Posted November 6, 2009 from India
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The next morning I awoke to another new experience…train travel in India (an eight hour trip from Vijayawada to Wardha). The car for the organization was being used so my guide’s brother (a world renowned doctor and atheist speaker) hailed me a rickshaw with a driver strong enough to lift my luggage. When traveling for two months bags can get pretty big and the men in India are pretty small so it could be a painful combination for a driver who tries to lift my bag. The doctor explained to the driver that I needed to go to the train station and that I needed a porter (or two) to help me get my bags on the train. This was the first time I was setting out alone in a rickshaw and I was a bit nervous about how helpful the driver would actually be in finding me a porter. We whizzed through the streets around cars and motorcycles. Every time we stopped at an intersection people would stare at this seemingly American girl dressed in Indian clothes riding in a rickshaw. This was the best way to experience the city I had seen yet…the wind blew the smell of the food from Indian hotels right into my nose as I waved to school children and onlookers along the way. We arrived at the train station which was much larger than I had anticipated (it rivals an Amtrack station in the U.S. for sure). As we pulled up my driver told me in broken English to stay with my bags and ran off to find a porter. He brought back a boy who was smaller than me and I will admit I doubted this kid would be able to stand under the weight of my carry on let alone my hiker’s backpack. He took the towel that was on his shoulder and wrapped it around his head (like the women who carry big loads out in the villages) and loaded my big bag onto his head. He almost toppled under the weight but then gained his bearings and grabbed my duffle bag which I had tried to insist I carry. We ran up and down stairs over at least three sets of tracks to reach the area of the station where my train would be arriving. He put my bags down and went to talk with the other porters until the train arrived. The tracks where I was standing soon became packed with people as this is the main mode of transportation for long journeys in India. Everyone had a small duffle bag and would stare at the large bag I was sitting on in amazement that someone would travel with that much luggage. When I arrived one train was in the station and people were piling in and out of it like people in the malls of the U.S. during the Christmas season. Finally, the train pulled away and mine pulled in.

The porter ran over and grabbed my big bag and led me to the right compartment, 3 Tier AC. He took me to seat 30 which was a bottom bunk and looked ok for eight hours of travel but then I saw on my ticket I was supposed to be in seat 13. I told him and we made our way further down the compartment to a middle bunk that was about two feet in height and had someone sleeping on the bottom bunk so the middle bunk could not be put down to make a big bench seat (three tier means three bunk beds that stick out from the wall, each bunk bed can be released and laid flat against the wall so that the bottom seat is like a big bench for the travelers). The porter did his best to wedge my bag under the bottom bunk but only about ten percent of it fit underneath. I climbed into my bunk where I could not sit up or move because I had to share the tiny space with my carry on duffle bag. I shimmied off my shoes and tried to fall asleep so that I could hopefully wake up when I arrived at my destination. Unfortunately when traveling with a few hundred other people it is unlikely that you will sleep eight hours uninterrupted.

I woke up every half hour or so to the girl across from me yelling at someone on her cell phone or to the train workers coming through the cabin to offer snacks and drinks that they would announce like those people who sell lemonade at the baseball games. Finally I saw a two tier bunk (only two bunks, much more space) across the way that had been empty for about an hour. I took my computer and climbed up so that I could relieve my back by sitting up for awhile. No sooner did I turn on my computer than did an Indian couple sitting across ask where I was from…I quickly apologized if I had taken their seat but they assured me that I was free to sit there. I quickly found out they had two children both teenage boys and had visited the States multiple times. They were natives of the Indian state Tamil Nadu which is right next to Kerala and speaks Tamil (which is what most of the orphan boys speak). We began talking about why I had come to India and their trips to the U.S. They were very excited about my work and told me about their ministry work with teaching women tailoring. I told them I was really interested to hear more because I may be able to provide some of the women with loans to purchase machines. They were overjoyed and immediately took down my contact information so that we could correspond over email. Immediately adopting me as their American daughter the wife pulled corn flakes and oatmeal out of her bag (they were the American brands too!). My eyes lit up as I had not had American food since I was home. The husband even went and got milk so I could eat the cereal right there. They were so pleased with my excitement and I was so grateful for their kindness. I found out later that the man had arranged for another thermas of milk to be brought for me after a few hours and that he had told the train attendee to make sure I got off at the right station. That couple really brightened my day and their compassion for a total stranger touched me. I think there is a lesson to be learned here about showing unconditional love for others even if they are strangers to us. Before getting off the train I visited the bathroom…now there is an experience. Imagine looking down to see tracks moving beneath you while trying to balance when the train is going full speed. It ended up being a challenge to see whether I could not fall through the hole or into the wall. Outside the bathroom was a sign that said not to take food from strangers because they drug passengers and then steal from them. There was a story in the news not too long ago about this…a French passenger was drugged and then ran out onto the tracks at a stop and was hit by a train. Though this was a very serious matter the sign was pretty funny because it seemed like a School House Rock lesson for kids, “don’t go near strangers even if they offer you candy.” Finally it was getting close to my stop and the attendant came to help me move my bag to the door. The trains stop for a very short time so you have to line up by the door prior to arrival and jump out with your bag at the stop. After arriving my guides took me to dinner at a restaurant where I witnessed something I had never seen in Kerala…boys and girls eating together. I came to find out that the northern states are much more liberal than Kerala but are still considerably more conservative than the U.S. We then headed back to where I would stay…Ghandi’s ashram!

I was super excited to be staying where Ghandi spent the last years of his life. I arrived to a wonderful room with a welcome basket of bread and cheese that the organization I was working with had made. The huts were so neat and the gardens were amazing. I settled in and fell in love with the charm and peacefulness of the place…or what I thought would be peaceful. Little did I know that the spider was not even close to the worst of my worries as far as creatures in my room. The first night was amazing uninterrupted sleep that helped me prepare for the meetings I had while in Wardha. The second night I awoke to a chewing sound in my roof…at first I thought maybe a bird was stuck under the eaves. Then I heard the crinkling of plastic wrappers…then an empty water bottle was knocked over…then I turned on my flashlight to see a rat poke its head out of my carry on bag. I did the only thing that had worked on the spider before…I began screaming but was too afraid to get out of my mosquito net and throw anything. I awoke in the morning to find the rats had eaten through my canvas carry on bag to get to my food and had devoured my welcome basket. No worries though because with everything they took from me they left little presents behind in their place…I think you know what I mean. The third night was even worse because now my shrieking did not even slow them down. I had thrown all the food away but they still chewed on my bag and the crumbs that they had left the night before. I was so scared one would fall through the roof on my mosquito net that I couldn’t sleep at all. Up to this point in my trip I have faced snakes, rats, mosquitoes, spiders…I can’t imagine what I will be tested with next.

While in Wardha I attended three meetings of deserted women and widows, set up by the organization I was visiting. The first meeting was about two hours away from the ashram at a city council center in a cluster village (a village at the center of many other villages where most of the commerce activities are centered). We ate and had chai at one of the women city council member’s house before going to the meeting. I was told we ate at her house because it far surpassed the quality of the others in the village with tile floors and furniture (couches and chairs, not the plastic furniture). I soon saw this was very true as the other houses were huts with dirt floors and no windows; they were hidden from the road by palm frond woven fences. Upon arriving to the civic center which was two buildings, one with small offices and another that was a meeting hall, there was a large group gathered in the street. I was wondering why so many men would be gathered here for our meeting but I came to find out that a snake had entered the village. Some men were trying to kill it and remove the snake before it entered one of the stores off the main street where the center was located. After seeing what all the commotion was about I entered the hall where the meeting was and could not believe the amount of women gathered here…there had to be at least 50 women and most very young. Our group walked in and sat on chairs in front of all the women sitting on blankets on the floor (many facilities do not have enough chairs to accommodate that many people so they most often sit on the floor). We were introduced by the city leader and presented with flowers as a welcome. Once the meeting got underway by a show of hands I saw most of the women there were deserted women but by a very slim margin over the widows. Just as with the meeting in Vijayawada I asked women to share their stories. A young girl in the front stood up and explained how she was abandoned by her husband and then kicked out of her in-laws house. She is unable to go back to her parents and joined the SHG so that she could hopefully start her own business with a small loan. She was the first woman that I had heard was taking legal action against her in-laws. Many women are too ashamed to do this but the courts are now doing a lot to ensure that these women receive at least their dowry back. The dowry system is still in place here in India and when two people get married the woman’s parents make a monetary (or sometimes animal, jewelry, etc.) offer to the man’s parents. If the man deserts the woman or tries to kill her in the first year of marriage (this happens quite often) then the women or their families are entitled to the dowry and sometimes more. Another girl stood up about my age with a baby in her arms, she was a widow. The father of her baby had died while the child was still in the womb. Her mother was there and would frequently take the one year old outside when it started crying. She had such pain in her face…imagine a young girl, a child still herself losing her husband and raising a child on her own. You could see her fear of how she would provide a life for this child as her mother was unable to work and she had not worked since the baby was born (daycare is not an option here as it costs too much). She wanted to make leaf plates from home so that she could be with her child and care for her mother. What compassion and maturity for a young girl to be in such a difficult place and be looking out for her mother and child. In most western societies we expect our parents to look out for us if we really needed help but here your parents become your dependents because saving money is non-existent. Many stories similar to these two followed throughout the meeting. What was different about this meeting from all the others I had to this point was the creative ideas…most women I had talked to wanted a cow, buffalo, goats, etc. These women wanted to make leaf plates, pico machines for tailoring, make brooms, run shoe stores, make soaps, etc. I credit this creativity a lot to the organization I was working with in the area. They really teach women that they can do anything, even traditionally male jobs. I also give due credit to these women who have decided they have suffered enough and do not want to pass this lifestyle on to their children. Something else unique happened at this meeting…the girl who had stood up first once again stood before the group to ask when they would be receiving help . I had yet to face this in all my meetings because at the beginning of each meeting everyone is told I am here purely for research. I was a little frustrated at first because I compared her to all the other women who had selflessly offered their time at the other meetings…but when I put myself into her shoes I began to feel like someone drowning reaching for a hand that is just out of reach. Is that not a logical question to ask? She is there suffering day in and day out and my visit has sparked a belief in her that she could change the path of her life with my hand. To her all I need to do is simply reach down into that water and lift her out. If only it were that simple…the guides reiterated that I was there for research and would be doing whatever I could to help them. After another round of chai and lots of hand shakes from the women we got into the car to head back to the ashram so that I could get plenty of rest for the next two meetings…little did I know the rats were waiting for me.

Thenext morning after little sleep we grabbed breakfast and three cups of highly caffeinated chai before we headed out to the next two meetings. These meetings were very similar to the first except there was a much higher widow population. There were less creative ideas than the day before…I believe because the organization is newer in these areas. When we were getting a lot of the same ideas (buffaloes, fancy shops, provision stores, etc.) one of the members of the organization stood up and presented some ideas of jobs that women could easily do with training but were considered to be male jobs. She told me that you have to start planting these seeds and then reiterate them many times before a woman will try them (i.e. TV repair, motorcycle repair, gas stove repair, etc.). Some women face ridicule in the villages and have trouble getting business when they take on traditionally male roles. None of the women took to these ideas in the meeting but it will be interesting to see when one woman makes that choice if others will follow. In between meetings in the villages, which were very close to each other, we went to eat at a Hindu temple. It was like a monument in the U.S., surrounded by a large park and was really beautiful. The temple was painted bright orange and was adorned everywhere with fresh flowers. We ate outside the building but when you entered there were niches in the walls featuring ivory statues of different deities. People would bring flowers, coconuts, food, etc. to offer to the gods and pray before them. After finishing their prayer, people would ring a large bell then exit the temple (which I have yet to learn the significance…so if someone knows please do tell). After a quick lunch we were off to the last meeting where I would see something that I never could have fully prepared myself for. ..

We ran the second meeting very much like the first by making suggestions of new jobs for the women and asking them their stories. Right after taking my seat I noticed a woman with white patches on her neck and arms. From about fifteen feet away I just assumed it was a birthmark but was surprised to see she had the Hindu wedding necklace on (men are allowed to see and approve of their wife before marriage and I have been told that many do not choose those that look different or stand out). After talking to about five women this woman stood up and came to the front of the room…I could then see that her left ear was deformed almost in a cauliflower looking shape…at this point I still assumed all of this was a birth defect. As she told her story in Marati (the language of the Maharashtra state of India) I could tell something horrible had happened but I never would have guessed what would be translated to me. Prior to committing suicide this woman’s husband threw kerosene on her and then lit her on fire. She had horrible burns all over her body and what had appeared to be a birthmark were skin grafts. More astonishing than her husband lighting her on fire was that she was still wearing her wedding jewelry. None of us could believe that she would wear anything that reminded her of him…but culturally a woman is most often blamed in these circumstances and you could tell she still blamed herself for his actions. I wanted to run over and hug her then shake her to tell her that she did not deserve this and should not burden herself everyday by wearing a reminder of him. We talked to about twenty more women after this woman but I could not get this story out of my mind. I still remember her face and hope that one day I can help her to stand on her own two feet so that she will recognize her self worth is not determined by anyone else but her.

After our last meeting the organization members took me to a big mosque on top of a bluff. They told me that this was a monument to a saint of the Maharashtra state of India and until recently both Hindus and Muslims worshipped here quite often. Unfortunately politics has driven a rift between those practices in most places but I did see both Hindus and Muslims worshipping there that day. The view was beautiful…the large green and pink mosque was guarded by a large basin of water in the front that was surrounded by grass and a large tree that seemed to serve as protector of the mosque. I made some new friends at the mosque…monkeys! They were running around everywhere stealing food from visitors and playing with each other. I had heard horror stories about biting monkeys so I observed them from behind the safety of my camera lens and did not approach them. Soon the curious little characters ran over after seeing my camera and thinking it was food. Seeing the fear in my eyes one of my guides from the organization jumped out and scared the monkey away. I was scared at first that they would not let a foreigner into the mosque as my guide had warned me but they welcomed me into the room where the tomb was placed without any trepidation. We had to cover our heads with our scarves and went inside a room about eight feet by eight feet to see a mound of offerings. I was told the tomb was under all the offerings. It was amazingly spiritual to be in the presence of so many offerings and scripts written all over the wall in honor of this saint. We came out of the room where the tomb was placed to find that the monkeys were devouring flowers that visitors had brought. After grabbing a quick snack we headed back to the ashram for another sleepless night with the rats before boarding a bus to Amravati…

India tip of the day: Bring a flashlight and mosquito coils everywhere you go because there are two things you can guarantee each day…current cuts and mosquitoes.

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