Archive for March, 2006

Walk to Wagha Border – Day 2

Overnight StopOur Host - Inderjeet Singh

Our first day of walking, through city streets filled with cycle rickshaws carrying school children, horse carts loaded with onions, and cars, buses and trucks, ended in Khasa, a locality with two blocks of commerce, at the edge of which stood M/S Kissan Auto Agency. Our team spent the night above the garage with the family of Mr. Inderjeet Singh who, along with his wife, never stopped working to make our stay comfortable.

When we first arrived in the late afternoon, Mr. Singh informed us that our rooms were ready (he, his wife, and two sons vacated their rooms for us) and that the wash room was useable, but the toilet did not yet work – if we needed to go, we would have to use the fields. From that moment on, he worked non-stop, fetching water, installing plumbing, moving furniture out of one of the rooms so that his family would have a place to sleep, making and serving tea, …

By the next morning, the Indian-style (squat) toilet was useable, and he and his wife made and served aloo ka paratha, butter, curd, and tea to our five drivers and expediters, 6 cycle cart walas, and the 10 of us who were walking to the border.

“Walk” to Wagah

The second day’s walk was really pleasant, past fields and fields of wheat. Two different media crews caught up with us at various points along the way, and every single policeman or border patrol stationed along the road seemed to know who we were.
Stopping by to Say Hello

We reached the border in time catch most of the closing ceremony, a depressing piece of theatre described by Mark in his post, Symmetry and Dissymmetry. Mark also describes our crossing in the same post, two days later than planned, because of the delay in our visa approvals.

Partial Team Photo

Walk to Wagha Border – Day 1

March 20, 2006

Loading the TarpsKulcha StandStarting the WalkSugar Cane JuicePakora StandCheering SectionOnion CartPartial Team Walking

Jallianwala Bagh, Amritsar

On April 13, 1919, British officers ordered the massacre of an unarmed gathering of people in Jallianwala Bagh, Amritsar, killing at least 379 men, women, and children. (Unofficial records put the number at over 1,000.) The massacre galvanized the freedom movement in Punjab against British rule and paved the way for Gandhiji’s Non Cooperation Movement against the British in 1920.

The Friends Without Borders team chose to hold a small, simple event at Jallianwala Bagh in memory of the dead and to start off our journey of friendship to Pakistan.

Students from 14 schools gathered around a circle of 6’X6′ school tarps to sign their names and write messages of friendship. Atam Public School arrived with banners made in less than one day: From India to Pakistan With Love, KIDS HAVE BECOME OUR NEWEST AMBASSADORS.

Atam Public School BannersAtam Public School KidsSigning School Tarps

The students of Spring Dale Senior School sang songs of friendship and children read their letters out loud until power cuts in the city rendered our public address system useless. A little bit before dark, we passed out candles. John lit his candle from the eternal flame and used it to light all the other candles as we sat in a circle around the tarps.

Spring Dale Students SingingGirls Holding Candles

Day 19: Amritsar, Punjab

March 18, 2006

Amritsar, Punjab

We “slept” on the bus again last night, getting to Amritsar around 6am this morning. It took us about a half hour to begin to move our limbs. I had to go to the bathroom, having neglected to get up during one of our numerous stops in the middle of the night, but I was skeptical about my chances at the public toilets a half a block away. Indeed, the women’s side was locked. Vandana J. from Pune called at 6:30am. She had just arrived at the train station to join us for the rest of our postal delivery journey to Lahore. We picked Vandana up, and ran into Mr. Ramesh Yadev, President of the Folklore Research Academy, who had arranged our school visits and many other things for the duration of our stay in Amritsar, jogging in the early morning. Good thing too, because no one in the vicinity of where we were had any idea where Jagat Jyoti school was located, even though it turned out to be a few blocks from where we happened to have been parked.

Jagat Jyoti Boy Signing Tarp

We were served a full breakfast after our presentation at Jagat Jyoti Senior Secondary School – stuffed kulchas (sort of like parathas, except baked in a tandoor instead of fried) with chana and and a fresh onion and coriander chutney. We were running late for Spring Dale School, but we had no choice but to eat.

At Spring Dale, after our presentation in their multimedia room, a group of four girls came and asked respectfully: “Can you come for some snaps?” Sure, we can make time for some photographs… Or that is what my wishful thinking ears heard. What they actually said was: “Can you come for some snacks?” And we were ushered into a room with a table filled with platters of pizzas, sandwiches, chocolate cake, and coffee. And the girls saying: “Please have some sandwiches/pizza/chocolate cake/coffee” until we each had had a taste of every item!

Pista Bar on the Way to Atam Public School

Atam Public School had the full assembly set up by the time we got there, with the little kids in front fidgeting in the hot sun. One little boy kept flicking the ear of his classmate, which the classmate (unbelievably) completely ignored.

Atam Public School Kids

That evening, we made a brief stop at the Golden Temple, the most important sacred site for Sikhs in India.

Golden Temple

Day 18: Loveleen’s Village in Haryana

March 17, 2006

We arrived at Loveleen’s grandparent’s village in Kaithal district around 3am, after having taken a detour to pay state taxes for our vehicles in the middle of the night once we crossed into the state of Haryana. We travel at an average “speed” of around 40 kilometers an hour on the highways (much less in the cities) because our expediter and drivers will not look at maps (perhaps they don’t know how to read them) and never know where they are going. Their M.O. (method of operation) is to stop as often as they need to ask for directions – a losing proposition in a country where most people cannot tell you which direction is North (even from their own homes).

Around the Tank

Loveleen’s family puts us up for the night and feeds us the next morning before we start off for the village school – parathas with curd and butter made that morning. (The family started the day after putting us to bed!) The village is lovely. Quiet, clean, prosperous. We walk a few minutes to get to the school, which is on the other side of the tank. I notice many women of lower castes who cover their faces in the presence of unknown men.

Woman with Covered Face

The kids of Nand Singh Wala Kheda Government School are assembled in the yard, sitting on empty plastic sacks that they carry to school for that purpose. Their books are carried in plastic bags.
Writing LettersLoveleen Collecting Letters

Our second school is located next to a Gurudwara about a 10 minute drive away. About 1,800 students were gathered in the grounds waiting for us.
Sri Guru Teg School

We didn’t have enough paper to go around (we didn’t expect the entire school to show up for our program), so we tried to get some of the little kids to play games. It was a pretty hard task since they were clearly not used to being encouraged to run around and have fun!

Mark and the Littlest Kids

We left the idylic countryside reluctantly, knowing we had to get to Amritsar for three school visits, the first one at 7:45am!

Sharing the Road

Day 10: Travel from Jaipur to Delhi

March 8, 2006

Jaipur to Delhi

Subashbhai, our bus driver, woke everyone up at 7am, but we didn’t get on the road until after 8am, after everyone had finished washing up at the HP gas station where we had stopped the night before.  The night before that, we had overpaid for a fleabag hotel in Jodhpur, so figured that the bus would be an improvement.  We were wrong.

We had 40 kilometers to go to Jaipur and some 250 kilometers more to Delhi.  We stopped once for tea, then kept driving thinking that we would stop for food at the next destination, Gurgaon.  We expected to reach Gurgaon by 2pm, but didn’t get there until around 3:30pm.  Before we got to the Limca Book of Records building, John got an urgent message from Jayeshbhai and Babubhai, saying that Mark (who was already in Delhi) had not shown up, he wasn’t reachable, and that they were waiting for us at Didi’s (Nirmala Deshpande’s).  John hopped into one of the trucks and headed directly to Delhi while the rest of us headed to the Limca Book of Records office.  John’s truck was stopped 4 times along the way, but each time, he got out of paying a fine for having a truck without the requisite “advertising” permits.  He didn’t reach Didi’s until around 5:30pm.

I stayed in the bus waiting for Amir and the other truck, which had gone off ahead without waiting for us, while Maria, Jocelyn, and Loveleen went up to the Limca Book of Records office.  When the assistant editor introduced the group to Vijaya Ghose, the editor, and asked if she had heard about Friends Without Borders, the editor said:  “Who hasn’t?”  They had a copy of the article in DNA, written while we were in Bombay, and had been waiting for us to contact them because the DNA article did not have any contact information for them to get in touch with us.  We got a provisional letter stating:

“We understand that Friends Without Borders team will work with school children in India and Pakistan to get them to write the ‘World’s Largest Love Letter’ to promote peace and goodwill between the two countries.  Should this be successfully completed, we will be happy to use it as an entry in the 2007 edition of Limca Book of Records.”

Final measurements will be taken in Pakistan.

We “char ben” headed to Delhi, stopping for tea once again for the drivers, none of whom had eaten all day.  (We hadn’t eaten either, but had snacked on fruit and biscuits, which the drivers won’t touch – they need their chapattis and chawal.)  We headed for Pahar Ganj, looking for a cheap hotel as a default until we figured out where we would all be staying.  We had spend half an hour crawling through two lanes in Pahar Ganj when it started to hail – huge pieces bigger than a half inch in diameter – and rain, with lightening and thunder, when we got a message from John saying that we could stay with Didi, and that the trucks could be parked at the Gandhi Ashram.  So we backtracked, much to the fury of Subashbhai, who had been cursing us for having taken him down the narrow alleys of Pahar Ganj in the first place, and after a few wrong turns, found Mark at the entrance to Didi’s, directing us in.

Mark and I rushed off to Habitat Center, where Arshiya Sethi, our host, was having an opening to a photography/art exhibit, while the rest of the group stayed at Didi’s with Jayeshbhai.  Jayeshbhai had traveled to Delhi for the express purpose of facilitating our interactions with Didi, who is now a Member of Parliament, and a member of the India-Pakistan Peace Commission.

Day 9: Jodhpur, Rajasthan

March 7, 2006

Jodhpur, Rajasthan

We stopped at the Jodhpur office of UNNATI, an organization that works in civic leadership, governance, and social inclusion and empowerment, this morning. It was refreshing to work with an organization run primarily by women; we were especially glad to use their toilet. (On this leg of the trip, we were introduced by Jayeshbhai as “John and the char ben” (four women) – all of us had something nice to say about the UNNATI office toilet.)

Shampa Batabyal, Baruna Dutta, and Tora Saikia arranged for us to go to a school funded by the Central government (Rs. 100/student/month) and an organization that UNNATI supports – a school primarily for working children rescued from the stone quarries around Jodhpur. The local NGO is called Jai Bheem Vikas Shikshan Sansthan Shergarh. The school is Bal Shemic Vishesh School in Dhabbu Basti, Pratab Nagar.

We had to park our bus and trucks on the main road because they would not make it down the lane leading to the school. A little boy on a bicycle asks: “Are you coming to my school?” When Baruna says “Yes”, he races ahead to tell everyone in the community that we are coming. Along the way, he yells to two small children working to clear debris: “Don’t be afraid, they are not coming to catch you!”

Climbing Steps to Slum School in Jodhpur

The school is located up on the side of a hill, and most of us are breathing hard by the time we climb all the steps. There are a handful of children and three teachers when we enter the classroom, made entirely of stone. More and more children rush in and many of the adults in the community also come and sit in the back. Two children, a boy and a girl, are made to sing for us. They stand in front, facing the children, with their arms at attention, as most kids are made to stand whenever they address anyone. Then another girl is made to join the two, the boy having to be dragged up again after he had already sat in his appointed place.

Students at Slum School in Jodhpur

After our introduction and two interactive songs that Maria leads for the children, we ask the other adults to leave. We would have loved to ask the teachers to leave as well, particularly the head teacher, who never had a soft word to say to any of the children, but let them stay based on our experience in Keetha Village. We also let the “peon”, a young woman with a child in the school, stay as well. (The students’ primary instinct when around any of the teachers is to duck to avoid a cuff on the head, usually for no reason at all.)

More and more kids came in, one or two at a time. We were told that there were 30 “students” in the school, but by the end of our session, we had close to 40 kids in the room. Attempts to interview two children separately failed because there was always too much background noise, and at least one adult on hand to tell the kids what to say. We invariably have to insist that smaller children be allowed to participate because the teachers claim that they don’t know anything, and should not even be given a piece of paper, let alone crayons.

We left the kids after another song, and had the entire class walk us to the bus. We drove off to cheers and waves and that one kid running after us until we disappeared from sight. As we were walking down the steps of the school, Loveleen overheard one of the adults say: “What happened to these kids today? They got too much freedom.”

Day 8: Jaiselmer, Rajasthan

March 6, 2006

Jaiselmer, Rajasthan

Maria, Jocelyn, Loveleen and I spent an uneasy night at the office of Srajamyaham Hastkala Sansthan on filthy mattresses and pillows rented for the evening and dumped on the floor of the Computer Room. In the main room, adjacent to the Computer Room, half a dozen men were enjoying a terribly violent movie played at distortion levels until about 3am. A big hole in the wall between us and them let in the flickering light from the TV as well as all the noise. Men would walk in without knocking to plug things into the socket in the Computer Room through the hole in the wall. One such device, a malfunctioning fan, made periodic chopper blade noises for additional effect. The toilet, which had served these men well, had no light and no water.

I don’t think John, who had been placed in the other room adjacent to the men, slept very much, choosing to work through most of the night.

It turned out that the men were here for a 15 day workshop, and later in the day, we saw a half dozen women who were also here for a workshop on dying given by a weaving master from Jaipur. Where had they spent the night?
Studying Under a Tree

One of the young men associated with Srajamyaham accompanied us to his primary school in Keetha village. When we arrived at the Keeta Government Upper Primary School, the first and second standard children were sitting under a tree, presumably learning their “ABCs” and “1-2-3s.” The third and fourth standard kids were sitting on the porch, and the fifth, sixth, seventh, and eighth standard kids were sitting in a classroom, waiting for us. The single teacher on site was in his room in another building adjacent to the classroom. The second teacher was not present.

The teacher intended for us to work only with the 30 to 35 middle school kids plus the fifth standard kids, but we decided to include the third and fourth standard students as well. Even so, there were only 7 girls out of the combined total of 70 students.

It was heartbreaking and incredibly frustrating to see how many of the kids were so completely at a loss given a free-form assignment. The girls in particular were panic-stricken. They couldn’t even write down their names and name of their school without copying it from someone else. They frantically scanned each other’s papers, poised to copy what was on the next girl’s page. When one of the girls crossed out a word, they all crossed out the same word. Many of the boys were the same. We’d witnessed this at almost every village school, but this was extreme. It didn’t help that the teacher, as well as other assorted adult men in the room, walked around, yelling at the children and telling them what to write. I kicked them all out of the room.

When we handed out the crayons, there was pandemonium. (This is when you need the teachers with their swinging sticks, slapping hands, and lethal voices.) We caught two kids trying to take more than one package, and took both away until we were ready to leave to teach them a small lesson. (When I first approached the first and second standard kids sitting under the tree, many of them began chanting: “one pen, one pen.”)

By the time most of the kids were done with their cards, it was lunchtime, and many asked if they could go home. We were told that there was another set of students coming in after this group left. We let the kids go home without playing games or interacting with them in any other way. We all left feeling very dissatisfied with the small amount of time we had been able to spend with the kids. Later, we discovered that there was no afternoon class. The teacher probably just wanted to get rid of us quickly for having kicked him out of the room.

On to Jodhpur.

Day 7: Barmer, Rajasthan

March 5, 2006

Barmer, Rajasthan

Yesterday was a travel day- we left Bhuj at 11am and reached Barmer at 1am this morning.

Mahesh Panpalya, the Director of Dhara Sansthan, welcomed us with open arms (and friendship bracelets). Not only did he arrange for us to visit two schools, but he also called the press, two of whom came to see us. Dharam Singh Bhati, a reporter for the Rajasthan Patrika, interviewed us at the Dhara office, and a reporter for E TV came to see us at the Deaf and Dumb Residential Educational Camp, a school supported by Dhara.

Deaf & Dumb School

On our way to the school, we passed a wedding procession, where we got plastered with color. Hanging around the periphery were two girls, their hands and legs covered with muck, presumably from cleaning the sewers. They were mute, and afraid to come close, but their curiosity kept them on the fringes of all of our activities. After washing up, one of them finally got the courage to come into the classroom at the Deaf and Dumb school. We insisted that she be allowed to stay and participate despite motions by the other adults to remove her. The other girl (pictured below) stayed on the steps. When I moved towards her to give her some paper and crayons, she ducked away a few steps until she realized I was not going to hurt her. Even then, she reached out her arm to take the crayons, keeping her body as far away as possible. This girl is the lowest of the low in a society where organizations like Dhara are working to mitigate castism. As we were leaving, we waved to her, but she didn’t wave back – she couldn’t imagine that anyone would actually be waving to her.
Untouchable Girl

Next we went to Mayur Nobles School, a school for approximately 1,100 boys, where 70 residential boys were assembled to write letters. Mahesh’s young daughter and the daughters of the principal of Mayur Nobles stole the show, upstaging the boys in song and dance. But I couldn’t get the image of that girl with mud on her arms and legs out of my mind.

Mayur Nobles Boy with Letter

Later in the evening, we drove to Jaiselmer.

Day 5: Dhordo and the Salt Desert

March 3, 2006

Dhordo and the Salt Desert.

Bhunga in Mahemood and Hoorbai’s Compound

Dhordo and the 40 villages that comprise the Banni area have been dependent on animal husbandry as a way of life. Now, what used to be Asia’s largest grassland, is undergoing desertification and salinification, and more and more villagers are turning to handicrafts for their livelihood.

Hoorbai’s Award-Winning Kanjari

Hoorbai Mahemood Mutwa, our hostess, won the 1999 National Award for Excellence from the Office of the Development Commissioner of Handlooms and the Office of the Development Commissioner for Handicrafts for her embroidery. The kanjari (backless blouse worn by Kachchi women) pictured above is the piece for which she won the award.

Mahemood Singing

Mahemood, our host, is an all-round artist who makes his own instruments, sings, plays, makes ceramic products, carves wood, builds bhungas, etc. Manav Sadhna buys the frames that he makes, decorated with the traditional colored mud and small mirrors, for Gramshree.

Boy Coloring in Dhordo

Dhordo Panchayat Primary School has 27 registered boys, 32 registered girls and two teachers. Most of the boys and two thirds of the girls were present when we stopped by the school. The children, who speak Sindhi, a common language with Sindhs across the border, sang the most beautiful songs for us.

After leaving the school in Dhordo, we took a trip to the area of the desert that is salt for as far as you can see. Salt 5 meters high. The staff at the bromine factory that Kantikaka set up to provide employment to the local residents, sent a Mahindra tractor along with us in case our bus and truck got stuck in the mud and salt.
FWB Team in the Great RaanIn the Salt Desert“Salt” Angel

Then back to Bhuj, where we said goodbye to Anjali, Jayeshbhai, and Pankaj, who left for Ahmedabad on an overnight bus. Kutch Nav Nirman Abhiyan hosted us for the night, and Sandeep Virmani, who along with his wife Sushma Iyengar, have coordinated the reconstruction and revitalization of Kachchh since the earthquake, gave us contacts in Rajasthan, our next destination.


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