Monday, June 28, 2010
Since the last time my family and I traveled to India in 1998, three things remain exactly the same. Motorcycles take over the streets as many people’s main form of transportation, constantly weaving their way through the overcrowded streets of Chennai and Mumbai. Mangoes are to be found in most any village, at every dinner table, regardless of the time of day. Chai and all its aroma are omnipresent at nearly every train station throughout all of India, often overpowering the ghastly smells of the nearby sewers.
I am writing about these three aspects of Indian culture for two particular reasons. With a gap of over ten years between now and my last time in India, these three things serve as an unshaken foundation of familiarity. When I find myself alone on a seven hour train ride from the LAFTI offices to my aunt’s house (a trip I have taken nearly every five days since my arrival), the smell of tongue-burning chai is actually refreshing. Watching the chai sellers cool a cup of this tea by pouring it between two different cups nearly four feet apart reminds me of why I loved the stopping part of each train ride so very much. Being a picky eater and someone who has never liked even the least bit of Indian spice, eating mangoes now reminds me of my childhood survival food when it came to the common curries and chutneys served almost every morning and night. Seeing motorcycles going in every direction at speeds not appropriate for discussion, I am constantly reminded of the thrill and risk I love so greatly when it comes to traveling.
While these three characteristics of Indian life sing a beautiful song of familiarity that is most comforting from dawn until dusk, they also possess a greater and much deeper meaning than is revealed in everyday life. While it may occur possibility only in my own imagination, motorcycles, mangoes, and chai seem to represent three of the most fundamental elements of human life. Motorcycles, as one of many modes of transport represent our ability as individuals to move from place to place. Whether it is by horse and cart, in a train or in a car, or via motorbike managing the overcrowded dirt roads of southeastern India, we move. Mangoes symbolize survival. Survival not just for me as an 8-year-old child who wouldn’t eat anything else but these scrumptious green and orange ovals, but for anyone and everyone who is living today. Hand-picking our fruits from a tree, cutting our meats with a machete, or purchasing our vegetables in pre-packaged tightly sealed supermarket bag, we are given life from these foods without which we could not exist. Chai signifies not so much a way of going or doing as much as it does a way of being, not a physical attribute of life but more a form of hospitality. While I may find myself drinking three to four cups of chai with little attention paid to its true intention, chai, coffee, tea and biscuits, and a myriad of other similar traditions around the world all seem to embody a sense of our personalities as a whole. The way we are welcomed and the way in which we are sent off are more or less indicative of who we are, and directly express the social and emotional interaction we desire and value in daily life.
So while motorcycles, mangoes, and chai may simply be just three different things with no relation to one another but all omnipresent in Indian culture, they represent and mean much more to me. They stand not only as strong signals of India and the country’s everyday way of life, but as symbols of how all of us as human beings move, survive, and interact.
Saturday, June 26, 2010
Although I was welcomed warmly by the LAFTI community upon arrival, it is not an easy community to make one’s way into, let alone fit in. When I approached my mother and father with this particular frustration, they explained the following. This is a community of people who, until very recently, were deemed a curse to the streets and villages in which they were born. They have served endlessly with no return for their services, have had their energies exploited for the demands of the landlords to which they have been bonded, and have lost their livelihoods only for the short-term financial benefit of a million multinational corporations that damage their lands in a way that is really and truly, irreversible.
Now that I am personally understanding and living with those who have experienced the social effects of a suppressed peoples’ history, it is no longer a surprise to me that I should feel out of place, and that knowledge is a relief in and of itself. No matter how brown my skin gets, regardless of how much Tamil I learn, apart from the amount of time I spend living and working at the LAFTI headquarters, I will never live as they have had to, I will never be an insider. Even after traveling back and forth for 32 years and being someone who is greatly dedicated to and educated about the Dalit community and its struggles, my own father is still seen as a guest and outsider by most all the staff and village workers. I think the realization that made the majority of my frustrations subside was that being an outsider is not necessarily a bad thing, nor were the characteristics I associated with my initial definition of an outsider completely correct. Being a so-called “outsider” is nothing more significant or meaningful than being on the outside of a history in relation to those who have lived inside it. Understanding that I am on the outside not because I am disliked or unwelcomed, but because there is really no way in. In the wider picture though, I am simply grateful that I have not had to exist in, struggle though, and recover from the history in which the Dalit community has lived for so long. Just as I am outside their house, outside of their history, they are outside mine, and for that there is no consequence of dislike or negative judgment but only a key to a door of which no copies can ever be made.
Friday, June 25, 2010
A few days into my stay, my grandma and I found fifteen minutes free to sit out front and chat about just a few of the things both of us have been doing since last we met. When she asked me about my time spent in Jordan before coming to India, children then became the main focus of the conversation. When I was busy telling her about the Children’s Art and Music Group I helped out with in Amman, slowly her eyes began to grow bigger and brighter. She was shining in this particular way not just because she was proud to hear about me doing such work, but because she had an idea of her own related to children. I don’t want anyone to assume that she doesn’t smile on a daily basis because she certainly does and has one of the most beautiful smiles I know, but there is a certain change in her presence (smile, tone, eyes, etc.) when Krishnammal Jagannathan comes up with a plan. Her idea was as follows. Being that she and I were the only two English-speaking people living and working at LAFTI this summer and she was keenly aware that her work with the various hostels she has established over the years is no longer her main focus as most of her energy is now directed towards issues revolving around land, she decided to make me the extra hands she no longer had the energy to utilize. She would make me the Valivalam LAFTI Hostels English Teacher. Although I was a bit intimidated by the idea when it was first presented, my grandma is a woman of her word and when she says she has a plan she has already envisioned the results of that plan. So, even if I was slightly hesitant in my response because I am someone whose only teaching experience consists of showing children how to play Happy Birthday and the ABC’s on an electric keyboard, I knew that whatever her plan was, she would utilize these “extra hands” and make it happen.
When I first arrived to the LAFTI Girls Hostel in Valivalam about an hour away by bus, I was greeted with coffee and introductions. Although you will find that most people here in India prefer to drink tea rather than coffee in the morning, the children already knew so much about me via Poongodai and Valayrmathi (current and previous “hostel warden”, respectively) that they purchased a small bag of milk and prepared a large cup of coffee for me just to fill my American addiction.
“My name is Sathya and I study 6th standard”. Although different for every child with regards to her name and level of study, this was the foundation as well as the limit to the majority of these students’ English. As I have learned both from academic and practical experience, it is very common for two issues regarding education in a developing nation to come about, one of which I would be facing with much more regularity teaching at the hostel. The first is that children who have only attended school intermittently for whatever reasons (farm work, caring for their families, financial problems, etc.), and then find themselves in a position to return to their studies later on, often end up the victims of severe embarrassment and humiliation. There is a very strong and discouraging stigma that accompanies an 11-year-old girl who goes to school and finds herself sitting and learning beside five and six –year-old students who are at the “normal” age for their grade.
Although I was very aware of this first issue coming into the hostel as I was assigned to teach students ranging in age from three to eighteen, I was a bit surprised to find that the exact opposite environment had been created. This was a very unique group of students to say the least. A good number of these girls were without one of their parents, and most of those parents physically existent in their children’s lives would be referred to by Amma as “useless parents”. When we think of our parents’ insistence that we get up and go to school, whether our education is to be found in our home, at the public high school, or at a private university in the nation’s capital, we are more than privileged. After asking a few questions, Amma went on to explain that “useless parents” are those mothers and fathers who, after facing the reality of being illiterate and uneducated themselves, lack any sort of support for their children’s education when their children need it most. She summarized her feeling on the issue towards the end of our conversation.
“When illiteracy and ignorance are all around you, you must rise above. You must give and support your children in the opportunity for education, to empower them with the possibility for a decent and different way of life”.
The annoyance of our morning alarms that wake us students to walk to class with our hair soaking wet wearing sweat pants and the only clean t-shirt on the floor, is a million times more than most all these students will ever wake up to. This group of girls did not have an issue when it came to the age stigma I mentioned before, but were so unaware of their own educational identities relative to one another that they almost appeared unmotivated. Spanning in age from preschool to college, these students did everything as a family, far different from the type of academic environment and encouragement you and I are acquainted with in the United States. And that which I initially mistook to be a lack of motivation was actually very strong but quite unfocused motivation.
With regards to my actual first teaching experience here at the LAFTI Girls Hostel in Valivalam, I found my way into this 44-student family, and that is enough for one day. Today wasn’t about teaching as much as it was about learning. Learning about my students, enough to understand but not too much to pry, but more importantly allowing them the time and space to learn about me. As the only foreign teacher to have ever entered into their home, trust was key. Although I am not yet a woman of school books and lesson plans, these girls (my new students!) have provided me with the warmest, most loving learning environment a first-time teacher could ever have.
In all seriousness though, I have never been treated in quite this manner, and even if I have been spoiled by a grandmother or aunt from time to time, it was never a lasting environment. I don’t want to spend too much time discussing the fact, but I am most definitely getting a different perspective on Indian life this time around. From blessing lorries in the morning to people bowing down to me on the street at night, there are several different contributors to this royalty treatment I am experiencing. First and foremost, I am a guest and Indian culture treats guests in a manner much more hospitable than one could ever find in the U.S. (probably considered insistent or rude in many other places around the world). Although I am my grandma’s adopted granddaughter and on some level considered family, I am still speaking a foreign language and coming from a far away nation which makes me a guest in LAFTI’s book. Secondly, I am American citizen and that alone brings about some amount of attention greater than any to be found when I am living in the states. Not only am I an American, but I am daughter to two of the most loved and respected Americans my grandmother and the LAFTI community has ever known….according to them, of course. To quote her exact words, “Ellen and David are great souls…I have never encountered anyone as loving and patient as these two”. Lastly, I am a native northern Indian originally born in Mumbai (Bombay), and with a skin tone lighter than all the rest, it is not something to be easily hidden. I am a “wealthy” northern Indian who has come to live and work in a village of poor Dalit men and women, a village where the population spends most of its time, thanks to my grandmother and the establishment of LAFTI, making bricks and building houses, something they were not even thought to do only 20 years before now. Lastly, and most importantly, I am considered a girl not a woman in India (not yet married, still a student, etc.) and the grandmother I have come to stay with is the founder and director of a revolutionary land reform organization that has changed the lives of thousands from the land up, literally. If I am related to her, whether it is through my American mother and father who Amma adopted and then they adopted me, I am her granddaughter and apparently that counts for a lot.
On a drastically different side of the equation, I am just like any other Indian when I’m not an American, a guest, or a granddaughter. When I go to get on a bus, although my skin color is still lighter than most because I am in the siren heat of south eastern India and I spend most of my time in the states locked inside a classroom missing out on the sun that would give me my “natural Indian tone”, I really don’t stand out. I am wearing Indian clothes, one of the four women places a stick-on bindi on my forehead every morning before braiding my hair like all other Indians, and I sound Indian enough in my pronunciation of the town I want a ticket to get to that no one seems to sense my being a foreigner. When I step out of the bus station, I am crammed in between most everyone else fighting to get on and off at that time, something that most Americans, guests, or member of some royal family couldn’t get away with.
The reason I mention all of the above circumstances is to share with you the truly unique lens through which I am viewing India and Indian people, and I thought it necessary to explain that specific lens before I go on to make any observations or analysis. While I am slightly uncomfortable with the idea of being an Indian Princess, it seems only to be a part-time job. Look like I can have my Indian cake and eat it too!
Wednesday, June 23, 2010
While you learn about the different business cultures that exist around the world, no one ever tells you about this one. Let me just say before I go on to tell of this strange “all day staff meeting” as my grandmother called, it was an experience. I have never seen so much organization and social cohesion come out of such chaos and disorganization, but I guess that’s just the Indian way. It’s not that I wasn’t aware of some of the different festivities or prayers that might take place throughout the day, based on the uniqueness of the morning’s ceremony, but my grandma redefines the word “meeting” for a business environment all its own.
Although I could not understand much of what was taking place during this “all staff meeting”, I was able to understand a few simple things. I am sure that the meeting consisted of much more conversation than discussion, introductions took place at the end instead of before, there was a prayer every 30 minutes or so, a very flexible break was given for chai and “mid-day meals” part way through, and overall a lot got done. Unique is an understatement, but as a business student who hopes to find herself traveling the world for work, unique is just one of many business environments I will have to adjust to If I have any hope of communicating with those around me, understanding and strongly believing that communication is the foundation of business. Although it may not be the way you or I might conduct business in the United States or Slovakia or South Africa, it is the time spent in those environments dissimilar from our own that allow us to observe, understand, and apply our own cultural learnings in order to better the foundation of international interaction as a whole.
Indians wake up early, and this morning I was enthusiastically reminded of my heritage. This reminder was not brought to me in the form of a gentle tap on the door or morning coffee (although I found my way to a cup of that shortly thereafter), but with a very lively ceremony just outside my window. This was not a ceremony for me, nor was it anything resembling that of a ceremony one might find anywhere else in the world. Only at the LAFTI headquarters in Kuthur, India at 8am would one be awakened to come outside and bless a truck. The thing is, this was not just any truck, it was a LAFTI lorry. A combination between several different donors, all LAFTI workers and staff were gathered around two small but highly decorated lorries that were sitting side by side on the dirt foundation between the main office and the kitchen. These two donated lorries are to be used for carrying bricks between LAFTI where the bricks are being made using a fly-ash brick-making machine (also donated), and the villages of the beneficiaries where the actual houses are being built. The lorries could not be used, however, until they had been blessed, and that’s where I come in. As an American, a guest, and as my Indian grandmother’s especially blessed and adopted granddaughter, together with Amma put our hands to a small bowl of fire, then immediately after to our face, dotted our foreheads with white and red powder, stood for a prayer, and then posed with the community and its newest lorries for a few photos. After this, I was informed that I should go back to my room and rest while those who had awaited my blessing would now go off and load bricks into these two newly blessed lorries.
From giving a speech on water filters to blessing a lorry, I went from feeling highly useful to completely useless. Although I enjoyed the honor of being such an important part of the brick making/lorry blessing ceremony, I must be honest and say that I was a bit frustrated with the possibility that I had come all the way to South India and to the LAFTI headquarters only to “bless things”. After some conversation with my parents in America who have spent much time in India and working with LAFTI throughout their years, I was informed that I was very lucky that I had figured out that this would be one of my main duties so early on in my stay. As my dad said during the conversation, “it took me 12 years to discover that blessing things was one of the best things I could do”. Talk about an internship description being changed, I decided to dive into the idea of being a “blesser” with an honest amount of hesitation, but with a big enough smile to make up for it.
As I was unpacking and packing between returning from Jordan and leaving for India, my father sent a small package of which two items were to be delivered to two specific men working at the LAFTI headquarters. The second morning I was in Kuthur, I opened the package that David so insisted I pack which contained, along with a few other things such as sunflower seeds and the strongest bug repellant known to exist (I shall explain later), two white t-shirts with some blue picture and slogan on the front. “Friendly Water For The World” is what was written on the shirt be exact, with a drawing of the globe and a person using a water filter, the picture in its entirety designed by a nine-year-old homeschooled girl in the states.
To move along with the story, these two shirts were intended for the two men managing the biosand water filter project at LAFTI. Originally designed by an inventor at the Univeristy of Calgary in Canada, and brought to India by our Quaker friends Del and Sue Livingston out of Tacoma, WA, these filters that can remove up to 99% of bacteria and viruses from water are virtual genius. Using as mentioned in the title, a biosand layer that sits at the top of sand and gravel inside a cement molded three-foot rectangle with a small white tube coming out of the front, these filters are now being distributed in several different countries around the globe. Dell and his wife are part of a new non-profit organization Friendly Water For The World chaired by my father, and travel several times a year to Kenya and Burundi in Central Africa to distribute and train people to make and use these filters. They are made originally in a blue metal mold that can be taken and used to make a million more (one per day) using a little cement and water. I hate to make the whole thing sound so simple, but it really is just that simple. With dysentery as a common cause of death (especially among children) in the area where LAFTI is located, and occasional cholera outbreaks and epidemics in the state of Tamil Nadu where LAFTI does the majority of its work, these low cost, minimal resource-using biosand water filters ultimately act as life savers.
These two men I later presented the t-shirts to are in charge of making sure the numerous water filters sitting at the LAFTI head quarters are being distributed as needed. It is not that they are being given to every woman in every village, although that would be nice, but that every project location (every office, every hostel, and every gathering space) is equipped with at least one of these filters for that particular community’s use. And when the new homes LAFTI is building are completed, each will have a biosand filter. After presenting the two men with their t-shirts and asking them to pour a few cups of water using the filter, we all opened the filter to find a large population of ants and other insects that were keeping it from running smoothly. Although I understood that not all the people at the office where using this particular filter on a regular basis, the people who do use it every now and again were unaware of the filter’s needed upkeep. Even if one is not using the filter regularly, the filter must be fed a bucket of water every day or two in order to keep the biosand layer strong. When I asked why the workers were not using the filter more often, they said that during the rainy season or when there are a few rainy evenings in a row, they collect that water in buckets and then scoop it using a tin cup out of there. What they seem not to understand is that the buckets they are collecting in are filled with the same water-borne diseases that one would find in a nearby stream or river. After translation help from Gandhi, the workers seemed to understand that if they weren’t going to use the filter on a daily basis they at least needed to dump few buckets of water through the filter in the morning or evening. Anyways, although I have not yet convinced them to fill their glasses from the filter with every meal, we have compromised that they will at least maintain the filter in order to use it when they are so inspired. As I was a newcomer to the LAFTI community, it was not in my interest to alienate myself by forcing them to complete a task about which they were not truly understanding of the reasons behind. So, we poured a few jugs of water into the filter to get it running again and called it a day. This was the beginning of my real work, of my journey down the path of real development, learning and understanding the very detailed line between helping, imposing, and offending. Even if using the filter is in my view and others, scientifically the best thing to do, all transitions take time and a feeling of ownership over each transition is often the most crucial motivator for any changes to be made. I think today, we agreed on the establishment of mutual education and understanding, and that is no simple task on either end. They were able to understand why the filter is important in my view, and I was able to recognize that most all of the men and their families who I was speaking with have been perfectly fine (well, relative speaking, until they get sick) without it until this point and thus using this filter would be a change not only for them as individuals but for their community as a whole.
Monday, June 21, 2010
I have come to India not to assuage my curiosity with facts, but to fill the holes in own internal workings. I have come to work with LAFTI not only to understand the real development that is taking place in India, those changes not fast or popular enough to make the morning paper, but to understand what it is that makes me see, think, and live the way I do.
Sunday, June 20, 2010
As we as humans go about our daily lives living in 195 different countries and speaking in over 40,000 languages, we are alike in more ways than we know. You and I witnessed very particular events, lived through very specific experiences, and are greatly affected both positively and negatively by the people we encounter throughout our lives. The commonality surrounding most all of these events, experiences, and relationships is that we all have the same choice. It is our choice to change internally the way we see ourselves, others, and the world around us based on that which we have experienced, witnessed, and been affected by. Some choose to see their lives with greater understanding of the relative privileges they possess, some choose to be more religiously, politically, or racially tolerant of those around them, some choose to go into the world of academia in order to gain a greater understanding of a conflict they recently discovered, and some just go on. Some just go on with the viewpoint that whatever they may have experienced, witnessed, or struggled through in the past is not of great importance and should not have any such effect on the which they go about their future. The main point to be made is that no matter what we choose, we have always chosen.
The reason I am bringing about such discussion of living one’s life and making choices is to illustrate a very particular relationship between the two. When we witness an event, live through an experiences, or encounter a person and then continue down our own individual paths carrying the results of these occurrences in one of the ways mentioned above, we have made a decision with regards to way in which we have chosen to change, to be affected by the past.
While the title of this posting may not have seemed relevant until now, the given information was most necessary in order to convey to you the absolute way in which Krishnammal Jagannathan affects those around her. She is a very small woman standing maybe only four feet ten inches, but her presence can sometimes make you feel as though you are sharing the room with benevolent giant. She is a woman who, when she speaks, is able to command the respect of those who hate her, open the eyes of those who cannot see, and wake all who are sleeping. When around her, whether for 30 seconds or 30 days, she does not allow you the choice mentioned earlier. When you experience her presence, witness her work, or begin to understand her struggles, you instantly change but without a moment to make a decision as to why or how. It is truly magic, to find yourself more aware of your privileges, more tolerant of others, and more interested in the world around you, all without any real explanation as to why you suddenly feel the way you do. When I was busy trying to come up with even the slightest rationalization as to why I changed internally and emotionally more in one week’s time then I have throughout my entire life, I had a small epiphany. Everything Krishnammal embodies, her struggles her relationships and her actions, constitute a new and more real definition of service. Not to wait for the problems to come knocking at your door, not to see poverty on the streets and suddenly feel such strong guilt or sadness that you decide to help, and not to read in some book at a library of the political or religious reasons behind mass suffering half way around the globe, but just to move forward as if all these struggles were her own. Krishnammal does not take the time to humble herself; she just walks her own path as if she is carrying the world’s problems on her shoulders and has no other option but to work until they are lifted.
Seven bus and car hours after leaving my aunt’s house in Chengelpattu, I arrived to the LAFTI office headquarters in Kuthur. Although I had never spent time in this area before, I immediately felt at home. As we got out of the jeep, my grandma and I were welcomed most warmly by all the staff and workers. Sitting on the cement staircase just to the right of the large group of men drinking coffee, two women saying “Meera, Meera, Meera!” caught my eye and brought a smile to my face. These two women, Poongodai and Valayrmathi, happened to be the two women who braided my hair every morning and made me French fries every night when my family and I last traveled to India in 1998. I remembered them, they remembered me, and thus my time spent here in Kuthur no matter what the future held, was off to the best possible start.
As for being greeting with smiles and remembrance, the two women sitting on the staircase weren’t the only ones. On her way to walking into the office to begin organizing the week’s work, Amma introduced me to these “men drinking coffee” who had kindly greeted us when we stepped out of the Jeep, but who had almost immediately found their way back to the table and chairs in the front garden area to discuss the LAFTI tasks that were to be carried out over the next several days while “the boss” was in town. For all the people who were not able to stop by the office that day, Amma gave me a brief summary with their name and position and assured me I would be meeting them all at the staff meeting in just a few days. I will tell it just as she did, with a little help and clarification from my father after the fact. Trying to learn, remember, and pronounce so many Indian names all at once can get slightly confusing for someone who has one of the simplest Indian names known to man.
Although she introduced them individually, it is blatantly obvious how much of a pair these two are, in my grandmother’s eyes anyway. Vengopu and Veerachami are Amma’s two true trusted assistants. Krishnammal respects and trusts all members of the LAFTI community, but these two men are to be found by her side at every meeting, gathering, or prayer. A short and fairly stout man, Vengopu can appear cold and uninterested as has a relatively neutral expression on his face at all times and is not one to make small talk. After speaking with my father about his lack of expression and as I would later find out for myself, Vengopu smiles much more after you begin to smile at him. And as for his lack of casual conversation, he is the manager of all LAFTI projects and instead spends his energy coordinating and directing people to their respective jobs. As my father says, “he makes things happen!”, and that is no small thing. Despite their names both beginning with the letter V, Veerachami could not a more polar opposite from that of his close colleague. Smiling at all occasions, this man has one of the most engaging, humorous, and truly kind ways with people that is not comparable to anyone I have ever met. Despite the language barrier, when I met Veerachami for the first time I felt as though we spoke exactly the same language. In every word that flows out of his mouth, whether it is “hello” or some similar phrase in Tamil, he speaks in a very particular way. His speech is calm yet enthusiastic, strong but gentle, and there is a certain resilience in his voice that makes one want to know everything about his life from then until now. Although I knew my work with LAFTI would be serious for the most part, it was refreshing to know that Veerachami would be there to make me smile with is silly Indian face-making and Tamil joke-cracking all along the way.
As I was beginning to shake hands and say hello to more people than I can remember, Amma continued with introductions like each person was the first I met. Next was Gandhi, without the all-white cotton attire or a walking stick. Gandhi is a sort of the bridge between the people in the LAFTI community and for anyone who enters into it. Although his native language is Tamil like most all others I have met so far, he also speaks enough English to convey the basic environment in most any situation. Even though I was not aware of his relative importance to me and my travels just yet, Gandhi would serve as both a friend and tour guide, helping my navigate my way around South India linguistically and otherwise. After Gandhi came the cashier, Muniyan. As a former university student and accounting major, this man’s focus and continual hard work was easily admirable. Doing most everything by hand, Muniyan spends a good portion of his day recording and analyzing the different inflows and outflows of all the activities taking place at LAFTI. After Amma was awarded two different international prizes for her work totaling over $160,000, I can’t imagine that keeping track of it all can be an easy task. Muniyan’s pride in his work is a part of his personality I immediately understood after observing for only a few short hours. Although his office is inside another larger office filled with many people at all hours of the day, the way Muniyan conducts his work at his little brown desk makes one feel as though they are in a completely separate building. He is distracted by nothing. Although I met a few other people along the way, my final stop before settling into my room for some rest was the kitchen. Only fifteen feet away from the main building, I walked the sand path to where the real magic was taking place. There I sat with four women, unbeknown to me at the time, but who would soon become my four guardian angels. Karnegi and Mani-Mori were the other two women in the group in addition to Poongodai and Valayrmathi who I met on the steps just a few minutes before. Although all in the kitchen preparing food for Amma and I at the time, Karnegi and Mani-Mori dedicate most of their time and efforts to “the goat project”, one of LAFTI’s many successful efforts to empower women and give them the opportunity to provide for their family through the breeding and selling of domesticated animals. Anyways, although I was not completely sure of these numerous women’s exact job titles and descriptions, I was sure that I had four newly adopted family members. Valayrmathi was my newest sister, Poongodai my aunt, Karnegi my mother, and Mani-Mori all of the above.
While the introduction described above probably took place in approximately 15 minutes or less in real time, I felt as though all of the people I met today had taken the time to welcome me into their home and community, and thus I should do the same with regards to their introductions to you. But in reality, in a quarter of an hour I had met 8 people who together along with a few others, make the cotton wheel spin. In the most mutual and motivated effort I have ever come across, Amma, and her LAFTI family are slowly changing the world.
Saturday, June 19, 2010
I have made this a separate post although the events of the coming paragraphs still took place within the first few hours of my arrival to Sathya's house.
The name Nagaraj translates in Hindi to "king of serpents", and the this king of serpents deserves a few paragraphs all for himself. Although my father had told me about Nagaraj before I left, he had met him the last time he stayed with my aunt, he is really someone you have to meet for yourself. 10 year old, Nagaraj came bouncing into Sathya's house to say hello. After he spoke a little English saying "hello, my name is Nagarj. What is your name?", my grandma began to tell me his story. She said "he has no parents, and is a bit behind in the learning, but he will manage". I translated this to mean that he was more or less an orphan and had missed a lot of school because of it, but with a home and two people looking after him he would be just fine. My grandma and aunt have taken him in and he now sleeps upstairs next to Sathya.
When he and I got to know each other a little better, I gave him the gift I had brought from America. I gave him two packets of sunflower seeds, one yellow and one red. His eyes got big and he just smiled. He said "thank you, thank you, thank you", and that was the beginning of very long story about me and my Indian little brother.
After finding our way to Mutukumar's little white car, he through my suitcases in the trunk and we began driving. I was instantly thrown off, however, when he reminded me to get in on the left side of the car as I was walking around to the right, the driver's side.
I'm not exactly sure how many hours later, I was asleep a great deal of the time, but we eventually arrived at the end of a long driveway to my Aunt Sathya's house. Her house is in a town in the northeastern part of Tamil Nadu which is a state within the southeastern part of India. Sathya is a pediatrician. Even now, I still remember her taking me with her to the hospital where she worked one day and getting to see and watch her care for all the newborns that were there at the time. That was the day I decided that Indian babies were the cutest! Maybe I am a bit biased?
Anyways, Sathya's house consists of two floors, and then a roof-top space which is soon to be expanded into a meditation area. The house lies within an area that has a few other houses off the sides of this one, long, twisty driveway, but mostly there is just a lot of nature. Although I have never been greatly in touch with the beauty of Washington State where I lived the first 18 years of my life, after spending two years in the city of Washington DC as a college student this drastic change of environment made me feel a sudden sense of nostalgia and appreciation for my salmon state. There is a certain calmness to be found when looking out at a mountain of green and nothing else, a calmness I seem to stumble upon when I expect it the least.
We flew into the area around 3am that morning which meant that once I said hello and spent a little bit of time with my grandmother (84-years-old) and grandfather (96-years-old)it was time to sleep. I put together my mosquito net, and although there was no air conditioning the heat was far beyond a summer in Washington DC, I was exhausted enough that I some how slept away the entire day. After waking up around 6pm, I was surprisingly greeted downstairs by Meera and her family, mother, father, cousins, grandmother and all. After eating an entire Indian meal with only my right hand, something I had to remember exactly how to do, it was time to say see you later. Since it had only been 12 hours since the last time Meera and I were sitting together eating a meal, I figured it couldn't be long until I would see her and her family again.
I should mention that in between waking up and eating with Meera's family, my grandmother insisted that I pack away all of the clothing I brought and only wear Indian attire. Although I had some Indian outfits back at my apartment in DC, most of them were for much more formal occasions. Anyways, before dinner that night, my grandma put me in the car with Mutukumar and another woman and took me to town. My grandmother had informed me that we would be leaving for Kuthur where her organization's main office was located, and for that reason I just needed to purchase something to get me through the next couple days and then I could buy more later in the week when I had settled in to this other place we were headed to in the morning. She (the woman I was with) selected and then bought me three Churidars, a set that includes pants, a loose fitting knee length top, and a scarf to match both. Upon returning to Sathya's house, it was discovered that although the body and pants of the churidar fit quite well, the sleeves that are stitched on afterwards were stitched on much to small making it nearly impossible for me to move my arms once I put the shirt part all the way on. When my grandmother found this out, she was actually quite happy to see that I would be returning the items because the three outfits that the woman had picked out for me that night were full of jewels and sequins, something a minimalist such as my grandma does not take to. My grandma and I settled on the plan that I would travel on the train to this new town in my American clothing and then once I arrived I would be sent out again with two women who seemed to understand her taste much better and we would purchase three churidars, all with a much simpler style this time around. She insisted that I stand up for myself and my own taste when purchasing my next few churidars, since I am not one for the jewels and sequins either."The women just think people in America and girls like you might like these shiny chruidars, but if you don't want them you just say no". That's my grandma for you!
This simplicity mentioned above is very much indicative of the type of person my grandmother truly is. Although I will talk more about her in a later post, arriving to Sathya's house and seeing the simple smile on her very simple but beautiful face was extraordinarily refreshing. She wears the same few cotton saris again and again and does not purchase anything for herself unless she finds it to be a necessity, and even then she makes sure everyone else has what they need first. Although I am a member of the Friends meetings (Quakers) and we place a great deal of emphasis on this notion of simplicity, it was obvious upon my arrival how relatively non-simplistic of a life I lead in comparison to her.
Even more simple than my grandmother Krishnnamal is her husband and my 96-year-old grandfather Jagannathan. He has spent his entire life spinning every morning and only wearing those clothes which he had spun. When my grandmother and I were sitting in the living room and she was busy worrying about my swollen feet from the plane, she was also intermittently telling me stories about my grandpa who was sleeping in the room behind us. A prominent activist and leader of change in India, Jaganathan has got to the point in his life due to his age where he can no longer leave my Aunt Sathya's house, and has to have someone care for him all hours of the day. He spends most of his time sleeping on a cot in the downstairs room and has lost most of his sight and hearing, but wakes one or twice a day to take a short walk and eat a small meal. Although he is not nearly as lively as I remember him during my last visit, I am more than grateful than ever to be see him now, to be sitting by his side now, and to be able to bring him one of his favorite foods in the whole entire world, chocolate. I brought four large bars of milk chocolate candy bars of which he had already begun to eat within my first day of being there. Dorky and cliche as it may be, it is the little and most simple things in life that truly matter...even if it's just a bar of chocolate.
The 20 some hours spent on an airplane this time, however, were some of my favorite times in flight. Although it took a bit of back and forth between AirIndia (the airline) and our parents, Meera and I had the pleasure of spending the entire flight getting to know each other, in person. Meera Mohan is someone I have written to, exchanged photos with, and spoken on the phone for a few minutes here and there, on and off for the last 12 years. We are obviously both named Meera, but that is just the beginning. I was born in India and adopted to an American family in the United States, and she was born in America to an Indian family living in the U.S. We were born only two days apart (I'm the older one, finally) and we both spent a portion of our childhoods playing the piano and doing gymnastics. I had the opportunity to meet her mother when at an event in Seattle in 2008, but Meera and Meera had never spoken a single sentence face to face. Much of the rest of the Mohan family, cousins, brothers, etc, live in South India. As Meera Mohan travels to India with her family every few years and I happened to be going to South India for two months this summer, her and her mother and father flew from their home in South Carolina where I could meet up with them in Washington, DC and we could all go from there.
Minus the fact that I don't think Meera's parents would have actually ended up with two daughters two days apart both named Meera, I seemed to fit in just fine. It was quite an experience to travel with an Indian family, talk to Meera in English while her mother and father spoke to each other in Tamil, and sit next to one another on a plane where we were both served vegetarian, Indian food. It felt like we were all taking one big Indian family vacation!
When we arrived to Chennai after flying from Washington, DC to New York, to Mumbai to there, we were all hot, sticky, and exhausted to say the least. Although I had spent the last month and a half living in a climate much hotter than this, India's humidity compared to Jordan's lack there of made for a bit of an adjustment. Anyway, according to Murphy's Law, everything went just as planned. After making our way to baggage claim on a very delayed flight, only my luggage was to be found. Spending some time speaking with the people at the information desk, Meera's parents were assured that their luggage was not "lost" and only misdirected, although the people giving them this information hadn't the slightest idea as to where their luggage might have been "misdirected".
Meera and I were told to go outside and look for the two people who were transporting me and her family to our respective destinations. Meera instantly recognized her Indian cousin, and only a few seconds later I was flagged down by the same driver who picked me and my family up from the airport 12 years ago, Mutukumar. After waiting for about 15 minutes for Meera's parents to express adequate frustration towards the people at the baggage claim information center, they met up with us outside, Meera and I hugged and said goodbye, and we went our separate ways. And so the journey begins...
Monday, June 14, 2010
Sunday, June 13, 2010
Friday, June 11, 2010
Monday, June 7, 2010
Sunday, June 6, 2010
I struggle greatly to describe this experience, as it is one upon further reflection that I find to have been somewhere between sorrow, disgust, and complete frustration. About 20 kilometers north of the Amman lies Al Baqa’a refugee camp, an area now inhabited by around 120,000 Palestinians displaced during the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.
The day began around 10am when Sasha another volunteer and I took a taxi to the local bus station. We had much difficulty trying to identify where the bus to Al Baqa’a was located among the many buses lined up at the station. It was probably most challenging because when we would ask people where to find this particular bus, people looked at us with either total confusion or surprise wondering why two white Americans and myself would want to go to such an area. After asking five or six people and being pointed in the general direction, we found and then boarded the bus to Al Baqa'a. Unlike bus schedules in America, Jordanian buses leave when the bus is filled up not at a specific time, so it was another 20 minutes or so before the bus departed for our destination. When aboard the bus, an older woman behind us tapped my friend Lucy (the other volunteer) on the shoulder and began going off in Arabic. Not understanding much until about 10 seconds into her lecture, the phrase “haraam!” or “forbidden!” in English made it completely clear what exactly she was intending to communicate. Although I was already wearing very modest clothing, the area to which we were traveling was a severely impoverished community, thus assuming it to be much more religiously conservative than most other places I had been. After buttoning my long-sleeve shirt up all the way to my neck, she seemed to bring her speech to a close. Although some may have been offended by this elderly woman’s words, I took them only to convey her best intentions. Maybe assuming I was a fellow Muslim from a less impoverished and less conservative area, or maybe just a tourist, I chose to think that she was only asking me to do what would be the most safe and save me the most harassment when arriving to Al Baqa’a.
When we stepped out of the bus, we were probably the only three tourists or Americans within a five mile radius. We stopped for a meal first, as we had been riding the bus most of the morning and did not eat breakfast beforehand. After lunch, we began walking through the alleys that made up the camp. Street vendors selling everything from mangos and bananas, to sink drains and curtain rods, to remote control toy helicopters and light up bracelets. With little to no sanitation, I found myself stepping over little streams of dirty brown and yellow water. While some of the details mentioned may not be most pleasant to read, they are a necessity. The streams of dirty water, the clothes people were wearing, and the items vendors were selling. All of these seemingly insignificant details are indicative of the specific reality that I experienced, and it is that specific reality that I intend to share.
When people think of “camps”, many think of small children laying in their mother’s arms with protruding stomachs and malaria carrying mosquitoes swarming around. It is this image that we see on television adds, and it is this image that we are then encouraged to respond to with “a small donation”. I am making clear that it is not at all in my interest to persuade you to think that this particular image described above is not worth responding to, as notion of starving children and disease ridden villages is a problem that should always be given adequate attention. The problem I face however, after a seeing a place like Al Baqa’a refugee camp, is that I now understand the in between. I understand how easy it is to forget those whose stomachs are not protruding but whose livelihoods have been stunted and whose dreams have been paralyzed as a result of a war over which they had no control. When we began walking through the housing or neighborhood area of the camp, the following prospect took over my mind. I will turn 20 this summer, and have spent my entire life working for and dreaming of things that I always believed could and would become reality. My work and dreams expanded beyond that of my own home, my own town, and even my own country, and even within the first 20 years of my life I have traveled to and visited more places and people than most all Palestinian children and families will ever have the opportunity to see. The point I want to make is that while not all of my goals and dreams may have manifested themselves exactly as I may have hoped, my future has almost always been within my own control, and that is a blessing that so many of us seem to forget. For the average 20-year-old born into Al Baqa’a refugee camp, control over his or her hopes and dreams and any hope or dream that expands beyond living in this camp, (what college to attend, what country to travel to, etc.) is part of a reality far beyond reach. It is not so much the direct situation (scenery, sanitation, etc.) that bothered me with such great intensity. What frustrates and disgusts me beyond explanation is the thought that the 120,000 Palestinians living in this camp have had to settle into this area. They have had to call these "non-permanent" housing structures their homes, to accept that these dirty, fly-ridden alleys now make up their neighborhood, and have done so with the understanding that one woman, her children, and possibly her children's children may live this way in this "non-permanent" camp, permanently.
The idea of a “camp” is meant to signify non-permanent housing. Because of international requirements associated with the definition of non-permanent housing, you will find many houses with scraps of metal, sticks, and whatever else can be found to be used as roofing. Permanent roofs indicate permanent housing, and that was not the purpose of these camps when they were set up in 1967. Only five years ago did organizations such as the UN recognize the impossibility associated with living through the coldest and warmest of seasons with only sticks and stones to keep a family safe from these conditions.
In 1967, hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were forced from their homes and now live here. One in every three refugees is Palestinian, and even more terrifying is the fact that this statistic seems to have had no influence on the reality of the situation. While this situation is one for us that may be distant and irrelevant to our daily lives, it is one that has left the majority of an entire people without a home, without hope, and without a future.
Saturday, June 5, 2010
Although the exchange rate here in Amman in approximately one Dollar and forty cents to the Jordanian Dinar (JD), there are bargains to be found on almost every corner. During the first week of my stay, Sasha and I and a friend of ours were walking around the down town area. When we arrived at the corner, there were about 25 people all going after a huge pile of stuff. Diving in to get one item or two and then handing their money off to the man standing outside the pile on a stool. When Sasha and I took a closer look, we discovered that that one of the five or six items in the pile was an electric keyboard, and after asking "gidesh?", or "how much?" I could see why everyone was going a bit crazy on this particular corner. Only 2 JD for a medium sized electric keyboard! It didn't take more than a minute before Sasha and I selected the one we wanted and sent our friend into the pile to claim it. Although it didn't turn on immediately upon arriving back to CRP, Ghazwan worked his magic (tape, batteries, etc.) and within a few hours the keyboard was as good as new....and still only 2JD.
I am telling the story of this purchase not only because it was an amazing Jordanian bargain, but more importantly because it is the center of this week's art and music group. Before I get to the middle half hour of the day, the one filled with music, I want to run through the other activities that took place before and after this period. The younger group of children, ages four to seven, took part in activity I like to call, “googly eyes”. The children were given one piece of white paper on which two sticky plastic eyeballs had been placed before hand. The children then spent the following half hour drawing whatever they wanted to go along with these eyes. While some children chose to go the more traditional route and draw a head and other facial features to accompany the two eyes, others decided to go for rabbits, stars, and birds. It was creativity at its best!
After the half hour with the keyboard, which I will get to in a minute, the older children took a great deal of time perfecting “the potato & leaf project”. Ahmed, the art and music group’s newest teacher, had pre-cut several potatoes in half and then into different shapes (hearts, stars, etc.) in order to form a stamp-like utensil. The children were given a piece of paper which had a slightly faded outline of a vase, with a few stems coming out just above the top. The children, who were scheduled to have time at the end of this project to work on their mural, ended up spending the entire hour working on this project instead. Another volunteer, Lucy, and I were so inspired by the children’s enthusiasm that we decided to create something for together. Lucy and I chose to turn our flower vase into a fish bowl, an idea that a few of the children then tried to replicate. It was really quite a fun and silly final hour to finish off the day’s event…fish, flowers, and all.
To get back to the middle half hour of the day, this may have been the best half hour of my life. One of the mothers at the event suggested that I play a song on the keyboard for the children, so I did. I played something simple and upbeat, The Entertainer, and the smiles on the kids’ faces made it impossible for me not to do the same. After a big round of applause from both the children and their parents, the kids took the lead by explaining to their parents and their parents explaining to me that they wanted to play the piano. One by one, each of the children came up to the keyboard. He or she would play freely for about 30 seconds, (some already knew a song or two) and then look at me with great interest. I looked at the first child and put my hand on top of hers to help guide her fingers through a simple song. The first song that came to mind, because I remembered my host family singing it to me in Cairo was Happy Birthday. From that point on, everything just seemed to work itself out. After trying three or four different songs with the first few children who played, the ABC’s became the second big hit. So, after every boy or girl finished playing his or her own made up song, I would ask “ABC’s or Happy Birthday?". Before I could even finish the question each child would respond and place their hand on the piano awaiting my instruction. At the end of every child's performance came a big round of applause, not because I asked but because they wanted. Only four weeks into the Children's Art and Music Group, there was already a strong sense of community that seemed to have developed among this room of little music maestros.
I was overwhelmed with the amount of patience each of the children had to wait calmly until it was his or her chance to play, and even more astonished at the focus and attention paid to such a new and complicated activity. While it may have been boring for an outsider to hear these two songs played over and over with several mistakes along the way, the obvious enthusiasm and joy this opportunity brought to all of the children involved made me think I could listen their music forever.