Jaipur: Are the kids alright?

Much has happened since I arrived in Jaipur, so lemme dig in…

I have been volunteering with an organization that runs a school for street kids in a neighborhood outside of Jaipur. They own the school and a homestay, which are about 7km apart. If you’ve never stayed in a dormitory situation in a developing country, its kind of like camping indoors. I share a basic room and bathroom with two women (from Italy and Sweden.) When I say basic, imagine a linoleum floor, four walls, metal bunk beds, a dense pillow, bottom sheet, and a heavy, dusty blanket. Because its winter here, people! In the common area, there are plastic cushions on the floor to sit for dinner with individual tiny tables about six inches off the floor. Too short to stick my legs under, sadly. A tasty vegetarian lunch and dinner are prepared for us daily and we are responsible for cleaning up after ourselves. This includes a regular wash with soapy water and then heating the kettle to pour boiling water over our dishes. You know, to be safe. No trash bags are provided so we improvise – empty cereal boxes work well. Every morning, we remind the ‘house mom’ to turn on the water so we can do things like flush the toilet (but not with toilet paper, this is thrown in a bag (or cereal box!) This is common in many developing countries without proper sanitation, so I’m used to it. Much like the electricity going out at least once a day.) We wash our clothes in a bucket – after only a day in the dust, the water turns a murky brown – and hang them to dry up on the roof. Where they get nice and dusty again. Circle of life!

When we arrive at the school in the morning, after an auto-rickshaw drive that has become second nature but objectively, is still slightly sketchy and loud, the kids are doing their physical exercises. Then classes separate and my 4-5 kids sit and wait patiently to be taught English.

I lie. There is nothing patient about the 9-11 year olds in my group. They are rowdy. They are also smart enough to regurgitate what they’ve been taught without truly understanding context or meaning. Maybe that is how learning starts, non? We’ve been working on emotions, body parts, and what they want to be when they grow up. This is a little heartbreaking as one of them wants to be a cricket player and he doesn’t seem to be so naturally inclined. But hey, dreams are dreams, right? We practice reading and writing, and then about 5 minutes before the break they start asking “Didi, didi, time? Time!” Didi is like ‘older sister’ but also teacher in this case. They want to know how long before they can go play cricket or badminton, and they never want to come back because math follows break and if you think learning math on its own can be tough, try learning it from a native English speaker when you barely understand English.

What I have found most challenging here is the lack of curriculum. Because this is not a government run or private licensed school, there is no required curriculum or teaching agenda. How can you give a test on Friday when you’re not building off on previous information? Its not connected, its isolated. There is just one full-time teacher, who hopes to take his test soon to become a public school teacher. Some days 10 kids show up, some kids 30. It depends on what is going on in their family’s lives. The resources are limited, all coming in forms of donations. They do not accept financial donations or do any fundraising, because of the complicated status of an NGO working under a for-profit company. Their hands are tied. And while they have the best of intentions, it is difficult to see the potential because real change can only happen in small, incremental steps. Digital learning might go a long way to bridge the gap.

Another challenge is that the kids are often hitting each other. It starts out with nasty, cutting words first. I can’t understand Hindi, but I know what it looks like when someone is talking shit. Then one of them reacts, and the next thing you know, they are yelling and smacking the shit out of each other. No tears, just a lot of anger. When I had my orientation, I was told not to smile at them (and not to smile at any men, but I’d already received that memo.) I’m generally a happy, nice person so it was difficult to pull this off but I get it – we don’t want them to think I’m weak because they won’t listen. The thing is, culturally it seems the teachers here are strict. Forceful even, to the point where they threaten to hit the kids in order to get them to do as asked. So, of course, that is how they react with each other. And I would imagine the scenario could be similar at home. Truly, though, they just want to be held, hugged, and played with like most children.

In other news, I made a friend when I arrived in Jaipur who looks uncannily like my older sister Kathy. We did some traveling together this past weekend, photos of our adventures and the children from school below.

Other observations and things I forgot to previously mention:

  1. I have faced two major fears (among others) so far: When I left Haridwar, it was 5am and no rickshaws were available to take me to the train station. The bell boy offered to drive me so I said yes. And then I saw my ride. A motorcycle! Me, my 40 lb suitcase, backpack, and the driver. And no helmets. But when in India, you gotta do what you gotta do. And I survived! So, I thought, ok, now I can take an inter-India flight. And I survived that, too!
  2. One of the first temple visits in Jaipur, we had a guide who told us that since we arrived just in time to witness the morning arti (blessing,) it was because the gods had brought us here. That there are no accidents, we are together in the moment for the sole reason that the gods divined it. It was karma. I can get behind that.
  3. Something that has been crazy frustrating to me and every other foreign woman I’ve met is dealing with groups of men on the street. Often, they say hello hello and stare but to engage in any way will give them the wrong idea, so we don’t and then they laugh at us. I have heard that in Northern India, particularly, the women are treated more unequally. The south seems to be more progressive, whatever that means. I’m checking out Mumbai this week, so will report back.
  4. One night trying to get back to the homestay, we had to haggle with the rickshaw driver but he wouldn’t give us an actual price. Instead, lots of head wobbles and then conferring in Hindi with the guy at the hotel and another rickshaw driver instead of talking to us ladies. Took five minutes for him to say 300 Rupees.
  5. Walking out of a store a few days ago, a bird shit on my head. Apparently, its good luck! Very auspicious.
  6. Oh and my rash is back, all over my neck and now my face. We think its either a delayed Malarone reaction or I’m just allergic to India. Either one is feasible at this point.

Photos!

These are my kids – Komal, Sahil, Raghu, and Rohit.

And these are some other cute nuggets we played with during the breaks.

They like to run after the rickshaw when we are heading home.

And this is where they live…

This is me and Daniela at the Anohki Museum, which is dedicated to the art of hand block printing.

This is Amer Fort. So big. And you can make out the ‘little wall of China’ that surrounds the old city.

These are beautiful elephants that we did not ride. Fortunately, more and more travelers are getting hip to the mistreatment of animals for use by tourists.

Lots of crazy detailed design within the fort, as well as the City Palace, and Hawa Mahal.

Below is the walk toward the Govind Dev Ji temple. It is dedicated to Lord Krishna and devotees pray here seven (7!) times a day.

Funny story. We got in line to get tickets for the temple. The lines are separated by men and women. So, we are waiting patiently. I am admiring all of the bright colors on these women. I smell this awesome sweet buttery smell, and I’m hungry and damn doesn’t that smell good? As we get closer to the window, we find out the line isn’t for tickets, its for food. The temple isn’t open for another half hour and these people needed sustenance. Lesson learned.

I can’t properly describe this and the photo below is shit but hear me out. This place gets up to 5,000 devotees per day. Everyone calmly walks into the temple and sits on the ground. We got there at 12pm for 12:30pm start. There were some small groups of people singing songs and clapping but generally, the mood was very calm and quiet. At 12:28pm, curtains were drawn and exposed were two small puppet-like figurines – of Krishna and his most devoted follower.

AND THE CROWD GOES WILD.

Everyone is up on their feet, praying, singing, filming, moving quickly toward the centerpiece. We are moved along, like in a mosh pit. Daniela and I are pulled along by a woman who insists we get up to the very front to see for ourselves. It becomes slightly claustrophobic but somehow we are spit out of the chaos. We follow the followers, who walk in a circle around Krishna’s stage, where they touch the wall with both hands and rest their foreheads while saying prayers. They touch the locks and chains on the doors surrounding Krishna, and then they are on with the rest of their day.

Recovering in Rishikesh

Hari Om!

I arrived in Rishikesh Monday afternoon and promptly took a five hour nap. This jet lag has been worse than usual. I’m both tired and excited so pushing myself to stay awake and then crashing, hard. I got my first full night’s sleep in a week and then like clockwork, woke up with a cold. I figure there are worse places to heal than along the Ganges, at the foot of the Himalayas, am I right?

So, this place. #hereareallthewhiteladies, mostly 20 years younger and with friends. There is a yoga studio or ashram or hotel on every corner. I admit that I imagined it differently – less populated, more pristine maybe. But that is not the reality, not so far anyway. Don’t misunderstand… seeing the sun rise over the mountain ridge and the gentle movement of the cloudy green river is truly stunning. However, it is juxtaposed with the trash lined banks, throngs of people, and loud animals and vehicles.

India, to be sure.

Tuesday morning, I went for a walk toward the Lakshman Jhula pedestrian suspension bridge. On my way, I overheard a woman asking a man where to find a particular ashram. He said, “Oh, you’re in luck, Baba is going to do a puja at 10am!” So I stopped and said, “Can I come with?” They smiled, we made introductions (I’d made a goal to introduce myself to 1-2 new people every day. So far, so good!) and I walked toward the Sachcha Ashram. There was a young man scrubbing the steps of the meditation hall and I asked if I could help. It felt good to do some manual labor. Seth is about 23 and from Orange County, where my boy’s Dad’s family is from, so we connected quickly. Turns out the guru of this ashram is only in town for the next few weeks and doesn’t usually do a fire puja at the river, so it was very fortunate for me. The ritual was beautiful – chanting mantras, tossing marigold caps into the river, and sprinkling us attendees with Ganga water.

Sometimes you have to be vulnerable and ask to be included. We are often stuck in our own head, that may be our nature. It takes a lot to say “Hey, would you like to join us?” or “Can I come with you?” Even here, in this place of spirituality and openness. I have heard quite a few times this trip that I am ‘brave’ – for coming here and traveling alone for so long. I don’t think that I’m brave. I think we are conditioned to fear the worst in people. Yes, there are those that in their desperation make terrible decisions. For the most part, though, people are the same everywhere, with the same needs and wants for ourselves, our friends and family. I remind myself of this when I feel my anxiety creep in.

Yesterday, I met a lovely Bengali woman in one of my yoga classes and we hung out the rest of the day. She is from Canada, traveling with her Mom to spread the ashes of her Dad in the river. We talked of how many people come here to find something, to escape something, to ascend to something… and all the while, their reality is still at home, waiting for them to return. My daily routine includes a solid 15 minutes of wondering why I’m here. Why now, why India, what am I looking for? The only thing I know for sure is that it felt like the right time, the right place, and I believe all will be revealed. Or not.

A few more highlights:

  1. Every morning at 4am, I am awoken by the sound of clomping donkeys going to work. They are brought down to the river where they have their sacks filled with sand and rocks, and then brought back up the hill to their respective villages.
  2. Last night’s super blue blood moon. Because the hazy clouds rolled in later, it was like we were looking through gauze but still magical…
  3. The weather here has been clear, between 45-70 degrees F, and no mosquitos. Yes, its cold and windy in the morning, but I’m enjoying this while I can seeing as how the following month of my trip will be all about Deet and A/C and pollution mask-wearing.
  4. The manager of the cafe across the street – every morning, he comes up from his sleeping space, takes off his shoes, puts his hands in prayer position and bows twice to the sun rising behind the mountain. A simple ritual of gratitude.

More photos!

There are loads of statues and shrines here, like this massive one of Shiva.

My first view of the Ganges…

This was during the fire/puja I was lucky enough to stumble onto with followers of Sri Prem Baba.

A little alley art/advertising.

There are cows everywhere (and dogs, pigs, goats, monkeys – see the roof?) They don’t care about things like cars and mopeds and pedestrians. And wow, can they moo loudly.

King monkey. We almost got attacked yesterday by a mama monkey because her teeny tiny babies were too cute to go unnoticed and as soon as we got closer, she howled. This guy is just chillin.

Peace.

Reflections of the sky…

Villagers on their way home at dusk…

Sunset on the Ganga…

Delhi days

I arrived in Delhi late Thursday night and after grabbing some water, cash and a SIM card, went to get a taxi. Outside the airport, there were 100 men for every woman. And the women weren’t alone. This whole ‘there are lots of single women traveling alone in India’ thing I read about must be relative, but we’ll get back to that.

I paid for a state sponsored taxi and when I told the driver where I was going – a haveli in Old Delhi – he had to confer with three other drivers who became animated and agitated. When he finally agreed, he told me the area I was going to wasn’t safe because it was full of Muslims. Racism is alive and well in India, folks!

This is no exaggeration: the taxi ride to the hotel was the most terrifying experience of my life. It was foggy and smoggy and dark to start, and the driver kept saying how dangerous it was for him to be driving at all. The highways were full of speeding cars, rickshaws, tut tuts, bicycles, and pedestrians all coming within a centimeter of killing each other, three to four vehicles across a two lane road, incessantly honking like a flock of geese. After a harrowing 45 minutes, he pulled over by a dark alley and told me to get out. He pointed to a sign with the hotel’s name on it and an arrow leading away from the road. I asked how far the walk was and pointed out the groups of young men on the corner. He gave me an ‘I told you so’ look but said he would take my number and call to see if I arrived ok. I pointed out that since I’d just arrived, my SIM card wasn’t activated yet so I had no service. He reluctantly agreed to walk me to the hotel.

A narrow walkway, a stranger and a foreigner struggling with a too-big suitcase, passing by a mangy stray dog sitting vigil in a doorway with a dozen candles burning and an old man frying up chaat in a tiny alcove. When we arrived at my hotel, I felt like we had really accomplished something. I turned to look at him and he held his arms open a bit, shrugged his shoulder and gave a bob of his head to one side. To me, this was an indication that he wanted a hug so I went in. He backed away quickly and said, “No! No no. More rupees, more tip.”

Lesson learned.

The next day I did a tour of Old Delhi (photos below,) and yesterday moved over to New Delhi. Tomorrow I take my first train ride, to Rishikesh for the week.

Today I’m grateful to be able bodied. Despite jet leg, I’m still able to climb the five flights of stairs in the old Haveli on Chandni Chowk to see the rooftops, to see the rose petals drying in the sun, the open courtyard where prayers are being held with mosque attendees. I am able. And I’m grateful.

Below is the Jama Masjid, India’s largest mosque, which can hold 25,000 people. It was the ‘final architectural triumph’ of Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan (commissioned the Taj Mahal) and finished in 1658. We arrived shortly before prayers so couldn’t stay long but it was a serene place amidst the chaos of Old Delhi. Side note: in the mosque, three different young men asked for their picture to be taken with me. Ego aside, apparently its cool to make up stories about knowing foreigners, especially single white ladies.

This was another calm oasis, a small dead end alley off Chandni Chowk. The story is that all of the apartments on this street are owned by the same family and have been passed down generation to generation. There are two brothers right now, living side by side, who never speak to each other because they have competing food stands. Also, they cannot make modern renovations to the outside of the buildings unless they are historically accurate and no one can afford that luxury.

This is along Chandni Chowk, which was miraculously ’empty’ according to my guide, because of the Republic Day holiday. Empty to him just meant that you weren’t shoulder to shoulder with someone. There were plenty of people, bicycles and tuk tuks! The area is a spice market and these flowers are being sold by the kilo.

Ever wonder where those dried rose petals come from in your potpourri? Here. Drying on a roof in Delhi.

Next we went to this beautiful Sikh temple, although they don’t call it a temple, its a Gurudwara. In this case, Sisganj. The story is harrowing. It’s the martyrdom site of the 9th Sikh guru, Tegh Bahadur, who was beheaded by Aurangzeb, the last Mughal Emperor (who sounds like kind of an asshole. He was not in line for the throne but believed himself to be a better leader, so when his Dad gave the older son the crown, Aurangzeb came back from battle and had his brother trampled by elephants, then dragged his body down the street to show the public he wasn’t messing around,) for refusing to convert to Islam. Inside here, you can see a shrine of sorts – its for a book! They don’t pray to a person or a god, they pray to the book. And there are people there, 24/7, providing music and prayer (except when the book ‘sleeps’ because hello, #tired.)

They also provide meals everyday to about 20,000 people. Everyone is a volunteer, and their religion is heavily based on selfless service to others and equality of all human beings.

This is the view from my hotel, a haveli, where they have classical dance performance on weekends.

And finally, a glimpse of my tuk tuk ride to the metro station yesterday.

Why India?

In a few hours, I’ll be boarding a flight bound for Delhi to spend the next 40 days in India. If you asked me in the last 25 years why I wanted to go, I’d give my shpiel about having a best friend who is Indian since I was 16 or having practiced yoga since I was 20. And while those things are true and absolutely inspired the dream of visiting India, today my reasons are different.

When I started practicing yoga, I had zero understanding about my intentions, my anxiety, my joy, or my limitations. Yoga quite literally saved my life, body and mind. I read the sacred texts (though not sure I understand all of the sutras!) and stories, learned anatomy and did my teacher training. I had friends and acquaintances who made the journey or pilgrimage to the motherland, most of them in their younger days or without little kiddos waiting at home. I’d fantasize about going with my BFF and we’d visit her relatives. I had in my mind that she must have the same desire for travel as I did. But life kept moving along, and I never made it a priority to go. I had a small baby, I was in transition from jobs, I was in debt from college, I was a single parent, I had GI issues (true!) There were endless excuses but the dream never died.

The truth is, I was terrified. Of anywhere I have wanted to visit, India is the one that scares me the most. (Close second is Africa and I’m going to get there, too.) Its not the overwhelming population… or the lack of sanitation… or the waylaid trains.

Its the areas of poverty, the inequality in education, the mistreatment of girls, the old culture that is hanging on to the way things used to be done when the world is changing rapidly around them. I’ve never been much for filtering my thoughts, so I knew I would have to be a much more mature human being to visit these places and be respectful. Now, time has passed. I’ve traveled and volunteered enough now that I can see the gray. My passion for justice is tempered by a willingness to hear both sides of a story. And then to see if I can take action, work within the gray.

Oh I have loads of other fears, too. My anxiety has been on red alert since I decided to go. Malaria, dengue, dysentery, oh my! But I am facing these fears the way I have most of my life. Acknowledge, ask questions, be prepared, and then LET GO. I had a wonderful therapist who used to make me write down my fears on a piece of paper, put them in a box, and put the box in the back of the closet. Over time, I forgot about the box. The brain is bananas powerful, people.

So, I’m off. (Like a prom dress, har!) I’ll get a sim card when I land and share my number here on my next post, if you want to say hi. First few days and nights are in Delhi where I’ll be donning my mask because #smog and getting over jetlag.

Namaste, peeps.

Security is mostly a superstition. It does not exist in nature, nor do the children of men as a whole experience it. God Himself is not secure, having given man dominion over His works! Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. The fearful are caught as often as the bold. Faith alone defends. Life is either a daring adventure or nothing. To keep our faces toward change and behave like free spirits in the presence of fate is strength undefeatable.” – Helen Keller

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