Sunday, March 27

Holi Cow

Holi, the Rhajasthani Hindu holiday, is a photographers dream, as the objective of the day is to get everyone as colorful as possible. To kick things off the night before we had a meal with the extended family followed by 'doon.' This is a ritual where Soonu and baby Kuishy were placed on a small platform beneath sticks that were beat together as onlookers sang a holi song. Money was exchanged but no one had enough English to clarify the situation to me.

The day of Holi began with an extreme version of the traditional water fight. Preparing to meet Jen, I was about to head out when my older brothers came running down the sandy path from the direction of a beating drum. An army of about 20 teenage boys were approaching and there was going to be war. Armed with water squirters loaded with dyed kerosene, they were marching straight for our home. My sisters and I were brought to my room with two Sambhali girls (whom Usha has sent to fetch me). There we were barricaded in as a battering ram of fists started pounding on our front door. Through a secret entrance more male relations came to our protection and only barely kept off the attackers. When I peeked one man was being beat outside. After the attack I waited first ten, then twenty, then thirty minutes before my messengers determined it was safe for me to journey the 35 meters to meet Jen and Usha at Usha'a house.

At Usha's house, a dozen or so Sambhali students gathered to delight in harmlessly throwing colours at each other. Colours are essentially dry tempra paint, although after a while the colours were mixed with water. Kerosene is a malicious addition that only some use to make the colours permanent for up to six weeks. Soon we were covered from between our toes to in our ears with colours. The homes were splattered and the ditches were flowing with pink. The fun continued throughout the heat of the day as we used buckets and water from outdoor faucets to clean ourselves on the front steps of Usha's home. After two hours of persistent scrubbing Kerry, a lovely volunteer who joined us from Jodhpur, still had one red ear. Usha had a pink neck; Jen a purple chest, and I red eyebrows. Manz of the bozs remained stained pink for the rest of the week. I even saw a cow with a large blue streak. All in all, a tremendously successful day.

Thursday, March 24

'Megnifishint' Ceremonies

A cricket has just jumped into my bed, preventing me from sleeping restfully, so I blog. Yesterday I attended the unusual ceremony of introductions. I was sat down on a bed with four other girls facing Pooja's new husband and some of his male companions on an opposite bed. After an intolerably long time of staring at each other and passing around awful candies I was prompted (by whispers in my ears from my bed fellows) to ask questions to the groom. It turns out the awkward staring was actually everyone waiting for me to ask the first question. Having very limited Hindi skills and him being equally incompetent in English I was restricted to asking him about the size of his family and their names. Awkward giggling followed and we, the girls, then attempted to leave. The men objected and the questioning continued in our direction this time. Eventually we left the room without objection and it dawned on me that this may be how they connect with their in-laws. The formal and shallow conversation we had, shapes the understanding the participants have of each other.

This morning was one of the final marriage ceremonies. I like to call it the "Home Town Holy Tour." Unceremoniously, I was woken up and instructed to get ready quickly. Without asking for my cooperation, and feeling hopeless at objecting, I was led by my two sisters and a cousin in a full sprint down the sandy desert path. We were late and a wedding parade was exiting the Pinky's home. They threw down a sheet in front of the home. Pooja and Husband sat on it, did some ritual or other, and then walked around four times. Fighting for the only patch of shade with a view, we joined the spectators. After the 15min ceremony, we all piled into the very small jeep which had been providing the shade. All 18 of us. Pooja, Husband, Driver, Drummer Boy (onto the roof), and fourteen spectators participated in space competition. The jeep then drove to the big tree in the market where goat legs dangle from the branches. Clearly a holy site (or warning sign for nomadic goats). The ritual was repeated. Next we crossed the street to the old temple. Repeat ritual. Back into the jeep. Repeat ritual at two houses. It continued for three hours like a complicated dance move: return to jeep, new location, repeat ritual. We hit up every holy site in the greater Setrawa area. My favorite was an oasis destination far into the dessert. A god had been set up under a lone tree with bright pink, purple, and turquoise fabric scraps hanging from the limbs (in my opinion, preferable to goat legs). When we finally finished I was slightly confused, late for school, and severely parched.

On the other end of the ceremonial spectrum I had a very special moment with my host mother, Pushpa. As I sat on the floor of our home she came to stand next to me. With her hand, she leaned my head against her thigh. She looked affectionately down at me and said in her adorable fragmented English, "Call me mum. I be mum you." She then took me to her special shelf and placed a Bindi (dot) between my eyes. And, in case that isn't evidence enough that I have bonded with my new family, my two young sisters and some young male relations have taken to calling me 'Didi.' The name is an endearing term meaning 'older sister.' I've never had a sister before.

The chaos, the affection, the order, and the shouting. It is all beginning to jumble up in me. If there is an official point when a person is in love, I am there. The point in a relationship when one awkwardly and hesitatingly says the "L" word to their partner. The brave point when one offers their whole self up to the other person. I am 23 years old (a sentence I have taught to my class in English) and in love with a country, a subcontinent drowning in character and tradition. My students are 'megnifishint' (one student's synonym for beautiful) even if (and perhaps especially because) they colour their people blue and orange. My family, although they kidnapped me for the holy site tour, is the most wholesome functioning unit I have ever seen.

Last night, I was permitted to help milk the goat which lives in our house. Normally a single handed job for Pushpa, in her absense it took four of us. Brother Santosh herded the goat off the staircase, I wrestled the goat against the wall, Rakhi milked her, and Soonu provided a flashlight when halfway through we lost power. Perhaps it was drinking the chai that came from the goat that sealed the deal. India, I love you. 

Wednesday, March 23

Pooja Marry

Arriving in Setrawa was overwhelming, but more because of my family than the culture. They have truly adopted me as one of their children which is splendidly heart warming but also severely debilitating for my independence. I enjoy being stepped through the culture, "sit here" "eat this" "eat more," but in the last five years I have forgotten how to be a good daughter and ask permission for every activity (not that I was ever particularly good at doing this). That is where my spies come in. Using Hindi numbers I have learnt to communicate how long I'll be at the Sambhali school, but if I venture anywhere during my breaks or on my way home, there always seems to be a child (usually one of my sisters accompanied by a friend) lurking in the doorway of my destination waiting to deliver me a message about when and where I am to go next (usually to eat, but once most enjoyably to see Rakhi, my 13 year old sister, try on her first sari).

This first week in Setrawa has been particularly scheduled because a neighbor, Pooja, is having her week long wedding celebrations and on my second night the world's most cooperative baby celebrated her first birthday. The birthday celebration was surprisingly western with a frosted cake and "happy birthday" sung in english (but to an unexpected tune).

Meanwhile 18 year old Pooja is swept in emotion as she prepares to leave everything she knows for a man who she knows through a photo-shopped picture she has framed in her house. Each night the community gathers at a different home for some ritual of marriage. This includes 11 girls sitting on the floor in a tight circle feeding Pooja and each other, but not themselves. The next night it was nine boys doing the same. Other traditions exist during the day, most of which I missed, because of my commitment to the Sambhali school, but I did catch the cocunut feeding. Women in sequence gave Pooja rice in place of a Bindi dot and then fed her pieces of coconut chased by sour coconut milk. She never failed to squirm from the milk. All in all, it seemed the wedding rituals were cohesive with the Indian objective to fatten young women. Pooja was a success. One man I spoke to at market told me that he approved of Pooja, because she was sturdy. I inferred that he considered her sufficiently fattened up, like a prized cow ready to be slaughtered at last. Of course they don't eat meat here and especially not cows, but it has occurred to me that their devout vegetarianism may be to lure us in and in reality they hope to fatten up young women whom they then devour.

Before evening celebrations I enjoy bonding with my sisters in international girl activities such as painting nails, selecting jewelry and French braiding their unlimited thick Indian hair. Additionally I was painted with henna and wrapped in a yellow sari for the final night. We also used this girl time to rehearse our dance moves. On one occasion I lightened the mood with some classic North American dance moves such as the shopping car and the funky chicken. Which they could not figure out. However, when bent over bringing my right arm to my left shoe and extending quickly in mimic of pulling the jump cord on a lawnmower, the girls squealed with delight and cried  "Taxi!"

Each night preceding the wedding included music and dancing that started with the mothers gathering on Pooja's yard, singing nasally Hindi wedding songs. At first I though they were replacing lyrics with Pooja's name, especially when they chanted "Pooja marry." I was delighted and confused until it was dramatically explained to me that "Pooja" is a popular lyric meaning prayer and "marry" has an entirely different meaning that cannot be explained by charades. The singing is followed by dancing. First young girls perform school-taught dances to Indian pop tunes blasted from an out-of-place indoor-made-outdoor state of the art sound system. This is followed by more traditional and intergenerational dances of both genders done to the catchy beat of a large drum that is brought over to the yard. The nights are long, but the climate is very favorable, the twirling colours are vibrant, and the food sits pleasantly in my expanding stomach. One time I found a place to escape for a nap.

I lay next to baby Kuishy as she slept motionless except for periodic involuntary swats at her face to scatter the flies. Occasionally the back lash of her swat would land her tiny ineffectual fist on my face. I fell asleep just the same and entered a deep slumber as the dancing continued outside. It was not a Kuishy fist in my face that eventually woke me, but en entire screaming Kuishy. She had deliberately climbed up on top of me in a desperate attempt to wake me. A delightfully cooperative baby, she is truly being raised by a village and saw me as she sees most people, as her playthings.

All of this celebrating led to the grand climax of the final wedding night. Rituals went on all day and night. The groom arrived, the wedding parade visited my house, food was served (in orderly Indian chaos), and after all that, finally at 11:30pm Pooja was fully decorated and brought to the party. Already finding rituals tedious, I found myself nestled up to some Indians moms watching ceremonies until past 2 am. Then one more parade and the ceremonies begun to repeat at a new location, at which point I snuck off to bed.

I expected to see my family exhausted the next day, but I was astounded by how sleepy a person can be. My little sister of 10 years, was shouted and dragged out of bed at a reasonable hour. I had been given my turn to wake her, but had not succeeded. Brought to the kitchen, she fell face forward from her sitting position on the floor and returned to sleep right there on the kitchen floor with her face down on the hard ground amongst the kitchen chaos that produces "very very tasty" meals. 

Sunday, March 13

"P" is for Peacock

Wow. I am not shocked by the culture here, but I am shocked by how much a person can experience in eight hours. I am laying in my bed right now curled up with my iPod trying to ignore the pressure in my bladder. Nothing is the same here. I was carefully guided through last night's events, but I am not quite ready to learn the bathroom routine of my host family.

I have a private room here but it's not my own. It's a storage room of sorts and it has many guests including buzzing flies, a noisy and outgoing lizzard, two chirping crickets, and temporarily a kid of the goat variety.

Now to the beginning. We arrived in Jodhpur, Sambhali Trust headquarters, a couple days before setting out to Setrawa, our rural project site. A young South African girl from England warmly welcomed us to the Jodhpur site which is the most inviting and comfortable guest house I've been to anywhere and is also the location of the Jodhpur empowerment projects. She had been in Setrawa for one month and shared with us everything she knew. We spent the rest of that day and the next preparing supplies and relaxing. We put the WiFi to good use; I secured my place at UBC graduate school and we both sent final farewells to our folks. The land of English speaking Indians, western toilets, and Internet seems like another world now. 

My first impressions are fleeting as it is now Tuesday. My schedule here is more controlled than I anticipated. My family tells me where to sit, how much to eat, when to shower, what to wear and everything else. I find that I am infinitely grateful for this, because these are not decisions I know how to make in rural India ( although I disagree about how much I have to eat). Even now I am pulled away. It is now Tuesday night and I've left the wedding celebrations early to type this with my host family under the impression I am sleeping.

It surprises me how much I have been thrusted into this incredible cultural experience. I am laying in bed bloated on Indian food, decorated with a Bindi dot, and smelling of Pushpa's perfume. When we left Jodhpur it was under the direction of a Sambhali Trust employee who bargained our rickshaw, handed us to the ticket sales people and shoved us into the arms of the bus conductor. All things Jen and I can and have done repeatedly on our own in India. The spoon feeding briefly ends there as after a three hour bus ride to the middle of nowhere the conductor booted us off the bus leaving us on an empty highway with our packs next to a sign that reads in Hindi and English, "Sambhali Trust, 3 km --> ." After a couple jeeps loaded up our fellow Indian highway hitch hikers without us, we decided to make the three kilometer trek to Setrawa. What I haven't mentioned yet is that we were in the dessert and our packs were very large and heavy.

Fortunately we made it and avoided any mirage causing illnesses. A tuktuk with customers already in it took pity on us and brought us to the only white person in Setrawa. Julia is a German volunteer and a quintessential hippi finishing up her final week of service. She kindly walked us to our new school where we were ceremoniously greeted with Hindi blessings by two of the girls. We had chai, of course, and then listened to rhymes and prayers of the 20 or so girls who had been waiting all day for our arrival. Their small Indian girl voices were so charming that I was instantly in love. 

Our school has three covered rooms, one which also has walls, and two other areas where we can gather. Although it is very warm here and daily hotter, the open learning space remains fairly cool as we sit on the cold stone floor in the shade for the most part. The building is a converted home complete with a washroom and kitchen. The front space has a delightfully soft sand floor that our principal, Moosingh, threatens to plant grass over. The walls are a charming and play school appropriate sky blue. It is the responsibility of the volunteers to add decorative painting and hang art on the walls. I am looking forward to making a mural of a peacock. 

After games and warm greetings from the girls I was introduced to the ultimate maternal character: Pushpa, my new mother. She characteristically greeted me with an offer for chai. I barely had time to put my bags down before she had food on a plate for me. I was then shown the family photos. Many were taken by and of the previous volunteers who lived here. Pushpa has assured me that she cured them of the same malnourished look that she says I am also plagued with. This was done in broken Hindi and charades since her only English words are "tasty" and "no problem?". Measuring my progress in chipates, she has promised to get me up to a respectable five from my meager 2.5 and I think whe has also promised me arms twice as thick as mine. Today I learnt that former volunteer, Lilly, disrupted her treatment through exercise in the form of a morning walk. I pray for strength in saying "no" to the most delicious food in the world. I will continue this note later, my hand is cramping up from typing on this iPod.

The village of Setrawa reportedly has 3000 people, but I'd guess there is less than 300 buildings including the market shops, many of which are fabric suspended between bamboo poles. To account for the 3000 people there are many children in each home, but I would not be surprised if animals were also included in the census. After all, cows are treated as holy and goats as family. Barns do not exist here and livestock persistently sneak into homes. My family has two goats that live in our living room. It is a full time job playing gatekeeper and literally kicking out the neighbor's goats. And oh my goodness! JUST now as I was writing this note in the back classroom I investigated a noise. A damn goat just snuck in and got ahold of one of our brooms. I chased him away, but he has gotten away with one of our straw brooms.

Then, there is of course, the stray dogs that accompany dust and debris in all impoverished communities. The pitiable dogs are typically scared of humans and lay about decorating 'street' corners and doorways. Finally, there are the birds. Some houses have roofs, but many don't and all have generous skylights (power outages are nearly daily). The birds take advantage of these opening to come in and build their nests in our homes (including a nest in my room and on the fan spinning above me now at school). Most impressive and least aggressive of these are the wild peacocks that grave the rooftops and garbage piles of Setrawa. The iconic bird holds an honorable position in the classroom as "P" for Peacock in the alphabet and is one of the first words the children learn in English.

Thursday, March 10

Jaipur-> Pushkar -> Udaipur -> Jodhpur

We have sped up our pace to cram in some beautiful destinations before the volunteer segment of our trip. First off is Jaipur. We skipped the main attraction in favor of chilling with monkeys on a mountain fort at sunset. The evening glow made the mountain top view unrealistically enchanting.

Pushkar is the hippi waterhole of India. If is said that Brahman dropped a lotus flower and there appeared Pushkar. It also has a great sunset view from a cafe by the lake. The town was built encircling the lake and is framed by two small mountains which we hiked in the warm but glorious sunshine. On the second hike we shared our picnic lunch with a man on a holy pilgrimage. Before western tourists discovered magical Pushkar, Indians had for come for centuries on religious pilgrimages. Jen taught me how to carve a pineapple with my new pocket knife. 

Udaipur has the laid back energy of Pushkar but hosts an incredible Indian City Palace and the most clever Hindu temple. The temple is carved from top to bottom with intricate mini elephants and was the centre of our celebration of Shivas birthday. We celebrated with Bang Lassi, sweets, and hookah with our new friends. We also got a chance to rent bicycles and ventured 10 km out of the village for a swim at crocodile infested Tiger Lake.

Monday, March 7

Hands across the Sea

There is a beautiful intimacy in India. In a sub continent of one billion people, this intimacy is necessary, but this does not make it any less heart warming. The comforting warm air carries all the rich odors of life from wedding flowers and sweating laborers to the more subtle aromas of fabrics dying and children shampooing in the Ganges.

Indians achieve public intimacy without its brother sexual promiscuity. Most women don sparkling and colorful saris or punjabi suits, while others prefer internationally fashionable skinny jeans and western tops. None of them show their ankles or shoulders. Contrastingly bellies spill out everywhere. On buses and metros, they press their bodies up against each other to let passengers on and off with grace an affection.

We watched a popular Indian movie inside Jaipur's first class cinema complete with reclining box seats and sweeping imperial staircases in the lobby. The movie, with all the pieces for a western block buster, was completely free of any physical contact between the protagonist and his lover. Instead we saw their love through a romance starring their families and of course a bollywood style serenade. The movie was Punjabi dubbed over in Hindi, but the story was internationally understood.

The most blatant display of intimacy, which never fails to put an ear-to-ear grin on face, is the man hand fondle. When walking in stride, men will often let ther dangling arms brush eachother and have their fingers delicately find their friends. At this point they may share a hearty hand holding embrace like strolling lovers back home, or mindlessly play with their fingers lacing in and out of the  hand of their father, brother, friend or acquaintance's hand. I envy their unique way of connecting through touch and also in the expressive five minute conversations they use for simple transactions. I desire to improve my Hindi so I can fully understand what they share in the purchase of bus tickets and lassi. 

Saturday, March 5

Burning means Learning

Taken from Jen's blog

Varanasi is described as the holiest and oldest Indian city. This description barely does the city justice. We wandered through the small 2m wide winding lanes of the old city. The lanes were filled with small silk, flower and music shops, colorful Hindu shrines and temples. Goats, cows, dogs and monkeys also wandered freely through the lanes. Many of the lanes lead to the different ghats, large steps leading to the Ganges. The ghats were full of color, music and spirituality. People from many different faiths and regions have come here to practice their faith in the holy river. Many people bathe, pray, meditate, chant and give offerings. Some families gaily celebrate marriages and others solemnly attend cremations. It is fascinating to see the diversity of traditions. We went for a walk across town to the university. Along the way we met someone who explained the rituals of cremation at the burning ghat. We didn't completely trust the intentions of our new friend's persistent further invitations so we continued on. We had chai with a snake charmer in front of the burning ghats. We ran into a great parade and met a bright young girl with a huge smile and perfect British English. We bought a lotus flower candle from her and that evening I released it in the river in memory of grandpa. It was beautiful to see all the candles floating in the dark. At nightfall we also saw an amazing performance of Hindu dancers. There was the sound of music, bells and special horns, the smell of burning incense and the beautiful sight of the choreographed dancers. Our last moments of Varanasi began at 5:30 am when we woke up at dawn to watch the sunrise from a boat ride along the Ganges.