Sunday, March 29, 2009

The Journey to New Delhi

This particular life journey began at the end of October/beginning of November of 2007, when my “dream” market job in Lancaster, PA ended on a somewhat down note. I won’t go into the particulars because it’s in other things that I’ve written, but needless to say, my time in PA ended abruptly and made me wonder what was next. After spending lots of time during 2008 moving around the country, first to CT for about six months, applying again to enlist in the Peace Corps and going through the medical and dental tests, where I discovered that I needed a root canal, applying and being accepted by World Teach to spend a year teaching English in China, and also spending a bit of time in CA visiting and for a memorial service for my friend David Stoner, driving cross country with my son Daniel in May in order to start a summer job in CA, how funny to think about this at my age, going to Chicago with my parents for Ben’s bar mitzvah and actually hooking up with a cousin and finding a place to live in L.A., really close to where Dan, Sarah and Ricardo were living, where I was supposed to live for three months but turned out to be a bit less than two, going for a job interview to Portland, OR and visiting my family in Seattle, going to New Orleans for a work week, then moving in with my parents in September-October in Orange County and taking them to Rachel’s bat mitzvah in NYC, going back to Seattle to do a bit more work and then travelling to Mobile, AL to do a presentation, and then spending the end of October through early February in Boulder, when the big “O” became president.

To say that I, at times, wondered where I was and in what time zone was somewhat of an understatement. Yes, it was all very interesting and I was able to play basketball in Waterford and New London, CT, Seattle, New Orleans, Los Angeles and Boulder, but as one can understand I did feel somewhat rootless.

But let’s go back to September-October, 2008 when I was again thinking about what was next. I decided to spend some time with my parents in Mission Viejo. Markets were a natural, but nothing seemed to be happening in terms of a long-term job. That fact that I had been accepted by World Teach made me think even more about an overseas opportunity even though Peace Corps just wasn’t working for me. I’d collected unemployment compensation from the state of PA, worked a bit in CT for a Chamber of Commerce, worked in L.A. and Seattle, while getting paid from a business out of New Orleans, so there was some money coming in, that combined with somewhat minimal expenses made things ok, at least on the short-term money front.

The Mission Viejo Public Library seemed like a great place to do research on maybe finally going overseas. I used the library as my office, and they had a great selection of movies. I found a wonderful international volunteering website for people 50 and over and went to the diversified programs category, where I found out about an organization called VSO Canada,

On first examination VSO seemed a bit like Peace Corps, but due to the fact that it is an NGO, I was hoping that it would be much less bureaucratic and as it has turned out this was very much the case. Another advantage is that the VSO is a network located not only in Canada, but also in the UK, Kenya, the Netherlands, the Philippines, India and Ireland. The average age, unlike the Peace Corps is older, 41 and all of their goals and definition of “development” seem to be much more in line with mine. I filled out the on-line application and very soon after had a call from a VSO staffer to really determine my interest. This led to an assessment day in mid-November in Vancouver and since I had already moved to Boulder I ended up flying from Denver to Seattle, where I was again able to visit my family, took a bus to Vancouver and stayed overnight. A week after all of my references were in I was notified that I was accepted as a VSO volunteer! The next step would be to do the medical and dental assessments and wait for an assignment which could take up to six weeks or more.

I decided that I would be pro-active and schedule my medical and dental appointments for early December. I found a doctor and my friends Robert and Michele, who I was staying with in Boulder, recommended their dentist, who turned out to be quite painless! (This is not an oxy-moron in this case).

By mid-December I had two potential assignments provided to me, one in New Delhi for two years and one in Nairobi for one year. Both sounded to be the challenge that I wanted to find during “my year of travelling dangerously”. Since I could apply for one the attraction to India, having visited in early 2006 and keeping rupees in my wallet for the time that I would return, this was somewhat of done deal. Always showing my public side of that laid back Californian, but working with the insides of a type A Easterner, I immediately filled out all of the paper work and sent it back to my Volunteer Advisor. I now had to practice my patience, especially being at the doorstep of the winter holidays.

Both jobs involved fundraising, one on a national basis, India, the other on more of a continent wide basis. Both involved working in agencies that work with people with disabilities-India, the 66 million people living with autism, cerebral palsy or Down’s syndrome, the Kenyan job working with people living with blindness. I had so much to gain with either job.

However, it was now up to the Indian employer to approve my application and accept me for their agency. It did take more than a few weeks, but finally during January I received a verbal acceptance from my volunteer advisor in Ottawa. Things were moving and within another few weeks the written acceptance came. The next step was to obtain my visa. While visiting family, again in Seattle, in early February, I over-nighted my visa package on a Friday to the San Francisco embassy. It was vital that I receive my visa, and passport, within a 10 day period, because I needed the passport to get into Canada. Fortunately it all worked out and the passport and visa were delivered to me while I was visiting friends in CT, just before I came to Canada.

VSO requires volunteers to attend two courses, one Preparing for Change, the other SKWID or Skills for Working in Development. Typically a volunteer will take the first four day course, return home until they know when their placement will be and then return to Canada for the SKWID five day course. Since I was on a very short time frame I’ve been able to take the course back-to-back, with a four day break in between.

This is why I'm now in India.

Friday, March 27, 2009

A magical Moment

Y’know when you have those magical moments, when somehow things just align so that the unexpected happens, that somehow life becomes more than you ever thought? Last night I went out to dinner with about six other volunteers. We’ve found this wonderful vegetarian restaurant called Ghulab’s quite close to where we are staying for our training. (I’m hoping that my stomach soon adjusts to Indian food which I so much love to eat). As has become my habit, if there is any food left over I will ask for it to be packed and then give it to one of so many people who seem destitute, in my Western eyes, in this area. (I’ll talk more about this at some point, because in fact the definition of destitute seems to be open to interpretation). There is an older Indian man who helps to park cars during the day and has been so helpful and friendly towards us. He sleeps across from the ISI on the pavement with some dirty covers. To my western eyes he seems destitute, but he is always smiling. As the saying goes he literally doesn’t have a “pot to piss in”, but he seems to take life as it comes. I know that he is often hungry and I decided to give him the leftovers from last night, some sweet and sour something or other and some palek malai kofta.

This man seems to hang out with an older Indian woman and her daughter, maybe in her 20’s, some of the many women who make the flower necklaces outside my door. Earlier in the day the man had told me that the younger woman had requested some food. It’s a difficult balance to know what to do, i.e. do you give people food and money on a regular basis? My feeling is that giving money, which is difficult anyway on my limited volunteer budget, is not the best route to go, because when or how does it stop. If you give to one you have to give to another. Whenever some of the children ask me for money I turn it around and in my rudimentary Hindi ask them to give me some Rupees. They get a laugh out of this and the asking usually stops.

After handing the man the bag of food I asked him to take me to the woman and share the food with her. As I was walking back to ISI, some of my many children friends, who always call me Michael with a big smile, waved hello from a doorway. Building up trust with people takes time. In the western world it probably takes a lot more time as we are constantly rushing around and don’t always tend to sit down with others in a really meaningful way unless we want something. In the Indian world this seems to be different. On a deeper level of course we all long for connection with others, for friendship, for understanding. In the Indian world there appears, from my limited experience, to be a gentleness, a just wanting to sit and talk and be with friends. It doesn’t seem to really matter what income level someone is at or what their “house” looks like, it’s a wanting to have meaningful connection. (Of course the caste system, from what has been described, is still in existence, but more on this later). I know that I always try to put intent out, what it is that I would like to have. I’m not sure that this is the case here as things, again from my eyes, seem to occur naturally.

From the doorway I was very gently invited into a “bedroom”. I have been here two weeks and I just feel so blessed to have built up enough trust to have been invited into someone’s house. I sat on a weaved bed and talked with my younger friends, with every subject being open to discussion. I’ve told them a bit about Judaism and they’ve told me a bit about Hinduism. On some level they can’t believe that I’m 52 and one of the children was kidding me about where is my walking stick. On another level I think that they appreciate the fact that someone of my chronological age is able to connect with them in a meaningful way, as a friend and not a parent.

After some time the children asked for music which my volunteer friends Joe with his guitar, from the UK, and Mark with his dulcimer, from Canada, have provided. I went to ISI and brought both of them back to the room. Both Mark and Joe are just wonderful human beings, letting and actually encouraging the children to play their instruments. The children did in fact play both instruments. We all sang jingle bells together. Picture as best that you can being in a “house” in Delhi, with it being very warm, singing jingle bells with an American, an Englishman, a Canadian and six Indian children. Other people from the “neighborhood” hearing the music would stop by, the women in their beautifully colored saris, a man carrying a three month old baby, who I was able to hold, others just popping their heads in with huge smiles, just appreciating the connection that we all shared.

As I left I hugged my Indian friends, a bond made and to be continued for who knows how long, but never-the-less all of us being touched by one another and making a difference, in each other’s lives. This is not to be taken lightly in any sense as we really don’t ultimately know how other’s touch us. Maybe years down the road one of the Indian children will look back with a huge smile and remember Joe and Mark and me and the other volunteers and how friendly we all were. I know that I will always cherish these moments and will think about them with a greater understanding of others and a greater connection to this world which we all share.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Playing in India

The noblest service comesfrom nameless hands.And the best servant does his work unseen."
-- Oliver Wendell Holmes

"The only ones among you whowill be really happy are those who will have sought and found how to serve."
-- Albert Schweitzer
What we have done for ourselves alonedies with us.What we have done for others and the worldremains and is immortal."
-- Albert Pine
If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more,do more and become more,you are a leader."
-- John Quincy Adams

I get these inspirational quotes everyday and I thought that the four above are very appropriate to what is presently going on in my life and maybe what has always been going on.

We are in the second week of our training and I’ve very much enjoyed learning Hindi. There are six of us in the class, with others learning the language appropriate to their placement. It’s slow going but today we went to a place called Dellihut, a place that I will bring you to if you visit. It is a government operated crafts and food market with the vendors changing every 15 days. See my pics at Anyway, I had an opportunity to practice some Hindi and the shop owners were quite patient with me. I’ve spent some time practicing on all of the children who live right outside the training area doors.

I bought a basketball a few weeks ago and have also played twice so far at the American Embassy School which was just great. I’ve played with people from the Philippines, my roomie, who is just as quick as lightening, Americans of course and a guy from Serbia and guy from Croatia. The guy from Croatia was bombing from three point land and of course missing layups. It is such a fun time and I’m so glad that I’ve found this game for both physical and mental health.

Ah, the children outside of my doors to the Indian Social Institute, where I am in training, are such a joy. I bought the basketball so that I could teach them some skills. It has been a challenge given my limited Hindi and there limited English. There are a few children who really know English, but at times they aren’t around. A few of us have also started putting paper and crayons, pens and markers out. Marbles are another great thing that Indian children love. Some of the drawings are just amazing and we’re saving them. Nothing that I would have expected. Two of the other volunteers play a guitar and dulcimer and the children really love this as well.

On some level I know that we are already making a difference. I actually played catch with the b-ball with a woman, maybe in her 60’s. She had a huge smile as I taught her how to throw bounce passes. The parents usually are just laughing at all of the fun that we have.

The children are now all calling me Michael and I say hello to just about everybody that I see. They all seem rather curious as I haven’t seen a whole lot of Caucasians in this area, although I know that there are a bunch of ex-pats around.

As I saw when I visited in 2006, the streets are so alive and there appears to be a strong sense of community. If you’ve viewed my pics you can see that this particular community makes these great flower necklaces. The flowers are delivered in the morning and mostly women turn them into these beautiful necklaces which are then brought to this Sai Baba temple around the corner from ISI. The area is front of the temple is quite wild, with people sleeping and visiting there most of the time.

One really has to be here to understand this culture. It truly is something so different than what I’ve experienced living in the US. The colors, sounds, smells! Maybe one can find these in the various ethnic communities, but in India one doesn’t have to look very far, it is right outside your door.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

The Start of My Journey-Berlin and India

I’ve already entered a new world. The languages are already different. Investigating the food possibilities I see ten men kneeling for prayer. I’ve decided on Turkish food, a flat bread with spinach. HLN is on TV, but I am now among a sea of faces that look differently than mine.

It’s all a bit bittersweet, these new beginnings, not so much endings, but knowing that some of my friends and family I won’t see for two years. Technology of course makes it somewhat easier but still there’s something about physical proximity which I will miss. Of course, we tend to take that proximity for granted. My path during the past year has been so much one of connection with people that I truly care about and have come to truly care about. People that are open to connection and wanting to share their lives on a deeper level, people that are self-aware, know about their diversity, and can deal with the diversity of others. There are also those that have been distanced in my life, but I know that I always do my best to shorten those distances.

It’s curious to me when others say keep in contact. Of course my perspective of contact goes quite deep and takes effort. Acquaintances are fine but I really enjoy deep friendships. The reality is that age doesn’t have to matter, but can be an issue. I think that it’s more about life experience and a willingness to be open to connection.

My adventures have more than started and they continue on this particular life journey.

I’m in India! Been here since 3/12. But a few words about Berlin first.
I saw the sun very little for the six days that I was in Berlin. I know that it’s the time of the year, but it also is somewhat how I saw the city. Don’t get me wrong, there is so much history in this city. So much that the city has to offer in terms of culture and of course my beloved children also live there. The buildings were just incredible and walking up unter den linden to the Brandenburg Gate and then seeing pictures of where the Wall was located next to this monument sent shivers up my spine. The thing though is that wherever I went I was reminded of the Wall, either through actually seeing portions of the Wall which have been preserved, maybe as a reminder as to how horrible people can be towards each other, but also through indications on the street where the wall was once established to separate people. Constantly asking myself and my children are we in what was East or West Berlin and knowing that people were put into this “cage” so that they weren’t free in my mind is “sick”.

There were also many reminders of a once thriving Jewish community, markers in front of various homes where Jews were taken away to concentration camps, the Jewish Memorial and museum, a Jewish cemetery with 65,000 or so people buried there, temples which once were vibrant but now are museums where one has to pay some Euros to get in, and pictures of buildings that were a, e.g. Jewish school. Yes, there are new headstones at the Jewish cemetery, but one knows that the people were most likely born in Berlin, somehow escaped being murdered by the Nazis and just wanted to once more return to their homeland.

I have an aunt who leads tours to concentration camps and is reminding us all to “never forget”. I had wanted to go to visit a concentration camp on my last day in Berlin, but was feeling a bit too nervous about my impending trip to India and so didn’t go. My children have not visited a camp, nor do they have the desire to. In talking to some Jewish people, they would never consider going to Germany and the fact still remains that there is not a thriving Jewish community, as far as I know in Berlin and possibly not even in Germany. But others can correct me on this. One cannot forget about a holocaust, because this type of thing, ethnic cleansing, is still occurring too frequently in our world. There is still anti-semitism and the fear of crimes against Jews as I noted by the policeman and barricades at anything that was Jewish, temples and even a restaurant in Berlin. But also at some point there needs to be healing.

Unfortunately I think that the collective world does forget because it is no longer happening to “me” and it is happening “over there” and it is happening to other ethnic groups and so at least it is not happening to “us”.

I think that the work that my aunt is doing is very important but are we in fact learning any lessons so that “we” don’t or allow some to do the same thing to others? Do we in fact reverse roles when we now get power? This is something that I struggle with.

Seeing my children in their home environment, having them lead the tour in a city where I didn’t speak or understand the language, was an incredibly transformative thing for me. Knowing that my children moved to a foreign country and are able to live their lives is very comforting. Of course they struggle, but never-the-less it is an amazing accomplishment! One of the last things that we did together in Berlin was to see the movie Valkyrie.

I am so fortunate in my friendships. They have so much depth and I feel so much love and support. Of course I’ve worked at this to make it so! One of these friends is Onkar Kakar who lives in his family home at 10-A Lee Road in Kolkata with his wife Myna, son Anant and father Mohan. Onkar is the kind of person who would do anything for his friends and family. I’ve known Onkar since January 1982 when we attended Northeastern University-MBA program together.

When I arrived in New Delhi on Thursday night, of course the VSO folks were there, but so was Onky with his, and my new, friend Rashmi. When I saw Onky I gave him a big bear hug and a kiss and he took me back to his aunt, Chachi and uncle’s, Chacha for a few days. Chacha and Chachi’s son Caren and his wife and new son also live in the house. Another Chacha and Chachi were also visiting. Because of Onky’s friendship I’m immediately part of this extended family. We would sit in Chacha and Chachi’s bedroom hanging out, drinking tea, talking, just being together.

The Indian family structure seems so lovely to me and the Indian family, at least from what I’ve witnessed holds the society together. Of course, given the pace of growth in India, this may be changing. There is more divorce and this impacts everything. But even among the very poor families that I’ve seen, no matter where they are and many do live on the street, the entire family appears to be together. To be accepted into an Indian family is magical and I wouldn’t trade this for anything.

Onky also introduced me to others, both family and friends and this makes my transition easier than many. Also, Ricardo, my daughter Sarah’s boyfriend, is in India and I was able to spend time with him as he showed me the American Embassy compound where I will play some b-ball at the American Embassy School, as well as how to use the Delhi metro.

But here is why I really love India and why I wanted to come. Outside of the place where the volunteers are staying at the Indian Social Institute are some pretty “destitute” people, living in some makeshift “houses”. As I tend to hook up with children no matter where I go, and as I was walking back from class today, I noticed a game of cricket happening. I tried cricket once in 2006 when I had previously visited India and was quite unsuccessful. But in order to start becoming part of this society I kind of pointed and the children, smiling, let me try. A little deaf boy had his own unskinned tennis ball and a cricket bat and we started playing. He would kind of make grunting sounds and would smile and we both knew exactly what to do.

Picture children of all ages from just walking to teens, hanging out in this kind of road with cars, dogs, three wheeled scooters and motorcycles playing cricket. The women are preparing dinner, but the other adults are nearby talking, some women stringing flowers together. So, one young man brings out a small basketball and of course I immediately pick up on this and start teaching him and a couple of others how to dribble and pass. Soon we are going up and down the alley, dribbling and passing avoiding all of the cars and other motorized vehicles. The next step, as the cricket game stopped was to get a bunch of the children together in a circle to start passing the ball, while I was in the middle trying to steal the ball. The game got so large that we had four people in the middle and everyone, including the adults, who were now watching, were just cracking up. There was so much laughter as this crazy American and one Brit were running around in the middle of this circle with all of these children. At the end of the game, when I was just dripping, I gave most of the kids a two handed high five and with one child I jumped up in the air as we crashed our bodies together. I’m now known as “uncle” or Michael.