Tuesday, May 31

Mystery Solved

There is an incredible amount of garbage on all the streets and alleys of India, but the real mystery is why is there not more? Without dumpsters, or regular trash can distribution, I've learnt to go 'Full Indian' and drop my garbage as I walk or throw it out windows of buses and trains. I've heard that on long trains, children will make a game of it and compete to throw the trash as far as they can, picking up whatever they can find that there mother deems is trash. She may even dig through her purse to contribute to the collection of trackside and roadside litter.

After 3 months traveling India, I have solved where the trash goes in order to prevent astronomical accumulation that would quickly fill the entire country.

In our village, Setrawa, the food is made from raw ingredients and goats eat the humanly inedible portions, but some garbage was produced (namely my 20-20 biscuit wrappers). For the longest time I was searching for a garbage pick up service, formal or informal, but then one smoky day I discovered that a fire was burning a secret garbage pile outside the empowerment centre which, by the effort of the children under Mool Singh's instruction, had collected all our dead felt pens and packaging for weeks. 

In Mumbai, and I imagine it's the same for other cities, it is a much more elaborate process, beginning with 'rag pickers.' They are doubled-over women and children with large sacks, who salvage plastic garbage from the streets and sell it per kilo to recycling stations in the slums. There, an orderly process of sorting and grinding takes place, followed by washing, drying, and melting. The final products are enormous bags of small plastic pellets that get sold to manufacturing companies for a profit. There is also a selection of garbage that gets reused. One, which constantly troubles travelers is water bottles. 

Jen and I have so far avoided contamination from bad water, but on more than one occasion we falsely suspected the vendors of reconstituting bottles, all because Indian water companies are generous. When we bought our first water bottles, we thought they were too full. We were accustomed to having our bottles 95% full as is standard back home. It is, of course, the Indian way to give an extra 50mL with each bottle and it unfortunately often the way of the traveler to be skeptical of genuine generosity.

Saturday, May 28


I am sitting in Leopold's Cafe on the main drag in Bombay. There is a constant flurry of shoppers, local and foreign, swooping past with curious glances shot into this famous bar. Jen and I have saddled in with some refreshing drinks, iced tea and lassi respectively, after three whirlwind days of adventure. I will be selective in retelling them or you would need to join us for our two day Golden Temple train ride to Hardiwar to read it all. We're skipping north to cool off and dodge the monsoons.

On our last day in Hampi we rented a motorbike from a convincing nine year old salesmen and took turns driving it around the nearby tourist-free villages. We were on a hunt for the Monkey Temple, a mountaintop temple to the monkey god, Hanuman. On our search we stumbled upon an inconspicuous sign denoting cave paintings. Turning up dust I swerved the bike down a sandy lane past fields of rice and sugarcane. We continued for a while, but with no follow up sign for the cave paintings we spun around to continue our hunt for the Monkey Temple. That's when a picturesque harvester from the fields gestured for us to pull over and he quietly but confidently breathed "Cave paintings?"

The barefooted, lungi wearing, old man left his pitchfork carrying friends and indicated we should follow him through the field, along a deteriorating path, through a gate, over a rocky ridge, along a surprisingly arid space to a rock formation. There, beside a sizable crevice between the ground and the base of a large boulder, he invited us to sit on the cool rocks which were oblivious to the 40*C + sun that was scorching down. Instead cool air glided up from the crevice past our sweaty faces and through our damp hair. That is where we saw our first ancient cave paintings of men, livestock, and a ferocious cobra eternally brushed onto the underside of the boulder. 

Racing the bike along to create a cooling breeze, we quickly found the Monkey Temple complete with real monkeys creeping the 600 steps which wrap up the mountainside to the towering temple. Leaving our shoes with a baba, we had to skip like frogs across the blistering ground, but our damaged feet and show of respect to Hanuman were rewarded with blessed candies from the priest. On our way back down, dropping alms into the appropriate hands, we parted with a handful of rupees for a refreshing cocunut. A boy, months older than the bike salesman, with expert skill sliced us a coconut into a cup with straws dipping into its milk. When we finished the electrolyte replenishing beverage, he deftly sliced the nut further into two spoons and two halves of solid coconut ready for us to scoop out. 

We made other stops to another temple and a quaint chai stand, but it was the plunge into the reservoir for a refreshing swim which put the cherry on top of our last day in Hampi. Or maybe the Italian style thin crust pizza, which we devoured, was the cherry?

Little did we know, as we reluctantly pushed ourselves onto a bus out of paradise, that more fun and adventure awaited us in Bombay.


Bombay has Asia's busiest train station with 2.5 million visitors a day and 1800-person capacity trains carrying 7000 people at rush hour. But the gothic buttressed station with it's impressive towering colonial grandeur is by far not the only thing world class in Bombay. The street food is to die for, with everything from fresh fruits and vegetables carved into appetizing slices to grilled sandwiches and omelets to deep fried everything. 

Our visit to Bombay has centered around chasing down and stumbling on delicious eats, but all the while exploring street after street of clever Indians making a living selling libraries of books under tarps, rejuvenating leather shoes on the curb, vending out chai, or washing clothes at the enormous 140 year old dhobi ghat or giant human washing machine.

To dodge the heat, I paid a visit to the rich Prince of Wales Museum. I lost myself in the miniature Indian paintings that transitioned from painting on leaves to ornate scrolls of intricate depictions of gods. The highlight of the museum was the New York style natural history wing which featured a host of stuffed endangered and extinct animals labelled with amusingly outdated descriptions from the '60s. The white tiger, forever staring across the hall at a prized deer, was particularly magnificent.

Also on our walks of Bombay we saw India Gate, the Taj Hotel, the High Court, and a host of other historic buildings, most still serving their original purpose.  The most interesting was St. Thomas' 1672 Cathedral which houses the graves of colonialists. The epitaphs were stunning and decorated with white marble sculptures. Many included animated character descriptions of the deceased with flourish words that hint at hidden flaws, suggesting that these men who came alone and suffered premature malarial deaths had their epitaphs written by the very same opportunistic folks receiving a promotion as consequence of the death.

We finished with a successful hunt for bhelpuri at the carnival-like Chowpatty Beach. While munching down on crisp fried thin rounds of dough mixed with puffed rice, lentils, lemon juice, onions, herbs, and chutney, we enjoyed making a Taj Mahal sand castle amongst the thousands of holiday makers strewn across the urban beach with it's toxic water lapping up against the ankles of a few brave naked toddlers. 


I have brushed shoulders with one of Bollywood's brightest stars, Akshake Kumar. While looking to register for a slum tour, the blatant economic disparity of Bombay hit us as Jen and I were approached by an extras recruit. We signed up for a day of work on the set of Dezi Boyz, the next big Bollywood production, seduced by the promise of an AC set, free food, costumes, hair, make up, and 500rs pay. Nearly simultaneously we followed through with signing up for a tour of Dharavi, Bombay's largest slum.

Bombay has many densely inhabited slums that house an astounding 60% of its residents in the shadows of skyscrapers. These crowded communities are occasionally legal, entirely self-sufficient and highly productive. Between the houses which are piled on and beside each other at the same time, there are schools, temples, hospitals, and most importantly hard workers plowing away at cottage industry craftsmanship, factory level production, or work of another variety.

The film industry appeals to me as much as life in a slum, but I couldn't resist making my debut in Bollywood. Along with 20 other recruited travelers and ex pats, we gave atmosphere to Conexion Latino, a fictional underground salsa club in London, where contracted dancers and the lead actors performed for the camera. Despite the monotony of our role, holding fake booze and chatting, at times it was thrilling. 

The handsome male lead, Akshake, played the diva role between cuts, abusing his support staff and alternately insulting and seducing the female lead. When the shout to start filming, "Background, Dancers, Action!" was cried from an unseen face behind a camera, a blaze of energy would sweep through as we all hoped to be captured on film, even if for a second. The camera, lights, and screens zoomed around for actions scenes, dodging the thespians and sound guys. Crew with small water bottles and chai (of course) danced around the pushy choreographers who constantly rearranged us between shootings. 

By the end of the long day, our dreams of stardom were replaced with desires for real drinks in a real bar with chairs to sit on. And that is exactly where we found ourselves spending our day's pay away until curfew. At midnight we had to race back to our grungy dorms at the Salvation Army, kitty corner to the Taj Hotel, the fanciest imperial joint in town.

Sunday, May 22


When I arrived here, I was immediately struck with a fear that I was going to be stuck. It's not only that it is very difficult getting buses and trains to and from here, or that the river boat is unreliable, but also there is an intense lethargy about the place that thrusts itself on its visitors. 

From our thatched roofed lodge sporting hammocks and mosquito nets, below I can see the romantic river of my childhood dreams. Indians come in small groups all day long to bathe and wash their saris which they display on the river steps while the sun soaks them dry. The children jump in and out and call to us to play with them while a row of naked babies squat on their haunches waiting to be dipped in by their bathing mothers. Boys on the precarious line of manhood show off their strokes to whoever will spare them a glance. A handful of travellers find rest gazing from the shade of the ruins or bathing on the rounded boulders. Behind the reeds, a couple is half immersed in the current as they pan for gold like traditional prospectors. The charm of the river and an explosion of my childhood fantasies came together as a bathing elephant distinguishes itself from the smooth boulders scattered in the slow current. 

In case the magical river ghat is not enough to lure you, this all takes place with beautiful scenery and a world heritage site as the backdrop. One side of the gentle valley is lined with the now expected mango, jackfruit, and palm trees, but peaking out behind these are ancient towering temples, worshipped by pensive monkeys that siege my imagination with Jungle Book adventures. On the opposite side is a remarkable rock formation that has it own set of sedated devotees, western pot smoking climbers and rumoured babbas also smoking the ganja in secret caves. I am not surprised that travelers lose themselves here for weeks and occasionally months. Not even the heat which makes is severe enough to create this 'off season' is going to push these lounging travelers onward. In fact, the heat provides them with an excuse for lengthy midday hammock rides which fuel their desire to stay. Hampi, you fly trap, will I be your next catch?

Saturday, May 21

Thrissur Poornam Elephant Festival

We arrived in Thrissur early to watch the jubilant minor elephant processions, but when we made for an early leave a very large crowd was forming and we couldn't justify missing the spectacle for which thousands were coming. We thought we'd take a seat on the curb and watch from the distance. We couldn't have been more wrong. A well intended police officer told us, "There's a place for you people." Then seeing my amusement at the term 'you people,' he meaningfully looked to his partner for the politically correct term. 'Tourist' was supplied. Anyways, we were directed to the only seats at the event, which were set on a red carpeted pavilion protected by guards right at the entrance to the temple, centre stage.

In reality the VIP box was mostly made of sweaty, poorly dressed white young tourists, but it also contained an impressive collection of what I can only assume is India's upper crust. We sat next to an elegant woman accompanied by three girlfriends. She was a devotee returning every year and was able to explain the events as they unfolded, namely 15 elephants walk down from the temple, 15 more follow, then they switch umbrellas, not with eachother but with a highly organized army of volunteers, in honor of the blue god, Krishna.

An hour later when the first decorated elephant came through the temple door there were easily a million people gathered. A path just wide enough for 15 elephants abreast was being held off by a thick rope supported a line of hand holding policemen dressed in adorable safari getups. They held there line well until the first set of elephants made their procession, but it was with a tumultuous riot-like atmosphere that the young men held back by the ropes gained ground, kicking up dust and cheering as the police retreated to protect only the ground immediately surrounding the elephants and our seats, of course.

Eventually 101 elephants and riders toss around brilliant ornamental umbrellas changing colours in a coordinated and seemingly arbitrary order to the sound of beating drums and traditional horns. Applause followed each exchange with extraordinary energy and the elephants remained cooperative with dancers on their backs, umbrellas on their heads, and photographers in their face. The colours of the
changing umbrellas, temple flowers, golden elephant masks, and Krishna statues were a feast for our point and shoot cam.

Friday, May 20

Arabian Paradise

This entry is dedicated to my exboyfriend Jeremy, who stole a piece of my heart when he wooed me by singing a song from Disney's Aladdin. I wish you were here for some Arabian nights.

Finished with our volunteer segment, Jen and I decided to put some distance between us and the desert. Our journey to the south went surprisingly smooth, despite some unexpected events. Firstly, we flew between two international airports the morning after Osama was killed nearby and dropped into the Arabian Sea. Secondly, there was a pilots strike in India. Lastly, the airline we flew with stopped providing service to our destination. Somehow we didn't even notice the extra security or the strike. Our only hurdle was when we arrived in Mumbai we were surprised we had no flight to connect us to the South. The over qualified attendant at the counter solved our problem with first class seats through another airline and a valet to escort us there. Free of extra charge, we indulged in unlimited leg room, tiramasu, and a stack of Indian newspapers on Osama (and all the other terrorists Pakistan MUST be harboring). 

We're now sampling the tropics of Kerala and it couldn't be more different from the desert of Rajasthan. There is a caribbean feel to the single story shops strung with fruit that only gently press against the streets. The men are dressed in lungis, fabric tied around the waste, and they often walk about topless, giving the impression thy just came off the beach. Everyone is a shade darker and the women sport black umbrellas in an attempt to reverse this process. 

We begun in the beach town of Varkala, which is unbelievably tropical and has forced us into its ambling pace. A red clay road, winding through the palm tree jungle, brought us to the bamboo bungalows that make up the Ayurvedic retreat where we stayed. Past the hammocks strung between coconut heavy trees, is a sharp cliff separating us from the azure waves of the Arabian sea. I could gush about the soft sand, strong waves, warm weather and more, but if you're reading this you're probably at your computer screen powerless in mobilizing yourself to any beach in India. What I will share with you instead, is the Indian charm that shined through the tourist production of Varkala.

The main beach has two parking lots, unofficially one for Indians and one for Westerners. Both have the same explosion of tourists, but the Westerners are dressed to leave no tan lines in bikinis and nut-huggers, while the Indians are dressed for a family portrait in their Sunday best. In fact, once they've done the clown car trick and unloaded their fifteen closest cousins and aunts from a rickshaw-for-two, many of them start with a family photograph contrasting their matching saris against the backdrop of the ocean.

The fun begins when they remain in full Indian dress for their first interaction with the ocean. They dip their toes in and race the waves back like toddlers, until eventually they are lured or dragged out past their knees. They scream and delight in the waves that crash against them, but the lifeguards and me are relieved when they don't venture further. Saris and waves are not ideal for learning to swim.

It's summer vacation across India now so the beach hosted many families, but also children, presumably from summer camps, under the guidance of catholic nuns. These children made aware to me the contrast between Rajasthan and Kerala. Keralans speak Malayan instead of Hindi and their communist state has created 100% literacy, so they also have remarkable English skills. And, here Hinduism is closer to being a minor religion that the dominant. Plus, the women dress in shades that aren't as offensively bright as the north, but compensate with painting their homes toxic colors. In place of the usual litter mountains, stray dogs, and pushy peddlers there are bananas. Anyone who has lived with me knows I eat a lot of bananas, but I am no where near as creative as the banana connoisseurs of Kerala. They make banana chips, fried bananas, deep fried bananas and banana currie from bananas that vary in colour and size, growing in scenic plantations and in the lush tangle of jungle.

It was deep in the jungle one night that I ate the most delicious dinner. It was prepared and served by one woman, Mama. By flashlight, Jen and I were led by three experienced travelers along a long winding unmarked path under the jungle canopy. We stopped at a picnic table laid out with banana leaves for plates, and literally over 12 dishes just for the five us. Many hours later when we were more full than I thought possible, we fed our leaves and left overs to the cow and painfully dragged our heavy bodies home.

After some fantastic beaching (and digesting), we peeled ourselves off our sandy towels to see the land from the sea. We dropped some big money (4500rs) for a night on the jungle back waters of Koolam. Our private house boat was fashioned in the style of a traditional rice barge. Sewn together with coconut rope and thread, it surprised us with luxury including a personal chef and driver.

The boat roamed along towards the thick of the backwaters until it became too narrow. Here we jumped ship to a canoe. Our delightful gondolier style driver sang as he paddled us through a couple backwater villages and highlighted the many sights such as the fish farms, women making coconut oil, and men traditionally sewing together future houseboats. Returning to our houseboat at magic hour we devoured chai and fried bananas before jumping into the surprisingly hot water for a sunset swim. The magic didn't end as dinner was followed by fabulous star gazing where fireflies and shooting stars mimicked each other. In the distance an energetic religious festival played haunting music that soaked the atmosphere in jungle mystery.

Back on shore in Kollam, we literally stumbled into the most intriguing market. Turning at the red bananas we followed a man carrying two handfuls of upside down chickens. Stopping at the chicken stall briefly, we past through to rows of fish stalls, then taking a winding corner we were voraciously coaxed into to an open air meat factory. A man whipping flesh off of a fresh cow insisted on shaking our hands. After that we skipped over the goats for the more pleasant hodge podge of nuts and spices. Exiting through a tunnel, the final odor was pineapple as hundreds were neatly stacked a meter high along the wall of the exiting tunnel.

From there we bussed up to Kumily, a cool hill station, to bike through tea plantations and take a guided hike through the tiger and elephant infested jungle park of Periyar. On the return journey we twirled and shook down the 6 hour winding road through the most captivating geography. As the jungle twisted with spice and tea fields, the lush vegetation made tunnels over the road with frequent breaks so we could see the dramatic mountains and contrasting river valleys. We eventually arrived in colonial Fort Chochi where we stayed long enough to sneak into a gated Dutch cemetery, visit an Indian Jew town, and detour to the largest temple festival of India, the Thrissur elephant procession.

Wednesday, May 18


Kerry, the brilliant young volunteer from South Africa, seems to have unlimited gifts, most notably her generous hospitality. It was her, who on our arrival at Sambhali Trust, gave us a warm welcome and valuable insights. She has repeatedly provided me and Jen and all of Setrawa with exactly what we want, delivered to the small village with a smile (namely chocolate and cake).  As I struggle to package my last two months, she gave me a final gift: a gem of knowledge, to go with the 8 rings and other jewelry I was gifted on my departure. She shared with me that in sanscript, colour and passion are the same word.

Kerry is a charming teenage girl with a mature presence and a radiating beauty that draws people to her. She is bursting with passion; I have a theory that her visible beauty comes from her passion sneaking out of invisible holes with intensity. Her name, in Hindi, means unripe mango. This is exceeding suitable as her passion is a match for the brilliant green colour of the unripe mangoes sold on the street. Of course there is also the glorious promise that she will ripen into something wonderfully sweet. She could not have been more suitable for acting as our tie from the rural village to the headquarters. 

Dear reader, we have transitioned and the colours of India have inspired passion in me.

I am coasting along a shaky train out of Jodhpur with a warm heart. The children of Sambhali followed us all the way from the school to the bus stop. We had treated them all to a parting gift of freezies, but I have a hunch that their affection for us goes deeper as we have shared more than just snacks. I am full of children's laughter from my memories of chasing peacocks and bakaris (goats) out of our lessons. I am also full of respect for the courage I have seen in the girls; they are standing up for themselves to their teachers and parents. They have insisted on equality and the right to learn. Although not an excessively oppressive society, options are limited and education is a privilege. The older girls are heavily burdened with chores and younger siblings; while the boys are more free, they struggle without guidance. Sambhali is magical because it transforms to be whatever it's participants need.

It was the bus stop rats that drew out my tears as we pulled away. Boys who spend their days peddling to the faceless hands that reach out of buses, these have been our most recent recruits to Sambhali. When I told them to watch out for the younger boys, they beamed big grins as it occurred to them that they are role models. It comforts me greatly to see their self appreciation exploding at the fragile age of 12 (although they consistently claim they are 9 to me, so that Sambhali can accept them).

The work of Sambhali touches many lives in many ways. Just the presence of an empowerment centre and foreign volunteers teaches locals to value themselves more. They are learning what they deserve and I have see that some of the Sambhali children and Sheerni women are going to claim better lives for themselves.

Tuesday, May 17

Five Feathers

I have wandered onto the roof of my home to escape the heat while I wait for my supper. The sun is slipping away in the distance where it will burry itself in the warm sand of the horizon's dunes. Through the large opening in the roof the smell of fresh garlic, spices, and chai waft towards me along with the sounds of my sisters entertaining the baby. Wrapped in a brilliant red sari are a thousand small hand-picked green berries laying on the ground next to where I sit. They, in fact, now only hint at their green colour as they have been sweating in the heat of the desert sun for weeks. Each day they are lovingly attended to and inspected by mum as an intermission to her daily pujas or prayers. Also on the roof is a shine to our family god and a clear space where I will lay out the blankets for sleeping.

I am not watching the berries or the shrine, though. There is small army of disappointingly unattractive but strong young men next door. They are moving enormous slabs of sandstone for the addition of my neighbors' now two-room home. They are hiding their pain well or maybe practice has taken away the pain. They suspend from two yolks, two men to a yolk, one unimaginably heavy sandstone plank. The four carry it into the home and by some unseen miracle elevate it to the roof where it is received and flipped into place by more burly men. The heat of the day has now passed, but there hasn't been the usual breeze to blow things along. Their sweat hangs in the air.

In a couple days, when the breeze is back, I will be swept from Setrawa to pursue travels in other less remote corners of India. But I leave behind, in the heavy air, some of myself. My sweat. The warmth of my soul has nurtured my students for two brief months. Some children, I have only led in song and writing, but others I have loved with great intensity.

First there is Jabra Ram, the motherless Dhalit boy I took to the 'hospital' for a gruesome and neglected skin infection. I followed up with meeting him thrice daily to grind his medicine with cookies (20-20 biscuits, of which I graciously offered to eat the remainder of). He was more surprised then me when he realized he didn't know how to swallow pills. 

My favorite Dhalit boy, Abhishake, dances and dresses like he's starring in 'The Wonder Years' in an 80's navy sweat suit with neon script. He's had no formal education but thrives at Sambhali since he's determined to get into our advance class. However, he's a brat and only listens to Mool Singh.

One day when 'Sir' was unavailable I took him unwillingly out of class. I can't imagine what punishment he expected but I figured his visible fear was sufficient. So I simply left him with my very confused host mother, who happened to be present for the Sheerni Microfinance Group meeting. They both stared at me confused and with no Malwari words to explain, I silently returned to teach my other needy 15 students. 

Then there is the smallest girl in my afterschool class. I patiently waited for her to pull out of a clueless stupor every time I called on her. Given enough time she always uncovers the correct answer in the depths of her manicured bob. She has risen to be first not only in my class, but also at her co-ed school. 

Then there is my favourite two students, keen and helpful Gunjan and Puja. Their advance English has rescued me many times in class as they interpret my words for the rest. I can't measure any progress with them but when I announced to my class I was leaving on Saturday I was looking at them and they together looked at me, as though to say they were grieving that our trio will go down to two.

These five students only represent a sample of my relationships built in Setrawa. It saddens me to reflect on these people which will all be plucked from my life as the feathers of a peacock are the casualties of successful copulation. When I dip into the cool ocean next week, I will wash away my connections to Setrawa, but hopefully I will grow new feathers from the affection and wisdom these relationships have inseminated in me.

Monday, May 16

Nuns, Scorpions and Tupperware

Approaching our final days in Setrawa, Jen and I ventured out to the surrounding areas on our run-until-the-heat-makes-us-walk time in the morning. We have discovered manicured fields almost void of crops and cool orchards hiding in the shade of dunes. We spotted a herd of deer, piles of peacocks, and one morning nomadic Jain nuns: six woman clad head-cover to bare feet in loose white fabric. Coming off a sand path from nowhere, each carried a small white broom and a large tin pot, also wrapped in white cloth. They were accompanied by two female youths in pastel selwar suits. The entire company were wearing medical masks giving the impression that they were sedately escaping a tuberculosis epidemic.

Their soothing presence turned me inside out in introspection for the rest of the morning. But events of the day spun me around and I was turned right side out. First, I witnessed the most exciting variation on a Tupperware party. Brought by a door-to-door pedler, unwrapped from an enormous bundle, were over 50 brilliant saris piled in two towers on the floor of my home. The poor peddler was surrounded by Setrawa's most aggressive women, one of which, my mum, chased another around the room in pursuit of the best sari. My eye is not distinguished enough to determine what sets one sari apart, but it had the women screaming. After that excitement I had to remove the infected fingernail of Rakhi, my 13 year old sister and later carry Sonu, my 10 year old sister, to the hospital. 

A short walk from our house is a roadside hospital. The building is modest but surrounded by lush plants and large enough for several simultaneous operations. However, like all of Setrawa, it was void of furniture and looked functionless with rows of doors locked up. We cut through the eerily empty unlit halls to a small house on the other side. There were several women, each bundled up with their respective small child, already waiting in the shade of a tree. 

Sonu had stepped on a large scorpion, so we were instructed to skip the queue, but then told to wait under a different tree, and finally to wait under the first tree with the maternal packages. The doctor was unavailable until afterlunch break. Meanwhile a middle aged man, using just his hands, moved the energy around Sonus foot by vigorously rushing his hand in the air above her injury. He finished by dropping her foot with a gentle thud to the sandy ground. I don't know what school of teaching this is, but I'm a convert, because the screaming Sonu was more soothed than when the doctor eventually swelled her foot with xylocane injections and an anti venom. All this cost 30 rupees (less than a Canadian dollar).

Each day here holds many unexpected and raw human experiences which I am grateful to sample. I have moved my whole self into a village family and truly existed here. I have attached myself to these people. Now, I leave behind nuns, scorpions, and violent sari shoppers. My prayers and my love will stay with the boxes of sweets and photos I gave, and I hope that as my memories fade with the photos, I retain the gift of a new perspective.

Saturday, May 14

Teachers are Beautiful

I teach English to 18 girls and 2 boys under eleven. It is awesome to watch my plans hatch and grow as I instruct my receptive pupils in various adventures. I spend an hour or so everyday brainstorming how to fill their heads with English using only my small Hindi vernacular to assist me. I dramatize my stories and mime most of our vocab words, but for 'beautiful' all I need say is the name of the Hindi teacher, Usha. I was particularly amused when one child incorrectly labelled the illustration of teacher as 'beautiful' on a classroom objects test weeks later.

From Jen's class I heard another charming story. Jen and I have both been struggling to have our names pronounced correctly. She has mostly corrected locals from calling her John, but when one day she used herself as an example in a lesson, there was ferocious objection to her spelling. 'Jen' suffers from being very similar go the common last name and caste, 'Jain.' Her students were adamant that she'd spelt her own 3 (or 4) letter name wrong. After previously defending the incorrect spelling of 'tomorrow,' she had lost her spelling cred and was nearly forced to submit to this new identity. Fortunately there is one goat in town that has eerily perfected the pronunciation of Jen. The goat often tricks her into thinking someone is calling her when it  repeatedly bleats 'Jen.'    

On Saturdays all the girls come together and we teach them a special interest topic. With the diversity of English abilities, I find these the most intimidating to plan; however they have also been the most rewarding. We've learnt about phalanges and resuscitation through colorful life size tracing of our body systems and treating imaginary injuries. We've travelled through the western calendar year to celebrate Christmas, have it stolen by the Grinch, only for the Easter Bunny to return the gifts after trick-or-treating and carving a desert melon. 

The best was the magical Sambhali Trust Talent Show that we hosted in an long room above the school. Enormous windows without glass invited sunshine into the space which we had draped in blankets and old saris. The children of all castes came together to show off traditional twirling Rajasthani dancing, recitation of Hindi poems, yoga-style push ups, and clapping the English preposition song I had made up. The highlight was a 5 year old boy, Moolchandra, leading everyone in a repeat-after-me English rendition of the 'P for peacock' alphabet; belted out from on top of the table-made-stage we placed him on.

Wednesday, May 11

Sweet Duppatas

In Setrawa almost everything we eat enters our home as a whole ingredient. Our flour comes as grains that we mill down and sift. Our rice needs to be picked through and is never washed. The vegetables all come with stems still on and the spices are made from the plants they grow on. Processing the food eats up most of our recreational time, but is typically a therapeutically methodical and social activity. 

Today, on our way home from Sambhali, Usha, Jen and I were stopped by Usha's brother holding something peculiar. In his hand was a pot of warm honey with the comb still attached. I was thrilled after sampling and he generously offered a demonstration. 

On recommendation I protectively wrapped the bare skin of my face and arms with my duppata (the semi transparent scarf that matches my selwar suit). The teenage boys were making smoking torches out of old straw brooms. They used these to smoke out the bees which had settled in the heap of materials being used in a construction project. They then uncovered and picked up an entire brick which was half covered in a honey comb.

A piece of the honey comb was instantly torn off and fed to me before I could ensure the bees had left it. Thankfully the busy bees were effectively disinterested and ignored our ravaging of their hard work. After the best of the comb was salvaged, the children scrounged off every bit of honey with their fingers. 

Meanwhile one boy wrapped the honeycomb in a pink dupatta and essentially wrung it out like a wet towel, spinning it tighter to force the honey out of the comb, through the fabric of the dupatta, and dripping into the pot below. Everyone from Baby Kuishy to her dadi (grandmother) enjoyed touching sticky surfaces and licking their fingers clean. I have never tasted such delicious honey. Maybe it was that it was still warm from the heat of the bees' efforts or the communal experience. Maybe it was actually sweeter or I have gone too long without honey. Or, just maybe, it was especially delicious because it was dripping from a brilliant pink duppata. 

In Hindi, pink is gulabi. I have no trouble remembering this word as it takes on the feeling of an onomonpoeia with the bubble gum colored saris that fill buses and shops all over Rajasthan and now with the gooey drips of decadent honey gliding along the edges of sweet pink dupatta.

Desert Oasis

We escaped for a weekend deep into the desert to visit the ancient sand castle city, Jaiselmir. Waking up early, we were privileged with seeing the golden glow of the sand stone carved fort before the heat and Indian men made it uncomfortable. Accustomed to the peace of Setrawa we were apprehensive to the people biding for our money and attention, even those with the best intentions. I curtly said, "No thanks" to one peddler suggesting we buy his water. However, he ended up winning us over when he pointed out that the bottle I was carrying was empty. A classic case of Indian hospitality, making the offer before the need is realized.

Checking our hostility we decided to venture out of the city to a hotel palace, but not until after indulging in chocolate banana and pineapple crêpes in the fort. In the palace, Jen and I further indulged by donning bikinis and delighting in the luxuries of their spectacular swimming pool. It was liberating, as swimming always is, to immerse myself into a medium I can over power with crisp strokes, and furthermore to enjoy the radiating sun against my shoulders and legs that have sensibly been hidden for weeks. 

Our quick dip was followed by a bus ride out of sensational Jaiselmir to tiny quaint Khuri. From Khuri we arranged a camel safari into the picturesque dunes. The adventure included a cliché turbaned guide, sleeping under the stars, a meal cooked on burning camel dung and of course two well packed camels that bounced us into the sunset. 

The wind swept around us as we trotted through the sand. My stead was Kamila; she was connected by a rope to Lal, which carried Jen and Guide Durger. We stopped once in a hamlet for drinks, specifically: water to refresh the camels, chai to refresh us, and wine to refresh with later. Our guide selected a particularly handsome dune for our camp, next to a large lush shrub. He also prepared a great meal that left me warm and heavy all night. Laying on the sand, we passed out under the influence of the sugar cane wine, which had fermented in a hole not far away.

Fully satisfied, Jen topped the weekend off by sharing a coveted chocolate bar with me on the return bus ride. 

Sunday, May 8


Nature is the topic for the upcoming art competition we are putting on for the community. Setrawa has a host of wild animals I feel are worthy of inclusion on this topic. Most majestic is the peacock that cries like cats in heat. Then there are the stray billies or cats. There are several angry packs of dogs that sometimes fight to the death during the night. On Sunday I saw three wild camels going for a gallop. Domestic, but wild, are the cows that have free range of the streets and goats that have free range of the streets and homes. I have also encountered a stampede of two donkeys charging past me on a narrow street.

There are rodents and rodent sized animals. Such as chipmunks, rats, mice, lizards, scorpions and song birds. I have seen them all in my house and even found a scorpion in my bed one morning. Going smaller are the porcupines, giant spiders and giant bees. There are scarab beetles, flies, mosquitoes, ants and finally lice. In fact, it was when I was sitting on the floor in a brightly colored sari soaked meeting that it was uncovered by one of the Sambhali microfinance woman in attendance that I have lice. I was swept with shame and then helplessness. I put my head in the lap of one woman with a plea in my eyes and she generously removed the inhabitants of my head. The meeting continued around us.

Thursday, May 5


For those of you hoping I will include a romance in this blog, this title will be disappointing. I assure you that the only romance I am having is with India.

After adorable threats from small boys declaring to shut down Sambhali School, we decided to gradually let boys join. Yesterday was our first recruit for boys from the untouchable class. We went to the outskirts of town where the untouchables live and told the first boy brave enough to listen that we wanted students. He bolted full speed to gather all the boys he could find. When they returned we sent them all for more. They went with such speed that the ones with sandals ran right out of their flip flops. 

We gathered them under a tree and explained our business. One boy had a small girl attached to his arm who was quietly weeping. After a while I asked Usha why she was crying. Apparently she was terrified of us white girls.

We carefully lead the boys, aged 5 to 9, to the Sambhali school. They clung to each other and were very skittish. A couple made a run for it before we arrived making me feel a little like I was guarding a chain gang. When we got to Sambhali we had the pleasure of introducing them to shampoo. We took their tops off and gave them a much needed scrub down. Even the cleanest came out a shade lighter after the desert was washed off of him.

Reminding me of pre-K day, we showed them around and let them explore. They were quite overwhelmed and stuck to together. We drew pictures for nearly an hour and then sent them home with candies. 

It worked. The next day 13 students returned. After daily grooming (bucket showering, shampooing, lice picking, combing little man hairstyles, and teeth brushing) we wrote out their names for them to copy. For some of them it was their first time reading their name in Hindi and for all of them it was their first time writing the English spelling of their name. They played with the English and Hindi word on their page, tracing it and copying it. I also learnt to spell my name with the beautiful phonetic Hindi characters. We finished with a game and sent them home smiling, already a little more empowered.

Monday, May 2

Amelia 'Khatri' Stegeman

I hope you don't find my blogging of religious ceremonies too tedious. To be honest, I am relieved when a day doesn't hold a new unusual tradition. Today I was far from relieved. For Brahmins it was a day of fasting. This meant the Hindi teachers at Sambhali were both a little cranky and we finished school early (or rather we finished at the scheduled end time for the first time).

At home I was faced with a confusing message of which all I understood was 'no eating.' I heard 'market' mentioned a few times, so I asked in mime if I should buy my dinner at market. This caused profuse objection and I was assured that Rakhi, Soonu, Durga, Revi, Mooti, Jusraj, etc. (everyone) would go together. So for an hour I waited outside with the others for an invisible signal that only I didn't notice to indicate it was time to go. 

It was very dark and exceptionally cold when we set off and we didn't stop at the market. We kicked our shoes off in front of a strange house a little ways down and wandered through a series of dimly lit abandoned rooms that tunneled us through to the back yard. Here the dark mystery of the night was drawn away as our barefeet hit a soft red movie-premiere carpet leading to a warmly lit outdoor space where dozens were eating under sparkling lights on the indoor-outdoor turf that had been laid out for that purpose. 

I joined four of my relations in sitting in a circle around a thali (large plate). Teenage boys waited on us serving delicious subzi, chips, dhal, chipatis and sweets with amusingly repetitive English. The food was wonderfully satisfying and the atmosphere was warm and exciting, but I still had no idea why I was there. 

After much questioningly it was explained to me in laughter that the food was for 'sub Khatri.' That is my host family and extended family's surname. Today was a holy day for the Khatri family god, Hanuman. So the next time one of the servers repeated 'what is your name' for the zillionth time, I said "meera naam Amelia Khatri hai." He beamed a smile at me and it was settled that I belonged there.


There are two Indians permanently employed at the Setrawa Empowerment Centre. The first is the principal, Mool Singh who arrives at Sambhali to the sound of his pop theme song which he blasts from his cell phone. He is a beautifully personal young man with a regretful teenstash. Like all Indian men I have met he takes every suggestion as a personal attack. When he feels threatened he compensates by assuring himself of his qualities by unpredictably demonstrating the power of his position and his favor with the children. 

On one occasion he had me ask, with a show of hands, which students felt he was a good teacher. Of course, with him translating there was unanimous agreement that he was superb. However, I would not disagree. At about 20 years of age he has already made a legacy for himself. The school was his baby and now is his teenager. The students come because of him and he pours his heart into everyone of them. Mool Singh, in the honorable spirit of the Sambhali Trust, meets each participant where they are at and helps them where they most need help.

Usha Sharma, different from Mool Singh in most c ways, shares with him a ferocious competitiveness. This competitiveness is a driving force for much of the recreational time and leaves me doubled over in laughter. Contrastingly they both have me cringing with horror when they repeatedly try to repair the fan and jump and hiss as they are shocked. This a common pastime in India as they rarely have proper plugs and just stuff wires into their outlets. 

Usha is an unwed 20 year old of the highest caste, Brahmin, and is the definition of an Indian lady. She carries herself with dignity and commands respect with her smile and alternately her scolding look of death. Although a strict teacher, she has a soft spot for small children. She feigns shyness around performing, but she is a skillful dancer and beautician. Her recent work includes Jen's and my eyebrows. 

Her weakness is chocolate, but otherwise she's stubbornly determined to be the perfect host; accepting few gifts and rejecting offers to help with household tasks. She lives with her brother and parents and suffers from their often oppressive tyranny, but finds liberation in daily life through shouting matches with Mool Singh and small disobedience, such as wearing black when her father is away.