Archive for October, 2005

An Evening on the Beach

For those of you who are worried about us after hearing about the bombings in New Delhi and the train derailment in S. India – we are fine. We decided not to go to Delhi in favor of coming to Goa.

Today, we spent a lazy day, watching the 3rd. one-day cricket match between India and Sri Lanka (contested in Jaipur, Rajasthan) for most of the day, then strolled to Calangute beach in the evening. While many of the bars and restaurants on Baga beach are still setting up for the season (to officially start tomorrow), putting up palm leaf shelters and building platforms, the ones on Calangute beach were in full swing. I spotted a restaurant recommended by our friends Vandana and Joseph in Pune, the Souza Lobo, and decided to try it. Vandana and Joseph have never steered us wrong.

As we sat on the beach, enjoying the soft sea breeze, sipping sweet lime soda and fresh pineapple juice, a trio of musicians set up on the beach in front of the tables. The geezers (I use the word in the most affectionate way – think Ibrahim Ferrer) were perfect for the place and time. (Last night, we were assaulted by a singer/guitarist who opened with “Rhinestone Cowboy”.) They wore matching sombreros, bright, flower-print shirts and black pants. The saxaphonist had a sweet sound, and the guitarist/singer an appropriately croaky voice. The drummer provided harmony to the Konkani songs that they sang. Requests came in from the diners for “Spanish Eyes” and “Besame Mucho”.

On our walk back, we took a route that led us to a small Hindu enclave, where a couple of drummers in the back of a small pick-up were gearing up for their Diwali parade around the city behind a huge demon on the bed of a larger truck. They were on their way to Mapusa for a demon contest before the ritual beheading on the night before Diwali. Houses here and there had tiny ghee candles burning around their verandas. Stores had strings of colored lights draped around their entrance. A banyan tree in the center of the street had small candles set among the roots. Every now and then, a burst of firecrackers. Beautiful.


My flu-like symptoms finally broke on the overnight bus ride from Pune to Mapusa, Goa early this morning. I first got symptoms of a cold/flu on the all-day train from Ahmedabad to Pune on Monday October 24. (I had predicted that I would get sick having been in a van with some women from the slums on the Ring Road in Ahmedabad, one of whom was very sick.) Although I had given away most of my medications and vitamins my first couple of days in Ahmedabad, I had enough to reduce the severity of the cold, although our early days and hard traveling in the field with Appropriate Rural Technology Institute (ARTI) to see improved cookstoves in use around Pune did not help. We’ve scheduled these three days in Calangute, Goa, purely for R&R. (Decided to skip a trip to Delhi to meet with another NGO working on improved biomass stoves – too far north to eventually head back to Pondicherry and too difficult to travel around Diwali.) Mark also has a minor version of what I have.

My first impression of Goa is of lushness. There is greenery and water everywhere (although the infrastructure does not seem to be able to handle getting water to people – there are water tankers on the roads, and prohibitions on washing clothes in hotel rooms due to lack of water), and less litter, little pollution, and more birds. Besides a few signs in store windows wishing Happy Diwali, there are no other signs of celebration (no lights, no fireworks). It is fitting that given our proclivity to spend Christmas in non-Christian countries, we would spend Diwali (November 1) in a non-Hindu state. Walking from the bus station to our guest house this morning (Sunday), we passed a chapel overflowing with worshipers.

It is a little bit disconcerting to be in a tourist area, with clothing, leather and wood products, hotels, guest homes, and restaurants lining every street, and every citizen and immigrant on the make. Tourist “transport” (white minivan taxis) roam the streets, as do men and boys wearing the uniform of the big bars and restaurants, offering you free admission to some event or another to get you to come to their establishment. You cannot walk two steps without someone asking you if you need a taxi, hotel room, motorbike, restaurant! The beaches are nice and clean, but also lined with restaurants that offer free “sunbeds” in the hopes of selling you food, drink, and ayurvedic massages. Most restaurants offer “multicuisine” and make sure the food is not at all spicy. There are not enough places that sell fresh juice. (Most of the restaurants here believe that their customers would prefer “clean” packaged juice to fresh.) Thankfully, although the sell is persistent, it is not hard, and therefore easy to ignore.

Ironically, every beach resort in India has the requisite clothing and handicrafts from the mountains of Kashmir and Tibet. There is a relatively large contingent of Tibetan refugees who find the packaged tourism of Goa an easier place to make a living than the northern cities or “resorts”. It is also cheaper to buy an Indonesian sarong here or in the state of Kerala than in Bali.

The New Pune

Pune is fast approaching Bangalore in terms of traffic, pollution, and suburban development. Chalk it up to the BPOs (business processing outsourcing), which have set up centers ringing the outskirts of Pune, creating a class of newly affluent youth and the development of shopping malls to take advantage of their purchasing power.”Luxury” apartment complexes are springing up, chock-a-block, just outside of the Pune Municipal Corporation, so residents have to buy their infrastructure, including drinking water.

Gone are the open-air tea stalls about which former students from this college town reminisce from their jobs overseas, replaced by air-conditioned Barista coffee shops where a coffee drink costs more than the daily wages of a laborer. (You can now also find several franchises of McDonalds, Kentucky Fried Chicken, and Subway.) The pollution now rivals the worst cities in India, with no CNG (compressed natural gas) vehicles in sight. (Even in Ahmedabad, in our view the most polluted city we’ve experienced, about 20% of the auto rickshaws are now CNG vehicles.) The traffic is so bad that many auto rickshaw drivers refuse to take you to areas of congestion, such as the railway station or the main “new” shopping area, MG (Mahatma Gandhi) Road.

But Pune is still great. Former students who have a choice of where to live still choose to come back and settle here, drawn by other independent minded people of all ages who frequent the many activities available at all times of the year. The climate is good, the food is good, the people interesting.

Mark and I have been here since the 25th. and leave tomorrow evening. We have spent the bulk of our time with ARTI (Appropriate Rural Technology Institute), learning about their improved cookstove program and visiting their research center and two rural regions where some of their stoves are installed. The travel has been difficult, over bad roads made even worse by the heavy monsoon season (Pune got about 3 times the usual amount of rain) on local buses and trains, and we are ready for a break from travel.

Lost in Translation

Tekro Chulas

Individual Chula

“Can we visit some women in the Tekro one afternoon to see how they use their stoves and have them teach us why they like the particular stove that they use? Perhaps we can visit three or four women in their homes and see them cook their meal. This will teach us a lot about usability and features for our stove project in Sudan.”

Somehow that request got translated into: invite 10 women to the construction site of the soon-to-be community center being built by Manav Sadhna and have them build us 10 different kinds of stoves. What a mad house! We were a little bit late getting to the community center, and the women (and everyone else in the Tekro that didn’t have something better to do, particularly the children) were already squatting beside a pile of cement (that they’d taken from the construction site), sand, donkey dung and clay, raring to go. As soon as we arrived, they rushed to start, competing with each other to make their designs the fastest and most beautiful. The children also got into the act, building miniature models that they continued to show us, hoping that we’d take their picture.

There were stoves made just of the cement/sand/donkey dung/clay mixture, some made using three bricks as a U-shaped base on which this mixture was formed, some made by packing the mixture on metal (two different ready-made stoves and one transformed metal bucket), some by forming the mixture on the base of a pre-fired ceramic pot, some using a cement flower pot as the base.

It was difficult to get much information from these women. You’d ask a question and seven voices would answer, four of those from the men hanging around. (The best answer was: “Just take me with you and I’ll show the women in Sudan how to make these stoves.”) Other women came around as well, wanting to know why they weren’t invited to participate, so they were welcomed to build a stove. A new bride came by, to get blessings from Jayeshbhai, Anarben, Ishwarbhai (Jayesh’s father), me and Mark. Still other women came to help make rotis after the stoves were done. A hammock was strung up for a sick baby. One woman who was unable to participate slept off her fever under cover of her sari on a raised platform nearby.

In the past, when we’d walked into the Tekro to see different projects (toilets, the community center in progress, the health center, informal schools, etc.), we had no particular agenda of our own. Now that we were trying to learn and document something, it was quite harrowing to have to deal with so many bodies – all vying for your attention. (Jayeshbhai can no longer walk from the edge of the Tekro to wherever he wants to go because it would take him 3-4 hours to reach his destination, stopping at every corner and house to meet and greet the inhabitants. Instead, he drives the narrow alleyways, scraping by bicycles, carts, water buffaloes, cows, autorickshaws, and the one delivery truck whose driver will come into the Tekro (for a bonus) to deliver bricks for the community center.)

In retrospect, I don’t think our original plan would have been easier. All the same people that assembled in front of the community center would have packed each and every house we entered, making our work almost impossible.

Everyone’s House

“Ragu!  Oh Ragu!  Ragu!!!  Oh Ragu!  Ragu!!!!!”  It is a contest every night to see who can wake up Ragu – a contest nobody has won.  Jayeshbhai even tried:  “Ragu, Maria needs her juice!  John needs his water!” – to no avail.  Ragu sleeps the sleep of the dead, sprawled on the marble floor near the open window, with no mat, no blanket, no pillow.  It is usually Maria who stumbles down from the second floor to open the door for those of us returning from the Seva Cafe in the early morning hours.

Ragu (17, soon to be 18) has been asked to attend to John (recovering from hepatitis A) and Maria (recovering from dengue fever) in the absence of Parvati, Jayshbhai and Anarben’s adopted daughter (who has gone to Gandhinagar to attend the wedding of her sister), just as he was cared for when he was sick and stayed with Jayeshbhai and Anarben for three months.  (He is a diligent care-taker, offering juice and food every couple of hours, and reporting:  “Yoo-Mididi, John did not drink [his protein drink].”)  He and his older brother Baskar (21) are two of hundreds of people who are at home in Jayesh and Anar Patel’s house, which was purposefully built large enough to accommodate anyone and everyone.

Since age 12, when Baskar first started coming to Manav Sadhna, Jayeshbhai and Anarben have taken a personal interest in his family, buying the boys new clothes every Diwali, and giving them opportunities for technical training that will lead to decent jobs and eventually, good marriages.  (Baskar is incredibly hard-working, artistic, and technically adept, and is now one of the regular cooks at the Seva Cafe.)    Ragu now also comes to Manav Sadhna to make cards and candles (diyas).  Baskar and Ragu’s mother cleans buildings; they have no father.

Besides a series of adopted, at-risk children that Jayeshbhai and Anarben raise as their own until they are married and leave for homes of their own, vegetable sellers, shoe-shine boys, and doctors are all welcomed at all hours of the day, offered tea and juice and fed whatever the extended family happens to be eating at the time.  The sick rotate through, attended to by physicians who come to the house to take blood samples, give shots, and deliver medication and lab results.  But more than the house calls and personal attendants who have received similar care in the past, it is the love and attention of Jayeshbhai and Anarben that speeds recovery.

A recent tea invitation spawned a project that has changed the lives of hundreds of people.  A local vegetable seller was one of the people invited to tea one afternoon.  She spoke of the limitations of her earnings due to the fact that she cannot carry very many vegetables on her head.  A larri (cart) project is born.  Now, there are 122 vegetable vendors who have been given carts from which to sell their vegetables door-to-door, relieving the strain on their bodies and increasing their ability to generate income.  Today, the vegetable seller who inspired the project comes into the house to check on the absence of Parvati and gives me a sitafel (custard apple).  She is always smiling, just as Ragu and Baskar are now always smiling – their lives immeasurably better for having been touched by Jayeshbhai and Anarben.

Dengue Durana

Maria Durana

Maria Durana is not a typical poster child for disease, but she has dengue fever. Today, she became a statistic, one of 350 cases of dengue fever reported in Ahmedabad, many in elite technical colleges that have become breeding grounds for the mosquitoes that carry the virus. There have been 5 reported deaths.

Wikipedia description of dengue fever:

Dengue and dengue haemorrhagic fever (DHF) are acute febrile diseases, found in the tropics, with a geographical spread similar to malaria. Caused by one of four closely related virus serotypes of the genus Flavivirus, family Flaviviridae, each serotype is sufficiently different that there is no cross-protection and epidemics caused by multiple serotypes (hyperendemicity) can occur. Dengue is transmitted to humans by the mosquito Aedes aegypti (rarely Aedes albopictus).

The disease is manifested by a sudden onset of fever, with severe headache, joint and muscular pains (myalgias and arthralgias—severe pain gives it the name break-bone fever) and rashes; the dengue rash is characteristically bright red petechia and usually appears first on the lower limbs and the chest – in some patients, it spreads to cover most of the body. There may also be gastritis with some combination of associated abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting or diarrhea.

Maria came down with dengue fever the night Mark and I arrived in Ahmedabad (October 11). The next day, she came to the Manav Sadhna office despite her fever, to continue work on the opening of the Seva Cafe, before she collapsed. The day after that, Jayeshbhai sent a car to bring her “home”, where Mark and I and initially, Nipun and Guri, have been staying, and where John has been recovering ever since we all convinced him to leave Delhi and return to Ahmedabad. Thanks to Jayeshbhai and Anarben‘s quick intervention, with home visits by doctors to take daily blood tests, and personal caregivers to bring juice and other fluids every couple of hours, Maria is recovering well. Dengue was suspected even before the definitive test detected the virus, so she was properly cared for and medicated to help increase her blood platelet count, which had fallen to a third of normal. Had she been left to her own devices, she would have continued to try and work to full capacity to finish the projects she had taken on.

We first met Maria in February 2005 when we were working in Chennai and Pondicherry on the tsunami information portal. Maria joined a group of 10 volunteers from Manav Sadhna who came to help in the relief efforts. They stayed in a village 60 kilometers from Pondicherry for 10 days, sleeping on the temple floor, cleaning up the village and engaging the children and adults in games, community dinners and singing and dancing. Maria let the sanitation efforts with a chant of “Clean up, Clean up” quickly taken up by the children.

Maria is in India on a Fulbright Fellowship to research construction in disaster areas. She is currently in Ahmedabad working with Manav Sadhna on the construction of a community center in the Rampir no Tekro, the largest slum in Gujarat. Before this, she had interned with the architecture firm that designed the community center, giving her the opportunity to become involved in the project from both sides – the builder and the community. This is Maria’s second stint with Manav Sadhna. The first was in 2001, helping to construct housing in Kachchh after the devastating earthquake in the region. Jayeshbhai and Anarben and everyone who has had the privilege of meeting Maria have come to rely on her dedication, skills, good humour, and love.


Gramshree Sign

The latest embodiment of Gramshree is a beautiful retail outlet located on the fourth and top floor of Shoppers Plaza on CG Road in Ahmedabad, opposite the Municipal Market. It opened on October 13, 2005 in conjunction with Seva Cafe, which shares the rooftop space. Gramshree is the realization of Manav Sadhna, an innovative grass-roots NGO involved in community development in Ahmedabad, who started the program to benefit the mothers of the destitute children with whom they work. Gramshree now works with 600 women in and around Ahmedabad, training them in traditional handicraft production, such as embroidery, patchwork, candle making, pottery, and paper making, while providing them with healthcare, a savings mechanism, and annual supplies of food staples subsidized through soft loans. The women in Ahmedabad work at the Manav Sadhna offices located on the grounds of the Gandhi Ashram, at a workshop set up in a donated home two doors away from Jayash and Anar Patel, or on the porch of Jayeshbhai and Anarben’s home, assembling two quilts a day. The women outside of Ahmedabad, including those in Patan (an ancient capital of Gujarat where patola saris are produced), have piecework delivered to them by Gramshree staff.

Gramshree Woman

The Gramshree retail outlet is a cooperative venture with like-minded organizations that benefit women and children in the state of Gujarat. Partners include:

Utthan Talim Kendra, an Ahmedabad-based organization that teaches mentally-handicapped boys life skills and functional literacy. The boys are encouraged to express themselves through art and are taught to make handmade paper cards, file folders, and bags, and to use a spiral binder to make address books and diaries.

Kutch Mahila Vikas Sangathan (KMVS), a grassroots women’s cooperative formed to empower Kutchi women artisans. They have developed their own product line, called Qasab (Kutchi for “craft skill”), and have basic literacy programs as well as a local radio program.

Khamir Craft Resource Center, an organization focused on revitalizing Kutchi crafts (such as pottery, and silver and lacquer work) and improving access to resources and markets for Kutchi artisans.

Gramshree Hands

Gramshree returns 60% of total sales at the retail store to the women in the program. (10% is used for program expenses, including education support for the women’s children, health camps, awareness programs, field trips, and fun, as well as the subsidized food program; 10% goes for material costs; and 20% is used for administrative expenses, including salaries for staff members, many of whom started out doing embroidered piecework.) 80 to 90% of total sales of partner NGO products are returned to the NGOs, with the balance used to cover the operating expenses of the retail outlet. 100% of the sales of individual artisan handicrafts are returned to the artisans.

Train # 2656

“Chai/coffee, chai garam, chai/coffee, garam chai.”

“Pani water, cold drinks, mango Frooti.”

“Tomato soup, soup garam, tomato soup.”

The intonations start almost immediately after we are seated on the Navajivan Express from Chennai (Central station) to Ahmedabad at 9:20am on October 10. Besides the tea, coffee, water, fruit drinks, and tomato soup, we were offered potato chips (Lays), peanuts, vegetable cutlets on buns served with tomato ketchup, pakoras (deep-fried vegetables in a chick pea batter), “salad” – slices of tomatoes and cucumbers, dahi vada (urad dal (lentil) “donuts” with curd), papad, dahi (curd/yogurt), sweet lassi (a yogurt-based drink that has many variations, but usually served sweet or salty), samosas, cashews, masala (spiced) cashews, a selection of picture books, guides and maps of India… We are fortunate that on this train, the waiters are the ones hawking the food, so we are allowed the relative privacy of our 2nd class A/C (air conditioned) compartment with the curtains drawn. (On other runs, local vendors jump on the train before it has come to a stop and relentlessly shove goods in front of your face, pushing aside drawn curtains, and listing a full inventory of food, drink, snacks, books, magazines, clothing, bolts of cloth, batteries toys, toiletries, hair ornaments, regional specialties … before they have to jump off at the next station, switching places seamlessly with their counterparts – at every stop!)

Mark and I are traveling to Ahmedabad (in the state of Gujarat, in the north west of India) a day and a half after arriving in Pondicherry (in the south east of India) to see our friend John Silliphant, who is sick with Hepatitis A. He and Mark Peters, both CharityFocus volunteers, have been in northern India for more than 6 months of a year dedicated to volunteer service, sick most of their time here. We are taking John some protein powder and whole food tablets and vitamins to supplement his meager vegan diet. We were thrilled to be able to have breakfast that morning with Pavi and her mom, Vara, who came in at 6:30am to Egmore station from Madurai for a few days of sari shopping.

Mark and I love train travel in India. We generally travel in relative luxury, booking second class air-conditioned berths for the long, overnight journeys it requires to get from state to state. The second class A/C compartments have 4 berths to a compartment, two berths on each side, one above the other. (There is usually one first class A/C coach on the train (two berths to a compartment) and several third class A/C coaches (6 berths – three-tier) as well as one or two second class A/C coaches.) A fan, with two speeds (slow and fast) complements the air conditioning; each berth has a private reading light; there are shelves, pockets, and hooks for your things, and metal rings to which to lock luggage below the bottom berths. The upper berths can be bolted against the wall or suspended by metal chains when lowered. The lower backrest folds down on the seat to form the sleeping berth. Attendants distribute blankets, sheets, pillows and sometimes towels (depending on the line). Meals can be ordered, with lunch and dinner costing 40 rupees (we’ve never ordered breakfast) – the equivalent of a little less than US$1 (the current exchange rate is around 43 rupees to a dollar) for rice, 2 rotis, a vegetable dish, dal (some type of lentil dish), a packet of pickles, dessert, and a plastic bag of water. (On certain “super fast” trains, meals are included in the price of the ticket, which can be quite a burden, since you are awakened at the crack of dawn to be served tea and are not allowed to sleep through without drinking the tea because the waiters want to clear the tea service before bringing you breakfast!) However, most people bring their own food, full-on meals in tiffin tins, packed by family or relatives for the journey.

Mark generally falls asleep about a half hour into the trip and sleeps off and on for about 30 hours. (This trip was 35 hours.) He puts on his iPod headphones, strums along with his travel guitar for a while, then falls asleep, getting up only to eat and drink. I do a lot of window gazing while there is light, watching the slums around the cities turn into villages, then fields of grain, then rangeland, back to fields, villages, slums, cities, with an occasional cenotaph or temple here and there. Views of litter thown out of the train windows lining the tracks make way to larger panoramas of herds of goats and buffaloes, tended by men, women and children as thin as sticks and rows of women bent over at the waist weeding rice fields. Brief sunsets give way to blackness, penetrated by the occasional dim yellow lights at a rural station. Then I read and sleep fitfully because one of us has to be alert to the comings and goings of attendants and conductors.

We had reserved tickets for this train from San Francisco, the day before we left, using the Indian Railways website. Our tickets were couriered to the Seaside Guest House in Pondicherry the day after we arrived. We were assigned seats/berths on the side of the coach, basically in the hallway opposite the main compartments. These berths are narrower than the ones in the main compartments for 4 and basically offer little privacy even with the curtains drawn. We thought of asking the conductor for different seats, since the train was not full, but decided to wait and see if they would fill up with passengers further down the line. The initial conductor turned out to be one of those fawning sycophants who kiss up to white people. He gave Mark a close, deep “namaste”, inquired about his dual time watch (which everyone in India loves and wants to possess), and laughed obsequiously at everything Mark said. About two hours into the trip, he came back and offered us different berths in a compartment that was completely empty, and which we had to ourselves for most of the trip, making a big show of letting us see the changes that he made on his manifest. “See – you are now in 25 & 26, and now 17 & 18 are empty.” He also asked for some “foreign coins that students are collecting”.

The Long Way to Ahmedabad

October 5, 2005, 2:20pm, Korean Airlines #24 from San Francisco to Incheon, South Korea – 11 hours 20 minutes.

October 6, 2005, 7pm, layover in Incheon – 2 hours 10 minutes.
9:10pm, Korean Airlines #655 to Bombay, India – 7 hours 19 minutes.

October 7, 2005, 1:35am, layover in Bombay – 7 hours 30 minutes.
9:05am, Jet Airways #322 to Chennai – 1 hour 45 minutes.
10:45am, wait for car service that did not show up; call about car service, negotiate for taxi – 2 hours 15 minutes.
1:00pm, taxi to Pondicherry – 3 hours.

October 9, 2005, 1pm, express bus to Chennai via East Coast Road – 3 hours 30 minutes.

October 10, 2005, 9:45pm, Navajivan Express to Ahmedabad – 35 hours

First Step in India

“Mommy, why are these women sleeping on the bathroom floor?” There are no less than 6 women sleeping in the vestibule and under the sinks of the women’s bathroom in the transit passenger waiting area of Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport. Some are sleeping on pieces of cardboard, some on fiber mats, all with the ends of their saris covering their heads, oblivious to the comings and goings of their co-workers and passengers trooping in and out of the bathroom. Welcome to India.

Actually, the bathroom experience on the flight from Seoul to Bombay was my first welcome to India. The difference in the cleanliness of the toilets on the flight from San Francisco to Seoul and the flight from Seoul to Bombay was remarkable. Mark and I had been pleasantly surprised with our Korean Airlines experience – our first. We had heard nothing but bad things about Korean Airlines; that of all the options for flights to India, it was the worst. We found the seats relatively comfortable (slept through most of both flights), the air hosts and hostesses (in their new uniforms) friendly and helpful, the food and movies good (I recommend The Big Scene), and the bathrooms spotless (and well stocked with toothbrushes, toothpaste and mouthwash) on the first leg of our trip. The second leg was equally comfortable except for the state of the bathrooms – they had come to resemble the public toilets in India. What happened? Are some of these passengers equally slovenly in their homes? Or only in public places? Or are they already making the transition from their lives in other countries to living in India, where private cleanliness and public littering are not contradictions?


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