Friday, March 29, 2002

India - Back in San Francisco

Hey All,

Well, I’m back in San Francisco after a manic week of touring India and London.

Our trip to the North was jam packed and quite frankly, it’s all becoming blurred together. Forts, palaces, temples and mosques. Everything seems to be carved of sandstone and marble and have a story behind it.

The good thing about being on a tour bus is that you get from one place to the other with no messing around, the bad thing is that you are an easy target for the hawkers, “Hello, what country? 100 rupee, only 100. Okay 50 rupee. 10 rupee, 10. 10 rupee… hello.”

Delhi is a huge city filled with people and traffic and huge paved roads. The only difference is there really are cows just walking around, grazing on the median. For those of you who live in SF, imagine that cows are walking around on the median on Van Ness instead of homeless people with cardboard signs. Occasionally have one sleeping in the lane of traffic and you’ve got the picture.

We were touring one mosque in Delhi when our guide said it was time to go. He told us that one of the security guards said the Imam (spiritual leader) was on his was to the mosque to give a speech. He asked our guide where we were from and he casually replied Russia before getting us all to leave. As the bus drove away, we saw the Imam walking along, surrounded by security guards headed towards the mosque. Our guide said he gives quite “fiery” speeches and it was best if we got going… that’s really the closest we came to any drama.

We only spent a morning in Agra and it was mainly to see the Taj Mahal. Contrary to newspaper reports from December, it was not camouflaged. It looks just like it does in all the pictures you’ve seen and being there was another surreal experience. Kind of like going to Machu Picchu in Peru. You’ve seen so many pictures of it, it’s hard to believe you’re really there. Perhaps having to get up at 4:00am to catch the train and being disoriented added to the mystical quality but it was quite impressive. Unfortunately for Tom in our group, I fear his biggest memory will be of being stung by wasps. There are big… and I mean BIG wasp nests hanging from various parts of the building. It’s all well and good until they start flying around your head.

On the inside are replicated tombs of Shah Jahan (who had the Taj Mahal built) and his wife Mumtaz, who it was built for. Inlaid with precious gems, it’s quite a site to see. However, there were many people who had no interest in that but instead, laid on the floor, trying to peel up the grating that covered the staircase down to the tombs where the real coffins were. The people on the floor kept getting whistled at by the guards and would move away only for a moment before getting back on the floor and peeling up the grating.

On to Jaipur in the afternoon, the journey there provided the biggest contrast between north and south. Instead of wall to wall palm trees and crows, there were open fields with women in saris walking along with bundles of sticks on their heads twice as wide as they were. Men stood at the side of the roads grazing sheep, discs of cow dung were stacked in all sorts of decorative manner drying to be used for fuel and camels stood in front of storefronts ready to pull a cart full of goods down the road. It did seem more like pictures you’ve seen of Pakistan or Afghanistan than the tropical India of the south.

At one fort, a woman was walking around under a veil with a tote bag that said “Attack Force Taliban”. I chose to observe and leave, though someone in our group stayed back to try and get a picture.

I’ve got about 14 rolls of film to develop and then sort through before everyone is tortured with, “here’s a bucket of sand, here’s another bucked of sand…”

I’m looking forward to seeing and/or talking to everyone soon but right now I’ve got about 7

tons of laundry calling my name.


Tuesday, March 19, 2002

"Flies, flies, flies yeah... they're gonna get you"

Hey All,

Perhaps it was the cow or the goat or the dog and chickens but today’s worksite also had a lot of flies. No matter, we are a lean machine. We did much of what we do best… haul sand and gravel in rubber buckets. Also got to do a bit of concrete block making, which was not that hard of a job but was in the sun so a bit unpleasant. And that wraps up or last work day.

Tomorrow is a house dedication and then on Thursday we bust a move for the north.

In addition to the work, we have been having some fabulous die trips, “Hello, hello. Please, please, come, come.” So much repetition of words here. I thought one woman’s son was named Jay Jay but really his name is only Jay it was just being repeated for my benefit.

So the side trips… one afternoon we went to this resort about ½ hour to the north in Alapuzha. We went body surfing in the Arabian Sea. My timing is not so good. We also swam around in the pool, and then ate dinner while a band that was hired for us played Jingle Bells. It was almost a precious as hearing the little girls in the schools sing Skip to My Lou.

Over the weekend, we took a 4 hour bus ride to, oh hmm, a place that starts with a K and went on an overnight cruise of the backwaters. It was like floating through the pages of a National Geographic. So lush and beautiful. Palm trees lined the river while we cruised in luxury with our crew of three (for the 4 of us) brought us tender coconuts (I’m getting sick of the tender coconuts, we drink/eat them once if not twice a day. I have become very skilled at pouring coconut juice out while the people who had to climb up the tree to get it aren’t looking).

People along the river were out doing their business, laundry, dishes, fishing. Everyone smiled and waved and we sat there in awe feeling it was all a bit surreal. We were served a Keralan dinner on a banana leaf and then stopped off at the local moonshine shack to get this coconut beer made with fermented coconut juice… it was nasty, the palinca of Kerala.

We were caught in a rainstorm and all the boats tied up along a bank. Our boat which had myself, my roommate and Una and Nana, went out along the bank in the rain with flashlights visiting from boat to boat.

The next morning we stopped by a church and went walking through this village that doesn’t get a whole lot of western tourists. I am the Malayalam linguistic ambassador and said “sughamano” (how are you) to everyone we saw. Sometimes they answered, “sughamanu” (fine), other times they laughed and I almost always got the head waggle.

When you ask people questions they waggle their head in a way that kind of looks like “no” but not entirely and it means “yeah, I understand what you’re saying to me”, I think. Oh, Sister Sally and Leila from the Habitat committee are riding a scooter out on the street… precious.

We had some Habitat people join our boat on Sunday afternoon and we played musical chairs. When you lost, you had to perform a song or dance, though the last guy hopped around on the floor like a frog.

So, the backwaters of Kerala… do it. That’s all I’m saying. Flushing toilets, gourmet food, attentive crew. Our guys sang Malayalam songs to us in the evening when we were anchored for the night and the other boats could hear it. So, so great.

One of the women on the trip and I are giving everyone chola names in honor of the hotel next door, “Chola International”. No one else really gets it though. I am La Funny Girl and she is La Peety (in honor of her bringing Peet’s coffee and a French press with her).

Tonight we are having a group dinner and awards, I actually have to get going for the last group reflections, followed by happy hour on the roof then dinner.

Oh, also, riding an auto rickshaw through the town gives you and idea of what it must be like to be an ant and be running in a panic with all the other ants trying to go, you’re not sure where. Crazy, diesel fuel and chaos.

I may not get to check in with y’all before I’m back. So, stay strong.

See you soon.

Wednesday, March 13, 2002

Namaste from Trivandrum

Hey All,

I know I mentioned it was hot... did I tell you it was humid? Lordy, I don't know how we keep

Today, we were working on the house of the dance instructor. We spent all day hauling cinder blocks up this urine soaked alley in the sun. Wish you were here? Thank goodness for teamwork which made it go faster.

We eat lunch at this convent every day and today the students from the school gave a dance show for us. Sooooo precious. The girls had full-on costumes and makeup. It was an excellent break in the middle of the day.

Monday and Tuesday we worked at the Hindu family's house. Most of the people on the Habitat Committee here are Christian and they identify everyone by religion first and name second.

We actually spent those days demolishing their old house so the Habitat house can be built. The demolition of their house was a lesson in why the Habitat houses are built with concrete. In the demolition process we unearthed, a colony of cockroaches (huge), many hills of ants and several termite families.

Elsie I thought of you because one day I saw this woman had a red ant on her hat (these are some big ass ants too). I brushed it off and then looked on her back to make sure it went all the way to the ground. That's when I saw their were 5 red ants crawling in her ponytail. It was like a National Geographic special with me pulling ants out of her hair. Ugh.

It seems that two of the neighbors of this family take lessons from the dance instructor and we got a private show at the neighbors house. It was really amazing to see and made me realize why I came even though some people thought it questionable.

The group is very cool, ranging from 18-61. Most of the people are from SF. There are quite a few hotties in the group... and it's so hot, they work with their shirts off.

My roommate Lynda is a bit of a Meloney. Her luggage never made it to Mumbai but will finally be delivered tomorrow. Then she left her wallet on the bus and the driver rode around town on a motorcycle looking for her. Then she left her camera at the worksite but someone found it. We've got to keep an eye on her.

This morning I got up at 5:45 to go to the meditation on the roof and then do yoga. Can you believe it? I can hardly believe it myself. We had a yoga demonstration the other night and learned how to increase the semen flow, fix a compressed uterus, etc. It was rather hilarious.

Today during a block break I was learning a Malayalam song about a crow. So far I only know the first four lines but am expected to perform on the last night.

Overall, I'm having a good time. There are more things to be said, no doubt but someone else is waiting to write home and our self imposed happy hour starts on the roof right now.

I have to remember next time to tell you about the head waggle thing. It makes it very hard to understand if people understand you....


Sunday, March 10, 2002

India - I'm Here!

Hey All,

Well we made it. We’ve been flying, flying, flying… but are finally in Thiruvananthapuram (aka Trivandrum). Can I tell you… it is HOT! 90 something and humid. But I’m sitting in our air-conditioned hotel so it’s all good. We were greeted with Jasmine leis and fresh coconut juice.

Everyone from the trip is here and seems pretty cool. We’re still playing the getting to know you game. We’ve got a team orientation in ½ hour… I think it is going to be a Nana light-some-candles-talk-about-why-you’re-here-get-a-buddy special. Then later we have a Habitat orientation to find out what’s what.

New York was cool and I was able to hang out with Mark and Janna. Janna and I went to dinner at a new hip restaurant in the East Village called the Tasting Room (I think). So cool.

Okay… the group is converging so I’m going to sign out. Just wanted to let you know we arrived in one, tired, hot, sweaty piece.