Tuesday, November 29, 2005

India - Day 10 - End of the journey

We had another fairly leisurely morning, then boarded the bus back to Delhi. We hoped that perhaps the ride back would be quicker, but it turned out to be just as long. We stopped at the same hotel (the one with the dancing girl) on the way back, so the driver could eat lunch. When we arrived in the south part of Delhi, the traffic became very heavy. We were concerned that Rama (she works for SKS) would be late for her flight back to Bangalore, so she decided to get off the bus and take a taxi or autorickshaw to the airport, which was much faster.

Because of the bombings the previous night, we didn't feel comfortable driving around the Delhi tourist places, so we booked a room at the Radisson hotel and hung out there with David Schappell and Jayme Hommer. It was really quite a nice hotel, and we had some time to just chill out and visit. Later in the evening, Dave and Sharon Richards, the couple from our group who were visiting friends in Delhi, joined us for dinner (they were on the same flight back). The Richards had been at the Dille Haat market on Saturday at the time of the bombings, and were told to leave and that they were shutting it down. Nothing actually happened at that market, but it was probably a good precaution. They didn't know at the time that approximately 60 people died and 200 were wounded. I was sad, because that is the market that Liz in Bombay had told us was so good. Apparently you have to pay a small fee to get in, so it keeps all the beggars and hawkers out. And they have clothing and arts and crafts from all over India. Also, the food that they serve there is supposed to be safe to eat. Oh well, I guess we'll have to come back to Delhi some day!

Our flight left Delhi at 1:30 am and there was increased security there. Other then having to stay awake for a long time, everything else went without mishap. We landed in Amsterdam about 5 am, and we had about a 6 hour layeover, so we decided to take a train into the city and walk around. There wasn't much to do, as nobody was really up yet, but it was really beautiful and peaceful walking along the canals. Eventually, some of the shops started to open and we stopped and had some yummy pastries and hot chocolate. It was just as I had remembered it 35 years ago, when I was there as a child. Bikes everywhere! We even saw a two-story parkade that was just for bikes! I don't know how they can tell whose is whose.

We left Amsterdam around 11:30 am Monday morning and arrived in Calgary at 6 pm Monday night. All in all, we travelled about 32 hours in a row. Needless to say, we were pretty tired when we arrived home. It took a couple of weeks to get over the jet lag.

We're so glad we were able to make this trip. It was really an overwhelming experience and gave us a new perspective on the world and on some of the ways people are trying to make a difference in the poverty there. India was definitely a place of contrasts. At first all I could see was the poverty and disadvantage, but the longer I was there, I saw that there were so many more layers. The people that we met were wonderfully bright, hardworking and very helpful. The culture was fascinating. The food was wonderful. While an Indian vacation is definitely not for everyone, I would certainly recommend it for the more adventurous. If I went back again, I would definitely want to educate myself better on the shopping, what to buy, where to buy it, prices etc.

My favourite part? It's hard to pick just one favourite, but it would have to be meeting the people on our excursion and visiting the people in the villages.

Second favourite. Seeing this guy riding down the road beside our bus on a camel!

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

India - Day 9

Today we passed up the opportunity to see the Taj Mahal at 6 am with the group, and decided to sleep in. Did that ever feel good! I'm sure it would be cool to see the Taj at sunrise, but we decided that it couldn't be that much different in the afternoon, and we needed our sleep. So we got up at 8 am and had a lovely, leisurely breakfast with Suzanne Pacifico-Ahlgren. (You can read some of her comments about the India Excursion by clicking here http://blog.unitus.com/?p=32)

At 11 am we boarded a bus and took a guided tour of Agra fort. It is listed as one of the UNESCO World Heritage Sites, and is truly a remarkable place. You can read more about the fort by clicking here http://www.aviewoncities.com/agra/fort.htm
Here's a few images that we took at the fort.

Later in the afternoon the same tour guide took us on a tour of the Taj Mahal. We entered through the main gate, which is the one that the Shah would have entered in. It is really cool to actually be there. It almost looks unreal. It is a beautiful building, built with great symmetry. I always thought that it was a mosque, but in reality it is a tomb, built by the Emporer Shah Jahan to house the body of his wife, Mumtaz, the love of his life. The theme of the building is grief, and there are quotes from the Koran written on the outside, all having to do with grief. On one side of the building, is a mosque, and on the other side is a dummy mosque, to complete the symmetry.

We had to either take off our shoes or wear booties to cover our shoes to go inside. The building is made out of marble, inlaid with precious stones. Since the marble is not porous, the dirt and grime easily wash away, so it remains looking beautiful and white, in spite of all the soot in the air. If you're interested in ready more about the history of the Taj Mahal, go to http://www.angelfire.com/in/myindia/tajmahal.html.

Here's a picture of us in front of the Taj Mahal http://www.flickr.com/photos/24435927@N00/66541860/

Later in the evening as we were getting ready to go to dinner, we heard on the news that there had been some bombings in Delhi. The bombings were at 6 pm and this was at 6:15 pm so the details were still a bit sketchy. We were worried about some of the people from our group who had left for the Delhi airport around 3:30. As the news reports continued to come in, we learned that three markets had been bombed, as well as a bus. Fortunately, everyone from our group was safe and accounted for, but we were disappointed that it would no longer be safe for us to tour the markets in Delhi the next day, something we had looked forward to. I quickly went to the shops in the hotel and bought a few more souvenirs to take home, since I had planned to do this in Delhi. In the evening we had another nice dinner with the last five people left in our group.

Monday, November 21, 2005

India - Day 8

Today we flew to Delhi, then took a tourist bus to Agra. The estimate was that it would take us 3 hours to get there from the airport, but it ended up being more like 5 1/2. There was a lot of time to just sit and observe the daily lives of the people in both the city and rural areas. The traffic in Delhi was very heavy, and there seemed to be a lot more smoke and air pollution there.
We had heard about the cows in Delhi, and finally got to see them firsthand. They are all over the place. I read a news article that said there are about 40,000 of them. A lot of rural people can't afford to feed them, so they let them roam around the city where they feed on garbage. Apparently they have a new program going on where they take some kind of air gun and shoot a computer chip into the cow's stomach so they can monitor who the cow belongs to. I'm not sure how effective that would be but I guess anything's worth a try. You can read about it here. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/south_asia/4141296.stm

There is so much garbage everywhere. You see piles of it on the side of the road, and often there will be cows and pigs and people rooting through it. We also saw a lot of little kids playing in it. Sometimes you see it on fire, but mostly it is just sitting there rotting away.

On the way out of Delhi, we noticed a lot of people living in tents and under tarps on the side of the road. In one area, there were a lot of monkeys running around too. There were also a lot of stray dogs on the streets that look very underfed.

We made a pit stop about halfway on our journey at a hotel that had washrooms. Outside the hotel, there was a man and his daughter dressed up in some kind of fancy looking outfits. The man had an interesting looking musical instrument, and when we got off the bus he immediately started playing it, and the little girl started dancing for money. At first I thought it was kind of cute. But then I felt sorry for the little girl, that she had to do this instead of playing or going to school.

Along the highway to Agra, we saw quite a large number of small mosques. It seemed that every little town had one, and around 1 o'clock you could see all the men gather to say their prayers. With all the prayers each day, I wondered how anybody gets any work done. I found it quite fascinating to watch.

We saw a lot of agricultural activities going on as well. We would often see groups of women in the fields cutting and baling what looked liked some kind of grass. I was later told by an Indian friend that it was probably sugar cane. There seemed to be a lot more smoke in these areas too, and I guessed that they were probably burning the stubble after the cane was cut.

Another thing we noticed was that people would often just squat by the side of the road to go to the bathroom. And anywhere you would see a stone wall or fence there was usually some guy peeing on it. We joked about how in Jerusalem they have the wailing wall but in India it's the peeing wall!

The city of Agra was a bit disappointing. It was very dirty and smoky, and seemed very overcrowded. The area around the Taj Mahal seemed particularly dirty and smoky and we noticed a lot of people cooking food on open fires, which may have contributed to it. I couldn't tell what they were burning, but it smelled pretty bad. I had a sore throat for the entire time we were in Agra from breathing all the smoke. One morning I even woke up with what felt like smoker's cough.

The hotel Amarvillas in Agra was fabulous. It is such a shame that it is surrounded by so much of a contrast. It felt strange to be staying in such opulance when outside the walls of the hotel there was so much poverty. The view of the Taj Mahal from the hotel was great, but at times it was quite difficult to see it through all the haze. It was only 600 metres away, yet there were times when we could hardly see it. There is definitely something magical about being there though.

In the evening, we had a wonderful dinner with the members of our group who were left. I think there were about 10 of us. The best part was that when we opened the menus, they had something besides Indian food. Not that we didn't like the Indian food, but it is a little hard on the stomach when you have it for every meal and are not used to all the spices. We had a fun time and some great conversation.

Saturday, November 19, 2005

India - Day 7

We had a morning breakfast meeting where Mike Murray gave us a presentation on Unitus and the roll that is plays with the MFIs as an accelerator. I really learned a lot, and it clarified a lot of things for me. For those of you who may of just joined in, you can read about Unitus at their website http://www.unitus.com/

Today was shopping day! After 11:30 we got on a bus to find all the great things that Hyderabad has to offer to a happy shopper! Our first stop was a store that is famous for selling pearls. Actually, Hyderabad has a number of stores that sell top of the line pearls. It is estimated that 80% of the pearls in the world make their way through Hyderabad. The pearls originate elsewhere, then are polished and sorted here. Hyderabad is also noted for it's fine jewelry, and prospective brides come from all over the country to buy their jewelry here.

The store that we went to gave our group a 20% discount, which was pretty good. Some of the people in our group who have bought there before, have had their their pearls evaluated at 4 times what they paid for them back at home. So we knew they were good quality. I bought a beautiful two strand, peachy coloured pearl necklace and matching earrings for myself, and a dusty rose coloured set for Grandma Lee, for "babysitting" Stephanie.

The next store we went to was called Kalanjari, and is a really nice clothing store, where even the natives do their shopping. I bought some beautiful Indian clothing and also made Gary buy a traditional Indian outfit for himself, complete with turban and pointy shoes! He looked really funny. Even the sales clerks were laughing. http://www.flickr.com/photos/24435927@N00/64389182/

My favourite clothing for women is called a salwar kameez. It is usually made up of a pair of pants, covered by a tunic, and finished with a scarf or shawl. If you'd like to see what a salwar kameez looks like visit http://utsavsarees.com/pages/crepesalwarkameez.htm
The one I got is very traditional, and is made with a type of weaving called Himroo, which is usually passed down as a family heirloom. It is made of gold silk, black and dark dark green pants and shawl, and has the lovely gold weaving in the front bodice and along the edges of the scarf. "Himroo weaving originated in Aurangabad, which was formerly a part of Hyderabad state, but it now in Maharashtra. It remains, even today traditional, a hereditary occupation in Andhra Pradesh. The techniques uses a special loom, with cotton yarn forming the warp an silk yarn forming the weft, to produce a brocade-like fabric used mainly for shawls, bedspreads and furnishing. One may observe Himroo weaving near Dar-ush-shifa in the old city." It is really beautiful!

Our shopping trip lasted a bit longer than we were expecting, so we missed the bus back to the hotel. That's when the fun really started, as we had to take an autorickshaw to get there. For those of you who don't know what an autorickshaw is, it's pretty much what it sounds like, a motorized rickshaw! One guy sits in the front, and the passengers sit in the back. It's not very big and has no windows in the back, but it's great for getting around in the traffic here because it can go just about anywhere. It can actually fit more people than you think. I saw one once that had at least 10 school kids crammed into it, with all their school bags tied to the back somehow. Because it was now rush hour, the exhaust fumes were really bad, particularly when a bus pulled up beside us, with its tailpipe right in our face. I should have brought a surgical mask with me! Some people actually do that because the air is so bad. I'm sure I would wear one too if I were travelling in this all day. Here is a photo of an autorickshaw. http://www.bharattraders.com/three-wheelers.html

In the evening, we had another traditional Indian meal at a great restuarant where we sat on giant couches with big pillows on the roof of the building overlooking the city. It was great! Some of our newfound Indian friends from Unitis helped to explain the food and culture to us. In the distance you could hear the sound of firecrackers going off in anticipation of Diwali, or Festival of Lights, which is one of there big celebrations that begins Nov 1.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

India - Day 6

Today we had to get up at 5 am to travel to another more rural village. We had no trouble getting up, as our friend at the mosque was there once again with his prayer call blaring over the loudspeakers. It took us approximately 1 1/2 hours to travel to today's village. The village itself was much different from the one we visited yesterday. It was a bit more quiet, probably because is was still morning when we arrived, and the children were getting ready for school. The lanes were made of dirt, not concrete blocks like yesterday, and the homes were on larger plots of land, separated by flat stones. It was estimated by one of the SKS people that one small home on its piece of property would cost around $200 dollars in this village.

We first attended a meeting where the group ofwomen met with the loan officer to make their weekly payments. The 30 or so women sat in a circle for roll call, then recited the pledge all together. One member of each troup (5 people) then handed the payment to the loan officer as the husbands and children looked on from behind the fence.


Following the meeting, we walked around the village and were able to see where some of the women lived. The homes were also a little different here. Most of them had a clay or plaster type base with a grass roof.


We wandered around the village for a while and of course, we attracted quite a crowd wherever we went. We eventually made our way to "main street", where a number of the borrowers had set up their businesses. Most of the businesses were nothing more than a wooden table or a wooden booth where they would sell their wares to the local villagers and anyone else passing through.

When we would stop at one of the stalls to talk to the women about their business, we were immediately surrounded by a crowd of women, children, and mostly men. It was a bit unnerving at first as I felt a bit like someone who'd stumbled into a group of cannibals that were going to eat us any minute(my overactive imagination at work). It turns out they were just very curious onlookers who wanted to see what we were doing in their village. Many of them would walk up to us, put their hands together and say "Namaste", which is the Hindu word for hello and goodbye, and can also mean welcome. I was particularly touched by an elderly man in a traditional turbin who slowly moved toward us. At first I thought he was a beggar, but it turned out that he was only trying to get close so he could say "Namaste).

It was fascinating to see everyone at work. One of the borrowers and her husband had booth where sold sandals. I bought a pair for roughly $2.10 CD.

Another women's business was selling metal bowls, graters and other utensils.

Another had a store where they sold candy and other small snack food items. She and her family were Christians, which is pretty rare in this part of India.

The children in the village were fascinated with the bubbles we brought. There were two little girls of about 11 yrs old who I thought were really cute. Ond had very light brown eyes, which were quite unusual looking, and very striking. I gave the bottle of bubbles to her when we left.

There were some other interesting buildings in the village. There was a "hospital", a pharmacy, and a small school that was built by the United Nations. The children were pretty excited to show me around the one-room school. They showed me the scale that they were weighed on every day, presumably to make sure they are getting enough nutrition.

Along the road that leads to the village we saw a number of people working in the rice fields and some with very primitive looking ox-drawn plows. Along the main highway there were also many people living in tents along the roadside, and there seemed to be no end to the variety of little booths set up to sell all kinds of little things. One thing we noticed that really struck us was there were very few beggars in the villages and the people generally seemed to be quite industrious and bright.

After touring the village, we made a stop at the SKS branch office where we met a few of the loan officers.

It was here that we had our first experience at a washroom outside the hotel. Thank goodness Jayme gave us a bag with a number of "essential" items, as the bathroom had a toilet, but no toilet paper. We learned that Indian people prefer to use water to clean themselves, so there was a little water jug beside the toilet, and water all around it. It was a bit tricky, but we all managed to take care of business the North American way, thanks to the small roll of toilet paper packed in our bag.

On the way back to Hyderabad I saw one other interesting thing. On the back of two bicycles, two men were delivering the two parts to a queen size bed! One had the mattress and the other had the bed frame (completely put together). It was crazy! How could anyone fit two such awkward and heavy items on the back of a bike through busy highway traffic?

We had out customary late night dinner tonight at 8:30 pm. We ate at a restaurant called
Tabla on the very top floor of a building. It was typical South Indian food, very spicy and very filling. My favourite thing is the India bread, called Naan, which I eat far to much of. The dhala is also very good served with rice. It is made out of legumes, such as lentils, peas and beans and served with a runny pepper sauce.

Two of the people from the group had birthdays that day, so the restaurant played a rather bouncy rendition of "Happy Birthday to You" in English and Hindi over the restaurant loudspeakers. The song seemed to go on and on for at least 5 minutes, and was really quite comical. They love their bouncy music here. If you've ever seen a Bollywood movie you'll know what I mean.

Monday, November 14, 2005

India - Day 5

(I have reached my maximum upload for photos on blogspot, so I have now replace them links to photos, imbedded in the text. Just click on the underlined link and it will take you to the photos which are saved in FlickR. To see all the FlickR photos taken by a number of people in our group, go to http://www.flickr.com/photos/tags/Oct2005PE/)

We went to sleep to the sound of a Muslim prayer call blaring over a loud speaker, then woke in the morning to the same thing at 5 am. There are a lot more Muslims in this part of India. I actually think the prayer call sounds kind of cool, but when you're not used to it, it is a little hard to sleep to. There were also a lot of roosters crowing and train whistles blowing early in the day. And of course the ever present sound of horns honking in the traffic. (That would explain why the hotel supplied us with a set of earplugs on the night table.) Once we were awake, we started the day with a wonderful buffet breakfast. There are so many cool Indian foods to try, it's really hard not to overeat. I wish I could remember the names of everything!

Breakfast was followed by a presentation given to our group by Vikram Akula, the CEO of SKS, which is the microfinance institution whose operations we were there to observe. He told us all about how he came to start SKS and a little about how it operates. You can find out more about SKS and the work that they do in India by visiting http://www.sksindia.com/ (I could try and explain about SKS and microfinance but I think the website does a much better job).

Vikram is an amazing person, as were many of the people we met who work for SKS and Unitus. He was educated in the US, but felt a real need to return to India to use his education and influence to help alleviate poverty there. He is completely dedicated to SKS and we really enjoyed getting to know him. He was a real inspiration.

Unitus (the organization that sponsored our trip) works in partnership with microfinance institutions (MFIs) like SKS to help expand the number of people that they are able to reach. To watch a short video that describes the work that Unitus does in partnership with microfinance organizations such as SKS, visit http://www.unitus.com/resource_mediaresources.asp#videos (the video explains it much better than I could, and has clips of some of the people that were with us on our trip)

In the afternoon, the large group http://www.flickr.com/photos/24435927@N00/64089123/in/photostream/ was divided into three smaller groups that visited three different villages served by the Bhongir Branch (Nalgonda District) of SKS. It took about 1.5 hours to travel to our village, along a two-lane bumpy highway. The village we visited was just off the this road. We were there to attend a Compulsory Group Training meeting, where 5 new borrowers were admitted to the program, as well as a Group Recognition test, to ensure that the borrower group understands how the program works and what is expected of them. This was quite a moving experience.

The first thing we did was meet the five women who were being initiated, then took a tour of the village to see the homes where these women live. The SKS loan officer is required to do a quick survey of the property and to rate it, using a point system, based on the size and age of the home, as well as whether it had electricy and access to water, etc. The total number of points has to be below a certain number before the woman can qualify for a loan. We followed him around as he rated the homes of each of the 5 women.

Photos of borrowers in their homes:

It was a wonderful experience to see the home where these women live. We were impressed with how clean they were, even though they were very simple. The whole village seemed much cleaner than some of the other areas we had seen. The women were a bit shy, but still let us take some pictures. One of the girls was just 19 years old and had a 9 month old baby.

After touring their homes, we went into the little yard outside the home of one of the borrowers and watched the loan officer explain about interest. It was fascinating to watch, as the women are all illiterate and he had to use stones. He also taught them the borrower's pledge, which goes like this:

"We shall attend the weekly meetings without fail.
We shall pay back the loan installments without fail to our Sangam.
We shall help the needy in our Sangam, whenever required.
All the Sangam members will abide by the rules and responsibilities of the Sangam.
We shall use the loan amounts taken from the Sangam for uplifting our family economy."

For those of you wondering what a Sangam is, here is an excerpt from the SKS website that explains it.
"As groups are formed within a village, a collective or Sangam evolves which consists of a maximum of eight groups or 40 members. Sangam meetings are held on a weekly basis during which SKS staff collect and record group savings, loan distributions, and loan repayments. In addition, weekly sangam meetings serve as a forum for discussion of loan proposals, loan utilization, and community issues. Each Sangam elects a leader and deputy leader who are responsible for facilitating meetings and ensuring proper compliance with SKS procedures."

Everyone in the village was very interested in seeing who we were. Some gathered around us and others stared from a distance. We quickly made friends with the children when we brought out bubbles and stickers. The kids really liked it when we took pictures of them with our digital cameras, and then showed them what they looked like. We would usually start by taking a picture of one or two kids. Then a couple more would come and want their picture taken. Then a few more, until we had a whole crowd. The adults liked it when we took their pictures too.

There was one young woman who stood out to me. See http://www.flickr.com/photos/24435927@N00/64089124/in/photostream/ (she is the one in the green). She spoke a little bit of English, and so we were able to communicate a bit. She had the most beautiful smile, and had a certain glow about her. She asked me who my husband was, and then said, "family". I had some photos of my family that I brought out to show her and told her that this was my family. I told her I have 4 daughters and 1 son. I showed her my daughter's wedding picture, and she pointed to Jeff and said "husband." I said, "yes." She smiled and told some of the other women to come and look. Pretty soon I had a whole group of women standing around me to look at my photos. They all smiled, and at that moment I felt a real bond of sisterhood because family was something we could all relate to.

When I looked out at these beautiful women and children, I couldn't help thinking about in the caste system how they are classified as "untouchables". How sad! They were beautiful and bright to me. It was a very moving experience when they all gathered outside our bus to wave goodbye.

To see photos of our visit to the village, you can click on the following links:

When we arrived back at the hotel in the evening, we were greeted by a lot of security guards and one of those metal detector things that we had to walk through before we were allowed to get on the elevator. This was because the Prime Minister of Mauritius was staying in our hotel. He was in Hyderabad to meet the governor and to visit with representatives of Bharat Electronics Limited, followed by a visit to Hitec City. I guess it was a pretty big deal because the newspaper said that the Hyderabad Police announced restrictions on traffic movements on some routes in the city in connection with his visit. Unfortunately, we saw all the hoopla, but didn't actually see the Prime Minister.

We did however have a surprise later in the evening. As we were standing outside of the banquet room waiting for the hotel staff to get our dinner ready, a beautiful young couple in traditional Indian clothing, followed by a large group of phototgraphers, walked by. We wondered what was going on, until we read the bulletin board that tells what is going on in all the banquet rooms. It turns out that there was a press meeting for the new Bollywood blockbuster, Taj Mahal, An Eternal Love story http://www.panjabicity.co.uk/news/?c=59&a=1218, in the room next door to ours. So we had fun watching the papparazzi and observing the two stars. When we walked out of the banquet room after dinner, the crowds had dissipated somewhat, and the reporters were interviewing the producer/director of the film. A young man approached us and started chitchatting, asking us who we were and where we were from. Then he told us that he was working on the movie (I can't remember what he did exactly). We walked along slowly together, chatting away, when all of a sudden he looked over to a beautiful young woman sitting on a bench alone, and introduced her to us as the main actress in the movie. Her name is Sonya Jehan http://www.telegraphindia.com/1050409/asp/calcutta/story_4594850.asp , and she told us that her mother is French and her father Pakistani. She aked us about ourselves, then told us that this was her first movie, and that she wasn't sure if she would do another one because she is a private person and was not enjoying all the publicity, and that she loves acting. She also told us that in real life she is married, but is not supposed to tell that to everyone. She is an extremely attractive girl, and it was a real thrill to have met her. I hope that we will be able to see the movie some day. Here's a link to an article that we cut out of the newspaper, telling all about her and the movie http://www.hindu.com/fr/2005/10/28/stories/2005102802240100.htm

Sunday, November 13, 2005

India - Day 4

Today was our last day in Mumbai, so we decided to brave the crowds once more so we could buy some souvenirs. We walked along the street behind the hotel, and it didn't take long before we attracted a crowd of beggars. It was interesting to watch them try out a few English phrases to gain our friendship. I'm not sure how much English they actually understood, but they certainly knew how to ask your name, where you are from, if this is your first time in Bombay, and please give me money. Two little boys, about ten or eleven, began following us around as kept pointing to their mouths and saying, "rice, eat". They would also point to some of the food in some of the food stands along the street, and then repeat the same thing. It tood me a while before I realized that they wanted us to buy them some food. I wish I had brought some granola bars with me from the hotel that I could have given to them.

I stopped at a little booth on the sidewalk that had a large collection of cheap bangles. The owner was a nice man who wasn't overly pushy, which I appreciated. I purchased 5 bracelets for 700 rupees, which I think was an okay price. Then we decided to start walking back to the hotel. By this time we were being followed by the same 2 boys, a guy in traditional Indian clothing trying to give me some little round balls (?) for Diwali that were supposed to bring me good luck, a lady with a small child and a baby in her arms and a teenage girl who told me she was pregnant and tried to give me a "free" flower bracelet. We were doing our best to ignore them all when we came upon a very disturbing sight. On the corner sat a boy who was extremely disfigured. It is hard to describe, but it almost looked as though the boys legs had been broken, and were now bent upwards and hanging behind his head. I had to wonder if he had been maimed or something so that he would be able to bring in more money, as I had heard that this is quite common, and it sure didn't look like something you'd be born with. Anyway, he had his hand out and Gary couldn't resist any longer and gave the boy some money. Immediately, the others who were following us became more aggressive and started begging again. Gary then tried to give the woman with the baby some money when one of the young boys quickly grabbed it out of his hand, ripping it in two. Gary had to wrestle the boy to get it back from him so he could give it to the woman. After that the beggars got even more aggressive and vocal, so we decided we had better get back to the hotel as quickly as possible. We walked the remaining 3 or 4 blocks back to the hotel with the whole group in tow, and were finally rescued by a security guard who chased them away. Another exhausting excursion!

Back at the hotel, we were able to see our new friend Liz one more time before taking a taxi to the airport, on our way to Hyderabad. At the airport we were grateful for the wonderful service we received from a luggage handler who helped us find the right desk to check in at. It's a good thing Gary still had a pocket full of rupees for the tip.

As we taxied out to the runway to get ready for takeoff, I looked out the airplane window and saw the infamous Dharavi slum. Here is an excerpt from a recent article in the Globe and Mail newspaper describing Dharavi. "Welcome to Dharavi, a squalid patch of land near Mumbai's international airport that has laid claim to an unenviable distinction: Asia's biggest slum. An estimated one million people are crammed into less than two square kilometres, and almost unimaginable density, considering most of these ramshackle buildings are just two storeys high. The stench is often as appalling as the living conditions and residents are plagued by a chronic shortage of safe drinking water, proper sanitation and medicine."

Needless to say, it is quite a life-changing experience to see this kind of poverty. We are still trying to process it all.

In Hyderabad, we were met at the airport by Jayme Hommer from Unitus, the organization that we are travelling with over the next few days. She is responsible for organizing the trip from here on out. We met one of the other people from our group at the airport, then took a van back to the Kakatiya Sheraton Hotel. We had a few hours to rest and clean up, then we attended a dinner reception where we met all the people who would be travelling in our group. There are 28 in all, and they have come from all over the world (London, US, Canada, Germany) For those of you who would like to know more about Unitus and the work that they are doing to help alleviate poverty throughout the world, visit http://www.unitus.com/

Friday, November 11, 2005

India - Day 3 - Part 3

The final three destinations on our city tour of Mumbai were Haji Ali, Dhobi Ghat and Mani Bhavan.
Haji Ali is a really cool mosque that sits in the middle of the Arabian Sea at the end of a long causeway. At high tide, the mosque becomes an island (like Mont Saint Michel in France). This mosque contains the tomb of Haji Ali, who is a Muslim saint. He is believed to have been a wealthy local businessman who renounced the material world and meditated on nearby land after a pilgrimage to Mecca. Other versions of the story say that Haji Ali died on a pilgrimage to Mecca and his casket miraculously floated back to Mumbai and landed at this spot.

Dhobi Ghat was one of the most interesting things that we saw in Mumbai. It is an outdoor laundry where clothes are cleaned in open-air troughs to beat the dirt out them, then hung to dry. The clothes are brought from all over the city. The whole area looks kind of dirty, but amazingly the clothes get quite clean (I'm not sure about the whites). Apparently, they have some kind of special way of marking the clothes so they know what belongs to who! I read that many of the nice hotels bring their uniforms here to get laundered.

Mani Bhavan, the final stop on our tour, is the building where Mahatma Gandhi stayed when he visited Bombay between 1917 and 1934. They have turned it into a museum with displays that show highlights from Gandhi's life, along with some of his more famous quotes and letters that he wrote to famous leaders and authors. On the second floor they have encased in glass the actual room where Gandhi stayed, complete with original furnishings and other items that belonged to him. The brochure that we received at the museum stated that "Guandhi took his first lessons in carding from a carder who used to pass by Mani Bhavan every day in 1917. He also learned spinning here. Gandhi started his historic fast in 1921 to restore peace in the city of Bombay here. He was also arrested in his tent on the terrace of Mani Bhavan in 1932. Visiting this museum has made me want to rent the movie "Gandhi" again when we return to Canada. Gandhi's message of truth and non-violence were very inspiring.

As you can see, Day 3 of our trip was a long one, filled with a lot of sightseeing. When we got back to the hotel, we decided to go for a workout in the fitness centre to unwind. It was really nice and had all the most up-to-date equipment. In the ladie's locker room, there was an attendant who took really good care of everyone, and one in the men's locker room as well. I loved being pampered, but Gary found it a little trying when the attendant in the male side stood about 6 inches away and tried to practically undress him! It was a little more service than he wanted.

For dinner that night we went to a fantasic Japanese restaurant in the hotel that served sushi and tepanyaki (I think that's what you call it). Who ever thought we'd be eating Japanese food in India!

Thursday, November 10, 2005

India - Day 3 - Part 2

Our tour continued across the street to another market, this one dedicated to clothing, jewelry and just about anything else you might need. It was here that our tour guide took us to one of the shops that sells scarves and pashminas. The guide said that we didn't have to buy anything, but it was obvious that he had some kind of connection to the owner, who immediately took us to the back of the shop in a secluded viewing area where he proceeded to show us his wares. I was particularly interested in some beautiful silk and cashmere scarves, but still having no idea of the actual value of things, I decided to do as the tour book said, and offer him half of what he was asking. He immediately tried to sell me more than two and the negotiating continued. Gary kept laughing at me, and really wasn't much help at all. In the end, I paid 1800 rupees ($54. CD)for two scarves. I have no idea if I got taken, but it worked out to about a 10% discount. All Gary could do is laugh. I soon realized that bargaining is an art that needs to be practised to be any good at it.

At the end of the street was a cool looking mosque or temple. I later found out that it is called Mumbadevi Temple, and is dedicated to the patron goddess of the island's orginal inhabitants. We didn't go inside.

After the scarf shopping, we decided we had seen enough and proceeded to leave the market. On our way out we were approached by a rather aggressive street hawker who tried to sell us a pair of sunglasses. He assured us that they were "real" Nike sunglasses, and that he was giving us the best deal in Bombay. The price decreased dramatically as we continued to tell him we weren't interested. He was so persistant, he followed us all the way out of the market and across the street to where the car was parked. Even our driver couldn't get rid of him. He continue to hound us while we got in the car. I snapped this picture as we drove away.
Our tour continued along Marine Drive, which is also known as the Queen's Necklace, because of the dramatic curve of its streetlight at night. This picture was taken on our way to Malabar Hill, which is an expensive residential area (it didn't seem all that ritzy to us), and is looking toward the financial district of Bombay. The next three stops that we took were all in Malabar Hill.

Jain temple- There are at least four million Jains in India today. Jainism was founded in the 6th century BC by a guy named Mahavira, who was a contemporary of Buddha. Jains believe that you have to achieve complete purity of the soul before you can attain liberation. In order to do that, they believe in fasting, meditation, and retreating to places of solitude. They also believe in nonviolence. They are a wealthy community and spend a lot of money keeping their temples in good order.

The temple itself is quite ornate. I was surprised that I was allowed to take pictures inside. I did get in a bit of trouble when, while trying to get a good shot, I accidently came between a marble alter and a figure of one of their gods who was in a cage. I quickly apologized and moved on.

In the center of the temple, there was some kind of a ceremony going on. There was a group of three men, dressed in traditional Jain clothing, standing around a table burning incense and chanting something over and over. It kind of reminded me of the Hari Krishnas we used to see in downtown Calgary in the 70s. Meanwhile, people came in and began praying to various figures around the outer walls of the temple.

This is a picture of one of the gods in the Jain temple. Most of the other ones we saw were behind bars. I'm not sure why.

The next stop on our tour was the Hanging Gardens. I'm not sure why they call it that, as I didn't see anything hanging there. There were a lot of bushes sculpted into animal shapes, but other than that, it was pretty unspectacular. The entrance to the park was crowded with a number of hawkers trying to sell postcards and peacock feather fans. My favourite thing though, was a man who had a monkey that did tricks. He made it dance first, and then he called out "fight!" and it began hitting him on the head with a stick. It was entertaining, so I took a picture, which I had to pay for, of course.

Across the street from the Hanging Gardens is Kamala Nehru Park. It is a lot smaller but has nice views of Chowpatty Beach, Marine Drive and the city. I must say that these two parks didn't really impress me all that much. They are kind small and there wasn't really any place to sit down. I watched a couple of kids kicking an old AA battery around for a while and got this nice picture of the city. Right near here, hidden in the trees, our driver showed us a place called the Parsi Towers of Silence. It is the place where Parsis (the Parsi are a remnant of the great Persian Empire, and followers of the Persian prophet Zoroaster) bring their dead to be picked clean by vultures. This is because they hold fire, earth and water to be sacred, so they don't cremate or bury them. It's kind of a secret place and they don't like sightseers there. With good reason, I might add.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

India - Day 3 - Part 1

We started out the day having breakfast in the private lounge of the hotel, on the same floor as our room, overlooking the ocean. It was on the 6th floor, so we had a birds eye view of the Gateway of India. It was much more pleasant looking at it from here, where we could avoid all the hawkers. The service at the hotel was wonderful and the staff were very helpful. After breakfast, we decided to venture outside of our safe cocoon once more, only this time we hired a driver from the hotel to take us on a tour of the south part of Mumbai.

Our first stop was the Mumbai University Building. It is one of a group of buildings that were constructed during the building boom of the 1860s. It was designed by a man named Gilbert Scott, who also designed the St Pancras Station in London. It is pretty impressive. My tour book describes it as as a building that "looks like a 15th century Italian masterpiece dropped into the middle of an Indian metropolis." Apparently, the clock used to play "God Save the Queen" and "Home Sweet Home" every hour.

We also visited the neighbouring High Court building and the Victoria Terminus, which is the Bombay equivalent of Grand Central Station in New York. I snapped this picture because I was amazed to see these two men pushing their cart down the middle of a busy road, oblivious to the traffic. This is an example of why people say "India is a study in contrasts."

As we continued to drive around the city a number of things surprised me. First, was the sheer magnitude of the population. There are so many people everywhere, and the majority seem to be male. Where are all the women?

Second, was the poor state of the buildings, even in the "wealthy" areas. We were told that the insides of some of them are really nice, but with the exception of a few high rises in the financial district, you sure couldn't tell that from looking at the outside.

The third thing I noticed was the proximity of the poor to the wealthy. There are many poor people living on the streets everywhere, right at the feet of the more affluent.

Fourth, was the complete chaos in the traffic. But it was sort of an organized chaos. Horns are honking constantly, there are few traffic lights, no one observes lanes and the roads criss-cross all over the place. And in the midst of this you'll find people riding motorbikes with no helmuts, a child on the front and women holding a baby and sitting side-saddle on the back, or a couple of guys pushing a cart (as in the photo above). There seems to be no rules, but after observing it for while, we realized that the rules were just different from what we were used to. For instance, the honking was not done in anger, but to notify other drivers of your position on the road. We were later told that the only rule was you have to stay within an inch of the other vehicles. Crazy!

Because of the large numbers of people, there was almost a feeling of lawlessness, yet we felt quite safe. There were police around, but not very many considering the number of people, and I wondered how they could control them anyway. We never heard any sirens or saw anyone pulled over for traffic violations.

The next place on our tour was the Crawford Market. The market is organized into several sections, each devoted to selling a different commodity. The first section we came to was the fruits and vegetables area. This part of the market was my favourite because it was really colourful, and there were many fruits that I had never seen before.

Another section of the market we saw was the place where they sell live animals. There were little cages everywhere filled with cockatoos, pigeons, and even mice and other rodents. There were also some cute little puppies. Since we had seen a lot of pretty pathetic looking dogs on the streets, I wondered who would buy a dog and where they would keep one if they did.

This dirty little barefoot boy followed us all around the market. I wondered how he could stay healthy with so many germs around him. Perhaps he has developed an immunity to them from the constant exposure.

This interesting fountain in the central courtyard of the market was designed by Rudyard Kipling's father and is part of what is considered one of the last outposts of British Bombay. It is buried beneath boxes of fruit and seems to be a popular place for a Sunday afternoon nap!

The next section of the market that we visited was the place where you could buy fresh chicken. This place gives new meaning to the word "fresh!" There were a couple of men there who would take a live chicken and slit its throat, then put in a box to bleed to death. As soon as it was dead, they would pluck it and clean out the insides, right in front of you.

The worst part was the horrible smell, and the fact that they were sitting in middle of all the chicken parts. I guess you would get used to it after a while, and cooking does destroy a lot of germs!
Around the corner from the chickens we found the meat market. This place is only for the bravest of the brave! I have never smelled anything like it in my life! I had to breathe through my mouth so I wouldn't have to smell it. It made me gag. We didn't actually see anything get slaughtered, but the leftover bones were laying all over the place, and were being eaten by stray dogs, cats and birds. We saw one guy grinding some meat, and in the midst of all this, there were men laying down having a nap. I became a vegetarian that day!

India - Day 2

We had a good night's sleep and had breakfast in one of the restaurants in the hotel. Man, did it ever smell like curry! You could smell it all the way down the hall! They had a great buffet with a large selection of Indian dishes. Unfortunately, I can't remember the names of anything we ate, but we really enjoyed trying out all the different foods with their myriad of flavours.

After we ate we decided that it was time to venture outside the hotel and go for a little stroll. There is a famous monument called "The Gateway of India" right next to our hotel. This is where all the ships and passengers arrived in India for many years. Apparently, the last Englishman to leave India left through this gate.

The minute we left the hotel and crossed over to the other side of the street it was obvious that we had entered another world. We were immediately accosted by what seemed like several hundred people trying to sell us everything from postcards and maps of Bombay to giant balloons, roasted nuts and even a shoe shine. There were also a number of beggars who approached us. One particularly persistent women tried to give me a wrist band made of flowers, insisting that it was a free gift. She followed me all around the monument, trying to make friendly conversation. "What's your name?" "Is this your first time in Bombay?" "Take this bracelet as a gift." About halfway around she decided it was time to go in for the kill. She held out her hand and said "I need milk for my baby. Please give me money so I can buy milk for my baby." Gary and I had become separated in all the fray, but were able to communicate our desire, at this point, to go back to the hotel. The beggar woman stayed at my side the whole time, not letting up, until we crossed the street back to the hotel. Our stroll only lasted about ten minutes, but it was absolutely exhausting! We were constantly telling people "no", which seemed to make no difference to them.

(Just a word about beggers in India. We were told that the best way to deal with them is to try and ignore them, which is not that easy to do, especially for the more soft-hearted folk. Apparently, in the big cities, there are gangs that force people to beg, then take the money, so you are not even sure that the money is going to the person you give it to. The other problem is that there are so many people living in poverty, that you can't possibly even make a dent, and you run the risk of either starting a riot, or endangering the person that you give the money to. The tour books encourage you to give to a charity in India, rather than hand out money on the street.)

To recover from our little walk, we decided to wander around the hotel and check out some of the shops. We saw some beautiful clothing and textiles, but were afraid to buy anything because we had no idea whether the prices were reasonable or not. There was one particularly beautiful shawl that they wanted about $1200 CD for. It would have been beautiful to display it in our home, but I was reluctant to purchase something so expensive without knowing it's true value. After we visited most of the shops in the hotel, we thought about going back outside again, but decided we hadn't quite recovered sufficiently from our first outing. We realized that in a way, we were prisoners in the hotel, and would have to develop better coping skills or we weren't going to see anything outside its walls.

Later in the afternoon, after lunch, we decided to muster up our courage and venture outside again. We were told that there was some good shopping on the streets behind the hotel. We walked along one of the side streets, and it wasn't long before a cute young barefoot girl carrying her baby sister latched on to us. She was quite charming but we knew we couldn't give her money or we would be thronged. So we did our best to smile and brush her off. Later another girl and her sister followed us around, trying to make friendly conversation and butter us up. "You look like movie stars," they said. They will try anything here to befriend you before they start asking for money!

In the evening we ate Indian food again. My favourite thing has to be the Indian fried bread. I think it's called Roti or Chapati. It is made from small balls of dough that are rolled out and then partially cooked on a hot griddle, then finished directly over high heat. This makes them puff up into a ball. Then they are lightly coated with some kind of oil to keep them soft. Yum!

In the evening we went to the business centre to try and send a few e-mails. While we were there we struck up a conversation with a woman from New York, named Liz, who is a shoe designer. She has a supplier in India who makes the shoes she designs, so she spends a lot of time in India. It was fun visiting with her and learning more about the country from an American business woman's point of view, and from someone who had been there enough times to understand the culture better then us. We had a great time visiting and getting know about her and her family, and decided to go for "drinks" in the lounge. She introduced us to a traditional Indian drink called Nimbu panni, which is a combination of lime juice concentrate and soda water. It was yummy! It was really fun getting to know Liz. That is one of the fun things about travelling, all the cool people you meet. We couldn't help but wonder what all the other North Americans and Europeans who were staying at the hotel were doing in India. I'm sure everyone has an interesting story.

Liz told us that there was a promotional event going on for Mac cosmetics, and Linda Evangelista (Canadian supermodel) was staying at the hotel, since she is their spokesperson. Apparently she hates India and doesn't like leaving her hotel room! We didn't see her, but there were a lot of people walking around all dressed up in the hotel lobby. Many of the women were dressed in their traditional saris, but we also saw a lot of younger girls in western style dress. And yes, teenage girls in India travel in packs, just like they do at home!

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Some pictures of our hotel in Mumbai (Bombay).

Sunset in Bombay.

The doorman.

The grand staircase.

The view from our room.

Arrival in India

Day 1
We arrived in Mumbai (formerly called Bombay) at 11:30 pm on Oct 21, 2005. Just before we landed, the pilot gave us the current weather as being about 78 degrees and smokey! Smokey!! Sure enough, when I looked out the window on our descent, instead of the usual white fluffy clouds, there were clouds of black smoke! I have no idea where it came from, but there it was. I have been told that it could be from the fires that people set to keep warm. Apparently, many people burn cow dung for this purpose.
The first thing that I noticed on disembarking from the plane was a very distinct smell. I can't say that it was a very pleasant smell, in fact quite the opposite. It reminded me of the smell of a Viking village that was reproduced at a display in the Jorvik Centre in York, England. The smell followed us throughout our trip and I am quite sure now that it was the smell of rotting garbage and open sewage mixed with smoke and car exhaust. They say that breathing the air in India is like smoking two packs a day! I believe it!
The airport was quite a bit nicer than I had expected, although it was still a bit antiquated when compared with North American or European airports. Getting our luggage was a real experience. The electronic belt didn't have a ledge, so it was easy for the bags to fall off and get jammed. People were swarming all around it at least 3 or 4 deep, and in order to have any chance of getting close to it you had to have really good elbows. Gary was right in there, and someone commented to him that he must have been here in Delhi before. While we were waiting for the luggage to arrive, I felt the urge to go to the bathroom. I was a little nervous about this because I wasn't sure if they had toilets there or not. I had heard that in some places all they have is a hole in the ground. Fortunately they did, but one thing I wasn't counting on was the washroom attendants who hand you a paper towel to dry off your hands, then hold out their hand for a tip afterwards. Gary had all the rupees with him, so I didn't know quite what to do when one of the ladies held out her hand. I indicated that I had no money (in sign language), to which she replied that American money would be fine ("American", she said). I said I only have Canadian, and gave her all that I had, which was a $5 bill. She and her friend looked at it strangely and continued to examine it for a few minutes after I left. She seemed happy enough, and well she should have been! The usual tip for something like that is about 10 rupees (about 30 cents CD).
At the airport, thankfully we were greeted by a driver from the hotel, who helped us get to the van. There were literally throngs of people waiting outside the airport doors. The driver had to guard our luggage quite carefully to make sure no one grabbed any of it. We had to turn down several requests for taxi service as well.
The ride to the hotel was quite an experience of first impressions! Even though it was late, after midnight, there were still people everywhere. We drove through some really poor areas where the homes were made out of what looked like cardboard, and there were people sleeping all over the sidewalks. One thing that I noticed was that I didn't see very many women, mostly men. I'm not sure whether there are more men than women in India (I've been told that this is the case), or if the women were all indoors. The women I did see were dressed in lovely, colourful saris.
The road didn't seem to have any lanes and the cars just honk their horns when someone gets in the way. They drive on the left side of the road (like in England), and there are many motorcycles, which I think would be really scary under those rules. I will comment more on the traffic later, but suffice it to say that it was like nothing I had ever seen before. And no one wears helmets!
The ride from the airport to the hotel took about 45 minutes. We were greeted at the door by a guy dressed in some kind of traditional Indian outfit. That was cool. The Taj Mahal hotel is a 5 star hotel by any standard, and is quite an impressive building. It overlooks the Indian ocean and was built in 1903 by a guy named Jamshtiji Nusserwanji Tata who is a famous rich guy in India. The grand staircase in the old part is stunning, and our room had a beautiful view of the swimming pool below. We quickly settled into bed for a good night's sleep, which was much needed after 24 hours of travelling!