not used for swimming and bathing, but riding horses or camels, eating snacks, and flying kites.

Well don't you look beautiful.

Eating masala corn, in the ocean.

Sunset on the Arabian Sea.

After spending an hour there, we ran back to catch a bus (it had gotten dark) and jumped on the first one we heard was going to Bhuj. I endured the hour and a half ride with one butt cheek on the seat and working hard to move my shoulders and gaze away from the sea of men who were crammed into the aisle. Sometimes crowds in India make me hate penises in an entirely un-Freudian way.

On Monday night it was time for the train ride home, and this was not as smooth as the ride there. Just two stops after Bhuj, a family joined me in my compartment, and it appeared that they were moving to Mumbai. They came with suitcases, boxes, a laundry a whole bag of homecooked meals, and a laundry basket. Oh, and a baby. And across from them was a toddler. And in the next compartment was another baby. I knew I was in for something bad, but I didn’t realize how bad until I got into my sleeping bag and, a few minutes later, felt a mouse skittering across my forehead. I sat up, cried for about 30 seconds, and then lied back down, hugging my purse with all my valuables. Then at 7:14, I felt someone against my foot and looked up to see more people joining my compartment. I really wanted to sleep, but alas, we had to share my berth. Then the people from the upper berths came down, so there were 3 people on my seat, and at one point I was visibly angry. I felt bad, since this is just what happens on trains, not like you get on expecting to have any privacy or space or peace and quiet to sleep. It’s just a more overt, almost involuntary experiencing of Indian culture that can at times feel unwelcome. I think next time I travel I’ll attempt to secure an upper berth all to myself, and then I can enjoy the men coming through selling ice cream and nuts, waking up to people yelling “chai? Chai?” and watching the sunrise over the fields that seem endless, that make it seem like India doesn’t have a population problem, since there is no one in sight, unless you count the livestock. Just before we reached Bombay I had almost forgotten about the mouse as we passed a lazy, winding river with wooden fishing boats moored on the banks. But then I saw the fishermen’s tents lined up behind the boats and the scurrying feet momentarily resumed.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Tales from the Slum

Namaste! Well the past week or so hasn’t all been about the slums, but they did play a big part of what I saw in and around Bombay. Saturday was a “picnic” for my NGO to celebrate our founding. We were going to a place called Aksa Beach, which is about an hour away from where I live. The e-mail said we could leave the office no later than 8 am, so I showed up at 7:56, exhausted from having seen a late Harry Potter showing the night before (amazing). The bus, of course, did not leave until 8:42. We got to Aksa Beach and were told that we shouldn’t go anywhere near the water because it has sinking sands and a terrible undercurrent. They made it sound like they didn’t want us on the beach at all, which would have been terribly sad, since it’s the first semi-clean water I would have stepped in. We didn’t listen at all and ran across the beach to the water and played until we got called inside.

Wonderful beach! The doggie liked it too.

Coworkers prancing around in saris. I'll actually miss this when I go home.

My friend Nikki from Nigeria, who's on a fellowship for maternal healthcare.

In typical Indian fashion, they planned a day at the beach and expected us to spend most of it inside. I wasn’t that happy about it until I got inside and saw that the DJ had started spinning some Bollywood, and an insane, 2 hour dance party ensued. The great thing about Indian dance parties is that everyone knows the dances to the songs from the Bollywood movies. Well, everyone except the gori, which is Hindi for “white person,” with the same sentiment as goyim, I guess. I was feeling a bit left out that I had missed out on the choreography, but I also wouldn’t take the time to memorize all the moves by watching YouTube for hours. I felt better when they started playing random Sean Paul songs. Bet nobody knew they were attempting to do some bhangra to “From me love how you fit inna you blouse and you fat inna you jeans and mi waan discover..Everything out you baby girl can you hear when me utter...” Lyrics courtesy of

This is me and Kalpana, one of my favorite coworkers. She's a community worker who is also from Dharavi, and one day invited me over for chai.

This is the dance party. That awesome looking lady in the background happens to be my boss.

These are the rest of my coworkers. They're counselors in the crisis centre.

I left the picnic early because I had to get to Powai (other side of Bombay) in order to meet the gang to go to the country! Unfortunately I had to climb a fence to get out my jeans got stuck on a spike. I have ripped my only pair of pants. Good thing there are 7 tailors on my street. After an hour long rickshaw ride, part of it through a dairy colony, I reached Powai! Niket, my friend featured in “Am I From Here?” is making a reappearance this week. He, David, Ava and I were planning on spending Saturday night at his country house in Lonavala, about an hour outside of Mumbai. Powai is a really weird place (no offense, Niket). It’s a newly developed part of the city, filled with the offices of international companies, like Deloitte. The buildings have a distinctly Greco-Roman feel, and there are random Ionic columns at intersections throughout the area. Niket lives on the 23rd floor of his apartment building, so we got an aerial view and a better understanding of how megacities emerge and the complete lack of urban planning in Mumbai.

When Powai was developed, it was planned to accommodate those who could afford to live here. The impressively tall buildings around Powai lake are for wealthy families, but there are no legitimate accommodations for those who support the wealthy families. The domestic worker is certainly not offered low-class housing here; such plans don’t exist, so what happens is that slums creep up on unclaimed swaths of land. Perhaps the most interesting aspect is that from the road, the slums are hidden behind rows of trees:

It’s only when you look from above that you even notice the thousands of people who cannot afford to live in Powai, yet make a life here because they have nowhere else to try. The real estate boom in India hasn’t burst yet, and all over Mumbai, but particularly on the highways on the outskirts, there are lots of billboards advertising planned living communities, called “Sobha Turquoise” or “Crescent Lake Homes,” with models of communities as they are desired, but never as they actually are. Covering the slums on the ground will obviously not make the issues of migration, exploding populations, and endemic poverty disappear, but this tends to be the philosophy of a government whose Parliament has been unable to function for 16 days, so far, in the aftermath of the 2G scandal. But, I digress.
Lonavala was great, but I’ll skip that. We saw stars, ate egg masala sandwiches, and bought fudge.

This is what Maharasthra looks like. Well part of it. We were really excited for the greenery.

Yesterday at work we had a rally to celebrate 16 Days of Activism for Violence Against Women, an international campaign from Nov. 25-Dec. 10. A lot of women, and some men, gathered at the police station in Dharavi to begin walking through the slums with signs.

This was a symbolic moment in itself, since the police are often hesitant to helped resolve issues of violence against women, considering them to be private matters. This was also the first time I was allowed to use my camera in Dharavi. Generally, photography is strictly off-limits according to municipal law, because tourists started walking around after Slumdog Millionaire and taking pictures of the infamous Dharavi. But, since I was with an NGO, I broke out the camera! I didn’t take pictures of anything that was not part of the rally, but the backgrounds of some of the pictures might give you an idea of what slums in India look like.

The rally was great, and we got a lot of people to participate. As some women marched with signs, others handed out pamphlets with our NGO’s contact information and put up signs against domestic abuse.

Then some youth from the community put on a play in the street. They acted out scenes of a father subjecting his daughter to unfair and unequal standards to showcase a less obvious form of gender violence, and it was well received.

Now as far as slums in India go, there are a few different kinds of housing. Most people think slums are just tent cities, which they're not. "Slum" just means that an area is overcrowded and lacks access to several forms of infrastructure, including sanitation, water, electricity, schools, etc. In Mumbai, houses are either kutcha, semi-pucca, or pucca. A kutcha house is made from crude materials, so the roof is a tin sheet or a tarp and the walls are made from similar materials. They look like the ones in the background of this picture:

They're also not part of established chawls, which are individual units in a shared living compound, if that makes any sense. They're built on the sides of streets and seem to be more recent developments.

Then there are semi-pucca houses, which might have concrete walls, but not proper roofs. That looks like this:

This is also a Muslim neighborhood, hence the minaret and flags.

Lastly are pucca houses, which are just normal housing situations.

The last super fun event of this weekend, totally not slum related, was Hanukkah. We couldn't get our hands on a real menorah in time, so I decided to carve one out of styrofoam.

Unfortunately, the menorah didn't make it the full 8 days. Must not have been worthy of a miracle. We left it outside to burn brightly and I looked out on the balcony to discover that the hot wax had burnt through the styrofoam, so I guess that's the end of that. I tried.
I also found random Thai chocolate coins that can serve as gelt. It doesn't taste the same, but it will do. Also the menorah says Hanukkah Mubarak, or Happy Hanukkah, in Hindi. At some point we'll play dreidel. That's all for now, I'm off to celebrate Ava's birthday!