Archive for February, 2006

The Border Tour – Day 2: Nilpur, Kachchh

Tuesday, February 28 2006


I was awakened at 4:30am by students of Gram Seva Sangh (another Gandhian organization that Babubhai supports) singing and drumming right in front of our window, gathered to do their daily four hours of saafai (cleaning). Maria and Jocelyn, my roommates for the night, slept right through the exuberance, and I didn’t have the energy to get out of bed, but I found out later that Jayeshbhai had, of course, joined the kids in cleaning the campus.

The immaculate campus includes traditionally-built housing for the children and staff, a cow shed, organic garden, library, computer and vocational training centers, classrooms, and open-air pavilions for assembly. The organization harvests rainwater and captures solar energy for the numerous times a day (and night) the electric power is cut off. “Bapu”, the nonagenarian who started the organization, still lives on site, having followed Gandhiji’s call to return to the villages. His sons, Rameshbhai and Dineshbhai Sanghvi and their families manage various aspects of the trust and school. Dineshbhai lives on site, while Rameshbhai lives in Bhuj, closer to medical care after a massive heart attack several years ago.
Nilpur Welcome

488 students from 6 schools gathered to participate in our program. We were garlanded, serenaded, and gifted books on Gandhi by Babubhai before the children sat down to write letters and draw pictures. Jocelyn captured a photo of one boy who is almost blind, writing a letter.

Blind Boy Writing a LetterNilpur School Kids with Letters

After another delicious meal, nap, and tea, we made our way to Bhuj, where Kantikaka, the “Father of Kachchh”, waited to welcome us to Shrujan, an amazing NGO working on rural development and the preservation and revival of high quality Kachchhi embroidery.

The Border Tour – Day 1: Kachchh

Monday, February 27 2006

I set the alarm clock for 4am; I woke up at 4:50am, with the alarm clock in my hand, my fingers over the alarm button.  Oh *&%#! I had to be downstairs in 10 minutes!  There was no water (the tap had run dry at 1am while I was rinsing out some clothes) so I didn’t even have the benefit of washing my face, let alone take a shower.  No matter, I didn’t have the time.  I zipped up and collected the various assortment of bags – backpacks, sling, camera, overflow shopping bag – and got downstairs with a minute to spare.  The rickshaw wallah (with whom I had made an arrangement the night before) was waiting for me just outside the gate of Anupa’s building.

We left the Gandhi Ashram in Ahmedabad at 6:30am – the start of our postal delivery journey to Pakistan.  John, Loveleen, Maria, Jocelyn, Jayeshbhai and I, along with 3 drivers, 2 “cleaners” and their coordinator, Amur, on a 15-seat Tourister bus and 2 Maxx pick-up trucks, courtesy of Mahindra & Mahindra:  Friends Without Borders, the Border Tour.  (I left Mark behind, sick with pneumonia.)

Day 1:

Ahmedabad to Mahesana
Mahesana to Chanasma
Chanasma to Radhanpur
Radhanpur to Adesar
Adesar to Rapar
Rapar to Ratanpur (Khadir Island)
Ratanpur to Dholavira
Dholavira to Nilpur

Ten minutes later, we stop for petrol.  Why did I think this trip would be any different from any other trip in India, where you really don’t start for your destination without the requisite immediate stop for petrol, and a subsequent stop for tea?  (We stop for tea at Water World.)

Jayeshbhai is our guide (having traveled and worked extensively in Kachchh), our Gujarati interpreter, and our “heart connector.”  He is with us for a couple of days while we visit schools and NGOs in Kachchh, but we are plotting to kidnap him and never let him go.

We are already running late based on the hour-by-hour schedule set for us by Babubhai, who has arranged for our first day and a half in Kachchh, when one of the pickups has a minor (but what could have been devastating) accident with a large “goods carrier.”  The Punjabi drivers are furious with our Kannada driver, who can’t understand a word that they’re saying, but who knows he was at fault for overtaking recklessly on a road under construction, and who is afraid of the blows he is sure to receive.  The clipped truck has blocked the road, and already, three trucks are lined up behind our little convoy and two trucks are lined up on the opposite side.  Jayeshbhai gets to the growing convergence of drivers just after the first thump has been landed on the shoulders of our driver.  The explanations, inspections, negotiations, go on for about an hour.  The right side mirror has been clipped off, and the hand rail bent in on the truck.  The screened artwork on our truck is torn and the frames holding the art panels in place bent out of shape.  Jayeshbhai diffuses the anger by physically touching everyone’s chest (heart) and explaining what we are doing on the road.  He tells the Punjabi drivers that John has been blessed by Guru Nanak Dev, and is on a high spiritual plane.  John gives the drivers Rs. 500 (a little over U.S. $10), which they want to return in the end, but John insists they keep because they will be personally liable for the damage to the truck.

We finally reach Rapar at around 3pm., where Babubhai and Rameshbhai have been waiting for us since noon, with our “dry” lunch which we are to eat on the bus in order to save time enough to see Dholavira, the reputed “oldest civilization on earth.” Before going to Dholavira, we are to stop at a residential school run by Sushil Trust in Ratanpur, one of the nine villages on Khadir Island, in the Great Raan of Kachchh.

The “dry” lunch consisted of 2 types of vegetables (potatoes and gourd), an enormous round tin of parathas, achaar (pickles), an enormous tall tin of curd, jaggery, fresh carrots, and an enormous box of fruit.  Three types of serving dishes, cutlery, metal cups, knives, vegetable peeler and a thermos of water accompanied our lunch.  We ate (and had seconds and thirds) bumping along on the road, while Babubhai and Rameshbhai drove on ahead, stopping for ten minutes after we had eaten so that Subash, the bus driver, could have his lunch.  Along the way, we got whiffs of jeera (cumin) which was being harvesting and winnowed in patches.

In Ratanpur, we were first ushered into the guest house so that we could freshen up, have some water and tea, then given a tour of the campus.  We were finally shown to a meeting pavilion, where over a hundred students were seated, having been waiting for us for over 5 hours.  After introductions, a little girl named Gita sang us a song.  Then, John spoke with the kids and asked them to write letters from their heart to a friend in Pakistan.  The Trust was prepared with colored card stock and markers, and while the children stayed to finish their letters, we left for a tour of Dholavira.

We watched the sun set from Dholavira before returning to Ratanpur and receiving 137 letters from children from 9 schools in the area.

We were sorry to leave Ratanpur, where my first instinct was to want to stay for three weeks and rest.  (Our entire group relaxed visibly the minute we entered the gates of the campus.)  The place is immaculate, peaceful, and pollution free.  They harvest rain water, compost, and use solar lighting.  The guest house is comfortable, and the cook is fantastic.  We all wished we could stay overnight, but had to leave for Nilpur, where there was dinner and an evening program waiting…

A Celebration of Communal Harmony

Partial Team Photo, Ahmedabad

The Friends Without Borders event in Ahmedabad yesterday was very different from the previous stadium events in Mumbai and Bangalore. Children of all faiths walked pieces of the World’s Largest Love Letter from seven different places of worship: Hindu Mandir, Jain Temple, Sikh Gurdwara, Moslem Masjid, Christian Church, Parsi Agyari, and Jewish Synagogue to the Gandhi Ashram, accompanied by a police escort and sometimes by camels.
Walking with Camels

St. Xavier’s Church in Mirzapur was the furthest from Gandhi Ashram, taking the children through the old part of town and finally across Subash Bridge and down Ashram Road. Along the way, the children walking from the church were joined by other children from the other places of worship as they all made their way trailing the huge panels of different parts of the letter in Urdu, Hindi, and English.

Leaving St. Xavier’s ChurchLeading the WayCrossing Subash BridgePieces of the Letter on Ashram RoadEntering Gandhi AshramAt Gandhi Ashram

Once at the Gandhi Ashram, the pieces of the huge letter were folded and put away and the school tarps signed by the children. Two of the longest border tarps were painted the week before by over 2,000 students of the H.B. Kapadia schools, while the two bottom border tarps which decorated the buildings at the Gandhi Ashram were painted by Jagatbhai and the children of Manav Sadhna. (The other border pieces were too long to display at the Ashram.) The World’s Largest Love Letter will not be displayed again until it is presented to the children of Pakistan in Lahore.
John Receiving Letters from Kapadia SchoolKapadia Posters

Tomorrow, the team hits the road on its postal delivery journey, stopping first in two villages and schools in Kutch, making a detour to Delhi, and then along the border route through Rajasthan and finally to Amritsar. From Amritsar, it gets even more interesting… Stay tuned…

Wankhede Stadium February 19, 2006

World’s Largest Love Letter, Mumbai

The first two boys in uniform arrived with an adult at 8:10am. WHAT!!! Kids weren’t supposed to arrive until at least 9am! And we’d actually planned for most of the children to get there by 10. What happened to Indian Standard Time? At 8:15, another stream of students arrived, then another, and pretty soon, there were 5 lines of students in the parking lot, waiting to be registered. In the mad scramble for tables (the Mumbai Cricket Association (MCA) only had 6 tables for us), we didn’t have our registration area set up.

The law of the jungle was in full force, as volunteer coordinators for registration, coffee/tea, water, markers, takeaways, and juice vied with product representatives for biscuits and newspapers and the sound guys for non-existent tables. We basically begged and “borrowed” from the various private clubs and vendors operating at the MCA so that we eventually had the bare minimum. Even John made off with three tables that had been used for a function the day before. So that explains the inconsistent numbers floating around in the media for the number of children that participated in the Friends Without Borders Unveiling of the World’s Largest Love Letter at Wankhede Stadium on February 19, 2006. 2,000, 3,500, 4000…

Saalam Baalak Trust Girls with TarpTwo Boys Signing the LetterRyan International Boy Painting

The clowns and jugglers, three bands, and “the celebrity” were all no-shows, but the kids didn’t notice – they had a great time. No one complained about the sun or the heat. In fact, the kids hardly paused to drink water as they signed their school tarps and painted hearts and messages on the Letter.

St. Lawrence Girls

The schools from Navi-Mumbai (New Bombay) showed up in force, which is amazing, since most Mumbaikers believe Navi-Mumbai to be the end of the world. One school rented an SUV to bring 10 students to the event because their buses did not have the permits to leave Navi-Mumbai. Another school came with their own local TV reporter and crew. St. Lawrence school had their monitors wear their dark navy jackets.

Aditya Puri Charitable Trust was able to bring 10 children from the slums of Jogeshwari to the event, and delivered over 600 letters the next day from letter-writing events they had organized in 7 slum areas in Jogeshwari, Andheri and Vile Parle west, 100 of which were in Urdu. A volunteer for iVolunteer went and picked up three street kids from near Victoria Terminus to bring to the stadium. And a number of other NGOs working with street children brought contingents of 30 to 50 kids.

One of the guards at Anjuman i Islam Allana High School, where Maria supervised the painting of the school tarps over a period of three days, was able to come with the students and art teacher.

Girl with Painted Cheek

Peace is eventually what we hope this is all about. For now, it’s about friendship.

My Dear Friend

PSA Screenshot

Ahem. My dear friend…

The Friends Without Borders public service announcement is here – check out the 60 second English version.

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