Sunday, December 18, 2011

Downbound train

December 11-12, 2011
Down bound Train

I’ve just woken up again on a train, listening to Bruce Springsteen sing, “Down bound Train”. My laptop is so dusty from years of living in India. Maybe it could be cleaned, maybe the dust is there for the life of the laptop, something to take with me wherever I am in the world. A little piece of India encrusted on my laptop, reminding me how this country is now so much a part of my internal life that I’m not sure how I will ever leave.

Yesterday morning at 6:30 I was supposed to be on the Puri Express to Bhubaneswar. Instead when I arrived at the New Delhi station around 5:30 AM I was told that the train would be delayed. I was driven to a government ticket office, in Connaught Place and was told that there were no other trains and that all flights were booked.

The metro took me home where I logged onto the Indian Railways website which told me that the train would be delayed for seven hours and 20 minutes. This would mean leaving around 2 PM. At 11 AM the same website indicated that the delay would be 14 hours and 20 minutes. This would mean that I would now leave around 9 PM. Was this still the same train?

Coaching basketball was now on my agenda, as I could leave directly from the YMCA at Patel Chowk and take the metro to New Delhi Station. I hadn’t been at the Y for some time due to Incredible India enabling me to continue to lead an extraordinary life. It was so wonderful to see the children and to find a few new guys that I could coach and bring my love of the game to their psyches. What I found though is that all of the children were so into the game and it was the usual inspiration that leaves me loving basketball even more.

I left the Y around 7:35 PM and made my way to the metro, walking and talking with one of the new children, Sam, who has been playing and has a good understanding for the game. I arrived at New Delhi station around 8 PM, looked at the “big board” but didn’t see the Puri Express. Fighting to get the enquiry window I was told that the train would leave at 8:50 PM from track 12.
8:50 PM came and went and finally around 9:10 the train pulled in. At 9:45 PM the train departed from New Delhi station, which leaves me with more than an entire day waiting to get to my final destination. I should have been in at 10:30 AM on Sunday, but now hope to get in by 2 AM on Monday.

Just spent my second night on the train and we hope to get in around 3 PM. Day one of the workshop is cancelled. We spent a lot of time sitting in one spot last night, I’m told because it was too dangerous to travel due to Naxelites. The train isn’t as gross as it could be, it seems to be getting cleaned regularly. There is and has to be a direct correlation between number of hours on the train and cleanliness. I, in my American way, need a shower badly, as well as some food. I tend not to eat on trains just because.

We are presently in W. Bengal and moving at a pretty good clip. We seem to be passing agricultural fields and it is beautiful with an early morning mist, just hovering. It’s pretty brown this time of year, but one can still see the remnants of harvested crops. Wait check all of that, we are stopped yet again! I finally arrived at 5 PM after spending 44 hours on the train!

November 2011, Part 5, Robyn and Michael, BK Flag in

Robyn and Michael/Badthe Kadam Flag In
Back to Delhi on Tuesday for me, with Robyn and Michael coming in on Wednesday and the Badhte Kadam flag in on Friday. R&M had been in India since November 4 and on November 5 left for Ranchi, Lucknow and the mountains. They are in India to do some filming for YSS and to write some more music and get ready for their European tour. They are very busy, Michael doing a lot of editing for a variety of projects, with the main one being for my beloved friends and cousins Mark and Andrew.

I was happy that R&M were coming to Delhi to spend a bit of time before going off to do the rest of their India trip. Given our places in the world we haven’t been able to spend a lot of time together as adults and of course, the most likely place for us to be together would be India, which is a second home to R&M. I had the added surprise of Robyn cooking every night and both of them doing a really nice, thorough cleaning of my flat. It was also an opportunity for my Indian family, especially Anjilee and Bulbul, to continue to interact with Americans. ( I had gotten Aamir Khan to give an autograph to, as he wrote, Bobo. My American Hindi!)

Friday December 2 was the big day for the Badhte Kadam flag in at Delhi University. Thanks to AADI providing coordination, this year we did things a bit differently. It was smart on NT’s part to work with AADI rather than doing the same old thing, which I felt hadn’t been too successful last year. AADI is a very professionally run NGO and they implemented a huge list of very creative items during BK. We also counted on them to organize both the flag out and flag in.

The flag in was at Delhi University North and was a beautiful area with a large lawn, enabling students walking by to see what we were doing. D. Napoleon our Minister of State was supposed to come as well as Sheila Dixits the Chief Minister of Delhi. Unfortunately Napoleon was called away to parliament while Dixits did spend 15 or so minutes with us. The children highlighted in the flag in did lots of dancing and through their costumes showcased the diversity that makes India, incredible. The hearing impaired children again performed the sign national anthem and as they started I had tears in my eyes for my adopted homeland. There was also Baul, or folk singing, from West Bengal which was just beautiful. The Baul singers had also performed in Connaught Place during the week and I was able to follow them around. Doordarshan and CNN-IBN covered the event.

Previously, during the week, my pal Aditya had called and said that CNN-IBN wanted to do a follow-up, that Saturday, December 3-World Disability Day, to the wheelchair basketball. This time they were going to be doing a lot of filming. With the cooperation of Uma and Seema Thuli of Amar Jyoti, and the wheelchair basketball and able bodied children, we put together an event from 9:30-1 PM. It was fantastic and turned out to be part of the CNN-IBN citizen’s journalist show. A full 20 minutes with all Amar Jyoti children featured throughout. (I was able to be a citizen’s journalist and also introduced another story in my introduction!)

Earlier in the week I had also noticed that the Dalai Lama was in Delhi for a World Buddhist Congress but would also be doing one speaking engagement. (China told India not to allow the Dalai Lama to do this and they cut off border talks because India did). This was going to be at the Habitat Centre and one had to get tickets through members. I called upon my dear friend Shekhar as he seems to know everyone. Although Shekhar isn’t a member he was able to secure two tickets for us. By the time though that we got to the door nobody else was allowed inside. Two huge video screens had been set up in the courtyard and so we sat with a number of other people.

Since I wanted to see the Dalai Lama live I went to the driveway line where he would be entering Habitat Centre. Sure enough he rolled down his window as he entered the driveway and I was able to make a short video. As I sat watching the video screen I knew that I must make an attempt to get inside. I noticed, after the talk was over and the q and a was starting that some people were being let inside the auditorium. I told Shekhar that I was going to try and sure enough I did get in and sat in the back with the journalists, snapping lots of lots of photos. I came so close to shaking his hand as well as I went to the stage when the Q and A was over, but did shake the hand of the monk accompanying the Dalai Lama. I then waited in the line to take a video of him leaving.

The day however, was not through as now I was going to the metro to meet up with Robyn and Michael in order to attend the National Disability Awards Ceremony, hosted by the Indian President. It was great to again introduce Robyn and Michael to what I was doing in India. Merry Bawa from Action for Autism was getting one award and it was wonderful to see her on stage for the great work that she is doing. My friends Shekhar and Anil, board members of the National Trust were there. Anil’s company, IBM, was also getting an award. R&M and I sat with Anil’s wife, Rashmi and their daughter Davanshe, who is a role model for Persons with Disability. My friends from NT were also in attendance. They all make me feel so much a part of the disability movement and I feel no different from anyone else, except that I still can’t speak Hindi.

Unfortunately the President didn’t make it, but the Minister of Social Justice and Empowerment, Mr. Wasnik, who seems to be a great individual, conducted the awards ceremony. The same hearing impaired children who were at the Badhte Kadam Flag off and in to perform the national anthem in sign were also at the awards ceremony. They are just phenomenal.

As R&M and I went to get some food it was already gone. By that time it was too late and we decided to go home even though Poonam had offered to bring us to the Minister’s home for dinner. An incredible day to say the least. I was however so exhausted and didn’t wake up on Sunday morning until 11 AM!

On Sunday I introduced Robyn to one of my local markets and we had a blast. Robyn is slow and loves to really experience things and that is what we did. We stopped at a vendor selling all kinds of green vegetables or sagh and we had them grind them all up into a lovely mixture. Robyn made this for at least four dinners with a variety of spices. I’m certainly going to miss her cooking.

Tuesday was a day off and Robyn and I went to meet up with Shekhar, who is a member, at the Indian International Centre for breakfast. It was wonderful, especially the croissants and after this we all walked in Lodhi Gardens, herb garden, butterfly garden. Shekhar said that his friend a Member of Parliament, Mr. Dixits and his daughter were in the park exercising, and sure enough we were able to meet up with them. We ended our time with Shekhar having a scrumptious lunch. As always Shekhar was too gracious!

Robyn and I went off to Connaught Place where she exchanged some money, I took her to Janpath to see the great crafts and then went shopping at Fab India where Robyn bought some pants and I bought a beautiful blue with gold stitched highlights kurtha. This was the end of my gift certificates from Voice and Vision for a workshop that I facilitated with Len regarding their strategic plan. I feel good about how I used the certificates as I shared them with Len, Robyn and Michael.

Robyn’s cooking was very welcomed, as at times, I am just too tired to make anything other than my fruit mixture for dinner. Robyn is a good cook and made a number of Indian dishes, while Michael made the papads and cleaned up. My kitchen has never been cleaner, oh maybe once when Mark used to live with me.

On Friday, December 9, M&R were leaving for the Noida ashram, although I wanted to find a way for them to come to National Trust to play a few songs. Sure enough Poonam and her driver Kumar came through to pick M&R up at my home with their four suitcases, the harmonium and tablas they had purchased in Old Delhi and their three guitars, although one is a mini. They made it to the office in time for a BK celebratory lunch, played three songs which all of the staff was able to witness and then listened as some of the staff sang some songs. This is where I said goodbye to R&M until who knows where and when. But I’ll look forward to sharing stories the next time that we are able to meet up.

Whirlwind to say the least and now my assignment with National Trust is down to 2.5 months remaining. I sit on the train to Bhubaneswar as I type this, stopped yet again, hoping to arrive before my workshop starts, but as I know won’t. I continue to say that my experience has been incredible, that just being in India makes the possibilities and opportunities endless as long as one is willing to jump through doors and windows that are constantly presenting themselves. Maybe that is why I just can’t get enough. One’s life in their native countries becomes the same, while life abroad is always new. This is truly who I am, wanting and somewhat needing to experience the newness on a regular basis. I’m not in any sense bored wherever I am, but being abroad just makes life that much more special!

November 2011 Part 4, Wheelchair Basketball

Wheelchair Basketball-Wheelchair Athletes Worldwide (WAW)
I arrived back in Delhi on Sunday the 20th and on Wednesday November 23, the wheelchair basketball event that I had been thinking about and planning for more than a year was to come to fruition. I had so much wanted this to happen in order to bring my love of basketball together with my passion for my job.

I wasn’t sure how it would work as I hadn’t really been able to locate many wheelchair basketball athletes but due to persistence, lots of e-mails, throughout the world to various wheelchair athletes groups and Poonam hooking me up with an event that was supposed to happen in Mumbai, I was able to work with a group called Wheelchair Athletes Worldwide based in San Diego.

Wheelchair Athletes Worldwide is a fairly new NGO consisting of some renowned wheelchair American athletes. An NGO in Mumbai was supposed to hold an event with WAW but it just wasn’t coming together.

When I visited the States in February 2011 I was able , accompanied by my son Daniel, to visit Dan Altan of WAW in San Diego. We met up at a coffee shop and Dan talked to me about WAW, showed me a sports wheelchair and we were on our way. (In January I had also met up with Vicki Sigworth and her husband in Dehli. Vicki and her son Jon have an NGO, ESCIP, helping people with spinal cord injury as Jon had suffered such when he was in India when he was 18. They were now putting this all to good use with motivating and getting more wheelchair sports in India. Vicki was also tied in with Dan. As the saying goes small world).

When I got back to India in March, I knew that I wanted the wheelchair basketball to happen during November, i.e. during Badhte Kadam to showcase the abilities of persons with disability. WAW was operating on a shoe string, and this was to be their first attempt at donating sports wheelchairs and doing clinics for providing instruction for wheelchair athletics.

The next task for me was to find NGOs with interest in and sports wheelchair programmes. It just so happened that an inclusionary school in Delhi, Amar Jyoti fit the bill. When I finally got around to visiting them I saw children in regular wheelchairs trying to play basketball with able bodied children. Needless to say the wheelchairs lacked mobility. Uma Thuli the Founder and Secretary of Amar Jyoti was all behind this and very excited about the prospect.

We also wanted to find another NGO to donate some of the wheelchairs and through a number of trials and tribulations, through Vicki, found the Ability People (TAP) in Vizag, Andhra Pradesh.

I was hoping to have the wheelchair basketball clinic and donation as part of a larger integrated sports day that Amar Jyoti was planning but due to schedules and ultimately our good fortune, Pete, Greg and Shelley couldn’t come to India until the following week.

Planning and working with skype is a real life saver when one is trying to do an international event. There were numerous ups and downs but finally it was all a go as Pete, Greg and Shelley made their reservations. I was so sorry that Dan Altan couldn’t come but he had injured himself and needed to have an operation. I tried to convince him to come to India for the operation, but the comforts of home were something that couldn’t be overcome.

Pete was the first to arrive on Wednesday night. Not known to me, he had changed flights and actually arrived early. He called me from the airport indicating that there were some issues with getting the 12 wheelchairs out of customs without paying taxes. Fortunately for all of us a Singaporean company was helping to build capacity for the baggage group at IGI airport and with their help and a letter from National Trust, we were able to get the chairs out of customs. There were a few tense moments, but it all ended well.

I was so happy to finally meet Pete, an accomplished athlete in his own right and the coach of the #3 in the US women’s wheelchair basketball team at University of Arizona. Pete is a jovial guy not much taller than me who has had a physical disability his entire life. He is able to walk on his own but does have to rely on crutches.

The NGO AADI, through their Director Syamala and her wonderful staff had agreed to do all transportation and stay arrangement in Delhi. We needed them and they came through perfectly. AADI has large buses and the staff is all about customer service. The rooms were great and there was no charge. I feel very blessed to have friends like the staff at AADI! As Syamalaji told me, “we have to be willing to help each other, those in the disability movement, out”.

The bus was at the airport, we loaded everything up and the adventure had started. When Pete and I arrived at AADI, their annual meeting had just ended and there was a veritable feast, in which Pete and I partook. The AADI staff with the usual Indian greeting had huge smiles on their faces! Pete, although very tired was so very happy. Although I had indicated to Pete that he should rest on Thursday we made arrangements, through AADI, for him to go to Agra!

After leaving Pete around 9 PM, I made my way to the airport on the express line for the second time that night, in order to pick up Shelley and Greg who were coming in around 2 AM on Thursday. No hitches and the pre-paid cab driver took us to AADI in about 20 minutes at that time of the morning. After I got Shelley and Greg situated and they greeted Pete, I left for my home with the same cab driver. Shelley and Greg, although without much sleep had decided to accompany Pete to Agra. Although I had said rest, these are the kind of people that I really love, willing to take advantage of opportunities!

I slept a good part of the day on Thursday, preparing for the first clinic on Friday morning at Amar Jyoti. Previously during the week, Uma Thuli had told me that there was a little bit of a hitch as a television production company was also going to be filming at the school. I was a bit upset as I didn’t want anything to get in the way of the wheelchair basketball given that WAW had flown to India and the planning that went into the event. Uma was patient with me and kept saying, although I can’t tell you who will be there, you will really appreciate this. Finally I just let it go and knew that somehow everything would work itself out.

On Friday morning I came by metro, knowing that Amar Jyoti would bring Pete and Greg, Shelley and the wheelchairs. When I arrived at Amar Jyoti I walked in and saw the children all ready to go and an assembly. At the head of the assembly was Aamir Khan! I was blown away especially since I had written a proposal asking him to be the BK ambassador. I then saw the AADI bus and all was well.

After the assembly I immediately started talking to Mr. Khan, gave him my card, etc. I kept telling Pete, Greg and Shelley how big of a star Khan is. I can’t at this point say much about what Mr. Khan was doing, but it was an incredible experience. This will come in a later blog, along with photos and video.

Pete, Shelley and Greg got right to it and the coaches and Amar Jyoti children were able to get some good training. Shelley did most of the camera work and the children just loved her. She is a physical therapist, a young beautiful woman, very quiet and quite kind. Shelley seems very supportive of the work that her husband Greg, a very accomplished athlete is doing. It was great for me to see a very complementary couple.

Amidst the craziness that a big star brings to any occasion the staff at Amar Jyoti did a great job of keeping things separate so that WAW could do their work. (Pete, Greg, Shelley and I were able to eat lunch with Mr. Khan). The children were so happy to get the sports wheelchairs as they are much mobile and easier to use. Pete and Greg, did a great job, along with Raj, a coach, who helped to translate. I was also able to participate through coaching some of the able bodied children and of course providing general encouragement.

The first day complete, Pete, Greg, Shelley and I went back to AADI where we rested a bit and then went out to Delhi Haat. The staff at AADI let us use their computers to check e-mail, again showing how much “service” is part of their daily work. We took the metro as I was curious to see how accessible this service truly was. As it turned out the metro was great and Delhi Haat was the same, both very accessible without any hitches, well maybe the foot high sidewalks, but we did find a curb cut. We had a wonderful dinner of south Indian and they all did some shopping.

I accompanied them back to AADI and then proceeded to home and preparation for Day 2. On Wednesday of that week, my friend Troy Justice of the NBA had said that he would reintroduce me to Kenny Natt, coach of the Indian Men’s National Basketball team and give him a personal invitation to wheelchair basketball. I thought why not. Kenny was very gracious and said that he would try to come. Kenny’s assistant Karan called me to say that Kenny was interested if it could fit into his schedule.

Sure enough Kenny did want to come and on Saturday morning, thanks to Karan, Kenny was there. Kenny is a big man, a former professional player and coach in the US. I had previously met him at some Asian preliminary qualifying games. He is very affable, but serious about the work that he is doing in India. I was so happy to see him and he was so happy to participate with the children. We put Kenny in a wheelchair and he seemed to really love it as indicated by the huge grin on his face. . Kenny was also very happy to meet Uma Thuli and he ended up staying for about 1.5 hours. My good friend Shekhar also came on Saturday which made things even more special. We got Shekhar into a wheelchair and I think that he came away with a greater appreciation for Persons with Disability. For me, this was all a dream come true, but as I’ve come to find out anything is possible in my India.

After Kenny and Karan left Greg, Pete and Shelley continued to do their clinics, along with the Indian coaches who came to learn more about wheelchair sports. Around 11 AM a formal presentation was made for donating the wheelchairs. It was a very happy moment. After this, CNN-IBN, thanks to the work of Epistle Solutions and my friends, Aditya, Jasdeep and Sumita, appeared to do a segment on wheelchair basketball. This was a highlight for me as World Disability Day was the following Saturday, Badhte Kadam was on-going and we were, thanks to the magic of television, spreading awareness about Persons with Disability and their capabilities. I got to be in my very first television interview in India but the highlights were on Greg and the children!

At around 12:30 Pete and I and the AADI bus were loaded for taking Pete to the airport to go to Vizag. I said my goodbyes to Pete and Shelley with the hope that I would see them next time I was in the States. It sounds as if they have a great house in Tucson with a hot tub, so I may need to make my way there.

Pete had a 2:30 flight and the challenge was to ensure that we were able to get the 6 wheelchairs to be donated to TAP, also on the flight. Although through Dilip Patro and the Ability People we had made prior arrangement on Spice Jet, there was still some anticipation on my part. We finally made it through the Delhi traffic to the terminal 3 which happened to be the wrong place. We very quickly shifted to the domestic terminal where lo and behold everything worked out. Pete got some special attention and he and the wheelchairs were shepherded onto the plane.

I went home for a bit of rest as thanks to National Trust, I was going to Vizag early Sunday morning. I was picked up without a hitch and taken right to the stadium where Pete was waiting. It was a stadium with an old wooden floor, very large. I wondered if we were going to fill this up and as it turned out we didn’t, but the children participating had a lot of fun. There was also a lot of press, both print and television. This was due to Dilip Patro, the founder of the Ability People.

Dilip had a spinal cord injury, due to a car accident, in the midst of his life and very promising career. Although Dilip is confined to a wheelchair he is a very capable man and is doing a lot. Besides continuing his work as a software engineer he is also trying to build the Ability People. Recently TAP became registered with National Trust.

The clinic not only consisted of wheelchair basketball, but Pete also introduced rugby. The audience consisted mainly of a number of hearing impaired children and as with the able bodied children in Amar Jyoti, we were able to get a number of them to sit in wheelchairs to experience what it was like. Although somewhat unorganized, Pete was able to do a lot with the children which I know that they appreciated.

Pete was a joy to watch as he is only about ability. I could tell that at one time he was quite a baller and he still has a nice outside touch. Pete has his own business in Tucson, but is also involved with innumerable other activities, involving Persons with Disability. Like Greg, Pete has not let his supposed disability stop him to lead a full rights based life, something which we are trying to get more people to understand with the implementation of the United Nations Convention on the Rights and Dignity of Persons with Disability (UNCRPD). Both Greg and Pete were wonderful role models and this was another thing that I was hoping to showcase.

After the clinic on Sunday I was too tired to leave my room, although Pete went out with Dilip and others that evening. (There was an Aamir Khan movie on television that evening and I couldn’t imagine this guy that I had met on Friday as a killer). On Monday morning I said good-bye to Pete and spent the day with Dilip and a Dr. Kiran who performs a number of operations for Person with Disability living in the villages surrounding Vizag. I went to Dilip’s home for dinner and met his family and saw a bit about the daily struggles that he faces as a permanent wheelchair user.

All in all the whirlwind three day basketball tour surpassed what I had thought. I had gotten to a point where I just wanted it to happen as the planning had seemed interminable. I’m so happy to have participated and helped to coordinate and it makes me want to do more of these types of activities no matter where I am in the world. Of course it takes a team, WAW, TAP, Amar Jyoti, AADI, NT. The team came through with lots of smiles and a willingness to make it all happen. I really can’t compliment everyone enough on their can-do attitudes. Even with technology, at times, this was so cumbersome and I thought forget it. But mostly we all came together to make the donation of 12 sports wheelchairs and three incredible days of clinics a reality.

I’ve brought people together which is something that I enjoy doing every day of my life. After all it is about how we network and weave our integrated webs. In every case we have to keep increasing the size of our webs and collaborate to make the world a much better place. It is through joint understanding and experience that we will continue to do this. I feel as if this did happen a bit by bringing the “Americans” to India to help develop more friendships.

November 2011 part 3, Tiger Safari

Tiger Safari Bandhavgarh, MP
I arrived back in Delhi on Tuesday November 15, washed some clothes, rested up, did some work in preparation for my tiger safari with Bill Carr on November 16. Bill and I had been planning this for some time and he really wanted to see s tiger before he left India, and went back to his life in Scotland. Bill had spent one year in Cameroon prior to spending one year in India. I made train reservations in September but was hesitating as I knew that BK would be in full bloom and that a major integrated sports day was happening in Delhi through Amar Jyoti school, an event that I was helping to plan. The thought of seeing a tiger in the wild, and not knowing if I would have this opportunity again, won out in the end.

I met Bill, a VSO colleague and friend, at the Nizamuddin train station, with our train being delayed a bit. This was to be an over-night train arriving in Urmari around 5:30 AM on Thursday morning. We were picked up soon after arriving and began the 20+ km journey into the wild.

Bill had made reservations at Wildhaven resorts close to the reserve and had booked us on five safaris. The resort was quite nice amidst somewhat of a makeover with new management. The room was neat and clean, although power was always off between something like 8-11 AM. The service was very good and we had use of a computer with internet. Very quiet after the hectic life that I lead in Delhi. There wasn’t even a bank or ATM in “town”.

The first safari was at 3:30 on Thursday afternoon. There were three main areas or gates for viewing tigers, one of which was more expensive due to the number of tiger sightings. We were both quite excited as we boarded the open jeep with our driver for our first safari. We headed to the gate to wait in queue where we picked up a guide. We found that in many cases the guide was just an extra expenditure, but it did help to employ the locals, who it seemed really depended on the tigers, or the hope of seeing one, for their revenue.

There were a number of jeeps that went into the park all speeding out to find the tiger. As we later came to find out the best time to see tigers is in April or May during the hot season when many animals can be seen at the water holes. The guide and driver said that in order to find a tiger we had to listen to the monkeys, lots of langurs, and other animals giving warning signals. On the first safari we actually heard some growling and warning signals and we listened hoping to spot a tiger.

Unfortunately we didn’t see one on that first sojourn. We stopped and compared notes with some of the other tourists and did see some snaps from those lucky enough to spot a tiger. There aren’t actually that many in the park, around 60+ and so to spot a tiger does take some luck. Another couple had seen a sloth bear and her cub. We saw a number of spotted and other deer, wild boar, langurs and the forest was beautiful. It was quite cool as the sun went down and we headed out of the park.

One safari down and lots of optimism as we awoke on Friday for the 6:15 AM safari. We made our way to pick up another guide and went to a different entrance where we were first in line. One of the first things that we saw was a sloth bear and again many deer, langurs, but no tiger. Riding that early in the morning was cold, but it felt good as the sun came up and I stripped off some of my clothing. We went to a fire tower which we climbed and were able to see a large part of the park which was full of green trees. November was a time of greenery, after the monsoons and of course was very different, later in the year when the grasses had shrunk to almost nothing.

Our guides and drivers told us stories of tiger spotting, of cubs with their mom on the roads and we continued to feel optimistic. We also heard stories of people attacked by tigers and then the tigers being taken to zoos. One had to be smart and not just step into the forest at dusk, but still given the open jeeps, who knew if a tiger was hungry enough just to jump in and say hello.

The third safari would be Friday afternoon, into early evening with the same results. No tigers spotted by us, although again we could hear the roars, which fueled our optimism.

Saturday morning was the last tiger safari as the afternoon, around 2, would be a tour of the fort. For Bill this was something like his 9th safari without spotting a tiger. He had been to a place called the Jim Corbett Park but “only” saw wild elephants, which is enough of a reason to go.

On Saturday we had the best guide, he really was focused on helping us to find tigers. We drove like made to favorite tiger spotting locations and waited, but nothing. As the time came closer to leaving we noticed another jeep and a woman with a large smile telling us to be quiet and to come over next to their jeep. Sure enough there was our tiger! It was just resting, but proceeded to get up, and walk across the road in front of us. We were full of smiles and congratulations for our guide and driver who had driven with us on the three previous safaris.

The tiger was magnificent and although she came close to us, hardly paid us any heed. This was her domain and we were nothing. Tigers apparently stay on their own, but we were told that this one had some cubs which the guide had seen on previous safaris. This one sighting made everything worth the wait. The afternoon safari to the Fort was also great and one other tourist showed me his tiger photos which were just incredible. They had followed the tiger for some time, which we couldn’t do because our tiger went right across the road to disappear into the forest.

On Saturday evening we left somewhat tired, but happy. On the train ride Bill was in a lot of pain. As it turned out although he was supposed to leave for Scotland on Tuesday he had to have an operation for some gall stones. He did eventually make it back, with a much larger story to tell.

November Part 2, Momin's Wedding

Momin’s Wedding
Momin, one of the few Muslims working in the office, is a dear young man and it so happened that he invited me to his wedding in Shamsabad, UP . I had never been to a Muslim wedding and knew that this would be an opportunity to learn more about the world. I arrived early Sunday morning November 13 and was greeted by one of Momin’s friends at the Farukhadbad train station. We hopped onto his cycle and drove the 20 km to Shamsabd. From the moment we got out of the train station to the more rural areas the scenery shifted to the India that I love.

The simplicity of rural India, as I imagine other rural areas, in other parts of the world, is just beautiful. It is the way that it has been for so many years, oxen pulled carts, hand work as opposed to mechanization, and although it is changing, it is, in the very technologically driven world, something that I treasure.

As we entered the town of Shamsabad, a decent sized city, we came to Momin’s family’s home which was quite large, as his dad is a very well known doctor. The more than extended family was staying at Momin’s for the wedding and his bride to be lived about a five minute walk. This was a love marriage, something still unusual in India, but it would take place in the very traditional way.

People in Shamsabad were generally not that acquainted with westerners. I noticed this in the many children who would run away from the site of me. There was also the other side where others would just glom onto me. At times this became a bit much as when I was awoken early Monday after going to sleep into early Monday morning. All part of the experience though and I wouldn’t want it any other way.

Arriving on Sunday morning I asked to take a shower or bucket bath. Because the power was off, the water had to be heated manually. The toilets are at the end of an indoor courtyard or kind of living room of which many people were sitting around talking, waiting. This is the ultimate idea that comes to mind when I think of a joined family as not even bathroom habits are kept private. The sink was out in the courtyard and even brushing my teeth was a family affair. I met a number of “grandmothers”, brothers, aunties, uncles, children all of whom played some role in Momin’s life. Fortunately some of the folks did speak English.

Momin and his friends were quite over protective of me, but considering that people just gathered at the site of an American, it did make some sense. I met so many people as we walked through the town. I taught songs and danced with the many children and they tried to teach me. One young girl, who I nicknamed Sheila, was an incredible dancer who I captured on a short video.

Some of Momin’s friends and I went on a little site seeing tour. We stopped at a friend’s house where people were making the very detailed sari’s. This was very interesting to me, the patience that has to go into putting all of the beads in the right place. We sat outside his house and a crowd gathered just to look. We got back onto the scooters and the friends took me to a mosque and a little hill where one child was following us. I asked to take his picture and he looked at me as if I was from outer space. Finally a group of his friends came over and they all took a photo. One has to wonder how many photos these children have taken.

On Sunday night the ceremony began at Momin’s with him being given a number of outfits to try on. (Before this I went with Momin and another friend to a mosque across the street from his home where he prayed). Everyone on Momin’s side gathered around a small stage on the first floor at his house while relative after relative gave him new clothes, which he proceeded to try on in front of all. (I’m sure a similar ceremony was going on at the bride to be’s home). Finally a rather large flower thing, the length of Momin was placed on his head. This must have weighed at minimum 10 kg. As he sat, rupees were given to him and placed on the money necklaces.

At around 10 PM(?) Momin and his friends and me got into the wedding car where we were transported to the wedding venue. Momin was brought to the stage where a number of Imam were sitting. There were a tremendous number of, mostly men, sitting in the audience, waiting for the food “stalls” on the inside perimeter of the tent to open.

As the ceremony started, I noticed that the bride-to-be was nowhere to be seen and was told that she was in the tent behind the stage. I walked over and saw many women in front of the tent hanging, just waiting. I later came to find out that the bride would not leave the tent, but that someone from Momin’s family, as part of the ceremony, would go and ask her to marry Momin.

Many of Momin’s female family members did come and observe Momin and they were all dressed so beautifully. I really enjoy the women in India, dressed in the more traditional sari’s. Wedding sari’s are a step beyond and are just beautiful to observe. The jewelry that is worn, especially the nose rings, are also something that I love to see and take photos of. I took a snap with a number of the women surrounding me and was in a bit of heaven.

Finally we got to the end of the ceremony and I went up on the stage, sat next to Momin and watched him, his father-in-law, and others sign some legal documents. During the entire 2+ hour ceremony everyone was enjoying a variety of foods. Unfortunately dust bins were not provided, or at least I didn’t see any and so the grounds of the wedding ceremony tent, became littered, something I haven’t quite gotten used to.

One of Momin’s friends brought me back to the house on his scooter. The next day’s reception would take place across the narrow street from Momin’s home and I decided to go over. A group of five men were preparing the food, including the carcass of a cow with his entrails sprawled and his head and eyes in a fixed gaze.

I walked into the house where more ceremony was taking place. Someone had something like silly string and was spraying it. This had also been used at the wedding ceremony venue. Finally Momin’s wife was brought in with her face shrouded. She was just lovely in the very heavy wedding dress, although we couldn’t really look upon her face yet. She was placed on the ground and all gathered around her. Momin sat next to her, the silly string spewing. I can’t imagine what it must be like for the bride, wearing so much wedding paraphernalia, having to change, the wedding night.

The ceremonies seemed to go on and on and I decided to try to sleep. There were people sleeping everywhere and there was at least one other person in “my” room, but at least I had my own bed.

Momin’s father had painted one of the bedrooms for the first night, but earlier in the day I had sat on the bed with some other friends and eaten our lunch. I wondered what it would be like, how Momin’s wife would even get out of her wedding clothes which she also had to put on the next day, somehow everyone takes it in stride. There was one point where I asked the bride how she was doing and put my hand on her shoulder, but was told don’t touch her. A modern couple steeped in tradition.

On Monday I walked into town with a couple of Momin’s friends. There was a great market and people generally allowed me to take their photos. There was a great deal of curiosity, but part of the experience is to just “touch” others by being in the same vicinity. I must look rather odd with my topis, considering that the circumstance of a westerner being in town were very remote. Finally we had to go back to Momin’s home for the reception.

Momin and his wife were sitting on his bed greeting people, having photos taken. The bride looked uncomfortable and so very tired, but she took it in good spirit. This is the way that it is and will continue to be. Momin explained to me that there would be many more days of ceremonies and celebrations.

Around 6 PM I got onto a scooter with two of Momin’s friends as they drove me to the train station. The magic of rural India was everywhere as we drove around dusk, making it all even more mystical.

As I think back on it all, it adds to my understanding and knowledge of the world. It tells me that people are people, some do hate, but mostly we just want what is best for ourselves and our families. A Muslim person may have different beliefs but mostly there is allowance and tolerance for all. As I continue to find out though, one has to experience diversity to really know, to be part of the world and break down person made barriers.

I’m looking forward to meeting up with Momin and his wife in Delhi, ready to assume a modern relationship, where both are working and loving based on what they both wanted. I’m looking forward to sharing some of the happiness and hopefully becoming an uncle to their children. I’m thankful for having had the opportunity to be part of a very different culture enabling me to continue to learn about the world.

November 2011 part 1

Last month was nothing short of a whirl wind, as time passed from late October to early December within a matter of minutes. Badhte Kadam, edition 3, kicked off on October 21 in Chandigarh, with the Delhi Flag Off on November 3 at Delhi Haat, soon followed by attending a wedding in Shamsabad, UP, a visit to a tiger reserve, Bandhavgarh, M.P., wheelchair basketball in Delhi and Visakhapatnam, A.P., a return to Delhi and the closing of Badhte Kadam, world disability day and more wheelchair basketball, attending a speaking engagement to see the Dalai Lama and the National Disability Awards. In between all of this my sister Robyn and her husband Michael arrived in Delhi, soon left, came back and took up residence, in what is now the spare bedroom, until December 9.

Badhte Kadam 2011
Badhte Kadam 2011 has turned out to be the best edition yet, mainly because of the cooperation of the press throughout India. We’ve had the partnership of the government channel, Doordarshan, and the local press seems to have totally come onto “our side”.

This year we enabled more flexibility on the local dates of BK, as well as how the local NGOs would run their melas, or information sessions. This seemed to have worked out to the best as indicated by the consistent posting of photos and video on the Badhte Kadam Facebook page. This was a new feature which we brought to BK 2011 and a number of our NGOs actually started their own FB pages, which was unintended capacity building. We’re going to follow up on this by helping all of our participating BK NGOs to establish their own FB pages.

The Flag out organized by the excellent NGO AADI was held at Dilla Haat, a very wise decision as the event was more out in the open. Unlike last year where we had to beg people to come to the Constitution Club in a somewhat staid environment, this year all of the seats were filled. The Minister of Social Justice and Empowerment, Mr. Wasnik, again graced us by flagging off. The AADI staff did a great job or organising with help from National Trust, mostly supplied by our Deputy Director of Administration, Mr. Tyagi. Of course, our super board member Shekhar Borker, who had participated in all editions of BK, was also there.

One of the highlights of the event for me came when hearing impaired children signed the National Anthem. This seems, at least in our circles to becoming more and more popular and it was incredibly moving. The amount of press was phenomenal, thanks to Epistle Solutions, which shows the growth in interest of the disability field. To me, Muthu from AADI, like Jerry West to the National Basketball Association, has become the poster of what BK is all about. A strong man even though confined to a wheelchair. A great photo of Muthu appeared in the Times of India representing what BK is all about.

This year I decided that I needed to get out of the office during BK, although I knew that I could be reached wherever I was in India. One has to let go and allow others to do the work. My job is about capacity building and this was the intention. Yes, I still need to help with some framework, but front line staff, Anita, Momin and others are understanding more and more the importance and potential of Badhte Kadam. Pieces are in place, on the staff side to continue this work, the question is who has the time and will take the leadership to lead BK 4.

Monday, October 31, 2011


I think that I will most likely “process” India for the rest of my life. The daily frustrations, and “lack of proper etiquette” encourages me to continually babble cuss words, but the magic tempers and calms me to the point of being in the moment. How does one even begin to describe the “magic”, that I only remember glimpses of in the United States?

On the eve of the Chhath Puja, I see lights and walk across an intersection to a market that this morning was a vacant lot. This is my third Chhath and most likely my last as this festival falls exactly six days after Diwali every year. The familiar coconuts, pineapples and straw baskets lie on the floors of make-shift covered stalls with Indians of all shapes and sizes trying to sell them. The bananas and apple lie on push carts across from the stalls. I notice the long stalks of palm leaves accompanying many families, weaving their way across the busy streets, dodging cars, buses, jitneys and motorcycles. Never mind the traffic signal down the street which on occasion turns red with the drivers sometimes even stopping. (When giving directions in India everyone always talks about going to the “red” light as an identifying marker, as if the light is always red).

Right before the “red” light I take a left and there on my right, the park with a three foot deep, large “cesspool”, filled only by the monsoon rains, where people washed their clothes and children swam during the hot summer months and who knows what else, has been very recently drained, scraped and refilled. The park fence has recently been painted a shade of aqua and a large area apparently for drying rugs and other things has been painted white. I notice the area around the park has been cleaned up, when only this morning there was a huge pile of pooja materials.

There is a ring of pearl lights running around and reflected in the pool. As I scan the park I see lights placed in trees throughout, realizing once again that this magic is only seen once every year. I wrap around the park to the right and notice a gigantic white clothed entrance and a number of light strings placed on a fence behind the entrance. This morning when I left for work none of these props could be seen.

Things spring up out of the dust, which is swept every morning, on a regular basis for weddings, festivals, parties. One night the area around the park may be pitch black, but on the next there is a large tent with lots of people, the name of the tent renter and the words, “Shilpa weds Anil”. The next morning on my way to work the only remains are the tent skeletons. That evening an entire new tent may go up with statues of various “Gods”, loud music playing and male cooks stirring the contents of gigantic pots to make a variety of Indian dishes.

This is the India that I will miss as I visit the United States in March. There will be no sounds, except the television or me listening to the music on my laptop. There will be nothing happening in the streets except people spacing out in their cars. The “magic’ will be so pre-planned that it really isn’t. On those evenings when I’m in the US, I will sit and remember and play back the magic that I’ve found in India.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Kathmandu, Nepal

As my visa is for Business, multi-entry with the stipulation that I leave every 180 days, VSO India paid for me to travel to Kathmandu. I was all too happy to go, as Nepal had been on my list of places that I wanted to visit. Taking advantage of every opportunity that presents itself, I had previously written to VSO Nepal to see if I might do a workshop. Through lots of persistence and mails, VSON indicated that they wanted a workshop on Fundraising Planning. This would mean training staff and volunteers. VSON also indicated that they wanted me to do a one day workshop for an NGO, TSDCBD . To my way of thinking, no problem.

I arrived on Friday September 9 around 4 PM, Kathmandu time, which is 15 minutes ahead of New Delhi. Strange given that India is also off by ½ hour to other world times. The Kathmandu airport is quite small and one has to deplane to a bus and then drive about 50 paces to the terminal. But from the air I could tell that Kathmandu was a very different city than Delhi, with lots of greenery and some hills surrounding the valley in which Kathmandu was nestled.

I went to get my visa and didn’t bring enough Indian rupees for both the visa, $25, and the passport photo, 230 Nepali rupees. I left my passport with the visa officials, causing a bit of anxiety, and had to go outside of the terminal to an ATM. The first ATM was not working but I found another one and proceeded to get 5000 Nepali Rupees, which at the exchange rate is about 3000 Indian Rupees. I returned, without any major issues to the visa area, gave the money to the exchange guy, who then converted the Nepali Rupees to dollars to pay the visa people. I also took my passport/visa photo and I had my visa.

I then looked for the VSON driver, Prem, who was going to pick me up. Instead of looking for a sign that said VSO, I looked for my name and of course, didn’t see anything. I went to a tourist counter and called VSON and the Pacific Guest House, where I would be staying. Finally around 5 PM, Prem came to the Tourist Counter and told me that he had been waiting for some time, with the VSO sign.

I felt immediately at ease as I made my way into the front seat next to Prem. Kathmandu is a much smaller city than Delhi and as we drove I noticed more cleanliness, less people and a different building style. (People’s perceptions are so interesting as they said Kathmandu is a very dirty city). It didn’t feel overwhelming as Delhi might to the first time visitor. We drove to the Guest House and I met up with Arlene, the VSON Director.

Arlene has been around the world working with VSO, being in this most recent job for about 1.5 years. As a VSO Country Director there is a lot of balancing, with volunteers, staff, donors, governments, partner NGOs, etc. A super challenge and even though Arlene was somewhat diminutive in stature she seemed very much up for the challenge. I think that the challenge is especially great in Nepal where the government is very new and the local press, during the week that I was there, posted a number of articles about the public’s wariness towards INGOs and NGO’s.

On Saturday I decided to walk a bit, having been given some tips from one of the VSO vols. I went to a place called Tamal, which is a large tourist focused area. Lots of stuff and the usual tourist, “come with me”. I spent only a little bit of time there as it was close to the Pacific and I wanted to get my bearings. I then made my way up a main street and had momos for lunch and then to the Shangri-La Hotel where I was going to meet some of the volunteers in order to go on a HASH walk.

I had never heard of the HASH House Harriers prior to coming to Kathmandu but apparently these walks/runs happen in communities around the world. I met up with a number of the volunteers, including Tiffany, Dorieke and John, as we crammed into a taxi. We went outside of Kathmandu to an area with a lot of green hills. There was a group of maybe 50 people, some walkers, some runners. We had an opening circle and then the runners took off, soon followed by the walkers.

I spent most of the time being in awe of the green hills and talking to a lovely, young Nepali woman. She told me about her family, obtaining her Master’s in English, etc. It’s these types of conversations that really make my work special. Connections occur even though we grew up in very different worlds. (I also ended up talking with a man who is doing, at least what seemed to me great development work. He has been involved in getting roads to rural areas, employing the rural folks, helping them to set up self help savings groups, planting more vegetables for a better diet, etc). We ended up walking through a village, which is something that I’ve come to want to see more of in India. Although I can’t communicate with the villagers, what might seem as simple lives seem so extraordinary to me. After the walk we all circled up again and people did their drinking, singing. All in all it was great fun.

Although my new friends T and J were going out to listen to some music I decided that I wanted to go back to the Guest House as I would be working on Sunday. I was rewarded as I saw a number of people gathering on the badminton court cum square outside of the Pacific. As I sat talking to a young man named Arun, a crowd of maybe 3-400 people lined the square on three sides. As two dancers with very large masks came out a band played Nepali music. It gave me a strong sense of community which in that moment I felt a part of.

Sunday was a good day, as eight staff and one Japanese volunteer joined me from TSDCBD to do a one day fundraising workshop. I truly appreciate the seriousness of people partially brought on, in this case, by a need to diversify the funding base. This NGO has a lot of opportunities and who knows, one day I might be able to help them further.

From Monday-Wednesday I spent time at VSO Nepal with 16 volunteers and staff. We had wonderful conversations and did really good work providing me with some opportunity to see another Programme Office. I always say that people are people no matter where they live in the world. I’m curious to see if this holds throughout my life and the places that I’m able to visit in the future. My connection with VSO Nepal will continue as I will help them with further developing their fundraising plan and integrating it into their strategic plan.

I have to say that I really enjoyed meeting the staff and volunteers. The volunteers are really exceptional, learning the Nepali and regional languages in their efforts to truly fit in. (Certainly, my one regret is that I haven’t truly put in the effort to learn Hindi). I spent some time talking to G, who to me, would be a great mentor. G and his wife are retired and working outside of Kathmandu. T is an American who has traveled quite a bit and has done incredible work throughout her life. J reminds me of my good friend Marky in that they are both musicians and real go getters. J is in a band and I saw a video of him playing lead guitar on the Cure song, “It’s Friday I’m in Love”. Who would have ever thought that I would be watching something like this in Nepal? A and D are wonderful volunteers from Holland and man oh man are they tall. Have to get them playing b-ball next time I see them. Of course I also did a little b-ball ice breaker and my lion, which I’m becoming known for throughout India! ( I also saw some Army guys getting ready to play wheelchair b-ball one morning on my way to VSON)

On Monday night I was looking at a menu in a restaurant when a woman inside said this is on the list of good restaurants. I walked in and asked to sit with and have dinner with the two friends from Peru who were living in the US. The pizza was fabulous! Openness is something that is serving me well, helping me to meet and share experiences with others from around the world. On Tuesday night I had a really good dinner of tofu and rice and share momos with a number of volunteers. Riding the local bus back to the Pacific with T and A was really good for me to understand how the volunteers typically made their way around Kathmandu.

On Wednesday I walked with E, another great volunteer from the US from the Pacific to the VSON office. E really knows Kathmandu and it was wonderful having her as my tour guide as we walked through numerous neighborhoods, markets, past shrines and greeted a number of her friends. E was in the PC in India in the mid-60’s and her depth of information had me listening in rapt attention. On Wednesday night E took me to hear some Nepali music which I truly appreciated as the musicians were working to raise money for education for their village children.

Thursday morning E. accompanied me back to the Durbar Square which is a World Heritage site. This multi-temple, shrine area is a place that I felt immediately enriched my life.

After this walk, I was able to rest up a bit and then had a Chinese lunch with Arlene after which I went to the airport.

As soon as I was on the plane I knew that I was back in Delhi and this proved to be correct. Once I landed I came to find that the metro wasn’t running, the airport pathways were slippery due to lots of water and the pre-paid taxis took a long time to arrive due to traffic jams caused by the rain!

I know that I want to see many of the people that I met up with again, hopefully will see T. in the US in March, and possibly do some work in Kathmandu if things align correctly. My experiences continue to tell me that the world is large and that it is very open to me if I remain open to the world. I feel my privilege everyday in my home but know that this very same luck of being born in the US makes it possible for me to continue to lead this extraordinary life. Trainings Kathmandu Durbar Square HASH Walk

Friday, June 17, 2011

A Bad Day?

Yesterday I lost a blog that I had written when it wouldn’t copy into my blog on the internet, I had cut it from my Word document and then mistakenly saved the document without remembering to put the blog back. In the evening I received an e-mail from my realtor stating that the potential buyer’s home inspection said that my roof was bad and that I had lots of termites.

After a somewhat sleepless night I awoke to thinking what can I do, my funds are running low, I have to do some more work on my home to sell it, in other words a bit of a freak out. I arrived at work and talked to my friend Mark in China who calmed me down and I hoped to receive another e-mail from my realtor telling me further about the extent of the problem and whether the buyer has now given up.

Nothing came and I knew that the realtor was sleeping, probably having nightmares about this stupid little house that she thought might sell fairly quickly but due to market conditions has had only one serious offer in three months.

I next went to a meeting with a potential funder of a program that I’ve been working on and although we were funded last year they decided to fund a different piece this year, leaving us scrambling to find a funder. I remained positive thinking a blessing in disguise as now we will diversify our funding base a bit.

I went to a second meeting with a large television station, whose owner I had met in the airport when I traveled to Mumbai at the end of last month. The staff whom I met with said yes we’re interested but you have to find a sponsor. Another strike.

Now I sit in my house having hoped to correspond a bit with my realtor but having no internet connection. The woes of it all.

When I came home tonight I took my usual route, metro, bus, then walk. I passed numerous people, who probably live in a hovel or somewhere on the street, fanning their roasted corn and selling each ear for 5-7 rupees. I saw “my Indian family” members always greeting me with a smile, I came upstairs cooked food from my refrigerator, ate some sweet corn and now I sit in a lighted room, listening to the latest music, with a fan running overhead. Yes, I’m sweating, but I have lights and this fan and my a/c awaits me when I go to sleep.

What’s the rub? Well, of course, I worry in my western way of anxiety, my home, well maybe it needs a lot of work. Should I tell the bank that they can have it, get rid of the termites, fix the roof? What about those children, women and men selling that corn, how could I possibly explain this to them? Their worries, where do I sleep, how do I get a few rupees to feed myself and my family, can I find clean water?

Many times I just don’t get it and make myself sick thinking the sky is falling. I sit in India among a large portion of the world’s poor but I fall inside myself, seeing what is out there but never-the-less worry, legitimately, about what is happening with my home.

Tears for Fears is telling me “Change, you can change” and I suppose that is correct, thinking if only this, then it will be ok. But is it ever really ok, when the external world has such a major impact on me?

I know that I’m missing something when I see all of those children sitting next to their parents selling the roasted corn. Yes, it’s all relative to one’s experiences, and one day maybe I will change, as we say in India, “let’s see”.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011


Sitting in the lobby of the Hotel Haifa, waiting for 6 PM, to leave for the train station. The lobby fan blows around hot, hot air and there is little relief from the summer. I stayed at this same hotel some five years earlier with Daniel and Sarah. I haven’t found much change in Varanasi since I was last here, maybe prices are higher, there are more people, more pollution, the Ganga still looks the same, the burning ghats, but it is different.

The train that Len and I took was rather eventful as we decided to board even though we were on a wait list, e-ticket, which clearly stated don’t get on the train if this is your circumstance. We didn’t read this until a rather nasty conductor said that you must pay the fare plus a 250 rupee penalty each, unless you go to sleeper class. We tried sleeper class, but there wasn’t even a place to stand, let alone a place to sit or sleep. I walked through trying to follow Len and was stuck numerous times, with my back pack. We walked past the kitchen which felt like hell and given the number of people and the circumstances I thought this must be it.

Finally, after much argument, we paid the fare plus the penalty, but given the number of people on the train this didn’t even entitle us to a berth. We could only sit in between the cars where one of the “peon’s” offered to give Len a blanket for 500 rupees, sheer corruption. One man seeing my plight said take my blanket and pillow, which I did and found myself a place under a seat, between cars on the floor. I was so tired that I laid down on one side but was woken up numerous times given that I was sleeping in front of a door. This went on throughout the night and needless to say I was quite tired when I finally awoke for good around 6 AM. There was also the matter of the air conditioner which kept our area quite cold. I was somewhat more fortunate than Len as she tried to sleep sitting up all night.

From the train we took a rickshaw and I recognized and as we approached the exterior of the Haifa Hotel I recognized it immediately. There is also quite a story leading up to making reservations this time as there was a false e-mail address attached to the hotel. In making our reservations I received one confirmation e-mail and one stating that I must send some money via Western Union to the Secretary of the Hotel residing in the UK. Fortunately I didn’t send any funds. However, when I wrote to the supposed Secretary and told him that he was a liar, he wrote back stating that, “this was an insult” and that he would cancel my reservation. He also told me that there was no Western Union at the Hotel which, of course, was all a lie. I’m trying to find out who this guy is, so let’s see if anything further comes.

Once we checked in, we went directly to sleep which was not difficult given the previous evening on the train. When we awoke we went directly to the Vaatika Café, which as I had remembered from 2006, served incredible apple pie and brick oven pizza. It was so very good and given the amount of Indian food that I eat, was a welcomed reprieve. I had remembered one of the waiters, and of course, Anil was still there. Many westerners, as well as Indians, frequent the Café, none-the-less, it was just as wonderful as I had remembered.

Varanasi is one of the seven holy cities in India, that all Hindus want to visit. The Ganges is filled with boats, people bathing, washing their clothes, brushing their teeth, fishing, cremated bodies, etc. From the ghats one can see a time of true grandeur, when really wealthy individuals spent the money to build these. Now they are somewhat crumbling as, like many things in India, maintenance is not part of the equation. One of the truely amazing sites are the burning ghats, where people bring the bodies of their loved ones and place them upon funeral pyres. One can watch this from an observation area. The bodies are wrapped in shrouds, washed in the Ganges, placed on the pyre and then lit. Last time that I was here I watched with my daughter and remember asking her if this was strange? Her reply was no. This time I could clearly see the bodies but the flames were so consuming that I couldn’t tell the difference between the wood, the fire and the body.

The one body that I could truly make out because the shroud was taken off, was very lifeless, nothing more than a very wiry doll. The men of the family lifted this “doll” onto the wood and then covered it with more wood. We left before the flame was lit, but later on during the evening saw the flames of this particular pyre.

I didn’t see many tears among the people, mainly men, watching their loved ones turning into powder. Indians must be sad when a loved one dies, but I’m not sure that they show the same kind of grief that I’ve seen from Americans. Indians want to be cremated in Varanasi and maybe if a loved one makes it here things are more accepted. I’m not entirely sure but as the owner of Vaatika told us, if you die in Varanasi you don’t have to be reincarnated, and many people don’t want this, due to the suffering of life.

Our first day completed and totally exhausted we had some falafel at the restaurant next to our hotel, watched some television and immediately fell asleep.

On Tuesday morning I awoke to stomach issues. They have never been quite far away since living in India, it’s just part of what we all deal with. Regardless I had a good bagel at the Brown Bread Bakery and we went off to Sarnath which is a community where the Buddha gave his first sermon. It was way too hot and we shouldn’t have been out in the sun, but we braved the 10 KM through roads that needed to be totally remade. Due to the traffic it took quite a bit of time. We had to pay 100 rupees each to get into what was once a monastery. Typically I argue for Indian prices, which in this case was 5 rupees, but the heat and my stomach just left me with little energy. Fortunately there was a beautiful a/c museum, with really, nice clean bathrooms that provided some relief. (Let me just state here that the bathrooms do make a difference). The symbol of India, the original three lions statue, was in this museum as it had been near the monastery. This was one of the best museums that I’ve been in India, very clean, well captioned and clean. One would expect this kind of thing in a large city, but in India one needs to expect the unexpected.

The rickshaw driver, who had now become our personal driver, got us back to the Haifa where we had some more middle eastern food and then went to sleep. The heat can really knock one out and this is exactly what happened as we awoke more than 3+ hours later as it was getting dark. I slept in that middle state between sleeping and waking, not quite being able to awake but knowing that I was dreaming. Maybe it was just being in Varanasi.

We finally awoke and took a bicycle rickshaw to the main ghat where there was a huge pooja taking place. Varanasi in many ways reminds me of old Delhi, narrow streets, way too many people, too much traffic, no rules. We had to walk part of the way to the ghat as the rickshaw left us off in a very congested area. Once we made it to the ghat it was covered with people. The Ganges was also filled with boats. There were six or so priests, performing a ceremony with some fire.

It is always a site for me to witness these religious events which are so very plentiful in India. We stayed and watched for a time and then walked to see the next ceremony, the multitude of people. Since it was too far to walk we took a boat to Tulsi Ghat where Vaatika Café is. This must have taken a good half an hour to 45 minutes and fortunately the boat was placed next to the banks so that we didn’t have to touch the water when we boarded. Yes, it is holy but I look only at the fecal coliform counts which are at 1.5 million fecal coliform bacteria per 100 ml of water. Water safe for bathing should be 500 or less. Yes, people were swimming and dunking themselves and fishing. I must say that it didn’t seem to bother anyone.

I laid down on the boat and actually saw some stars, which are something that I don’t see very often in Delhi. The night air was warm but this proved to be quite a treat. We ate again at Vaatika, Len had ravioli and I had a banana honey pancake, again a treat, as my stomach was now cooperating.

Our final day in Varanasi, as I slept Len went to Vaatika for breakfast. I decided to have corn flakes and fresh fruit, which is my typical breakfast, in the Haifa restaurant. After this we went shopping at the Agrawal Toy Emporium, a place that I had purchased a carved mirror from in 2006. We talked with the owner who showed us an article noting that his grandfather had started the store some 85 years ago. I saw the mirror that I had purchased and bought some more as well as some other items. It was a treat as the store is air conditioned.

After this we went to the Vaatika for lunch and enjoyed spaghetti with tomato sauce and a mushroom pizza and of course apple pie for dessert. I gave my card to Anil and the owner Gopil came and talked to us for some time. He started the restaurant in 1993 and has always lived in Varanassi. He has six brothers, one of whom is a priest. It was a nice conversation and I hope to meet up with Gopil and Anil, the waiter that I remembered again before I leave India.

It is 5:30 PM almost time to leave for the train station. Our personal rickshaw driver has been waiting all day for this. His little helper Rakesh, who accompanied us yesterday had also been waiting for us, trying to sell us postcards. I ended up buying him some cookies as he found us today when we were walking around.

The rickshaw driver wanted to charge us way too much so we found another guy for about half the price. The train back to Delhi was wonderful as Len and I each had our own berth. There were a number of children sitting across from us kind of loud and I asked them to quiet down and then started talking to them. We ended up playing cards with them, taught them War and Go Fish. They were all just lovely ranging in age from about 6 to 13. Very well mannered, with beautiful smiles. In the morning when we woke up they were waiting to play again. We made it back successfully to the Delhi oven.

Varanasi certainly didn’t have the same feeling for me as when I first visited India in February 2006, when everything was so new and I was a wide eyed tourist. The weather was also much cooler at that time. Living in India for two plus years has given me a very different perspective. I see the congestion, pollution, the mass of humanity with not much to do to occupy their days, the poverty. India continues to be a country on the verge of progressing but also staying the way that it has been. The advances continue, more people have money, but I really wonder how far this country will move forward. It is just the mass of humanity that makes me state this.

Varanasi is a treasure and like most places I just come to love the people and how I’m generally treated by those willing to talk. One still gets the typical tourist stuff, the over charging, the continual buy this, just come and look, it sometimes gets on my nerves, but most of the time I can just say no thanks. It all continues to be part of Incredible India, the land of everything.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

How do I know that I'm back in India

I've been back for eight days and besides the obvious, cows, monkeys and dogs, the dust, the heat, the language, our flat, the children, skyping across the world, I know that I'm back in Mother India, another planet.

Today being holi, people are outside in a festive mood, splattering each other with various colours through water, smearing, balloons, and other means. It is a joy to play holi with the children in the neighborhood as they really seem to enjoy getting the westerner.

Last night in the park next to our flat, there was a burning of wood, an effigy as part of the celebration. People burned some wheat stalks and then brought this to their homes to hang onto until next year. Of course, there was music.

During the week, children seeing me would throw water balloons and I would avoid them and then stick out my tongue, causing a more concerted effort on their part to hit me.

I recently had to have some x-rays, the cost for one was 160 rupees or about $3.80 and the second was much more expensive at 240 rupees. The cost for the doctor was 1,000 rupees, about $22. As part of getting a root canal, cost 7,000 rupees about $170, I also have to get a crown, at 6500 rupees. Yes the two combined are quite expensive.

The rat in my bedroom has been quite mobile and though he continues to eat the poison that I've fed him, he still shits in all of my bed drawers. I saw him recently climbing up the electrical cord to get into the a/c.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

My parents

During the last two and a half weeks I’ve stayed with my parents in Mission Viejo, California as I’ve taken a five week leave from my beloved India. My parents were married in November 1953 three years before I was born. Some simple multiplication means that they’ve spent almost 21,000 days together or 504,000 hours or 31,000,000 minutes, give or take a little. These are remarkable numbers, especially for the US where on average, about 40-50% of first marriages end in divorce. One might say that my parents are of a different generation but never-the-less through “thick and thin” they have remained companions.

I’ve seen them at their worse, when their arguments are so irrational, that I wonder what has kept them together for this many years. But I’ve also seen them at their best and now that they are almost 82 and 78, their love and caring for one another is something that carries them through life on a daily basis. I still see many of the same things that I did when I was younger, maybe those things never change. Now that I’m older and hadn’t seen them for two years, these things are viewed from a much different perspective.

My mother has not weathered the years well and although she maintains a zest for life her body is not in the best of shape. She might say that a lifetime of hardship has caused this. My mother uses a walker, has diabetes and eats too much junk. She has trouble getting in and out of the car but she does try to exercise in the pool and keeps her mind active through her gardening, book club and bridge interests.

My father, on the other hand, remains slimmer and also involves himself with numerous activities including an annual chalk festival to raise funds for school arts programs, fundraising for Mission Viejo Chabad House, book club and bridge. He also exercises in the pool.

The thing that I notice now is that my father takes more care of my mother. He walks with her, helps more with preparing meals, drives her to certain events and generally is available. My mother does what she can, but seems to be much more dependent on my father.

This companionship lasting more than 57 years seems to be complete. It has weathered the ups and downs that life brings, more so, than many relationships. Even as we’ve all changed, we’ve remained somewhat the same, somewhere lost in time. No matter how far way I might be, when I come back I am their son and I get to see the best and worst of my parents. No matter which world I’m in, I see this incredible companionship lasting more than 57 years, a lifetime. This is one thing that will always be part of me, my heritage.

My parents are truly amazing and I love them more than ever. It is difficult to see one’s once vibrant parents turn to older age. They are slower and their physical appearance is different. But even with all of those changes they remain my parents and this picture of them being together, helping each other will always remain a positive in my life.

A dream?

I’ve been in the US for a little over two weeks, mainly in beautiful southern California. I also spent a weekend in Boulder, Colorado, a paradise surrounded by beautiful snow covered mountains. At times, it all feels like a dream. I know that I will be out of Mother India for five weeks. At times, given that I’m on vacation I really don’t know what day it is. The sunny skies of California and the ocean lure one into a dreamlike state. The Rocky Mountains really makes me appreciate the beauty of the States. It is such a different world from Mother India.

I’ve been going shopping in grocery and retail stores and the abundance and choices are mind boggling. I think that I’ve noticed this in my life BI (Before India), but coming back after two years really puts the abundance and choices directly in my face. The clothing which most of us don’t need is always on sale with an extra 30% off and how do we resist even though our closets are bulging? The clothing of course is where I just came from, i.e. the developing world, so why buy it in America. Because it is on sale.

Sometimes I feel as if I’m caught between two worlds. Maybe this is what happens when one works in the developing world or just after being in a place like India for two years without coming to the west. I know where I am, but I also don’t know where I am. I’m stuck somewhere in the middle, wanting to be back while enjoying the west. It truly can be quite confusing as I continue to keep up with my friends in India.

After all there are no noises and no smells. The streets are clean and the cows are somewhere penned up, most likely on some farm and not roaming in the middle of the streets, where they feast on garbage or roti. Everyone stay in line and cars don’t constantly honk. The skies are perfectly blue and the weather is around 60 F. It is a well manicured lawn with the sprinklers coming on every night at 6 PM, just as the sun sets. Of course the sunsets are beautiful and can be seen for miles. Everyone seems to be Caucasian and they all speak English. The malls consist of beautifully maintained buildings and there is Chinese food and bagels on every corner. The gas stations have no employees except for the guy behind the booth and the prices keep going up. We pump our own gas here and I only leave my car for that reason.

This does seem like a dream and I wonder which world I’m really in.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Between Two Worlds

Note: I knew that once I visited the US, after two years in India I would look at things differently. I haven’t felt any real culture shock yet, but I do see many differences. These are some of my observations which I will continue throughout my stay for five weeks.

I’ve been back in the US for about 48 hours now. There are so many differences between my life in my beloved India and my life in the US. After a wonderful walk today, seeing no garbage or cows, hardly any people, only a few cars, blue sky and little noise, I went straight for the hose in my parent’s front yard. I didn’t give the purity of the water a second thought, just drank. I would never do this in India. Before making a lunch of veggies I didn’t even think about washing them, although I probably should. In India I wash my veggies and fruit with some purple stuff, can’t think of the substance right now, to ensure that they are ready to be eaten. (A friend in India told me to do this).

The contrasts abound for me and I am super sensitive to the differences. As I showed my parents some videos of India they immediately heard the traffic noise. On some level I’ve become used to the noise of New Delhi and when I don’t hear it, I find this highly unusual. As my parents live in a retirement community in a somewhat middle to upper middle class area it is very quiet. For people who like blue sky, fewer cars, quiet, lots of trees and flowers, it is not a bad life. Although, it may also be the same from one day to the next. My life in New Delhi is never the same and I never know what I will see or who I will speak with or what opportunities will be present. My camera is a constant companion.

Everything seems to be neat and tidy in the world that I’m in at the moment. It is a different way of living. It’s not that I don’t like the fact that there is no garbage on the streets as I’m constantly telling New Delhites to pick up their garbage, but it is different, another way of living life. There are hardly any smells here, so very different from the streets of New Delhi. It is difficult for me to see men peeing everywhere in New Delhi or children defecating on the streets because they have no toilets, but it is how people have to live. I try not to step in the rivers of pee and hold my nose but it is part of my life.

The line at the Department of Motor Vehicles in Mission Viejo was so orderly and the “bureaucrats” incredibly efficient. The bathrooms were even neat and clean. Supermarkets are full of items and the shelves are full. It’s hard to understand if one hasn’t traveled in the so called developing parts of the world. It’s so very different.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

From Los Angeles to Delhi: A conversation about Matzoh, is it like Roti?

Ah, Skype does make things much easier to discuss like matzoh:

MJR: eating matzoh with butter,
[11:22:57 PM] LYM: what is matzoh?
[11:24:04 PM] MJR: matzoh is what we eat on passover but my parents have some, it is unleavened bread, kind of like a cracker
[11:24:19 PM] MJR: the jews ate this when they were escaping Egypt with Moses I love it
[11:24:21 PM] LYM: so like roti but crispy?
[11:24:52 PM] MJR: kind of, square Maybe I can bring a small box back if Ican find it
[11:25:24 PM] LYM: i read about matzoh then, it's unleavened because the people were in a hurry to escape,
[11:26:02 PM]LYM: oh right, i didn't notice
[11:26:29 PM] MJR: good stuff, you can put water on it and put it over a pot of boiling water, yummy with butter
[11:26:33 PM] MJR: I love egg matzoh
[[11:26:39 PM] MJR: there is also chocolate covered matzoh
[11:26:56 PM] LYM: oh, like golgapa
[11:27:04 PM] lenymanikan: can you make it here?
[11:28:03 PM] LYM: No I don't think so

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Into the West-

I’m in the Zurich airport waiting for my flight to Los Angeles. It is a gray day and there is a bit of frost on the ground. I’ve explored downtown Zurich, took a train, very efficient, from the airport to downtown. Ticket was about $14 and it is an all day pass, which I only used to go to and from the airport.

I left mother India this morning around 2 AM. I am wearing my multi-colored hat that I purchased in Pushkar in October 2009. The Indian woman at the Swiss Air counter in New Delhi asked me about the hat and really liked it. She smiled, that smile that I typically get from India.
My flight was uneventful, the usual turbulence and I tried to sleep the entire way, ignored the food at 2:30 AM as I pulled my Pushkar hat over my eyes. Sleeping was not sound, although there was nobody sitting next to me. Had an early breakfast around 5 AM Zurich time and watched a bit of Avatar.

The flight was efficient, clean, a different language came over the speakers from the captain and crew. A guttural kind of utterance, a European mixture. The New Delhi airport has changed mostly due to the October 2010 Commonwealth Games. It has a very western feel, lots of shopping, clean, efficient. The Zurich airport is the same clean, no noise from the outside, a world unto itself.

The people don’t seem friendly, like you’re bothering them by asking a question. It is not the smile that I’m used from India. It feels rather stand offish. One guy was helpful, but many of the Swiss that I encountered, didn’t really seem to want to take the time.

Zurich, in which the sky didn’t start to lighten until around 8:30 AM, was full of no sound, people in cars, a few on bicycles, no ethnic diversity, people riding the various types of public transportation, light rail, electrified bus, trains, a market that was neither hustle nor bustle, no garbage on the streets except for some cigarette butts, two dogs with chains around their necks and no cows. . Granted it is winter, cold around 0 Centigrade, but I wonder I anybody really “lives” here.

I went into a grocery store, Coop, full of western products, with shelves well stocked and everything in its place. The orange that I ate had no seeds, the apple was perfectly crisp, nothing like what I eat in mother India.

The only sound in the Zurich airport Gate E-26 waiting area is from what looks to be an Indian family. The only color that I see, beautiful pinkish sari, is from this same family. My reintroduction to the west seems to be about conformity, few smiles, lots of cigarette smoking, efficiency and “whiteness”. I did see a guy wearing a Green Bay Packers shirt and when he stood up, due to his size his butt was staring me in the face.

It certainly is what I remember but I haven’t seen it through my “Indian eyes” before. The white frost on the runway and the gray background seems to capture it all. I’m sure that the summer is beautiful with the Alps and the blueness of Lake Zurich, but now it is only the same.

Monday, January 17, 2011


I love basketball! I think about the game, the NBA with a passion that approaches other things that I love in life. My life would be less colorful without my daily morning watching of the live NBA games companion and highlights. India just wouldn’t be the same if I couldn’t bring my love, through coaching, to the many Indian children that I’ve met during my travels and through my weekly Saturday night sojourns to the YMCA-New Delhi and playing at the American Embassy School.

Basketball is about my Lakers who I’ve loved, due to my father, ever since growing up in Los Angeles. They were the team that always came in second during the 1960’s when nobody could defeat the Celtics, they were the team that won 33 in a row with Wilt, Baylor, West, and Goodrich and finally broke through to win a championship. The 80’s were ruled by the Lakers with Magic, Worthy and Kareem and like many others I was heartbroken over Magic’s announcement of having to retire due to HIV. The 90’s mediocrity due to the dominance of the Bulls, led to a rebuilding for the new century with Kobe, Shaq, Fisher and now Pau, Ron-Ron, Brown and Lamar.

I love to think about the players and the player movements: Lebron and Bosh to Miami resulting in the the abysmal performance of the Cavaliers and Raptors; that Lakers-Cleveland game is fresh in my mind; Allan, Garnett and now Shaq teaming up with Pierce in Boston; the emergence of Rondo as a great point-guard; San Antonio’s revival thanks to their big three Duncan, Parker and Ginobili; the up- start Thunder with Westbrook and Durant; the Magic coming alive once again by getting back Turkoglu and trading for Richardson and Arenas; Amare’s proof that he is one of the greats through the turn- around season for the Knicks; the consistency of the Hawks and the Jazz who will never be quite good enough to win it all; the young Chicago Bulls; seemingly one or two players away from being the best; the fading Dallas Mavericks without Nowitzki; Kevin Love of the Timberwolves and his dominance on the boards; the potential re-emergence of the Nets with Anthony, Billups, Hamilton and two former Lakers Farmar and Vujacic; all of these examples showing that the game can change at any time. Last year the Nets were the worst team in the game and in 2011-12, they will be in the playoffs. I know that Steve Nash, one of the greatest point guards ever, is slowing down, but he is still a magician with the basketball.
I also have been blessed by having been able to see so many of the greats and not so greats, including players from the ABA. The list goes on and the thoughts and possibilities are endless.

I love to coach basketball, to bring the game to Indian children so willing to learn and whenever I see a basketball court, which is quite frequently, I try to do this. This is about capacity building, becoming fundamentally sound, to really enjoy the game, something that I also do in my job for NGOs throughout India. There is so much, incredible potential in India for making basketball the number one game, especially with the great collaborative work that the NBA is doing through its India Director of Operations, Troy Justice. Although, due to work, I missed the great excitement of meeting Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol, and the championship trophy, I know that these two professionals brought their love of the game to share with the future of this great nation. (I hope that I have another chance of seeing and touching the championship trophy which will mean that the Lakers are 3-Peaters). I follow all of the happenings and discoveries of potential Indian professional players and the various Mahindra leagues on Facebook.

But basketball is more than a game as it requires, as does life, being part of a team, sharing experiences, joy, sorrow, anger, tears with others, communication, tolerance, discipline and being in good health and eating right. Basketball is a chosen life-style by those who proactively choose to truly take part. Like life, basketball has its ups and downs. The Lakers went through a horrible stretch this season when nothing was clicking followed by internal/external bickering. But now they are back in form and have won seven in a row. I’ve gone through many ups and downs in life, the things that we all go through, because we are human beings. We have all been gifted with different skills and as in basketball it is about what we do with those skills and talents that makes life worth living.

I’m not sure which sport I would truly love if there was no basketball. I do like baseball and American football, but somehow they just don’t measure up to the excitement of life brought about by basketball. One day, as my body ages, I may have to retire from playing. I will continue though to live life as being part of basketball, eating well, exercising, living in community, coaching, etc. Maybe, I’ll turn to that sport that many people retire to, golf, but I cannot imagine playing golf after a life of basketball. Most likely, however, I will continue to live basketball until I take my last breath, until I’m again on the court in a younger person’s body. My love for the game will never cease.