Category Archives: India

Vid’s ramblings on her trip to India in 2012.

Tashi delek (hello), Dalai Lama!

I heard that the Dalai Lama would give a public talk to a group of Mongolian Buddhists (with English translations) in his home town of McLeod Ganj.  Kanda, the village I stayed in, is only one state south of here. And I didn’t want to miss the rare opportunity to see the Nobel peace prize winner known for his legendary clear sightedness and compassion.

McLeod Ganj is nicknamed ‘Little Lhasa’ because this is the headquarters of the Central Tibetan Administration in exile.  It had been the residence of the 14th Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatsho, since he fled Tibet in 1959 to avoid persecution by the Chinese communist government.  Today, it is a political asylum for many Tibetan refugees and also a place to preserve Tibetan language and culture.

A photo Tenzin Wangdak shared with me

A photo Tenzin Wangdak shared with me

Since the Dalai Lama arrived here, McLeod Ganj has undoubtedly become a rite of passage for backpackers in India.  There are the new age Western spiritual seekers. And then the nature lovers who enjoy trekking the high Himalayas.  And finally, the adventure seekers who risk their lives riding Enfield motorcycles further up north to the stunning and desolate mountain regions of Spiti and Ladakh.  And of course, the long-haired hippies are a staple feature of touristy India.  For all, it’s a welcome respite from the big cities which can be overwhelming.

The small town is at an elevation of 1800 meters above sea level.  It’s cooler up here and the streets are narrow and hilly.  They are lined with tourist touts, but it’s surprisingly quiet, and has a definite spiritual feel to it.  Maybe it’s all the red-robed monks walking around quietly.

The distance between Kanda and McLeod Ganj is about 500 km.  But for the public transport bound it is a 43-hour uneventful journey.  The journey consists of a half-day car ride, an overnight train ride, followed by an another overnight bus ride.  The rides themselves are comfortable if it weren’t for the awkwardly timed long layovers.  Especially, those moments when you are forced to figure out the logistics of peeing at an Indian train station with a ten-pound backpack strapped to your back at 3 am   It really got me questioning the value of my own life.

Relieved, in more ways than one, I finally arrived in McLeod Ganj at 5 in the morning.  When the sun rose, I was immediately greeted with delicious parathas (Indian flat-bread) and spectacular views of the Dhaluadhars mountain range from my window!  The value of my life has become more apparent.

View from my hotel in McLeod Ganj

View from my hotel in McLeod Ganj

But it quickly dawned on me that I had a big problem.  I hadn’t done my research to know that the town practically shutdowns in the winter. The Buddhist philosophy classes, guided-meditation retreats, and yoga centers shift to the warmer south of the 60’s hippie haven of Goa and Kerala.  Even the hard-core long-haired hippies have gone south.  What was I doing here?

When Paulo Coelho wrote, “when you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it,” I’m pretty sure he was thinking of me.  Travellers like me who lack the practicality to plan a trip.  But somehow things always work out in the end.

One evening, I was lucky enough to meet Adam, a sweet and exceptionally open-minded American who is studying Buddhist philosophy on peace building and conflict resolution.  An important tenet of Buddhism, like other Indian religions such as Hinduism and Jainism, is its practice of Ahimsa – compassion and non-violence towards all living things.  Born in Israel, Adam’s year-long scholarship to various Buddhist countries to understand this subject is more personal than just academic.

Adam would later introduce me to an ordained Buddhist monk, Tenzin Wandak, with whom I enjoyed meeting with almost daily for lunch or tea.  He patiently answered our questions and shed insight into Tibetan Buddhist philosophy.  Tenzin escaped from Tibet to India to become an ordained monk at the age of 15.  The ordination procedure for Buddhist monks, know, as the ‘Going forth’, includes the daily practice of vows they have committed to take for the rest of their lives.  Vows include, abstaining from lying, harming or taking another life, stealing etc.

He also ended up accompanying us on a day-trek to mount Triund where I learnt the art of Buddhist rational debating!  The Buddha encouraged everyone to be critical and question their own religion, and only accept a teaching when it makes sense to them.  And this is how monks sharpen their critical skills and tested their ability to explain and debate various teachings.  At the end of a debate you yell, “Tsa! Tsa!” to show that you have won.  It’s so much fun!

I couldn’t have planned a better way to learn about Buddhism 🙂

Hiking mount Triund with Tenzin Wandak, Adam and Carol.

Hiking mount Triund with Tenzin Wandak, Adam and Carol. Adam and Tenzin had a Buddhist style intense debate on smoke, fire and dependent arising.

For more photos from McLeod see: http://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.10152324881175193.937597.726530192&type=1&l=2b349f7e17

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Until we meet again, Kanda! (by vid)

(I wrote this a while back but just getting around to posting it now.)

It’s time for me to say goodbye to my host-family and friends in Kanda.  I didn’t expect to get so emotional but I did as I hugged Hema (my host-mom).  In her quiet way, he took care of me and made me feel so loved here. I’ve gained a new perspective and made some good friends along the way. Even though some of the people here live without the basic human necessities of life, they’ve freely shared with me their precious resources like food and warm clothing and refused to take any money that I offered in return.  They are a testament to the fact that it’s not the external things that makes one a good human being.  This village also debunks the myth that poverty breeds crime.  It’s so safe here that I’ve seen young school kids fearlessly hitchhike home on the back of cargo trucks, and there are no locks on any of the doors in their homes!

Enjoying chappatis and dal with the family kids (Anounshka 5, Shivam 8, Gautam 10)

Enjoying chapatis and dal with the family kids (Anounshka 5, Shivam 8, Gautam 10)

Without the home-stay and full cultural immersion I don’t this trip wouldn’t have been half as much fun.  I’ve thoroughly enjoyed eating delicious homemade chapatis and dal harvested from the fields.  My guilty pleasure was walking the dogs daily with the kids as I soaked in the beautiful sunsets over the hills.  And of course, having girly-girl-talks with Gunja and playing dress-up in saris was just the icing on the cake.  I’ve even gotten over my fear and had fun watching my little friends, Miss. Henrietta (spider) and Mr. Bond (scorpion), search for food crumbles in my room.  Unfortunately, their short lives came to a tragic end one evening when one of the kids thought it would be fun to squash them with his flip flops.  RIP Miss. Henrietta & Mr. Bond.

However, there is one thing I could not get used to – the dreadfully cold bucket showers!  I don’t know how anyone can get used to this in ten-degree weather.  My body rejected my every mind-over-body attempt in trying to fool myself into thinking I’m no pansy.  The shower always feels refreshing after, but the anticipation and the actual shower is the WORST.  They say people are the same everywhere. They’re not.  What are these people are made of?

A neighboring house

On my first week here I assigned myself a list of tasks to complete. I thought would aid me later in measuring my success. I’m such an obedient Western educated girl, aren’t I?  I’m happy to say that I leave feeling good about being able to give back.  I made good progress on documenting current project progress and figuring out what’s needed for new projects.  I’m in the process of setting up a PayPal account. Due to an (un)expected extra layer of Indian bureaucracy, it took three weeks to get the information I needed to start the process.  Finally, I was to convert some slideshows into a video to show potential volunteers the living conditions and what to expect (this ain’t no Ritz). But the slow internet access hasn’t let me too far in downloading a Flash application that I need to make the movie.  I’ll have to wrap that up when I’m back in HK with faster internet access.

The biggest success though wasn’t even on my original list.  Somehow my pleasure of taking photos and ramblings of my experience turned into a monetary help from friends back home!  How sweet is that?  🙂

Hema Verma (my host-family mom) - that's one hardworking woman!

Hema Verma (my host-family mom) – that’s one hardworking woman!

On my last day, Hema, my host-family mother packed a bag of goodies for me to take home.  It included a big bag of food for the road, a jar of homemade ghee (clarified butter), and a bag of loose leaf tea.  I forgot to tell her that I wasn’t returning home at that point.  But how could I refuse such delicious homemade food?  So with free food in my bag, I set off on a rightful pilgrimage to the Buddhist town of McLeod Ganj to see the Dalai Lama!

Kanda sunset

Setting off on my pilgrimage!

Me with my host-family in Kanda

Me with my host-family and two friends from the city of Dehra Dun. Left to right: Hema (mom), a family friend’s daughter, host-grandma, Jeetandra (eldest son), me, Gunja (youngest daughter), friend’s son, Saju (middle child).  Missing: Jeevan, Chandra and the kids.

Forest in Kanda

What natural beauty!

A huge thank you! (by Vid)

I’d like to start by sending a huge THANK YOU to everyone back in Canada, Germany and London for your exceptionally generous donations.  Without my asking, you have donated a total of $1700 CAD to improve the living conditions of some poor people in a remote part of the world whom you haven’t even met!  Your trust and compassion has really touched me and instilled a great deal of confidence in the generosity of human-kind.

Most of the donations will be used towards the construction of Ganga’s house (approximately $1200). The remaining amount will go towards the construction of the multi-purpose community center.  I know Jeevan is extremely grateful because I’ve seen him raise both of his hands in the air proclaiming to his mother that God must have sent me and my friends to help his village.  Unfortunately, I won’t be here long enough to see the construction, but Jeevan has promised to share photos when construction begins.  I plan to continue to support him with online/computer related stuff even after I leave Kanda.

Personally, the support I’ve received from you means more than I can express in this blog.  But I feel like I’ve been of some real tangible help (especially after realizing that perhaps I might have overestimated my physical strength in the field of construction) :p

Below is some information on what I’ve been working on so far.  I’m excited to say that I’ve added to my limited first-year civil engineering knowledge by trying to understand the construction of an earthquake proof building design, and figuring out the local resources required and associated costs.  This design was first introduced by a group of Structural Engineers from the UK and it has  since become a design model for buildings here.  This is one of the ways volunteers are able to help, by imparting valuable knowledge and skill sets that they would have otherwise not had access to.  As exciting as it is for me to figure out how many bags of cement and sand is needed to build things like toilets, I can understand if this is as exciting to you as grass-cutting is to me :p

But if you’re interested, feel free to read on…

Construction of R.O.S.E community center

Cause

This ongoing project is a multi-purpose building intended to help the people most need in Kanda.  It acts as an emergency shelter to families whose homes are unusable due to the seasonal flash floods and mud slides. It is also used as a free six-day public school for the children of poor family who cannot afford to send them to regular school.  It will be used by the community for a meeting place and as a cultural centre. The community center is the first of its kind in Kanda.

Estimated cost (excluding future plan)

The total estimated cost for building the lower level is Rs.177,375.

Resource and cost breakdown

Resource and cost breakdown to finish the main floor construction

Progress

Progress has been slow and steady and parts of the center are constructed as donations are received.  This is the reality here – this is always work to do, just not the money.  Things are built as donations are received

Two twin-tank composting toilets and a fair-price shop upstairs have been built with the aid of donations, volunteers and local skilled and unskilled labours.  The common meeting room and volunteer station in the basement level was a major achievement completed late last 2011. The construction of a wall has begun to build a school room.

Future Plan – Building Community Center – Upstairs (50′ x 20′ = 1000 sq feet)

The future plan for the community center is to build an addition to the upstairs once the basement level is completed.  The additions will include two public sitting-toilets (for disabled and old people who are unable to squat), and a free “nursing home” to care for the elderly.

Building a water management system

Cause

In order to provide safe drinking water to the locals, a water management system is needed at the community center. The project will bring fresh spring water, from a nearby hill, in a 700 meter long pipe to a water tank to be installed near the community center.  The water stored in the tank is then pumped into the taps by a small water pump.

Estimated cost

Total estimated cost is Rs. 236,000

Resource and cost breakdown

Grass cutting (by Vid)

Farm life knows no weekends.  This is a fact.  As long as the sun shines, there is work to be done on the farm.  Be it plowing, fertilizing, planting, watering, or harvesting. Once the rice planting season is over, it starts all over again with wheat planting season.  I stopped keeping track of days because, really, what’s the point?  Every day is a workday.

And everyone gets up so early!  It’s so early that it’s still the previous night.  My host-family, including the eight year and ten year old kids, are up and about by 4:30 am.  I honestly don’t know what’s so important that needs to be done at this hour because I haven’t actually gotten out of bed to see it.  I have a vague idea though as I hear stuff outside my room every morning. It starts with the dogs barking like a broken alarm clock, and then the cows start mooing as they’re taken out of their sheds. And finally the kids thump around as the parents yell at them to get ready.  Asking a child to get ready at 4:30 am to help with housework?  I’m sure that’s illegal.  Grateful that I’m not a kid on this farm, I drift back into my dream world where there are hot showers and no spiders!  By the time I wake up, half of their day is done.  They must think I’m such a princess.

Host-family kids

Host-family kids (Gautam, Shivam and Anouska) goofing around while walking the family dogs.

This afternoon, I saw Chandra (the daughter-in-law and house chef) walking out the door with a sickle in her hands like she means business.  I instantly got excited because I knew that she must be up to some cool farming activity. She looked like a woman to be reckoned with.  So I dropped everything I was doing, which was actually nothing at that moment, and dutifully followed her with a smaller, but equally menacing looking sickle.

Chandra

Chandra (Jeevan’s daughter-in-law and family chef). She’s half my size and looks so sweet, but she’s a mean grass-cutter!

Eager to understand what new farming skill I’m about to learn, I ask Chandra to explain what to do with my sickle.  She simply said, “grass-cutting”.  Cutting grass, really?  Grass needs to be cut to feed the livestock.  It’s actually very hard work – back-breaking-ly hard!  I imagine this is what mowing a lawn with a kitchen knife feels like.  My rational side is trying to comprehend why the animals couldn’t just come here and eat the grass to their hearts content.  But I don’t have any energy left in me to speak.  I’ll ask tomorrow.  Grass-cutting is as exciting as it sounds.  No doubt about it.  I didn’t even bother taking a photo.

What was immensely more exciting was seeing a bunch of monkeys the other day!  Here are some photos:

A troop of monkeys!

A troop of monkeys!

More monkeys

More monkeys

A monkey climbing a tree

A monkey climbing a tree

Building a home for Ganga!

One of the things R.O.S.E encourages is that all donations are made in the form of projects. This way, no one family comes to be dependent on tourist charity in their everyday life. Projects are prioritized for the people most in need.

Last week I visited the home of a recently widowed young woman named Ganga. Jeevan told me that building a safe home for her is a priority for R.O.S.E because the living conditions for the family have become unsafe.

Ganga

Ganga

On October 24, Ganga received news that her husband met with an accident and died while at work.  He worked in another village transporting cargo on mules. The family has no life insurance as it is the case with most of the poorest families here.  The family lives hand-to-mouth and didn’t have enough money to pay for her husband’s funeral, so Jeevan kindly offered to cover the cost.

Ganga is a young mother of two boys, and lives with and cares for her parents-in-law and mother, as it is typical in a nuclear family in India.  Ganga’s family does not own farm land, and she works on other farms and makes a modest salary Rs. 1500 or $28 CAD per month.  Right now, Jeevan provides food for the children but hopes that Ganga will find a better paying job in the coming months to become more independent.

Ganga's mother-in-law who lost her son on Oct 24, 2012

Ganga’s mother-in-law who lost her son on Oct 24, 2012

I didn’t talk to Ganga or her family because the loss was obvious in their faces. I wanted to tell Ganga that she has already received a generous $700 from friends and family in Canada, and that she has support from people that don’t even know her. But not being able to speak the language, I didn’t want to risk being disrespectful of their mourning period.  So I quietly took photos, helped Jeevan take some measurements and got my information from him later.

Ganga's home

Ganga’s home

As in the photo below, their neighbour’s roof collapsed under the weight of the monsoon rains.  Shortcuts were taken and the house was constructed with cheap quality materials such as low quality steel rods.  Because Ganga’s house shares a wall and roof with them, it’s clear the family needs a safer place to live.

Collapsed roof

Collapsed roof with poor quality steel rods that could not withstand the recent monsoon rains.

Jeevan says land is available, and there are some raw like stones and sand. But cement and steel rods and other resources need to be purchased. The cost of building a new home, including two rooms and a sanitary toilet and bath, is around $4900 CAD.

I’d like to take this opportunity to thank all my friends and family for the generous donations! 🙂  With the money Jeevan will be placing an order for steel rods. Jeevan plans to collect as much as he can until Christmas and depending on the amount, either a new home will be built for Ganga’s family, or the existing one with be renovated (with stronger roof and wall reinforcements, and sanitary toilet).

Ganga's son in front of the house

In front of the house with one of Ganga’s sons and his friend (also named Vidya!)

If you’d like to donate to Ganga’s home feel free to drop me a note.  I’m happy to pass on all donations.  Hopefully, Ganga and her family will have a safe place to call home in 2013!

Additional photos can been seen here on facebook: http://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.10152270415955193.930345.726530192&type=1&l=9a78c06397

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Martin’s last day at ROSE and Jeevan wins an award (by vid)

Yesterday was Martin’s last day at R.O.S.E. Martin is a fourth-time volunteer and a British army veteran who is travelling around India for two months. Each time he visits India he makes it a point to stop by here for at least a couple of weeks. The family affectionately calls him “Uncle” and it’s obvious how much they love him. Being the only other volunteer on the farm, I’ve also grown quite fond him; the way I imagine new prison inmates become good friends quickly.

Martin is a self-proclaimed “Crazy Irish”. And I believe him (kidding). He’s travelling in India carrying an electric kettle and an iron in his bag. He’s addicted to tea. The iron also has an explanation. He says he likes to be presentable in case someone invites him to tea. Anyway, now he’s on his way to Sri Lanka now to enjoy the “beaches and beers” 🙂

Martin with baby Suhana

Martin with baby Suhana

Jokes aside, Martin has been of tremendous help to R.O.S.E. Last year, Jeevan had an unfortunate experience with a UK based volunteer placement company. The company sent several dozen students and volunteers to Kanda but withheld funds from R.O.S.E. Jeevan went into debt by taking out loans to host and feed the volunteers, and also pay for projects so that the volunteers leave with a meaningful experience. Donations and part of the hosting-fees are what’s used to buy material for construction projects to benefit the community – which also provides travelers a learning opportunity.

Martin, a UK customs officer, used his clout and knowledge of UK exploitation laws to raise a complaint against the company. Although it’s still in process, it looks like he will be able to get Jeevan his money back. Martin’s also generously donated used computers, used electronics and school supplies over the years. To me, he’s been a wonderful guide because he knows the history here he has a solid understanding of what’s been going on and what are gaps need to be filled. Most importantly, he’s able to articulate it in a way that can easily be lost in translation in India.

For example, the trademark Indian head wobble has multiple meanings causing much confusion to innocent foreigners. A wobble of the head can mean many things, including the following:

  • yes
  • no
  • maybe
  • thank you
  • you’re welcome
  • I acknowledge your presence
  • yes of course, you can sit in the empty seat next to me
  • I don’t understand what you’re saying but I will silently bob my head until you leave me in peace

You can play a game of “price is right” and take a guess at the closet answer, but only the said head-wobbler has the key. And to make things worse, it is highly contagious! The longer I stay here the more in danger I am of contracting the ambiguous Indian-head-wobbeling-virus. But this isn’t the only cultural quirk. Other common responses to a question can be: “yes, it’s same, same but different” and, “okay, okay, no problem”…but…but, I was asking a question!

I couldn't capture the essence of an Indian-head-wobble but I imagine this farmer would be good at it.

I couldn’t capture the essence of an Indian-head-wobble but I imagine this farmer would be good at it.

Anyway, I digress. Martin’s been helpful by providing me with answers that would have taken me weeks to arrive at. So thanks to him, my work’s cut out for me and I can focus on being productive (unlike the day when I tried to teach a class of three to seven year olds).

Jeevan wining top award for progressive livestock farming

Today, I went to the town of Bageshwar to see Jeevan receive an award for ‘Progressive Livestock Farmer’ (Kishan Bhushan) in the district. Jeevan’s been proactively implementing improvements to micro-dairy (milk production), poultry, goat-rearing, caring for pets, and grass production. He’s also successfully adopted a new technology to artificial inseminate new and improved breeds of dairy cows. He also provides a balanced feed to animals, and uses improved medical technologies to maintain a healthy livestock. He’s also constructed a separate area for the cattle to ensure safe and sanitary drinking water is available, and an environment that is clean and peaceful (i.e. no noise and good flooring that doesn’t flood during monsoon season). With this award he is “officially” able to conduct workshops to teach and educate the locals by example.

And here are some examples of super cuteness!

Calf in Jeevan's micro dairy farm

A calf in Jeevan’s micro dairy farm

happy lamb

Is it just me or is he happy to see you?

If that doesn’t melt your heart…

About Kanda

The village I’m staying in is called Kanda.  It sits at 1600 meters above sea level in the Himalayan mountain range in an Indian state of Uttarakhand – also known as, the middle of nowhere.  It shares a border with Tibet to the north, and Nepal to the east.  The people in this region are called Kumaoni, named after the Kumaon hills they occupy.  The locals have proudly informed me that their ancestors (translations: fossils) have been found here dating back to prehistoric times. How they’ve managed to carbon-date fossils, when they’re still using bulls to plow fields and a pen knife to harvest, is a mystery to me.

Covering only a relatively small area, the region contains over thirty peaks over the elevation of 5500 m giving it its beautiful views.  The most famous of them are Nanda Devi at 7816 m, and a range of five adjacent mountains over the elevation of 6300 m logically named Panchchuli 1 through 5.  Sounds like an actuary named them, no?  This region is also home of the elusive Bengal Tiger at the Jim Corbett National Park.   I’m hoping to spot one on my way back to Haldwani.  Plus, I’ll get to ride an elephant 🙂

Himalayan mountain range of Panchchuli 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5

In terms of transportation, Kanda is not an easily accessible as there is no direct public transportation.  It took me two days to get here from Delhi even though they are only 500 km apart.  Knowing well that over 20 million people ride the train each day, it didn’t occur to me that perhaps I should book in advance.  So after many hours of waiting in line at the Delhi train station, I boarded a six hour train to a city called Haldwani.  This is the nearest city to Kanda from Delhi, where I slept overnight to continue my journey the following day. It’s another seven hour car ride to Kanda.  However, the fresh air and the gorgeous mountain views totally make up for the long journey.  That is, if you manage to keep the contents of your stomach in during the journey.

Winding narrow roads reversed strictly for drivers with a death-wish.

Seeing first-hand how remote Kanda is, makes me appreciate the challenge that faces the locals.  The lack of infrastructure is one of the reasons for high poverty rate in the area. The difficulty of getting to these places effectively cuts the farmers off from the markets they are selling their produce to.  Apparently, farmers in rural India only get 10-20% of the retail price, as opposed to the 60-80% received by farmers in developed countries.  The delta goes into the hands of “middle-men” and losses due to food spoilage.  Despite ranking second in the world in farming output, India has one of the highest food losses due to poor infrastructure and improper storage.  A proper infrastructure, with the help of government aid, is all that is needed to empower these farmers.  Now if only I had a direct-line to the prime minister of India!

Millet