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Archive for April, 2008

Bhutanese Refugee Camp stay - Nepal

Wednesday, April 30th, 2008

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From the depths of slumber I begin to hear roosters announcing the arrival of the morning seemingly before it has arrived. Women are moving about, bringing their water jugs and pots to fill at the iron hand pump within 10 feet of my head. I stir and feel the mosquito net embracing me, everything so far assuring me its just another day as FBR. Looking at the woven bamboo walls plastered with newspaper letting the faint morning light in beyond my net, however, I suddenly remember that this is no ordinary home stay. I’m waking up in a Bhutanese Refugee Camp.

As I slowly get my bearings I remember that this all started yesterday morning at breakfast. I’d prayed that the Holy Spirit guide us to meet the people we were supposed to meet that day, hopefully kind people who wished to help us and from whom we could learn.

In the evening, we stopped to bathe and eat at a small town along Nepal’s main east-west Hwy 1 in the flat lowlands. We chose one of many small restaurant stalls that also had several hand pump wells out front. We quickly drew a crowd, curious to see foreigners, including one young man who eagerly pumped water for me while I bathed, and another young man who talked with Drew, named Santhos. When Santhos learned that we were planning to camp in a field that night, he invited us to stay at his church - he was Christian and his older brother was the assistant pastor. I’d learned from a boy who had biked with us 10km before town that there was a Bhutanese refugee camp nearby, and as we followed Santhos on his bike in the dark a bit out of town and up to what appeared to be a rural village, I realized that his church was located within that very refugee camp.

He led us into the center of the camp after getting approval from the guards. We put our bikes inside the woven bamboo church. Santhos’ older brother, Mouikumar Maga - the assistant pastor in his 30s - came out to meet us and the crowd of children and other onlookers we’d picked up biking and walking through the camp’s bumpy dirt roads. After we briefly introduced ourselves and our trip goals, he invited us to go back to his home for tea, and at our suggestion, music.

Walking between the homes in the camp

The momentum was rolling along and soon there we were seated in Mouikumar’s humble UN-funded, refugee-built bamboo house with swept mud floor and Drew, Jim, and I realized we didn’t know anything about their situation. As Mouikumar’s wife prepared tea, we began asking questions about Mouikumar and his neighbors in this camp.

“The political situation in Bhutan didn’t allow us to stay, so we came here [Nepal] in 1992 as refugees,” Mouikumar starts. He, the other 24,000 people living in this camp and the other 75,000 refugees living in other camps in Nepal are ethnically Nepali. Their ancestors immigrated to Bhutan in the 19th and early 20th centuries as laborers. Instead of casting aside their language and culture to assimilate, the Nepali people living in Bhutan tried to maintain their original cultural heritage including language, dress, and for some of them, their Christian religion. Over time and generations the Bhutanese government became more and more concerned about their lack of assimilation. The issue came to a head in the 1980s when the Bhutan government enacted policies seeking to catalyze the Nepali’s integration by not allowing them to study Nepalese in school and persecuting those who were Christian. When the situation was too dangerous in 1992 and they were clearly unwelcome in Bhutan, Mouikumar, his family, and many of his fellow Nepali-Bhutanese decided to flee across international borders to Nepal, at which point the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) stepped in to help by drilling hand pump wells in their camps and providing funding for the refugees to build their simple mud-foundation, woven bamboo houses/huts.

Although preserving their Nepali heritage was important to these Bhutanese, Nepal doesn’t feel like home to them and moreover Nepal lacks the social and economic structures to absorb these 100,000 refugees. They and their parents and grandparents were born in Bhutan, making this a situation similar to asking German Americans who have kept their heritage alive to go back to Germany - in the end, they are still Americans and Germany is not their home. After 16 years of waiting with their real lives on hold, the US and several European countries have agreed to slowly accept small groups of families. Mouikumar’s older brother, Michael Thapa, was the senior paster of their church. He emigrated with his family to Atlanta, Georgia last year where he is continuing his ministry. Mouikumar and his family recently completed the lengthy UN interview process for resettlement and hope to join his brother in Atlanta in 4-5 months. Mouikumar’s neighbors are all on different schedules, but most will be waiting for the foreseeable future before they move out of their refugee camp.

In the pause in our conversation, everyone pondering their situation, them no doubt for the umpteenth time, and us for the first time, Mouikumar broke the uncomfortable silence and asked us suggestively if we brought instruments to play music. We grabbed the guitar, er hu, and bongo drum and he asked if I would open our music session with prayer and said he’d lead the closing prayer. I was struck with how clearly and fully my morning’s prayer had been answered, the more than mere coincidence that lead us to be in Mouikumar’s bamboo hut living room surrounded by his family and neighbors at that moment. I prayed and we played. Mouikumar plays guitar too, making for a nice exchange mixing secular songs with Nepalese and English praise songs.

Around 9pm, Mouikumar suggested that we wrap things up so the neighbors watching and listening to us could go to sleep. “The 8pm curfue has already passed in the camp, why don’t you sleep here instead of at the church.” Our sleeping bags, tooth brushes, and change of clothes were all back with our bikes inside the church, but it was a 10 min walk away and technically people weren’t supposed to be out anyway. “You can sleep here,” as Mouikumar lead us into his own bedroom containing two small double beds. “Oh no no, we don’t want to trouble you, and where will you…” Mouikumar cut us off insisting in a way we couldn’t argue with. After making sure we had everything we needed, Mouikumar and his wife left us - humbled - alone in their own room in their own beds in their simple home, complete with mosquito nets.

After waking up early, Mouikumar and his wife couldn’t send us off without breakfast. The chapati (flat bread) and potato curry was freshly home made and excellent.

Mouikumar (white R off cen) and his family in his living room

With brothers Santhos (red L) and Mouikumar, (white R) on the side of their church.

Outside and inside the refugee camp’s church, where they let us store our bikes over night.

With other Bhutanese refugees on the side of their church.

A big THANK YOU to Mouikumar, Santhos, and their family for the amazing hospitality! I sincerely hope that my fellow Americans will be thoughtful, aware, and empathize enough to extend half the welcome and hospitality the Bhutanese extended to us.

We were warmly welcomed into a refugee camp, shared music, and learned a people’s story we previously didn’t know about - quite possibly a perfect Fueled By Rice day.

For more information about the Bhutanese refugees’ story on the other side, settling in the US, see this related news article:

** From Bhutan to the Bronx **
Dumeetha Luthra meets some Bhutanese refugees who have arrived in the
 US from Nepal.
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Let us work to close the divide between East & West

Tuesday, April 29th, 2008

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I am saddened and greatly concerned over the growing divide and wall between east and west, between China & the US, and between Europe & China over the Tibet conflict.  We have a responsibility, as educated peace-loving people, to work hard to close this divide and break down this wall NOW, before it gets too high.  As this article in the International Herald shows, the wall is not only being built in China, but also in the US at the countless American universities that Chinese students are attending.

Clearly media on all sides are failing to give us accurate facts and unbiased reports.  Because we know that, we can vigorously apply our critical thinking and analytical skills with a cool head to dare to explore perspectives different than our own on this issue.  We must strive to understand all sides with empathy.  I am seeking to more deeply understand Beijing’s perspective, and I desire to know more about what ordinary Tibetans think and want, the latter of which is not clear in many news articles.

Above all, we must remember that we are brothers and sisters, world citizens, and that the conflict in Tibet is affecting us all. Through civilized and intelligent (and certainly always non-violent) debate, approached with humility and an open mind to listen to the other sides, we will slowly get at the truth and, I hope and pray, discover and craft a creative and respectful resolution for all connected issues.

Ping An, He Ping, Peace,

Yet another Nepali homestay

Monday, April 28th, 2008

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Typical of any time we tried to stop and rest in the plains of Nepal, we couldn’t get away from people. First, the children showed up. They clumped around one of us as we sat on the ground, reading or writing, and would suddenly rush to their next victim with no apparent reason. They sniffled loudly, placed their hands on our shoulders to lean in for a closer look, and demanded I show them the postcard I had tucked into my book for safe keeping.
Later, adults drifted through our rest area in the trees. They paused to watch us at a respectful distance, a few spoke a few words of English.
During the day we cycled through several groups of kids. In the late afternoon, we found ourselves speaking with a semi-circle of villagers. One younger man had the build of a boxer, and constantly smiled to reveal his white teeth. His mother constantly giggled to reveal her delightful personality. They asked if we wanted to stay in the village. We protested the normal protestations: we’re a big group, we have lots of crap, it will be troublesome for you. We received the usual answer from the shiny-mouthed would-be host: no problem. “First,” he said, however, “you play music.”
So we got out the instruments. No sooner had we commenced, than a bus stopped alongside the road. Its occupants wandered out and joined the concert. The bus people were city people and spoke excellent English. Our would-be hosts were country folks and spoke a little English. In between songs our hosts lost interest in the long complicated questions put to us by the bus people. Then another bus stopped. Was this a publicized concert? we asked ourselves.
Later, the buses left, but our hosts were gone. We were led to the village by a child. We stowed our bikes in the goat pen. A high school student offered to take us around. He introduced us to various important personages, the old village deputy, the part-time football (soccer) coach.

on the tour

We wound up at the soccer field, which was being prepared for the district tournament to begin the following day. Andrew wowed everyone with his soccer skills. Then he brought out the frisbee. Hordes of little urchins chased after the soft arcs it made in the sky. They bit and kicked and fought like wild cats or she-devils or politicians or things even worse than that for the privilege of throwing it lamely into the ground.

Drew playing frisbee

After dark, on our way back to the village, the former police officer blew sweetly acidic declarations of brotherhood at me. “Do you like to drink?” he asked me five times.
We paused for water and instead ate dinner. A huge crowd formed a circle. The drunk constable danced. “Now you dance Nepali,” everyone ordered. The constable escorted us one by one into the circle. We tried to follow his dance moves. He girated his hips, wiggled his arms, performed great swan dives on the ground. With me he did a flip, a move I determined not to follow. Hoots and giggles followed guffaws and titters. I got the feeling the constable did this with all the foreigners who came to the village.
We finally made it back to the home of our friend of the bulging biceps and giggly mother. “You eat cow?” she had enquired earlier. We had hoped against hope and indeed, there in the plate was cow. It was the first meat we’d had in a long time. The previous dinner left us quite stuffed, but we gobbled this one down nonetheless, even the seconds our smiling host refused to rescind once she had the pot dangling over our plates.
That night, while our bikes displaced the goats, we displaced our hosts as they had given us our beds. This was the second time this had happened in Nepal. We were touched. We also considered our previous dinner of an ambiguous nature. The villagers were certainly entertained. We were not exactly humiliated. Everyone left happily. Perhaps that is the final measurement of cultural exchange.
The next morning, when we tried to leave without breakfast, the woman who had kicked herself out of bed and spent her beef on us smilingly thrust two huge fruits into my hands. If I ever return to Jamnivas I know who I will be most eager to see again.

We have arrived in Kathmandu, Nepal…exhausted

Friday, April 25th, 2008

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Six days of serious mountain cycling on rough rocky roads has left me exhausted.  Having entered Nepal on the far east side from Siliguri, India, we spent 5 days making serious distance on Nepal’s low-lands Hwy 1.  90km days were becoming routine, and we were fortunate to meet a number of great people in the low lands, including a nice village stay we’ll write more about later. 

But 90km / day on a flat road was too easy.  I mean, how could we come to Nepal and not go into the Himalayas?  So we turned north in our ignorance of what we were beginning, in our ignorance from our low quality map.  It looked like a shorter way to Kathmandu.  We turned north on a reasonable looking secondary road (one of the few besides the 3 main highways in all of Nepal) towards a town typed in bigger print than the thousands of villages dotting our map connected only by mountain “tracks,” called Sindhulimadi.  Riding straight into the Himalayan foothills which quickly became mountains, without snow mind you but mountains none the less, we made it to Sindhulimadi which turned out to be more like a village anyway. 

The pavement quickly gave way to dirt and rock.  After Sindhulimadi though, the gravel miraculously turned into brandnew Japanese pavement and one heck of an incredible uphill switchback road and drainage system climbing up over a tall pass.  But the people told us time and time again, the road’s not finished, its only a walking path.  But we pushed on. 

We camped near the top of the pass the Japanese road conquered, and biked down through the construction of the road on the otherside.  Foremen told us the way ahead was difficult, but after some coaxing they would admit it was possible.  They were right in both.

Lucky for us, the steep walking path only lasted 1km, after a narrow cable bridge, and that 2 local boys were eager to help us carry the band wagon over this most difficult stretch.  After the Japanese road ended though, the roads were all rock roads, not small gravel rock, but big rocks that greatly threatened the integrity of our already burdened wheels.

Slowness.  30km days that felt like 100km days.  Sweating even in the cool air and often pushing bikes up up up.  Yet beauty and silence and peace, among sparsely populated mountain communities scattered about.  Though physically difficult, it was well worth it. 

Now, we rest.  After 11 tough days.

Latha Selvaraja and the Squatting Little Village

Sunday, April 13th, 2008

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She came home and put on her “ordinary sari,” the one she cooks and cleans in.  The blue one, with not too much conceit in it, the cloth relaxed enough to exercise in.  She suggested I wear it for my morning run.

We slept on the floor of her mud-brick home last night. Three in a row on straw mats with a foot pillow lay at my feet: she, her fifteen year old son, and me on the living room floor. Her husband is a security guard in distant Coimbatore, the big city 300km west.

I really wanted to sleep well to make this night perfect. This was one of those amazing experiences you realize just how amazing in the middle of it and you curse yourself for not having your camera. But I didn’t. No visual proof that I actually slept in a mud hut in a mud hut village in the middle of nowhere in South India. So you, the reader have to suspend your skepticism of what sounds like thwarted logic, but is in fact, the unadulterated, only occasionally sensationalized truth.

And I didn’t sleep well. I tossed and turned beneath the capricious ceiling fan that at first swished and swayed away the revolting heat, then turned villainously cold much like love does overnight.  And when the fan was turned off, its villainous spite hung in the aftermath’s vacuum like the drool of a carnivorous ogre, waiting to be picked up like a baton by the mosquito militia who rushed in truculent, shoulders hunched forward, salivary needles aimed to feast on the ocean of new blood lying mangled and weak from sleeplessness.

I am accustomed to sleeping without a bed. Without a roof even, in the cold, in the rain, in the middle of a field armed by farmers lugging AK-47’s like handbags. Still, the spaghetti smell of your own sleeping bag with of your own sweat, a pad, mosquito net and a tent set up in the prime real estate of a harvested rice field behind a hill or in the middle of a bamboo forest trumps the solace of a night in the new environs of a house that is not your own.

The trauma must have been too much, because my body revealed its stress in ruthless revolt: I woke up to clinking pots and scraping grains completely and ludicrously voiceless. The ludicrous part being that when I opened my mouth to speak at any given moment, I only had enough breath to utter: “Vannakam. En peyar Nakia. Unkal peyar enna? (Tamil for Hello. My name is Nakia. What is your name?)”  Then all energy would drain synoptically from my voice to the rest of my body – my eyes, head, legs, hips – like blood leaving the heart for more mobile places. Like a daughter leaving home. What a horrible curse!

But this is not about me leaving home. This is about the aforementioned she, Latha Selvaraja, born in the coconut fringed village of Kuvanalangottai 100 km into the flat green plains of Tharangapadi Pillyarkoviluranipuram Taluk in the orange mud district of Kol. She was married at somewhere between 18 and 21 years old to a man 16 years her senior.  Her wedding pictures show a properly fed beauty feeding her newly introduced man with cake and a sly smile that betrays her peace with so astronomical an event.

The young Latha Selvaraja likes the sensation of splashed water. She likes to put her hands in a clean pool and watch it swell beneath the surface. She grabs the elusive water in her palms, individual fingers eclipsed by the depth, right before breaking the surface and tossing the water out and onto her feet, onto the grass, darkening the green moss of the backyard, until everything is wet.  It is a trait her elder husband has to attribute to the puerile recklessness of his young bride in order to restrain himself from cutting off the water supply to the house.

This night in these pictures, her family packs a van with a virgin, a dowry of clothes and pots and electronic items, and a stranger (who wasn’t actually a stranger but in fact her long lost uncle) to play husband in the epic story of marriage. 

“How did you feel?” I pointed to my face, and then screwed my eyes to indicate tears 16 years in the future when she has invited me to her “poor house” to feast on a self-replenishing mound of red chicken biriyani, chicken gravy, and pickles.

“I was afraid. But this is my life! My life is my husband and my son. Without them, I would have no life.”

Scratching my head, I crept back into the past, disguised as one of the sari donning aunties, and tried observed the young confident, elegantly jeweled 18-21 year old Latha Selvaraja.

She wears an ocean blue sari, this one silk and embroidered with gold, adorned by a dazzling cone-shaped bindi in the spot between her eyebrows. From there, the bindi points upward to gold loops that hangs from the crown of her head down over her forehead, orchestrating the bride’s face in an optical atlas that gives the eyes direction to the god within her. When she bows to her husband, the message is clear: the god in me recognizes the god in you.

A thali, or marriage locket, has just been placed around her neck. Neither she nor her husband look at each other as if to contain the laughter that would break out if they were to catch sight of each other’s bashful blushes. They focus instead on the aunties and sisters and cousins attentively putting food into their mouths.

I inch in between the crowd of wedding officials, Brahmin, auntie, sister, and eavesdrop on her inner thoughts:

I hope that your mother is nice. And that you have a good job. I won’t need too many jewels, just a pair of nice gold earings, a nose ring and a silver anklet for each leg. I hope i can have a son.

Luckily for Latha Selvaraja, the van that arrived to transport husband, wife, and dowry only had to turn the block and drive 3km before it came to a sputter, shaking out its hood, fanning out its hind, and rest its laurels at a tiny house across the street from her sister’s. She, having married her uncle, would live in her maternal village, where her father, mother, sister, brother, and extended family would always be around to give her milk to make curd rice and coconut chutney, firewood to cook with, and an ear to voice the concerns of adult life.

But Latha Selvaraja, who had the acumen to know that once you start complaining, life would never be good enough, never turned into a moaner.  She woke up at 5am the morning after her wedding, rolled the dough for the parotha, put the wedding clothes in a bucket to soak, swept the painted concrete floor, put the new pots and pans in order, and took a splash bath before her husband awoke for his first cup of chai at 7am. Happy with the swell job of housewifery she was doing, Latha Selvaraja continued the same tasks for 14 years until things got tough and raising a teenager became unsustainable on a landless laborer’s back.

Around that time, news of urban jobs where people wear crisp uniforms and watch as much Bollywood music videos as they wanted came on the backs of cart-pulling cows in the lazy little town of Kuvanalangottai.

When her husband left, Latha Selvaraja continued her private water splashing fantasies, but added a twist: she would splash water over the interior walls of the entire house and scrub it from ceiling to floor as if to shave away the smell of her husband, whom she didn’t want to miss while he was away.

The village Kuvanalangottai is scattered with mud huts, temples to Shiva, god of destruction and his wife Mari Amman. Tea kiosks selling biscuits squat with overweight men and women in moomoo’s chatting to customers. The temples sit next to ponds with marble steps where people sluice themselves before praying. The huts are awned with thatch roofs that flop to the ground like straw hats. They have grown out of the earth like an extra digit. It is hard to know whether the house starts and where the ground ends. Everything is smooth and rounded here like a Gaudi invention: no sharp edges, no straight lines. Only the old women have bent at 90 degree angles from years of planting rice paddies.

Latha Selvaraja’s house is just a rectangle, with every room serving as a corridor for the other, each visible from the street.  There is no privacy. Every matter is a village matter. 50 of Latha Selvaraja’s siblings have already come sneaking in through the living room to meet me.

 On the morning after I did not sleep, I was visited by Latha Selvaraja’s three mothers, the oldest of which had a pigment discoloration that seemed endemic in Indians as far as West Bengal. Her hair had gone as white as her skin in the shock of age and its battering of the body. Her energy, flushed out like the melanin in her skin, was mollifying.  She invited me for my second cup of coffee at 8am on the wooden cot of Latha Selvaraja’s father’s firewood store.  Caffeine ravaged my heart as I “took rest”, widening my eyes to show delight at the syrupy coffee, wobbling yes and no answers, waiting for someone to invite me to leave.

In India, the nation of villages, it is absolutely necessary to sit down and take chai before anything occurs.  To be hasty is to fight against the treadmill of the universe, which recycles itself, coming back with second rounds of tea, and three rounds of mothers. You will only tire yourself if you fight against it.

The second mother dropped in as if to relieve the responsibility of the 1st. Her hair was also white, but her skin still a supple almond brown. She spoke quickly, first to first mother, then to me, as if to indicate to both of us that she was talking about me, but not expecting an answer.

Then third mother, the haughtiest of them all, hobbled in, back bent at 90 degrees, and hair as white and curly as Punjabi’s beard. She was the type that didn’t let you get away with murder. She gripped my wrist in her slippery shaky hands and pointed at herself then out the door, to indicate that it was her home I had refused to go in for tea the night before when it was raining.  I, pretending to be stricken by her grip, bowed at the god in her, and asked forgiveness with my eyes. She wobbled her head: “Ok. We cool,” then sat next to me to me to display the fractured bone jutting out from the side of her knee.  

In this land of ludicrously green rice paddies, unpronounceable names and complicated family relations, I am unperturbed by the dearth of language. Communication is as simple as a Tom and Jerry cartoon.  Gestures are amplified, and even a mute can communicate. A smile is repaid with an invite to tea.  And a hand gesture with a head wobble, yes. My face is undergoing significant exercise as I learn to use it much like I used my voice.

I have learned to sing with it: raising my eyebrows so that they almost touch my hairline, stretching my smile so that my lips touch my ears and nose simultaneously, all the while keeping my eyes flexible so that they can look up and down, slant sideways and swivel much as my voice would hold a high note ripe and maneuverable.

Once, as I sang with my eyes, and Latha Selvaraja, with her helium voice, we hit a note of such symbiotic harmony that it was hard to separate us, and we almost morphed into the same person, my body sucked like pigment into the supple swathes of her blue sari. I felt my skin loosing its color. I saw the hair on Latha Selvaraja’s head begin to sizzle into short steaming kinks. I saw what looked like a white face peeking through the wooden planks of the entrance room separated from the living room by only a curtain.

Then, her son, the amazingly strong shot put champion Boominayagi, sauntered in pushing the world forward with his broad shoulders, and sucked back the energy of his mother. All eyes on him, Latha Selvaraja, shifted back to hostess mode and immediately asked me if I liked parotha. I nodded, and she rolled the dough, slid the twigs of firewood into her clay stove carved from the very mud of the house walls, and fried flattened wheat pancakes on an iron skillet.  She reheated the chicken gravy from the previous night, reached into a silver pot and pulled out eight magical rice flour cakes and a bag of coconut chutney. Four for me, four for Boominayagi. Then, when I started preparing my stomach to devour the feast already laid out, she reached into the voluptuous layers of her blue, ordinary, housewife sari, and pulled out an entire white icing cake!

The sly Latha Selvaraja of the marriage pictures has softened into a woman plump with love.  She pinches my cheeks then kisses her hands, the Tamil version of a blown kiss.  I am weak with love for a woman I’ve known for less than a week. How is it possible?  In the distant lands of my birth, it is not uncommon to drag an engagement on for three years, then two more just to be safe, then divorce after three years of realizing you were just not meant to be. Best friends start in primary school and go on through college and old age.  Love is slow. Life is fast.

With Latha Selvaraja, it is the absolute opposite. I have just met her and I am now sleeping with her. I have fallen in love overnight.  This is a crash course in best friendship. Relationship immersion. Like two people alone on a desert island. Differences minimized. Necessity draws action. Intentional bonding occurs.

Latha Selvaraja’s mothers, the three witches came cooing as Latha Selvaraja took a splash bath in the back yard. Meanwhile, Boominayagi sat on the table watching antediluvian Tamil music videos inches away from the ancient TV.  They talked to each other as they circled me like I was a vat, scratching their chins with their scrawny fingers, rolling their erratic R’s beneath their sharpened K’s, as they pulled the kinks out and watched them roll back in like a pig’s tail. They delighted over my mystery.

I sat, voiceless, and concentrating on the mental picture to capture this moment in my head. I enjoyed the commotion and found the fingers titillating. The clinkety clank of thier gold bangles soothed me like water.  I could hear the shaking of their old bones as they wiggled in and out of loose sockets.

Latha Selvaraja, dressed in her official sari, salmon with gold fringes, came in singing Tamil pop songs by Chitra.  The mothers suddenly intensified their evil finger work, moving down to the muscles in my face, until my non-vocal sounds began to merge with Latha Selvaraja’s voice.  

Our melody built as the the notes of a distant sitar wafted through the corridors. Thammátama drums kept a delayed beat that pulled my hips in the opposite direction of my torso until I was swaying like a snake from a basket. The witches began to clap their hands and galumph their anklet bejeweled feet, swirling the tortuous rhythm into a rapture. Latha Selvaraja’s 50 cousins reappeard at the door along with 50 of their sisters and brothers.

This was a festival of colors. Of cultures combined. I was loosing myself in the welcoming arms of Kuvanalangottai.  My bicycle tan draining away. My thigh muscles softening beneath the heavy lethargy of South India’s sun.  Could it be that this was my destiny? That I rode a bicycle for 6 months across several countries only to arrive quiescent and content in a village that would never leave me, whose sisters and brothers and cousins would always be there for me to borrow pots and deliver freshly squeezed milk?


To be continued…


Friday, April 11th, 2008

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Since we’ve entered Darjeeling district, things have been different. Women actually work in restaurants. People look more East Asian. We’re coming in to country occupied by the famous Gurkha’s, whose discipline and bravery led to their famous utilization by the Imperial British as a fighting force.

As our lunch host described two days ago, people are sick of the corruption of the Communist Party-Marxist, which has won elections in West Bengal for over 30 years. The Gorkha, ethnically Nepali people who inhabit Darjeeling district, are prepared to do something about it. They have been rallying for some time to become independent from West Bengal and form their own state within India, similar to Sikkom, just to the north.

Just as we were sitting down to lunch, the police in Siligury, the main city to the south, were breaking up a pro-Gorkha-land demonstration going on there. It seems individuals acting independently of demonstrating Gorkhas started throwing rocks at the police, who responded with violence. In the end, more than a dozen people were injured. By the time we finished lunch, a general strike and blockade had been declared throughout Darjeeling district.

We had to ease our bikes past jeeps that were parked blocking the roads. No one obstructed us, but when we finally arrived in Darjeeling town, we found everything closed. Luckily, our hotel was serving food, but otherwise all shops save druggists were closed.

The next day, people took to the streets. A huge line of women snaked up the road past our hotel, chanting “We want Gorkha land, we want justice!”. They were followed by an even bigger and louder crowd of men.

women protesting men protesting

The following day, we were relieved to see the shops open, but it turned out to be the student’s day to protest. The streets were filled with girls in pleated skirts and boys in matching ties and suit-jackets with the stereotypical breast patch indicating their school. They chanted and marched with a bit less discipline than their elders had the previous day.

students protesting

Strikes are a common occurrence in India. I personally don’t know enough about this particular situation to take a side, though my sympathies tend more towards self-determination. For now I will be happy to have witnessed a common cultural phenomenon, peacefully expressed political views, and perhaps a bit of history in the making.

Grass roots good enough to eat

Friday, April 11th, 2008

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Shabnam Ramswamy is a middle-aged woman whose constant restless energy belie her real age. She speaks the fluent English of the Indian upper-class, but has chosen a lifestyle not in keeping with her caste. She moved back to her native village and works tirelessly, not on creating wealth for herslef, but on improving the quality of life in her village.

Shabnam ramswamy

Shabnam Ramswamy.  “Of course, I am very photogenic,” she said when I asked to take this picture.

Jalgriti school, an independent, English medium, co-ed school that rises majestically right off the road from Kuli is Street Survivors India’s (Shabnam’s organization) most obvious effort at improving life in the village. However, other programs include fair trade quilting for women and workshops and other educational opportunities for villagers.

Jalgriti school

Jalgriti school.

Starting the organization and forging a toe-hold in a rural India deeply seated in the past wasn’t easy, and it is largely only due to Shabnam’s stubborn personality that she has stayed with her projects. An attempt on her life soon after her return didn’t phase her. When her husband tragically died of a heart attack before the school opened, she decided to see the project through to the end.

After the concert FBR played at Street Survivor’s Katna headquarters, Shabnam overheard some men wondering at the wealth of the U.S. as expressed in citizens like us who were able to travel so far for so long.  “What makes their country different from ours?” pondered one.  Shabnam broke in, “They are prosperous because they educate their girls!”   She went on to explain in her emphatic manner how a country cannot be great with half its population uneducated.

Change doesn’t come quickly in rural India.  Shabnam acknowledges that her project may seem bizarre and over-ambitious in the eyes of some.  FBR can certainly relate, so we weren’t offended when she told us: “You are crazy people cycling.  We are crazy people tucked away here.  So it was good we could get together.”

quilt made as part of ssi's embroidery project

Quilt made by one of the participants in Shabnam’s fair-trade program, meant to bring work to villagers otherwise idle.

 One night we came back to find a huge feast waiting for us. As Shabnam explained later, she had to cook as a girl.  She was inspired by Tom Sawyer’s effort to transform white-washing into a fun activity, so she immersed herself in the task until she was able to thoroughly enjoy the fruits of her labor.  The results of her effort provided the best food we had yet consumed in India.

Careful followers of Mark Twain may be confused.  Tom Sawyer didn’t actually convince himself to enjoy white-washing.  Instead, he tricked his friends into thinking it was fun, thereby not only escaping the irksome task but forcing his friends to pay for the ‘pleasure’ of whitewashing.

It speaks to Shabnam’s power for positive transformation that she took Sawyer’s example of deception and was inspired to create good reality.  Not just good, in fact, but delicious.  We can only hope more people follow her example of bringing their talents to actually improve the lot of the rural poor everywhere.

A Few Days in Katna

Friday, April 11th, 2008

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How we came to be there

I had the great fortune to be acquainted with the much-esteemed Brian Heilman while at St. John’s. Having fallen in love with India (if not an Indian woman, yet) he was sponsored by the American India Foundation to work in India for a year with a grass roots organization, Street Survivors India.

As he was located in a small village just north of Kolkata, and as I had a standing invitation to his home, we decided to drop by. We were enthusiastically welcomed by both he and the leader of his organization, a woman named Shabnam, another volunteer, Maria, and all the village people of Katna.


Not only did we find ourselves with a room and an outstanding dinner and a few free lunches, but Shabnam actually scheduled us to play a concert for the village. Tarps were spread on the ground and Christmas lights draped from the trees. We even had a couple of microphones.

Several dozen minutes after we were scheduled to play (”Indian time” explained Brian) the courtyard was crowded with children and sari and shalwar kamiz-clad woman while men in tank tops and t-shirts lurked in the background. Brian started things off with a couple of solo numbers, and then with the help of Shabnam, FBR took the stage.

Our audience (the largest formal gathering we’ve played for), listened attentively and apparently appreciatively. They had never heard our style of music before, but with Chubnam’s translational help, we managed to keep everyone’s attention.

our concert at the street survivor's headquarters

The audience.

All evening storm clouds had been rushing in and a stiff wind sent the Christmas lights swinging in the breeze.  After six songs, we wrapped it up and let everyone get home before the weather broke.

A Village tour 

One evening Brian and Matiur, the Bengali teacher at Jalgriti School and a great poet, took us on a tour of the village.  We were followed by a troop of rambunctious children.

children on tour

 Matiur pointed out the government-run school.  Children show up in the morning and play games until noon when they are served lunch by the teacher.  Then they go home.  The free lunch program started by the Indian government has thus increased nutrition among children but reduced education levels.

Across India ration agents sell food at reduced prices to folks with low incomes.  However, many of them use their power to trade ration cards for bribes, thus misdirecting the cheap food away from where it is needed.  Riots erupted across rural India last year in protest of the corruption.

At the house of Katna’s ration agent, Matiur explained that instead of riots, Street Survivors India had led an effort to collect petitions against the ration agent, which induced the government to replace him and avoided violence.

When we arrived at Matuir’s house, we sat down for tea and biscuits.   He treated us to a reading of his poetry, composed in his elegant Bengali script, which was almost as beautiful to look at as it was to hear read.


Matuir explaining the subtleties of Bengali culture.

On the way back we stopped at another house and were served an impromptu dinner by our gracious host.  We then sprawled on mats in the courtyard, gazing up at the stars.

Our Hosts Again

For our entire stay in Katna, Brian acted as our translator, tour guide, baby sitter, orderer of food, bargainer, explainer of Bengali culture, finder of lost items, explicater of Hinduism, securer of succor and even roommate, for a while.  Brian wears Indian dress well and has even adopted the head bobble characteristic to that part of the world.  His commitment to the country shows in his reception by Indians and his encyclopedic knowledge of Indian affairs.  We were lucky to have such a host.




We should also thank Maria for her help. She invited us into her classes and also answered no few questions.I am far from being sick of these people I’m traveling with, but the fresh perspectives added by Brian and Maria in our long conversations were appreciated by all of us.

Brian wrote a bit our stay. You can read his account about our stay and wish him a happy birthday on his blog.

India Photos finally uploaded!

Friday, April 11th, 2008

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My luck finding and then usuing the internet in India has been quite bad.  However after 6 hours and an off and on connection, I finally got some shots up from the last 3 weeks in West Bengal, India.

You can find them in the “Individuals” album, then “Peter’s Photos,” then “India.”  I hope you enjoy!

We’re now resting after 2 quite difficult mountain days in the famous mountain town, Darleeling.


Friday, April 11th, 2008

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Matthew 25: 35,40: “…I was a stranger and you invited me in…”"…I tell you the truth, whatever you did for the least of these my brothers and sisters, you did for me.”Mother Teresa believed these words from the gospel of Matthew and made them real in the city where she worked, Calcutta.   She sought to treat each person she served, no matter how poor, dirty, or diseased, not only with the love of Christ but as if that person were Christ himself; not just love flowing from pity, but love flowing with respect and dignity.   Love in action.When we arrived in Kolkata (Calcutta), Nakia introduced us to the people she had met while staying at the Salvation Army Guesthouse and volunteering with Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity as well as a girls’ school.  It seemed like every foreigner we met was involved in some type of volunteering or service.  People from Australia, Uganda, America, France, Japan were spending time with school kids, helping to clean nursing homes, or change bandages and serve meals to the poor, destitute, dying.  Is it the legacy of Mother Teresa in this city?  Is it the clear poverty and obvious need?  Whatever the reason, people are serving others, striking a contrast with the idea we got in Bangkok.

In Bangkok you’re told you can get “anything you want… anything.”  I’ve heard it several times from different people in almost the same words.  There are Western malls full of Dunkin’ Donuts, I-max theatres, brand-name clothing, jewellry, and Mexican food.  There are tuk-tuk (took-took) drivers offering you a ride, marijuana, or a lady.  In the mall we walked (and gawked) past a Lambourghini sports car display and saw a ticket on a Porsche for 15 million Baht (about $500,000).  Of course real people live in a more average Bangkok all over the city, but the foreign section was teeming with opulence and options–for you, whatever you want.

Gretchen was different.  From the moment she welcomed us outside her studio apartment it was clear she didn’t fit the self-indulging stereotype.  Gretchen was the friend of a friend who opened her home to us, until then strangers.  She graduated from CSB (our connection) and pursued a Masters in Social Work from Augsburg in St. Paul, Minnesota.  After an initial volunteering opportunity in Thailand, she decided she wanted to come back, and found a job teaching developmentally disabled children with an organization that could use some organization.  She often finds herself working long hours teaching, as well as counseling ex-patriates on the side.  But, despite her busy and draining work schedule, she showed no reservations in hosting four stinky bikers and their gear in her one-room apartment for a week.  Our stuff took up the space along the wall and most of her narrow balcony, while our bodies took up the remaining space on the floor where we slept.  She was gracious and welcoming, even offering to give up her bed because if she slept on the floor, two of us could fit in the bed.  Jim assured her he preferred the floor, which he does.  Besides, we weren’t about to take away her apartment and her bed!  Still, her generosity showed through.

We spent several evenings with two of her Thai friends — Nu and Gium — who spoke English well and laughed often.  I asked her if she has any foreign friends or mostly Thai friends.  She said she doesn’t connect with many ex-patriates in Bangkok–she doesn’t appreciate their attitudes toward the local people–and she’s friends with the people with whom she works and lives, which are the Thai people.

Our last day together was Saturday, so after working the morning Gretchen treated us to swimming at the public pool.   In her words she wanted to “do something for us while we were in Bangkok.”  Amazing.

“Whatever you do for the least of these my brothers and sisters, you do for me.”  I don’t know if Gretchen does it because of Christ, but she certainly showed us Christ-like love as strangers to a big city.  She emptied herself of her privacy for a week in order to acommodate four people she did not know.  I am challenged to think that in the midst of materialism, perhaps the most important question is not What do I want? but rather What can I give?  May her reward be great, however God chooses to give the blessing.