Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Lightning and Finn: Part 3- Onam

 Lightning, Finn, and I were in Ft. Cochin, Kerala for the beginning of Onam, a statewide festival.  For Onam, people make beautiful flower designs at their businesses or in their homes.  Below is one that was made for the public square.  It took several days for them to create this...


It was beautiful when they finished it....Can you imagine how many flowers it took to make?

To offset costs, there was a raffle.  I can't remember what most of the possible prizes were, but I do remember one: a bag of rice!  Since that is a staple of the diet here, it'd be a good prize to win!

On the second day of Onam, we got to share an Onam lunch with a family.  First we spruced up their flower decoration (below)

There are particular foods prepared for Onam and it is tradition to eat the meal on a banana leaf. Seeing the spread, we were reminded of Thanksgiving Dinner!

The foods also have a particular place they go on the banana leaf.  Rice (not served yet), goes in the middle.  Bit by bit, mix the rice in with the various vegetables (it's a vegetarian meal).  The rice soaks up the juices.  All the mixing and eating is done with your hands.  Most people eat with their right hands, but I was told it was OK to eat with my left.  The important thing, I was told, is that the same hand used for eating not be used for serving.  After the meal, it is very easy to clean up.  Fold the banana leaf (away from you, so no leftover juices fall into your lap) and toss!    

We left very full and thankful (so perhaps it was a Thanksgiving meal!) to the family who'd shared their tradition with us!  It was here, by the way, that we sang "How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria."  Such fun.  We went straight from this meal to the airport, headed for Calcutta! 

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Rips and tears

There is reality and then there is REALITY. Certainly I've witnessed pieces of daily life and have seen the best of humanity in so many people I have encountered here. Undoubtedly my encounters are a part of the truth of India. They are the pieces of the tapestry that is India, so attractive; they have given me such a sense of peace.

But there are rips and tears, weaknesses in this tapestry, too. I have seen a few, as I've indicated in previous posts. The poverty accounts for some. The violence adds many more. Thankfully, I have not personally witnessed any violence, but I fear I was very close a few days ago.

We were driving from Chatra to Mokama, making pretty good time, when all of a sudden we had to stop. When Indian drivers see stopped traffic, they do not stop in orderly lines and wait for traffic to get going again. They try to maneuver around whatever is keeping them from progressing. A large truck was stopped in front of us, but it looked like we could drive around it and be on our way. Our driver moved into the other lane (though I hesitate to call it a lane as that would imply things like lane markers and a semblance of order, both of which are rarely present on Indian roads, as far as I can tell).  As the jeep started to turn, we could see a crowd gathered around the driver's side door of the truck. As we got closer, we could see several men in the crowd trying to pull the driver out of the vehicle; they didn't look too happy. There was a heated exchange going on between crowd and driver, as some continued to try to pull the driver down. As we passed the truck, we saw that  it had rear-ended a bus, so we knew the cause of the anger.

All I could think was,"Oh crap oh crap oh crap oh crap, please don't let me witness someone getting the snot beaten out of him (or worse)." My thoughts were a little more emphatic, but you get the idea. I wanted to scream, just to provide some distraction. We didn't get much past the truck when we saw oncoming traffic which would require us to back up, passing the truck again. As we were backing up, there was still a crowd around the truck cabin, but no one seemed to have hands on the driver anymore. I was relieved, though still worried that things would heat up again.

As I have written previously, the book Half the Sky was the impetus for my journey. There are some horrific stories of violence in the book- rapes, beatings, killings- so I knew such acts were common here. The few times I've picked up a newspaper or watched the news here, I've seen the same kinds of stories- women gang raped, someone beaten to death or near death. Just a few nights ago on the news there was film footage of crowds beating a police officer with sticks. It was a scene hard to forget. Recently I was talking to one of the sisters, who was telling me how pervasive rape is here. She also told me about several people she knows who are in jail for murder. I don't personally know multiple people in jail for murder, do you?

With all of this in my mind, I was holding my breath and praying and praying that tempers would cool enough to keep the driver safe. Certainly, I could understand the anger. The truck had been going fast enough to do some real damage to the bus and there was at least one person being tended to after the wreck.  Just as certainly, I knew that beating the driver would not change what had already happened. Maybe the mob realized this, maybe they didn't, but I am a little comforted to know that when we passed the third time, finally able to continue forward, the driver was still in his seat unharmed.

As we drove on, I was trying to process what I'd seen and what may or may not have happened after we left. As we drove through a village, we passed another scene that jarred me. I saw a man holding another man in the air. The man being held was clearly struggling to get out of the grip of the first man. Again there was a crowd assembled. I saw no more than this, as we only drove past, but I have a feeling the man struggling to get away did not fare as well as the driver (might have).

These scenes remind me that there there is a lot going on here that is not immediately apparent, lots I have yet to understand or may never understand. The  tapestry of REALITY here is complex, the peace, violence, joy, and pain all woven together, inseparably bound. It is constantly ripped and torn, sometimes with brutal force.  I hope it is also re-sewn, mended, patched, with new threads woven in, and old ones pulled out.  My hope is that the cloth becomes ever stronger and ever more beautiful as the weaving continues.

As I sit here and write, I think: by being here, I am a small piece of this tapestry, too. How will I be woven into this place? How will I make the cloth stronger and how will I weaken it? What strands will intertwine themselves so completely with me that I will rip them out when I leave?  What will be torn from me and remain woven in?

My answer to all of the above questions: I do not know.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Lightning and Finn: A Post for the Kids, Part 2

In our last series of pictures, Lightning, Finn, and I were in Bangalore.  There we visited Lalbagh Garden, where we ran into some unexpected characters...

In the background behind the clock and covered in foliage is Snow White's cottage.  We were very surprised to see that Snow White lived in Bangalore.  But, as you can see in the picture, Dopey and the rest of the gang
look pretty happy there. 

After Bangalore, we visited the southern state of Kerala.  Kerala is known for it s beautiful waterways, so we decided to go on an all-day backwater tour.  Lightning and Finn had great window seats!  
This is what it looked like looking out towards the front of the boat. 

 We saw lots of other people going about daily life.  Getting from place to place by boat is pretty common and necessary in this area.

  Part of our trip was in a motorized boat, but we also went through the smaller waterways in a human-powered (row) boat.  Here is a bit of that scenery.  Finn and Lightning decided not to get in the picture. We saw several water snakes in this area, but didn't get a good picture. They were too fast! 

We also learned about some of the cottage industries there.  Some people make their living spinning rope from coconut husks.  You can see the spinning wheel with the pile of coconut husks in the back.  This is also a big area for the spice trade.  Above is some             cinnamon bark, still on the tree.  It smelled so good!!!! 

As you might be able to tell, I am still figuring out how to get my photos/text  formatted the way I want.  Trial and error...  Finn and Lightning's next adventure...Onam! 

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Scratching the surface of reality...

**Note**  Since I am doing a lot of writing right now, I have started to schedule post publishing for later, so I don't have zillions of posts coming out at once and then nothing for awhile.  When they are automatically published, I can't make a Facebook link (as far as I can tell, that can only be done once the post is on the page), so you might want to just check periodically to see what's here.  If anyone knows how to create a link pre-publication, please share your knowledge with me!! Thanks! Cory

I was warned about the reality.  The suffering.  The beauty.  The presence of both in a single place or single moment.  I have experienced this coexistence before in El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Belize...

When I landed in India, a certain familiarity despite the fact that I've never been here led me to the thought, "I am home."  I don't know yet if that means for the next 3 months or for some longer time I can't yet imagine.

Many people have asked me if it's been hard to adjust to being here. The answer is no.  I slept well my first night, woke up refreshed, and never felt any jet lag.  I love Indian food, so eating it all the time has been delightful.  India is paradise for a vegetarian!  I don't know Hindi, but I've had so much help and/or have managed to communicate when there has been no common language.  The Indian toilets...OK, I'll admit that  I choose western toilets when given the option (sorry if that's TMI!)  The same is true of eating with my hands...but I'm warming up to that one a little more... At the lunch for the Feast of St. Vincent de Paul, I ate with my hands and later that day one sister told me how she'd loved seeing me eat with my left hand. Her mother had beaten out of her the inclination to use her left hand for eating and writing...

The poverty is, as I'd been warned, worse than I've seen. As I walked through several cities, I found the number of people of all ages sleeping on sidewalks staggering. Walking in Calcutta, I passed a man who was sitting on the sidewalk with only a small piece of cardboard covering his midsection.  It wasn't even covering his entire midsection... It makes me ache just to think about him. When I passed him, I felt helpless. I wondered why no one was doing anything for I also did nothing for him. So much for "Do unto others..."

I was told by people here and in the States (and was advised by my guidebook) not to give to beggars, but rather give to charitable organizations, as putting money into their work will make a greater impact than giving to individuals.  I have taken that advice, but as it happened with the naked man, it makes me hurt to walk past suffering people.  The best I can do is look into their eyes and think of a song whose main line of the refrain is, "I see you." So as I pass, I look into their eyes and think those words and hope that being here, working for a few months, and telling my stories will somehow make a difference in more than my own life.  In Calcutta one evening, I left a restaurant with some extra nan (bread). It was with great relief that I gave it to a woman who approached me in the street.  She'd done so the night before and I'd given her nothing.  It was a relief to have something to offer.  I hope she felt temporary relief, too.  A couple days ago at the school here, a child was crying because he had a large infected wound on his heel. Another  child had hit the wound, so it was bleeding.  Seeing the infection, I went to get antibiotic ointment and a bandage from my first aid kit. The school had neither. Again, it was a relief to be able to possibly alleviate some pain, but my antibiotic ointment won't change the fact that there are no bandaids in the child's home or at the school.

These are small glimpses of reality here.  Now that I am in Chatra, my immersion into the poverty and the injustice that exists here will not simply be in the form of observation, but interaction. I use the word "immersion," but I think that I will never be completely immersed, despite my desire to be.  I say this because, even when I want to understand, the realities I'll encounter are not my realities, nor will they ever be. I have the luxury of choice. I chose to come here and I can choose to leave. The naked man on the street can't just walk away and forget. I hope with every fiber of my being that even when I walk away, I won't forget.

Thankfully, I don't think I will. The poverty is is the beauty. The women in their saris- the colors and patterns...I wish I could take a picture of every single one of them. The shrines and temples that seem to be everywhere, as well as the flowers that are sold in the markets to adorn them...I love coming upon them unexpectedly.  The radiant smiles on the faces of children... sometimes I'm glad my Hindi is limited, so my only possible communication is a smile; the smiles I get in return make my heart swell with joy.  The rural landscape, now lush and green... The last several years have been very dry in this area, so the current lushness is particularly appreciated, not only by me, but by those who can grow food this year.  These are just a few examples of the beauty I have encountered. I'll post more pictures as I'm able, though they don't capture everything I sense.  This place is sometimes overwhelming to the senses.

And so I begin to scratch the surface of real life here...

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Lightning and Finn: A Post for the Kids, Part 1

The day before I left for India, my youngest nephews gave me gifts: Lightning McQueen and Finn McMissile to accompany me on my journey. The older of the two boys was very concerned about their well-being and even checked to make sure I had them at the airport. Anticipating such a check, I had them in an easily accessible backpack pocket. I assured the boys that I would take pictures of Finn and Lightning as we travelled together. I didn't get pictures of them everywhere, but these should give you an idea of where Lightning, Finn, and I have been.  We've been having a great time together!!
One of the first places we went was Humayan's tomb in Delhi.

Finn & Lightning would be too small to see here.  Behind me is
 all of Humayan's tomb. 
We visited a Buddhist Temple in Delhi, too.  This was outside the temple.
We had to take our shoes off before going in. 

In Mumbai, one of the places we visited was the Gateway of India.
Lightning took this picture.  
We were also in Mumbai for the beginning of Ganapati,
the celebration of the elephant-headed Hindu god, Ganesh. 

We went to someone's home and this was what they had done to honor Ganesh.
We also ate a special meal, prayed, and danced.  
And as we were walking through Mumbai, we happened to see a real elephant.
In Bangalore, we visited Bull Temple.  This monkey was outside,
but wanted to be the only one in the picture!

Near Bull Temple, we walked through a park that had hundreds of bats
hanging in the trees overhead!!
We also visited the flower market in Bangalore.  Lightning and Finn
thought they'd look particularly good with the yellow flowers! 
There is one more picture from Bangalore that Lightning and Finn would like you to see, but the computer doesn't seem to want to upload it, so we'll have to save it for another post!  In it they're posing near characters you might know.  Until that picture is posted, see if you can guess who!  

...the Unexpected

Whether I came here with many expectations or few, there have certainly been some surprises.  Often these surprises have been things I hadn't thought much about before coming. Below are a few of the unexpecteds:

1) Mothballs. As was true of my "bare feet" post, I never imagined I'd be writing about mothballs! The smell of mothballs brings back memories from my childhood. Our winter clothes were always packed in boxes with mothballs. When winter came, the same was done with our summer clothes.  The smell reminds me of the change of seasons.  When I was in Calcutta, mothballs came into my life twice. First, when I entered my hotel room for the first time, there was a faint but familiar smell.  I found one mothball folded into a blanket that was tucked in a closet. Another one rested in the drain of my sink. I left the one in the blanket, but tossed the one from the sink.  My second encounter the Indian Museum. Inside cabinet after cabinet of fossils (where I'm sure my brother could have spent hours and hours; I did not) and within other museum displays, there were mothballs. I will admit that it was the first time I've seen that particular preservation method used in a museum. 

2) Museums. Since I mentioned the topic, let me discuss the museums. I visited a few- in Delhi, Mumbai, Cochin, and Calcutta. They were different in theme, so I can't compare them to one another. I will, however, discuss what stood out to me about some of them.  I loved the Gandhi  Museum in Delhi, despite the poor lighting and heat.  It was rich in information and photos. I did tend to spend more time reading displays that were located near the fans!  At a small museum in Cochin, I was asked if I could hurry up a bit, because the attendant had just received a call and needed to leave for a meeting. He assured me that if I wasn't finished viewing, I could return later that day or the next and finish looking at everything. I decided to hurry and didn't return. I'd gotten my 50 cents worth (the entrance fee) already.  At the Indian Museum in Calcutta, I enjoyed the wide variety of displays, but was saddened that items in displays could not be preserved better. Animal furs and feathers had darkened so their natural color wasn't obvious; in a few display cases glass was broken. I thought of my preservationist friend from home who would probably have been more dismayed than I was to see things that way.  However, I still very much enjoyed the museum and appreciate all it had to offer.  One thing that fascinated me was a huge hall that was dedicated to the plants of India and was divided into sections according to how they were used: as food or medicine, for textiles or dyes, to name a few of the categories. I was amazed at the plethora of natural resources in that hall and in India.  Those are a few of my museum experiences.

3) Lizards. I think they're geckos. India is not the first place I've encountered lots of lizards that can be found inside or outside one's home. In fact, there were often lizards running around my own yard at home (though not inside my house). I am pretty enamored of the lizards here. I just think they're cute as they scurry across the wall of the chapel during prayer, make occasional appearances during class, or wander over the screens on my windows. One gave us quite a surprise today as it jumped out of the sink when we started washing dishes. I think we surprised it, too!

4) Gifts. I did not expect gifts before I left and I did not expect gifts  from people here. Yet I received several items to bring on my journey from money to bar shampoo to a Dorothy Day book to a rosary bracelet (among other things).  Each useful in a different way, all are with me and are wonderful reminders of my friends and family at home.  In India I have received flowers as I was introduced to the school groups in Chatra (as well as having beautiful flowers in my room when I arrived) and from students.  Many  beautiful welcome songs have been sung for me in various places.  I was given a lamp/clock for my room and on on St. Vincent de Paul's feast day, a pen. I was spontaneously invited to eat lunch with my class 6 boys on my first day of teaching.  Each boy gave me a part of his lunch, even though it meant he'd eat less. Collectively, they gave me so much chapati I had to insist that they eat some of what they'd given me!  That day they invited me to eat with them the following day, too, and knowing I'd be with them, they made sure what they had to share was special. They had even more chapati (which we again ate together) and brought sweets and chocolates especially for me.  In fact, they insisted I eat the chocolate right there in front of them.  Never one to turn down chocolate, I obliged.   With such generosity from so many people in so many places, I can't help but feel immense gratitude.

Perhaps that is a good place to stop. Gratitude for the unexpected. Amen. 

Tuesday, October 4, 2011


I tried as much as possible to come to India with few expectations. I wanted to be open and flexible, but I also wanted to be mentally prepared, a tricky balance. Therefore, I tried to limit having expectations to those experiences that might be difficult. Some of the expectations I allowed myself to have are the following:

- it will be hot and uncomfortable
- there will be lots of mosquitoes
- I may get sick
- I will see poverty like I have seen nowhere else
- I will not be able to communicate easily with people
- it will be hot and uncomfortable (yes, I know I've already written that, but I am not a big fan of heat, so I wanted to be extra prepared for that discomfort)
- the electricity will go out frequently in Chatra

Here's how the reality compares:

- It has been hot and I have been uncomfortable. I am not here during the worst heat India has to offer, for which I am very grateful. For the most part, the heat, though not my favorite, has been manageable, as long as there have been fans and plenty of water to drink! Thankfully, both have been available most everywhere. In Calcutta, I did splurge for a room with A/C for two nights (about $25 a night, woo hoo!). I'm glad that I did! It was particularly hot and humid there and most of my days were spent walking and walking through the city.

- The mosquitoes haven't been as bad as I had imagined. Every time I've been with the SCNs, I've had mosquito netting at night (and I am a bit enamored with sleeping under it). I have a great mosquito spray and a really really great itch relief product. In fact, I like both so much that I'll do a little endorsement here. Both are made in Louisville by a company called Divine Creationz. They are natural products and I bought them at Rainbow Blossom. The anti-itch stuff (bite balm) is so good I apply it only once to a bite and the itch is gone...forever!!!! It comes in a little tube like chapstick. Seriously, Louisville folks, if you get bitten a lot, I'd buy this stuff!

- I have not gotten sick once since I've been here. I know there's still plenty of time for it, but so far, so good! The SCNs have been concerned about me getting enough to eat. They were concerned I'd lose weight- I think I've actually gained a little (so much for "being light" in that sense)!! A couple days ago, I started eating less, so that my clothes start to fit like they used to and the sisters in Chatra were concerned that I've gotten tired of Indian food. They started making more "American" food, so I'd eat more. I assured them that I still love Indian food, but just need to be eating a little less overall!

- The poverty I've seen nowhere else. I'll be writing about that in another entry, so I won't say anything more here.

- I can't always talk to people, but I have been able to communicate pretty well. It is amazing how much can be said without speaking the same language! Smiling is a particularly wonderful and oft-used form of communicating!

- The electricty in Chatra is actually off more than it's on. I was told "Electricity is not so good." My interpretation of this statement was that there would be an occasional power outage. Bad interpretation on my part. Not having power more often than having it has probably been the most difficult adjustment...mostly because my expectations were different from the reality. I don't mind not having lights. I do miss the power when I am sleeping at night with no fan. It is also frustrating that I cannot blog often, since I need power for the computer... I am so glad my phone at least has internet access for checking my email and staying in touch with people through Facebook. Doing anything else online from my phone (like blogging) is too difficult. Slowly, however, I am adjusting to the lack of consistent electricity...I simply need to adjust my expectation. I am thankful that a former student recently posted the Serenity Prayer (God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference) on Facebook. This was a good reminder to me that I need to worry less about the electricity situation, since there is nothing I can do to change it.

I am glad I did not allow myself more expectations. The above (except the last) seem to be serving me well...

This week I am in Mokama (where the SCNs began their ministry in India) and the power situation is better (they have some solar energy!) I hope I'll get to write more to you while I am here.

Peace to you all.